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Kappa: Winner of the Lawrence Fiction Prize

My mother warned me to stay away from the river. This was in the 1630s, some fifty years ago. The kappa grabs children’s feet, she said. It sticks its webbed hand up the hole of your butt and pulls out your liver to devour. It will drag you underwater and you’ll never be seen again. She unfurled scrolls depicting a reptilian creature with the stature of a child: skin green and shriveled, its mouth pointed like a beak. That was the first time people called me crazy, after I told them about my dreams: the kappa that appeared night after night. It shook its straw-like hair and the bloated shell of its back. It tapped the soft depression on its crown resembling a ceramic plate. Saliva and ooze foamed on its lips. Everywhere, the smell of rotting fish.

Your head is not right, people said. Mother brought me to the local shrine, where she offered sweet buns to stone statues. The priest shook a brush of flax strands over my head.

But still the kappa came nightly. Webbed hands that clasped my fingers and led me to the river. The firm pressure, the strength. The weight.

Maybe that’s why, at fifty-five, I’m still haunted by the river when performing my mabiki duties. Today I pray under my breath as I walk to the river with an infant in my arms: birthed just minutes prior, covered in short hair like a newborn kitten. I pray as I wrap the tiny body in long stalks of straw. I pray as I tie the bundle with thin rope, as I drop her into the water, as the current washes over and slowly moves it downstream over the mossy rocks. As the muffled cry disappears into silence.

I wait five minutes before I fish the parcel out of the river, a darkened cocoon. I unwrap the hay and lift the baby—curled, cold. I press her against my chest, praying that she feels this last human embrace before returning to God.

The couple thanks me as I return the baby’s ashes. They have seven already, with three too small to work on the farm. How rare for a family’s offspring to survive infancy; they couldn’t have possibly fed an eighth. Their crowns expose new grays as they avert their eyes downward, swaying side to side in synchronized motion. The wife’s hands tremble as she accepts the cedar box, almost dropping it. But my grip is firm, practiced.

I say, She’ll be someone grand in her next life. I try to smile. A princess, maybe.

The wife places a hand over her still-rounded belly. I’m so sorry.

She closes her eyes, apologizes again. To inconvenience you after all you’ve been through this year.

I shake my head. If you mean Kahei, he’s fine, just delayed.

Have you heard from him at all since he left?

I wave her off. I’m sure he’s with his fleet. They probably chased a school of tuna out to the open sea.

The woman opens her mouth as if to say something, but instead tucks her chin and returns the folding screen, which had been displayed upside down in their entryway until this morning.

It’s a joyous occasion when the screen is displayed right-side up. I kneel next to the pregnant belly for hours, guiding the mother through her breathing. I boil some water in wait, rub the mother’s back and massage the needles out of her legs. Ganbareya, I say. You’ll meet your healthy baby soon. After receiving the baby, I clean the mucus from his mouth and gently wash him, a dancing fish in hot water. The frail body takes in the air of the entire universe and expels it in one loud cry. I cry too, without fail. And so, the mother and I, we huddle over this new life and welcome him with tears

But my heart sinks each time I see the screen displayed upside down. Poor families with nothing to eat. Babies of adultery. Children born with deformities. Each time, I head down the dirt path chewing on prayers. The previous midwife, Etsu, used to say these are deities lost in the human realm. So, I pray for the newborn in my arms, but I also secretly pray as I approach the river that a kappa will never cross my path. In a drought year like this, the neighborhoods are oft ornamented with the upside-down screen. I make the journey to the river several times a month.

I arrive home to find a group of children crouched by my door.

Head home, your parents are probably worried, I say.

The kids cast off the pill bugs and scatter, leaving dust and stillness.

Silence greets me on the other side of the door. Dense, cold. A lingering warmth where Kahei used to sit with his long pipe.

Despite my efforts to suppress it, a sudden thought: what our life together might have been if we’d had children. If he were still here.

Kahei came from one of the founding families of Soma, a long line of fishermen and hunters. I fell for his love of rain, his intoxicating scent, how he couldn’t fall asleep unless he was held, just as his mother had held him when he was a boy—so beloved was he.

