–From the 2012 Holiday Issue–
“Kira-Kira,” the title of Cynthia Kadohata’s acclaimed novel, is Japanese for “glittering” or “shining.” That’s how Katie Takeshima’s sister, Lynn, makes everything seem. The sky is kira-kira because its color is deep but see-through at the same time. The sea is kira-kira for the same reason. And so are people’s eyes.
When Katie and her family move from a Japanese community in Iowa to the Deep South of Georgia, it’s Lynn who explains to her why people stop on the street to stare. And it’s Lynn who, with her special way of viewing the world, teaches Katie to look beyond tomorrow.
But when Lynn becomes desperately ill, and the whole family begins to fall apart, it is up to Katie to find a way to remind them all that there is always something glittering — kira-kira — in the future.
Kadohata’s other books for young readers include “Weedflower,” “Cracker: The Best Dog in Vietnam,” “A Million Shades of Gray,” and “Outside Beauty.” The West Covina resident is also the author of “The Floating World” and “In the Heart of the Valley of Love.”
Her next novel, to be published in June 2013, is “The Thing About Luck,” which is about a 12-year-old Japanese American girl who travels with her grandparents through the Great Plains wheat harvest, where her grandfather drives a combine. She learns how to rediscover the courage she lost somewhere along the line.
By CYNTHIA KADOHATA
New Year’s is the biggest holiday of the year for Japanese. Every year since we’d lived in Georgia, Mrs. Muramoto held a big party. She served sake and mochi and a couple of dozen different snacks. We would usually stay until about ten and then go home. Just before dawn I would get up and write down my hatsuyume, first dream of the new year. Then we would meet the other families and go to the empty lot nearby with our lawn chairs to watch the sunrise. Watching the first sunrise is the traditional way to celebrate New Year’s in Japan. The last few years, though, nobody had bothered getting up for the sunrise. The fathers were all too tired for such a celebration.
Mrs. Kanagawa stayed with Lynn while I went to Mrs. Muramoto’s for just half an hour before returning to sit with Lynn. Mrs. Kanagawa told me Lynn had been very peaceful. We made quiet small talk about the party, and then Mrs. Kanagawa left. Lynn continued to sleep, her breath catching heartbreakingly, as if breathing had become a hardship for her body. I moved a strand of hair from her forehead, then pulled a chair to the window and spied on Mr. and Mrs. Miller’s party next door. It was quite a bit noisier than the party at Mrs. Muramoto’s. Everybody seemed drunk. All at once the men started to put bows on their foreheads and run out the front door. I had no idea what they were doing. I hurried into the alcove and peeked out our front window. The men ran down the street shouting “Happy New Year!” with the bows on their foreheads. Even though I was in a sad mood, I couldn’t help smiling at these crazy white people.
I went into the kitchen and called my parents at the party and told them Lynn was sleeping peacefully. Someday when Lynn got better we were going to get her a phone for the bedroom. Gregg and Amber both used to call all the time, so when she got better and made more friends she would need a phone.
I put on my pajamas around 11:30 and lay on the floor next to Lynn’s bed. The Rabbit on the Moon looked so pretty shining in the outlet.
“Katie?” Lynn said softly. She hadn’t talked all day.
I sat up. “Yes?”
“You have to try to get better grades. Promise?”
“You should go to college. Promise?”
“I’ll think about it.”
“Take care of Mom and Dad and Sammy.”
“Okay – I promise.” I hesitated. “When you get better you can help me take care of them.”
“Okay, I promise.” She laughed very softly, almost soundlessly.
The phone rang and she seemed to perk up a bit. But it stopped after just one ring and she seemed to deflate. It was amazing that as sick as she was, she could still be interested in something as small as the ring of a phone.
She groaned suddenly. “Can we open the window?”
I jumped up to open the window. She closed her eyes and I sat next to the bed and stared at her. Her skin looked almost purely white, like the white of the ghost of Brenda I’d seen at the swamp. She opened her eyes again.
