Laura Legge lives and writes in Toronto. She is the winner of PEN Canada's 2016 New Voices Award and PEN International's 2016 New Voices Award. She recently received her MFA from New York University, and her work has lately appeared in Mid-American Review, Witness, Newfound Journal, The Walrus, Meridian, North American Review, and Chicago Quarterly Review. She is passionate about criminal justice reform and works with women who are incarcerated. www.lauralegge.com
We are from university in London. We are on a school semester to Tokyo. We are trying to speak the local language.
We are speaking in short sentences. We are saying “Let’s break” when we mean コーヒーブレーク. We are smart. We read. We sometimes get tired of becoming better at the language, if we want. But we need to be understood.
We mean well. We respect people. We are not like travelers speaking English to everyone. We clean up our self dishes at a soba-ya. We are timid when we speak. But sometimes people look like they do not appreciate. We told a man at Isetan (伊勢丹) that we were earwigs, by our fault. He developed red. We are tender. If we trouble strangers we hurt after. We want people to be nice.
We are on a subway car. We are ten of hundred. We have ice cream cones and we are happiest of our trip. Everyone is smiling and we are suitable. But then we are part of a sudden sadness.
A teenager girl pushes the emergency alarm. We see her pee herself. We see her eat a daikon and then her own palm. Everyone is making a different reaction. We must break our rule of no English. Because inside of us is an irrepressible need to share the suffering we are witnessing; we must speak to one another, in intricate terms, about our commiserative fear and shame. Speaking freely, we learn her presence reminds us all of a Bashō poem we studied: Why so scrawny, cat?/ Starving for fat fish or mice…/ or backyard love?
The men sitting on the opposite bench shoot looks that make us feel self-conscious, as if they are irritated that we are speaking a foreign language. And because we want to appear confident, insouciant despite the estrangement this situation is causing, we go back to speaking Japanese.
The girl, very frail. She is so many bones in a coat. She is wearing a hat, you have a little look under her head.
We see her lick the silver pole. We fear of the disease. As we care, we are very beautiful people. Then, she takes a match from the pocket. She licks that, too. Meanwhile, people have to disregard what is happening. Not talking to others. It has most of the people looking down.
An announcement comes on the speaker. Although we try to listen to, it is muddy. So we do not grasp. Please we look at the men who seemed to be angry. They shrug. Because we are lovely girls, we think, It should be okay. For us it is usually okay. However, the teenager comes in front of our seats. We are scared. She takes our ice cream cone and puts on her forehead. Then bites the cone. Mint choco, drop it into our lap.
We want to help. We ask her, Watashitachiha nanigadekiru?
She ignores. Is it because of our wrong words, we do not know. Or else, she lives in another planet where she is so alone forever. Then comes a small boy with big rain boots. This boy: Hello I am Hiro I am a four-year-old. Hello I am Hiro I will turn five in April. When we see the child, we are golden of smiles. But we feel vulnerable. We want to protect him. And we cannot say, Stay away from her. Because she has ears also. We see them poking through her stray animal hair. We wish for super powers. To keep the boy innocent without embarrass or heated the girl. It is hard some situations to be nice.
Hiro asks her what her name is. We are very scared for him, enough we start coughing. Our body does not have that cough otherwise. She is Franca, though, she tells him. We can be so surprised. We expect a Japanese name. And Hiro is cool like a TV news anchor, we have been impressed. We think Ando Hiroki could be a good comparison. But wow, he is just little.
Franca kneels on the ground. Now she has a name, we wonder if she has a story. Hiro is the thing comfortable enough to ask. We have ice cream on our laps. We are on a frozen subway. We are restless like bad children and he is a good one.
And the other thing is, where are the experts? What happens if there is no one coming? Do we need to move forward as without any leadership?
Now the girl strokes Hiro on his chubby cheeks. And it is hard for us to stay nice because you are not understood. And you are scared. Subway have begun to smell of curry. Someone had to open a takeaway container. We are holding frustration about this. Now, we wish we were on the quietest train. With no one around, we would know how to act. But so many people here with their philosophies. And they are no longer ignoring, because a child is tangled up.
How can we know to react? We have ideas of England. Maybe everyone knows better. We seek, however, we do not know. This may be our fault. But we are trying. We are not proud being alien while people can still see us, like the angry men. And now some mixed genders in suits and surgery masks. So we want to hide. We want to disappear into the big coat of Franca. Even if it stinks like a family shame.
