A classic tale well known in Japan, with the exact nature of the relationship between the boy and his father being a major point of discussion.
By Watanabe On
Translated by Hamish Smith
When I opened my eyes that morning I could see my father standing at the basin by the foot of my pillow, shaving his beard for the first time in quite a while. A breeze blew in through the window and made the curtain sway against the crisp morning sun, which cast green-blue shadows over my father’s face. Small birds were chirping outside.
“Dad, it’s such a nice day,” I said to my father.
“Beautiful weather! Now hurry up and get out of bed. I’m taking you to have a look at the harbor today,” he said as he carefully shaved off the final patch of stubble.
“You mean it? Great!” I said, ever so happy. “But Dad, why are you shaving?”
“I’ll look like your dad if I have a beard. Don’t you think so?” said my father as he looked over at me and poked out his thin tongue.
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, if I have a shave then I’ll look a little less like a father…I’m planning on taking you to the harbor today and leaving you there. Pretty good idea, huh?” My father laughed as he spoke.
“You lie!” I said as I got myself up and out of bed.
My father hurried to change me into some brand new flannel clothes. He then put on a fresh, tailor-made, sweet-smelling straw hat, of which I had never seen before, along with a red neck tie. Then we left the house. All the people in the houses under the violet and rose-red summer morning sky were most likely still sleeping. My father waved a long walking stick around as we made our way down the abandoned main street towards the railway station.
“I hope we don’t run into anyone,” my father said to himself.
“Why?” I asked. My father didn’t answer; he just continued talking to himself.
“Oh, this kid is the worst. A father and son only ten years apart! Boy-oh-boy, have I had enough of this.”
“Why?” I asked again, peeking at his face. My father said nothing, he just laughed, almost as if he couldn’t hear my voice. I began to get upset. I tried to get closer to my father, but he coldly pushed me away. He then told me off in an oddly gentle manner.
“Come on now. People might think we’re brothers if you get too close, and we can’t have that.”
I screwed up my face with malice and glared at my father’s smooth, clean-shaven face and red neck tie.
We boarded the steam engine as it arrived. My father turned and looked out over the edge of the town as we passed it by, all the while whistling ‘A Young Man’s Fancy’. I felt like he had gotten even colder towards me.
“So, are we going to see a ship?” I asked with an anxious heart.
“Yep, might even ride on one…” My father pulled a dashing purple handkerchief from his breast pocket and used it to wipe a pair of tortoise-shell glasses before putting them on. The eyes behind the lenses betrayed no sense of guilt. The smell of Coty cologne wafted from the handkerchief and was so strong that it made me choke.
“There’s nothing glamorous about going to take a look at a harbor,” said my father.
“Dad, why are you wearing those glasses?” I asked as I looked up, confused at his unbecoming appearance. At that my father got very angry.
“Dad? You’re an idiot, kid. What makes you think I’m your dad? You call me Dad again and I’ll give you what for!”
“…” It was then that I suddenly felt like this man, with this sour expression, was really not my father. I kept thinking that maybe I really had mistook this man for my father when I opened my eyes that morning. Me and him–how much of a connection did I really have to this mystery of a man I called Dad–he certainly was only about ten years older than me–and anyone could see that there was something not right about that. I slowly began to feel sick. The only person I really knew was myself. Confusion swept over me.
“Don’t give me that look. If you start crying I’m going to leave you on the train!” said my father, bluntly, but then instantly tried to warm up to me.
“Just kidding. You didn’t really think I would do something like that, did you? Honestly. I’m really happy that you’re able to see me off,” my father said with a laugh. I started to regret having left the house that day. There was nothing I could do but look out the window over the clear country landscape as it blurred into soft tears.
We arrived at the harbor station. My father called out to a station attendant who wheeled over two red leather suitcases. I got into a car with one of the suitcases and was driven towards the wharf, all the while wondering when exactly my father had brought these two suit cases along. I looked at the name plate on the suitcase only to see that it was blank. Occasionally my father would grip the rim of his hat and look back out of the window of the car in front and, for some reason, laughed through his tortoise-shell rimmed glasses while his red neck tie fluttered in the wind. And that’s when, oh, that horrible, cunning, unfeeling face! I felt misery build up in my chest and I had to look away.
The SS. Sakusonia will be departing at seven am was written on the message board at the gate to the harbor. My father made his way to the SS. Sakusonia with both bags in tow. I stood on the wharf and looked out at the black, rusted iron hull of the ship. Before long a gong echoed from within, and a steam whistle sounded from the fat chimney.
“Thanks for everything! Look after yourself!” my father call out to me, smiling, from the deck of the ship.
“You too!” I yelled back as I looked up towards the deck.
The ship left the dock. My father raised his new hat high in the air and used it to wave goodbye. I waved my cloth cap back as hard as I could.
I sat myself down on the huge bricks of the wharf and lost myself for the better half of a day in the ocean breeze. Finally a customs officer in a blue uniform with a blue button put his hand on my shoulder.
“What’s the matter? Don’t tell me you’re planning to throw yourself into the water?” he asked. I suddenly found myself in sorrow and began to sob.
“Hey now, hey now, we can’t have that. Crying won’t help. Tell me what happened.”
“I’ve…lost my…father!” I finally replied. And then I told him how my father had fooled me.
“What does your father look like?” asked the customs officer.
“I’m trying to picture him. Yeah, he looks a lot like you. He had no beard, a clean face. Honestly, he looks just like you!” I cried. The customs officer look flustered as he ran both his hands over his fleshly shaven face.
My father. No beard. Straw hat. Tortoise shell glasses (which he wore sometimes). A red necktie. A right gentleman. The kind customs officer wrote down a personal description and put in an inquiry with the next port of call for the SS Sakusonia. However, the fact was that although details like red neckties are good clues, there was nothing in the description that would let you pick him out from a crowd.
And that’s how, that morning, I was abandoned by my father. From then on I would be all alone, and would have to go on living a life completely unbearable. But even so, and as difficult as it would be to recognize him, I must always keep his face in my mind, with and without the beard.
English translation © 2016 Hamish Smith. All rights reserved.