I am sleeping with the Japanese Emperor tonight. It is the way I say goodbye.
Not the current Emperor of course, His Majesty of the rumpled suits and the shy smile. I mean his father: the Showa Emperor, Hirohito, the short man with the glasses, bent over and bone-thin by the end of his life. But somehow he seemed old even when he was young, and we never saw him smile. At least, the current Emperor does. He seems a sweet man, his wife a bit taller than he is, even though she’s learned to droop slightly to hide it, her hair gray now. His too. Grandparents, they are, to the four girls and that little boy.
Kei and I don’t have grandchildren yet, although if all goes well we should, later this year. Twins, even. Perhaps a boy and a girl, although Mari said when she called earlier tonight that they aren’t sure yet. She says she’ll name a boy after Kei somehow, a name that can be used in America, where she and Jack are. I hope Kei lives long enough to see them. Not just in pictures, but to actually meet them, perhaps even hold one, if she can bring them over here to Japan. Though it’s probably too late for that already.
That’s why I’ve ended up sleeping with the Emperor. I couldn’t sleep alone. Not after Mari and I finished talking, all the unanswerable questions left unsaid. Each day that goes by is another step forward, and that’s enough for all of us, for now. Especially here, where all the news is bad.
The bed’s too wide for just one person. Strange, the things you miss. A blanket pulled off in the night, the two cold feet. The snores.
It may be the silence that finally gets me out of bed, makes me grab a sheet and a pillow, and pad from the room and down the stairs. The house is silent and thick with heat, the humid air of summer. I walk through the downstairs hallway and outside, across to the storehouse and workshop, the building that takes up most of our land.
Once I get the door unlocked, the vast room is cool and dark. The light doesn’t go far; shadows pool in the corners and up at the eaves. But I can still see the wax figures crowded throughout: in pairs, or groups, or single. All under sheets, like a vast company of ghosts. I need light here, but Kei never did. He knew where everybody was.
I shuffle inside, clutching my sheet and pillow, moving slowly between the figures under their white shrouds until I am where I want to be. I pull off the sheet that shields the Emperor. It pools on the floor with a sigh.
Tomorrow, he leaves. I have sold him to a history museum.
Kei would kill me if he knew. But it’s not his choice to make anymore, it is mine. I need the money. And it’s easier this way, somehow. Bit by bit.
* * *
It began with his hands first. A stiffness in the mornings, so that he had to rub them to get them to move properly. Then stiffness for much of the day. An ache between the knuckles, across the palms. More than aching.
“I’m getting old.” He grimaced, rubbing them with Tiger’s Balm. “It’s to be expected. My mother had arthritis – she got it pretty young, too.”
He was sixty. He’d just had his birthday, just talked with Mari on the phone from New York.
He began dropping things. A book, a glass. Chopsticks clattered from his fingers. We still just joked to each other about his clumsiness, though, until the night I filled his rice bowl and handed it over, watched him reach out for it, and then stop, his hand just touching the bowl.
“Go on,” I said. “Take it.”
“I can’t.” The words wavered at he stared at his hand.
“What do you mean, you can’t?” I put down the bowl too fast. It made a sharp sound on the table.
“I can’t. I can’t get my fingers to move.”
“Your leg on that side’s fine, right?” I managed to seem calm, already thinking of phone calls, an ambulance. “You’re speaking just the way you always do. Your face is the same.”
“No, everything else seems all right. Just this hand. Just my fingers. It’s not a stroke.” He frowned. “I don’t think.”
He told me then. How it had gotten harder to work the wax, to shape it the way he wanted once he’d gotten it out of the mold. How even his sketches weren’t coming out right, the lines wavered all over the page. Sometimes he couldn’t even hold the pen; it fell out of his fingers, like the chopsticks.
I took a deep breath, touched his hand. “We need to find you a doctor.”
