High School Stories 4: Flowers

Oh, I blush just thinking about it! Is this how other people feel about their old edgy fanfic or whatever? Though the most embarrassing of the High School Stories, “Flowers” proved a charmer for my readers at the time. Supposedly it moved my aunt to tears.

I took inspiration from a late Heian-period tale that I learned about in the afterword of Miyazaki Hayao’s epic comic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Miyazaki-san cites the story as the source for Nausicaä’s relationship with the “insects” called Ohmu. Imagine my surprise when, a few months later, in a translation of the Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari, I encountered this same story. Robert L. Backus renders it as “The Lady Who Admired Vermin.”

“ ‘What intrigues me the most is the caterpillars, which have a certain appeal,’ she would say, and she would lay them out on the palm of her hand and watch them from morning till evening with her hair drawn back behind her ears” (Backus 53).

Although the author intended the reader to laugh at this ridiculous woman, the lady who admired vermin is the most intriguing character in the whole Tsutsumi Chūnagon Monogatari. My own fondness for “vermin” and for this medieval nonconformist led to “Flowers.” In honor of my inspiration, I set the tale somewhere in Japan. Looking back, it is this more than any other fault that makes the story so laughable.

In the first draft, I intended to convey a similar tone to Backus’s translations, at once formal and gossipy. Because my mom protested that this was sloppy, I toned down the narration’s informality. “Flowers” later became the first story I ever submitted to a journal, which (thank the Lord) rejected it.

I originally entitled the story “Quirks and Flowers.” Later, having spent months living among people described as “quirky,” I came to resent the loathsome word and still wince whenever I have the misfortune of reading it. After occasionally trying to come up with a new title for this pap, I settled on just “Flowers.” And let it be.

I have taken time to revise all the other High School Stories so far to be somewhat more presentable, but “Flowers” is too sappy. I cannot stand to look at it. So I have left it raw, the true, unrefined work of WD at age seventeen. Beware, ye who dare read further: the cringe is real!

From the Insect Book of Kitagawa Utamaro (c. 1753-1806).

Flowers

Yuko was about to wash her hands when she saw that a drain fly had alighted on the side of the sink, a tiny grey statue against white porcelain. Yuko needed to wash her hands, but she feared that would drown the fuzzy little fly, so she left to rinse her hands in the kitchen.

Mr. Hayashi, her father, was quite well off and had a respectable position at Panasonic. In the past, Mr. Hayashi would not have tolerated drain flies or any similar presences in his house, but he was a doting father and had long abandoned his attempts to restrain Yuko’s love for bugs. If she wanted the drain flies to stay, they stayed; if she wanted them not to use the back door because a spider had built her web across it, they did not use the back door. Yuko even gave a name to the centipede that lived beneath her dresser.

When she was not studying—which she did much less than she ought to have if she really wanted to get into an optimal high school—Yuko would tie her hair up and travel to parks to scour the trees, grass, and rocks in search of walking sticks, ants, millipedes, and other creepy-crawlies.

One time when she was little, Yuko smuggled a huntsman spider as big as a small plate into school. When Yuko went to let this spider know she would find her a snack at lunch, some other kids saw it scamper out of her backpack, and horror and bewilderment overwhelmed them. In the end, she had to give her peers an insincere apology and continued being teased for many years.

Even in middle school, she was not liberated from this spidery stigma. Look at her, people would say, there’s that weird girl who prefers bugs to people. Mr. Hayashi attempted to compensate for this with lots of gifts, books, clothes…but these cannot replace companionship. Even though Yuko did not have friends, she did have shiny, sturdy bugs who never teased her and who were always willing to listen to what she said. Oftentimes she thought the bugs in her garden and in the forest had more life than the people she met.

Hiroshi, meanwhile, was buying some candies for lunch. The manager of the store, a skinny Mr. Fujimoto, had learned to expect Hiroshi’s patronage and referred to him more or less affectionately as “Sweets Boy.”

