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Not Even the Gods

ISSUE:  Summer 1944

A t the foot of the steep cobbled street Senkichi dis-mounted from his bicycle. With quick, accustomed fingers he made sure that his cargo of fruit and vegetables was firmly lashed to the trailer behind before he attempted the hill, as the wind, instead of dying with the sunset, had gathered strength and was tugging officiously at the tarpaulin which protected his perishable load.

Already the short December day was waning, and from the edges of the bay shadows were creeping shoreward, drawing a tenuous violet haze about the two ancient fortresses which stood between Tokyo and the open sea. Out there, the wind had piled up a bank of blue and purple clouds that cast a squadron of wheeling shadows on the restless waters below, and, swinging strongly in and out among the ships at anchor, it smacked the sail of a sampan so viciously that the fisherman counting his day’s haul stopped suddenly to snatch at a line.

A scouring pain in his belly reminded Senkichi of the morning rice he had neglected to eat in his impatience to stand first in line when the doors of a certain warehouse opened at daybreak. Within its weather-worn, forsaken shell, behind blank windows and barred doors, one of Tokyo’s black markets flourished unobtrusively with the tacit consent of the police. Once inside, the rivalry was fierce, and Senkichi knew he must contend with the most enterprising shopkeepers in Tokyo. Armed with shabby, well-stuffed purses, they crowded around the food stalls, snatching, shouting, quarreling, and bargaining, while their hundred-yen notes slipped like silk through the vendors’ fingers. Spectacled clerks chanted a litany of staggering prices for good cuts of Kobe beef, fresh Hokkaido salmon, melons and pineapples from Formosa, and more homely vegetables which law-abiding hucksters had not displayed for better than two years.

Leaning on his bicycle like some tired and dusty ghost, Senkichi in thought turned back upon his years of grinding toil. Apprenticed to a hard-fisted master at an age when other boys were starting primary school, he had battled with the traffic, half-blinded by icy winter rains; sweated under blazing summer suns while sleep rode with him in the saddle, dragging at his eyelids, determined to fling him in the dust. Only his devouring ambition to learn what he could from others and then surpass them, to own a finer shop one day himself, had kept him pedaling about town from dawn till dark with a heavily loaded trailer behind him. A time would come, he had assured himself with gritted teeth, when these valuable green things would belong to him, and he would ride back to a shop that showed his name in fine gold letters. With constant repetition, the idea had become a magic formula which sent new currents of life and ambition through his cramped limbs and seemed to unroll the cobbled streets with greater speed behind his tires.

Well, this was the night he had looked forward to—a bright, distant beacon in his kozo days. But it had proved no different from the others, his vegetables no lighter than his master’s, and the words of a soothsayer he had consulted returned to settle like cold ashes on his tired spirit. “The seventh day of the twelfth month in 1941 will be unlucky for anyone starting a business venture,” the sage had warned him, and striking a small gong, he deftly withdrew the divining wands from Senkichi’s nerveless grasp. With his shop decorated and stocked for its gala opening, Senkichi had determined to risk the gods’ displeasure after taking the precaution to double his offering to Bimbogami, the ugly God of Poverty.

“It cannot be helped now,” he sighed as he took out two leather straps and fastened both ends to the trailer. Slipping the loop around his shoulders, he grasped the handle bars of his bicycle, threw his full weight against the harness and strained forward with his load. “Dok-koi-slio” he whispered tensely to time his steps, as back and forth across the steep gradient of the hill, across and back again, he thrust slowly but steadily ahead.

“Dok-koi-sho” He had reached the police box, and seeing the figure of the law outlined against the light, Senkichi snatched off his threadbare cap and bowed, glad to loosen the straps which cut his shoulders cruelly. It was the same officer who had accepted his five hundred yen that morning, a “patriotic gift” which allowed its donor access to any black market in the precinct. Now the policeman gazed stonily above Senkichi’s head, but as he swung into motion once again, he heard the officer call out to someone inside: “This one was here this morning with his money. The army refused him because of his small size and puny strength, yet he has covered the distance to Tsukiji many times since daybreak, bringing on each trip a load that would strain a good horse.”

