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 ...
“Mrs. H.” worked as a legal secretary, and so was gone each day until nearly six p.m.(save Tuesdays and Thursdays when she’d come grunting home at two to “monitor” Yaeko’s tutoring session; whereby, when it was completed ninety minutes later, she’d grunt right back out the door without a single word to her). From her short marriage to Izumi’s brother, Adele D. Hoffman’s home was still wheelchair-accessible and relatively easy to get around in. (Izumi’s brother had himself suffered a debilitating car crash many years ago and was wheelchair-bound; he had won an enormous settlement and met Adele D. Hoffman, the secretary of the attorney representing him, the very next day.) Yaeko fed herself and bathed herself: the kitchen and bathroom she used were nicely modified for wheelchair use. “It’s just too damned expensive to normalize,” “Mrs. H.” commented to one of her daughters over the phone one late evening. Yaeko listened to snippets of the conversation through her closed door. “Guess I should’ve had it done, mm! … Yes, yes, it’s a nice paycheck. But still …”
Yaeko spent most of her days in her bedroom, watching the light crawl up the room’s bare walls, brightening steadily, before descending, lengthening, mellowing, disappearing … as yet another twilight was swallowed up into still black night. She listened closely as each day ran its course: to the occasional car that passed by, or the twittering, bickering birds in the thick brush just under her bedroom window, or the sounds of laughter as schoolchildren walked by each day at 3:30. At six a large car door slamming shut could be heard; Adele D. Hoffman had returned from another day’s work. The sound of locks being unlocked; the front door opening with an impatient creak next. Keys cluttering against the wood of a cabinet top; the television—which was on every moment Adele D. Hoffman was home, even while she slept—coming on seconds later: the nightly news or some game show; then … the sounds and smells of dinner being prepared, followed by a short, unfriendly grunt of “Dinner!” Yaeko’s part of the ritual commenced then: she wheeled herself from the cocoon of her bedroom to the dining room table. The thin, nicotine-faced woman already sitting there and eating never greeted her. For no apparent reason at all she’d occasionally utter a punctuated “Mm!” as she chewed without joy; when she did address her it was to scold her: “It wouldn’t hurt you to lend a hand around here every now and then!” “It won’t kill you to get to know my daughters and their kids, you know English, that tutor says you are superb at it, so you can’t use that excuse with me—mm!”
It was the only thing Yaeko looked forward to: her biweekly meetings with her tutor. He was a young teacher, with fine long blond hair and sapphire-blue eyes, a surfer turned teacher, one with classic
California good looks; he had been employed by the school
district to visit Yaeko and give her a week’s worth of lessons in English,
reading, mathematics, earth science, and U.S. history. He’d stay ninety
minutes, sometimes even two hours (to Adele D. Hoffman’s impatient grunts).
Yaeko would hand in her homework the next meeting, all very neatly done, and
patiently await the next round of assignments that would take her through the
weekend and into the next week. The tutor introduced new work to her; he’d
explain difficult terms or English phrases that might trip her up; he earnestly
tried drawing her out. But despite his mellow demeanor and boyish good looks,
One day, near the end of a long session—and with the skeletal woman grunting every five minutes over the railing of the stairs that led to her bedroom—he spoke suddenly, interrupting his lesson on linear equations. “I … I’m a U2 fan myself, Yaeko,” he said gently, “but ...” He shifted uneasily in his chair next to her, as though he was breaking some strict rule and knew it. “... but I’ve … I’ve heard your music….” He looked into her eyes. “I mean, a lot of people have, I suppose ... It’s astonishing, Yaeko. I’ve never heard a violin played like that before. I mean … do you … do you still play?”
Another grunt above them … the sound of footsteps advancing huffily back to the master bedroom … the jarring sound of a door slamming shut….
