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For me, there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length, and there I travel, looking, looking breathlessly ...
A New, Forgotten Life
A New, Forgotten Life
Yaeko Mitsaki cried.
She peered out the tall, thin window to the right of her bed. Sunlight streamed through it in a slanting bar of yellow radiance, illuminating her face. The scene without swam in gemlike streaks of early morning light through her tears. Beyond were the many burgundy rooftops of Lausanne, Switzerland, packed tightly together and steep-sided, their brick chimneys issuing lazy tongues of billowing white smoke into the cold, still air. The rooftops stretched out, a study in rectangles and triangles organized in haphazard rows and circles, towards a giant teardrop-shaped lake, much of which was still cut by dawn’s retreating shadows and partly obscured by the spires of a great cathedral. The lake shimmered like a silver mirror, as if waiting for the new day to color it fully. It fronted blue mountains, startling in their suddenness; they rose like tremendous ocean waves, like tsunami, held still by the iron hand of time, as though at any moment she could blink her tears away and find them free once more, rushing to flood her and Lausanne under their enormous, earthy mass. The pine forest beneath the mountains was still gray with sleep and shrouded in shadow. The sun had just risen, the sky cloudless and expectant.
Yaeko sat up in her bed and let the teardrops fall freely to her white-and-blue hospital gown. She made no effort to wipe them from her face or to blow her nose, which was now running freely too.
As the teardrops gathered in her eyes, they would blind her momentarily to the view outside. In that fraction of a second before they spilled, to streak down her cheeks, the light in her vision became vivid and glittering, as though passing through a prism. Yaeko cried often; in fact, there wasn’t a time she could remember since she had come out of her coma six weeks ago when she hadn’t. It felt as if her tear ducts were infinite in capacity, filled with endless kaleidoscopic grief: inexhaustible, salty streams racing down her cheeks to her chin, where they fell ... to monotonous, sterilized nothingness.
But she cherished these tears and the fleeting half moments when they swam brilliantly in her sight. She wanted to lose herself in them, to immerse her soul in them, to emerge from behind their liquid curtain to discover that she had been dreaming all … all this—
—that her legs were useless …
—that she lay in a hospital bed thousands of miles from her home in
—that … that her parents were … were ... were dead …
The tears trembled in her vision ...
—Izumi ... he’s ... he’s gone …
Just beyond this liquid shroud—there he is …
Streaks of sunlight, released and split a million ways, and now … gone, just as they are....
Gone—all of them, gone….
Another hopeless wish falling from my chin.…
Yaeko Mitsaki cursed her existence. She cursed that she had survived at all, that she didn’t die with Amon, Izumi, and her parents in the car crash.
There were four strange trophies on her dresser. They were all the same, a brown pyramidal base with a shiny gold box and horn rising out of it, like a bugle or miniature French horn. The horns’ faces were angled upward triumphantly, mocking her.
Her Grammy Awards. She’d won all four.
In the corner on the floor next to the dresser was the familiar black shape of a violin case. Yaeko regarded the trophies and case without interest, but found her attention continually drawn to them, as one is involuntarily drawn to a hangnail just bothersome enough to be noticed. She studied both at various times during the day, as though the shifting tones and textures of endless hours endlessly repeated could reveal something to her about them. But nothing came to her. She had no desire to heft the mysterious trophies; she had no desire whatever to play the violin. There was nothing inside her, nothing at all; and that void itself became an object of disinterested compulsion, for its existence at least still implied a relationship between her and them. The void yawned forth inside her; her eyes would dry out as she stared blankly at the trophies, at the violin case, until their shapes lost all meaning, all acquaintance, becoming themselves voids—voids with shape.
When the tears inevitably returned, she’d sometimes force herself to stare at them—and suddenly—to see if she could at least fill those voids with the grief that pressed through her soul like an endless cold drizzle. But the tears affected nothing, tears like heavy rain falling into a tremendous, bottomless chasm. The tears fell, they disappeared from view … they changed nothing, nothing at all.