At those words, all that remained in Senkichi of dogged purpose suddenly fused for the final effort. His breath, escaping in choking snorts, ran a half-measure and halted as though impeded by his thundering heart. “Dok-koi-sho” He had reached the brow of the hill at last. “Dok-koi-sho.” The painful beat brought him to the level and within sight of his own shop. Pale light shining through double doors of frosted glass blotted out the surroundings, the narrow street and dingy houses, and like a lode-star, once more it drew Senkichi forward.

In the doorway, he stopped and closed his eyes a moment to draw deep into his lungs the pungent sweetness of ripe apples, the musty earthiness of potatoes, before he let the shop spring into being before him, bravely arrayed for the gala opening he had planned through lean years of toil.

In each of the four corners stood a cherry tree prodigally sacrificed to the occasion, and silk blossoms, fastened to the branches by patient, skillful fingers, covered the little shop with a canopy of pink blooms. Unaccustomed tears burned Senkichi’s eyelids, blurring the neat rows of fruit and vegetables into one glowing pool of color. “Everything is of the best,” he began huskily, then started as he caught sight of a grotesque figure squatting in the corner like a tattered idol.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded, his scornful glance raking the old fish vendor from his triple crown of ancient felt hats to the yoked fish baskets lying, like a votive offering, at his feet. The Korean was unaware of any hostile scrutiny and bowed politely to his unwilling host.

“Welcome return, Senkichi-san. I am greatly in the way, but you told me there was work here for which you’d pay cash money.”

“I want some English words written on my doors,” Senkichi replied. “Rut first help me with the trailer. If my green things are not unloaded soon, much good money may be lost.”

Shambling to the door, the fish vendor exclaimed in amazement at the unaccustomed sight of so much food. “Oya, oya, Senkichi-san. Where did this come from?”

“Never mind that,” Senkichi growled. “All anyone needs to know is the price.”

“Such green things have not been seen for better than two years,” the old man went on, picking up a sack of carrots. “Why, the line of housewives outside your shop tomorrow will reach clear to the Ginza.”

“Not if I know it. I’ll have no shabby women straggling in for five sen worth of daikon, to bargain for one carrot.”

“Then who will buy your green things?” the old man wanted to know. “With the war in China ruining all small business and taxes higher every month, who now has money for good food?” “Foreigners.” Senkichi swept a wide circle seaward with a bunch of celeiy. “Those living in the embassies and legations who give great feasts to each other every week. The English, who select the best but bargain for it; Russians too—great eaters—well satisfied with coarse food if there is plenty; but above all the Americans, who are as rich as they are crazy, paying any price for whatever they desire. A shop could prosper on their custom only.”

“They are very rich,” the Korean agreed, “and indeed they must be crazy to spend in such a fashion. Stupidly, I gave no thought to foreign patrons, though my own small business would soon vanish if I sold only to thrifty Japanese.”

No business but his own held any interest for Senkichi and he broke in impatiently: “Have you any shellfish left? I must eat. I can’t remember when my belly last held food.”

“Only a few, Senkichi-san.” The old man explored his fish baskets. “With food so scarce now, my shijimi are very quickly sold.” He scraped together a mere handful of small clams while Senkichi unbound a bundle of twigs, lighted them frugally and laid a few sticks of charcoal across the flame, fanning steadily until the charcoal began to redden.

“A fine young man like yourself should have a wife to do that for him,” the Korean said, handing Senkichi the shell-fish on a strip of bamboo fibre.

“A wife would double my expenses. Not for me.” Senkichi snorted. “But yourself, Old One, have you no woman to cook for you, no one to mend your clothes?”

“Without a dwelling I could hardly keep a wife. I eat when food is given me; I sleep where the desire overtakes me; and these fine hats I always wear, as my head is the only place I have to keep them.” Removing his layers of forlorn headgear, the old man dusted each hat in turn with work-stained fingers.

“Eh naruhodo. It’s just as well. You would be a sore trial to any prideful woman.” Then, as if the Korean’s words had roused some latent dread of solitude, he added ungraciously; “As you are here, you can share evening rice with me and a bowl of hot tea as well.”

A thin jet of steam was rising from the kettle and the old man shuffled forward eagerly with murmured thanks. Senkichi poured water over a few tea leaves and, taking the larger share for himself, he supped it slowly, holding the shallow cup in both hands.

“Have you always been so poor, Old One? As a young man you must have wanted to improve yourself.” Senkichi’s query held a world of condescension.

