A while ago in Translate Like No One’s Watching I mentioned how I was translating a short story. Specifically for the 2017 Kurodahan Press Translation Competition. I had a fantastic time translating this story. And although I didn’t win, I’m still incredibly happy with the translation that came out of it.
By Onuma Tamao
“I can fly y’know.
It’s the truth.
Y’know the story Peter Pon? The one about the kids who grow up and cannae fly anymore? They cannae even chase after their hats when they toss them. But their bodies remember how it feels to fly. Ain’t that sad?”
Grandpa Tobita. Well, everyone just called him Grandpa. All the residents in the nursing home were referred to by their last name, but not Grandpa. Grandpa’s always been Grandpa.
He didn’t have any family though. Being bedridden and senile meant he was a lot to handle sometimes. But when he was awake, really awake, he never stopped talking. He mostly told stories about how great he was, but in a way that never painted anyone else in a bad light. Although saying that, you could never tell if any of his stories were true or not.
That’s why he was the most popular resident there. The best of the bunch.
“I can fly yer know.” Nurse Kobashi’s impression of Grandpa was probably the best. “Ain’t Peter Pon great? It’s a literary masterpiece!”
“You know he’s talking about the novels of Peter Pan.” Nurse Yuri said. “It’s surprising sometimes just how much Grandpa knows.”
Kobashi was left speechless, mouth agape; he had thought Peter Pan was just some Disney character.
The nursing home was so busy that most people wouldn’t have noticed Kobashi getting more and more depressed as March drew near. Those who did know, that the woman he had loved had died in the tsunami, didn’t want to worry him. They kept quiet and kept working like nothing was wrong.
“Maybe I should have said something,” he mumbled to himself as he was bathing Grandpa one day.
He had always regretted almost proposing to her, but never going through with it. She died when she went back to her hometown for her arranged marriage.
“It’s my fault…” He said to himself next to Grandpa’s seemingly dozing body. Then, clear as a bell, Grandpa spoke up. “Kouji. His name is Kouji.”
Kobashi jumped, almost letting go of Grandpa. His eyes widened. Wasn’t that the name of the guy his ex-girlfriend married? She had died with him, her husband, swallowed by the sea. Grandpa had said it with such clear clarity.
“She didn’ call for you. She chose her own path. That life was her choice and that’s ok.” Grandpa was staring straight into space. It almost seemed like his soul was off somewhere else, like he was watching the ocean from that day.
“I often wondered if she suffered. If she ever hated me,” Kobashi blurted out.
“She forgot all about it and just flew away.”
But Grandpa had stopped and all Kobashi could hear was his faint snoring.
“Don’t nod off there Gramps.”
Kobashi cursed as the tears began to well up, the sound of his sobs mixed with the rushing water.
Another time when Kobashi was with Grandpa he began talking seemingly out of nowhere.
“She wanted to jump off the footbridge.”
“Shit. That’s not good.”
“Beautiful women shouldn’ die.”
What about the ugly women? Kobashi was tempted to ask, but Grandpa had already continued with his story.
“You can’t fly if yer always worrying about yer mother-in-law or getting paid a pittance.”
Kobashi nodded somewhat in agreement. “But you know everyone has worries like that.”
“And just like shit it’s bad when it builds up inside you. It’s best to just grit yer teeth and let it out.”
“Let it out?” Kobashi looked up to see Yuri standing in front of them, white as a sheet.
“How did he know about the bridge?”
He looked back at Grandpa in surprise only to find him snoring just like the other day.
Kobashi knew that Yuri hadn’t known what else to do. She had been suffering so much that she had found herself at the footbridge in a daze. She told him that she hadn’t wanted to die, she just wanted to go somewhere else.
“I don’t remember it that well, but the entire time I had this feeling that someone was watching me. I never even took hold of the hand rail,” she told him.
“He told ye beautiful women shouldn’t die.” Kobashi tried to mimic Grandpa but it didn’t come out quite right.
The corners of her eyes crinkled as she smiled.
Grandpa would talk to anyone, which hadn’t been a problem until the next incident.
“My purse has vanished! Can you be a dear and fly over to my house to find it?” One part-time nurse, a middle-aged woman, asked Kobashi. To which Grandpa piped up with “It’s underneath the chest of drawers.” He was right of course, and it became a huge deal.
The woman was so excited she called a television show to come investigate the old man. Of course, it was so out of the blue the director of the home objected immediately. But when the woman’s friends and the home’s guests heard the rumors they came to see him anyway.
One person even managed to slip in and talk to Grandpa. They recorded their conversation on their phone and uploaded the footage to the internet. Everything from finding lost items to predicting the horse races. Grandpa was hit with wave after wave of stupid questions, but he loved the attention and happily went along with it, yapping his gums off. The moment a question got too difficult to answer he fell asleep. The video went viral, and there were so many people pretending to be visitors that it was impossible to move.
