by Tom Bradley
It was a regular Tower of Babel in the crypt chapel. A single language, English, echoed among the jelly doughnuts and seaweed sembei, but it was an English thick with Portuguese, Indonesian, Belgian, Uruguayan, Belarussian, Kenyan, Manchurian and Michigan accents, just to name a few. The parishioners were passing a bundle around. "Ms. Edwine's latest acquisition" is what they had decided to call it.
In the bundle, her sparse black hair still damp from the baptismal font, a beautiful two-month-old was sucking up the attention. She already seemed to recognize her new mother: when Polly Edwine's turn came around to hold her, a certain extra light radiated from under her double eyelids--or did they have single eyelids? Polly could never get that straight.
Then a strange Japanese man appeared. There was a lull in the chaos as everybody eyed him. Natives were not exactly welcomed here. This was as much a once-a-week Japan-bashing session as it was a chance to "fellowship" with Christ.
Someone murmured, "What's this? More Yakuza coming to impose on us?" But it seemed unlikely: nobody had heard the grind of another black windowed van pulling up in the gravel outside. And if this new intruder was a purveyor of human flesh, his winding among the pews lacked the requisite un-Japanese swagger.
He was bent forward at the waist and slightly trembling. When forced to cross anybody's line of sight -- not just the mobsters', but even the women's and children's -- he bowed even more deeply, held out his hand, and limply karate-chopped the air. It was a gesture of intense, but not necessarily sincere humility, which seemed to say, "Forgive me. I know the light particles bouncing off whatever you're glancing at are infinitely more significant than my miserable person. But contingencies have made it necessary for me to interrupt their flow into your eyeballs for the briefest of instants. Here, let me use the palm of my hand to effect the breach in the gentlest manner. Then I will slip the rest of myself through as unobtrusively as possible."
"Pretty lame genuflection," whispered somebody's adolescent child, in Hiroshima on vacation.
He seemed to be making a beeline for Polly's pew; and it wasn't until he was about three feet away that his eyes became recognizable through the incense smoke and crypt-gloom. (The rest of his face was covered by one of those surgeon's masks affected by urban Orientals with colds or halitosis, real or imagined.) Since her husband's much-bruited "illness," this little man had been following Polly around. She had noticed him most recently loitering outside the prefectural child guidance office after her latest screaming bout with senile adoption officials.
"Mr. Fukuoka has come for his baptismal instruction, and he's a bit early, I should think," said Father Gaudi to nobody in particular, with an uncharacteristic lack of warmth. Oddly, the priest seemed to be maintaining several outstretched arms' length between himself and his masked catechumen.
The festivities resumed. It was a good thing, too, for the new Edwine had been starting to fuss in all the inactivity.
"Pardon me for interfering in your religious worship, Madame," Mr. Fukuoka choked out, "but you left an important thing at the family court yesterday, and--"
There was a gleeful outburst near the sedilia. Apparently the baby had said a word or punched somebody in the face.
Polly's new self-appointed man Friday seemed both agitated and relieved at the interruption. Whatever he had to deliver was making him twitch and flush in embarrassment. His whole body was knotted like a little fist. Then somebody passed the gurgling bundle into his arms.
He said, into her face, "A fine Hiroshima maiden, ne?"
Of all the many pairs of arms she'd visited this morning, Mr. Fukuoka's seemed to fit her best. She was one of his own, after all. But there was something anomalous about his reaction. His words were tender, yet his voice was cold. He bounced the child up and down in the universal manner, but he almost seemed to be hefting her, appraising her like a bag of goods.
Then, from under the jelly-smeared receiving blanket, his wristwatch made one of those tiny blips that can somehow penetrate every corner of a room, even one crowded with rowdy, milk-fed occidentals.
"I admire your charity, Madame," he said as he passed the baby on to her next fan. "But it's so different from the Japanese way. It's maybe the strangest of all the things you gaigokujin do." He glanced at the Nigerian acolyte's shiny white surplice. Under their lids, Mr. Fukuoka's eyes yearned for some kind of enlightenment. "What I'm wondering is, do you intend to keep her forever?"
Polly's whole body lurched forward in her desire to say everything that should be said about high-priced in vitro quackery and seven-year waiting lists in the U. S., about staving off the despair of encroaching middle age with participation in a brand-new, entirely separate life, about love and floating affection and twelve thousand other things. But the only words her mouth could spout were, "Thomas Jefferson, Jesus Christ--"
Mr. Fukuoka sighed and nodded his head, visibly disappointed. He'd obviously anticipated a Brotherhood-of-Man speech, but had been hoping for something more concrete, or at least more exotic.
"Well," he said, "at least she'll never be able to curse you for bringing her into the world."
Someone from Michigan, an automotive industry man, bellowed, "Hey, Polly! Can I give your new brat a couple slugs of this Suntory Dry? I hear it's great for the kidneys. They'll bring you top price in the States."
This oaf's wife lost no time punching him in his own kidneys. But Mr. Fukuoka was so intent on emptying his face of any reaction that he didn't see. He gazed down at the flowered baptismal candle tucked under Polly's thigh on the pew, next to the baby's snoring older sister. Of course, he immediately divined its function. No matter how "internationalized" they got, no matter how worldly or wealthy, the Japanese would never lose their facility with the irrational, their intuitive grasp of ritual mystery.
