The Scarecrow Cross
by Erik Priedkalns
Along Shuka River’s edge, around Nishinomiya, Japan, solemn stone walls coldly sit on either side of the narrow river’s flowing waters. The walls cast shadows on the grassy strips, separating them from the river. Above the walls and river, the town sits. On the east side, across from the stores, apartments and houses, there is a red dirt path that runs the length of the river. On the path, walkers walk, runners run, and bikers scoot up and down.
On weekends, in the unbearable heat and humidity of the summer months, families pitch little tents and eat and drink, throw balls back and forth, swim, and enjoy the time.
On rainy days, the water picks up speed as it comes down from the mountains above the town. There are cute little cartoon signs that warn children of the danger of flood waters. They show screaming children in their baseball hats and school backpacks fleeing a torrent of roaring water.
Along the path you come across the occasional park bench, tree, shrubs, or wildflower gardens. Sometimes you find old stone markers, statues, or signs. Nothing really explains why things are where they are. They are just there.
On a certain day last July, if you were on the path, just a kilometer or so from the Shukugawa train station, you may have seen her; an old Japanese lady, not an inch more than four feet tall, shuffling her way to a certain spot.
The lady is about eighty-five years old. You probably notice the strange roller coaster rise at the top of her back and realize she can barely look up, so she just looks down at her feet. Her gray hair is tied back in a bun. She wears grey, light cotton pants that stop at her calves, and a grey jinbei top.
The old Japanese woman, her name is Mayumi, gets passed on the path by a mother on a bicycle. The mother on the bicycle politely rings her bell to let Mayumi know she is passing. Mayumi steps to her right, and the mother on the bicycle does a quick bow of her head.
The mother has auburn red, dyed hair and is in her thirties. She wears a white, cotton, short-sleeved blouse and a flower covered, black skirt that goes down to her ankles. Her name is Chie.
Chie has a newborn baby, about five months old, in a pouch on her chest. The baby’s body and face are pressed against her chest. A little straight-haired, four-year-old boy wearing a yellow baseball cap and red shirt is on the back seat. Mayumi hears them talking in serious tones. Mom speaks to the boy without mocking baby talk.
Mayumi smiles and says out loud, to herself, “The baby will soon get a seat on the bicycle, but the press of the body will stay on mama’s chest.“She remembers her mother telling her that she spoiled her little girl too much by showing too much affection and protection. “They need to be taught to stand alone,” her iron-stern mother said.
Mayumi watches the mother on the bicycle until she disappears into the line of the horizon.
* * *
Chie breathes heavily. Her puffy white knees pop out of her long skirt’s front slit each time she pedals. She tries to cover her legs because she does not want them to burn. Chie slows a bit because the rays of the sun are burning her face. She stops and pulls an orange baseball hat from her purse.
Chie is careful not to bounce the little baby on her chest because she is asleep. All my padding is still left from when she was born, Chie thinks. Time for a diet.
“Why did we stop? asks the little boy.
“I’m putting on my hat, don’t you see? You ask silly questions.”
Chie’s beliefs are old. She feels bad for scolding the boy, but he needs to learn how to pay attention.
To her right, Chie notices a black, wrought iron fence around a marble, grey stone statue. The statue is about two meters high and is pentagon in shape. The black fence bars are each speared at the top, and the black color of the bars is dull and peeling in places. This is the first time they have ridden the bike this far up the river.
Just beyond the statue, there is a growth of three gnarled, knotted trees. The trees are hunched over. Their leaves are dark green on top and mint green underneath. Under the rough shadowy circle of trees, tall grass and wildflowers are growing. The grass and flowers all lean in towards something pink.
Chie starts to walk with the bicycle towards the trees. As she gets closer, she thinks she sees a little girl in the middle of the tree circle. She sees a pink flowery summer top, a yellow straw brimmed hat, and a baby-blue skirt. The wildflowers surrounding the feet are red, orange, and purple.
Chie moves closer. She sees that the figure is not a little girl, it’s just some clothes draped on two sticks, one vertical, and near the top the other is horizontal, like a Christian’s cross.
Little girl scarecrow, Chie thinks. She says a quick prayer. The trees are watching like loyal dogs.
“What is that?” asked the little boy.
This time the Chie does not respond. She studies the figure, looking for a reason as to why it is here.
She notices a small bottle of soda and dead, dry flower stems at the foot of the cross.
“What is that?” asks the little boy again.
Chie gently shushes him. “A little girl,” she says in a half-whisper.
* * *
As Mayumi moves along, she shifts her bag from her left to right hand. The little red purse she brought jiggles around the inside of her bag. She sings a made-up song in her head, the same one she used to sing to her daughter.
Make sure your daughter is pretty,
cute like a little doll,
cute shoes, cute tops, cuteness all because of love.