There were roses in her room. Not many, perhaps half a dozen at a time, but they were always there—and always fresh. When one started to die, it was quickly removed and replaced with a new, tight bud, which would flower in a day or two or three, yellow or white or pink or red; it would hold forth its resplendent beauty for another couple of days, and then begin wilting. Yaeko would cry for the wilting roses. She gave every rose a secret name; she talked to each when the nurses weren’t busily working over her, or changing her sheets, or when she was at physical therapy or at classes that taught how to live self-sufficiently with a disability, or sitting in the office of the psychiatrist that she met with twice a week. She watched each rosebud; she observed them as they blossomed to perfection—only to begin dying. The thought of them dying alone, forgotten, tossed in some gray, graffiti-scrawled dumpster behind the hospital was too much for her to bear. As a nurse went to remove a drooping flower one blustery morning, Yaeko screamed at her to stop. The nurse, a tall blonde Swiss national, was shocked: Yaeko never yelled—never spoke—at all. More nurses came rushing in, certain a medical emergency was underway. Yaeko, seeing this, felt her grief boil over into manic rage. She grabbed a half-empty drinking glass on the nightstand next to her bed and slung it at them, shrieking to leave her and the roses alone. She thrashed violently against them as they then sedated her.
It wasn’t until the hospital’s chief psychiatrist, himself Japanese, got it out of her the following day—and with tremendous difficulty—exactly what had caused her sudden outburst. Yaeko mourned the flowers’ deaths; she would tell the new buds about those they were replacing, about their beauty and how cherished they were in her hospital room. When the morning came and the corner with her trophy-burdened dresser and the violin case next to it was still cast in darkness—and so easily pushed from her consciousness for a little while longer—she would share her grief with the roses, then allow herself to feel the joy each new one brought to her. If one were dying, she would say nothing to it in particular, but simply try to feel its last moments, to share beyond language, wishing that she could join it at the moment of death. After her reluctant talk with the psychiatrist, the roses were kept in her room until she told the nurses it was okay to remove them. But those days were complete torture for her. She always felt a sickening, stabbing ache when she told a nurse to remove a long-dead rose, feeling as if she were betraying a dear friend in her last moments.
She would stare at her toes for hours at a time, fiercely willing them to move of their own accord. She’d lean forward and, tossing the covers from her bed, stare intently at her legs, thin from injury and atrophied, willing them to bend, to open, to even just shudder in some tiny way. She’d focus on them—her chin down, her arms rigidly at her sides, her eyes unblinking—until she gave herself a throbbing headache. She’d grow angry at them, as at disobedient servants. She’d curse at them, rage at them, insult them. Sometimes she’d slap them viciously. She couldn’t feel the slaps, but the sharp pop when the flesh of her palm met the flesh of her thighs was satisfying in its own right. She tried to imagine what the pain would feel like.
Her legs were badly scarred. Some scars were from surgery, others from the crash. Several surgical scars ran up her thigh into her lower torso; some circled behind her, criss-crossing her lower back just over her hips. Her upper torso, shoulders, neck, and face had miraculously escaped serious injury or disfigurement. She studied her scars—the long, pinkish-white lines like cracks in her being—and cursed that she’d survived at all. It was all a monstrous joke, a vicious fraud. She didn’t want to live. The world was nothing but pain, she thought bitterly: what point was there, ultimately, in trying to survive in it? But I am no coward, she’d think reproachfully. If so, came another voice inside her, why not go now and pick up the strange trophies and play your violin? And when no answer came to her save the inescapable one, she’d slap her legs again, sometimes so hard she’d leave bruises. The nurses who tended her occasionally stopped their work to peer at those hand-shaped bruises, and then at each other, their faces etched with concern; but they never asked Yaeko about them, or rebuked her in any way for them.
