THE MAN BY THE LAKE / by Hanna Takeuchi

 

It was in the spring after I turned seven that I was “brought home” to Yokohama after almost four years of living in the UK. Although, I much prefer the term “uprooted”, or even “torn away like a weaning babe from its mother’s teats”. It certainly felt like that – the beautiful house we lived in had been all I had known. The playroom with blue wallpaper and white drawers, set with a plastic jungle gym and a giant teddy bear we named Katsurou. The polished wooden banisters leading down the spiral staircase my sister and I used to slide down with bananas in our hands, playing monkey. The dining room with glass doors which lead to the garden, where we ventured out to climb the old apple tree and pick the blackcurrants growing from the next-door neighbours’ hedge. All this was gone, taken from me without much explanation – “It’s Dad’s job, sweetie, you wouldn’t understand.” Katsurou vanished and we never saw him again. Instead of a lush green lawn where we spent much of our time reciting textbooks and studying for the next test, we were relocated to an apartment overlooking and ugly pink building that would be our school.

I adapted, as children do. It didn’t mean I was happy about it.

Our dog, a little black thing we had gotten the previous year from a breeder friend in Derby, arrived a few months later from quarantine. My sister and I used to go out together without our parents to walk him after school, something that would have been unthinkable back in the UK but was suddenly acceptable here. We would meet other walkers on the way, most often the girl with the cocker spaniel who lived on the first floor. She had a little brother who was in my year, but attended a different class.

Our favourite route took us to the neighbourhood park. Yamazaki Park was vast, even with our newly acquired bicycles. We would start from the entrance, let our dog sniff at the great polished boulder with the park’s name carved into it, then make our way to the fountains. Nearby the swimming pools were packed full of shouting children and vibrant inflatable floats in the summer, the smell of chlorine thick in the air.

It was past those pools that we would find the stream running over pebbles and little fallen twigs, where dappled sunlight flashed onto the clear water. Sometimes we would stray from the path to enter what we called the crater, a large, round clearing which sides were sloped to look like its namesake. Our dog used to love rolling around and chewing on the blades of grass, and we were happy to let him off his leash for it, even though afterwards we had to spend a good ten minutes running around on our short legs, eventually cornering him to get him back and away from the road.

Other times, we followed the stream running down the slope to the lake.

It was huge, even more so for a young child like me. It was abundant with wildlife I had not been able to get close to, even in my treks to the nearby common in the suburbs of London. Frogs and tadpoles populated the banks, koi and turtles alike, clamoured for food when we clapped our hands to summon them. Little fish swam in schools nearby the descending concrete steps and scattered as we approached. Occasionally we would spot a tall, solitary bird standing elegantly on one stick-thin leg, preening itself at the far end. The scent of mud and decaying leaves permeated the air around the banks, sweeping the entire area with the slightest breeze. The lake had a pavilion where visitors could sit to avoid sudden showers or rest from the summer heat, as well as a bridge which connected the two sides.

My sister and I rarely took the bridge to cross if we could help it. There was a more interesting way, by walking along the top of a narrow, curved stone wall that was immersed in the middle of the lake. It had enough width for my younger self to be able to place one foot comfortably on it, but not enough for two together. It was a balancing act across a lake whose unknown depth we only discovered when a young boy tried to follow us and slipped, ending up waist deep in mossy green water.

If we had our dog with us, we would tie him by the leash to the end of the bridge before engaging in our challenge. He was terrified of water, as well as being left alone. He would cry out for us in yelps and howls as we gave our full concentration to where we would next place our feet. Now I feel terrible about it, but to a seven-year old the allure of the risky and dangerous was too strong. One day, however, he stopped barking. I noticed the silence partway across and was mystified, but could not turn around lest I lost my footing. I made my way to a small resting point halfway across the lake where there was more space and looked back. A figure in a dark coat was crouching near our dog, who, ever wary of strangers, had backed away and was sniffing at the outreached hand.

I reacted more or less as one would expect. We’d been taught about stranger danger, and our dog was more than our pet – he was our little brother, who we adored and fed little scraps to under the dinner table and dressed up in ridiculous tiny clothing. Leaving my sister behind, I rushed the rest of the way and hurried to his side, keeping an eye on the figure – a man, I now saw, which heightened my sense of urgency. I untied my dog even as he pawed at my knees and tried to lick my face.

The man watched me with a curious look. “You shouldn’t leave him alone, you know. It’s not nice.”

“He’s used to it.” Our dog finally free, I looked for my sister, still wobbling her way to us. Seeking to buy more time, I said, “We do this all the time.”

