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The Scent of Jasmine
A short story by Tom Brennan

I said goodbye to Tokyo on a chill spring evening, when faded pink cherry blossoms drifted through the sinuous alleys of the Old Town. The discordant traffic sounds and flashing neon faded behind me as I traveled deeper into the shadows.

White lanterns glowed over teahouse doorways. I passed stone-faced men in dark suits, and giggling young maiko whose ornate furisode kimono sleeves caressed the floor.

The bar, squeezed between mute wooden shop fronts, sent a dim yellow warmth into the street. I stood for a moment beneath the lattice of telephone cables and rustling paper streamers tracing the familiar hiragana characters of the creaking sign: ‘The Moon on the Snow’.

Most of the broken glass had been swept up, but a few bright shards remained where they had fallen beneath the boarded-up bar window. I pushed the heavy door open and walked in.

“Kombanwa!” The two regulars wished me good evening from their usual vantage point.

I bowed slightly to them and they nodded in return as I replied, formally, “O-genki desu ka?”

They assured me that they were well and turned back to their drinks. In the two years since I had discovered the bar they had spoken only a few words on each visit, and then just the necessary formalities. No more than that; not a word to each other, and nothing even to Sumisu-san, the bar’s owner.

I joined them at the bar. The two men perched on their tall straight-backed stools at the fake wood plastic counter, elbows resting on its scarred surface. They both stared, unfocused, at the varnished wall before them. A half-empty bottle of Scotch whisky stood between them on the bar, next to an overflowing ashtray.

The men were balding and tanned, their faces creased and worn by forgotten sunlight, and they wore dark polyester suits from the nineteen-seventies, with polished patches at the elbows and collars. They would not look out of place anywhere in Tokyo.

The wooden walls held discolored old posters of Europe’s capital cities and various jazz concerts: Sydney Berchet in Paris, in 1959; Louis Armstrong grinning across the room at a fading Nina Simone; Sarah Vaughan in glorious pouting monochrome. I could hear a wailing clarinet over a faint beat, a melody filtered through hidden speakers.

Sumisu’s footsteps echoed on the wooden stairs. He brushed aside the curtain of colored plastic strips and nodded at me, then reached into the small fridge.

I poured the Sapporo into a glass and waited. I had hoped Sumisu would be in a talkative mood but resigned myself to one of his quiet, morose evenings. Short and thin, with pure white hair parted over brown eyes, he resembled my father, particularly tonight.

“Tori wa furusu ni kaeru,” Sumisu snapped at me.

It took me a few minutes to translate. “Birds return to old nests.”

“Very good,” he said, and smiled. “You are learning, slowly. You have a proverb for me?”

“Mukashi wa ima no kagami,” I told him, the rehearsed words tripping from my mouth.

“That is an easy one,” said Sumisu. “The past is the mirror of today.”

I raised my glass in salute to him and we settled into an easy silence. Most of my useful Japanese phrases had come from Sumisu, together with ancient proverbs, colloquialisms, and strange arcane phrases. His grasp of English and French was excellent, a product of his travels around Europe three decades before.

He disappeared into the back room to change the record, Earl ‘Father’ Hines this time, and spoke to me as he returned, “So, when do you leave the city?”

“Tomorrow morning, on one of the first flights out,” I replied. “How about one last story before I go?”

Sumisu considered for a moment, then suggested, “A ghost story, perhaps?”

“A ghost story.” I nodded and settled my arms on the counter, my customary listening position, and waited. The two regulars topped up their glasses and stared straight ahead, pretending not to listen.

“A ghost story, then, or something close to one,” said Sumisu as he sat on the high stool behind the counter. “You must think back to the Edo period of isolation in Japan, when the ruling Tokugawa Shogunate forbade contact with gaijin, or foreigners like yourself. They restricted all trade and controlled access, so that only the Chinese and the Dutch were tolerated, and Nagasaki was the only port open to foreign traders.

“The deep winter of 1639 brought storms and howling winds of destruction, and the ships in the harbor rose and fell on the waves like crows around a corpse. One of the ships, newly arrived from Amsterdam, was hurled against the rocks and holed, and the Captain appealed to the local ship builders to help, but they refused.

“The Dutch ship belonged to a large trading company and the company’s chief agent, seeing all of his profits sinking by the hour, traveled through the town to the house of the most powerful merchant he knew.

“This merchant had bought many bolts of cloth and many spices from the trading company, and welcomed the agent, Van Tuin, into his house with great ceremony, even though the merchant was the lowest of the four classes. He agreed to help Van Tuin, seeing in the act an opportunity for more profit himself, and sent his servants to find men to work on the ship. The agent stayed in the merchant’s house and was lavishly entertained.

“The merchant had two daughters, both beautiful and obedient. The eldest, Hisha, was cultured and adept at kukai, or haiku as you know it, tanka, ikebana, the arranging of flowers, and cha-no-yu, the tea ceremony.

“Like her younger sister, Hisha was considered as pretty as the pale autumn crocus. She met the agent for the first time and their eyes spoke. After his visit, Hisha dreamt of Van Tuin’s broad shoulders and long, pale hair, and wanted to spend many hours in his company.

“He recounted to her intricate stories of Paris and Amsterdam, of the tall houses set by calm canals, and terrifying tales of the capricious sea. Hisha listened to his tales and was ensnared.”

Sumisu paused to sip his drink. ‘Father’ Hines’s piano played on in the background as the story continued.

“Van Tuin’s damaged ship was soon repaired and the time came for the agent to leave for Europe. Hisha bade him a sad goodbye and watched his ship thread slowly through the narrow harbor entrance.

