A short story by Watanabe On, translated by Haiji.
A note on the translation
For me, the enjoyment that I get out of reading foreign literature is experiencing the culture vicariously through the author. Unfortunately, it’s popular in translation circles these days to try to remove the native culture and supplant it with the reader’s culture. Personally, I find that this kind of flattening of world culture defeats the purpose of reading foreign literature. Why would I want to read a story that was originally written in a different language if it’s just going to be presented to me as though it were originally written in my own? The following story (and more to come) is translated with this principle in mind.
A second point to note about this story is that it contains a lot of unusual punctuation. In order to retain the flavor or the original, I have retained this. Feel free to comment and let me know how you feel about this punctuation and whether or not you would prefer it rendered in a typical style.
(—— My red chimney. I wonder why smoke doesn’t rise from it. So much smoke comes out of Father and Mother chimney, but not mine……)
She first made that curious discovery in the autumn of her seventh year while she was put to bed near the second for window, suffering from tonsillitis.
In the blue sky of a clear autumn, the smokestacks on the roof of the neighboring Western-style houses were lined up, three in a row. The two on either side were black, the one right in the middle red. Also, that red one in the middle, being so small, was in some respects shaped like the leg of a child wearing red socks. To her, it looked entirely as though that little one was sitting between its mother and father. However, strange though it was, day after day she looked at hardly anything except those chimneys, but smoke never once rose from the red one……Since she was a child who was easily moved, she thought that small chimney to be terribly pitiful, and in the end she gazed at it tearfully.
(——My red chimney must be sick……) she thought.
However, though her illness was cured shortly, her red chimney, as always, gave off no smoke.
She had been frail from birth, so she had fallen ill many a time. And whenever that happened, she was put to bed near the second floor window. At those times, she looked at the three chimneys next door, suppressing her feelings. The little red one was never letting out smoke.
(——My poor chimney!……)
Tears pouring down onto her white-laced pillow, she took pity on the red chimney and on her own prospects. Even to hear childish heart, she knew that with a body as weak as hers, she probably wouldn’t be able to grow big like her mom or dad.
She turned sixteen. Her pale, thin cheeks faintly tinged with red as they were, she was altogether a maiden like a beautiful, fragile flower. Presently she had risen from her bed and was leaning against the windowsill. She had been recuperating from a cold, but she was already mostly better.
Summer was near, and the sky, only just turned to dusk, appeared to be dyed in broad stripes of lilac and rose. Around the next-door residence, low trees with nary a gap between them grew thick with young leaves, and above them the rooftop and the three chimneys were just barely visible. The smokestacks had already gotten old and stained with soot. However, in this spring season, the ones from which smoke rose day and night were, as always, just the two on either side.
Even at that age, she still hadn’t stopped thinking that little chimney right in the middle was pitiable.
(My red chimney. Why don’t you give off smoke? …… Such a lot of smoke is rising from Mother and Father chimney……My pitiful red chimney!)
But, it was no longer a red chimney. It had changed to an unsightly yellow-brown.
At that moment, a singing voice suddenly became audible, carrying over from the within the neighboring residence.
Myō ni kiyora no, aa, waga ko yo Strangely beautiful, oh my child!
Tsukuzuku mireba, sozoro, aware When I look deeply, somehow pitiful
Kashira ya nudete, hana no mi no Stroking your hair, the flower of your nose
It seemed to be the voice of a young man. Up until now she had never once chanced to hear that kind of singing voice from the neighboring residence, so she leaned out from the window frame and strained her ears. The pale blue ribbons tied to the ends of her jet-black braids dangling beautifully on either side of her neck fluttered quietly in the evening breeze.
Itsudemo, kaku wa kiyorare to Forever, be beautiful like this
Itsudemo, kaku wa myō ni are Forever, be strange like this
The singing voice gradually grew closer, and before long, the back door, which was situated right in front of her window, opened and out came a single tall boy whom she didn’t recognize at all. Upon catching sight of her unexpected face, his own face reddened. Thereupon, he rushed out in the direction of the main street. From that behavior, it appeared altogether as though he had taken terrible offense or something.
But, on the evening of the next day, she exchanged words with him. At about the same time as yesterday, he came out from the red back door, this time whistling that same melody. And upon spotting the girl, who as usual was gazing at the red chimney, he again reddened just a bit, but called out exceedingly nervously.
――Hello, Miss. Your illness is better today?”
She thought it strange. How would the boy know of her condition?
――Miss, are you always in that room there?”
She thought it strange that he who was looking up at her seemed to not really see her.
――Pardon, but what is it that you’re looking at?”
――Your house’s red chimney.”
――My house’s red chimney, you say?”
The boy made a strange face and looked up at the roof of the residence that he had come out of. However, the chimney wasn’t visible from where he was.
