"Wildfire" by Tsushima Yuko
A Translation of Yamakaji, with an Introduction
Volume 20, Issue 3 (Translation 2 in 2020). First published in ejcjs on 14 December 2020.
In this short story, Tsushima Yuko presents a character who seems to have an expansive connection with elements of the natural world far beyond her own 'personal' life. Through this connection, the character is able to accept the processes of grieving for a tragic loss.
Keywords: Tsushima Yuko, Japanese literature, first-person narration, grief, acceptance, reincarnation
Translator's Introduction to "Wildfire" (Yamakaji)
Originally published in the journal Gunzô in 1998, Tsushima Yûko’s story “Wildfire” (Yamakaji) is included in the short story collection entitled, “I” (「私」Watashi 1999). This collection is comprised of fifteen stories that had been published in literary journals and a newspaper between 1995 and 1998. As found in many of her works published prior to the year 2000, the theme of death, which reminds readers of Tsushima’s own experience of loss (her father, brother, son, and mother), runs through these stories. As reflected in the collection’s title, “I” (in quotes), another notable theme threading these stories is an expansive model of the self (watashi) unmoored from the confines of an individuated body bound by the here and now. These two themes are interwoven in an understated style, “Wildfire” being a paradigmatic example.
If there is a distinct trait that sets “Wildfire” apart from the other stories in the collection, it is a trans-species crossing that watashi experiences. Watashi in this story is a deer remembered by the unnamed first-person narrator (a woman wounded by loss of her son) as her past self who perished in a wildfire. The idea of reincarnation underpins this melancholic, multilayered story eschewing a clear narrative arc. Depicting the narrator in a peculiarly contradictory fashion, as someone who has a vivid embodied memory of having died as a deer in a wildfire while simultaneously asserting her disbelief in reincarnation, the story draws readers into a terrain of self beyond the reach of one’s consciousness, where one embraces and is embraced by the unknown.
A brief note about the translation: In the original text the expansive sense of watashi bears an emphasis marker, which I rendered in italics in my translation.
A fleet of fire trucks go by one after another. Blinding blueness of the sky. There are no shadows of other vehicles on the gleaming white highway stretching ahead. Not a single building is seen in the vicinity. The dry grass field exposed to the scorching sun stretches monotonously. The lone fire trucks are crossing through the field. The excitement one would usually get when seeing fire trucks in a lively town is missing. Toy-like they seem, small and sparkling, the sound of their siren absorbed into the blue sky.
We were in front of the roadside restaurant, overlooking the white highway. “I wonder where the fire is,” I muttered.
But maybe we were driving on the highway. It was not that we were driving slowly. After all, there were no other vehicles ahead of us. As we slowed down, toy-like tin fire trucks zipped by, just like a fleeting mirage.
I no longer recall from where I was seeing the fire trucks. Either way, as a passenger I was resigned to gaze vacantly at the scenery outside. I’m not even sure where we came from or where we were going.
A local resident said in a low voice as if to reproach my casual tone, “It’s a wildfire burning over there.”
At the foot of the dry rolling hills an expanse of grass field stretched along the highway. The hills did not look very tall. It appeared as though the dazzling blue sky was pressing upon the hills. Portions of the hilltops were covered by white clouds. It looked to me as though the clouds were paused midway in the course of stretching into the sky and forming shapes.
“I think it has already been ten days since the fire started. It has been burning nonstop. Once a fire starts on a mountain, nothing can be done. Just a single match of a camper could cause the bone-dry forest to go up in flame. Helicopters and fire trucks have been trying in vain to extinguish the flames every day…. Oh, look over there. The fire has already doubled in size.”
As the smoke looked frozen in the sky’s blueness, it was hard for me to imagine the heat of the flames. I can clearly recall how puzzled I felt at the time.
I wondered what kind of path the fire trucks were going to take on their approach to the blaze. I visualised my eyes becoming a passenger on the truck moving through the mountain path and tried to feel the approaching wildfire.
What would happen first? Would the smell of burning trees irritate my nose? Then, would my eyes begin to sting little by little? My throat might feel scratchy?
White smoke drifts down upon the path giving the appearance of a herd of small animals. If I look carefully, I can see the smoke permeating the forests on either side of the path. It is an ineffable sight that would likely be captivating had I not known of the wildfire. The sound of birds fluttering their wings resounds above my head. Their cries resemble human shrieks. The sky turns dark with the shadows of birds. Smoke follows. On the ground, herds of animals flee with silent intensity. Squirrels, rabbits, moles, foxes, deer, wild boars. Before long, smoke in the sky and the smoke crawling on the ground merge into one and obscure the contours of the trees. Heat from flames suddenly blows towards me. Dry crackling sound of burning leaves and branches…
Tracing my thoughts up to this point, I felt something sharp piercing my foggy head and I uttered a cry. The sensation I felt then I still can’t forget.