“Mm,” he nodded. “I know. I see you a lot, when I’m passing by.”

Feeling more creeped out by the second, I inched away, tugging at the leash. The man was of a shorter build, and the grey in his hair and lines on his face hinted that he was older than my father, who I could already outrun, but I wasn’t about to take chances. My sister was almost to the other end, and I made to meet her there.

I gave him a quick bow, happy to leave. “Bye, mister.”

He gave me a smile that creased his eyes. “Goodbye. Don’t leave that poor puppy all alone, now.”

He shambled away to the other side as we parted, with me watching him suspiciously out of the corner of my eye. My dog tried to leap onto my sister when we were finally reunited.

“You were talking to him,” she frowned, always so serious for her age. “Mum said you aren’t supposed to talk to people you don’t know.”

I nodded absently, still trying to calm my pounding heartbeat.

“I’m telling Mum,” she announced, before crying out when I slapped her on the back of her head.

We ended up not telling Mum, as the thought of him slipped from our minds as we argued on our way back. In the hundreds of walks to come there were weeks where we wouldn’t see hide nor hair of the man at all, and then suddenly we would spot him walking with a slight limp on the other side of the lake, or sitting alone in the dark pavilion. On those days, we stuck close to other walkers if there were any, or quickly hurried through the area with our gaze turned away, foregoing our little challenge and saving our dog much heartache.

 

On warm weekends the neighbourhood children took to several areas well-suited for their individual pleasures. The school playground was open for all who wished to play soccer, practice riding on their unicycles, build sand castles, or play Robbers and Police. Others selected flattened cardboard boxes from the dumpster and used them to slide down grass slopes a little way off from the school, rolling off when they got too close to the edge and laughing as they disrupted patches of white dandelions. Past those was a large space where model houses were displayed, which held weekly events like inviting snake handlers for demonstrations, making crepes, and building gingerbread houses, designed to attract young families looking to one day own property. Me and my sister, already less desirable customers, were eventually chased off when we took one too many free crepes. Yet, we occasionally returned with my mother in tow, grinning wickedly as the vendor handed out his wares with a smile that looked a little too gritted.

But the park remained my favourite haunt, with or without the dog walks. In the summer, when the heat radiated off the concrete walls and roads became too much, but the call of the outdoors too irresistible, I took up my long, yellow insect net and bright green cage and set off on missions to capture as many bugs as I could. The cicadas were especially easy prey; one only needed to perk up their ears to make out which of the droning hums sounded closest and scan the surrounding trees for its source. I became adept at closing my net around them, pulling them mercilessly down from their resting spot and eagerly stuffing the panicking creature into the cage with my bare hands, before innocently continuing my happy hunt for its brothers and sisters.

Children can be cruel, I realise that now, but inarguably it was the highlight of my month-long holiday.

Another pastime I learned at the park was the art of fishing; not the simple, trivial act of hanging a string in front of the craw fish residing in the shadows of the stream, waiting for their claws to clamp down on the paper clip attached at the end, but with an actual rod, hook, and bait. I begged my father for a set once we heard of the annual fishing competition held at the lake, where children and bearded, crisply sun-burnt men alike gathered and squeezed themselves into a single row alongside the banks, straining for the largest catch. The first time I participated, I had neither equipment nor knowledge of the basics, but acquired a taste for the thrill when I helped one fisherman heave up a particularly fierce catfish, thrashing and fighting against our combined strength and sending cold splashes of water into the air to the cries of other participants.

Still, that was not my catch, and it hadn’t even been the largest prize which spanned almost half a meter. I grew determined to leave my mark on the oblivious inhabitants of the park’s lake, and spent a great deal of time sitting on the little foldable chair we won at the Center Kita department store raffle, training myself to take pleasure in what comfort the cool wind brought while the sun was at its highest point in the sky. My best friend then, Choko, and my sister never quite understood the peaceful wait between small, sparsely placed tugs at the line, the anticipation just drumming in my veins, and the quiet letdown when these tugs yielded little but an empty hook. They played in the background with origami and clapping games, while I closed myself in a bubble of concentration, surveying the water like a hawk for nary a sign of a ripple.

We had come down to the lake again one day late into the holiday, me clutching my fishing rod in one hand and a plastic bag full of bread crumbs in another, all of us laughing as we raced down the slope, taking care not to trip on our own feet and go skidding. Choko was being considerate, taking a few steps at a time and waiting for my struggling sister to catch up, while I sped on ahead without a care. When I spotted who was sitting at the edge of the bank with his own fishing equipment, his back turned to us, I stopped.