――But, not even a little smoke ever comes out of it. Why doesn’t the red chimney give off smoke?……”
――Huh, why might that be……”
The boy gave a vague laugh and then his eyes fixed upon her two blue ribbons swaying in the evening breeze like big flower petals hanging from the ends of her braids. It was as though he were looking at real flowers.
And then, in only a moment, the girl and the boy came to know each other not at all unlike acquaintances of more than ten years passed. He invited her to take a walk with him on a day when the weather as good, saying that exercise was needed for the sake of her health. Her parents didn’t even mind. Rather, they were pleased that he had come to be so affectionate for their only daughter, who was so sickly that she had hardly ever had a satisfactory companion. (What a relief! Though, she is still only a girl—). Her father spoke thus to her mother. The sick girl was certainly entirely girlish in mind and body like one two or three years her junior. She walked here and there, hand in hand with the boy.
If you were to speak of taking a walk, then certainly you would go to the hill that was growing thickly with moonview grass, all the way on the edge of town. “Moonview Hill” the people of the town call it. After all, it’s a good hill for viewing the moon in the fall. From that hill one can view the azure sea of the port, the yellow flags of the harbor, and also the girl’s house and the boy’s residence, all in one sweep as though you could take it all in your hand
The boy appeared to pride himself in his singing more than anything else, and when he stood atop the steep cliffs of the hill, he sang constantly. She stared intently in the direction of the town as she meekly listened to the song. Then, when his song changed to a sad melody, suddenly her large eyes brimmed with tears. When he noticed this, he stopped his song and asked,
――What is it? Do you want to go home?”
――No……But, why is it that your house’s red chimney doesn’t give off any smoke?”
――Why are you only talking about that? ……Miss, you’re strange one, aren’t you?”
――That red one, that or some such things, they remind me of myself. Pitiful things……Yes, they look like that, don’t they? The big ones on both sides are like the mother and father……”
The youth gazed distantly upon the roof of his own residence, perplexed.
Winter came and snow continued to fall nearly every day. This time, the girl suffered from pneumonia. This time, they thought, she probably couldn’t be saved. Day and night the boy from next door never parted from her bedside. Her parents gradually began to think him a strange person.
The girl, delirious with fever, gasped for breath through her parched lips and muttered incoherently.
——My red chimney! ……My red chimney! ……It must be sick…..my poor red chimney!”
The youth looked out the window. The night had deepened and the snow fell incessantly. In the corner of the pure-white roof on the opposite side, there were the three dark shadows of the chimneys. The two on either side were sending up pale red flames. However, the pitiful one right in the middle was covered in snow, small and cold……
But, fortunately she did not die. She already passed the peak of her illness and her fever had quickly receded. She quietly and comfortably continued to rest. Both her parents and the youth could truly relax.
After some days, when her eyes opened widely, she saw just the boy sitting there alone.
――Oh! Your eyes are open.” For some reason, he spoke as though he were at a loss for words.
――Father, and mother? Where? Oh, you’re here alone?”
She glanced quickly out the window as she spoke.
As she did, she laughed suddenly. It was a weak laugh owing to her illness, but that kind of joyfully relieved laughter would have been rare even in times of health. And then, while barely restraining that laughter that seemed altogether as though it would never stop, she pointed out the window and spoke.
――Look! Look! Over there!……My little red chimney’s giving off smoke!……My, I wonder what on Earth happened!……”
The youth looked at the three chimneys. Indeed, smoke was energetically blowing out of the little red brick chimney right in the middle, the same as those on either side.
――What the…So it is……Who knew? ……” He said. This time they both laughed as one. But the girl thought she might have seen tears welling up in his eyes.
After that her red chimney continued to give off smoke every day. Grey-blue smoke and black smoke flowed out vigorously among the snow. At night, it raised a charming sound in the wind, the tips of rose-colored flames peeping out. The girl stared out at this absently form the second floor window. She stared out every day, even on days when she wasn’t sick. However, in her heart, she was not happy – on the contrary, presently she had slipped in a pale sadness.
(――I wonder why my red chimney is breathing out smoke? …….) she thought, as though this were unfair. The reason was that the youth living in the Western-style house with the red chimney letting out that smoke suddenly stopped coming to visit since her sickness had healed……
Summer came around once again. Her little red chimney gave off smoke day and night. She went up to the second floor every day and gazed at the neighboring residence. When she leaned against the sill and stretched her neck out the window, she could even see the rust-red back door. To the tips of her braided hair, this year just like the last, blue ribbons were tied in the shape of delicate flower petals. However, neither the sound of the song she was waiting came to her ear, nor did the tall boy appear……
She went to Moonview Hill alone. The sea of the harbor shined azure, and on the wharf new yellow flags were flying.
(I wonder why my red chimney is giving off smoke so vigorously……It shouldn’t be! …… It shouldn’t be! ……)
Thinking it pitiful that she had been betrayed by that little red chimney, she cried.
Fall began, and finally a letter came from the youth.
“The one I love is ―― it’s…I love you. But, they say I cannot. Your mother and father told me so, and my mother and father also.