This feeling… I know it. That heat. The sound of whirling flame. The tears I shed within the smoke. Above all else, the fear of endlessly running through the mountain, aimless. The sorrow of having to keep running. Despite being in the herd, I felt as though I was alone. If I collapse from exhaustion, I would be swallowed by death. So my legs were screaming. But I also knew that soon enough I would run out of steam and die engulfed by the flames and the smell of my burning body. At this thought, my entire body trembled with sadness. A fox is running beside me, eyes blazing red. My eyes the same. A hot wind chasing after us, its red mouth open, growing bigger and bigger. The forest, my home, is no more. My legs are melting in the heat. Smothered by the white smoke I collapse and let out a cry of sorrow. My brown deer body immobile…
When I was in middle school, I had a friend who claimed she was a reincarnated Okinawan child, having been killed in the US submarine attack of the ship Tsushimamaru which was evacuating school children from Okinawa. Back then I was indifferent to stories about aliens, spiritual phenomena, and the like. I thought such things foolish and didn’t allow myself to take my friend seriously. It was surprising she became obsessed with such an idea.
Of course, I had heard the cruel story. During the war, forced to evacuate from Okinawa en masse, more than 800 elementary school children and approximately 700 civilians onboard the Tsushimamaru drowned after being torpedoed by a US submarine. I was born after the end of the Pacific War, yet when I was little, I felt stifled, surrounded by horrifying and sad stories about the war. At times I even believed I was in Hiroshima when the Atomic Bomb was dropped. But every kid knows when she was born, so I figured it wasn’t true.
“Do you have any connection to Okinawa?” I asked my friend.
“No relation at all. I don’t have a single relative from Okinawa,” my friend replied with a sneer. “There is no meaning in such a connection.”
“But…,” I said in return. “They had to die in the sea, away from their parents, before reaching the destination, didn’t they? If they could be reborn, I’m sure they would lose no time returning to Okinawa. Why would they want to be born in the middle of Tokyo? After all, they only knew Okinawa.”
She replied in a more scornful tone. “Being reborn is a phenomenon that utterly defies such logic. For a soul, there is no difference between Tokyo and Okinawa. We could be reborn as something as simple as grass.”
I shouldn’t have been so affected by this, but I became irritated.
“Let’s say reincarnation is possible. But in order for it to happen, wouldn’t you have been reborn as a baby or grass immediately after your death? The ship had sunk two years before we were born. What were you doing during those two years? Where were you?”
“I don’t know,” she said glaring at me. “I’m sure there are various ways. When you die in the sea, your body keeps drifting so it might take a while for you to be reborn. Either way, I don’t have an answer.”
“Then how can you tell for sure you were a child who was on the Tsushimamaru?”
Thereupon she confided in me in all seriousness.
“Yes, there is a gap of two years, but the Tsushimamaru sank on August 22, my birthday. This is not a coincidence. Regardless, I do remember how the ship began sinking. We huddled in silence, more shocked than scared.”
“Hold on,” I stopped her. “You said ‘we.’ What kind of a child were you in your previous life? How old were you? What about your mom and dad? Did you have brothers and sisters? What was your house like?”
“Obviously, I don’t have the answers,” she said matter-of-factly.
“All the memories of your previous life disappear. But it is said that some people remember the moment of their death like I do. Particularly when an accident or murder occurs. I’m not sure whether the I that died in the sea was a girl. There were only girls around me so I was most likely a girl, although I don’t know what my name and age were. Even if I saw the names of those who died on the Tsushimamaru, I would probably not be able to tell which one is me. But I believe I was wearing lightly coloured clothes. I still have the image of my blouse spreading out in white upon the surface of the water. Since it was summer, I wasn’t cold. The burning ship, as it was sinking, issued a shrieking sound like that of a hundred crying whales. But the ship sank in no time at all. Like a boulder the navy-blue seawater crashed upon me from above. Once inside, the water sparkled like a rainbow. None of us were crying. We were all stunned, our mouths agape.”
“You must have dreamt it,” I fervently insisted. “It’s only your imagination so you should keep it to yourself.”
I was getting scared listening to her story, but I was also feeling jealous about my friend possessing a special world of her own, whether it was fantasy or not.