She peered past the dining room table where they sat and into the shadowy confines of her bedroom—to the one corner of her bedroom, in her line of sight now, that she avoided looking at as much as possible. In that corner stood a large rectangular cardboard box, untouched and unopened, a parcel sent from Japan just a few weeks before she came here, to America, the scribbling on it in Izumi Ishikawa’s handwriting. She did not respond to her tutor, but glanced at him, then handed him her assigned work from the previous week, completed and flawless. She never told him she completed each week’s worth of assignments in a single day, that she had read every text cover to cover, had already answered every single question, had solved every single problem in them, and had merely transcribed the necessary answers from work already completed to match his assignments.
He took her assignments, gave them a cursory once-over, and then continued, his voice apologetic: “I don’t mean to pry. Dr. Akimoto has me report to him on you every month. I don’t know if you know that. He really likes you, Yaeko. He tells me you have a real fan club at the hospital in
apparently the nurses and therapists ask after you all the time. And frankly, I
can see why. Even in your silence there is something in you that … that
inspires others, me included.”
She looked at him. Seconds passed in silence.
“I should be going …” He stood hesitantly and gathered his things, then made for the door. He turned as he opened it. Smiled at her reassuringly. “Next week, then.”
Several hours later, she heard the familiar growl: “Dinner!”
She wheeled to the table. Spooned macaroni and cheese onto her plate. Started eating. Suddenly Adele D. Hoffman slammed her fork down on the table and spoke, her voice low and menacing. “You are not special, young lady. I don’t care how talented you—or that leering tutor—think you are. You’ve clearly been very spoiled your entire life, but let me tell you, I didn’t spoil my kids and I certainly won’t spoil you—mm! Believe you me: tomorrow I’m calling that infernal prison of a middle school and enrolling you. YOU ARE NOT SPECIAL!”
A week later came another outburst.
“I will not tolerate a pagan idol in this household! Now either open that stupid box, missy, or I will throw it out tomorrow morning!”
“You will not throw it out,” said Yaeko in a near whisper.
“Mrs. H.” sat still, stunned. This was the very first time Yaeko had ever spoken to her. But the shock of six months’ silence didn’t last long: Adele D. Hoffman’s face went crimson red, tinged tobacco gray. “This is my home!” she shrieked. “And it is a saved Christian home! How dare you tell me how to run it!”
“If you destroy it, I will report you,” said Yaeko. “I will write the hospital. You are being paid handsomely to host me.”
The thin slits of Adele D. Hoffman’s eyes widened even more, her face almost purple. She appeared on the verge of bursting into an uncontrollable rage.
“If you remove it or touch it, I will report you,” Yaeko repeated, unafraid. “And—” she was guessing wildly now—“you will face harsh penalties.”
The explosion came.
“THIS IS A SAVED
! I WILL NOT—” CHRISTIAN
“It is an object of worship, yes,” she spoke very quietly, “but it is not Buddhist or Christian or pagan.”
“Mrs. H.” was completely taken aback. Then her bony face, still colored like a beet, tightened into utter contempt, as though she were dealing with a belligerent idiot.
“That’s impossible,” she snapped. “There is no such thing.”
But Yaeko did not respond.
Bill the SEAL had returned from another tour of duty overseas. Adele D. Hoffman worshipped Bill. Bill was, she told Yaeko at every available opportunity, a “true American.” Yaeko could never figure out what that meant, save being in the military, going on tours of duty where he could kill many human beings, and then returning home to brag of it drunkenly to the kids and family. Bill had leered at Yaeko the first time he met her. “My, you are a pretty little nip,” he murmured creepily. “So … got in a car crash, eh? I’m sure those skinny little junior high school wannabes still chat ya’ up, whaddya say?”
But his wife, “Mrs. H.’s” eldest daughter, corrected him. “It’s middle school, honey, and besides, she’s homeschooled.”
“Too bad. A bit shy, ain’t she?” He wrinkled his shapeless nose playfully at her.
Now, many weeks later, the same basic exchange had just taken place. But now Yaeko heard:
“She doesn’t speak, Bill.” Adele D. Hoffman reached over the table, flicking the ashes of her cigarette into a clamshell ashtray. “Except when she’s busy ordering me around.”
