Canal Dredging

Ko Machida

Illustration by Shuxian Lee

Earlier today, I took a liking to the phrase "Viva! Kappa!"; I've been walking circles around the house shouting "Viva! Kappa! Viva! Kappa!"

Why? I just like the sound of it, the cadence of "Viva! Kappa!", but if that were all I wouldn't say it so many times, at most I'd fill a glass with tap water, drain it in one gulp and let forth a single "Viva! Kappa!", end of story. No, I say the Viva Kappa over and over again because the phrase is accompanied by a distinct vision.

What vision? Midday, a country road. There are mountains in the background, fields of rice or some other crop on either side, and in the middle of all this winds a single road leading to the foot of the mountains. Houses with roofs of straw or thatch and deep eaves cling to the mountain base, but there is no other sign of human activity. Just think of the Japanese countryside of yore and you can't go wrong. If you go to the San'in region there might still be plenty of places like this.

A lone kappa is walking on this road. No, "walking" is not quite right. I mean he's walking, but there's something else to it, an explosively joyous advancement, perhaps? With both hands raised high, palms towards the sun, eyes to the sky while rocking his head from side to side, toes pointed in slightly and thighs kept low, he advances rhythmically. In short, "dancing" would be a better description, and as he dances the kappa shouts from time to time "Viva! Kappa!"

So why would this kappa shout "Viva! Kappa!"? The easiest answer would be, naturally, that he's affirming the very idea of kappa, celebrating the kappa condition, Viva! Kappa! But of course in this case, the Viva! Kappa! is not born of such superficial blitheness.

This kappa is instead close to tears. He finds being a kappa unbearably odious. "Why am I a kappa!" is all he can think about. Kappas in general do not loiter around human dwellings, it's not really in their nature. That this kappa is walking so conspicuously through a village in broad daylight must mean that he is on the brink of despair, or at least in an abnormal state of mind, possibly delusional. Elation? Implausible. It had to be something bad.

Also, this kappa is alone. The loner kappa. In general, one says Viva! in the presence of those feted by said Viva! The office worker who yells Viva! Our Company! at home at 8 p.m. is inconceivable. Without a doubt, that has to be said in front of his colleagues. Or suppose his wife's name was Yoshiko, he wouldn't say Viva! Yoshiko! without her around, would he? If he shouted Viva! Myself! that might be okay, but he's all alone, without any fellow kappas around, crying out a viva to kappas. However you look at it, he's in trouble.

We can think of many novelistic reasons for our kappa's behaviour. Maybe he made a terrible mistake and got shunned by his fellow kappas. Or else a girl he fancied broke things off with him because he was a kappa. Maybe. For now though, all that is irrelevant. What's important now is that despite hitting rock bottom, he accepts his nature and even hails it, Viva! Why not be a kappa? Or let's go a step further, I'm positively kappa, my kappa skin is raw, mine is the humiliating existence of kappa. I, kappa, am bathed in sunlight, caressed by the wind. That is the measure of my Viva! Kappa! Viva! Kappa!

I shout "Viva! Kappa!" over and over again because I fully empathise with the kappa's state of mind. Viva! Kappa!

And now we come to the part where we ask, wherefore my kappa empathy? Answer: this afternoon I was the loner, shunned by everyone. Plotted against. Humiliated. Close to despair, I walked home along stone walls. Had I thought of the Viva Kappa at that time I would've Viva Kappa'd much more truly viva kappa. Along stone walls with both hands raised high, palms towards the sun, eyes at the sky while rocking my head from side to side, toes pointed in slightly and thighs kept low, advancing rhythmically. Viva! Kappa!

As for why I became a Viva! Kappa! it was all because of this canal that runs through town. Well, yes, there's no way a canal could make me shout Viva! Kappa!—this canal was just a canal, though with its concrete borders and at one metre deep in some places you've got to admit it's one impressive canal—no, this canal didn't rise up and draw the Viva! Kappa! from my lips, the real cause was none other than Mr Slightshaft and his cronies. The meeting room reeked. The smell of rotten eggs hung thick in the stagnant air, so I wanted to end the meeting as soon as possible but no, everyone kept going on about trivialities and refusing to get down to business. Mr Trollpress would go "So the price of rice has been going up, that's gonna hurt," to which Mr Burgwood said "Yeah it'll hurt, and come to think of it lights seem dimmer these days, they must have lowered the mains voltage," which prompted Slightshaft to say "You're, so, right! And in these dark times it'd be nice if the lights stayed bright," prolonging the dull, dull banter, but why are we even bantering at all? Let's finish this, go back to our homes so we can drink over dinner or indulge in arts and crafts, if only our chairman Slightshaft would do his job and call this meeting to order. So I said "What about negotiating with the power company, as a neighbourhood association? We'll complain to the collectors, threaten to stop payments, that could work," trying to join in, but when and only when I spoke, no one responded. That noiseless, corrosive white emptiness was just unbearable viva kappa. Cooking smells wafted through the room.