“What’s up?” Choko asked as she came up from behind. My sister gave a small gasp when she saw what I was looking at.

“It’s him.” She clutched at the hem of my shirt.

Who’s him? Do you know that man?”

“He talks to us when we walk Soxy,” my sister explained in a hushed voice.

Choko’s eyes grew wide in understanding. “Okay. Let’s go play somewhere else, then.”

I turned to look around at them, appalled. “But I brought my stuff! I’ve been planning this the whole week!”

She sighed impatiently. “You can do this another time.”

“Not when school starts up again. Look, he’s just sitting there. You two can go play in the pavilion like always, and I’ll be up there away from him. That way you can keep watch if he kidnaps me.”

They exchanged looks, not particularly happy with the arrangement, but knew how stubborn I could be when I had set my mind on something. Once we parted ways, I took a deep breath to quell the sudden swell of anxiety that was hiding beneath my bravado. Selecting a spot some way to his right, I set up my chair and started untangling the line, willing him not to notice, not to speak to me.

My muted pleas went unanswered, and he smiled sidelong at me. “Hello. Where’s your dog today?”

“He’s at home,” I shot back, and tried to leave it at that.

It seemed to work for a while. I settled into my usual routine of focusing all my concentration onto that little red-and-yellow bobber, watching it intently for any sign of it dipping under the water. I had not yet learnt the difference between the sensation of a fish’s bite and a sharp yank of the wind. Behind me, I could hear my sister and Choko giggling as they played patty-cake and ayatori in the cool shadow of the pavilion. I had just begun battling my pride, wondering if they would let me join, when there was a sudden movement beside me.

I jumped, but the man wasn’t facing me. He was reeling in his own line, which pulled itself taut between intervals as it neared the bank. Soon enough, little splashes formed along the surface as the small fish struggled to pull itself free from the hook. It was light enough to be hefted out of the water by one hand, freed and dropped into a little blue bucket sitting next to his seat. He looked up then, and found me staring.

“Would you like some help?”

I shrugged, but couldn’t help watching the frantic fish swim about its new enclosure, futilely poking the faded blue walls for openings.

“Here,” and suddenly he had seized my bag of bread crumbs, lying on the ground between us, and before I could protest he hurled a fistful into the water near where we sat.

Almost immediately there was a stirring, and though I could not see their shadows in the green murkiness, I could make out slight smacking noises, like little mouths chomping at feed underwater, with more rising to join them.

“Now,” he took hold of my fishing rod, and I immediately grew rigid at the unexpected proximity, “Twitch your line like this, while reeling it in.”

I did so, half letting him do the work, watching in confusion as the bobber came closer and closer, zigzagging slightly with no sign of going under, until abruptly, it did. I shrieked in excitement and the man stopped twitching, working the reel faster until a fish roughly the same size as his came hurtling my way, gasping around the hook.

“I caught one! I caught one!” I was yelling, holding the end of the line at arm’s length and trying to avoid the drops of water the fish’s wriggling sent flying. I looked around, found the other two girls staring at us, and called them over to see.

“You should probably let that into the water while you wait,” the man suggested.

I hesitated. I had only brought the net my father had gotten me for scooping up larger, heavier catches, and it was woven so loosely I was afraid my first ever trophy would slip back into freedom.

“Can I keep this in your bucket?” I asked. He nodded, took it from my hands, and as I watched he expertly opened its mouth wider and unhinged the hook from where it was stuck inside its top lip.

I kept an eye on which of the fish swimming around the bottom of the bucket was mine to point out to my companions. “That one! I got it all by myself.”

My sister’s eyes were round. “Coooool.” Choko still looked apprehensive around my new mentor.

“You did not,” she said. “He helped you.”

He gave a large bark of laughter and Choko fell silent. “I bet if you do as I taught you again, you could.”

I was already nodding, determination flaring inside me. By the hour I was giggling madly as I reeled up fish after fish, all no bigger than my fist, and handing them to the man to unhook them and add to his bucket.

I told him about my time abroad, reminiscing about my days in England as he listened between catches.

“There were ducks with little baby chicks following them in the pond,” I said. “Mum would take us out on a walk to feed them. There were even swans there, sometimes. I tricked a mean one once into thinking I had bread crumbs when I only had pebbles, because it kept pushing the others away.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Now, that wasn’t very nice.”

“No, I suppose not. I-”

And it was then that I felt a great yank that almost wrenched my fishing rod out of my hands. It kept pulling, getting stronger by every jerk, and I clasped my hands tight around the reel to stop it from unraveling itself out.

