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Short Story Classics




Yasunari Kawabata


The Jay

by Yasunari Kawabata

translated by Lane Dunlop
and J. Martin Holman


Since daybreak, the jay had been singing noisily.

When they’d slid open the rain shutters, it had flown up before their eyes from a lower branch of the pine, but it seemed to have come back. During breakfast, there was the sound of whirring wings.

“That bird’s a nuisance.” The younger brother started to get to his feet.

“It’s all right. It’s all right.” The grandmother stopped him. “It’s looking for its child. Apparently the chick fell out of the nest yesterday. It was flying around until late in the evening. Doesn’t she know where it is? But what a good mother. This morning she came right back to look.”

“Grandmother understands well,” Yoshiko said.

Her grandmother’s eyes were bad. Aside from a bout with nephritis1 about ten years ago, she had never been ill in her life. But, because of her cataracts, which she’d had since girlhood, she could only see dimly out of her left eye. One had to hand her the rice bowl and the chopsticks. Although she could grope her way around the familiar interior of the house, she could not go into the garden by herself.

Sometimes, standing or sitting in front of the sliding-glass door, she would spread out her hands, fanning out her fingers against the sunlight that came through the glass, and gaze out. She was concentrating all the life that was left to her into that many-angled gaze.

At such times, Yoshiko was frightened by her grandmother. Though she wanted to call out to her from behind, she would furtively steal away.

This nearly blind grandmother, simply from having heard the jay’s voice, spoke as if she had seen everything. Yoshiko was filled with wonder.

When, clearing away the breakfast things, Yoshiko went into the kitchen, the jay was singing from the roof of the neighbor’s house.

In the back garden, there was a chestnut tree and two or three persimmon trees. When she looked at the trees, she saw that a light rain was falling. It was the sort of rain that you could not tell was falling unless you saw it against the dense foliage.

The jay, shifting its perch to the chestnut tree, then flying low and skimming the ground, returned again to its branch, singing all the while.

The mother bird could not fly away. Was it because her chick was somewhere around there?

Worrying about it, Yoshiko went to her room. She had to get herself ready before the morning was over.

In the afternoon, her father and mother were coming with the mother of Yoshiko’s fiancé.

Sitting at her mirror, Yoshiko glanced at the white stars under her fingernails. It was said that, when stars came out under your nails, it was a sign that you would receive something, but Yoshiko remembered having read in the newspaper that it meant a deficiency of vitamin C or something. The job of putting on her makeup went fairly pleasantly. Her eyebrows and lips all became unbearably winsome. Her kimono, too, went on easily.

She’d thought of waiting for her mother to come and help with her clothes, but it was better to dress by herself, she decided.

Her father lived away from them. This was her second mother.

When her father had divorced her first mother, Yoshiko had been four and her younger brother two. The reasons given for the divorce were that her mother went around dressed in flashy clothes and spent money wildly, but Yoshiko sensed dimly that it was more than that, that the real cause lay deeper down.

Her brother, as a child, had come across a photograph of their mother and shown it to their father. The father hadn’t said anything but, with a face of terrible anger, had suddenly torn the photograph to bits.

When Yoshiko was thirteen, she had welcomed the new mother to the house. Later, Yoshiko had come to think that her father had endured his loneliness for ten years for her sake. The second mother was a good person. A peaceful home life continued.

When the younger brother, entering upper school, began living away from home in a dormitory, his attitude toward his stepmother changed noticeably.

“Elder sister, I’ve met our mother. She’s married and lives in Azabu. She’s really beautiful. She was happy to see me.”

Hearing this suddenly, Yoshiko could not say a word. Her face paled, and she began to tremble.

From the next room, her stepmother came in and sat down.

“It’s a good thing, a good thing. It’s not bad to meet your own mother. It’s only natural. I’ve known for some time that this day would come. I don’t think anything particular of it.”

But the strength seemed to have gone out of her stepmother’s body. To Yoshiko, her emaciated stepmother seemed pathetically frail and small.

Her brother abruptly got up and left. Yoshiko felt like smacking him.