The first doctor sent us to another doctor, who sent us to another, and another. Up from local office all the way to one of the biggest hospitals in Tokyo. There were tests. There were names thrown out to us of things it might be, and then things it was not. Working our way down the list, crossing off names until the ones left dried my mouth just thinking about them. Things much, much worse than multiple sclerosis.
At last we sat by the doctor’s desk in the dark neurology wing. His face stiff, he cleared his throat, looked at the computer screen. ALS. Lou Gehrig’s disease.
* * *
In the movies it’s always spring when the couple meets, but not for us. A gray, dark November day with low skies, damp enough to hint at snow. The classroom was warm French class, and we actually had a real French Mademoiselle for our teacher.
I was pulling out my notes when a heavy book slammed to the floor beside me. The room had fallen silent as Mademoiselle entered, and thirty pairs of eyes whirled to stare.
The thin young man was nearly abject as he reached for the book, now knocking his pen and pencil case to the floor. The lid broke off, things inside spilled out, clattering, and rolled.
“Sorry. Sorry.” His head bobbed between looking at me and down at the floor, where he was scrabbling for red pens, and pencils. Now Mademoiselle was staring at me too. This was unbearable.
“Let me help. It’s going to take you forever.”
I probably didn’t really say that, but Kei has always insisted I did. “I saw right away how sweet and helpful you were,” he has teased, down through the years. If I thought anything, I think it was that I just wanted to have nobody staring our way.
I grabbed a pencil. Kei reached out for a compass, a ruler. I saw the back of his head, a few wisps of hair straggling down the nape of his neck as if he was overdue for a haircut. A thread or two snaking up from the collar of his jacket; those were the days when students wore suits and ties, those narrow early 1960s ties. His hands, the fingers long and exceptionally thin. The nails, neatly trimmed. And the faintest shimmer from the edges of his nails, which actually seemed to gleam slightly.
Of course, it was wax.
I would come to know that gleam well. Just the slightest iridescent layer, usually when he’d finished a project and had time to really clean up. During the worst of the work, he wouldn’t bother, and the wax built up on his fingernails in layers like the thick, gnarled toenails of old men. I made him peel it off with a kitchen knife, the point inserted underneath so he could lift the wax away in chunks. But some of it clung.
It made the skin of his hands very soft. His fingers were never chapped. They also, nearly always, smelled of wax. That creamy, cool hint of roses and of jade, of thick-leaved plants in pots whose stems oozed milky nectar thick as glue.
Now, I go sometimes into the dining room and open the tall sideboard with its glass-front doors. The bitter smell of wood stain flows out, even now, after years. I reach in for the candles in their small glass holders, I pull one out and lift it to my nose, I close my eyes to breathe and breathe. Seeing behind my eyelids Kei’s hands.
He’d get into bed and pull the blanket up – over both of our heads, to make a secret, silent tent – and then place those soft hands on me. On my forehead, stroking back my hair, or at the back of my neck, blowing his breath there as I giggled, his fingers cool on my skin. Those silken, fragrant hands caressed my shoulders, ran lightly along my collarbones, slid lower. The tips of his fingers were the softest. Even his lips couldn’t quite match them.
His hands look so very different now.
But that day, of course, all I saw was the gleam on his fingers. The way he looked up at me, embarrassment red across his cheeks. How dark his eyes were. The way his upper lip lifted away from his teeth as he laughed in nervousness, a quirk that made me want to say stop, nothing can be that bad, even as I felt like laughing too.
Once he’d gathered his things and crammed them into his pen case, he sat back in his chair and sighed. Then, as Mademoiselle began with her “bonjour,” he took out a pen.
At the end of class he turned to me. “Do you have some time now? Maybe we could have some coffee. I know a good place near here. My treat.”
“Sure,” I said as we headed out the building and the university gates.
“Here we are,” he said a few minutes later at the shop front, pulling open the door. I waited for him to go in but he stopped, holding up a hand to usher me in. “You first.”