The staff ended up turning away everyone at the entrance, but even then, there were a few that were clever enough to sneak in. Kobashi and Yuri chased them out the moment they found them, but Grandpa shouted, “Don’t get in tha way of people wantin’ to talk!”.
That was the first time that Grandpa and Kobashi had ever had a shouting match.
Yuri tried to step in to stop them but ended up in tears. “How did this happen?” she mumbled to herself.
“I understand you love talking to everyone, Grandpa, but it wasn’t like Kobashi was trying to stop you talking at all. He just hates it that so many people think of you as a novelty. He’s just worried that someone will hurt you. And it’s not just him, but the Director, me, everyone here is worried about you.”
Grandpa began to act differently towards the staff after that. He looked progressively unhappier around them, and even that day his stern expression, a deep furrow in his brow, was unwavering. It made him look like every other small, frail, elderly man. Yuri sighed softly. She looked up just as Kobashi came in, but Grandpa refused to look at him. Kobashi clenched his jaw and spun around to leave when Grandpa suddenly said, “It’s gonna snow tomorrow.”
“Huh?” Kobashi and Yuri turned to him at the same time.
“It’s gonna snow tomorrow,” he said again, eyes shut. “Stand with both yer legs together. Yer don’t need anything in your hands, just the wings on yer back.”
Kobashi was about to rush over to Grandpa but hesitated and stopped, he turned to Yuri instead.
“Did he just say something about wings?”
“I think he did.”
“Well at least he can talk about normal things like snow too. Although I already knew it was going to snow, the weather report mentioned it earlier.”
“He’s been feeling really ashamed since you told him off the other day. Maybe he flew over to get the newspaper extra early to get back on your good side?”
It had been a while since Kobashi had smiled. Yuri was a little relieved.
Grandpa wasn’t kidding when he said it would snow the next day, only it snowed a lot more than anyone could have predicted. Such snow was so rare for the region that the roads were a disaster and the trains were forced to stop. Thankfully this meant there weren’t any suspicious visitors skulking around, and the staff and residents were able to have their first quiet day together in a long time.
Kobashi spent the day shoveling snow, checking the doors, and generally keeping himself busy around the home. He didn’t have time to look in on Grandpa once.
As evening approached he finally had a moment to rest. It was just as he approached the top of the stairs to the breakroom when the fire exit down the corridor caught his eye. It should have been secured but he felt the urge to double check. On his way to the door he noticed a dark shadow outside.
The snow had piled up against the latticework windows, making it hard to see. He hurried closer to see a short man standing outside, turned away from him.
His breath caught.
Kobashi flew at the door, but it was frozen shut. The handle refused to budge.
The figure that looked like Grandpa from the back was standing on the other side of the handrail of the fire exit stairway. But there shouldn’t have been anything there, just air.
Yuri dashed out of the staffroom when she heard Kobashi shouting.
The door still refused to budge even a little. Kobashi pounded on the glass in frustration.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?! Get back to your room, now!”
The figure slowly turned. It was Grandpa. Standing bolt upright wearing a short traditional Japanese winter jacket.
He was on the other side of the door but they could hear him clearly, “I’ve caused yer enough trouble already. So I’ll be off now.”
“Off?! Off where?!”
“There’s a place for me.”
“Just come back inside! You’ll catch your death of cold out there!” Yuri shouted as hard as she could. She didn’t have time to process how absurd it was that bed-ridden Grandpa was standing outside. She just wanted to get him back inside as soon as possible.
“Thank yer for all you’ve done for me.”
He seemed a little conflicted as he bowed, but quickly grinned and gave them a thumbs up.
“Yer needn’t burden yourselves all the time. Yer just need the wings on yer backs.”
Then he turned away again. The back of his jacket began to billow. Kobashi and Yuri, trapped on the other side of the door, could only watch with baited breath. The back of the jacket split open and white cotton flew everywhere, melting into the snow. A beautiful pair of white wings burst out from the increasingly ripped jacket, sending even more cotton flying. Grandpa’s tiny body seemed to be lifted up by the massive wings. He jerked up but stopped for just a moment as he fought against the blizzard. He beat his wings once, twice, three times, then shot up…
The glass door finally gave way and Kobashi tumbled out into the snow, confused when he saw there was no one there.
The truth was that in that moment Grandpa had passed away in his sleep, but everyone wanted to believe he had sprouted wings and flown away.
One of the stranger things was that the footage of Grandpa that had been uploaded to the internet, along with the rumors of his amazing abilities, seemed to have just vanished. Thankfully this meant the funeral was small but cozy. Yuri wondered if Grandpa had taken all the trouble with him.
“What do you think he meant by ‘there’s a place for me’?”
“From the looks of it he was an angel.”
“If he was an angel then that means even someone like me can go to heaven.”
Yuri and Kobashi both laughed.
I can just imagine, out of all the angels Grandpa is the one wearing a shabby winter jacket, Kobashi thought.
What was left of the snow danced in the wind like white cotton.