The House of Death

FictionIssue EightIssue Eight Fiction.

Written by:

Views: 1610

By Mori Shige.

Translated by Marissa Skeels.


Mori Shige (1880-1938) was a university-educated, headstrong feminist writer from Tokyo, Japan, who wrote over 20 novels. She was disowned by her wealthy family at 21 for marrying fellow divorcee and major Japanese author, Mori Ogai, who was then 41. Shige was begged by notorious non-conformist feminist literary group Seitosha (The Bluestocking Society) to join them, and “The House of Death” (2,500 words) was published in 1911 in the inaugural issue of their journal, which was banned within five years.


I have translated this story from Japanese. The original is out of copyright, in the public domain, and has never appeared in English translation.

—Marissa Skeels


The rainy season brought downpours, and not just rain but autumn storms and wind as well. Yumiko especially abhorred the wind.

A long-awaited break in the weather suited the Sunday. Hatsu came to wake Yumiko every morning at six; it was only on Sundays that no one so much as opened the louvers outside her room until after she’d gotten up.

Yumiko went into her small dressing room and made use of the basin of hot water, pitcher of cold water, and empty bucket which had been brought for her to ready herself for the morning. She let down her hair and, with a few flicks of her wrists, redid it in a classic, low pompadour style. She then brushed her teeth, lightly dusted her face with powder, and put on her school kimono. Forty minutes had passed by the time she pulled on her hakama.

She’d put on the kimono that had lain beneath the one which Mother had placed in Yumiko’s lidless trunk. Its four swatches of white cloth bled into a pale blue to create a rolling wave pattern across a single roll of Yusen crepe. The long, creamy hiyoku she wore underneath it bore the same design, and the plain crepe collar atop it was the same colour as her skin. Her white obi was extravagantly webbed with silver thread embroidering, and a single sash stitched to it was embellished with silk birds and flowers depicting a golden spring scene. Although she fastened the obi with an ornamental clip, it was so long and loose that it kept unravelling, despite her retying it. Eventually she was ready, albeit irritated.

She went into the Japanese-style living room and waited for Hatsu to serve her breakfast at the single four-legged tray set on the floor. Yumiko’s father had left when she was small, and her only brother was at university in Kyoto, so it was just her and her mother at their Tokyo home.

“Just me, then. Is it really this late? I’d thought I’d have some time to kill this morning, but I stayed up ’til midnight last night studying and slept in… Where’s Mum?”

“The lady lodger from Fukushima went out,” Hatsu replied, “so she’s up on the second floor.”

“The lady from Fukushima…”

Mother and the lady’s actions undoubtedly had to do with the incessant recent chatter about Yumiko being wed. She needed to marry no later than when she finally graduated from school. Since Mother, in her reduced circumstances, may well cast her out. But who’d take Yumiko for a bride?

She was supposed to go see her former nursemaid in Kugenuma today, who was on her deathbed. If shehadn’t gone to matchmaking, she wouldn’t have lung disease now. Nanny had hardly ever caught so much as a cold while in service at Yumiko’s.

Yumiko had been rattled when the woman who’d raised her for several long years left to get married. Until then Nanny was always with the girl she affectionately called ‘Miss’. The sight of Nanny with a traditional married woman’s chignon larger than ever before, her face plastered with thick white powder, had been, to Yumiko’s young mind, laughable.

Not long afterward, Nanny’s husband was transferred to the Osaka post office. Seven years had gone by since Nanny had sobbed over being parted from Yumiko. Letter after letter had come since, in which Nanny endlessly related her failing health. Finally, about two months earlier, she was sent to her parents’ house in Kugenuma with her child in tow. Whether out of relief or exhaustion from the steam train journey, she was then beset by dire illness. Mother had a doctor go all the way there to examine her. He said her pulmonary tuberculosis was advanced beyond hope of recovery.

All Nanny had spoken of since was being with ‘Miss’, repeating her wish ad nauseum. The day came too soon when she could no longer manage to even go to the toilet, yet she kicked up a fuss saying that she’d take the long trip to Tokyo to see Yumiko, come hell or highwater. Nanny’s older brother came to Yumiko’s to relay the situation to Mother, and Yumiko was informed she was to take the Sunday 9.10 steam train from Shinbashi with their butler, Yamao.