But familiarity gave way to distance. Our last encounter: I’d cut my hand that morning, but in the end I didn’t tell him. He was upset, yelling. Why are we still together if it’s a chore to talk to me or touch me? This frigid woman is not who I married.

When I step outside, I notice my neighbor Goro waiting by the basin, fingers fidgeting inside the sleeve of a clean kimono. All week he’s been inviting me to see the peddler’s show.

Shameful, Mother’s voice is saying. Your husband’s barely been gone, and you let men flock like flies on cow shit. You never even gave Kahei an heir.

I drown the voice with my thoughts: I’ve sent Goro away many times. But he was left in the field under the hot sun for most of his childhood and is too thick for subtlety.

I bow politely, then pass him to rinse my hands. I wash up to my elbows but the smell of river lingers. The running water weighs like a child.

How was your day? Goro asks.

Mother’s voice is a distant buzz. I can’t remember when these voices started again.

Goro repeats his question, How was your—?

How was your day? I cut him off.

His reply is simple: It was perfect.

Etsu reminds me that last night she’d seen a waning moon over the river, where a toddler walked hand in hand with his parents.

I say, Surely not, it’s not a full moon.

Goro is quiet.

Mother’s voice: an imperfect moon is most perfect.

A woman of class, Mother’s one regret was marrying Father, an advisor to a daimyo deposed shortly after they wed. Ornate flower vases followed her from the castle to the farmhouse. Father apprenticed his callous-free hands with local fishermen, but Mother clung to her tea ceremonies, pruning away flowers to make wabi arrangements while extemporaneously quoting Rikyu, as if she had any idea. The designs were always incomplete. That was the trend: a single flower, a broken vase. A bare alcove, neatly swept. Imperfect ghosts of their former life, an invocation of the beautiful things that previously existed.

Mother appears before me, beautiful. She has porcelain skin peculiar for a farmer’s wife, slender eyes, small mouth capable of expressing hospitality and rebuff. Long, thick black hair she wore in a loose knot. In comparison I am barely plain, with stringy hair that is never combed.

She tamed her heart with discipline. She turned to tea rituals when my infant sister died. When she lost my father to the cold Hisanohama sea, she started my bridal training. At breakfast, we threaded needles; before bed, we patched kimonos. She slapped my hand for a wrong shamisen chord, locked me outside in the snow for a missed dance step. She caned me in the back; never the face, nothing that left a mark. I was lazy. I was stupid. Always talking too much, walking too fast. From the lake where I picked morning glories, I could see the castle looming like thunderclouds.

And I see her face wilted upon finding dirt on my kimono. Throwing the scrolls of the kappa at my face: I’ll break your spine if I catch you there again.

I never went to the lake, but when I was fifteen I took a kitchen knife to her neck. Silence flooded over us. I poked the vein that floated under her translucent skin and I swear I saw the blood singing as it escaped, dark scarlet and glorious. She ran screaming. She survived, and after that day there were no more lessons.

The entire village had heard by afternoon. People whispered, I told you. She’s the spawn of an ogre.

I returned to the lake. The lake was quiet, desolate. I collected a smooth stone from the river and rolled it in my palm. I put its cold surface to my lips. I watched the shiny backs of frogs in a patina of water rings. But Mother’s voice wouldn’t escape my head: The kappa grabs children’s feet.

I heard a rustle behind me, and when I turned I thought I saw a glimpse of wet green flesh.

From then on, it started appearing everywhere. A webbed hand around a pillar, nostrils peeking over rice stalks. The smell of swamp. Each time I dug my fingernails into my hands and ran. At first the villagers would utter, That poor girl. Some even sat with me, putting bandages on my blistered hands. But eventually they laughed. They stepped out of my way, averting their eyes. There she goes again.

I took up in a cave nearby. From there I could watch the village, the sheep clouds, children with dragonflies, and fathers headed to fields.

The elders finally called me when Etsu was retiring. We need someone to fill her shoes, they said.

Why me?

Mabiki weighs on the souls of people. It can make them crazy.

