We had been sent out of the house to collect turnips. I was thirteen and Yukari was ageless, I thought then, as anyone above twenty-five seemed ageless to me, though now I think she must have been in her late thirties, maybe thirty-eight or nine, with a daughter my age and a husband she was grieving while he was still alive. She had come up to the house for lunch, a sort of party, though there were no other guests. She arrived in a new car, a cheerful green hatchback; a new yellow blouse, with diamond-shaped cutouts on the shoulders and down the arms; and a leather shoulder bag, which she tossed over a chair when my mother asked her and me to collect a few things from the garden. Her grief was a quickness in her movements, a brightness in her laughing, and I was instinctively uneasy when the side door closed behind us, and it was the two of us alone.
I suppose you’re my guide, she said.
I guess, I said, trying not to sound as unhappy as I was.
She had been to the house every so often, always with her husband and sometimes with her daughter Chie, whom I was friends with in the way that children are assumed to be friends with the children of their parent’s friends. The husband, George, was the one out of the couple who was good with kids. He was sweaty and soft in a comforting way, and his joke most days at the start of a meal was to clasp his hands together and say: Dear God, thank you for these noodles, ramen. He seemed to think there was something special about me that merited extra attention, which he would show by leaving the adult’s table at some point in the evening to take me aside and ask me what I was reading, or whether I had any girlfriends. Chie adored him. You could see it in her eyes, in the way you could tell where he was in the house at all times by the direction in which she refused to look.
Where George’s attention was harmless and a little abject, Yukari’s was severe and unpredictable. She always seemed to be on the verge of deciding I wasn’t interesting enough to bother with. Last year, during the fall, she had yelled at a teacher in the parking lot after school and her voice had carried all the way through the fourth-floor windows to the classroom where I was playing the opening rounds of a school-wide chess tournament. No one talked in the room. I didn’t go to the window to see, and though the words were muddled by distance, I knew exactly whose voice it was. It went on and on. I didn’t wonder about what was making her angry. Adults were mysteries to me then; their problems were unknowable. I remember only feeling sorry for Chie, that she had to live with a parent who was so capable of losing control.
A little later, Yukari and George had come over to the house at a strange time of day, midway between lunch and dinner. Yukari had walked with my mother to the park at the end of the street. George had gone upstairs to talk computers with my father. My father had been friends with George since he first arrived in Kyoto, and my mother with Yukari since before either of them were married. Their friendship was like this, always liable to break apart into their separate groups. I think each pair was prone to keeping secrets from the other, which was something my father would never have accepted with anyone except his oldest of friends, who had helped him at times when he believed he had no one else.
Now, outside in the garden, I walked Yukari along the fence to the far corner of the yard, where the green stems of the turnips were swaddled in straw. It was a cloudy day, and cold, and a north wind was skimming over our heads and rattling the dry leaves of the zelkova trees across the street.
Where’s Chie? I said. Somehow it felt easier, out here in this maze of snow-bitten dirt, to talk to Yukari.
She’s starting in a new school, she said. It’s a boarding school. You can send letters if you want.
Where’s Uncle George? I said.
She frowned. You’re full of questions aren’t you? she said. And then, as if to change the mood, she set her mouth in a line and asked, Do you wanna know a secret?
They’re talking about us, she said. In there. Your parents.
Because people always talk, she said. She laughed her tense, bright laugh.
A little later, she said: Okay, I lied. They’re only talking about me.
She was kneeling on the ground. I hadn’t noticed this before. Her feet were in the little path my mother had trampled through the soil, but one of her knees was in a section of green onions, another was crushing a white tent that covered a row of cauliflowers.
She cried a little then. In my mother’s garden, between plots of winter vegetables, she cried quietly in a way that was almost impossible to tell. Then she stood up and brushed the dirt off her knees, but her jeans stayed grey and wet where the dirt had been, and on the hem of her blouse, where it had trailed on the ground.
Don’t you dare tell anyone about this, okay? she said. She looked angry in a way that seemed to signal that we were both on the same side.
Okay, I said.
Good, she said. She wiped her cheeks, which were already dry. Her nose was red, but that could have been the cold.
On the way back to the house, I could see my parents illuminated through the kitchen window: my father leaning back against the stove, my mother with her arms crossed at the sink. They were talking quickly about something, their heads bent, but I couldn’t hear anything. At the side door, I thought Yukari lurched into the wall on purpose, making a dull thud, as if to let them know.
When we opened the door, my mother was arranging the fancy place settings at the table, and my father was at the counter, mixing a vinaigrette. But the table was already laid out. My mother was only moving one green placemat a little to the left, and then back.
Suddenly, it was as though I could see that the whole house was grieving.
Where’s Uncle George? I said. I needed to know. I was holding the turnips in a basket. They were heavy and cold. The smell of them, which was of winter and dirt, filled the kitchen. My father, who should have taken them from me, or told me to leave them in the sink, had his hands on the edge of the counter, and his knuckles were white.
Where is Uncle George now? I said.
Much later, after George had been taken to court, after he reached a settlement with prosecutors, I heard that my father saw George one last time and asked him if he’d really done it. And when George stuck to the tired old story, that if he’d ever touched Chie in that way it had only been tickling, a sort of joke at most, my father waited a long moment, enough time for years to shift in his memory, for the world to rearrange itself into a different, more painful shape, before he helped his old friend pack the last of his things. But in the house with Yukari, when he was standing at the counter, he only turned sharply at my question, as if waking up from something, and said—Oh no, I wouldn’t call him that—as if, for the first time, he could see a little of the structure of things.