From where they stood, it was all her fault. She was entirely to blame.

She’d left home, taking the child with her, and bringing her short-lived marriage to an end. In more ways than one, her other half wasn’t the paternal sort, the husbandly sort. In more ways than one, he wasn’t the child-support-paying sort either.

It was her fault, they thought, for not considering her child. For getting divorced, for becoming a sin­gle mother. She was in the wrong because she hadn’t properly thought through the consequences. She was wrong for prioritising her own needs as a woman.

What was she supposed to do now? She felt utterly lost. She had no one to turn to. She needed to work and she needed to look after her young child, but there was only one of her. She was so desperate that she’d gladly have accepted help from a cat, but even if a cat had consented to step to her aid, there wasn’t much it could have done.

There was no one around to tell her about the benefits that she was entitled to. They looked coldly on her situation. She had brought it on herself, they said, and refused to proffer a helping hand. This would be a test of her capabilities, they declared, resolving to watch how much she could accomplish on her own, eagerly anticipating the moment when they would be able to point, their chests puffed out in self-satisfaction, and say, ‘See! I told you so!’ They didn’t feel any twinge of pain or guilt about adopting such an attitude. It was her own fault, after all.

‘Still, you have to feel sorry for that poor child.’ They frowned and nodded with knowing expressions as their mouths formed these words of truth.

‘A parent’s selfishness hurts the child the most.’

‘The child is always the greatest victim in these situations.’

‘Bringing such misfortune on her own child! What a cruel-hearted woman she must be!’

She goes to work. So that she and the child can get by, she works morning and night. Her mind and her body suffer, and still, she continues to work. They can hardly believe it. What is she thinking, working like that all the time and never spending any time with her child? Can such a person even be called a mother? No, let us be clear. A person like her does not deserve to be called a mother.

So dumbfounded are they by her flagrant lack of morals that they look to their own lives, their own lifestyles, and are relieved to discover how upright they appear in comparison.”

What’s more, to go by what they’ve heard, her night job is an, ahem, night job. Well, there you have it! A perfect fit for a woman of such loose morals! It’s all turning out just as we thought, they say, shaking their heads. They shake and shake, throwing their heads from side to side with such force it’s a miracle they don’t snap off. Everything is proceeding just as they imagined. It’s always the same with women like her – they all make the same mistakes. So dumbfounded are they by her flagrant lack of morals that they look to their own lives, their own lifestyles, and are relieved to discover how upright they appear in comparison, how little resemblance there is between them and her.

Kosodate Yūrei (The Child-Rearing Ghost) by Yasuda Beisai (1848–88), early Meiji era. Wikimedia Commons

They don’t know this (and if they did they’d most certainly fall into a spluttering fit) but when she goes out to her night job, she takes the risk of leaving her daughter alone in the house. She doesn’t have parents or friends who can look after the child, and she cannot afford to pay for a regular babysitter.

Please let her behave today. Please don’t let anything happen to her.

Every day when she goes out to work she has to pray like this, as if she’s gambling, as if she’s writing a wish on one of those little slips of paper they hang up in the supermarket in July during the tanabata festival. At work, all decked out in her slinky dress, speaking in a slinky voice, she can’t shake off her anxiety. Life feels like a never-ending game of Russian roulette. Just because today was okay doesn’t mean that tomorrow will be too. There is no end in sight. And yet she can’t do anything about it. She has no way out.

So she decides to step in and help. She has been observing the tricky situation of the woman and child. That’s part of her job.

First of all, she makes sure she has a thorough grasp of the issue. She then summarises it in a report and submits it to her boss. Her boss passes eyes framed by thick black-rimmed spectacles over the report, imme­diately gives it the stamp of approval, and sends her out on the case.

After the woman leaves for work, she quietly watches over the child. The room is somewhat messy. She decides to tidy up a little – not so much that it’ll be obvious straight away, but just a bit.

The child notices her there right from the start. At first, the child pretends to play on her own but then she can’t contain herself any more and moves over to the corner where she is sat dead upright. Not easily intimidated, the child reaches out a hand to her kimono in amazement. She seems fascinated by the feel of it, so different to the clothes that she herself is wearing. Looking down with great tenderness at the child stroking her kimono, she produces a sweet from the fold of her wide sleeve and hands it to the child. The child gladly takes the sweet and begins sucking it. Each time the sweet moves in the child’s mouth, a lump appears in one of her cheeks. Seeing this, she smiles in satisfaction.

