The Seven-Faced Bird
(c) 2012 William Cheshire
Jenny hears the microwave squeal from upstairs, burnt cheese perfume filling the kitchen below. This is the best she can do without an oven: a misshapen log of frozen lasagna in place of turkey proper. They call it shichimencho here–the seven-faced bird–but no one can tell her why.
She carries her dinner back up to the bedroom. Outside, children run screaming to the sea, rough warm wind yanking at their caps and sweatshirt hoods. It will go down to fifty-five degrees tonight, the coldest it’s been in months. Tomorrow her students will wear scarves and gloves to class and fall asleep, blaming the weather. Jenny draws her curtains closed and turns her AC to full blast.
A year ago, fueled by Merlot and first snowfall, she’d turned Thanksgiving into an unsolicited infomercial about Japan.
“They have technology and tradition,” she’d said, her pale cheeks rosy from the booze. “Fastest trains in the world, temples older than whole our goddamn country, robots that take care of the elderly, a ridiculous respect for nature and concepts we don’t even have words for: gimu, gaman, ganbaru. It’s embarrassing how lazy and greedy and simple we are in comparison.”
And weeks later, when Jenny found out she was headed for a filthy fishing village on the coast of Shikoku filled with toothless negi farmers and open sewers, the only one who didn’t laugh was her mother:
“It will be amazing because you’ll make it that way,” her mother had said. “I have faith in you.”
A draft creeps through her bedroom, rustling a stack of photocopied worksheets. She opens her laptop and begins watching Home Alone, a holiday tradition fifteen years running. By the time Buzz is pretending to barf up pizza, Jenny’s lasagna is a gastric memory. She hears a thump from the housing unit next door and what sounds like footsteps pounding down the stairs.
Jenny thumps back until her hand tingles. Can’t these idiots exercise outside? she thinks. Nine months of summer a year and they waste it inside. She turns the volume up so loud that the laptop speakers rattle in their shell.
In the corner of her screen, a notification pops up–an email from her mother. Jenny shrinks the movie window and reads the message:
“Happy Turkey Day my love – hope you’re well. There’s a big storm here, already a foot of snow! Jake is going crazy but your father doesn’t want to take him out until the weather clears. How did the potluck go?”
Jenny shuts the laptop and leans back against the wood-paneled wall with her eyes closed. She sighs. “You were a winter baby,” her mother had once told her. “You never cried in the cold, never needed an extra blanket. That’s how I knew you were my child.”
A car drives off the gravel lot out front and the low drone heeeeeeee of Japanese amazement buzzes in the air like live wires. Jenny pulls a knit throw over her shoulders and walks to the AC, socks swishing on the tatami. She turns it off, but another draft–this one icy–cuts through the building’s thin frame.
Outside, a man screams.
Peeking through her curtains, Jenny sees the narrow road below littered with townspeople staring up at her. Then she realizes they are looking past her, at the mountain range behind her apartment. She opens her balcony door and steps out into the humid, cold air. The people yell something up to her, but their accents are so thick and gnarled that she can’t make out any of it.
Jenny begins to climb the rusted emergency ladder to her roof despite the protests from below. Reaching the top, she sees the pine-covered range in the distance, silhouetted against the purple half-night. Rolling over its rounded peak is the largest storm front she’s ever seen, its clouds fungal and grey, like blooming tumors.
Even at this distance, Jenny can see the sheet of snow falling down upon the mountainside. A gust of wind surprises her and she stumbles backwards. If there are cries or gasps from the townspeople, Jenny does not hear them. She throws her weight forward and falls on her hands and knees, catching sight of the main road. Both lanes are clogged with vehicles scrambling to get out of town.
But where will they go? she wonders, looking at the fat stretch of clouds along the horizon.
Jenny inches her way back to the balcony and sees that the townspeople are gone. Inside her bedroom, she pulls on the only sweater she’s got with her and layers a pair of pajama pants under her jeans before going downstairs to grab her hiking boots and a dusty bottle of saké. Then she returns upstairs and climbs onto the roof once more.
The storm front has already cleared the mountain range, leaving the evergreens blanketed in white. Bulbous stalks of cumulus sprout out of it like feelers, or faces, peering down at the fishing village. Jenny twists open the saké bottle and throws the cap off the roof, watching it fly away. She takes a sip, then a swig, and looks to the ocean. In the distance is a patch of clear, piercing sky.
“Good riddance,” she says, turning back to the front just as a flake of snow lands on her forehead.
William Cheshire is a writer and mathematician located in Brooklyn, New York, where he was born and raised. He has lived in various cities around the US as well as in Japan, where he held a teaching position for several years before returning to New York to work for a leading technology company. Cheshire’s writing often falls into the realm of science fiction, magic realism or speculative fiction. His major influences include Jorge Luis Borges, Haruki Murakami, Margaret Atwood and William Gibson.