“It’s too dark in here,” she said.
I turned on the light. A little brown moth flitted in. It wasn’t big, not even an inch long. It landed on the ceiling. Lynn stared at it. Then it flitted toward the lamp and away again. Lynn kept watching. For a moment the party next door quieted down. Our room was so quiet I could just make out the sound of the moth’s wings. Lynn didn’t move, except for her eyes. Her eyes moved this way and that as she watched the moth. It was strange because although her eyes showed no emotion or interest, she must have been interested in order to be watching the moth so closely. She couldn’t take her eyes off that little bug as it sailed across the room and back again, across and back. And then I thought I saw something in her eyes, some emotion or interest, but I wasn’t sure what it was.
The moth settled down and she went to sleep. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep on the floor with the lights on. I didn’t like to sleep in my bed because it was too far from Lynnie, several feet away.
For some reason my mother didn’t make me go back to my cot that night. I couldn’t sleep deeply so I never had a dream. When it was almost sunrise I sat up and watched Lynn sleep for a few minutes. Then I took a lawn chair and a blanket down to the empty lot on the corner. I was alone. I thought about getting dressed, but I wasn’t expecting to see anybody. I stared east, at the giant tire over the tire store across from the lot. The giant tire looked just like the giant donut over the donut store on Main Street, except that the tire was black and the donut was brown.
It was cold out. Here are the sounds I heard:
1. An old piece of newspaper fluttering in the breeze.
2. A mechanical whirring. I didn’t know what was making that sound.
3. A bird chirping.
4. A quick click-clicking from a bug light at the tire store. We lived below what Georgian’s called the gnat line, meaning all the gnats in the world lived in town with us. My uncle claimed that more bugs lived per square mile in Southern Georgia than anywhere in the state. Even in winter, there were bugs.
Those were the only noises.
Here are the things I saw:
1. The tire store. Through a window, I saw tires piled inside.
2. A lonely tree outside the store.
3. The grey sky.
4. A crow sitting on the giant tire.
I cried and cried. For a while as I cried I hated my parents, as if it were their fault that Lynn was sick. Then I cried because I loved my parents so much.
Then I didn’t feel like crying anymore. I just felt barren, my eyes felt dry. The sky was still grey. Everything was grey, the sky and the store, and even my hand when I held it out in front of myself. I wondered, had anyone else in history ever been as sad as I was at that moment? As soon as I asked myself the question, I knew the answer was yes. The answer was that millions of people had been that sad. For instance, what about the people of the great Incan city of Cuzco that was ransacked by foreigners in 1532? I wrote a paper about that for school. And then there were all the millions of people in all the many wars throughout history and throughout the world, and all the millions of people with loved ones killed by millions of other people.
A lot of people had been as sad as I was. Maybe a billion of them had been this sad. As soon as I realized this, I felt like I was no longer a little girl anymore but had become a big girl. What being a big girl meant exactly I wasn’t sure.
I watched a swatch of the sky turn red. The red spread like blood in the sea: red, red, red, and then less and less red until there was only blue left. I squinted as the sun rose. I must have fallen asleep, because when I woke up my father was carrying me into the house. Sam walked beside us carrying the lawn chair, which seemed almost as big as he was.
Inside the living room, my father laid me on my cot. “She’s gone,” he said.
I watched my father walk away. I got up and ran behind him to the doorway of the bedroom, then hesitated. I walked in. My mother was weeping as she knelt by the side of the bed and leaned over my sister. My father knelt in front of the bed and enveloped Lynn’s head with his arms. It was light outside now, but nobody had bothered to turn off the lamp. I stared at the lamp. The lamp was on because Lynn had asked that I turn it on, but now she herself was gone. I couldn’t comprehend it. I walked in slowly. My parents scarcely noticed me. My father moved to my mother and put his arms around her.
