Letter in a Cement-Barrel セメント樽の中の手紙

A story of a hard working man, his six kids, his pregnant wife and letter in a cement barrel. Story submitted by new translator Tony Perrin.

Letter in a Cement-Barrel

By Hayama Yoshiki
Translated by Tony Perrin

Matsudo Yozō was shoveling concrete into the mixer. It wasn’t as apparent elsewhere, but his hair and upper lip were plastered gray with cement dust. He thrust a finger into his nostrils, wanting to clear them of the concrete that turned his nose hairs to rebar, with the mixer constantly spewing out concrete, he didn’t have a lot of time to spend on his nose.

Matsudo worried over his nostrils for eleven long hours (during his shift he had a lunch break and another at three o’clock, but at lunch he had been preoccupied with filling his stomach and he was too busy cleaning the mixer to break at three to reach for his nose). His nose had gone uncleaned for all that time. It must have hardened to a plaster cast.

At the end of the day, something tumbled out of a cement barrel he was moving with his tired hands–a small wooden box.

“What was that?” Matsudo wondered for a moment, but he had work to do. With his shovel, he filled the container to the brim. Then he emptied that container into the mixer and got right back to work on the barrel.

“Now what’s a box like this doing in a barrel of cement?” Matsudo picked up the box and shoved it into his pouch. It didn’t weigh much. “Ain’t likely to be no money in it then.” He opened the next barrel. Matsudo didn’t have time to think; he had to fill the next container.

At last the concrete mixer began to spin empty. That meant they were done for the day.

Matsudo took the rubber water hose attached to the mixer and washed first his face and hands. He suspended his lunchbox from his neck and, on his way home, he took into serious consideration getting a bite to eat or drink. The power plant looked like it was almost done. Snow-capped Mount Ena, to the southeast, shone brightly in the darkness. Matsudo’s sweat-soaked body was soon chilled to the bone. The waters of the Kiso River frothed and growled beneath his feet.

“Christ, I can’t have the old lady popping out another damn kid…” Matsudo was totally despondent as he thought of his brood of swarming offspring (the next one of whom would likely be born into this cold), and of the wife who kept pumping them out.

“Two meals a day, rent, clothes… I can’t even get a goddamn drink without breaking the budget!”

He suddenly recalled the small box in his pouch. He wiped the box on the seat of his pants to remove the cement dust.
There was nothing written on the box, but it was shut tight.

“That’s a good sign. They don’t want it opened.”

Matsudo whacked the box against a rock. It refused to open. At last, as if he were lashing out in desperation at the state of the world, Matsudo brought his foot down on the box.

From the box Matsudo retrieved a battered-looking scrap of paper wrapped in tattered clothing. The following was written on it:

I am a woman who sews cement bags at N— Cement Works. My lover worked the crusher. And on the morning of October 7th, when he was feeding a large boulder into the machine, he was caught inside.

His fellow workers tried to save him, but he was swept beneath the rocks. The boulder and his body were all pulverized and run out on the conveyor belt. The stones were red. The belt fed into the grinder. There the material was mixed with small metal pellets and, with a wrenching scream, ground down to a fine grade. And finally that was heated until it became cement.

His bones, his flesh, his soul; they were all ground down. He has become cement. All that remains of him are some scraps of his uniform. I sewed the very bag that contains him.

My love has become cement. The next day, I slipped the box containing this letter into the barrel.

Are you a laborer? If you are, please take pity on me and respond.

Please tell me what this barrel of cement will be used for.

My love is contained within this barrel of cement. By whom will he be used? Are you a plaster? An architect?

I could not bear it if my love were to become a hallway in a theatre, or the fence for a large estate. We can prevent this, can we not?!

If you are a laborer, please do not use this cement for a project like that.

I apologize. It doesn’t matter where my love is entombed. Use him as you will. He is a man of integrity and so he will be put to good use!

He is a kind and gentle upstanding citizen. He was still young; he had just turned twenty-six. I do not know to what degree he loved me back. But I have sewn a burlap sack for him instead of a burial shroud! Instead of a coffin, he was put in a kiln!

Somehow I will pay my respects. No matter where or how far away he is entombed.

If you are a laborer, please write me in reply. In return I give you the remains of his uniform. These are the scraps in the box that the letter was wrapped in. These scraps hold rock dust and his sweat. I have held onto them so tightly.

I’m sorry for the trouble, but I beg of you to tell me the date you used this cement barrel, the exact address, and for what purpose, as well as your name. And please be careful yourself. Farewell.

Matsudo was aware of the children clamoring around him.

As he looked at the address and name on the letter, he took a big gulp of liquor. “It’s been too long since I’ve gotten good and hammered!” he slurred. “We should take a shot at bringing this whole thing down!”

“Are we going to have to deal with your drunken violence?” asked his wife. “What about the children?”

Matsudo looked at his wife’s belly, swollen with his seventh child.

(January 1926)

English translation © 2016 Tony Perrin. All rights reserved.

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