Bill was a short, stocky, muscular man with a stiff butch haircut and tattoos on his oversized arms. He leaned over the table towards Yaeko, grasping a half-empty beer bottle, his eighth. His breath was stale with cigar smoke and alcohol, and hot. He was six inches away. He smiled at her. “Cat got the pretty nip’s tongue—’cept when she wants her way?”
“She’s had her way her whole life, I suspect—mm!” said Adele D. Hoffman bitterly. Then: “Bill, hon, leave her alone.” She took a drag from a fresh cigarette, exhaling as she spoke. “She’s crafty, like all her kind, and would like nothing more than report me.” Yaeko’s bone-thin guardian had been drinking heavily too; now she eyed her from behind lazily rising ropes of cigarette smoke, her eyes narrowed in critical appraisal. “You—YAE-KO,” she blew more smoke from the barely opened corner of her mouth, “to your room. Now.”
She was getting used to such confrontations, though it still unnerved her when the SEAL came close to her. She wheeled from the table and into the blackness of her bedroom, quietly and quickly closing the door behind her. Her door had a lock; she locked it. She needed to use the bathroom, but doing so would involve going back out there and crossing in front of them. The prospect made her shudder. She would stay here and suffer instead.
Much later, lying motionless in bed, she heard drunken laughter. They had been playing country music, and very loudly; now it had gone abruptly silent save the noises of adults laughing hysterically. “Mrs. H.” spoke up, her voice shrill and thick with booze-emboldened flirtation, “Oh, Billy, really … it isn’t that bad!”
Someone moved … or stumbled … there were sounds of staggering footsteps and the thin clinking of bottles. Then the music changed—radically. Somebody had cranked the volume of the stereo way, way up: it wasn’t country music any longer. It was her, Yaeko’s, music, from her Sacred Solos LP. Her violin sang out to her, cried to her in its gaiety and victory, muffled through her bedroom door. It cried to her as nothing else had these many months: it flashed into her as vivid images, made melodically surreal: a gray Lausanne street floating up to smash her to jelly; the cold blue waters of San Diego Bay rising to crush her; the mellowing of another dying, nondescript day as she sat immobile in her wheelchair, staring blankly outside, watching the light fade from her room until she was lost in the darkness….
But also: the joy of being, of passion, of playing her song, that song, the song not on the CD, the one unrecorded and unheard save for a very few souls … the power that song unleashed inside her ... the supreme joy it had brought to those few others, all dead now, all of them…. She could still see Izumi’s face that first day when he interviewed her … the wonder, the elation, the feeling of … communion? She had been playing it for Amon. And Amon … who seemed lost in a trance whenever she played it for him: not the trance of a victim, but of a god; and no, not a trance, but an easy sense of acceptance: the unconflicted consciousness of living that settles and inspires. His eyes told her … Izumi’s words told her ... her parents’ embrace told her ...
The music outside the lonely cubicle of her bedroom became louder still.
There was Rudolph, dead too, along with those pastel afternoons of shared solitude—her bladder ached badly now; she had no idea how much longer she could hold it in—there was Rudolph and his gaunt, sickly face anchored by eyes stolen from heaven’s treasure chest.... His face—those eyes—as she played him that song, the one deepest in her heart, the one she could not silence, not even now—now, when she could hear her own passion playing for an audience absolutely contemptuous of it. Was she guilty of that same contempt—for her own life?
The tears ran down her cheeks, soaking her pillow on both sides of her face. They were laughing again: the daughter was laughing so hard she hiccuped between punctuated shrieks. “Mrs. H.” said, “Enough, enough! Get this vile crap off already. Seriously, Bill. You can stomach it, you’re a trained killer, you’d eat a dead rhino’s backside in the desert to survive. But we ladies might just get sick on you. C’mon now … Bill, honey, Bill … Bill! —c’mon—please?”
An hour later the party ended. Yaeko waited another ten minutes before rising and wheeling herself past the darkened living room to the bathroom. On her way back to her bedroom she noticed that the Sacred Solos by Yaeko Mitsaki CD had been used as a beer coaster, a half-empty beer bottle sitting on top of it.