“Something’s caught!” I cried. The man had his hand on the rod in seconds.

“Reel it in!” he urged me, keeping the rod steady. I did, my knuckles white with the effort as I fought with all my strength against the thrashing on the other end of the line.

For a moment, I imagined that the hook had caught onto a piece of wood or stone at the bottom of the lake, as it had happened before and resulted in me having to snip the line to untangle it. I dreaded to think that that would happen now because I had no replacement wire, and I had been having such a good streak since the man began teaching me. But as I twisted the handle of the reel in slow, jerking movements, there was a sudden splash nearby. I glimpsed the whiskery head of a black koi fish breaking through the surface of the lake.

“Choko!” I screamed. “Get the net!”

She ran up to me in alarm, and by then the body of the large fish was close enough to the bank that we could make out its gleaming scales flashing as it fought to break away. Panicked that it would break off the thin line and get away, I guided its course with help from the man to where she waited to scoop it up. The man reached in to release the hook from its mouth, getting soaked for his trouble, and after a few minutes of violent writhing, my first great prize settled, its beady eyes glaring up through the gaps in the net.

“Well, that’s not going to fit in my bucket,” the man said. He clapped me on the shoulders. “Good job.”

I beamed as we children crowded around my catch. It moved away from our curious hands sullenly, but watching its heavy body try to hide itself into the depth, I still could not believe I pulled it out of the water with my flimsy equipment and skills.

“We should get it somewhere nicer,” Choko suggested. “It can’t be comfortable in the net.”

I jumped to my feet. “I’ll go find something at home,” I proclaimed, before an idea struck me. “And then we can go show this to Dad! Keep watch of that,” I told Choko and my sister, before dashing off up the slope without a backward glance.

Making the journey in five minutes flat, I entered the kitchen to find my father standing on a step ladder with his head in the cabinets. Around his feet were various cleaning utensils strewn about. My eyes landed on a bright pink bucket, taller and wider than the one the man had with him, and picked it up.

“Dad, can I borrow this?”

He peered down at me. “Yeah, sure. What are you using it for?”

“To get a koi fish!” And I was out the door before he could answer.

Speeding back, the soles of my feet pounding the hard tiles of the slope leading down to the lake below, I swung my newly acquired bucket around my wrist. My mind was singing in time with the beating of my steps; I caught one, I caught one, I caught one.

When I made my way back, however, only my sister and Choko were there, still squatting at the side of the lake with the net between them. The man and his equipment had vanished from view. I ran up to them, breathless.

“He went home,” Choko told me. “He let the smaller fish go, said he had to go do stuff.”

I was surprised to find myself feeling mildly disappointed. I realised I hadn’t thanked him nor said goodbye. Together, we scooped up water into the bucket and placed the fish carefully into it, transferring it as gently as we could from the net.

Later, after we heaved the bucket up the slope and into my house – lake water lapping at the sides and the koi fish swirling around it disgruntledly – my father took one look at it and yelled in surprise. “Go put that back where it came from,” he told us, before leaning in to study it more closely, and asking, “Did you really catch this?”

I bounced on the balls of my feet in pride. “Yes!” My friend and sister rolled their eyes and kept their mouths shut. My father sighed.

“Okay. Go put that back, it’s stinking up the place.  But I’ll meet you at the Crater later.” He winked. “I found something we forgot to use during the summer. Choko, you can come, too.”

We did as he said, the sun already dipping lower into the trees overhead, colouring the sky orange. He met us in the clearing as planned, and, after filling the slightly sour smelling bucket with clear tap water, he opened up a bag of fireworks we had bought at the department store at the start of the holidays.

“If anything starts burning, dunk it in there,” he told us, and we nodded obediently.

We lit them all by the fire of his lighter. He scolded us when we turned the sparklers onto him, swinging them around haphazardly and drawing smoky doodles into the darkening air. We laughed and danced clear of the nezumi hanabi he set off as it spat and fizzed and seemed to chase our feet as it whizzed around the ground. The evening ended as the final rocket my father had set up in the middle of the clearing, toppled over just as it was about to launch. Our screams echoed across the empty park as it shot through a cloud of bangs and colourful flashes, straight into a thicket with my father chasing after it as fast as his long legs could carry him. We waited for him to return, and as we did, we recounted the events of the day eagerly while we sat in the grass, the blades soft and tickling underneath our hands, the faint scent of the curling smoke being carried away by the cooling night wind.

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