My eyebrows rose at the unusual courtesy as I went in, feeling like Audrey Hepburn or Grace Kelly. As Kei wanted me to feel, he told me later. He knew this was the right thing to do if you were a gentleman.
We walked in. The coffee shop was dark, as most of them were those days; nothing of the bright cheer of Starbucks, that thick fake friendliness. It broke Kei’s heart when most of the old coffee shops faded away, the ones with the siphon coffee where the grounds and the bubbling water looked more like a science experiment than a drink. Or the ritual of grinding, tapping out the metal drawer of the grinder – the man at his favorite coffee shop, the one where he took me that day, almost made it into a song, a jazz beat echoing the music that flowed out of the stereo around us, the Charlie Parker that Kei loved – and then the careful pouring of boiling water over the grounds.
“This is how you make coffee,” Kei always said happily, when we managed to find a coffee shop that kept to the old ways. He made our coffee at home, of course.
I wonder if the Emperor ever drank coffee. Probably not, though I imagine his son does. The Emperor would have loved green tea, sipped it hot from the cup, smacked his lips. Maybe he even smiled then, a small, secret smile. And maybe his wife smiled too, watching. Happy to have seen him happy.
When Kei asked me if I wanted to see a movie on Friday night, I said yes.
* * *
The Emperor stands before me now. Roughly life-size, which means not much taller than I am. He’s wearing a military uniform, as he did before and during the unspeakable days of the war. The uniform is green, with braid over the shoulders. On special occasions he had a saber slung by his side.
There is a saber for him now, but that will be wrapped separately when they take him away tomorrow. His eyeglasses, those round wire spectacles he wore all his life, are crooked. I reach over and straighten them, running my finger over the cold metal. Then I place my palm on his face. The wax of his cheek is smooth and cool. I run my fingers down to his chin.
I remember Kei, bending to his face with a cloth for the final shine, standing back and smiling with satisfaction. Then reaching over to straighten his spectacles, just as I had.
* * *
Once we knew, things moved far too fast. Within months, he was using a child’s training chopsticks, with loops around the fingers, to eat. A few months later, a spoon, held tight in his fist. I took grilled fish off the bones, chopped meat extra small for the thick, soupy curries he requested once a month, the way he had as long as we’d been married.
He still went out to the workshop, still tried to smooth the faces of figures. But the tools slipped, and after he took a deep gouge out of the cheek of one – it was a figure of a rock musician, one of the young men from SMAP, I think – he decided to stop.
“At least it wasn’t Charlie Parker,” I tried to joke.
“No. And I promise I didn’t do it on purpose.” He smiled briefly. “No reflection on their lousy music.”
The next to go was taste. Beer became so bitter he spat it out, tomatoes and tomato sauce stung his tongue. Any hint of meat seemed rotten. He ate half a bowl of curry and pushed it aside.
His doctors said he had to eat, and he tried. But it took too long and made him far too tired. Flesh slid from his bones as if melting. I filled the freezer with ice cream, heaped bowls for us at night. He dug at the scoops of rum raisin with the spoon in his fist. I bought cans of nutritional supplements like Ensure, which we called “milkshakes,” and poured one for him before each meal.
Mari came. She talked to her father as if nothing had changed, but I watched her watch him when he wasn’t looking, her eyes shiny. We clung to each other in the hallway.
“Should I come and stay here?” she asked one night. “John and I were planning on trying again in a couple of months. When I’m completely recovered.” She had lost another child that spring. Not all the shadows on her face were for her father.
“Try,” I said. “It would make him happy. Maybe even happier than having you here.”
I wasn’t lying. He brightened up when Mari came, he laughed almost the way he used to, but I knew he’d welcome luck for her and the chance of children, perhaps a boy named for him.
When she left, the house was still. Kei grew quiet. He sat in his favorite chair for hours, staring at the TV or listening to music. He fell asleep there, too. Suddenly, between two halves of a sentence, I would say something, and get no answer. When I glanced up, he was asleep. Tea cups fell from his fingers as he dozed. Or he would twitch, waking, and coffee flew from his mug.