People would ask how Hiroshi ate so many sweets yet remained so thin. He was not, in fact, thin, but by no means would “fat” be an accurate description. At most, he was “pudgy.” People didn’t actually often ask Hiroshi himself about his weight, but rather gossiped about it. “Oh, I heard he has several stomachs, like a cow,” someone said once.

“Thank you very much,” said Fujimoto as Hiroshi completed the transaction and gazed warmly at his latest sugary purchase.

“Yes, thanks.”

“Before you go, Sweets Boy, do you have a moment?”

“Sure.”

“I appreciate the patronage you’ve shown us these several years, but nowadays they’ve done a lot of research into nutrition and what sorts of food a person needs to eat to be healthy, you know. You might want to think about that when you’re buying lunch here. You’re a growing boy.”

“Well, thanks, Mr. Fujimoto.”

Hiroshi left the store. A lot of people, he told himself, see a well-made cake and simply consider its taste. But when Hiroshi saw a well-made cake, he considered its color, its texture, the work put into it—far more than merely its taste. Hiroshi thought that a man like Fujimoto, while nice enough, would never understand this. And so he saw no reason to heed Fujimoto’s advice and, one by one, ate all of the gummis and the cake he just bought.

Really, a lot of people weren’t as understanding as Fujimoto. Hiroshi’s classmates did not appreciate candy aesthetics, and, being of a different moral fiber than Fujimoto, many had no qualms mocking Hiroshi. Many of them, but not most: most just ignored him. Perhaps, on some basic level, Hiroshi wanted companionship, but he generally considered himself satisfied as he was.

Mrs. Nakano, Hiroshi’s mother, was a small, quiet woman. She tried to sway her son to change his social and dietary habits with only small and occasional nudges. Hiroshi rarely saw his father, who worked overseas, but Mr. Nakano’s income was enough for his family to live more or less comfortably in a nice apartment.

However, the very day after he bought those gummis, Mrs. Nakano told Hiroshi with unusual force that he must get outside more. “You could go for a walk,” she said, “the weather is nice, and there are lots of plants blooming at the park, they’re all quite pretty.” It was concern for her son’s health that motivated her, and so persistent was she that Hiroshi conceded, agreeing to stay out for a couple hours despite the heat.

Near the park was a little bakery, so Hiroshi decided that he could buy lunch while he was out. Hiroshi did not go out especially often. His only friends were the kind with whom he might be comfortable enough only to chat with between classes, but not enough to form any meaningful relationships.

Having found a suitable bench in the calming shade of a tree, Hiroshi settled down with the two anpan he had bought. Most trees in the park were already blossoming, but this odd one Hiroshi sat beneath was without blooms. He could easily stay out for these couple hours without really exerting himself. Despite the heat, he found pleasure in the view of the sunny park and the various people passing through it, some there to walk, some simply hurrying through on their way to destinations on the other side of it. Someone even appeared to be sketching the scene in a notebook—maybe an art student, Hiroshi supposed. There was one person, however, who especially drew Hiroshi’s attention.

At that very moment, Yuko was also in the park, squatting near some rocks. She had pursued a shiny beetle some short distance through the grass, hesitant to grab it and disturb its day. Because Yuko had hesitated, however, the beetle had fled into these stones and was hiding beneath one.

When he noticed this thin, well dressed girl staring intently at some rocks no great distance away, Hiroshi did not initially think much of it. However, after he had sat there enjoying his anpan for a quiet few minutes, and feeling rather sorry about the few crumbs that had fallen off, he noticed that the girl was still squatting near there. Hiroshi suspected he could not bear to squat that long and wondered what activity the girl could be engaged in.

Yuko took little notice of the pudgy boy approaching her, accustomed as she was to people ignoring her or mocking her. She assumed he was probably just passing by. When Hiroshi asked, “Sorry, do you need any help?” she assumed he was talking to somebody else. When he asked again, she snapped out of her trance and looked up at this boy who was using a hand to shield his eyes from the sunlight.

“You were talking to me?” she said.

“Yes.”

Yuko stood up and discovered in doing so that her legs really were very stiff.