Nearly forty years have passed since then. I sometimes wonder what she would say if she were still alive. She might just laugh and say incredulously, “Did I really tell you that? I don’t remember any of it. You always remember things so well.”
In reality though, I had completely forgotten about the story of her previous life until I received the news of her death.
At my age, it is unusual to hear about the deaths of old school friends. One person died in her twenties, two people in their thirties, and now this friend who was in her forties. Though I hadn’t seen her since we had graduated, vivid detailed images of her being twelve or thirteen came to my mind upon learning of her untimely death. Her childish smile, healthy plump legs, full volume of hair with a shining barrette—these images of her floated up from somewhere deep inside, leaving me with a feeling of sad regret. The story of the Tsushimamaru also came back to me. Not that I now believe what she told me; I just no longer feel the need to disagree. That alone is a big change in me for sure. It may be just an illusion or a dream. There must be a mixture of various elements in illusions and dreams so who can deny the possibility of memories of previous life being contained in them? After all their origins are unknown. It’s impossible for the living to bear direct witness to what came before birth and what follows after death. These unknown territories linger as fascinating mysteries where all sorts of things can happen. They convey to us a silence that envelops myriad possibilities.
This friend of mine left this world quickly and silently. I’m sure her next life has already begun somewhere, and I wonder what kind of life it is. A beautiful flower? A small bird chirping on the top of a tree? Or a human baby again? Would she remember any of her previous life as a woman and mother, who in her childhood went to the same school as I?
The dead are multiplying around me. That is what it means to age. I finally realise it. Just because you happen to be living, that does not mean you are staving off death. The older generations die, people of my age die, and sometimes even children die.
“At first I had no idea what was going on. The funeral was over, so were all the logistical procedures. As I began organising the things he had left behind, my mind became dim, no longer sure who he was, the person I thought I knew.”
This spring I received a letter from a young woman I know. About three months after her husband died in an accident, I sent her perfume with the hope it could bring her a little bit of comfort. The letter I received was a thank you note for the gift. When she was a student, she used to babysit my child. Eight years have passed since my child left this world unexpectedly. For both my child and her newlywed husband, death occurred in the midst of cold winter.
“I have become increasingly unsure as to who he was, not that he has become a distant person. On the contrary, I’ve been feeling his presence inside me. It now makes sense to me that the timbre resounding inside my body for some time was actually him. So now I have no worries about losing him. But the contour that gave me the sense of who he was has suddenly become opaque, dissipating. His name. The span of his lifetime. The details of his body. None of these were mine. Neither were they his. While alive, these were in his tow. As his partner I shared in carrying these along with him. However, I was only with him for three years from age twenty-nine to thirty-two. Well, actually only a portion of those three years. I couldn’t dream his dream. I couldn’t see him walking to the station by himself, riding a train, and working. Nor could I see his memories from the time of his infancy lurking as tens of thousands of light particles in his body. These memories elude language. Although he tried to convey them to me, he could not quite grasp them himself. His life was larger than the image he had of himself by a hundred or more times. I wonder if his parents and older sister also feel this way. I wonder how you felt. Given my current situation I am hoping it isn’t rude of me to ask. If I had a child, I may think otherwise. After all I am only hypothesising. I suppose I would still hold onto his fading contour while trying to live my life, registering his presence every moment. His essence is scattered in various places and times. This feeling is beginning to sink in.
“The other day I encountered him in an old Dutch painting as a white dog chasing ducks on farmland. He appeared like a small white dot in the corner of the painting. Since I saw the painting in a book, the colour is probably different from the original. I sensed him existing there. I was sure of it though I could not explain. Some may say it is just my imagination or sentimentality; regardless no one can alter my conviction. I now believe that if I want to find his essence, I can find it anywhere. This is difficult though, as I must remain fully alert at all times and my mind must always be clear so as to be open to all possibilities.
“I wonder how many more living forms I will find him in. I found him in a yellow enishida flower. I also found him in the silver light of a balloon tugged by a child I nearly collided with.