* * *
Chie hears her son but does not respond. She studies the kaleidoscope of flowers surrounding the girl’s little skirt. A zinging coldness springs out of Chie’s stomach and spreads through her entire body. Her throat tightens and fills with sadness.
What’s wrong with you? She asks herself. It’s probably just a child’s robot, or imaginary friend. But the thing stuck in her throat won’t swallow away. At the corner of her eyes, and along the bottom rim, she feels sharp nips as tears start taking shape. Silly woman, she scolds herself, don’t blink.
She can hear the river. It is so small and slow it barely makes a noise.
* * *
Mayumi takes a break and sits on a bench. She watches all the children running up and down the trail and splashing in the water.
She thinks about the thigh-high child she saw wandering alone in the store today. He was a little boy about four years old. He was wearing rubber sandals, a blue baseball shirt and blue shorts. She asked him his name, but he wasn’t paying attention because he was talking to his hands. As Mayumi was about to ask him where his parents were, she heard a woman’s voice call a name from across the store. You could barely hear the voice among all the other voices, but the little boy looked up and started walking towards the sound.
* * *
Chie nudges her bike up to the iron fence. She takes her son out of the seat. He grabs the iron bars with both hands and rocks back and forth.
“Is she a scarecrow?” he asks.
“Shush,” says Chie, “do you see any crows?”
“Maybe she scared them away,” says the little boy.
Chie just stares at the figure. Her son starts walking around the fence surrounding the stone.
“Lift your feet up when you walk,” Chie says absent-mindedly.
Each time he passes, his hand brushes the back of her legs just above the knees. His touch is electric and bounces her breath each time.
Where was she going? Chie wonders. She turns and looks to the river below. It’s only about four meters wide, and maybe two meters deep. The rocks in the river are covered with moss and are very slippery. Chie shivers a bit, turns away from the river, and looks back to the stone and the little girl.
Her son’s small hand brushes the side of her leg as he makes another pass. The touch pulls all the strength from her legs.
Mayumi gazes at the water. It is so calm today, she thinks. It is calm almost every day of the year. She closes her eyelids as the sun’s reflection skips off the water.
Mayumi remembers that day with her daughter. It was at a spot just up the river a bit.
“Stay close,” she had said to the little girl, “I just need to get some bread.”
“Yes,” her daughter promised. She was four and had a bad memory. She had straight, black hair that was cut to the base of her neck and hung in a razor straight line just above her eyes.
Mayumi watched her skip/run towards the river. The river was loud and fast that day. There had been heavy rain during the last week.
“Not too close,” she shouted to the little girl.
The girl turned and said something. Mayumi couldn’t hear her over the sounds of the cars and water. She turned towards the store. It was getting close to sundown, and she needed to hurry to get home and make dinner. As she opened the door to the bakery, she heard the little bell on the door tinkle. She gazed at the pastries, buns, muffins, and bread behind the glass. Mayumi still remembers exactly how the bakery smelled that day.
Mayumi gets up off the old bench and starts walking. Not much further she thinks.
She sighs. She can remember the bakery smell, but she has started to forget her daughter’s smell. Before she left the house this morning, as she was busy gathering up the incense sticks, chocolate pieces and the little red purse, she pulled out one of her daughter’s old shirts. She had to be careful, because it was so old it felt as though it would crumble under her touch. She put it near her nose, but the smell was gone.
Mayumi knows her daughter had a smell, a little sour and a little sweet, but she could no longer bring its details to memory.
* * *
Where was the little girl going? Chie wonders. Was she wearing that hat?
The baby wiggles a bit but stays asleep. Chie feels her puffy cheek rub her breast. She rubs the baby’s tiny back.
The little boy runs back and forth on the trail.
Chie looks down to the river and frowns. She knows that occasionally it swells and runs violently down this bed. On those days, she doesn’t let her son go to the river, even though some of his friends get to go.
Maybe the sounds of the river and world killed the mother’s call? Chie thinks. Nonsense. You don’t even know if it was the river. Stop this thinking.
Chie is struck with a strange feeling, like a warning, and looks around to find her son. She sees his red tee-shirt disappearing up the trail. “Jiro,” she calls, but he doesn’t stop. She sighs, gets on her bike, and starts peddling after him. She catches him not far away.
“You should never leave me like that, and when I tell you to stop, you must stop,” she says sternly.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“Let’s sit on the grass a little. Mama is tired.”
The boy sits next to her and lays his head on her thigh. She feels the weight get heavier as he gradually falls asleep. She puts her palm on his warm, red face. The little baby wakes up briefly, tilts back her head, and looks at Chie with tiny, groggy, brown eyes. A smile materializes from the little face. She smacks her lips and falls asleep again. Chie bows her head down and kisses the top of the baby’s head. A milky sweet smell fills Chie’s nose.