One day he looked up when I walked by. “Mari?”
“No,” I said. “She’s back in New York. It’s just me.” My voice bright, as if telling a joke. My hands cold.
I called his doctor, who said to come to the hospital. More tests, and he was staying. A mask over his nose for oxygen, to help with the breathing his weak chest muscles could no longer do on their own. The relief, that we knew what was wrong now. In a week or two, he could come home. Patients lived for months, for years, with this.
I brought in the newspaper, began to read. Kei smiled at me from behind the mask, talking softly between breaths in his low, always somehow froggy, voice. The rough baritone that somehow never fit his slender frame.
A week. Two. Three. The oxygen levels in his blood weren’t going up. Doctors spoke of surgery, of tubes, of machines. There was no choice.
His voice is gone now. He looks up at me and mouths words; I answer. Sometimes, he smiles. Sometimes, I do too.
* * *
I could not get through the days now without music; there are only so many things I can read before my voice gives out. So I have taken in a portable CD player and a stack of CDs. I riffled through the stacks at home, trying to find things that Kei would like. There were five shelves in the main room of just CDs; and in his study, shelves of records, which he insisted were “the best way to hear music.”
I wasn’t allowed to touch the record player, but sometimes I would come in and sit on the small, two-person sofa in there and watch as he went through the ritual of the careful cleaning with liquid cleaner on a pad, the delicate brushing. His hands laid down the needle like feathers. There was always a slight, delicious pause before the music began. He’d pad across the floor and smile at me, eyelids drooping the way they did sometimes when he was happiest, then ease himself down. Our legs touched. He might take my hand. Then the music began and his eyes drifted closed. He smiled.
Now, I hold up the CD so he can see it. His eyes widen and he nods. There is a tube in his throat, in the hole there. The machine that breathes for him makes little sound.
I slip in the CD and press the button. Charlie Parker floats out into the room, makes it ours despite the hard chairs, the smell of disinfectant, the nurses who hurry along the hallway, on their way to one disaster or another. Because that is the floor that this is; nobody here is going home anytime soon. The story is the same for all of us, and the end.
I sit back on the chair and listen as the rich notes rise around me, the dark love and longing of saxophones. Outside, the sun is hot, the thick-aired days when heat shimmers across the roads and sidewalks, but here it is cool. I am cold.
Kei looks at me. I look at him. His eyelids drift down. He smiles.
* * *
We’d been dating for several months – movies and maybe a dinner, nothing like kids today do – when we finally went to have tea with Kei’s parents in their house on the outskirts of Tokyo. A British-style tea; I found out later that his father was as big a fan of tea as Kei was of coffee. We sat stiffly on the edge of their sofa, reaching out for cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off, the cups of strong, hot tea, all of us watching each other. But at last, Kei cleared his throat and sat forward, said he wanted to show me “things,” and gestured for me to follow. Puzzled but relieved, I did.
We went out back through the large garden to the huge, barn-like building, the one in which I am now. Kei strode forward so fast I had to nearly run to keep up. He had his hands thrust deep into his pockets until he bent to retrieve the key in the flowerpot by the door, unlocked it, and eased it open.
“Come on,” he said, his arm out to gesture me inside.
The coolness made me shiver at first. The floor was filled with strange, shrouded forms, all draped in heavy white sheets. Some were tall, some shorter.
“What – ?”
“Wax,” Kei said. “Wax figures. You know, like in museums.”
We passed a table with a long, draped figure. I shivered again; all I could think of was a corpse. Around the table were counters packed with jars crammed full of sharp, metallic tools. Brushes lay scattered among rolls of paper, two coffee cups, an ashtray. The air was thick with a smell of candles.
“That’s the work area. An order for a museum in Kagoshima. Saigo Takamori.”