The months blended together, indistinct from one another, like different dishes that all tasted completely the same. Yaeko’s days passed, one after another, spiceless and undifferentiated. She rarely left the confines of the home; when she did it was for strictly necessary activities: doctors’ appointments and the like. She had no curiosity for the outside world; and her inside world was little more than limp celery tinged with stale cigarette smoke. Occasionally she would wake, deep in the night, to hear the ocean’s constant roar, freed from the monotonous din of human activity that blanketed it during the day. She could hear individual waves breaking: it sounded like a sudden, almost subsonic crack followed by the familiar foamy rush of water. She fantasized about sailing those waves, like those surfers were so long ago … She thought of the veils over those waves, how beautiful they were, how serene, the incredible rainbows that formed over them … how much she wished she were a veil, to blow back from existence and mist over eternity once and for all. Adele D. Hoffman’s home was less than five blocks from the
Pacific Ocean, but she had never visited it, or the Pier
she remembered flying over. She saw no need.
The blond-haired tutor said to her one day in mid-June, “Your guardian has insisted you go to school next year with the other kids, Yaeko. So this fall you’ll start eighth grade at
. Or … at least, that’s the plan right
now….” He spoke very quietly, as if wary that the grunting woman might overhear
from the landing above them. Imperial Beach Middle
He glanced up towards the landing, then back at her.
“Truth is, Yaeko,” he said, “you should probably be in college, not in middle school or even high school. Your work is better than the typical high schooler’s—or even the atypical high schooler’s. But in its infinite wisdom the district feels that instead of the exit exam—one you’d easily pass—you should be required to attend middle school. And your guardian strongly agrees—though her attitude in the meetings was hopefully a factor that argued against the decision, not for it.”
A long, drawn-out stretch of silence.
She turned to look at him. He was trying to help her, he really was. He was trying to help her—but she knew it now: she was beyond help, his or anybody else’s.
“The thing is ...” He seemed to be steeling himself. “The thing is,” he said more resolutely and slowly, “you’ve been crushed by life … and … and I know you’re terribly depressed. Believe me, I—heck, anybody—would be too. Lord,” he shook his head, “I can’t imagine the work you’d produce if you were happy and motivated….”
He sat forward and stared strongly into her eyes. “I mean, the thing is, my friend, this—today—is our last session this school year, but I don’t want to leave you … well, here—” he motioned around the dining room—“or worse, here—” He pointed at her heart. “It feels like a monstrous crime, like … like murder or something … leaving you to wallow alone all summer in this … well, this upholstered, stale-smelling hellhole.”
Yaeko did not speak, and fought a terrible internal battle to stop the tears from returning. But try as she might, her eyes filled and burned with them, and her tutor’s unflinching stare hardened even more.
“That’s what I thought,” he whispered gently. “You’re a warrior, Yaeko Mitsaki. And try as you might—and you have been trying since your coma, I’m sure of it—you can’t kill that warrior. You just can’t. The tears prove it.”
He reached into his backpack, pulled out a gray portable CD player and black headphones.
“Here,” he said, laying them on the table in front of her. “I want you to have these. And—” he pulled out a CD—“here’s something to listen to. Try the very first track.” He smiled. “It isn’t classical, but hey ...” He reached a hand to her cheek and gently wiped a tear away.
“This is a monstrous world, Yaeko,” he continued. “But without spirits like yours in it, it would have perished long ago; this much I am certain. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, to be perfectly honest. We humans have perverted or butchered or exterminated so much … but perhaps there is still enough good remaining in the world to justify having such beauty continue to spin it—or inspire fifteen-dollar-an-hour idealists like me.”
He gathered his things and stood. He looked down at her for a long time, his face etched with concern. “I don’t want you to worry: I’ve tried to paint Dr. Akimoto a cheerful picture about you. I’m not sure he believes me—and I’m not sure I’ve done the right thing by you by doing so. Maybe not, huh? But I think you’ll figure it out on your own. From what I know about you, and all I’ve heard, you always have, really....”
