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The Second Annual Fiction Issue

Growing Chinese Greens

"Growing Chinese Greens" grew out of an actual experience: I discovered a note with those words written on my calendar, but I couldn't remember what they meant or how they came to be there. I simply wanted to describe the way the uncanny can slip into...
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Κείμενο Yoko Ogawa
1.12.07

Illustration by Tara sinn TRANSLATED FROM THE JAPANESE BY STEPHEN SNYDER “Growing Chinese Greens” grew out of an actual experience: I discovered a note with those words written on my calendar, but I couldn’t remember what they meant or how they came to be there. I simply wanted to describe the way the uncanny can slip into our lives without warning, and this story is the result. Sunday morning, when I turned the page on the calendar in the bedroom, there was a circle drawn in marker around the twelfth. A big, black circle, slanting a bit to the left. “What’s happening on the twelfth?” I asked my husband, who was reading the newspaper in bed. “The twelfth?” he said, without looking up from the sports pages. “It’s not a birthday or our anniversary. Did we have a date with somebody? To go swimming? A dinner invitation?” “You’ve got me.” “But there’s a big, dark circle. Don’t you think that’s odd?” I pointed to the calendar but he still didn’t look up. “You made it, didn’t you?” “Not me,” he said, turning the page. “I don’t know anything about it.” “What do you mean? I don’t remember making it.” “Then it’s not worth worrying about, if we forgot what it was.” “But can’t you remember? I’ve never seen it before.” “You were probably doodling while you were on the phone,” he said, taking a cracker from the bag on the nightstand. As he bit into it, crumbs fell on the pillowcase. “This isn’t a doodle. It’s too neat and even. See how the ends of the circle meet?” “Yes, but if we can’t remember what it’s for, there’s nothing we can do about it,” he mumbled. The cracker made him a bit hard to understand. The sun shining through the curtains cast a lacy shadow on the floor. Out in the garden, a small brown bird perched in the dogwood, bending a branch for a moment before it flew off again. A jet stream cut across the pale blue sky. The day promised to be warm. “But try to remember,” I urged, nudging the side of the bed with my slipper. “Was it something to do with work, or the day tickets go on sale for a concert? Books due at the library? It could be anything.” “I don’t write stuff like that on the calendar. I put everything in my date book. I don’t even think I realized we had a calendar there until you mentioned it.” I had to admit that the calendar was hardly worth noticing. It was just something they were giving away at the mall at the end of the year. Uninteresting design and the usual pictures of lakes and meadows and beaches. The kind of thing you stick up somewhere just to get it out of the way. “Don’t get so worked up about it,” he said, looking up from the paper at last. A few hairs had fallen on his shoulder. “It’s just a circle around the twelfth.” He took a sip of coffee to wash down the cracker. “But how can you say that? There’s nobody here but the two of us, and if we don’t remember doing it, who do you think put that circle there? When people come over, they don’t ever come back here to the bedroom. That means somebody had to sneak in when we weren’t around, turn the page, take out a marker, and make this circle.” “And why would anybody do that?” “I don’t know, but if they were sneaking around here to do it, that proves it’s a bad sign. It’s some sort of warning. Or a spell or a curse or something.” My husband snorted skeptically and popped another cracker in his mouth. “Just forget about it and get ready,” he said. “Didn’t you say you wanted to check out the sales at the department stores? The parking lots fill up by noon.” I sighed and took one last look at the calendar. “I’m telling you, it’s not an omen or anything else,” he added. “I suppose not.” “There’s nothing to worry about,” he said, hopping out of bed. “It’s just a circle. Let’s go.” I nodded and brushed the cracker crumbs off the pillow. He was probably right, it was just a calendar, nothing to get worked up about. Why not forget about it and go out and enjoy the day? I could buy that suit I’d been wanting, have a nice lunch. “Could you stop eating in bed?” I said. “We’ll have fleas.” We got through the eleventh without incident. We left for work at the same time every morning. As always, whoever got home earlier made dinner, and the other one did the dishes. On Friday night I put on the suit I’d bought at the sale and we went to a concert, but otherwise, we didn’t go out. No one came to visit, and other than a few telemarketers, no one called. We had one argument—about what kind of air conditioner to buy, I think—but we made up the next day. It rained over the weekend, so I spent the day in the kitchen baking while my husband listened to music. Those eleven days were quiet and uneventful, just like all the other days we’d spent together. The subject of the circle never came up, and if I noticed it when I was turning out the light by the bed, I tried to ignore it. It seemed as though the twelfth would come and go just as peacefully—but, in the end, that wasn’t the way it worked