In truth, we cannot hide. This will not solve the trouble. So mostly we need to work harder. Think, think, think. Okay: We study calligraphy. We study kanji like 疎外感 and 誤解 for school credit. We are in fact delayed for our calligraphy class right now. So we think, maybe we can just be silent and practice. Maybe we can look for the right kanji in our book. Speaking is too fast.
Kanji is a little like painting. If we write in hiragana, anyone could think we mean something different by our words. If I say girl, you might imagine the leggings and cute one. However, I may mean someone like Franca. So we each in our tidy notebook draw some word-picture. First 助 with help/rescue under; then 具合 with condition/health. And most important we fill a big page with 共通 commonness/community. We know some little French, so why not, we put that translation under too.
We just see people as, well, we are becoming thoughtful about them. So we can say a sentence and maybe they will feel close to how we desire them to. Because we see effects of what we say, right. We can try to gauge for next time. Especially if we slow down, like with handwriting. That’s all we can do.
Hiro yells, Blah blah blah!
He does not understand how his words affect yet. But we love him. Because yes you can be sweet and fun and get away. We know someday he may be the person with the stinky curry. We wish we knew the questions to ask curry person to turn him back into someone we forgive, like Hiro.
Franca looks into our notebook. She says, Je suis soif et très chaud. So it seems good we tried the new translation.
We are not perfect in French, but she is not either. And without perfect it is almost easier to understand. We look for water. There is none. At least now we get why she did the ice cream. We say, Pouvons-nous vous aider avec votre manteau?
She goes, Je suis sous cru. We do not push. We smile. We smile in French and Japanese and English.
Now the experts come. It is two women in transit uniforms. This is who we have:
Franca with her pee legs, Hiro, the angry men, the mixed genders in surgical masks, us girls in polished shoes with big buckles, then the experts. They do not seem better than us if we are honest. They are trained in a certain way that is not good right now. They put Franca in the type of hold they know. Like with her arms so she is locked, instead of a hug or a comfort kind.
We want to tell them what we have learned about her. But there is another layer that scares us from contact. That is their uniform. It puts them higher. So we look to the angry men who witnessed before. Very strong with jaws and button shirts. They are respected. And they saw everything.
They do not speak. They appear to be lower than the people of the uniforms. Franca starts to cry in silence. She is still stuck in a headlock. The experts cannot see her face, the hard way they are holding her. But we can. A scrawny cat. Fat fish pulled from in front of her. And love lost in the backyard.
Train suddenly, it starts moving. We did not expect this. Maybe we will be on time for our calligraphy anyway. We will sit at wood desks and perfect 回復 and try to forget the underground. But when we see the lights of Ōtemachi station we think no. We are keeping with her. We cannot let her disappear yet. She is the kind of girl who goes onto a poster or a milk box.
Woman comes from the far end of the train to take Hiro. She says, Oh my angel I was very worried about you. And kisses and kisses him. One expert is smiling at them both and nodding. Hiro trots off with the woman. We see his sneakers had lights on them always, red magic and glow. So it makes sense he is a sweet thing. And his dreams are so fantastic.
Now the subway doors are opening. The experts take Franca out of the train. We follow with our notebooks and dress shoes make music. We hear people with different reactions. Some laughter, some sighs in relief. Some questions about what happened. We know these reactions will go home with people. Will they tuck their children too tight in the quilt? Will they make rice for their loves, or scream? Franca’s ghost will trot along behind.
Oh, the men probably had angry reasons from before, we think. It was not because of us actually.
We follow the experts out of the train. And through the station, down a scary corridor. They turn to ask if we are lost. We are not, we say. We are coming together with our friend. They look skeptical at Franca. They take her into a room for questions. At least, they do not spray water on us like a stray cat. They let us wait outside for a scrap.
It has been a bad afternoon. We started out happiest of our trip. We now feel very bad like we had been on the subway tracks. We are sorry for us. We do not have this feeling often.
We wonder for Franca, if maybe afternoons are just bad in general. We could ask but we might not get the answer. So we can just imagine. We watch her through the window of the small room. Two experts in seats and her and the lights making pain. We blow fog on the window. Then in it we write, “Nous sommes ici.” For her it is backwards, we know. We cannot make perfect yet.
Her response is so minimum. A little lift of chin. We can read it any way we want. But we read it as, Thank you. Or, Je suis aussi. That is how we know today did not break us. We have no reason to believe anything good has happened. And we are still trying.
©2017 Laura Legge
Interview with Laura Legge in The Malahat Review
Read Laura Legge's Story 'Tukisiviit?' at CBC
Interview with Laura Legge in PRISM International