“Spring blossomed into summer and Hisha watched the harbor every day for Van Tuin’s return. She practiced her skills and made herself as beautiful as a newborn rose in the Emperor’s garden. Her father, that clever merchant, encouraged her attentiveness. He appeared unconcerned about the future, and the effects of Hisha’s tender feelings towards the agent.

“Van Tuin returned to Nagasaki and brought fine gifts from Europe: delicate porcelain the with the hue of ivory and jade, fine aromatic wines, and a tiny musical clock of filigree brass and gold. He bought also a bolt of the finest silk from a Chinese trader.

“Hisha unfurled the silk and her family gasped at the color, which was the blue of an early winter morning when the first clouds touch heaven. She resolved to have the most beautiful kimono in Kyushu. She sent the silk to the best seamstress and gave her instructions. Hisha then devoted her full attention to Van Tuin, demonstrating her poise, grace and charm to the handsome, smiling agent.

“Three times Van Tuin left and safely returned, and on the third visit the kimono was ready. The intricate patterns in the gossamer silk had been dyed and embroidered, using the best and most ancient kanoko shibori technique.

“As an omen of long life, the hem of the kimono displayed ocean waves in silver thread surmounted by graceful flying cranes that gently rose to caress the delicate coast of the mountain beneath late evening stars.

“The servants helped Hisha wrap an obi of pale ivory silk around her tiny waist. The kimono sleeves kissed the floor, just as they should, as Hisha waited for Van Tuin in the family’s garden.

“She carried an inro, or sagemono, of lacquered wood inset with pink coral, shell and jade, hung from the obi on slender silken threads, and sealed with a netsuke carved as a laughing dolphin. Inside the inro were one chrysanthemum flower and one jasmine.

“Van Tuin arrived in a jinriksha and was welcomed by the merchant and Hisha. But, instead of the words of love and hope she had expected, Van Tuin told her of his new bride in Amsterdam, and the expectation of his first child.

“Hisha sat, motionless, like a mouse caught in the cat’s paw: serene, expecting death, welcoming death.

“Van Tuin bowed and left her, and so did not see the embroidered silver waves absorb the rain of falling tears.

“Hisha asked her father why he had allowed Van Tuin to pay her attention and he replied that it had been useful to his business. Hisha fled the house, and ran to the cliff overlooking the harbor. She stared down on the broad ship of the agent.

“The fabric of her kimono cascaded behind her as the wind tore through the silk. Hisha pictured her body rising into the evening sky, the sun gilding her kimono like the underside of a swallow’s wings as it turns, then crashing down onto the jagged rocks below.

“She felt the wind ready to lift her and she gazed into the abyss, but felt the crushing burden of family shame that would surely follow. Then she turned away and stumbled home, the kimono trailing in silken shreds.”

Sumisu paused for a moment as the background record drifted into silence.

“From that day on Hisha dressed only in the roughest of hemp kosode, and packed the kimono away. She never received suitors, and never married, unlike her sister.

“When their father, the merchant, died, Hisha took charge of the family business, although her young nephew was officially the master. She ruled the business with a hand of iron, and her nephew inherited a powerful and well-respected house after Hisha’s death. The forgotten, neglected kimono passed through the family from generation to generation, although the story survived.”

Sumisu took a long draught of beer and waited for my question.

“But you promised me a ghost story,” I said. “It’s a sad tale, but not supernatural.”

Sumisu smiled. “About six months ago, a powerful and most ruthless developer began to buy plots of land, houses, and businesses around this area. He wanted to buy my bar, and still wants to, but I refused. He threatened me, but I resisted until I could take no more. After the last attack on my bar, two months ago, when several of my customers were hurt, I knew that I had no choice: I must depart.

“I began to gather my belongings, sorting through those things I could leave and those I must take. In a tiny attic room, in the very top of this building, I believed that I could smell the pungent fragrance of jasmine. I searched through the dust of many years and found an old wooden box, its varnish corroded and cracked, its brass hinge brittle.

“I opened the creaking lid and, beneath layers of dark paper that disintegrated at my touch, I found the neatly folded kimono. Beneath that I found the obi and the inro and, inside that, one chrysanthemum flower and one jasmine flower.”

“But they must have been decayed, decrepit, after all this time?” I asked.

“Not at all: they gave off a rich, sweet odor,” he replied.

I gave him a skeptical look and wondered what the climax of the story could be.

Sumisu continued. “When I saw these, I knew I must be strong, like my ancestor; I could see her clearly as if she stood before me, and I could feel that strength within her, a strength that grew from day to day and never wavered. And I could feel her determination. I began to fight against the developer, even though I was alone. Then, as others saw my struggle, they joined me, one by one.”

“Can you win?” I asked.

Sumisu shrugged. “Who can say? It will be difficult, I know, but the jasmine inspired me, told me that I must try.”

I considered his story for a few minutes before I declared, “The flowers must have been preserved.”

“Perhaps so,” said Sumisu and smiled. “Can you explain the fragrance?”

“The aroma obviously came from outside,” I said.

“Into a stuffy attic without windows? At the end of winter?”

I laughed and raised my glass to him. “You’ve got me. I salute the ghost of days past. And thank you for the story.”

I drained the beer and rose from my seat. “It’s time to go. Shitsurei shimasu, Sumisu-san.” I used the formal goodbye, as I didn’t expect to meet any of them again.

Sumisu bowed to me, as did the two regular drinkers. “Sayonara; come back some day, soon,” said Sumisu, “and bring us some more stories!”

Copyright © Tom Brennan 2002

Tom Brennan is a thirty-six year old writer living by the sea in Liverpool. His fiction has appeared in Small Spiral Notebook, Whistling Shade, Eclectica and Wilmington Blues, as well as in The Richmond Review.

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of The Scent of Jasmine is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author. For rights information, contact The Richmond Review in the first instance


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