Tsuki Amai’s wristwatch emitted a soft click, and she tugged gently at her ear to make sure, for the tenth time that day, that she was awake. Her mother hated this peculiar tic which had begun when Tuski turned seven and recieved a wristwatch of her own, but twenty years of softly padded admonitions had not had any affect on her daughter’s behavior. Tsuki stopped to pull out the small leather notebook she kept in her purse to note this new data point. Her slim, bony fingers moved swiftly—the task had been perfected years ago. Mastery of a thing is inevitable if you do it twice every waking hour of every day for twenty years.
Tsuki had awoken early that day. A flock of gulls had decided to engage in a cacophonous 6AM shouting match over a fish carcass they had found outside the house. Tsuki begged her eyes to stay shut, but found herself mechanically rising from the bed. She did not tug on her ear. This was because, as she told me once, it is impossible to be awake or asleep when your body is transitioning from one state to the other. Like everything that passed her lips, this statement emerged in a brusque staccato that could render truthful even the strangest of utterances. In this way, Tsuki’s world was colored black and white, and pathways were always clearly delineated. If God had a voice, she would sound like Tsuki Amai.
She folded and placed the white bedroll in the back corner of the room next to the low bookshelf that held twenty seven leather notebooks, identical to the one she kept in her purse in all except color. To have more than one notebook of the same color, she told me, would cause confusion. What kind of confusion she meant I never knew. Of course, I have hypotheses, but hypotheses do not exist in Tsuki’s world, only facts. The only other things on the wooden bookshelf were a dictionary and a small stone statue of the Buddha that her Aunt Kumiko had brought back from China and given her for her fifth birthday.
Sliding open the shoji door that cordoned off her room from the rest of the house, she could see that the sun had already begun to illuminate her small apartment. It was August in Nagasaki, and Tsuki knew it would not be long until the light grew into an oppressive heat. She made an effort to hurry her morning routine and swiftly padded down the short tatami hallway to eat her standard, factual breakfast: buttered toast, black coffee, and that day’s newspaper. She ate in silence, enjoying the calm respite that living alone provided.
By the time her watch clicked—6:30 AM—she had already dressed in her light summer kimono. She remembered picking out the breezy white, rose-patterned linen years before with her mother during a trip to Tokyo. It was the first kimono she had ever sewn herself, and if Tsuki Amai had believed in good luck charms, this would have been hers. She told me once that she was a full three centimeters taller in this kimono—she had measured. If it had been anyone else, I would not have believed it. But it was not anyone else. It was Tsuki, so it had to be true.
As a tailor, she was self-employed. Her business card contained only her name and a phone number. She was well-known for her work, and, as she explained it, a true representation of her position would require much more space. But even Tsuki’s local fame could not prevent her business from trickling away when the war started. What worth is a closet full of kimonos with an empty pantry? The lack of clients did not bother Tsuki. Like her mother, monetary potentialities did not motivate Tsuki’s passion for seams and stitches. She had not only a closet full of kimonos, but had turned her empty pantry into another. Whenever stress overtook her, she would walk amongst her creations, gingerly running her crooked fingers over silks and satins. These were the only conversations that occurred in that apartment. Before slipping on her sandals to leave she tugged her ear and, satisfied, made a note in the leather notebook.
It was not easy to forget the war in an industrial city. Everywhere Tsuki walked there were tanned men with callused hands uniformed in the western style, heading to work, or from work, always with a smear of grease somewhere on their creased faces. Tsuki realized through her observations that wrinkles are not, as most people thought, caused by age. Instead, the burdens one bears tug on the skin until creases form. Every evening she would carefully inspect her skin in the mirror, scouring for any new folds. In the twenty-seven years she’d been alive, her search had never yielded any results.
Observations were how Tsuki now spent her days. When she left the house, she would wander in a direction that both pleased her and was unfamiliar until she found somewhere that made her stop. Today, the stagnant heat coerced her into the shadowy alleyway behind her building. It was no more than two meters wide—one side lined with multi-story apartment buildings, the other with a high brick wall, spotted with moss. The angle of the sun made it so that by the time she approached the middle of the alley, it was too dark to see her sandals. A stray cat brushed against her legs and meowed up at her with luminous amber eyes; startled, she boosted her pace until she emerged back into the sunlight on the other side.
Most days, Tsuki could find a new spot within the hour. By the time she heard her watch’s third click at, she would be comfortably situated, and able to make her note with ease. Today, perhaps it was the heat, or perhaps it was the hour; her legs simply did not stop. Three clicks went by, then four, then five… Each time Tsuki stopped, tugged her right ear, pulled out her notebook, jotted down a quick note, and continued on her way. By the time the tenth click arrived, it was 11:00. Instinctively, Tsuki’s legs stopped moving. She had arrived.
Urakami Cathedral met her gaze solemnly. The hulking church had been a fixture of the city, but only part of its backdrop for Tsuki. For the first time in her life, she stepped inside. Her wooden sandals echoed in the grandiose space causing the only other person in the church to turn and take in her figure. He was an older man, his face creased deeply and deliberately. Their dark eyes met for a moment and Tsuki opened her mouth to say something, but the man turned back around before she could figure out what she wanted to say. This struck Tsuki as strange—her favorite part of her observations was the truth in the disconnect between the observer and the observed. This world apart was more solid, and Tsuki preferred firm ground.
She moved deeper into the chamber and took a seat in an oak pew. For a moment she thought about praying, but thought the little Buddha on her bookshelf might look at her differently if she did. Instead she raised her hand to her earlobe, but the tug this time was deafening. Before she had time to pull out her leather notebook and record her findings, Tsuki Amai had vanished. A heat unlike anything she had ever known had swallowed her up in an instant. The man, too, was gone. And the church, and the mossy brick wall, and the stray cat, and the apartment building. The kimonos in her pantry no longer existed, nor did the bedroll, or the worn tatami mats, or the years of quickly jotted notes on ear-tugging.
In the end, Tsuki would never know whether she was awake or not in that moment. Sometimes, I doubt that she ever existed at all. There are no records of our conversations, and her name isn’t listed in any edition of Nagasaki-area phone books. I even went to visit her childhood home, where as girls we would play hide-and-go-seek until our mothers called us home for dinner, but when I gave the cab driver the address, he told me that whatever had been there was demolished back in the 20s. When the government finally allowed the public back into the once-proud rubble, I jumped at the opportunity; surely Tsuki’s apartment would hold something tangible. The need to purge my mind of doubt overcame my fear of radiation, and when I arrived at the site I immediately dropped to my hands and knees and sifted frantically through the rubble. Somewhere, a clock chimed out eleven o’ clock. I looked around at the razed landscape and raised my fingers to my right earlobe. Before I could complete the tug, a plump smile caught my eye—Tsuki’s stone Buddha was staring right at me. I scurried to the slightly disfigured, ashy statue and cradled him against my chest.
I could feel the furrows of my brow become shallower as I tucked him in my pocket and headed back to my hotel. When I woke up the next morning to pack my bag, the statue was nowhere to be found in the sparse, clinical hotel room. I tried to think back to where I could have lost it, but all I could think about was how I hadn’t noted the results of my ear tug. Perhaps it was me who was asleep.
Natalie Einselen is a recent Boston University graduate. She’s trying to work more color into her wardrobe.