- Round-trip over the Ocean
A commotion of light stirred at their backs, as if someone were creeping across the water toward them. She spun around in alarm. Suspended over the misty cape of T. Island, the setting sun glowed like a red ball of fire. Fragments of broken light flew at her eyes and scattered in all directions. As she blinked rapidly, a blanket of vermillion unfurled toward them and converged with the color of the sea.
From a distance, the surface of the ocean appeared to be a gently undulating blue carpet; viewed up close from the boat, it was a heaving expanse of high crests. Crashing through towering waves one after another, the boat struggled through the heavy seas.
It was 6:20 in the afternoon. The small fishing boat, midway between two islands—one receding behind them, one drawing closer—continued to plunge ahead across the ocean. An hour and ten minutes had passed since the roofless boat, under the gaze of the heavens, had departed from the northern port of T. Island with its three passengers: Akiko; Kinzō, who was ill; and Old Man Kāre, the helmsman. They had timed their departure so they wouldn’t be seen leaving T. Island and so they could avoid the intense glare of the sun. More important, they wanted to arrive at O. Island under the cover of falling darkness.
The stench of fuel oil and leftover fish turned Akiko’s stomach, and the spray of seawater made her feel clammy. The vibration of the boat and the endless drone of the motor made her nauseated. Just then, Kinzō began shaking violently. Since departing, he had stared at the bottom of the boat and sat rigidly, as if nailed to his seat. But with every jolt or shimmy of the boat, he glanced over at Akiko with inflamed eyes. His contorted face was splotched black and blue. Akiko unzipped her bag, pulled out a bath towel, and draped it over his shoulders.
“Are you in pain, Dad?” Fighting back the nausea that brought tears to her eyes, Akiko reached out to rub Kinzō’s back. But he brushed her hand away and resumed staring at the bottom of the boat. She took a deep breath and turned her gaze to where he was looking. Sitting diagonally from each other, they awkwardly avoided eye contact.
“Kinzō, hang in there a bit longer,” said Old Man Kāre, gripping the helm at the rear of the boat. “Look! There’s Nishino Beach!” [End Page 1]
The place the old man motioned towards with his chin looked like a crushed, cream-colored jug lying on its side. It was the sandy beach on O. Island’s northern coast. That was where the boat was headed.
Ten days earlier, Kinzō had proposed that, as the last remaining child of his family, he himself would retrieve his deceased mother’s mortuary tablet, which had been left behind in the abandoned house, cared for by a stranger. It had remained there without any grieving family member for seventeen years. His words had sounded like a pronouncement rather than a proposal.
His wife had glared at him at first. “In your condition? You’re being unreasonable.” But in the end, she was no match for the headstrong invalid who ignored all objections to his plan for a twenty-four-hour round-trip between the islands.
“Once you get an idea, you’re pigheaded to the end. You’ve got your mother’s stubbornness.” Akiko’s mother frowned and heaved a sigh. Then she turned to Akiko as if pleading for help and said, “Well, perhaps if you’d go with him …”
It had been two and a half years since Akiko had quit the part-time job at the post office she’d taken to keep busy and earn some spending money. Now, confined to a daily schedule consisting entirely of taking care of Kinzō and doing a few odd chores, Akiko couldn’t think of any reason for refusing her mother’s request. Kinzō’s taciturn nature had gotten worse over the past several years...