Every day on the way back from his middle school Takuo passed the strange old house that was a cross between the aristocratic style and an abomination. There was something about the place and its ornamentation and scale that was, inexplicably, a little too big, or a little too much, or a little bit the wrong angle: variations so slight nothing should have been wrong with it, and yet it somehow was an architectural horror.
"That old eyesore," his mother would lament when Takuo reported to her any minor changes. The fence, lately, had fallen into disrepair. "Any house of that style ought to have a stone wall around it, not a wooden fence!" she would say. "All those beautiful buildings and temples we lost in the war and earthquakes and fires, and yet such hideous places never lose so much as a shingle. True beauty, Takuo, is never long for this earth!" Then, as if willing herself to be among those truly beautiful things, she would complain of some malady or other and go to the couch for a rest.
The house of Ooshio Takuo, she never failed to remind him, was the model of taste, rebuilt by his father before Takuo had been born so that it was exactly as their family home had been for generations, but for the convenient modern adaptations he'd allowed for in the design.
The other house was owned by a man named Shibata, who made a fortune selling overpriced sake to good teahouses like the one belonging to Takuo's family. Though it was necessary their families be on good terms, Takuo's mother knew restraint only when it was required of her; when there was no one but the two of them at home she was happy to criticize Shibata's poor taste and what she referred to as slick character.
"What can he be doing all day," she would ask, Takuo knowing he was never to try and answer, "making the sake with his own hands? Harvesting the rice from the fields? People say his wife is alone almost all the time, and that he forbids her to go out!"
She had even brought it up recently to Takuo's father, to which he had replied very simply, "Well, she is quite a beauty." Takuo's mother seemed, after that, to be disinclined to mention it to him again.
Since that evening, however, Takuo had been increasingly curious about the wife of this tasteless Mr. Shibata. He had, throughout his years of middle school, seen glimpses of her within the house, or heard her rattling around in the yard behind the fence. It seemed from Takuo's patchwork experience with this woman he did not know that she rather enjoyed the garden, as he had once glimpsed her back and thin but roundish posterior laboring in the ground, a plain white robe tucked tight around her hips. He was not familiar then with what was pleasing in the shapes of women, but he wondered if what he saw had something to do with his father's comment, or if she had a small and stunning face like the geisha at his father's tea house.
He preferred to think of her this way, this woman whose face he had never seen: that she was a beauty with a countenance like a poem has eloquence. He wondered whether it was not the home of a woman of mere beauty but of purity, of perfection, as he passed the ugly house each morning and afternoon.
It was not long before Takuo, in his clean and proper middle school uniform, developed the dirty and improper habit of peeping. He was, naturally, not the only person to travel those streets, and therefore had to be careful. He developed certain habits that might make his loitering there seem permissible—his bag needed adjusting, his books were heavy, the trees hanging over the fence made for the perfect place to relax in the shade or have a small snack. Once or twice some older ladies had caught him with his face nearly painted onto the fence, but it was the one time in his life when his size, below average for his age, was a blessing to him.
"Excuse me, what are you doing?" one lady had asked, clearly appalled. He thought, all at once, of the good relations necessary between his family and the family of Mr. Shibata, of his mother's opinion of the man, of the shame creeping up to his ears and his father's soft face as he answered, without looking, that Mr. Shibata's wife was quite a beauty.
He was too young and innocent, despite all his furtive plans to spy on the beautiful woman, to come up with a decent excuse, and so he told the ladies in the voice of a child, mouth unnaturally rounded with the horror he felt then, that he had heard there was a beautiful woman living at that house, and he'd only wanted to see if it was true.
The blood pounded so hard in his ears he could hardly hear as they laughed, or see that they looked to one another with smiles. They'd taken him for a first year boy with a simple, child's crush.
"How sweet," said one. The tone of their voices had changed completely.
"Have you seen her yet?" asked the other.
He shook his head no, and looked down in shame.
