Takakura in Decline
By Kelton Russell
She knew the name was important. Through an hour on the train and another wandering the unfamiliar streets in a cold early autumn rain she held it, as though it were the memory of a dream, liable to vanish the instant it slipped from the tip of her mind. She muttered it over and over, a mantra to steel her nerves, as she found her way to the humble church at the edge of the village and knocked on the parsonage’s door.
“Makoto Takakura… Makoto Takakura… Makoto—”
The door sprang open and she jumped backwards on the rickety stairs.
“Yes?” asked the old man. He was tall, though time and toil had bent his shoulders, like a willow stooping to reach a stream. He was thin everywhere but his round, watery eyes, which reminded her of blue springs. The ends of his quilted gown flapped in the breeze.
“I’ve come for…” But when she reached for the name, it was gone. She hadn’t expected a Westerner in Japanese clothing to answer the door. “I’ve come to care for…”
“Yes,” she said with relief. “Can I see him?”
“Of course.” He held the door open, “Please, come in from the rain.”
Though it was as bare as a monk’s cell, the parsonage filled with a friendly warmth. She looked for Takakura as they walked to the kitchenette, but he was nowhere to be found.
“Let’s get to it then,” the foreign priest said. They sat across from each other at the Formica table, sipping hot tea and listening to the jazz spilling from the transistor radio. “What tasks can you perform?”
“I am a capable homemaker and nurse.”
“You hold a degree?”
“From the prefectural hospital.”
“I go there often.” He watched her through the steam. “I haven’t seen you.”
“My last patient required home care, like Takakura.”
“Perhaps I shall call him for a reference?”
He paused. “I’m sorry.” There was genuine remorse in his voice. “Are you a Christian?”
“No. My mother was, before the war.”
“After the war she wasn’t much of anything.”
The priest studied her for a moment, before reaching for the breadbox at the end of the table.
“Well, I should like a demonstration of your skills.” He slid open the box’s accordion door and withdrew the few items it contained: a pat of butter, half an onion, and two eggs. “Do you think you can fashion something edible?”
She stared at these paltry ingredients, vexed by their simplicity, until the whisper of a childhood dish sounded in her mind.
“Yes.” She smiled. “I know just the thing.”
Soon, with the cottage filled with the buttery aroma of browned onion, she hovered beside the table, chewing her thumbnail as the priest took his first bite.
“Well…in all my years in Japan, I’ve never had anything quite like this.” He skewered another piece and studied it like a newly discovered insect. “Where did you learn it?”
“A clever woman. She was your previous patient?”
“May I ask what afflicted her?”
She looked down at her hands. “I don’t wish to exhume the past.”
“Fair enough.” He popped the piece into his mouth. “Alright, Yoshiki. The job is yours.”
“A woman who can cook so much from so little must be kept at all costs.”
“That’s wonderful!” She beamed. “When do I meet Takakura?”
“You already have.”
“Well, not formally.” He bowed his head. “Father Makoto Takakura.”
She froze. “You’re Takakura?”
“But…what’s your real name?”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“You know, the name your parents gave you when you were little and pink and new to this
“Takakura is my only name.” Something between them had changed; a bit of warmth had
left the room.
“You bury your past”—his chair screeched as he pushed away from the table—“and I shall
The next morning, she woke to find the cottage cold and still. Takakura, too, had changed. A
sharp stiffness had crept into his joints in the night, which made it impossible for him to rise from bed unassisted. As she worked her small frame under his arm and levered him onto his feet, she prayed his wobbling legs would not give way. The collapse of so large a frame would
leave them both shattered on the floor.
As the weeks slipped by and his health only worsened, she realized the strength he’d shown on that first day had been an act. He’d prepared for her arrival, gathering his strength about him like a cloak, but now that she was with him always, he could no longer hide his pain. Gone was the genial, energetic priest she’d known only for a day. But she stayed by his side, sponging his
forehead as she tried to not think of the last time she’d seen so swift a decay.
