The day of my third birthday came at last. This was the first birthday I could remember, and therefore the event seemed to me of cosmic importance. That morning I woke up believing that the entire village of Shukugawa had to be on holiday.
I jumped onto the bed of my sister, who was still asleep, and shook her:
– I want you to be the first to wish me happy birthday.
I thought she would think this a tremendous honor. – Happy birthday – she mumbled, and rolled over grumpily.
I left this ingrate and went down to the kitchen.
Nishio-san was perfect. She knelt before the lord child that
I was and congratulated me on my accomplishment. She was right. Not just anyone could turn three years.
felt an intense satisfaction.
I asked her if the people from the village would be coming to offer acclaim, or whether I needed to go out in the streets. The question confused Nishio-san for a moment, but she found a reply.
– It’s summer, – she said, – and almost everyone has left on vacation. Otherwise they would have organized a festival for you.
I told myself that perhaps this was for the best. The festivities would probably have been too much. My triumph would be best celebrated among my closest followers. The day’s crowning moment would come when I was given the stuffed toy elephant.
My parents told me I would be given my present at teatime. Hugo and André informed me that they would refrain from teasing me for an entire day. Kashima-san said nothing.
I spent the hours in almost hallucinogenic impatience. The stuffed elephant would be the most fabulous present I would ever get. I wondered how long its trunk would be, and how heavy it would feel in my arms.
At four in the afternoon I was summoned to the table. I arrived with my heart pounding in my chest. I didn’t see any packages. They must have hidden them somewhere, I thought.
There were the formalities, then cake—three candles that I quickly dispatched. We sang.
– Where is my present?
My parents smiled slyly.
– It’s a surprise.
That worried me.
– It isn’t what I asked for?
– It’s better!
Better than a velvety stuffed elephant? Impossible. Now I expect the worst.
– What is it?
They led me out to the pool in the garden.
– Look in the water.
Three live carp were swimming around.
– We noticed that you love fish, and especially carp, so we bought you three. One for each year. Isn’t that a wonderful idea?
– Yes – I replied with determined politeness.
– One is orange, one is green, and one is silver. Aren’t they beautiful?
– Yes – I replied.
– You will take care of them. We bought lots of puffed rice cakes, and what you do is break them into pieces and throw them in the water—like that. Are you happy?
I would rather have gotten nothing at all.
I wasn’t being polite to spare my parents’ feelings. It was because no words could have expressed the intensity of my disappointment.
To the endless list of unanswerable questions must be added the following: why is it that well-intentioned parents, not content merely to foist an idea onto their child, also convince themselves that it was the child’s idea in the first place?
People are often asked what, as children, they wanted to be when they grew up. In my case it would be better to ask my parents. Their replies would provide an idea of precisely what I didn’t want to be when I grew up.
When I was three they announced “my” passion for fish. When I was seven they announced “my” decision to enter the Foreign Service. When I was twelve they were convinced I wanted to become a politician. And when
I was seventeen, they declared that I would become the family lawyer.
I once asked them how they arrived at their determinations about my future. They replied, with their usual aplomb, that “it was obvious,” and that “everyone thought that.” And when I asked them who “everyone” was, they said,
– Well, you know, everyone. For goodness sakes!
There’s no sense in fighting such conviction.
But back to my third birthday. As my mother and father had decided I would become a marine biologist, out of filial devotion I would do my best to mimic all the outward signs.
I started drawing fish with my crayons in my notebook—thousands of them: fish with big fins, little fins, multiple fins, green scales, red scales, blue scales with yellow polka dots, orange fish with purple stripes.
– What a good idea it was to give her those carp, – said my parents, pleased with themselves.
This whole story might have been comic had I not had to feed my new charges.
Every day, before lunch, I went into the pantry and took several cakes of puffed rice. Then, standing at the edge of the pool, I broke off sticky pieces about the size of popcorn and threw them into the water.
Actually, that part of it was sort of fun. The awful part was that these creatures rose to the surface to eat.
The vision of three disembodied mouths emerging from the water was unbearably revolting.
My parents, always full of good ideas, suggested we give the fish names.