A collective smirk: But this shouldn’t be a problem for you.

The first time, they told me not to cry. Etsu’s seventy-year-old hands swelled like broad beans. The family will be emotional, she said. Go outside if you’re overwhelmed.

The baby was born gray and covered in wetness. Etsu didn’t bother to wash off the mucus; systematically, she put a wet textile over its face. Under the bone-white cloth, the wrinkled body twitched and fell still.

I excused myself. I went around back and vomited. Upon seeing the vomit, I threw up again. I thought of my sister, who had died before she could be given a name. Babies often died, and when they did, people said the gods took back what was still theirs. My mother had pressed my sister’s bony torso against hers, then sent her lifeless body down the river.

When I finished vomiting, I searched for hay to cover the puddle so no one would see. I stooped to pick up a stone and clutched it in my hand. Then I went back inside.

Etsu helped move my things to her home, a small minka in an isolated part of town on land gifted her by the village. Some fifty years ago the bordering field had been the site of a violent battle, and ever since, villagers had sometimes seen the pale apparition of a soldier, or soldiers, there, standing in the darkened grass. Father had said once, every death is sadame—that is, written—but nothing could quell the villagers’ distaste for passing there.

Every morning Etsu lit incense to settle their souls before tending the garden. She spent hours outdoors with her hands in the dirt, plucking new sprouts. All her motions fluid, guileless.

How do you do it? I asked.

She looked at me. Then she rubbed the underside of a nascent leaf. You pull it like this, from the root, she said. She balled her hand over the damp soil. Just one sprout per fist. The roots won’t tangle, and they’ll have better chance for survival this way.

How do you decide? I asked.

The first to sprout is usually the strongest, she said. That’s the one you keep.

But how do you know? How could you know?

For a moment the wind blew, parting the lush verdant field.

Summer grass, she said.

When she said no more, I realized she was quoting a poem. Oh summer grass, the remains of the soldiers’ dreams. It was a song of loss for what never would be, for everything fleeting.

A hawk perched on a tall pine and fluffed its feathers.

The first times were hardest for me, too, Etsu said.

She wrapped her hand around mine. It doesn’t get easier. But I have to believe it’s all written.

Later, I’d remember this moment when Etsu cut off both her hands.

An iron pot hangs in Goro’s hand. You should eat something, he says. I made soup from wild boar.

The weight of the pot forms creases down Goro’s flexed forearm and I blush.

The boar is salty.

Kahei was wrong to leave you, Goro says.

My fingers fidget with a stone in my hand. He’s just delayed, I say.

But ineludibly I think of the last time I saw Kahei, the night he stormed off and never returned. He said he was tired of finding the words to reassure me.

Etsu’s voice says, Some pain you just can’t fix.

Goro watches me put my bowl to my mouth. His head bounces several times. Yes, the tuna travel so far this time of year, he says. They must be very far offshore.

I chew my food slowly. Is this your recipe?

I’d make a great wife, Goro laughs.

The kids from earlier hover in the doorway. Samba-san, Samba-san, they
call to me.

I put my hands together to thank my meal, then greet them with sugar candies.

Come see the peddler! Ko puffs his cheeks. The oldest of four brothers, a measles outbreak left him an only child.

I heard he put Ikeno under a spell and made him cluck like a chicken! says Rintaro, whose sister was born last week weighing no more than a wisteria blossom.

Mother’s voice is a hum: I don’t expect that baby to survive the month. I yell at her to be quiet.

The kids scatter, whispering to each other, You made her mad, she might spirit you away! Watching their backs grow small, I think about how frequent these voices have been since Kahei left.

As I think, his face appears, a square jaw darkened by hairs I know are jagged to the touch. A face trusted by elders, coveted by village wives. But back then it was me he was choosing, it was me and only me that he looked at, that he wanted. He wrote me letters I hid in my kimono sleeve.

For him I tried to be normal. I tried to keep it together, to prevent my mind from filling with daydreams. Because when the neighbors said it was abnormal I hadn’t delivered him an heir, and I held the secret, ashamed and worried that something was wrong with me, he pulled me to him by the nape of the neck and said, Our village is full of babies you brought into the world. And when he was around, the kappa never showed.