When the nurses came to present her with her first wheelchair—a motorized seat with a stick and bright button controls at her right hand—Yaeko sat in it for a moment, looking at it, her face expressionless … and then violently pushed herself out of it, landing hard on the cold white tile floor of her room. She flipped over and spat at the contraption, and then slapped away the hands trying to pick her up and put her back in it. This was much worse than the roses. This was war. She stubbornly refused to sit in her new motorized wheelchair, and cursed viciously at anybody who made her try. Every trick in the staff handbook was tried; all failed. But whenever she was presented with a regular wheelchair, she wouldn’t complain or fight at all. She would sit in the chair, staring straight ahead, refusing to let anybody push her, making her way to her destination under her own power. Very gradually, the motorized wheelchair made fewer and fewer appearances. No one wanted to be the one to tangle with Yaeko Mitsaki.
One day the psychiatrist paid a visit to her room. He was accompanied by a skinny, quiet young man, a Swiss national who knew Japanese and who was also a design engineer. The psychiatrist bowed and left her alone with him.
“I am here to design a wheelchair for you, Miss Mitsaki,” said the engineer with a professional air. “I am told you refuse to use motorized chairs. I wish to design you a regular wheelchair, your own. Are you willing to cooperate with me in this undertaking?”
After a moment, Yaeko nodded. The engineer’s accent was perfect, his stare unwavering and almost indifferent. He came back every night the following week, where they spoke quietly for an hour each time.
A month later Yaeko’s new wheelchair arrived. It was ultra-lightweight and low slung, with only three wheels, very nearly a racing chair, jet black, with a large pouch in the back of the handleless seat. When the engineer unveiled it for her, the nurses and the psychiatrist standing by, Yaeko stared at it for several silent, expectant minutes, her face inscrutable. Then she glanced at the engineer. She bowed her head deeply. The engineer knew this remarkable girl would not say anything, and that she didn’t need to. He had heard her music; he had volunteered his services immediately; and in the end the bow meant more to him than the very large payment the psychiatrist insistently pressed into his hand later.
“You were in a coma almost four months, Yaeko,” the psychiatrist told her during her first session with him after receiving her new chair. “You stopped breathing three times in emergency surgery and were in intensive care for over a month after the crash. You missed your twelfth birthday—it’s on the fourteenth of March, right? We held a small party in your honor around your bed. Cake and candles and gifts galore. We spoke to you, urged you to come back. The nurses tell me you’ve never unwrapped your gifts.”
He stared at her. “It is a true miracle that you are even alive. Your life … is now radically different. You must understand: I am not your enemy. I am your ally—and friend. It is my job to teach you—no, to show you—that life is possible after such … such a terrible tragedy.”
Yaeko very rarely spoke to the psychiatrist, though he seemed a decent enough man: she simply had nothing to say to him, because there was just too much to say; and if she started speaking, she felt—she knew—she’d go insane, a great dam bursting, uncontrolled, over the sleepy and innocent hamlet of her sanity downstream. Except that instead of a black wall of water rushing forth it would be demons: piles of raging, mindless demons clawing over one another in a lunatic rampage for the pure and sacred valley of her life.
Even so, on this day she forced herself to ask, after several large gulps of courage, her voice barely that of a whisper: “H-How…?”
The psychiatrist drew back in surprise. Yaeko’s intense silence had become a ritual blanket over their biweekly meetings; and now that blanket had been unexpectedly torn off, revealing her to him. He leaned forward after a moment and asked gently, “I’m sorry, Yaeko … Did—did you ask …‘how’?”
After a moment she nodded, unsure of herself, her head barely moving, her insides waging a fierce battle over the correctness of her decision to speak.
“How—?” his eyes narrowed, as if he were trying to guess at what she was asking. Then: “How … how ... how …” His chin lifted with a guess: “How did the crash occur?”
Yaeko hesitated, and then nodded again, her chin moving scant millimeters up, then down.