"You'll burn this at her funeral, Edwine-san?"
"And at her first communion. Her wedding also, if she wants."
"But not at her divorces or abortions," guffawed the beery Michigan man, who'd sidled near and was eavesdropping. This time his wife silenced him with a firm downward pressure on the shoulders. He plopped next to Polly with a look of mock contrition on his face.
"Don't pay any attention to him," said Polly, but Mr. Fukuoka didn't hear her. He was holding the new white candle in his hands and murmuring to himself, "A beautiful custom, a strong sense of continuity. One would never have expected this among such--"
He seemed finally able to discharge his errand. He handed over a tiny wooden box with a tortoise and crane engraved on its lid, a slip of hospital data pasted to the back. Then he exited, only about half as apologetically as he'd entered.
Inside the box was something wrapped in pinkish glassine, buried in minuscule white crystals. It looked like an unshelled snail, blackened and stretched to an unlikely length, then coiled around itself several times.
It made the same rounds as the bundle, mystifying everybody. Not until it reached the mutilated hands of one of the indigenous Yakuza was an explanation forthcoming. Someone simultaneously interpreted the sandpapery, emotionless voice from the rear of the crypt.
"It's her umbilical cord, preserved in salt. You save it and cremate it with her, so she can be reassembled in the spirit world. All true Japanese are put to rest in this way--"
"You know how tidy the nips are," blurted the automotive man, before thinking better of it.
"-- because, even though our bosses are entitled to take away our fifth fingers, our life-lines are our own, forever."
Eventually the automotive man's more obvious jokes about pico-curies and cannibal Eucharist died down. Somebody found the little wooden box a place on the organ bench where it fit nicely, as though it had been there all morning, tucked among the missalettes.
Within fifteen minutes it and the baptismal candle, the baby's other combustible keepsake, had ceased to be objects of conversation.
"Keepsakes," set in Hiroshima where the author Tom Bradley lived for many years, is adapted from his Abiko Award-winning novel Kara-kun/Flip-kun.
When Tom Bradley was a little boy he was given a gazetteer for Christmas. As little boys will, he looked up all the places in the world that start with the F-word. There were two, Fukien in China and Fukuoka in Japan. Little did he suspect that he would one day be exiled to both.
Tom is a former lounge harpist. During his pre-exilic period, he played his own transcriptions of Bach and Debussy in a Salt Lake City synagogue that had been transformed into a pricey watering hole by a nephew of the Shah of Iran.
He holds a Ph.D. in English, and taught British and American literature to Chinese graduate students in the years leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre. He was politely invited to leave China after burning a batch of student essays about the democracy movement rather than surrendering them to "the leaders."
He wound up teaching conversational skills to freshman dentistry majors in the Japanese "imperial university" where they used to vivisect our bomber pilots and serve their livers raw at festive banquets. But his writing somehow sustains him.
To date, Tom has written five novels tracing the not-quite-career of a seedy member of the lumpen-intelligentsia named Sam Edwine. If he didn't think it might be offensive, Tom would call this corpus The Sam Edwine Pentateuch. The first novel in the series, Killing Bryce, examines the disintegration of the Edwines, a family of gigantic Jack-Mormons. In Acting Alone Sam tries to get hired as ghost-writer for a recently released hostage of Islamic fundamentalists. Black Class Cur finds Sam in China in the halcyon days just before the student democracy movement gave the Party the excuse it needed to slam a lid on everything. Kara-kun/Flip-kun can be read as a portrait of contemporary Hiroshima, where Sam brings the expatriate community face-to-face with the Japanese Mafia. The Curved Jewels shows the Crown Princess of Japan experiencing understandable second thoughts about being wed to the grandson of Hirohito, and fleeing the imperial palace with Sam's help.
Various of these novels have been nominated for The Editor's Book Award and The New York University Bobst Prize, and one was a finalist in The AWP Award Series in the Novel. Tom's short stories have been nominated for Pushcart Prizes. One or two were translated into Japanese, or so he's been told. His essays appear in Salon.com and Exquisite Corpse. The links are --
One of his Japan novels is strangely and wonderfully reviewed in the Corpse, and featured in Arts and Letters Daily --
His literary criticism is also featured in the current Arts and Letters Daily --
Other recent nonfiction of his can be found alongside the words of Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and Tom Wolfe, in LitKit Journal, the brainchild of George Myers, Jr., former director of the National Book Critics Circle. That link is --
By invitation, he has contributed an essay to Inking Through The Soul, an anthology of authors' reflections on their craft, to be published by Tarcher/Putnam in January 2001. Among his fellow magisterial contributors are Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath, John Steinbeck, Anais Nin, Octavio Paz, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Henry Miller.
The mighty Heresiarch, out of Belfast, will feature his nonfiction in their upcoming edition, and the next Blue Moon Review will post a recording of him reading an excerpt from his book-length memoir, Fission Among The Fanatics. This excerpt appears in Larry Sawyer's Milk Magazine --
Excerpts, blurbs and reviews of his books, links to his articles, plus recordings of him reading sample chapters, are posted at his website: literati.net/Bradley.
Tom Bradley can be reached at TBradley@literati.net