Good job breaking it up, I told myself, now we can get started, but of course we don't start, and this time Mr Leftfield who had been silent until now said "Come to think of it the cold winds have really picked up lately, those early winter winds," and then Ms Breathtaker chimed in with "Yes, the other day some signboards and cats went flying." Ms Breathtaker always jumps in with inscrutable nonsense but no one ever calls her out on it, instead Slightshaft feigned amazement with "Wow, reaaally" while the others exhaled similar platitudes. This is because Ms Breathtaker has a pretty face and they wanted to flatter her, these dirty old men. "Signboards, possibly, but these winds could never send a cat flying," I said, my voice thick with incredulity, and again everyone made a vinegar-and-gastric-medicine face and the room fell absolutely silent. My heart withered some more. Viva Tokyo, Viva Kyoto.

There was an unnaturally long pause, during which Slightshaft shot a meaningful look at Burgwood and I thought okay, now the meeting will begin, but of course it didn't begin as Mr Sideways said "Even when sleeping left Courtney's right root has a parent ball that softens at obtuse angles, yeah? Now that's really something." As my sensible remarks had been met with total indifference, you'd think no one would respond to this drivel, but the discussion really heated up—"No way, softening the right root's got to be an almost impossible hardening even for Courtney!" "But Courtney does it all the time, does us all proud. With such wild sprouts and not a single imperial supporter." "Fine, I'll give you that, but the real issue here is how the left sleeper softens." "But actually it doesn't soften, right? On the contrary, really it hardens wouldn't you say. I mean really." "But actually, and I'd like you all to hold on for one second here, so hardening is what we call not softening, but hardening necessarily implies softening right, right? So in other words it's actually softening?!" "Does us all proud, that Courtney, real proud."

Not a goddamn clue what they were saying. I'm sure it was Japanese, but I couldn't understand a word. As my irritation grew I also felt sad and alone, but I couldn't tell them to stop their nonsense, because if I did, the balance of rage and misery I'd maintained within me would fall apart, my face would contort like that of a bullied child who fights the urge to cry with all his might, and I'd look like a loser if I made that face. So I endured. While my face resisted becoming that of a bullied child who fights the urge to cry with all his might.

"Can we cut the crap and start this meeting already?" I yelled as the fight was lost. The magma of hot misery spilled out of my heart and flowed down my face, which was bright red and breaking apart. Pyroclastic flow of misery, debris flow of rage.

Everyone looked at my bizarre expression in silence. It's going to get much stranger, so don't come any closer, all of you. Face, don't collapse on me. At that exact moment Slightshaft said,

"Without further ado I'd like to begin today's meeting." Finally. My face was spared. That face. Erase it from memory, all of you.

Slightshaft continued. "The main topic for today is, let's see . . . well it's that canal problem of ours. Put simply, the canal under consideration has suffered the inconsideration of members of our community who throw bicycles, tricycles, microwave ovens, TVs, all manner of household rubbish into it, to the point where small mounds have formed, and lately people have dumped small cars even. The flow has stopped, there's sludge building up as well as filthy long stretches of slimy algae and food scraps. In view of the fact that the canal is now covered in a malodorous white foam, and in view of the fact that it is a conspicuous blemish on our fair environs, furthermore there's no telling when a child or small creature will just . . . in consideration of all the above, the canal is extremely dangerous and there'll be a regular snafu if we don't do something about it, as I have so often opined to my humble wife. Apropos I would like to consult everyone and come up with an action plan, if such a course of action seems apropos."

Trollpress spoke next. "This is a problem of the gravest import. We cannot allow it to go unsolved; it behooves us to reach a conclusion at once."

"That is absolutely right. It behooves us to devise a plan at once," said Burgwood. It felt like a village pantomime. Leftfield said "That is absolutely right. In my house the stench, oh the stench is unbearable," whereupon Ms Breathtaker told yet another impossible fiction—"That is exactly right. In my house the smell has wilted the flowers"—and proudly thrust out her chest. Without missing a beat, Slightshaft replied with more transparent nothings,

"Ha ha ha, that must be quite problematic. Something really must be done about it immediately," et cetera. As my face was collapsing, however, I couldn't voice my opinions. Tch. I clenched my right hand and looked down. On the floor, near my left foot, were some discarded bean husks. A broken-off flower lay where it had fallen, dried up.

"Well in that case—" it was Sideways who spoke. "In that case we can, you know, put up signs that say 'No more dumping' or 'Dumping prohibited.' How about that?"

"But will that stop the dumping?"

"The signs will say 'Stop,' so it'll stop."

"And what should be done if it doesn't stop?"

"Those caught in the act will be warned, and those who ignore the warning will be killed. That'll do, right?" said Sideways with a giggle, tee-hee-hee.

"What about the cost of constructing and placing the signs?"

"It'll have to be borne by the neighbourhood association."

"How much money is left in the association fund?" asked Slightshaft of Burgwood, the treasurer.

"There were some extraordinary expenses last month so we have thirty yen left," was his reply.