out. Thursday, the twelfth, was very windy. I left work at the usual time and got home before my husband. I was just about to change clothes when the doorbell rang. When I went to answer it, I found a little old woman standing on the porch. “Sorry to bother you at dinner time,” she said, her stooped shoulders bobbing still lower. “Can I help you?” I said, a bit wary. “I know you’re busy, so I’ll be quick,” she said. “I grow vegetables behind the bread factory across the way, and I’m selling them here in the neighborhood.” Her tongue wriggled oddly as she talked, perhaps because her dentures were loose. She was wearing dusty brown pants and a worn out sweatshirt, and a few strands of coarse white hair stuck out of the scarf she had tied over her head. Behind her, I could see a bicycle. It was an old-fashioned model, with shiny black paint, and the front basket was stuffed with onions and turnips and potatoes. Daikon and lotus root and other things wrapped in newspaper were tied onto the rack in back. “I’m sorry,” I said, “but I’ve just been to the supermarket, and I’ve got all the vegetables I need.” “I see,” she said, obviously disappointed. Her hand came up to tug at the end of the scarf knotted under chin, and I noticed that she had pink polish on her nails. The color was so out of place it seemed somehow pitiful. Her wrinkled, sunburned hands were far too old for pink polish, particularly since she wasn’t wearing any makeup or even lipstick. Why would someone who wore such shabby clothes and let her hair go pay that kind of attention to her fingernails? For a moment, I couldn’t take my eyes off them. “But they’re cheap,” she said, eyeing me hesitantly. “Much cheaper than the supermarket.” “I’m sure they are. But it’s just the two of us, and I’m afraid they’d go to waste.” “You don’t have to buy a lot. One stalk of asparagus or a few chilies would be fine.” She rubbed her hands together and then tugged at the sleeves of her sweatshirt. The change in her pocket jingled faintly. In the dim light, her fingernails seemed to flutter like flower petals. The wind continued to blow. It seemed to come from somewhere far up in the sky, swooping down to engulf the house. I began to worry that it would knock over her bicycle, but thanks perhaps to the heavy load of vegetables, it rattled on its kickstand but managed to stay upright. “I haven’t sold anything today,” she added. “Some days are just unlucky.” I gave her what I hoped was an ambiguous smile and muttered noncommittally. “I’m sorry!” she said. “You’ve got things to do. I’ll be going then. Perhaps some other time.” Apparently giving up, she retied the knot in her scarf and turned to go. “Wait. I suppose I could buy something.” I can’t say why these words came out of my mouth at that moment. I really didn’t need any vegetables, and I’m not in the habit of buying things from strangers who show up at the door. But for some reason, when she started to leave, I had the strange feeling that I couldn’t let her go without buying anything. It must have had something to do with the fact that it was the twelfth. “Really?” she said, turning around. “I’d be much obliged. What would you like? I’ve got just about everything.” Her face lit up and she bowed. The air made little sucking noises between the gaps in her dentures. “I’ll take some yams, and garlic, and a little burdock,” I said, naming things that would keep well. “Coming right up!” She untied the cord on the back of the bike and began unwrapping bundles of vegetables done up in newspaper and burlap, but it took her quite a long time to put my order together. Vegetables of various shapes and sizes had been thrown together in the pile on the rack, and every time she pulled one out, something else came tumbling out with it. Then she’d stoop over and her unsteady hands would gather up the leeks or peppers or mushrooms. When the wind starting gusting even harder, she stopped to hold the bike. Still, the yams and garlic and burdock were finally lined up in the doorway, and they seemed to be nice and fresh. “And I’ll throw this in for free,” she said, setting a plastic bag next to the burdock. Inside was a lump of dirt, about enough to fill a flowerpot. Just ordinary black dirt. “It has seeds in it,” she said, smiling broadly, “from a rare kind of Chinese vegetable. Just put it in a pot and give it some water and it’ll sprout. They say it’s twenty times as nutritious as carrots. It’s delicious boiled with soy sauce or stir-fried. I’m afraid I’ve forgotten what they call it—my memory’s not much good anymore—ah, but one more thing, be careful to keep it out of the sun. It likes a shady spot away from the window.” “Thanks,” I said, picking up the bag. “Goodbye,” she said. She bowed and turned to get on the bike, a feat made difficult by her stooped back. When she finally managed to get up on the seat, the bike tottered unsteadily. Her legs were stretched as far as they could reach and her pink-nailed fingers gripped the handlebars. Even through her pants, it was clear that the muscles in her calves were tensed. She stared straight ahead, apparently steeling herself for the attempt. A leek protruding from the bundle began to quiver. Then, just as I was about to ask if she needed help, the pedals began to turn and the old woman vanished, as if sucked up by the wind. I went back inside and found an