Sweets are her secret weapon. With sweets, she always manages to win children over. For a long time, she used to pay daily visits to the sweet shop, but at some point she realised it was an ineffective way of going about things, and instead started to carry a stockpile around with her. The owner of the sweet shop seems pleased by her decision to visit more infrequently too, although she could never under­stand why he found her presence quite so terrifying. Now she pops one into her own mouth, and looks at the child, mirroring the child’s one-cheeked lump.

While alive, it never once occurred to her that she’d find a job so perfect for her in the afterlife. In fact, she had never worked in her life. But jobs aren’t at all bad – that’s her view on the matter now.”

Soon, they are like old friends. After all, in the past the woman had gone by the name of The Child-Rearing Ghost. That wasn’t a title they gave you for nothing. There were very few children who didn’t take to her. ‘Hey, ghost lady!’ they would call out to her affectionately.

As soon as she began babysitting, she felt absolutely certain that this was what she’d been born (and had died) to do. (It should be acknowledged straight away that she was headhunted for the position, so someone must have noticed her suitability for the work before she did.) While alive, it never once occurred to her that she’d find a job so perfect for her in the afterlife. In fact, she had never worked in her life. But jobs aren’t at all bad – that’s her view on the matter now.

When the child falls asleep, exhausted from all her playing, she gives the room a cursory clean-up and waits for the mother to come home. She looks around the room that she shares with the child. She sees boxes crammed with stuffed toys and picture books, walls plastered with crayon drawings the child has made, a somewhat dingy balcony where their clothes have been hung out to dry.

She’d like to show them this place. She thinks the same of all of the homes she visits. Here is a place where two people go about their lives. A place where two people are living, striving to keep going. What right do they have to badmouth her when they’ve never even stepped foot inside her life? They should save it for when they’ve seen it from the inside. Then they can badmouth all they want. Honestly, who do they think they are, pretending to be so clever when they lack the skills to come in, look around, walk about? They should all just die – and then come back again. She can’t understand them at all.

She’s done all there is to do and is sitting very still watching the baby’s sleeping face as the woman comes home. She kicks off her shoes at the door and rushes straight to the back room where the child is sleeping.

She doesn’t notice her sitting there. But she doesn’t go out of her way to alert her to her presence. There is no need to rush things. As the days go by, she will come to notice her gradually. She will come to sense her presence in the emotional stability of her child, in the tidiness of her flat, and then she will be ready to accept her. When that happens, she can proceed to the next level, and make herself seen. She will be able to openly help her in all aspects of her life. The woman will be freed from the game of Russian rou­lette, and at some point, a friendship will begin to blossom between the two. It has always been that way in the past.

She can make her and the child happy. That’s the thing she feels the most proud of. It’s something that they can’t do, something they don’t even attempt to do. But she can do it, and she will do it. That’s what sets them apart. She is relieved by how little resem­blance there is between her and them. She watches her as she squeezes the child’s hand and lets out a big sigh, and she nods in satisfaction.

She touches her hand very gently to the child’s cheek, and then starts to change out of her work clothes. The slinky dress falls to the floor in a puddle, so she appears to be standing in a pool of still water. Her day’s work is over.

As one of them vanishes, the other takes a shower, burrows her squeaky-clean face next to the child, and falls asleep.

From Where the Wild Ladies Are (Tilted Axis Press, £9.99)

 

Aoko Matsuda is a writer and translator. In 2013, her debut book, Stackable, was nominated for the Mishima Yukio Prize and the Noma Literary New Face Prize. In 2019, her short story ‘The Woman Dies’ (from the collection The Year of No Wild Flowers), published on Granta online, was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award. Her novella The Girl Who Is Getting Married was published by Strangers Press in 2016. She has translated work by Karen Russell, Amelia Gray and Carmen Maria Machado into Japanese. Where The Wild Ladies Are is a contemporary feminist retelling of traditional Japanese ghost tales. Translated by Polly Barton, the collection is published in paperback and eBook by Titled Axis Press.
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Polly Barton is a translator of Japanese literature and non-fiction, currently based in Bristol. She has translated short stories for Words Without Borders, The White Review and Granta. Her full-length translations include Friendship for Grown-ups by Naocola Yamazaki and Mikumari by Misumi Kubo (both Strangers Press) and Spring Garden by Tomoka Shibasaki (Pushkin Press). After being awarded the 2019 Fitzcarraldo Editions Essay Prize, she is currently working on a non-fiction book entitled Fifty Sounds.
pollybarton.net

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