"That won't be enough. The signs alone will cost 300,000 yen or so. With discounts from the hardware store and the painters, maybe 180,000 yen?"

"At that price the signs are a no-go," said Trollpress. "Setting aside the issue of future dumping, the real question is how to deal with the rubbish that has already piled up. That awful smell, the accumulated sludge, that's the problem at hand, isn't it? Won't all this talk be for naught unless we do something about that?"

"Hum . . . that is the question, huh. Hmm, what a fix."

"Yes what a fix what a fix."

Everyone folded his arms, hung his head dejectedly and kept muttering what a fix what a fix. I couldn't control myself any more.

"Muttering 'what a fix' till kingdom come won't solve anything, will it? Why don't we just dredge the canal?"

No response. Everyone was looking down or out of the window in an unnatural effort to avoid my gaze. That was the last straw.

"You know what your problem is? You guys are full of opinions about the irrelevant stuff, but when it comes down to specifics, all you can say is 'what a fix what a fix'—you've got a dirty canal, dredge it."

Third time. Silence like a snigger, and from out of nowhere—the sounds of a novice clarinetist?—some tune, ridiculously drawn out, became audible and everyone but me was on the clarinet's side.

"Well, I suppose you could put things that way," said Slightshaft after some time, "but canal dredging, whew! That's not going to be easy."

"What do you mean, not easy? Canal dredging means you go and dredge a canal, simple. Any moron could do it!" Must not explode. He who explodes is lost, I told myself as I exploded at Slightshaft, who then said in an exaggerated voice,

"You are absolutely right. It behooves us to undertake the canal dredging posthaste." Whereupon everyone else followed his lead with a chorus of "That is absolutely right" and "We need expedient measures."

Worthless, inveterate buffoons. The problem was obvious, and the meeting should have started from this point, clearly. Instead, here they were wallowing in idle talk, making no attempt to deal with the issue at hand. Without me, they would've blathered the whole night away, and with that thought my face was restored, I could even wiggle my nose. But there was yet another impasse. Who would do it, and when? We'd set a date and without fail, someone would come forward with a prior engagement. He'd have a wedding ceremony golf game mountain excursion domestic/international travel haiku gathering dinner party friend's house-moving furniture delivery to attend to, sorry, can't make it.

"You know, the only person who doesn't have any plans at all is you." That really pissed me off. I wasn't enjoying myself being idle at home, it's because I worked from home, that's all.

"I'll have you know that it doesn't mean I'm free."

"But you're at home all the time, aren't you?" said Ms Breathtaker.

"I may be at home, but that's because I work at home, unlike most people."

"But being at home must mean . . . right?" said Ms Breathtaker in that particular way housewives have of omitting their theses, and then she turned to Ms Goodstripes, tilted her head and nodded, seeking sympathy. That common, woman-to-woman gesture. Right? Bullshit. But Ms Goodstripes did not fully sympathise, she merely agreed with a vague "yes, yes." At which point Slightshaft said,

"Well, that's probably how it is," and then, with a feline grin,

"And with that, so . . . well . . . since you were the one who mooted the idea, you shall dredge the canal for us. I trust you will find this plan amenable." I was stupefied. A million words squirmed in my head writhing, begging for release; I didn't know where to start, so at last I said "Why am I the only one doing it?" Slightshaft answered, breezily,

"Because everyone else has business to take care of. You're the only one who can."

"Look, I've got business to take care of too, but seriously, why do I have to dredge the canal by myself?"

"Would you like to know?"

"You bet I would."

"Personally I have no desire to say this, or rather, saying it in this situation is quite unbecoming, so perhaps I will refrain after all." Slightshaft was clearly staying on his pedestal, but after suffering such a pompous prelude I just had to know, to hell with decorum. "Just fucking tell me," I said, fouling my language on purpose, and then Slightshaft, with the obvious hemming and hawing of the provincial officer who wants his listener to know that the tea ceremony of hesitation has begun, said,

"The truth is, before you got here we talked among ourselves, and it seems you owe six months of arrears to the association fund, yes? So even on the basis of equality alone, it's obvious that you're going to have to dredge the canal for us. It's only fair."

I choked. It was true, I hadn't been paying the monthly dues of three thousand yen. However, surely arrears on such a small scale didn't really matter, or rather, let bygones be bygones, but then again, if I were the only one not paying that's clearly wrong . . . I swear I always wanted to, but there would always be some unfortunate circumstance, or even if I had the money I would use it somewhere else; these things added up and so it never happened.

Everyone was looking at me. There was this thin membranous thing dividing us, and from the other side of it everyone was ridiculing me, that's what it felt like. In the corners of the room, dust danced in stripes. At that time I had not yet discovered the concept of Viva! Kappa! but in fact, my Viva Kappa began that very moment.

translated from the Japanese by Sim Yee Chiang and Sayuri Okamoto

Excerpted from Jōdo (Kodansha, 2005) by permission of Ko Machida and Kodansha.