“Yoshiko, don’t say anything to him. Speaking to him will only make that boy go bad.” Her stepmother spoke in a low voice.

Tears came to Yoshiko’s eyes.

Her father summoned her brother back home from the dormitory. Although Yoshiko had thought that would settle the matter, her father had then gone off to live elsewhere with her stepmother.

It had frightened Yoshiko. It was as if she had been crushed by the power of masculine indignation and resentment. Did their father dislike even them because of their tie to their first mother? It seemed to her that her brother, who’d gotten to his feet so abruptly, had inherited the frightening male intransigence of his father.

And yet it also seemed to Yoshiko that she could now understand her father’s sadness and pain during those ten years between his divorce and remarriage.

And so, when her father, who had moved away from her, came back bringing a marriage proposal, Yoshiko had been surprised.

“I’ve caused you a great deal of trouble. I told the young man’s mother that you’re a girl with these circumstances and that, rather than treating you like a bride, she should try to bring back the happy days of your childhood.”

When her father said this kind of thing to her, Yoshiko wept.

If Yoshiko married, there would be no woman’s hand to take care of her brother and grandmother. It had been decided that the two households would become one. With that, Yoshiko had made up her mind. She had dreaded marriage on her father’s account, but, when it came down to the actual talks, it was not that dreadful after all.

When her preparations were completed, Yoshiko went to her grandmother’s room.

“Grandmother, can you see the red in this kimono?”

“I can faintly make out some red over there. Which is it, now?” Pulling Yoshiko to her, the grandmother put her eyes close to the kimono and the sash.

“I’ve already forgotten your face, Yoshiko. I wish I could see what you look like now.”

Yoshiko stifled a desire to giggle. She rested her hand lightly on her grandmother’s head.

Wanting to go out and meet her father and the others, Yoshiko was unable just to sit there, vaguely waiting. She went out into the garden. She held out her hand, palm upward, but the rain was so fine that it didn’t wet the palm. Gathering up the skirts of her kimono, Yoshiko assiduously searched among the little trees and in the bear-grass bamboo thicket. And there, in the tall grass under the bush clover, was the baby bird.

Her heart beating fast, Yoshiko crept nearer. The baby jay, drawing its head into its neck feathers, did not stir. It was easy to take it up into her hand. It seemed to have lost its energy. Yoshiko looked around her, but the mother bird was nowhere in sight.

Running into the house, Yoshiko called out, “Grandmother! I’ve found the baby bird. I have it in my hand. It’s very weak.”

“Oh, is that so? Try giving it some water.”

Her grandmother was calm.

When she ladled some water into a rice bowl and dipped the baby jay’s beak in it, it drank, its little throat swelling out in an appealing way. Then—had it recovered?—it sang out, “Ki-ki-ki, Ki-ki-ki ...”

The mother bird, evidently hearing its cry, came flying. Perching on the telephone wire, it sang. The baby bird, struggling in Yoshiko’s hand, sang out again, “Ki-ki-ki ...”

“Ah, how good that she came! Give it back to its mother, quick,” her grandmother said.

Yoshiko went back out into the garden. The mother bird flew up from the telephone wire but kept her distance, looking fixedly toward Yoshiko from the top of a cherry tree.

As if to show her the baby jay in her palm, Yoshiko raised her hand, then quietly placed the chick on the ground.

As Yoshiko watched from behind the glass door, the mother bird, guided by the voice of its child singing plaintively and looking up at the sky, gradually came closer. When she’d come down to the low branch of a nearby pine, the chick flapped its wings, trying to fly up to her. Stumbling forward in its efforts, falling all over itself, it kept singing.

Still the mother bird cautiously held off from hopping down to the ground.

Soon, however, it flew in a straight line to the side of its child. The chick’s joy was boundless. Turning and turning its head, its outspread wings trembling, it made up to its mother. Evidently the mother had brought it something to eat.

Yoshiko wished that her father and stepmother would come soon. She would like to show them this, she thought.



Last updated:
February 6, 2008
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