Kumiho was a short story I wrote about 10 years back, and semi-autobiographical. I chanced upon it when looking through some old files and decided to share it.
Since my boyfriend lost his car last summer, I’ve been taking the bus a lot. You meet a weird lot riding the bus, especially in Los Angeles, where public transportation is the option of last resort. There are the people who hop on and immediately open up the cases of stolen watches, the homeless who haven’t bathed in weeks if not months and sometimes, the people like me who are just enduring the commute to work. These are generic descriptions, but there are some very specific characters I’ve encountered: one fellow who carries a white cane and pretends to be blinds so he can ride for free; an old sweet-looking grandmotherly woman who always wears the same tweed suit with lace gloves and is so terrified that there won’t be any room for her on the bus she always cuts in front of the line, even if she has to push others out of her way. I remember less benign sorts too: the young man mumbling to himself, writing ‘kill’ over and over and over on the pad of paper in front of him; the crack-high gangbanger who tried to pick a fight with a bunch of scared high school kids and waved his gun around on the bus, announcing: “I’m a god-damned Blood, so you had better be showing me some respect!”
This isn’t about any of those people.
When I stepped onto the bus this afternoon (after being elbowed out of the way by the old woman with the lace gloves), there was another old woman already seated. I sat down next to her, as most of the places were taken, and for some reason I was less than enthusiastic about sitting down next to she-of-the-sharp-elbows. I had my book with me. It was pretty close to a perfect arrangement: I could sit there and read, the old woman would just sit, and we wouldn’t have to so much as look at each other.
She had other ideas; she wanted to talk. Her English was quite good, but she’d never lost the Japanese accent.
There’s a hospital near where I work, and that’s where she was coming from. Her husband was there. She was coming back from visiting him, and she was very excited because today was the first day in six days that he’d been able to eat solid food.
I told her congratulations. That’s great news. I tried to read another paragraph from my tale of the Black Company.
No good. She wasn’t finished.
She told me the doctors said he probably wouldn’t make it. He’d had a heart attack and he hadn’t called a doctor when she told him to, and so she’d been forced to call 911 herself. They’d been forced to operate.
I told her I was sorry for her, and in the completely callous manner of a seasoned bus veteran, tried to go back to reading my book.
She smiled at me. Her eyes had the faint beginnings of cataracts, but they held no hint of sadness. No, she told me. He would survive. He had eaten today. He’d said he wanted to go home. From now on, she would make sure he took care of himself.
A third time, I tried to politely agree, ignore her, and go back to reading.
The old woman touched my hand. I startled, because well, she’d touched me. There’s some things you just don’t do. There was no threat to the touch though, no danger. It was just…unnerving. She looked at me and said: “You have beautiful hands. They are perfect. My hands were never so perfect.”
I stared at her. “Thank you, I…”
“Pretty hands. You don’t do anything to make them like that, do you? They look lovely all on their own.
I’d never really thought about it. I’m an artist, a writer. My hands are my life. Does sun block 50 count?
I was starting to feel embarrassed, so I said: “I’m just younger. I bet your hands looked just like this when you were my age.” She had a petite sweetness about her, a prettiness that suggested she probably had been quite stunning when she was young.
“I was your age when I met him in Japan,” she told me. “He was an American soldier.”
“Oh.” I resisted the urge to ask if he had been with the occupational forces. My ex-husband’s father had served there, after World War II. He’d come back to war trophies: a Japanese army officer’s ceremonial katana, two gorgeous silk embroidered tapestries, and two very beautiful, if somewhat unconventional, paintings of Mount Fuji painted with acrylics on silk. Frank had always claimed he’d paid for them, and I had no reason to doubt that, but I still didn’t think it would be very tactful of me to bring them up. Besides, she looked old, but she didn’t look that old.
“He gave me a diamond,” she said, holding up her hand. She whispered that, which I thought was prudent. She wore a wedding/engagement ring combo on her wedding finger. If it was diamond, it needed to be cleaned something fierce. She wore a string of pearls around her neck and another ring on the middle finger of her left hand, but the emerald was too big, too clear a green, to be anything but glass. The jade ring on her right hand was probably real enough. It was cut to look like a fox’s head. Probably made in China.
“He told me he would come back in five years to marry me. Five years can be a long time.” She laughed at the memory.
I looked at her. “Yeah. It can.” A damn long time, I thought. I didn’t know any American girl who would have waited that long, not for a soldier from another country, not in an age where there was no internet or cell phones to keep in touch. I wondered: had he written a lot of letters?
“Five years later, he came back, just like he said he would,” she explained. “That was when he was finished twenty years in the Army, you see. He retired. He said he gave me three things: his word, his heart and his time. This way, he could give all of himself to me.”
I started to get a funny itching sensation at the back of my throat. “Wow. That’s so sweet. How—how long have you been married?”
“32 years.” She smiled. “I love him very much. He’s a very good man. A very honest man. When he took a job, later, he would always come home the same time so I would know where he was, so I would know he wasn’t fooling around. When I think of our love, I feel very young.”
20 years in the military, with another 32 tacked on to that, and assuming he was 18 when he began…her husband was at least 70 years old. I couldn’t really tell how old she was. But him? 70 years old and a major heart attack? The lump in my throat grew.
She told me more then. How she had teased him, because he hated Japanese food but married a Japanese woman. How she preferred sticky rice, but she made him Minute-Rice, because that’s what his mother used to make him. How scared she had been at the heart attack, because she couldn’t move her husband. He was big man who weighed 200lbs, and she looked like she might break 100 if she was wet and holding the housecat. How glad she would be to have him home again. There was no doubt, no uncertainty, in her voice. How could he possibly die if he was hungry, if he wanted to come home?
It would be different this time. She would make him take care of himself. He’d always been too busy before. Too busy taking care of her.
I realized then, why she was telling all of this to a stranger on the bus: because she had no children, no family in the United States. Who knows? Maybe she had no family in Japan, either. In any case, she had thought her husband wouldn’t survive, that he was dead. The doctors had told her he wouldn’t likely make it, but here he was, opening his eyes, talking to her, eating real food and saying he wanted to go home. She was so full of joy she was ready to explode.
She had make someone understand. Anyone. Me.
Her stop came up before mine, and as she stood, she turned and asked me my name. Normally, I don’t give that out, but in her case I did without thinking about it.
She smiled and clapped her hand over mine. “Sweet girl. I’m Kumiho.”
I stared after her in shock as she walked down the bus steps.
Kamiho, I told myself. It’s the accent. You misunderstood her. Kumiho? That’s all wrong. That’s not even Japanese. A kumiho is a Korean nine-tailed fox. It’s something out of myth and legend, not real, and certainly nothing a parent would ever name their child. She must have said Kamiho. That’s a perfectly normal name for a Japanese woman, isn’t it?
I didn’t really know.
The bus moved on, and I lost sight of her. I never saw her again, even though I took that route every day for another year. Maybe we just missed each other.
When I stepped off the bus, I took the long way home, thinking about fox women, honor, and American soldiers, and how damn little I understand about love.