“Are you all right?” said Hiroshi.

“Oh, I’m fine,” she said. “See, I was chasing a beetle.” She explained the whole situation to this stranger.

“Uh…”

“Do I sound weird to you? I shouldn’t be going on like this. I’ve probably wasted your time now, haven’t I?”

“Not especially. I wasn’t doing anything. Um, would you like this anpan? There’s only half of it left…”

Walking leisurely back to the bench, Hiroshi and Yuko awkwardly searched for topics of conversation; neither was much accustomed to talking with others but had already found something within them kindled. Whatever this something was, it made them want to make the most of this opportunity, and so each, on this brief journey, attempted to avoid mentioning either bugs or sweets for fear of annoying the other. In particular, Yuko was impressed with what she fancied to be Hiroshi’s intelligence. She thought most people were stupid.

At the bench, the two observed that some ants had discovered the crumbs that had fallen from Hiroshi’s anpan.

Hiroshi considered stepping on the ants—not out of any real malice, but simply as a habitual, almost unconscious movement—but noticing how excited Yuko appeared to be, decided not to. Hiroshi didn’t talk much, but he didn’t want to upset anybody.

“You like ants?” said Hiroshi.

“They’re so cute,” said Yuko. Soon, she suspected, this kid would make some rude comment or otherwise remain quiet before slipping away. Why try to keep him around any longer? Besides, Yuko loved discussing bugs, and she might as well enjoy herself. “Ants are hard workers, don’t you think?”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Crumbs like that are trash to people, but they’re a feast to the ants. The ants will carry that food back to their colony for the wellbeing of their sisters.”

“Oh. Ants get along pretty well, don’t they?”

“They have peace within each colony, so they’re better than humans.”

“I don’t know anything about ants, but I don’t know I’d say that. I’m glad that those crumbs from my lunch are feeding somebody, though.”

These words struck Yuko peculiarly. Nothing about them was so remarkable, but they had slight warmth, like cookies that have cooled off but not enough to lose their softness, and besides—Yuko was not used to people offering her genuine responses like that.

“Your lunch?” she said.

“Mhm. Anpan. You can still have this half of one, if you want it. Every part of it should be eaten, though, even the crumbs, even if it’s only ants. See, uh, that’s only respectful. When you think about all the energy and water that went into growing the grains and the beans, not to mention transporting them here, you realize that a lot more than the baker’s work has gone into preparing them.”

Hiroshi had let his tongue run and spewed out some of his thoughts about anpan! But, to his surprise, this strange, thin girl seemed to be listening. He considered that maybe he had never known anybody else who did.

“I never thought about that,” said Yuko.

Conversing in this way, the awkward pair had soon introduced themselves. Hours passed. Eventually, although Yuko didn’t seem to be concerned, Hiroshi wanted to get home.

“I’ve really enjoyed talking to you, Hayashi,” he said. “What’s your phone number? If it’s okay for me to ask.”

“I’ll give you mine if you give me yours. That’s reciprocity.” Their long conversation had perked Yuko up quite a bit; that certain unfamiliar feeling that had been kindled was now flickering about within her, and no doubt within Hiroshi as well.

And so the two were able to keep in touch and arranged to meet at least as soon as the next weekend; however, their next meeting happened before that. They discovered that their schools were within an easy walking distance of each other, and so the two could easily meet after their classes. The two were thus able to walk together and talk about a smattering of different subjects that affected them in their schoolwork-heavy lives—in addition, of course, to discussion of what new candy Hiroshi tried or that elusive shiny beetle at the park.

That Saturday, when they were at an inexpensive little restaurant near the park where they first met, Hiroshi said, “You like something about me, right, Hayashi? What is it?”

Yuko, who had been somewhat distracted staring at a little shield bug climbing up the outside of a nearby window, looked at Hiroshi and said, “This again? What it is, I think, is that you’re nice to me.”

“Oh.”

“Why do you sound disappointed?”

“It’s pretty basic, ‘being nice’ to you.”