It was deep into summer before Takuo ever saw the face of Mr. Shibata's wife. He interpreted it as great fortune on his part when the woman took to sitting in the shade of her garden each afternoon, so that she was there almost every day when Takuo passed by on his way home, or would emerge from the darkened aberration that was the Shibata house shortly after his arrival at her fence. By that time he'd found all the good splinters and gaps and would sit in the shadow of an overhanging tree, reading a book as though enjoying the pleasant weather, pretending to loosen the collar of his uniform as he turned his head to the side to gaze at her. As far as he knew she was never aware of his presence, for such a proper and elegant lady would never participate in something so scandalous with intention, surely. Takuo was very young yet, and not aware that all beautiful women, though properly delicate on the outside, were not all gentle, fragile flowers on the inside, or that there are all kinds of good reasons for doing something that make it improper only on the outside.
His father's assessment of Mr. Shibata's wife had not been false. When Takuo saw her face at last he felt as though he'd been given new eyes, ones that contained all the visions and experiences of his old ones but that were capable of seeing so much more. Where his old eyes had once seen beautiful women with thin, soft skin and narrow-smiling lips, his new eyes saw all these things in a grander scheme, an earth-sized net of breathtaking things all connected and building on one another, where some of the eyelets were crammed full of things and most of the others stared back at him emptily, waiting to be filled. Mr. Shibata's wife, unlike all the beautiful women he had been near before who were crammed in up to the twine of a few common looking eyelets, was on a tier of her own, filling every space and gap and coloring the things around her a soft, delicate shade of a color he had no name for. His new eyes saw, too, that the emotionless look of his father, that night he had answered his mother regarding the hermitage of Mr. Shibata's wife, was not a look of indifference but the face of restraint.
Mr. Shibata's wife, Takuo thought, is the most beautiful woman in the world. If those older ladies could have seen him now, his cheeks flush, the sweat percolating on his brow, his collar growing damp. His heaving chest felt disconnected from his body.
Mr. Shibata's wife, he thought again, is the most beautiful woman in the world. And thanks to Mr. Shibata's wife, his concept of the world was expanding like the ocean eating up the shore. It seemed, suddenly, an endless place, beyond the tea houses and his school and the streets he knew.
He did not know her name and there was no one he could ask without raising suspicion, so he began to call her Ajisai, meaning hydrangea flower, after the startling blue and purple blooms that grew in his yard each year. The ajisai, his mother said, never bloomed long enough to satisfy, so that she had to look forward to the pleasure of seeing them each year.
The truly beautiful is fleeting, he had come to believe, like the ajisai in summer, and each day he looked forward to the time when he would see her again, the most beautiful woman in the world whom he called the name of a flower.
Takuo hadn't, at first, noticed Ajisai's rounded belly. As the weeks went on and her face, too, began to appear less narrow, he saw the correlation and realized the young woman was to become a mother. He wasn't sure how this fit into his image of her as the perfect woman, so he ignored her distortions and continued to sit by her fence, gazing in at her when no one was looking and it seemed an opportune moment to adjust his collar.
In time he began to notice a sadness about her, a lonely feeling cast off from her downward-angled eyes as definitely as if it were tears. The net of his world, big and consuming as it was, was after all full of holes and unable to contain things by its nature. Her sadness was the first thing he realized it could not hope to contain.
He tried to find reasons why she was lonely, some of them childish and some of them more astute: she was too eager to see the face of the baby inside her, and it made her feel lonely that she had to carry what must have been such a beautiful child all the time without ever seeing it; she was lonely for Mr. Shibata, who left her alone all day even though she was carrying his first child for him; she missed her relatives whom she could not go off to see as she was forbidden to go around; she was lonely because she was idle, unable to tend to her beautiful garden as she so loved now that the baby was growing within her; she had been waiting all her life for someone with eyes as keen as Takuo to see her and understand her beauty as no one else could.