Lynn looked peaceful, even beautiful, but slightly off. Her eyes were not quite closed all the way, and her mouth hung open a bit. My mother suddenly got up and held a mirror to Lynn’s nose, apparently hoping to see a fog of breath on the mirror. But the mirror stayed clear.
“Who was with her?” I said.
My father’s voice broke as he said, “Nobody.”
That cut hard into me, that she had been alone when she died. I wished so badly that I had not gone out. I should have known better. I should have! I could not imagine what dying must have felt like for her. I had no idea whether it mattered or not to her that she had been alone at the exact moment she died. But I thought maybe it did matter.
Then there was a frenzy of activity as my parents got ready for the funeral. Though I had hardly slept, I couldn’t sleep anymore that day. The lack of sleep coupled with Lynnie’s death made the world surreal. All day people came and went, and I kept hearing some of them call Lynn “the body.” Finally I shouted at one of them, “Stop calling her that!” After that, everyone only whispered around me, but I couldn’t hear what they were saying.
My mother didn’t want to throw away anything that had existed while Lynn was still alive. Before Lynn’s body was taken away, my mother had me cut my sister’s fingernails and even her toenails and place them in an envelope. She asked me to gather Lynn’s things that lay around the house. And she wanted me to make a pile of any newspapers I could find from before Lynn died, so she could always remember what was going on in the world when Lynn passed. In the afternoon I walked in the bathroom and found my mother examining hairs she found on the floor, so that she could save those hairs she determined to belong to Lynn.
Finally, my mother had me go outside and search through our garbage. She wanted to make sure there was nothing regarding Lynn that she should save. I went outside and took a bag out of our can. I poured the contents onto the driveway. I saw a neighbor watching but I didn’t care. The sun was warm on my back. But instead of feeling like complaining, I felt my mother’s fervor. I felt it was very important to find Lynnie items. There were maggots in the bag. They didn’t scare me, because I had a mission. The first bag was full of treasure: a paper with a scribble I recognized as Lynn’s; a newspaper from a week ago; and a pencil Lynn had chewed. I searched through three bags, full of such precious items.
Before they came for Lynn, I cut off a lock of my hair and placed it in the pocket of her pajamas. But I remembered she would wear something different than her pajamas for the cremation. So I tied the lock of my hair around her neck. Then when Lynn was gone, I lay on her bed and cried. After I cried a while I started to feel angry. I didn’t understand why the doctor who came to make sure Lynn was dead was the same one who had been taking care of her. If he was such a good doctor, then why did she die?
And I thought maybe the doctor was mistaken, my parents were mistaken, and now they had taken Lynn away when she still possessed a small spark of life in her. Miracles happen: maybe she would open her eyes later! What if my mother had held the mirror wrong, and had missed Lynn’s feeble breath?
And yet I knew Lynn was dead. I could feel the place inside of me where she had resided. This place was empty.
It was hard to stay angry when I felt so sad. I would rather have felt angry, but instead all I could do was sob. Even though people had been coming over all day, the house seemed so lonely I couldn’t stand it.
The room grew somewhat dimmer, and I hurried outside and ran to the alley back of our house. Through a break between the buildings, I saw that the sun hung low over the horizon. I watched it until it started to hide between two trees in the distance. Then I climbed on a car and watched until only half of the sun was visible, and then a quarter, and then I felt a huge sickening panic inside of me and ran as hard as I could to a ladder I saw down the alley. I rushed up the ladder and climbed on the roof of somebody’s garage. I saw the sun again, a quarter of it, and then a slice, and then it disappeared, the last time ever that the sun would set on a day my sister had lived.
I stood on the roof and watched the darkening sky. I heard my father calling out, “Katie! Katie!” I didn’t answer, I didn’t want to talk to anyone. His voice grew closer, and then farther away. For some reason I felt panicked again and screamed, “Dad! Daddy!” His voice grew closer: “Katie! Katie!” He sounded panicked, too. I hurried down the ladder and fell into his arms. I cried and cried, and he did not cry at all.