“Tomorrow I will enter a British school, so I will be parted from the house here, and also from your second-floor window.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever see you again in my life.
“I pray to god that you will stay well. Good bye.
“After this…from now on our red chimney might never again give off smoke, but it’s no use to worry. Such a little chimney has a connection with you, doesn’t it? Yes, starting today forget all about such of trivial things. Surely you must forget about it.”
While she was reading those words written on thick white paper with four folds, she felt a large hole gradually open in her heart, and from within tears completely different from usual welled up and overflowed.
Not long after, in accordance with his words, the red chimney once more ceased giving off smoke. She had no idea why.
However, she was satisfied.
(――My pitiful red chimney doesn’t give off smoke. But, in any case, that’s the truth. …… Pitiful chimney! …… And pitiful, pitiful me!) Her eyes dim with tears, she gazed at the roof of the Western-style house without the youth.
Ten years drifted by.
Her parents had already died. She married, and lived in a house different from the one next to the Western house. It was on the edge of town, near Moonview Hill. Consequently, she never thought of the pitiful red chimney anymore. However, she was not at all happy. Her husband was a good mechanic of suitable skill, and not at all a bad person, but when he drank liquor, he severely tormented his fragile wife. Even worse than that, it seemed like every day recently she was assailed by a persistent fever such as to make one think her end was not far off. At that time, the days when her husband didn’t come home became more frequent. Eventually, a whole week passed without him coming home even once. After that, her circumstances became desperate.
From the time she was a child she had always slept stretched out on the floor by the second floor window. However, what she could see from the window there was not the three chimneys on the roof of the Western-style house, but the blue ocean and the cliffs of Moonview Hill. On Moonview Hill, the moonview grass was at peak bloom. When dusk drew near, she would lean on the windowsill, stretch out her neck and gaze in the direction of the hill full of pale yellow flowers. Braided hair tied with blue ribbons no longer hung on either side of her face. Her hair, which had become sparse and patchy due to her long sickness, fluttered sadly in the evening breeze.
(――pitiful, pitiful me! ……)
Tears not at all different from those she shed at sixteen welled up and she cried like a child. Her proclivity to emotion had not weakened with her years…… However, the time came when even her tears, which seemed to be altogether like an endless spring, would dry up.
One day, an old woman came to the girl’s door to tell her that her only daughter, who had been working as a geisha in the city, had vanished from the port there along with the girl’s husband.
(――She’s a wicked girl, my daughter. Such a thing must wound your spirit……” the old woman apologized, wiping her bleary eyes.
The girl – the woman now – upon hearing those words spoken, got the feeling that she had seen that old woman somewhere. And then, she suddenly remembered that she was kitchen hand at that Western-style house with the three chimneys from so long ago.
……The three chimneys! Her chest suddenly began to ache.
――Yes, grandmother. The chimney right in the middle of the three on the roof of the house where you worked…it never gave off smoke……Do you remember?”
――The chimney, you say?” Understandably, the old woman seemed unable to interpret the girl’s offbeat question.
――Yes, right……But, look, around ten years ago there was about a year when it did give off smoke. Do you know about it?……”
――Oh, good heavens, but Miss you do remember well don’t you……” the old woman said, gradually recalling. “Right right, that did happen… Now let’s see, that was just around the time when our young master came…… One day the young master unexpectedly said that he’d make smoke rise from that red chimney. He set up a ladder in a dangerous place and turned himself pitch black with soot as he cleared out the pipe under the red chimney. It was by sheer force that he got smoke coming up from it…..Whatever got into him? Miss, that red chimney was broke from the start――since the smoke pipe didn’t go through, it was really nothing more than a decoration……Why on earth would he purposefully do such a foolish thing?…..”
At that, even the sadness vanished from her heart.
(――Nothing more than a decoration!…..It was broken from the start!……If I were that red chimney, I’d wish I hadn’t ever been born!…)
When the old woman had left and she was alone, she took out her old jewelry box and removed that letter written on thick paper, folded four times, which had been stored carefully for such a long time. She began to read it aloud…………
“The one I love is ―― it’s…I love you. But, they say I must not. Your mother and father told me so, and my mother and father also………………
――He was eight years older than me, so at the time he wrote this, he was twenty-five……My, what a sweet boy he was. To think he did something like write this kind of letter at twenty-five! I couldn’t have been a day over eighteen……and on top of that, doing some such thing like getting covered all over in soot while setting up a ladder to put a pipe through to a chimney without a smoke hole……what an odd man……right right, my pneumonia was on the verge of getting better, and when I laughed having seen the smoke coming out of that chimney for the first time, he cried……but, they ruined it! ……But……supposing that old woman had lived under that little red chimney for just a long time, then that little red chimney might have been acting like it wasn’t a decoration from the beginning, as though it might have gone on smoking day after day……”
And then she began to tear up the letter, into how many pieces she didn’t know.