In his stupider moments he chucked flowers from his mother's garden over the fence when she was not there, so that she might find them and be pleased. He thought about writing her a letter once or twice, but knew it would be out of the question and that she'd be on the lookout for her admirer if he went through with it, and then it would all be spoiled. In the end he could only conclude, and perhaps there was even a little truth to it, that very beautiful women, on account of being in a class of their own, were doomed to a certain unebbing solitude. There would always be someone like Mr. Shibata in their lives, who distrusted them because they were so very beautiful, though they simply could not help it.
But this, he would learn in future years, was not the case for his Ajisai. As an adult he would look back on her thick, downcast eyelashes and bent neck as she sat sweating delicately in the shade of her garden, and recognize her expression as the succumbing mixture of loneliness and guilt. That summer, however, she was to be a holy vision in Takuo's eyes, a goddess of pure and divine beauty, until the faint wind of August, hot and fat with moisture, would sweep in and alter his perceptions forever.
When Takuo's school began its summer recess he was distraught over how to casually continue his visits to Ajisai's fence. After a lot of careful consideration he came to believe that, if the shade of the trees from her yard really made for the prime reading spot he had pretended it to be all this time, there was no reason a bookish young boy should give it up just because school was out of session. To be safe, however, he tried not to go every day, and took a different book along though he hadn't read a page of the first one.
Her belly had gotten so big by then that it was impossible to ignore, and he had begun to incorporate it into his dreams and wakeful, though mostly innocent fantasies. In one daydream he had met her on the street as she walked, parasol in hand, with Mr. Shibata, and Takuo with his mother. They exchanged greetings and small talk, his mother inquiring about the baby. Then Ajisai, mistaking him as the older ladies had done for a younger boy, would ask if he'd like to touch her belly, or put his ear to it, the question alternating depending on the day he dreamt it. He would always reach forward, shyly, and put his hand softly against her silk kimono, which was always splendid and never made her sweat a drop, and through it he would imagine he could feel the softness of her skin. The belly was surprisingly firm, and when he touched it he would know there was a beautiful baby inside.
Once or twice her breath had figured into his fantasy, tickling the back of his neck or ears as he gingerly touched Ajisai's stomach. He found this addition a little uncomfortable, however, and so most of the time imagined the coolness of the shade from her parasol, and the excitement of being so close to someone so perfect. Takuo knew that this sort of privilege would be granted only to a very small child, and it was then that he would realize, with a disturbing start, that in his fantasies he was a small child, the hand that reached for Ajisai brown with sun and the fingers short and stubby, and he would wake from his dreams in dismay. He tried, more than once, to picture himself as a grown man, old enough to have married Ajisai instead of Mr. Shibata, but he could not imagine what kind of man he would be or how he would look at that age, and quickly gave up on the attempt.
One afternoon, that August, he arrived before Ajisai did. He heard the familiar grinding of wood against wood as she slid the side doors of the house open, the clatter as she slipped her tiny but swollen feet into her geta and clunked carefully across the stones, each day a little slower than before as her belly grew more cumbersome. Someone, perhaps Mr. Shibata, had set out a chair for her, the back against a tree, so that she could sit comfortably and enjoy the garden without the strain of rising from the ground each time she wished to leave. Takuo, again almost in disbelief of his good luck, had a perfect view of his Ajisai where she now sat in front of the tree.
He could see with his sharp eyes the folds of the fabric of her yukata, a light pink with a tasteful pattern of sparrows, and could see the places where it stuck to her pale chest from sweat. She fanned herself like the perfect lady and admired the garden around her. Then she sat forward, moving her knees apart so the bulk of her belly could fall between her thighs, and untied the sash on her garment.
Takuo watched it all with wide eyes, his book and all his pretenses forgotten on the grass beside him. The net of his world, he thought, was about to burst. He was going to see her pregnant belly, he thought with bizarre excitement, and pressed his face up against the fence, trying hard not to breathe lest she hear something and catch him. He was in rapture as she uncoiled the obi from around her, her yukata falling slowly open around her chest. At last she pulled the sash away from her body, folded it neatly, and draped it over an arm of the chair.