“Nobody outside of my family has ever been nice to me. Well, before you. It’s not basic at all.”

“I’m sorry. Nobody has been nice to you but your family?”

“Only bugs…”

“Oh.”

“Is that all you can say, Nakano? If so, that’s fine. Why do you like me? That’s reciprocity. Is it my nice shoes? I never cared about them much, but my dad always wants me to have nice shoes.”

“It isn’t your shoes,” Hiroshi said slowly with a chuckle. “You talk to me. I guess I shouldn’t have felt like your reason was pretty basic, huh?”

“Before this, I spent most of my time talking to bugs. My favorites are usually walking sticks, but you don’t see them often. Let’s agree to thank each other for being nice and talking.”

“Well, sure.”

Neither of them had ever had someone their own age listen so sincerely before. At this point, their modest desserts came. Yuko was a lover of salt who hadn’t especially cared for sweets before, though she also had never held any particular dislike for them. Now, however, Hiroshi had bought her a small cake to enlighten her about its virtues. At Hiroshi’s direction, Yuko took a bite.

“What do you think?” said Hiroshi.

“It’s sweet.”

“Here they understand not to make it too sweet. It’s sweet enough that you’re satisfied, but not so much that you feel sick. But there’s more to any cake than taste. You must also consider the elegance of its color and shape, the chemistry of the frosting and of the baking of its ingredients from dough to cake, the quality of its spongy texture. You should evaluate it for all it has, not only its most obvious qualities.”

“Huh! That sounded quite intelligent.”

“You think so? I’ve only ever said that kind of thing to a few people, and they thought it was stupid.”

“I’m not surprised they told you that. People are bastards.”

“Actually, only one of them said it was stupid. But I get the impression just about anyone would think so. Do you really think I sounded intelligent, Hayashi?”

“Yes. I never looked so much into sweets before…”

After they ate, the two stayed out rather later than was normal for either of them. They walked with no particular destination in mind though with a general idea of reaching the train station from which Yuko could travel home, but they passed a convenience store, in fact the one where Fujimoto worked, and Hiroshi requested that they stop here so he could purchase a bag of candy.

“Oh?” said Fujimoto when he saw Hiroshi picking around with Yuko, peering about her with a vaguely questioning gaze. “Who’s this you have with you, Sweets Boy? I don’t recognize you, Miss.”

“This is Hayashi Yuko,” said Hiroshi. “She’s, uh, a friend.”

When Hiroshi was making his purchase, Fujimoto called Yuko aside and quietly said, “Pardon me for being so direct, Miss, but your friend Nakano eats too many sweets, doesn’t he? It’d be much better for him to cut down on this, don’t you think? So please, since you’re his friend, you may want to help him eat less sugar for the sake of his health.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Yuko, who found something repulsive in Fujimoto’s words. In fact, she was ready to stomp on his toes.

When Yuko and Hiroshi were leaving the convenience store, the latter removed the candy from the grocery bag to admire it in the streetlights’ glow. To her surprise, Yuko found the candies inside their plastic sleeve nearly as lovely to see as the insects dancing around those very streetlights.

“Aren’t they pretty?” said Hiroshi. “Every one has a distinct shape. They’re like little sculptures. A beauty is held by all sweets, even the ones made in factories. And their existence is as fleeting as the existence of all things. The briefness only makes them more beautiful; it lends them an essential pathos…”

“Now you’re really speaking like an intelligent guy,” said Yuko.

Yuko thought about Hiroshi’s words for the next several minutes, and as they neared the train station, she said, “Nakano, you’re like a poet or something! That man in the shop, what’s his problem? He even thinks you’re fat! Well, he’s all skin and bones. Trying to get you to stop eating sweets is like trying to stop a painter from painting. What a bastard.”

“I wouldn’t say that about Mr. Fujimoto. He means well. He’s a nice guy, really. I even saw him in the park when we walked there on Thursday.”

The two continued to meet after school. Both Hiroshi and Yuko seemed happier, some of their classmates noticed. Hiroshi was actually a little chatty.

