By Sarah Chapman
I have met my neighbours to the left. They are a retired couple and keep white Shiba dogs. The husband, who must be ninety or older, sang for me the only English song he knew, which was God Save the King and I was so touched I didn’t have the heart to correct him. Time is slow in Yamagata. It’s a place of mountains where the old things still thrive. My neighbours are proud of their legends; tales of birdmen who live in the summer forests and snow women who blow in on the winter storms and murder with their kisses.
They’ve told me helpful things about Japan, and all about the neighbourhood - warnings included. Since the autumn, it seems, a man has been sleeping in the covered alley between their house and the next one along.
I will say that neither of them seemed to mind. It was more that they didn’t want me to be shocked if I saw him there. In fact, I might never have known he was there if they hadn’t mentioned it. but then the homeless here don’t beg like they do at home. I sometimes see constructions of tarp and cardboard along the riverbank, but they don’t speak to you. They just sit and exist, like the statues in the yard of the shrine, but less loved. Most find other places to go when the weather turns, but this man stayed in the alley, even in the snow.
He was usually gone during the day. I only ever saw his footprints and increasing layers of cardboard insulation. He must have earned a little during the day, collecting bottles maybe, and returned at night only to sleep. Or in this weather, shiver the night away.
I felt bad, knowing he was out there in freezing cold, but this is not my home and I was unsure if or to whom I could report the matter. I can’t prevail on the neighbours to do anything. They tell me I’m tenderhearted, which is true, and that I must remember that the man is surely homeless for a reason (either gambling or drink), and they are no more responsible for him than they are for the discarded cats that wobble around the park on stilt-like legs, creaking and thieving from the bins.
Also that young women like me should not get too close to people like that.
It could be dangerous.
I worry about other things in this weather too. I always walk home from the station with a torch to light my way. The snow is very bright, and I’m anxious that some driver, snow-blind, will miss me in the dark and run me down. The snow disguises the sound of their progress. You can round a corner and suddenly find yourself looking down the headlights of a van that you thought was several streets away. The other fear is falling snow. It builds up on the rooftops and then drops, suddenly, like an avalanche.
This year, winter is relentless. But a mild winter here would probably shock me too. Each day this week we have shovelled the snow into piles to reveal the road beneath and each day, a sprinkling more falls to undo all our work. At night it freezes into a crust, hard and dry. It’s the kind of cold that follows you home and squats in your bones for an age after you’ve come into the warmth.
It’s the misery of the cold that drives me into the convenience store. As soon as you pass through the doors, you’re hit by the rank smell of oden, which simmers away for hours on end in the vat by the cashier’s desk. It’s difficult to describe. The vat is brimful with a salty but otherwise nondescript broth, and a mystery of things floating in it.
There are bags cunningly crafted from beancurd and filled with questionable treasure, and squares of devil’s tongue that look like aspic full of cracked pepper. I can tolerate the boiled eggs. These come out slippery, the yolk reduced to a savoury paste that makes the broth taste of something between gulps.
The smell is tenacious, but it is the only thing I know of that will stay piping hot all the way home from the shop.
“It’s cold, isn’t it?” The cashier nodded at me sympathetically before I left, clutching a pot. “Take care going home.”
Words to evoke guilt. I could be home in a few minutes, with all the humble comforts that ‘home’ entails made even more endearing thanks to the weather.
The road that night was quiet due to how late it was, the snow turned orange here and there from the street lamps. I did not anticipate seeing anyone, and hoped not to have any witness to my attempt at charity, but there was someone else standing in front of the alleyway by the time I came around the curve.
It was a woman, young, like me, in a pristine white coat. Her gloves matched. So did her skirt, which was long, and her boots. I confess, my first thought was, ‘Too much money’.
She noticed me but made no motion to progress down the road in either direction. She stood quite still as I approached.
Although I’m accustomed to the local habit of it, her blatant stare in my direction unnerved me and I felt obliged to speak to her.
“Good evening. It’s cold, isn’t it?” I said.
She smiled in a way that hid almost all of her eyes.
“Yes. Yes it is.”
The oden warmed my hands through its pot, the steam seeping out from under the lid in puffs if I squeezed it, like it too was breathing. It really was bitterly cold.
I hesitated. She waited. I did not make a very brave attempt, but I did try again.
“You haven’t seen the homeless man, have you? He sleeps in there.”
The mouth of the alley was dark. I didn’t want to get closer to look. I didn’t want to squeeze past her. I was quite stuck, if I’m honest. She made a thoughtful noise.
“He’s not here,” she said. “Don’t worry. He’s gone.”
Her stance reminded me of the neighbours’ dog anticipating the mailman. Nothing about her was expressly hostile, but her whole bearing seemed taut and unwelcoming. I had the sense of looking at someone who defined me as an outsider.
“Ah… I wanted to give him this,” I explained, terribly embarrassed and annoyed to feel so. The cold had chapped my cheeks and fingers a flaming red whilst hers were beautifully pale. I feel lumpy in this country, large-footed, large-mouthed. I felt that she was judging me for my lack of elegance, and I resented it. Even as I was thinking this, she inclined her upper body forward, observing the oden in my hands and then my face.
“That’s a useless thing,” she said. The contempt was so abrupt that I had no idea what to say. So I said nothing.
Muttering, stumbling, I crossed the road at the diagonal and went home. I threw out the oden, and burned all night with humiliation. It was the first real bit of unfriendliness I’ve experienced here and it disappoints me how one instance of harsh attitude can drive me to marshal all my resources to my own needs. I bundle away behind an inward facing wall and leave nothing left for anyone else, at least for a short while.
I wish I had been less ashamed. I might not know the words in this language, but I can imply anger when I want to. I didn’t need to be cowed by her scorn.
But as they said, I’m tenderhearted. Especially when it comes to myself.
In the morning, the neighbours were making a muted clamour in the street. The neighbours’ dog was bright eyed, scutting his heels in the fresh powder and making gruff noises of warning at the cluster of people milling around the mouth of the alley.
It had snowed heavily enough to fill the ruts from the cars and clog the gutters. The men leaned about on shovels, muttering and shaking their heads.
“There’s been an accident on the highway and they won’t send an ambulance.”
“What are we supposed to do? It’s unseemly.” They shake their heads again.
A woman sighs, “Ah, it’s pitiable.”
Through the bodies, I can see how the snow must have become too heavy and slipped from the narrow section of roof where the cover over the narrow gap meets the neighbours’ house. It had dropped at some point in the night, leaving a pillar of snow on the road that had frozen, and the man just a hump of ice at its feet.