When I was in elementary school, we had a class where we had to think of a PR slogan for our town.
The tiny town in southern Saga where I lived at the time was walled in by the Ariake Sea, into which most of the local rivers flowed, and the 996 meter high Mt. Tara. It seemed to have nothing else but the sea and the mountain.
That domineering mountain pushed the people of the town towards the sea, and the people, forced to build their homes and roads along the coast, lived modest lives.
That was the impression my mind held as a child.
While my classmates came up with slogans like “Filled with Natural Wonder,” “Delicious Food,” and “Friendly People,” mine was “The Black Town.”
I wasn’t very creative when coming up with this slogan. It was just that the Ariake Sea spreading out as far as the eye could see made up Japan’s largest tidal flat, and “mud colored” was the only way to describe it. Also, the air often became thick and dark with volcanic ash from the neighboring prefecture.
That is why it was the Black Town.
I was just describing what I saw, but my mother became a little sad when she heard about it later.
Well, looking back on it now, I guess it may have reflected my mental state at the time.
I had been frail since birth and had always harbored a complex towards my more burly classmates, the stock of fishermen and farmers.
I also didn’t have a father, and felt a sense of inferiority for not even knowing his face.
This melancholy continued until we moved to Tokyo at the age of 10, and I suspect it took all the color out of the scenery for me.
My mother went back to Saga on occasion, but I never visited even once after the move.
But now I was on a plane bound for Saga Airport in order to return there for the first time in 22 years.
To see my dead mother and the father whose face I didn’t even know.
I was calm in response to hearing about my mother’s death over the phone the night before.
Her cancer was terminal and I was resigned to that fact.
It had been proclaimed that she had three months left to live, and on her own initiative she had returned to that town from her home with me in Tokyo one week previously.
Due to my work, I was unable to go back with her, and had been about to take an extended leave of absence just three days from now.
A farewell sooner than planned.
Being unable to observe her passing was more painful than the death itself.
Around a year ago, her bile duct cancer had been detected after she was hospitalized to conduct some tests on her recently declining health.
“Based on the progression of the cancer, her five year survival rate is extremely low.”
Hearing the doctor’s diagnosis, I was at a loss for words. My mother, however, simply asked about the hospitalization costs in a trembling voice. It was so heartrending and ridiculous and unbearable.
She underwent a laparotomy several days later, but the cancer had moved into a significant portion of the lymph nodes and it was already too late.
She underwent chemotherapy for a while.
It was very unpleasant for her, however, and she stopped.
Not long after my mother began saying she wanted to return to that town.
When I asked her why, all she would say is that she just wanted to.
I was surprised by her decision and fought it.
My mother, however, was stubborn and, working with her brother, half forced the issue.
If there was anything I could do, I would have wanted her to stay close to me, but seeing a woman once so robust and healthy become so small and thin left me no choice but to let her do as she wished.
I was calm in regards to my mother’s death, but hearing that fact from her ex-husband – in other words, my father – went well past surprise, to the point where I practically couldn’t take it as being real.
Getting the call in the middle of the night, my head stopped working when he claimed to be my father. It was all that I could due to reply stupidly, “Oh, I see.”
But when I comprehended that what he was telling me was about my mother, I tensed up instantly.
After a long silence, he spoke. "Your mother... She gone. She be chattin' on like always until yesterday. Then she stop movin' like she was sleepin'. A real shame."
After a moment, I replied in a dry voice I could hardly believe was my own, “I see. That’s unfortunate.”
Why was a man I had never met telling me about my mother’s death?
So thinking, I realized she had probably asked him to do so.
“An’ after she just come home an’ all,” the man on the other end of the line continued speaking, his words colored with sorrow.
The unexpectedly gentle voice sounded like it was older than my mother had been.
The distinctive Saga dialect intonation irritated me a little, but it was also strangely reassuring.
After telling him I would go there the following day, the man seemed to want to talk a little more, but gave up, simply saying “Alright. I’ll be waitin’,“ and, lastly, “Soigi” before hanging up.
Soigi. “Goodbye” in the Saga dialect.
I still remembered.
Passing through the skies above Kansai, the pilot conveyed our flight status.
The empty seats in the cabin were conspicuous, and no one was sitting next to, in front of, or behind me.
I closed my eyes and thought.
Why did my mother go back to that place?
Did she want to spend her remaining moments in the place where she was born?
Or is it that she wanted me and my father to meet?
“I’m home,” I say, returning from elementary school.
Outside, I can hear the disaster warning system playing Yuyake koyake, announcing it is five o’clock.
“Mama, what you doin’?”
“Jus’ a little paintin’.”
“What you paintin’?”
“’Picture of this town.”
“’Cuz this town beautiful.”
This was some time after that one class.
I peered at the painting.
“What this here red thing?”
“That’s the Yutoku Shrine yeah.”
“Ain’t very good is it?”
“You be quiet.”
“This here the ocean? Ain’t that blue. Sky neither.”
“Yes they be.”
“This here green?”
“This here pink?”
“Cherry blossoms yeah.”
“They ain’t bloomin’ now.”
“That’s fine. It’s a paintin’ yeah.”
“Yuh huh. And what about this buildin’?”
“Our house yeah.”
“Ain’t that big!”
“It’s fine, it‘s fine. It’s a paintin’ yeah.”
“It’s bigger than Yutoku Shrine,” I said laughing.
My mother laughed, too.
The plane began getting ready to land.
I tried to look at the scenery outside, but couldn’t focus on anything.
My blurred vision gradually grew clearer.
It must be high tide right now.
The lapping waves of the sea reflected the light of the sun, and amidst them nori farms floated in regular lines.
Rice fields like a patchwork of contrasting greens appeared, and my breath caught at their beauty.
The flat field of the land stretched far and wide, while the distant ridgeline glowed a hazy gold.
Three or four colorful hot air balloons floated in the sky.
Maybe this is the view my mother wanted to show me.
“Soigi,” I quietly whispered.