One thing that especially struck Yuko that week was that Hiroshi was a better student than she; he not only, in her view, discussed sweets intelligently, but he did his homework intelligently, too.

“Hey, Nakano,” she said, “you understand logarithms, right?”

“Not that much, but I can use them.”

“Could you show me how?”

And so Hiroshi began tutoring Yuko a little, out of goodwill, and sometimes in exchange for small store-bought cakes and chocolate.

That weekend, Yuko and Hiroshi went for a walk, aiming for a hamburger place but in no great rush to get there. Before, Hiroshi hadn’t dedicated much time to walking.

“Hiroshi,” Yuko said as they waited to cross the street, “you don’t mind if I call you that?”

“Go ahead, Yuko.”

“Listen. You told me why you like sweets, so I’ll tell you why I like bugs, okay? That’s reciprocity.”

“I know you like walking sticks most, and don’t like crabs.”

“Crabs are all right, but they’re not bugs. Only the terrestrial ones are bugs. Spiders, cicadas, millipedes, butterflies…they’re always locked in a life-or-death struggle, but they’re much more innocent than we humans. No spider ever kills because she’s angry—she only does it to stay alive. They probably don’t even have feelings like ‘hate’ or ‘greed.’ They don’t mock each other, even the most vicious hornets. They are all solid yet delicate, with their distinct body segments, like cute little statues, and they can fly, hop, feel their way along, adhere to vertical surfaces—they’re all very well built to do what they do. Another way they’re not like humans. But even though just about every bug is harmless, and a lot of them are even helpful, people hate them and think they’re pests, and kill them for no reason. People are bastards.”

“When you seriously consider them, bugs are pretty amazing, aren’t they? I’ve heard there are thousands and thousands for every human…”

I told you that.”

“Oh.”

“I think,” said Yuko when they were waiting in line for their burgers, “that you like sweets like I like bugs. You see more in them than most people because you’re intelligent.”

“Uh, thank you, Yuko.”

The two stopped meeting quite as often after this, but neither had any doubt whom their closest, even only friend was, closer than bugs or sweets could be.

“Hey, Hiroshi, you have a date with that Yuko girl tonight?” said Mrs. Nakano to her son, in variations, quite often.

“Please, let’s not talk about this,” said Hiroshi just as often. His mother considered Yuko quite a catch: crazy enough not to mind his weight and awkwardness, and rich as well. Though, considering their ages, Mrs. Nakano understood that she was getting ahead of herself.

After school, a week or two later, Yuko and Hiroshi were rambling along in both conversation and movement and found that they were back in the park in which they had first met. This site retained a special quality. Many people were there among the blooming flowers beneath the shining sun. Yuko and Hiroshi sat down on a warm bench basking in its light. It was even hot again, but somehow the heat was not unpleasant, like it had been when the two met, as though even the sun’s scorching gaze may be easier to endure together.

“Uh, Yuko,” said Hiroshi, “I hope my useless little math lessons have been helpful to you.”

That certain feeling that had been stirring in him was especially acute at this moment, a feeling that compelled him to say this.

“They’re not useless, Hiroshi. They’ve been quite helpful. Thank you.”

“Thank you for the candy,” said Hiroshi with an awkward chuckle. “But you’ve repaid me with something a lot better than just candy. I’ve never had much confidence in myself. Generally, I’ve thought my ideas were silly, not only the ones about sweets, but about everything, I’ve thought I was pretty much useless, but since you’ve started listening to me, and even asking me for help with your homework…I’ve realized that I’m not so useless after all.”

“You’re not a bit useless, Hiroshi!”

“And I’m not alone, either. I’ve always felt, well, isolated from people. I never really thought other weirdos like me existed until I met you. Uh, I don’t mean you’re a ‘weirdo’ in a bad way—”

“I didn’t think you did,” said Yuko, staring over the people passing them on the sidewalks that crossed the green grass. “You’re intelligent enough to clearly express all that in words, but I think I’ve had a similar experience. That’s reciprocity. Weirdos like you and me have to stick together to stand up to all the bastards out there.”