She looks over to the little girl. Through an opening in the circle of trees, Chie can see the figure clearly. She closes her eyes for a moment and then opens them. She sees a bent over, old woman, with a bag in her hand, walk to the trees and to the little girl. It’s the same woman Chie remembers passing earlier.
The woman puts down the bag and wipes the back of her hand across her forehead. She takes out some incense sticks, puts them in the ground and lights them. She then reaches into her purse and pulls out some little, shiny objects and scatters them around the base of the little girl. Finally, Chie sees the woman take out a little girl’s red purse and put it on the horizontal stick.
The old woman puts down the bag and touches the palms of her hands together in front of her chest. She stays like that for a long time.
* * *
Mayumi stares at the little pieces of silver-wrapped chocolate at her daughter’s feet.
She remembers the exact moment her own spirit vanished. It was gone after thirty-two minutes. She remembers the instant the sun went down and her hope for a good life disappeared. After thirty-two minutes of searching, she knew everyone could stop. The line from her heart to her daughter snapped, and Mayumi knew what that snapping meant.
And at that exact moment. . . .
Mayumi walks over to a park bench, as everything comes back once again. She sits with a heavy drop. The bench creaks.
At that exact moment, she thinks. She has tried to put it in words for forty years.
* * *
Chie sees the old woman walk over to a park bench and sit down heavily. From afar, the rise at the top of the woman’s back seems to be pushing her body down, and it looks as if the woman is about to topple over.
Suddenly, Chie feels the weight of her son lift off her leg. She sees his head pop up. “Look mama, the woman.”
He springs up and starts to move to the woman. Chie’s hand shoots towards him. She grabs his arm, and feels her fingers and nails sink into the flesh.
“No,” she says firmly. “Why do you want to bother the woman and the little girl?”
He looks surprised, and his eyes water a bit. Chie loosens her grip, just a little.
* * *
Mayumi sees the little boy in the red shirt start to get up. The young mother’s hand catches him.
* * *
Maybe it would be okay if she let the little boy come over, thinks Mayumi.
* * *
Chie wonders if she should let the little boy go. No, she thinks, he will just make it harder.
She turns back to the river and stares at the cold stone wall across the way.
* * *
Everyone had tried to get Mayumi to stop coming here, but she was stubborn. She would never leave the place that brutalized her every day. Even her husband tried to make her give it up. He tried for years, and it made her so angry. “Heartless one,” she’d say. Then he died, and she couldn’t tell him sorry.
* * *
The little boy sits down next to Chie and takes her hand. He puts his face into her palm and nuzzles it with his little nose. Chie feels the warm breath, and the tickle of his nose on the most sensitive spot of her palm, where the lifelines meet and cross.
She jumps a little when she feels the tips of his bangs move lightly across her wrist.
She sees the crescent indentations of her nail marks on his arm.
She feels like a fool when the clinging tears finally drop.
“What’s wrong?” says the little boy.
He gets no response.
* * *
Mayumi sees the little boy take mama’s hand and touch it with his face.
She sees mama’s head bow to the ground.
Chie looks away and turns to the river.
At that exact moment, she thinks.
For forty years, every single moment, down to the second, has felt like a 5 p.m. on a Sunday night in January, when it gets so dark, cold, and lonely, and nobody is around, and you try to think about getting through another week, while you sit in your house and feel like everything is crumpling around you into pure pitch black, and you cannot go to sleep because there is so much time left in the day, and you wonder what the rest of the world is doing, you look outside, but you cannot see anything outside and all you see is you and the room you are in and it looks like a faded picture from a photograph in a magazine, and your only thought is “my god, morning will be back again.”
And you bargain with whatever god will do the trick. You plead for the little one to keep living on. And every day your prayers and grief pour out.
Mayumi built the little girl on the cross ten days after it happened. She remembers how they all watched her with sorrowful eyes as she put the stick into the ground, tied the cross-stick at the top, and hung her daughter’s picture where the two sticks met.
And every day for forty years she has begged the little stick figure girl to come alive, fill up the clothes and get off.
* * *
“You’re spoiling her,” Mayumi imagines her mother would say. “For forty years, that’s all you have done.”
At that exact moment.
Mayumi hums her daughter’s song.
For forty years every day, she’s hung her life on the Little Girl, Scarecrow Cross.
Erik Priedkalns is an attorney (non-practicing by choice) who grew up in Thousand Oaks, California. He graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in English with a creative writing emphasis. Currently he lives in a small farming town on Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan with his wife and dog. He hopes to one day become a farmer himself. His extremely limited Japanese gives him motivation to write, and say everything he wants to say to the people around but cannot. He has found endless writing material in the country, writing about the people and the surrounding countryside. He believes everything here has a story, and that the forests, trees, rocks, and streams all speak if you listen closely enough.