Yumiko polished off her breakfast and flicked through a newspaper, waiting for Mother to come downstairs. 8 o’clock came and went so she moved up to the second floor herself, bid Mother farewell, and set out.

The second-class carriage she and Yamao rode in was terribly crowded. Because her escort was a man, they had nothing to discuss, and Yumiko put both hands in her lap meekly, like a doll, waiting for the train to depart. At the last minute, a young man boarded and sat in the seat opposite her. She found herself drawn to glance at him. With his overly plump cheeks and tiny mouth, he had the face of a baby. Yumiko couldn’t help but steal glimpses at his ridiculous face, and struggled to keep from bursting out laughing. She gave brief replies to Yamao’s occasional stabs at small talk, nibbling her lips in steely self-restraint.

When the train pulled into Yokohama, a group of twenty-three foreigners rose to disembark. One came up to Yumiko and, out of the blue, pressed a bouquet of red roses into her hands. Distracted by both the unexpected act and beautiful flowers, Yumiko’s urge to laugh eased somewhat as happiness relaxed her. Before she could take a breath, however, the baby-faced man took an air cushion out of his bag and began to blow it up. The pillow gradually expanded, yet his cheeks didn’t deflate—on the contrary, they swelled bigger and bigger until both the pillow and his cheeks looked equally fit to pop. Yumiko closed her eyes to avoid the sight, but a vision of his cheeks and the pillow came to her like an apparition, even more puffed-up than in reality, as if they didn’t know where to stop. At last a guffaw escaped her, and she hid her face with her handkerchief.

They reached Fujisawa a little after eleven. She and Yamao sat at the teahouse in front of the station, where Yumiko took out sandwiches, western candies, and fruit she’d brought from Tokyo to share. They ate there, mindful of the need to refrain from eating where someone was ill with tuberculosis.

Yamao carefully wrangled their rented car over rough country roads, clattering and jostling. After crossing a set of railway tracks and turning onto a parallel road, the huge pine tree at Nanny’s house came into view despite still being far away. Yumiko knew it from coming to Nanny’s house with her parents years earlier. There were many pines in Kugenuma, but the one at Nanny’s was far-and-away the biggest and tallest, and a point of pride for Nanny. Two slightly smaller pines stood in a row beside it, with a sacred cord strung between them to ward off evil. Between them was the two-story house Nanny had built using her savings plus the severance package she’d received on leaving Yumiko’s. Last time Yumiko had come, Nanny told her that the place was normally let by her older brother, but Yumiko was most welcome to come whenever she felt like a dip in the sea. Now that one thought of it, it was as if the house were built to be where Nanny would die. Yumiko pondered this, her mood far different from that time she’d come to play.

Although they could see the massive pine tree clearly, it was a while before the car clattered to a stop. The first thing Yumiko saw when they pulled up was Nanny’s mother, who looked to have been toiling inside in a dirt-floor room, rush out to see them in.

“Thank you for coming,” she said over and over, leading the two up to Nanny’s second-floor room. Through the open door they saw a sunken floor. Tiptoeing in, they peered around. The room was large, with a still-larger lowered seating area, and in the middle of it lay Nanny, so emaciated and worn that she was nothing like the person Yumiko remembered.

Nanny must have realized Yumiko had come, because she strained to sit up. No sooner had she said, “Miss?” than she started weeping. Tears fell from Yumiko’s eyes too, startling her. The visit was no more than an obligation Yumiko was required to fulfil, but now thinking of what to say hurt. It had never occurred to her that Nanny would be crying, or anything like that. The tears Yumiko shed took with them a heavy weight, and she felt lighter. At this point, there was no need to say anything.

Tightening her grip on the handkerchief she held to cover her mouth, Yumiko met Nanny’s gaze. “I brought you some trinkets, Ma’am. Mother and I made them. Would you like to see?”

There was a swathe of Meissen silk with a purple splash pattern, with an underside of pearly silk, which Yumiko draped as a shawl over Nanny, dressing her.

“We brought a bunch of different sweets too, which you should be able to eat. It was my idea to bring cocoa which you can put in milk. And I thought you might like to see flowers while you lie in bed, so I brought fake ones, but they’re really bad, because I’m still practising. See, this one is a wild rose, and here’s a chrysanthemum, Chinese bellflower, Japanese morning glory, and an Indian lotus. These are all the ones I’ve learned how to make so far.”