“I do not remember.” The old man looked bewildered and distressed. “Everything before my accident is lost to me. Yet over the vanishing rim of memory I sense a very different world from this in which I move, and a position that required a knowledge of the classics, which somehow I have retained.”

“Of what use then were riches which you can’t even remember?”

“Every misfortune has its compensation, Senkichi-san. Although I cannot look back on childhood days nor at the good years of youth, my old age is a happier one than you and many another can look forward to, as I am spared the sight of those wastelands of regret that lie behind you all.”

While the old man philosophized, Senkichi hastily scraped the last grains of rice into his own bowl and swallowed them with difficulty against a cavernous yawn.

“Old One, I must have sleep, so your work will wait. Stay the night here and get an early start. It will be better so. Not being skilled with English writing, you’ll need the bright morning light to do your best.” Having disposed of his astonished guest, Senkichi rose and dragged himself into the little room behind his shop, flung himself upon the matted floor, and with a long, grunting sigh, fell instantly asleep.

Dawn was emerging when he awoke, and from a neighboring shrine came the measured throbbing of a drum. Long, wan fingers of light slid through the cracked wooden shutters, tapping him on the eyelids with chilly playfulness, prodding him to action. In the semi-gloom Senkichi could just discern the fish vendor, curled up like a hedgehog in his fluttering rags, and Senkichi kicked him sharply.

“Get up and get to work, old man,” he shouted, “before my fine customers arrive. The sight of an old scarecrow like yourself might keep them all away.”

From under a loose board in the floor Senkichi produced a small can of paint and a writing brush and thrust them at the Korean. “I want to say in English that I have fine fruit and vegetables which cannot be found elsewhere,” he ordered as the raggle-taggle artist pushed the glass doors wide and sucked his brush professionally.

“This is a fine spread of glass, Senkichi-san, worthy of my best Chinese characters rather than uncouth English letters.” He spoke persuasively, as though his best flights were being thwarted by his illiterate patron, and Senkichi bounded forward in alarm.

“Of what use are Chinese characters in attracting foreign customers?” he demanded. “It is their trade I seek. There is no profit in the Japanese.”

“True enough,” the Korean agreed, “and the illustrious Li Po warns us, ‘When the hunter sets traps only for rabbits, tigers and lions are left uncaught.’ “

“Write my name first,” Senkichi directed, “and then the date. When I own a tall, white shop like Mitsukoshi’s, carved on a marble cornerstone will be the date I started business. The seventh of the last month in 1941, so Tokyo cannot forget,” he boasted to cover an instant’s foreboding. “Below that, say English is spoken here.”

“Senkichi-san, is that wise?”

“Why not? It’s true I speak no tongue beside my own, but what matter if it brings foreign customers?”

The fish vendor still hesitated. “There is some talk of war between us and those English-speaking countries,” he began, but Senkichi broke in rudely.

“Baharashii—whtrt foolishness. Always there is talk of war. Two years past it was about Russia; last summer England; now comes America’s turn. Write what I tell you, old yowa-mushi”

The day was cloudless and early sunshine, sifting through the cherry blossoms, struck highlights from the glossy, purple eggplants whose sombre splendor made the neighboring persimmons seem garish by comparison. Senkichi’s eye moved proudly from a row of cabbages veined and frilled in Burgundy to the creamy daikon, each with its chaplet of green leaves. A squad of soldiers passed, singing to time their steady tread, and his spirits, taking wing, soared to impossible heights as though his own fierce exultation had found voice in the savage triumph of the battle song.

Kicking aside the Korean’s fish baskets, he brought out two wooden easels, set them on the sidewalk and hung a gaudy wreath of paper flowers on each. Meanwhile, he planned sharp retorts for any neighbor who might stroll out in wadded bed kimono and try his scant patience with idle questions.

But no one appeared, and although the sun was high by now, a strange silence had replaced the usual clamor of an awakening street—the tense hush that precedes an earthquake or some other unavoidable disaster. Nettled by this unwonted lack of interest in his affairs, Senkichi sent an oblique glance or two into the wide open houses and saw, to his astonishment, entire families crouched before their radios, the morning rice untouched, listening with sober faces to a persistent, clanging voice which alone broke up the silence.