Whipping the sheet off, Kei named a man who’d helped modernise Japan nearly 100 years before. A head and torso lay on the table, the colour flat, pale and – well, waxy. I stared as Kei began to talk about clay and molds, mixing plastic and wax, paints and clothes and props. Later, of course, I would learn it all, but that day I caught maybe one word in ten.
“So he mostly does people from history?”
“That’s a lot of it. And monsters if we have to, for amusement parks.” He chuckled, as I noticed the pronoun. “You should see my Godzilla. A true work of art. That’s what I did during my summer vacation last year.”
“And he can make a living at this?”
“Yeah. Those things aren’t cheap, you know. And his are good. Probably the best in Japan, actually.” His voice took on a fervency I’d only heard before when he talked about jazz. “His stuff is all over the place now. In Ueno, in the science museum, and in the anthropological museum in Osaka. That was great, years of work. I had to help him out or he wouldn’t have managed. The whole family did, even my mother and younger brother.”
We walked slowly from the work area to where the shrouded figures stood. Kei pulled off one sheet and I gasped. In front of me stood General MacArthur and the Emperor – side by side, just like the famous picture from their first meeting after the war. The General stood taller than both of us, the Emperor, in morning coat and tails, about our size. Both were so real I found myself fighting off an urge to bow. Before I knew it, my hand reached out. I pulled it back. Kei laughed.
“Go on. Touch if you like. It’s wax, it’s tough.”
He put his hand on MacArthur’s arm. I glanced at him, breathed in, and touched MacArthur’s hand. Cold, yes, and hard. It was difficult to believe this was wax, the soft, malleable material that Kei had just been raving about. But candles are cold and hard too, before you burn them. I stared at the hand under mine.
“How can you do this?” I gestured towards the figures, still not daring to touch the Emperor. “Make these, then just touch them. Doesn’t it feel as if you’re… touching people? They’re so real.”
“I know.” Kei’s voice was soft. I jumped as he slipped his arm around my shoulders. “That means we’ve done our job right. You can read about MacArthur and the Emperor meeting, you can see the pictures, but having them right in front of you? History isn’t more real than that.”
“You’re right.” I looked up at MacArthur, down at the Emperor. The Emperor seemed to be watching us, as if he disapproved of Kei’s embrace. MacArthur watched us too, but he seemed a bit more lenient. Almost pleased, perhaps.
“Don’t tell anyone, but there’s talk about a World’s Fair in Osaka. In 1970. They say it’s just about decided.” He swallowed. “They’re going to need a lot of figures for that one. And they’re talking to my father already. It’ll be a lot of business. A lot of money.”
We strolled on. Kei showed me a Lady Murasaki, the writer and medieval court lady, splendid in her twelve-layered robes; a Shining Prince Genji; Sakamoto Ryoma, another rebel samurai hero. All the time, he regaled me with adventures and misadventures as he learned the trade: how he broke off a figure’s arm just hours before it was due to be picked up, how another time he gouged too deeply when carving a pair of lips and spent an entire night redoing the face.
By the end of the tour, I was laughing. And that was when Kei asked me if I would marry him. In front of all the people there, I looked at him, and I said yes.
Even the Emperor seemed to smile a bit then. After all, he was a married man.
* * *
All during our years together, Kei often sat and sketched after dinner. An art book, or a history book, open in front of him, he’d draw with great black lines: hands, fingers, wrists. A foot, arching like a dancer’s. Lips, curving in a smile.
Once or twice, he even asked me to pose.
“Is this a joke?” I straightened from bending over Mari, who was still just a few months old. “Do I look as if I have time?”
“Just keep on with what you’re doing, with Mari.” He cleared his throat. “Actually, it’d help if you posed with Mari. I need both of you. We need a mother and child.” He flushed. “We need a mother and child when the mother is, um, feeding the child.”
“You are not going to sketch me feeding Mari! Me, show the whole world what I look like? My body? Fat the way it is now?”
“Why not? And you’re not fat. There’s a bit more of you right now, yes, but it looks good.” He smiled. “Just for a museum. And they’d never know it was you. The face wouldn’t be yours.”
