Gen was attending Tokyo University, the nation's top school. The graduates were virtually assured of good careers. Almost three-quarters of the civil servants and half of the judiciary were graduates of the nation's top school. The sons of former feudal lords, bureaucrats, military officers, landowners, merchants and industrialists vied for a place. Fuku's father had staked the family's future on a modern education for his son. "The old ways are dead." he had often told him. "There is no future for you here in the country. Taxes are rising every year, faster than the price of rice. The Tokugawas fell because they tried to cling to the past. We can't prevent the future; it is as inevitable as the tide. " His wisdom was based on bitter experience. He had lost his feudal stipend as the village tax collector. In the political shuffle that followed, he had disdained the political manoeuvrings that would have won him a position in the new government. The family's financial situation grew increasingly perilous as he sold off land to pay his daughters' dowries and his wife's increasing medical bills.
Gen studied hard and won a scholarship that covered the tuition, but monthly expenses for books and for room and board in Tokyo were high. Bit by bit Fuku's father sold off acreage so he could send his son a monthly stipend.
A few weeks, later, Fugu received a letter from her brother. She tore it open eagerly, anxious to read his excited descriptions of telegraphs, automatic weaving machines other new technology from the West.
“My dearest sister," read a spidery script, “please don't tell Father. This must remain a secret between us. Last week, I coughed up some blood. I finally went to see Dr. Nomiya as you have been urging me to do. It's consumption, I'm afraid. Not merely overwork and careless habits, as I had thought, though the doctor said they were a contributing factor.
“So, little one, you were quite right to nag and I was wrong not to listen. Don't worry yourself, though. The good doctor gave me a list of things to do. Regular meals. No more late nights. Plenty of rest and fresh air. I promise to faithfully follow his regimen.
“I know this news will worry you, but don’t tell Father. Let’s keep this between us. Patience! In only one more semester, I will be an engineer.
“Your loving brother Gen."
As she finished the letter, the world seemed to go black for a moment, and Fugu had to sit down. Her breathing felt labored and she loosened her sash. Gen was coughing up blood. How could her strong, handsome older brother be sick? Brilliant Gen, for whose education her father had sold off the family lands, whose student projects had already attracted job offers, whose success was to rescue the family from poverty. Fugu threw herself on the floor and clutched a pillow to her mouth to stifle her sobs.
As spring ripened into summer, Fugu withdrew into a silent shell of worry. Her thoughts were constantly with her family. She felt increasingly detached from Shoichi, who was getting old enough to beguile his grandmother. He gurgled and cooed and waved his fists, but hardly ever cried. Whenever he spied a friendly face, a quick open-mouthed smile radiated down his limbs in delighted shudders.
Oharu was pleased that her grandson was growing into an amusing little person. Most afternoons she commandeered the fat and placid baby and played with him in her garden.
First the wet-nurse, and now this, Fugu thought with resignation. She began to understand that as far as Oharu was concerned, Shoichi was not Fuku's child at all, but an Omura family heirloom. Fugu had provided the womb, but the boy's upbringing was too important to be entrusted to her. This family was full of surrogates, Fugu thought. The mother does not suckle the child and the wife does not sleep with the husband.
She busied herself with housework to stifle her regret, her dismay, her worries. Her mother remained unwell, and Gen was failing quickly.
In the fall he slipped into a coma. His landlady wired their father, but by the time he arrived in Tokyo, Gen was dead. Fugu received her father's telegram on a cold night just as the snow began to fall. It seemed to Fugu that the stars were falling silently out of the sky in big wet flakes.
Oharu offered a few stiff words of condolence. Then Tomio drew her aside for more bad news, his bull-like forehead bulging with embarrassment. “I can't afford to send you home for the funeral. Shoichi is too young for you to leave, and I cannot afford the train fare for both you and the wet-nurse."
“I understand," said Fugu, and turned her head so he would not see the tears that dropped from her blank eyes and made dark splashes on her sleeve. Tomio laid his hand on her shoulder, “I'm sorry," he said, but Fugu could hardly hear him. The world seemed far far away, the tatami floor as tiny as a doll's house. She was balanced high above the house on a tall dark cloud of grief.
Somehow she got through the winter, treasuring the letters he received from her father. In spite of his troubles, he remained gracious and cheerful. In his most recent letter to Fugu he had written, "The house feels empty without you. I persuaded Ryuichi to buy the persimmon trees. Now the whole side of his house is orange with drying fruit." Ryuichi was a neighbor, a wealthy peasant to whom Fuku's father had been selling off land.
"The maples are bare. Their leaves lie in the garden moss like red and gold stars." he continued. "Your mother is enjoying the crisp air."
Fugu pictured her mother in the garden, swaddled in blankets, her thin face etched with fine lines in the late afternoon light. Her father never wrote about her mother's health, so she could only infer a continued decline. "Your brother's sitting for exams next week. I worry that he's not getting enough rest. Write to him, will you? Tell him not to work too hard."
It wasn't as if Fugu did not try to be a good wife. but there was an unnameably basic quality of femininity that was missing in her. She had a way of looking nakedly at him that filled him with dread. Her face was like a moody sky. Insecurity, puzzlement and the desire to please shifted across her face too openly. Her manner removed the mystery and excitement that he considered essential in his relationships with women: cajolery and coquetry, layers of manipulation, thoughts and emotions unspoken. Besides, Fugu was not physically attractive to him. She was wiry where she should have been round.
In the spring, just as the blossoms began to float off the plum trees and the willows began to leaf out in hopeful green, Fugu received a letter from her home village. Instead of the spare elegance of her father's impeccable brush, the envelope was addressed in pencil, in a clumsy hand. Fugu tore open the envelope. Thick, ropey characters twisted down the page like thick grey worms. "Ojosama," the letter began. "Honored daughter of the house. My heart is breaking as I write this letter." As she tried to read further, tears filled her eyes and refracted the message like prisms, scattering shards as jagged as her fear, as disjointed as her thoughts – "the master and mistress," "high fever," "too late," "tragic loss."
There was no longer any reason to live, Fugu thought. Her father and mother were dead, and her beloved brother Gen. Her husband was distant and her son unreachable. Surely there was no reason to stay in this house that her mother-in-law dominated like a poisonous spider. Fugu waited until after midnight, then quickly packed the kimonos from her dowry and stole out of the house.