The psychiatrist sat back in his chair. After a time he said, “Stupid, my dear. The whole thing … senseless. Absolutely senseless. The limo driver shuttling you and your parents, along with Messrs. Fujiwara and Ishikawa, was drunk. Nearly three times the legal limit allowed in
What hit you was a flatbed semi truck that had the right of way at a four-way
intersection. The limo driver went through a red light at nearly one hundred
thirty kilometers per hour.
“I—” he glanced down at her legs—“I want to tell you at this point that you’re incredibly lucky to be alive, Yaeko—but I know that you feel no such thing right now. Perhaps someday you will feel that, but not now. And so I won’t humor you. That is not my task. I’m not here to jerk your chain or to pull rabbits out of the hat or tell jokes to get you to smile either. I’m simply here to help you recover and move on. And what you must recover from is truly monumental. So—let’s climb that mountain together, shall we?”
Yaeko blinked acknowledgement of his words and looked away, angrily pushing back the tears that wanted to spill—again. But she did not reply.
She learned through the psychiatrist weeks later that Izumi Ishikawa had been appointed as the executor of her estate shortly after being hired by her parents to be her manager. He had been insistent almost from the start to provide a will that would protect Yaeko in any contingency—this one included. He had been fierce and unrelenting in his work, nearly being fired several times by her parents, who could not understand his persistent, unwavering vigor, who were startled by his manic drive. The psychiatrist spoke of these things matter-of-factly, as if to an adult who could understand them. He did not patronize Yaeko or treat her like a child.
“Izumi saw to every detail, every penny to be spent, every conceivable possibility. I doubt he slept more than three hours a night while managing you, Yaeko,” the psychiatrist told her. “The will stipulates very clearly that should you find yourself in this position, with this kind of loss, with these types of injuries—and many of us often wonder if Mr. Ishikawa wasn’t prescient—you were to ‘disappear,’ as it were, from public life. The classical community believes you to be dead, Yaeko. The world mourned your death almost six months ago. Mr. Ishikawa felt very strongly that should something like this occur you would have been mercilessly exploited by … well, by the world’s media, the paparazzi, by the fanatical, by hucksters and tragedy hounds and the shallow. Nobody knows the truth, save a very select handful of professionals—selected by Mr. Ishikawa, of course—in this hospital, and a small, dedicated network of others outside it that await your full convalescence. You were awarded four Grammy Awards posthumously. I am told you have never touched them or even asked about them.”
Yaeko thought of Izumi’s eyes that last night as he sat in the limousine, of the sheer terror in them. Was this what he had feared? Had he somehow foreseen this tragedy? She did not believe in the paranormal, the supernatural. Surely what was there in those eyes in the last moments of his life was a reflection of—of something else? But Izumi’s eyes came back to her many times, especially in her dreams—now more than ever after learning of his seemingly prescient efforts to see to her future recovery.
The drunken mortal had dared pass into the realm of the god, who drew up in frightful anger. The mortal was ferrying passengers. They were mortals too, and very dear to each other—but they were not drunk. But this did not matter to the god. “Let no one inside the carriage live!” he had commanded with a furious roar to his twin Angels of Death, bright and terrible. And thus did the angles streak forth to destroy the careening carriage, which they did. Satisfied with their work, they left. But they failed to annihilate everybody; and the child that survived inside the twisted, smoking wreckage now cries out for them to return and destroy her too …
The Japanese nurse held the notebook in her hand, reading the finely drawn characters in Yaeko’s notebook. She was sound asleep, her body half-turned towards the window to the right of her bed, her pretty face bathed in the puddle of yellow light from the reading lamp over her head, a pen still in her hand. The nurse closed the notebook and gently removed the pen from her grasp. She placed it and the notebook on the desk next to the dresser. She stared at the trophies; she reached out and traced the smooth rim of the golden horn on one of them; she ran the pad of her index finger over the engraving of the plaque beneath it. After another minute she returned to Yaeko’s bedside and bent, kissing her warm forehead gently, and then switched the reading lamp off.
The nurse could be heard sniffling as the door quietly clicked shut behind her.