“Why not? You wouldn’t even have to make special time. Mari won’t mind. Will you, Mari-chan?” He tickled her under her chin. She grinned and gurgled, arms reaching up; she adored her father. “Besides, she’s such a beautiful baby. I’d like to keep her like this forever. She’s growing so fast.”
I swallowed. It had taken us years to have Mari, and the doctors said it was likely we’d never have another. “All right,” I finally said.
Of course, I regretted it soon enough.
“Could you sit there?”
“What are you talking about? I always sit here.”
“But the light is better there.”
I sighed out through my teeth and went where he wanted with Mari, who was starting to fuss. Kei sat with a sketchpad and a pile of pencils beside him. “Ready?”
“Yes.” I tried not to sound as irritated as I was starting to feel as I started to undo the buttons of my dress.
“What’s taking you so long?”
“I’m undoing the buttons on my dress. You may have noticed.”
I picked Mari up. She pursed her lips, screwed up her face, began to cry.
“Shh, shh. Little lady.” I settled her at my breast, cleared my throat. She turned her face eagerly, began to suck. I heard Kei breathe in, then the scratch of his pencil. His left hand held the pad steady on his knee, his right moved quickly, deftly. The sound of the pencil blended with the sound of Mari feeding. I leaned back and watched him, the way he glanced up at us, then back down.
Later I watched as he worked on the figure, as he shaped the round cheeks and small face of the baby, as his hands caressed the wax, much the way he did Mari herself, his hand cupping the top of her head, protecting her soft spot.
His hands are gone now, or nearly so. The therapists come in and move them through a range of motion, they try to get him to move too, but he can’t. Just sometimes the tiniest clutch of his fingers on mine, like those first baby movements of Mari’s. I hold his hand between both of mine, I talk about the weather. Another soft movement, faint and small.
With Mari, of course, you knew more was coming, a whole life still yet to live.
* * *
I don’t know why I sleep with the Emperor; this is far from the first time. But somehow, he’s comfortable. Murasaki Shikibu, one of the many Murasakis – who came to us last year when her museum closed – would have too much to say about everything, in her writer’s way; about how I must go on, the way my friends all think I should. The Godzillas are still monsters, no matter how moldy and decrepit they are. And old rock groups like the Ventures, are you kidding? I loved that they’d been thrown out of their amusement park, but Kei sighed the way he did when any of them came home, making space for them on the floor. I remember listening to their music when we were young, and laughing.
Perhaps it’s just that the Emperor went through so much. He lived to be ancient, well past 80; he survived a war fought in his name. He had children, watched them grow old, lost a few too young. He saw Tokyo grow into a huge, lit-up place from the palace behind its wall, and once a year he slept with goddesses as part of harvest rituals. That must age a mortal man. When he died, it was slowly, of cancer. But he endured – until he couldn’t.
Now I sigh and bend to my sheet, laying it out on the floor and plumping up the pillow. I lie down, staring up. His Majesty’s face seems to glow slightly, his jutting chin a small mountain. I sigh again and close my eyes. Turn to one side, and then the other.
If I reached out my arm, I could feel him. Curl my fingers around his leg in the khaki cloth that Kei fussed over until it hung just right. Stretch my arm up above my head. Perhaps, just perhaps, touch his hand.
Elaine Lies is an American but has lived in Japan for twenty-seven years, where she works as a wire service journalist – a job that both giveth (ideas) and taketh away (time) in terms of fiction writing. Her last name is pronounced to rhyme with “cheese”; it’s not the easiest name in the world, she says.
WHY WE CHOSE TO PUBLISH “Wax”
In her strongly character-driven story “Wax,” author Elaine Lies takes us on amazing journey through two lives. And she does this with deft, smooth movements back and forth in an almost stream-of-consciousness approach. By the end of the story, we feel as if have experienced the character’s life and emotions as well. It’s a beautiful piece of writing that one will not soon forget.