From Growing up with Ghosts: Tales from a Big Island Girlhood
By Shiho S. Nunes

I felt the pull of stories from my earliest childhood. My parents, both teachers from Japan, brought with them a veritable kura, a storehouse, of folktales, myths, legends, and historical tales that my brothers and I imbibed with our miso soup and tea during the years we were growing up.

My mother was a storyteller born. Long before we met them in books, my mother had introduced us to many of the characters of Japanese folktales: among them, Momotaro (Peach Boy); Issun Boshi (the Japanese Tom Thumb); Bunbuku Chagama (the Dancing Tea Kettle); and many others. She told us stories of Japan’s mythic beginnings, and fables, parables, and allegories. There was no domestic or educational crisis in our daily life for which she did not have an instructive tale. One that remains with me is of Japan’s war hero, General Nogi, who revered his mother so much that he saved her nail clippings.

She was a repository of stories about relatives and childhood friends and a living songbook about chants and verse she had learned as a youngster. Born and raised along the banks of the Tenryū, one of Japan’s great rivers, she never forgot the sights and sounds of the rush of waters down the gorges of this fabled river, nor the songs and chants she had sung about it as a young girl.

The story I retell here, “A Mother’s Call,” happened along the banks of the Tenryū when my mother was thirteen years old.  I retell it in her voice. 

A young relative had died suddenly, leaving behind an infant not yet weaned, and family and neighbors had gathered in the modest home for the wake. Whether the infant missed his mother’s nursing or sensed the presence of strangers in the house, he would not stop crying. Sugar-water, gruel on a twist of cotton cloth, rocking, patting, crooning—nothing would comfort him, and his heartrending wails, often drowning out the priest’s prayers, caused more tears to fall than the simple grief of the husband.

It fell to my mother and father to take the baby home that night and to look for a wet nurse the next day. After the mourners had left, we said goodnight to the husband and set off for home along the river path, my parents in the lead, my aunt carrying the swaddled baby, and me bringing up the rear. My father carried the big lantern; I, with a smaller one, tried to light my aunt’s path as much as possible.

You must picture for yourself what it was like in the country in those days before electric lights. The house of our dead relative stood on a high bank above the river. The path came down a gradual slope to follow the river a ways before it turned off to where we lived a mile or so away. Except for the bobbing lights cast by the lanterns my father and I carried, it was absolutely pitch dark; only long familiarity with every stone and pothole in the footpath kept us from stumbling. All around us there was nothing but the sound of rushing water intermingled with the baby’s wails.

We made our careful way down in silence, I almost treading on my aunt’s heels to light her way. By the time we reached the bottom of the slope, the baby had exhausted himself into a kind of petulant whimpering, but as we started along the river’s edge, he burst out afresh in a fit of crying that threatened to choke him and all but drowned out the sound of the river. We stopped and clustered around my aunt, each trying, but helpless, to comfort him.

And then, out of the darkness of the bank above us, from the direction of the house we had left, and rising above the sound of rushing water and the baby’s cries, came a single long–drawn call of a woman’s voice—“Ho–o–o–o–o–o–o–i”—so clear, so piercingly sweet, so compelling, it echoes in my ear to this day. Instantly, as if muffled and soothed into silence, the baby stopped crying. All the long way home he slept and let out not even a whimper.

© Shiho S. Nunes 2012