“Wait till they hear the band,” Senkichi grumbled, setting down three plush-covered stools for the musicians he had engaged to come in costumes representing Charie Chapurin and play gay, strident tunes on their battered trombones. Then, if that failed to fetch them out, the busiest housewife could not resist the sight of fine embassy cars drawn up before his shop, and soon the neighborhood would know that a new greengrocer was prepared to serve those with cash enough to pay his prices.

“Now, Old One,” he said briskly. “It is still too early for my wealthy customers, so I can leave you here while I go to the embassy kitchens and take orders for the day.”

“Already you command their custom?”

“Of course. Each cook-san there received a cumsha of two hundred yen to insure his master’s trade. Everything is provided for. The God of Poverty received his cumsha too, so nothing stands between me and a rich, respected old age. Not even the gods!” he added recklessly.

“None but a fool defies the gods aloud,” the old man murmured, completing the date with an unsteady “forty-one,” but Senkichi laughed as he swung his bicycle out with a flourish and vaulted nimbly into the saddle.

Eager to receive his first orders as a shop owner, Senkichi pedaled briskly along the broad thoroughfares. They seemed more in keeping with his new-found dignity, as in his kozo days he had cut through the back streets and narrow lanes to avoid the heavy traffic. This morning, it irked him to find the streets practically deserted except for the usual files of soldiers marching everywhere and nowhere in their mustard-colored uniforms. A begging priest moved from door to door, ringing his handbell to solicit alms, and only an occasional taxi chugged into view, poisoning the keen, sparkling air with fumes from the charcoal stove installed under its rear seat. Senkichi counted with smug satisfaction the increasing number of small shops still showing blank, shuttered faces to the sunlight. Their owners were away, fighting in China, he supposed, and others, lacking his own wit and foresight, were sitting idle behind closed lattices with nothing more to sell.

Some excitement was afoot at the American Embassy, for a crowd had gathered at a discreet distance outside the main gate. Police swarmed about, armed with pistols as well as short, tin swords, and a cordon of soldiers, rifles in hand, stood at frequent intervals around the compound wall. Using his bicycle as a battering ram, Senkichi forced a passage through the onlookers to the service gate. He was halted in his tracks by the police.

“Get back!” an officer shouted, “What business have you here?”

“Business with the honored cooks,” Senkichi replied in the meek voice he reserved for uniformed authority, and bowed deeply, cap in hand. “I’m taking orders for my vegetable shop. I have the American Embassy trade.”

“That’s just too bad,” a sentry mocked, “because Americans aren’t trading in Japan today. There is a war.”

“I know it well.” Senkichi mustered a thin smile for what he supposed was soldier humor. “We have had nothing else but war these last four years.”

“Bakayaro! Where have you been? There is war with Americans, they’re giving no orders. They are prisoners.”

Small, icy ripples of alarm, beginning in the pit of his stomach, spread through Senkichi and realization burst upon him with shocking violence.

“My money!” He screamed like a demented animal. “My cumsha to their cooks. Honored officer, august soldier, let me in only long enough to collect it. I am a poor man, a greengrocer just starting business—”

The policeman scowled, rattling his sword suggestively. “This is no time to talk of cumsha or of business. This is war.”

“Yes, it is war,” the soldier echoed. “Be off now, and take your orders from the German Embassy. Do your trading with our friends.”

“Germans!” Too desperate to heed the consequences, Senkichi spat contemptuously in the dust. “Who wants the German trade? Great swine, who order everything and pay for none of it.”

“Shut up, you fool.” The policeman slapped Senkichi a resounding blow. “Do you want to be locked up like the Americans?” “Get out, now.” The soldier thrust his bayonet against Senkichi’s midriff. “Another word and I’ll let sunshine into your belly as I do with the Chinese.”

Dazed by the blow and the full impact of his misfortune, Senkichi emerged from the whirling darkness before his eyes to find himself in motion. Feeling his way with care, he automatically retraced his steps, conscious only of a vast, enveloping despair.

The soldier dropped his rifle with a thud and laughed again, showing gold-filled teeth. “That one will be in the army almost before he reaches his vegetable shop,” he said.

“Not he,” the policeman retorted, settling his chinstrap more comfortably. “One foot hardly follows on another. The war will be over before such old ones are called out.”


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