The peddler Tokimitsu has gathered a crowd in front of his lodging. He wears a silk kimono in Kyoto purple, hair pulled back and slicked with some kind of fat. He’s laid out bottles of bear oil, toothpaste, and textiles.

Children gather by toys made of metal and wood. Introducing himself to the crowd, the man, who calls himself Tokimitsu, first displays a black mantle that he explains shields the wearer from fires.

Then, with great gesticulation, he presents a small Ushiwaka doll: an oblong face painted white, a white kimono with gold trims. When Tokimitsu signals, the doll turns its head and places its hand over its chest to bow. The crowd howls. A resurrection before their very eyes. He’s infused a soul into the doll, one man says.

Come on, Goro tugs my sleeve. I nod, but my eyes remain pegged to the peddler.

Madam, he points. It’s an honor to have you here. The medium to the spirit world.

Etsu used to say our work was divine. That we imprint destinies through the umbilical cord.

Tokimitsu raises his chin in my direction. You carry a great sadness.

His voice is an imaginary hand deflating my lungs. He moves his head, taunting. Your luck might have changed if you’d had children in your youth. Why didn’t you?

The children are thumbing a dragon’s whisker with a squeal of glee. Tokimitsu smiles as if he knows the answer and glances at Goro, whose face is white.

I do respect you madam, he says. Your role requires you to make great sacrifices. Just look what happened to your predecessor.

One of the children looks up from his toy. What happened, Mama?

The mother pats her child, Hush now, hush.

There’s a voice in the crowd. She lost her marbles, that’s what.

Tokimitsu brandishes the sleeve of his kimono. In the gold trim I see my mother. Everything about her was shiny, even her laughter high-pitched

Now that’s enough, Tokimitsu says. Today, I’ve come to show you something wonderful.

With great pomp he produces a cloth bag from his inside pocket. This—he pauses for drama—is my greatest discovery. He spills the seeds onto the table, seeds of every color, black, amber, small, narrow, round. Gathered from across the Silk Road, he says, fingering the lustrous grains. Manchurian long grain, eaten by the peasants who overthrew the Ming dynasty. Charmed by great wizards. Fertilized with ground pearl, dried seahorse, manure from a white ox. Your crops are sure to triple, quadruple even, he says. The highest quality white rice to ship to Edo, and some left over to consume yourselves.

I echo the collective breath of the crowd. No one has much eaten rice before, except to taste. Rice isn’t grown to feed poor farmers. It’s sent to the capital to lay stacked like currency in the storage houses of wealthy merchants and samurai.

Later that day, the village elders call a meeting.

It’s a lot of money, one elder says.

But what choice do we have, a voice from the end of the room: Isetani, who lives at the village end. I birthed all five of his children; the two living ones share their widow’s peaks and brashness.

I hear my voice chiming in, We can’t claw out of our lot by sticking to the same seeds year after year. We can’t just keep doing the same thing.

Goro looks surprised. Well I’m not gonna, he says. Our lot’s small.

The room erupts in murmurs. I think about how Kahei would’ve shushed everyone.

I stand. Three gold kobans from my mother’s inheritance.

Goro nudges my arm. Under his breath, No.

My husband’s voice keeps telling me to bid higher, higher. We must, I say. This will save us.

You’re sure?

Recall the last famine, was it not my husband who saved this village?

I notice more people nodding, though some look like they want to interject. Their gazes float as if, focused, they might unsettle my emotions like dust.

The elders say finally, We allow each family to draw the fate of their own.

Farmers put in what little they have, and the coins are collected into a purse that the elders bring to the Suzukis’ guest house. Spilling the coins onto the table, Tokimitsu smiles.

To read the rest of Aya Osuga A.’s “Kappa,” you can purchase MQR’s Spring 2020 Issue by visiting our Purchase page. Aya Osuga A.’s “Kappa” was selected as the Winner of the 2020 Lawrence Prize. To learn more about the prize, visit our Prizes page.