old fish tank in the closet. After transferring the dirt to the tank, I put the cover over it to keep out the light and set it on the table next to the bed—directly under the calendar. “What’s that?” my husband asked as soon as he came in the bedroom. “I’m growing Chinese greens.” “Where’d you get them?” “From an old woman who came around selling vegetables.” “Is that so?” he said, sounding only mildly interested. “I haven’t grown anything since summer vacation when I was ten. We had to grow morning glories for a school project.” “Is that right?” he said, beginning to yawn. “Good night.” “Night.” With that, we turned out the light and the twelfth was over. One morning, a week later, there were five sprouts in the tank. They had come up evenly spaced in a straight line, as if someone had measured with a ruler. By the following morning, there were tiny heart-shaped leaves on the sprouts. They were a pale yellow-green and so delicate it seemed they would tear at the slightest touch. I watered them every day with the spray bottle I used for ironing. Or, I would have used it for ironing except that I hadn’t ironed more than a few times since we got married. The tube that brought the water up into the pump seemed to be clogged, but I cleaned it out with a piece of wire and it worked fine after that. In the days that followed, the plants grew quickly. When we woke up each morning, the stems were visibly longer and the leaves had multiplied. But they were still extremely fragile. I had always thought of Chinese greens as lush and hardy, but the plants in the fish tank were pale and sickly-looking and as thin as somen noodles. Even the spray from the mister made them tremble precariously. “When do you think we can start eating it?” I asked my husband when were lying in bed one evening. “It doesn’t look very appetizing,” he said. He was stretched out on his stomach staring at the plants. “I can’t believe it’s twenty times more nutritious than carrots, as thin and flimsy as it is.” “I bet it just needs some sunlight,” he said. “But the old lady said it likes the dark.” “She was probably senile.” “I suppose so.” Before turning out the light, I took the cover off the tank to water the plants one more time. Later that night, I woke up with the feeling that the room was somehow different. The direction of the draft, the depth of the silence, the density of the darkness—something was just slightly wrong. I held the edge of the blanket and blinked, listening to my husband’s steady breathing. Then I looked slowly around the room. It didn’t take long to find the source of the problem: the Chinese greens in the tank. “Wake up,” I whispered, shaking my husband. “Please!” It took him a moment to realize what was happening, but he finally seemed to understand why I was pointing at the nightstand. He let out a long, low whistle. We slipped out of bed and crouched next to the tank, staring in at the plants. The Chinese greens were bathed in a soft, cream-colored light. At first we thought the light was coming from somewhere else in the room, but the longer we looked the clearer it became that it was coming from the plants themselves. We peered into the tank until it was fogged with our breath, trying to discover the source of the light. The stems, which were now almost six inches long, were covered with fine hairs, and the leaves were decorated with an elaborate pattern of veins—details we could see thanks to the light. But we still couldn’t tell where it was coming from. In the darkness of the tank, the plants themselves seemed to be infused with a soft radiance. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” I said. “Maybe it’s the same stuff that makes a firefly glow,” he said. He moved around the tank, studying the plants from various angles. “It’s a little creepy.” “That’s for sure,” he said, nodding. There in the dark, the plants seemed to be going quietly about their business. The light continued to shine, never any brighter or any dimmer, maintaining what seemed to be the perfect strength for the delicate plants. He pulled the tank toward him and took off the cover. “Let’s have a closer look,” he said, starting to reach in. “Don’t,” I said, grabbing his arm. The plants drooped under his hand, as if they were bowing, and the light seemed to flicker for a moment. “You shouldn’t touch it. It might be poisonous.” “I suppose so,” he said, pulling his hand out of the tank. “The poison might be in the light somehow and it could get in through your skin if you touch it.” “Don’t be ridiculous.” “But you wouldn’t want to eat it, would you?” “No,” he agreed, pushing the tank back on the table. “I wonder what would happen if you did eat it.” “It might attack your nervous system,” he laughed “And you’d end up cackling like a maniac for the rest of your life, or fall down foaming at the mouth.” “Or your tongue might start glowing. When you opened your mouth, it would light up your throat. You could see all the way down to the stomach.” We sat looking at the glowing tank for some time. When we woke up the next morning, the light was gone but the stalks had grown still taller. We came to the end of the month and it was time to change the calendar. The black circle was finally out of sight, but by now the plants were so tall they nearly reached the lid of the fish tank. They were as fragile as ever, however, and