The perfect woman… he thought in synch with the pounding of his heart. The most beautiful woman in the world, the most beautiful… Her skin was so very pale where he could see it. He tried to wait patiently, even casually, picking up his book again and throwing it open in a distracted way, waiting with a furiously drumming heart for the yukata to fall open as she sunk back into the chair, fanning herself as though she couldn't tolerate the heat a second longer. Takuo couldn't believe his great luck might run out at this of all moments, so he tried to calm himself a little and put his back to the fence.
More than once it occurred to him that he may be doing something wrong, but that thought was tied to a belief that propriety, in the shade of Ajisai's garden, was no longer relevant.
At last, to his good fortune and ardent distress, the woman threw open her cotton robe, heaving a sigh that made her whole body seize like a savage and indelicate animal. She was naked beneath the yukata.
Takuo felt his stomach lurch.
That beautiful belly, the one which surely contained a baby of the most exquisite sort, was huge and veiny. The place where her belly button should have been was stretched and disfigured, marred by red marks as though angry. Her breasts, breasts that should have been perfect, were instead huge and grotesque, the nipples purple, gigantic, her inflated body a nightmare he hadn't begun to have and could not wake from. He stared, horrified, at the dark space between her legs, and began to shake. She was spoiled for him.
Mr. Shibata had spoiled the perfect flower of summer that should have belonged to Takuo's sharp, admiring eyes alone. Takuo thought, in that moment, that he had learned true hatred, perfect hatred in accord with the ruin of the perfect beauty, but he was not yet aware that jealousy could exist where the object of desire was not really his at all, and not for something like a fountain pen or some other equally unimportant object.
Jealousy, his mother had once told him, was an ugly and tasteless trait. As one with such wonderful taste and an eye for beauty he did not know he was capable of such utter ugliness, compared to which Mr. Shibata's tacky house was nothing.
Always act nobly, she said, with pride and honor. He thought himself honorable for hating Mr. Shibata, who so deserved it for the wreckage he'd made of Ajisai's perfection.
True beauty, he thought, is fleeting.
He tried to forget Ajisai, telling himself that he was only interested in what was then beautiful. He soon started high school and no longer would pass her fence, nor wish to gaze at the white nape of her long neck. Her beauty was like the sparrows on her pink yukata that day, noticeable but quick to fly away, delicate, indeed, but not as delicate as other birds. He wanted to find a woman with beauty like the crane, who, it was said in legends, was able to live a thousand years.
No matter how often he told himself these things, at night he still saw her: her swollen belly, her dark, enlarged nipples. In his dreams he would reach for them, not knowing which he wanted to touch first, and falter. She would smile gently at him, encouraging him, ignorant at how ugly and gross he thought her body. But he, too, was ignorant. He did not know why but no matter how repulsive she seemed he still reached for her every time, a strange, gruesome temptation he could not resist. In some of his dreams he was a little boy, reaching to feel her belly, trying to suckle from her oversized nipples while she laughed like a songbird and told him he was too old. Then, suddenly, he would become a full grown man and she was frightened as he put his hands on her and groped desperately for her glossy black hair, sinking his hands in behind her hair pin with a groan.
Ajisai, he whispered with a full-throated greed, calling her by the name he had given her. Her lips quivered and she tried to pull away from him but her back was to the tree.
When her swollen belly brushed against his flat stomach, it was then he realized he was no longer that gentle little boy but a big, brutish man, with a face so lovely and smooth he should have been as handsome as she, and yet there was something profoundly ugly about him. Afraid, he pulled his hands away and stepped back, running his fingers over his own perfect but not beautiful face.
Try as he might, when he awoke from the dream in a sweat he could not tell what was wrong with that face that had become his. He could not, even, remember the way it had looked.
True beauty is fleeting, he thought.
But, he said to himself, in a moment of dazed clarity, true beauty should also be haunting, and cursed himself for the blindness of his new eyes.