“There was no need, not on top of coming all the way here because I asked. If only I could get better soon and come and see you in Tokyo.”

There was no way for Yumiko to comfort her. She was deathly gaunt, and the doctor had said she may last only another ten days or so.

A tintype photograph of Yumiko in a sleeveless kimono coat, with a young child’s bowl cut, took pride of place at Nanny’s bedside. No doubt she’d received plenty of pictures of Yumiko over the years, but it looked like the girl she loved was the one from the time when Nanny had raised her. Another tintype of a stunning-looking boy of about six, who looked as if he’d just woken up, was lined up next to it. Nanny had a boy who’d be about that age, but the boy in the picture was too pretty to be hers.

“Is this your child? What a fine boy.”

“In Osaka, people always thought he must have been fathered by the master of my last household… They used to see him and say I better break the habits I picked up while taking care of you. We laughed about it at home.” Nanny’s smile was full of melancholy.

“He’s coming here now, isn’t he?”

“Yes. Everyone who lives in the main part of the house went to see someone earlier, but they should be back any moment. By the time you get married, my son will be fourteen. I won’t die until then, even if I’m hit with a rock.”

Nanny’s pale face grew faintly flushed, and her eyes took on a strange shine. Perhaps because her words didn’t match the person saying them, something about her behaviour was irrational and made Yumiko uncomfortable.

While they spoke, Yamao went back and forth from the room to see Nanny’s mother, who was making a meal. Hearing this, Yumiko said, “We didn’t want to bother anyone when you’re unwell, so we ate on the way. Honestly.”

“If I weren’t sick,” Nanny said, “I’d personally make sure Miss had something to eat, even though we haven’t much to offer. But we managed to dig up some sweet potatoes earlier, so it’s only right that they be steamed. I’ll be happy if you’d eat even a little, away from me.”

“Sweet potatoes always sound wonderful. Well then, we’ll take you up on it.”

Yumiko liked sweet potatoes so long as the skin was left on them, and followed Yamao to the living room. Yamao said that, well, since Nanny’s mother had already gone to the trouble of cutting the potatoes…and helped himself to several dishes. Nanny’s mother came into the room to serve them, and began crying as she talked about her ill daughter. Yamao deftly comforted her by complimenting her cooking.

Despite the fact tears were trickling down her face, she didn’t raise either hand nor wipe them away with her apron—she simply wept without reserve. Yumiko had never seen such a strange way of crying before on the wrinkled face of an old person. It was so abrupt and absurd that, naturally, it had the same effect as she’d felt on the train because of the air pillow man. She gnawed her lip and looked away until she could finally escape back to the sick room.

Nanny’s boy was just then coming through the front door. He was more exquisite than his photograph showed. With a mother’s passion, Nanny asked Yumiko to watch over her soon-to-be-motherless child.

Once Nanny was gone, he would be sent to Kyobayashi to be taken in by his father’s sister, who often entertained the famous actors Uzaemon and Goryeo Kura. They’d asked time and again to adopt him and raise him as an actor, but the boy refused—he was a wilful child.

At Yamao’s suggestion, Yumiko got ready to leave. Truthfully, she was relieved to flee this house of death. Seeing Nanny clearly disappointed by their separation but stoically enduring it nonetheless, Yumiko felt a flash of dissatisfaction with herself.

Nanny struggled as far as the veranda to see them off. It was already almost four in the afternoon. Heavy shadows stretched to the east, and a cool breeze flowed in over green pastures. Children from the neighbourhood were clustered around the car, as if it was something they didn’t see often.

“Tokyo women are weird, aren’t they? Wearing scarves in summer,” they said, staring at Yumiko’s face. Amongst these dirty children, Nanny’s child was exquisite, like he was something else entirely.

“Goodbye.” Yumiko slid into the car. The children, their noses dripping and their bloodshot eyes askew, replied in unison, “Goodbye.”

Everyone from Nanny’s house came out to see them off. The car rolled forward and rattled down a narrow, winding driveway. When Yumiko turned to look back, somehow Nanny had already made it to the second floor. Her face in the window was like a ghost’s, its eyes following Yumiko.

It felt like the shadow of death were loping after her.