– Your brother, your sister, and you—there are three of you, just like the carp – said my mother. – You could call the orange one André, the green one Juliette, and give the silver one your name.
– But that would make Hugo sad.
– Yes, that’s true. Maybe we should buy you another carp.
Quick, I thought, think of something. Anything!
– But I’ve already given them names.
– Oh. I see. What do you call them?
– Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
– Jesus, Mary, and Joseph? Aren’t those funny names for fish?
– Which is which?
– The orange one is Joseph, the green one is Mary, and the silver one is Jesus.
My mother laughed at the idea of a carp named “Joseph”. My baptism was approved.
So began the daily routine. When the sun was directly overhead, I turned into the priestess of the fish. I blessed the rice cake, tore it into pieces, and cast them upon the water, saying:
– This is my body, that I give to you.
The gaping maws of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph appeared immediately, and in a great frenzy and thrashing threw themselves at the miserable stuff, fighting with each other over the last piece.
I wondered whether causing such a riot was really a good thing. I bit into one of the rice cakes. It tasted like wood pulp.
But these plump saucisses went crazy over this manna, which, when it became waterlogged, must have been truly horrible.
I tried not to look at their mouths. Watching people eat was bad enough, but nothing like how Jesus, Mary, and Joseph went at their food. A sewer pipe would have seemed a delicacy in comparison. The diameter of their mouths equalled that of their bodies. They looked like segments of tube except for those puffy fishy lips, which opened and closed with an obscene smacking noise—mouths shaped like life preservers that wanted to drown food and me with it.
I started feeding them with my eyes closed; otherwise
I didn’t think I could go through with it. I threw the pieces out into the water, and waited for the sucking and gurgling sounds to tell me that the trio had arrived, like a ravenous mob, having followed the alimentary trail.
If I could have I would have put my hands over my ears.
In all my three years of life I had seen nothing as nauseating as this. I had looked intently at squashed frogs in the streets, made pottery shapes out of my poop, examined closely the contents of my sister’s handkerchief when she had a cold, and fearlessly poked my finger into a piece of raw veal—all motivated by genuine scientific curiosity—and felt not the slightest revulsion.
Why, then, did the mouths of carp cause me to break out in a cold sweat.
I had begun to think that our individuality lay in the following: tell me what disgusts you and I will tell you who you are. Our personalities mean nothing; our inclinations are mostly ordinary. What disgusts us expresses who we really are.
Years later, when I was learning Latin, I came across the phrase, carpe diem. As if by instinct I translated this into “a carp a day”. This repugnant adage, if that’s what it was, took me straight back to those days of torture at the side of the pool.
“Seize the day” is, of course, the right translation. Seize the day? What a joke. How could you enjoy anything before noon when all you thought about was the approaching session with these grotesque creatures, and then, after it was over, shuddered at the memory of it for the entire afternoon?
Not thinking about it was impossible. It would have been like telling a Christian about to enter the Coliseum, “All you have to do is not think about the lion.”
With each feeding, I got the growing feeling that it was my flesh the carp wanted. I began losing weight. After the fish had gobbled their lunch, I couldn’t touch a bit of mine.
At night, in my bed, the darkness around me was filled with gaping mouths. I put my head under the pillow in terror and cried. I could feel their obese, scaly, writhing bodies under the covers with me, suffocating me—their cold, smacking lips moving all over me.
Jonah at least was lucky enough to be safely tucked away in the whale’s stomach. Being swallowed by the carp wouldn’t have been so bad. It wasn’t their stomachs that terrified me, it was their mouths—the glottal vibrating of their mandibles sucking at me, night after interminable night. My nighttime visions were not of fairies and castles but of creatures from Hieronymus Bosch.
Related to this was the paralyzing fear that if I endured too many of their loathsome kisses I would turn into one of them. I would become cylindrical. My hands explored my body, expecting to find telltale signs of this dreaded metamorphosis.
Translation by Timothy Bent, pp. 109–117
THE CHARACTER OF RAIN
by Amélie Nothomb
St. Martin’s Griffin 2003