the tiniest movement set the long, slender stems nodding and swaying. We found ourselves being particularly cautious when we got in and out of bed or opened the door to the room. We weren’t sure why, but we had a feeling it was best not to overstimulate them, especially in the dark when they were glowing. “How tall do you think they’ll get?” As usual, we were spending Sunday morning in bed. “We should probably transplant them into something bigger soon. Let’s go to the garden shop this afternoon.” “Transplant them?” my husband said. “How about throwing them out?” “Why would we do that?” “Because they give me the creeps. Whoever heard of glowing greens?” “But what would we do with them?” “I don’t know, bury them in the garden, burn them, whatever.” “But it would be even spookier if the dirt started to glow, or the ashes.” “Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. We both sighed, almost simultaneously. The plants were completely different in the morning than they were at night. When they were glowing, they were warm and somehow expressive. The light that came dripping from downy hairs on the stems seemed to heat up the glass of the tank. It even felt as though it might pass right through and warm us as we watched. But in the morning everything had gone cold and the plants would wilt, as if turning in on themselves. “I wonder why the old woman wanted us to have them?” “Have you seen her since then?” he asked. I shook my head. “I’m sure there’s some connection between the circle on the calendar, the old woman, and the greens. We can’t just throw them away.” My husband rolled over on his back without answering and lit a cigarette. The next day, when I got home from work, I decided I would take the tank and pay the old woman a visit. I wanted to ask her what kind of plant she’d given us, and how we should be taking care of it. And I thought I might also buy some more vegetables from her, since her prices were quite cheap. She’d said that her field was behind the bread factory, but beyond that I didn’t know how to find her. Still, there could hardly be many farms back there, so I didn’t think it would be too difficult. The tank was heavy and it was all I could do to carry it without shaking the plants. I walked slowly, bracing it against my chest. Even so, the stems were waving so violently that I was sure the leaves would fall off. The sun was setting and the streets were full of people heading home. No one seemed to notice the plants in the tank as they hurried by. I walked along the road, looking for a way to get around the factory, but it was so huge that I finally gave up and decided to cut through the grounds. Once inside, I could hear the sound of machines working, as if an enormous wheel or gear were creaking around. I could hear blasts of steam and the hum of conveyor belts. And floating above it all, the smell of fresh bread. Still holding the tank, I cut through the factory yard and headed for the back entrance. As I passed by one building, I glanced through a window and saw countless rolls gliding off to somewhere. Behind the factory, there was a parking lot. It was deserted, except for long rows of trucks waiting to deliver the bread. I peered through the mesh fence, watching as the endless lines of trucks in the vast lot disappeared in the deepening darkness. I couldn’t tell what was beyond the lot. “Can I help you?” I turned around to find a man watching me. He wore a white cap and apron and tall boots. “I’m sorry,” I said, slightly flustered. “I know I shouldn’t be in here like this.” “No, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “But I would like to know what you’re doing here, carrying that.” He pointed a large, pale finger at the tank. There were lumps of dough on his apron. “I’m looking for someone.” “Someone who works here?” “No, an old lady who sells vegetables. She wears a scarf on her head, goes door-to-door in the neighborhood, and… she has pink polish on her fingernails. You haven’t seen her, have you?” “No, can’t say I have.” “She said she has a field here behind the factory.” “Behind the factory?” he said, looking skeptical. “You can see for yourself, there’s a nothing back here but a parking lot.” “But what’s behind the parking lot?” “There’s nothing but the lot. Beyond that’s the sea.” “The sea?” “That’s right. There aren’t any fields back here. This is all reclaimed land.” I stood for a moment, staring into the distance. “She must have meant some other factory. Anyway, sorry I couldn’t help you.” He pulled a jam roll out of his apron and held it out to me. “You should be getting home soon, before it gets dark, but at least take this. It’s still warm.” “Thank you,” I said. Since my hands were full, he slipped it into the pocket of my skirt. “Don’t mention it. We’ve got so much bread here no one’s going to notice if one roll goes missing. Well, goodbye then,” he said, hurrying back toward the factory. The sun had sunk below the horizon. I could feel the warm roll through my skirt. I looked down at the tank and saw that the plants had started to glow. They seemed to scatter their light every time I moved. The trucks and the factory were disappearing into the night, leaving only these tiny swirling lights. “Where did she go, with all those vegetables?” I murmured, standing frozen in the darkness, clutching the light to my chest.