“He must be existing in countless forms. But with the passage of time, would I begin to lose the ability to find him? Before long, would I even forget to feel sorry about this loss? Maybe that is the way things are. But, for the time being, while I can, with utmost care, I want to find him living in various forms, existing with him outside the boundaries of time. I am thirty years old. But age no longer means anything to him…”
How should I reply to this letter? It seems to me this might be the kind of letter requiring no response. We often invited each other to movies and complained about work to each other without even thinking about our age difference. But when I started to think about how to respond to this letter, I became painfully aware of her youth. I was past thirty when I gave birth and lost my son ten years after that. At that point, I believed no other major change would befall me. Nor did I think I wanted it. Yet, how many changes have I experienced? My husband’s mother and father passed away one after the other. My husband was then transferred abroad. I learned a new language and became acclimated to the new place, getting to know more people. My office job had left me little room to grow but the new responsibility of procuring small ornaments was added to my duties. And here now, the town scenery has also changed. I continue to use the desk I bought for my son but the drawers are now filled with my stuff. Little by little, my son’s doodles on the surface are fading away. As the closet gets filled more with my clothes and shoes, the boxes containing his clothes and shoes keep getting pushed further to the back. In my dream, though, I am still doing things like scolding him, taking his temperature, and washing his body.
What can I say to this woman who is twenty years my junior, having lost her husband in her thirties? Shall I write something such as: “You shouldn’t think too far ahead. Rest assured time goes by. Please live each day to the fullest for your own sake. You will die some day for sure. That alone is certain. So until then relax and enjoy living in this beautiful world.”
To be honest, instead of writing such a sensible letter, I am actually bursting with the desire to scream, “Yes! You are right. It’s exactly that!” I can almost hear the sound of my impassioned voice echoing in my ear.
Truly, it is just as you say! I too have been finding my son in various forms. One time, he was a fish in a storefront display gazing up at me with a faint smile. On a beach in a foreign country he chased after me as a butterfly. He also once surprised me by causing strange coloured cosmos to bloom abundantly in the yard. He has also been reborn as a gecko numerous times. As early as in the summer of the year he died, he returned to his own room. With his tiny body, he climbed all the way up to the eighth floor of the condominium. After some time, when we moved, he came to check out the new place. Attaching himself to the centre of the glass living room door, he gazed at us with his black, round, bead-like eyes. My small grey boy, not even three centimetres long. Having just been hatched and with no awareness of his movement, he went straight to the glass door. He was just a baby, still unable to walk well. There was also a time he waited for our return while sticking to the front door. Another time he was a small green bug hiding on the back of a leaf. Really, just like your husband, he is scattered in various places and times. That’s why I must always be attentive. When I go deep into the mountains, I find him playing in the splash of the stream, my boy who keeps being reborn. This then makes me wonder what he was before being reborn as my child. Perhaps he was a fish or an insect? Or maybe a big tree growing on a plain somewhere….?
If someone asks me whether I really believe in reincarnation, I would reply dismissively, “of course not.”
Knowing fully that each life is a singular unrepeatable phenomenon, I fear my own death and stay clinging to my son. Faced with the irreparable loss brought about by my child’s passing, I’m helplessly stunned. Even the emotion of grieving is absorbed into the void of loss. Yet if there are reasons for us to keep on living, we would have to avert our eyes slightly from this territory of loss where no sound can be heard, nor light be seen. I’m sure this is what countless people who have experienced such loss have done instinctively in order to go on.
I have heard that people continue to believe in stories of reincarnation everywhere, in Japan, in China, in Africa, in the Pacific islands, whether openly or in private. Not that they are convinced these stories are logical, but something instinctual brings people to the actuality of reincarnation. I suppose many other people experience it as we do. At any rate, I think people tell stories of reincarnation not because they wish them to be true, but out of a sense of responsibility. For there is no other way to accept both this world and the vast world beyond. It now seems that way to me. Although I still have my doubts, somewhere inside me, beyond the reach of my consciousness, I believe in reincarnation.
What should I write to her in the letter?
My mind is drawn back to the memory of wildfire.
Having grown up in a city, I naturally have no experience of wildfire. Perhaps it is nothing more than an illusion, and if somebody were to tell me that, I couldn’t deny it. However, I keep it to myself because I dread having such an exchange. When the memory of wildfire came back to me, I stayed silent although an acquaintance was standing beside me. After all, what could I have said? The memory of wildfire remains clinging to me after seeing the fire trucks on the highway.
It was eight years ago when my child died. It was six years ago when I recalled wildfire. Is there any significance to these numbers? I don’t want to think that far, nor do I have the strength to do so.
….I keep running, chased by wildfire. Sound of burning trees. Heat of blowing flame. Swirling white smoke. Cries of birds.
I keep running, shedding tears and shaking. However far I run, the flame continues to close in around my body. The smell of my body burning. I continue running. All alone, tears streaming.
Yes, I died in the wildfire.
Article copyright Yukiko Shigeto.