And so with his words in her mind it came to her over the next two weeks the decision to finally end her life. She had figured it out, yes. And when the decision was truly made, so too came the means, and instantly, as if it, the decision, were simply waiting for her to consciously choose it to reveal itself in all its stark simplicity.
The large unopened cardboard box in the corner of her bedroom no longer frightened her—or even mattered to her. In the very early morning moonlight of June thirtieth, her chosen day to die, she woke, bathed very quietly, and dressed. She knew she could move about without detection if she did so gently: Adele D. Hoffman’s bedroom television set, which was on all night, every night, would drown out her movements nicely. She sat at the dining room table and completed a letter; she sealed, addressed, and affixed a stamp to it before wheeling back to her bedroom.
The box stood in the corner, illuminated by the ghostly lunar glow. It stood as an enigma holding miracles both wonderful and terrible for she with courage enough to unravel its secrets. But not even courage had a place in her world now; and so, after a long moment’s consideration, she wheeled to her dresser, grabbing the CD player and CD her tutor had given her. She placed the gold disc into the player and put the headphones on. She hadn’t used the player since he had given it to her two weeks ago; now it seemed entirely appropriate. Under the moon’s unwavering silver stare, she depressed the PLAY button. She fished for the volume control, thumbing it as high as it would go before placing the player next to her hip. Then she wheeled to the box in the corner, a letter opener in her lap.
The box was well sealed. And now the music rang in her ears, haunting, driving, freeing:
I want to run, I want to hide …
She opened the box’s top. The valuable contents were well packed with little Styrofoam fingers and bubble plastic—
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside …
The box had some heft to it, but wasn’t difficult to lift. She grasped it and tipped it, smiling. The Styrofoam poured over her lap, spilling to the floor. The plastic bubbles left inside kept Izumi’s gift from spilling out as well. She laid the box on her legs and reached inside it for a set of cardboard dividers; with some effort she yanked them out—
I want to reach out and touch the flame …
Underneath the dividers was another cardboard box. It came out of its parent slowly and grudgingly. But finally Yaeko had a firm grip on it; using her letter opener she slashed liberally through the top layers of plastic bubbles hugging it. She grasped the very heart of the enigma, pulling it up, pulling it free—
—Where the streets have no name—
The violin case was encased in more bubble wrap. She tore it away. She was surrounded by glowing white Styrofoam and glistening bubble wrap in the pale moonlight. She opened the case.
I want to feel sunlight on my face …
The violin she brought up was the most beautiful she had ever seen. The wood, the strings, the fingerboard, the pegs and fittings … seemed so perfectly constructed, so joyously integrated, that she felt as though that which she beheld here in the moonlight had been forged from Heaven itself: a single piece of essential magic made manifest, to come to rest here, in her very grasp. And then, at that very moment, she felt just as she had moments before the car crash: like she could breathe … forever.
The dust cloud disappears without a trace …
There was an inscription in the wood on its back. Yaeko brought the instrument close to her face. The inscription read:
Antonius Stradiuarius Cremonensis Faciebat Anno 1714
She removed the bow from the box and beheld it for a long time, as a master archer admires the craftsmanship of a fine arrow ...
I want to take shelter from the poison rain …
She smiled. This is how it would end, yes. For this was how it had begun.
Adele D. Hoffman would wake in a couple of hours. But she, Yaeko, would be long gone by then. Her guardian would not hear her leave in just a few moments: the emaciated woman’s blaring, obnoxious bedroom television had become Yaeko’s final ally and sentinel. Since “Mrs. H.” never checked on her before leaving for work, she’d be many hours out of the know by the time she returned home much later. Yaeko’s body would be difficult to identify, if found at all: her anonymity guaranteed that. Adele D. Hoffman would remain clueless for … a day? Days? Truly, it did not matter.
She turned to place the Stradivarius on her unmade bed, and that’s when she noticed it: an envelope lying half buried under a small hill of white Styrofoam fingers, almost perfectly camouflaged beneath them. It took some effort, but she finally grasped it from the carpeted floor and turned it over. It bore her name on the front. A final letter from Izumi. On her final day of life.
On the day that she would fiddle with eternity.
—Where the streets have no name—