“You say that, but people aren’t that bad, Yuko.”

“They are bad,” she said. A disconcerting bitterness darkened her face. “I mentioned to you once how those bastards mocked me for liking bugs ever since I brought that furry spider into primary school. They did more than that. They recoiled from that spider like she was some kind of monster. Inagaki, he was a disgusting, ugly boy. He pushed me around and tortured that poor spider, tortured her because he thought it was funny. The other kids, they laughed too. They were the monsters. I tackled Inagaki and punched him one time after another, one for each of that poor spider’s legs he’d ripped off. And I was punished for that! I was mocked for that! Even the teachers ridiculed me. These people all still do. People are bastards, Hiroshi.”

It was with contempt that Yuko seemed to look upon the people passing through the park around them.

“People can’t even appreciate the scenery here,” said Yuko. “Look at those guys, just passing through. I bet they’re late to a business meeting or something—they think that’s better than the beautiful blossoms or the fuzzy caterpillars and sturdy little crickets.”

Hiroshi hardly knew what to tell Yuko, who was not far from tears. Having reflected for several quiet moments, Hiroshi said, “I don’t have a dramatic story like you do, Yuko. I never saw a friend’s legs ripped off, spider or otherwise, but I’ve been lonely too. I just never managed to connect with someone else before. They care about, you know, sports, or dramas, or comics, and I’ve never cared much about those things. I don’t want to change who I am to get along with them better any more than you do. But they’re not trying to be bad. They don’t understand how hard it can be for people like you and me, and for society to function, people need a shared worldview. Inagaki probably didn’t even think about how that spider was suffering, or about how you were suffering.”

“You do think humans are bastards, then?”

“No. You and I, we aren’t bastards. I think people get caught up in their own little worlds and forget we’re all in the same one.”

Yuko sat in silence for a bit, staring at the people passing by, a few of whom did stop briefly to look up at the blossoms and all of the other pretty trees in the park. Many of these trees were not the same species, which some people had complained about before, but Yuko thought this lent them a greater beauty.

“Let’s go back to the tree where we met,” said Yuko.

“Do you remember which one it was?”

Yuko found the rocks under which that shiny beetle had scurried. Nearby grew a lively tree in whose shade was a bench, and this, the two understood, was that tree they had talked beneath.

“Look, it’s budding,” said Hiroshi, swallowing the last mouthful of chocolate. “This one must be a late bloomer.”

Something else had caught Yuko’s attention, however, for clambering over one of the tree’s hearty roots was a shiny beetle, just like the one that escaped her a few weeks ago. Carefully placing one of her hands before the beetle, she watched it crawl onto her fingers, moving with no hesitation, as if in some way detecting that they would not hurt it. Yuko lifted the beetle into the sunlight again, where the rays gleamed off its exoskeleton, and displayed it for Hiroshi.

“Isn’t he beautiful?” she said, smiling as broadly as Hiroshi only knew her to when handling a lovely bug.

“He is,” said Hiroshi. “Is this the beetle you were chasing when I saw you a few weeks ago?”

“Of course he isn’t the same beetle,” she said, “though he’s the same species.”

The two stood there, gazing at the tree’s new buds as the glinting beetle crawled up Yuko’s wrist, themselves with as nice an appearance in the sunlight, Hiroshi plump and smiling and Yuko in her lovely skirt with a lovely insect on her arm.

“You know,” said Yuko, “I’ve been working harder in my classes recently.”

“Is it because of my tutoring?” said Hiroshi, joking.

He was surprised, because Yuko said, “Yes. We might be in the same high school if I can be as good of a student as you are, Hiroshi.”

“That shouldn’t be too hard. I’m not that great of a student. Well, whatever inspires you to work harder, right?”

Yuko let the shiny beetle, which was poking around her shoulder, crawl onto her other hand, and held it out in front of her.

“Bye-bye, little guy,” she said. The beetle spread his wings, and Hiroshi and Yuko watched him buzz back into the grass.