Her only respite came when they traveled to the city for his checkups. She hadn’t meant to snoop, but once, while the priest was changing into his paper gown, she’d caught a glimpse of his medical chart. What she saw there confirmed her worst fears. The doctor poked Takakura’s throbbing knees, told him to drink more water, and sent him on his way again.
Later that same day, as they walked through the forest behind the parsonage, Takakura told
her, “I saw you looking at my chart.”
“I didn’t mean to—”
“Do you know what afflicts me?”
“Fatigue, flu-like symptoms, joint pain…”
“But do you know the cause?”
“I’ve suspected,” she stared at the leaves crunching under foot, “you are a Hibakusha. A
survivor of the bomb.”
“Hibaku-sha. Explosion people. Ours is a literal language. And you’re familiar with…” He closed his eyes. “Of course,” he sighed. “Your mother…”
“Had you known I was like her, would you have taken this job?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “No. I wouldn’t have. The way she wasted away… I can’t watch that again.”
He stopped. “And now that you know what’s happening to me, will you stay?”
“I don’t know.”
The trees went bare, days grew short, and Yoshiki stayed. If asked why, she couldn’t have said. Every day spent watching Takakura’s deterioration was torture, a grim reminder of her failure to ease her mother’s passing, but still she couldn’t bring herself to leave, not yet.
On an unseasonably warm November morning, Father Takakura decided it was time Yoshiki learned to drive.
“Everyone should know how,” he declared at breakfast.
“Why?” She dunked a triangle of toast in her coffee. “I’ve made it this far not knowing.”
“Only someone who’s never experienced the thrill of the highway would ask that. I still sometimes dream I’m steering a Mercedes down the Autobahn.”
“That would explain the strange noise you make in your sleep.” The toast dropped from her hand. “So, you are German?”
“No. I am Japanese, same as you”
“But you said Mercedes and Auto—”
“I have the citizenship papers to prove it.” He rose shakily. “I’ll get them right now.”
“No,” she said quickly. “Let’s go driving.”
“You want to?”
“It would be good to enjoy the weather.”
“Excellent.” Takakura shuffled towards the door, his slippers scuffing the floorboards like fine-grit sandpaper. “I’ve already borrowed the keys from Mr. Yamato.”
“Does he know that?”
“Perhaps not, but if an old priest knows anything, it’s how to ask for forgiveness.”
She learned the basics of operating the car easily enough, but when asked to try anything more complex, tempers flared. By the time the lesson was over, the only sound in the car was the squeaking of brakes and grinding of gears. But when they pulled into Mr. Yamato’s driveway and saw his toad face ripening like a tomato, they both fell into a fit of laughter.
“It would appear Mr. Yamato thinks we’ve ruined his car,” she said between cackles.
“He can afford a new one,” said Takakura. “He tithes only five percent.”
Winter made up for its late arrival. They spent a week inside, trapped by falling snow that refused to end. Cut off from his fresh air and exercise, the priest’s strength ebbed.
“It’s been so long since I’ve performed a baptism.”
“Mhhm?” Yoshiki didn’t look up from the wool socks she was knitting for him. “Baptize someone in this weather they’ll catch their death.”
“A family of lizards has taken up residence in the font.” His grin erased forty years from his
face. “I should like to fill it and give them relaxing grotto.”
“But who would you dip? You’ve picked the village clean of willing converts.”
“There is one that I’ve yet to convince.”
“Is that so?”
“You know who I mean.”
“I cannot read your thoughts.”
“It would be small. No one would know besides you, me, and God.”
“Perhaps.” She set aside her needles. “If you answer my question.”
“You know which.”
“I’ve told you. That life is off limits.”
“It’s only a name.”
“I am Japanese.”
“You are not Japanese,” she scoffed.
She didn’t need to look to know she’d hurt him. She searched for a way to take back her careless words. “I only meant, that since you weren’t born here, you can’t really be Japanese.”
She was chest deep in the quicksand, her flailing only sinking her deeper. “I just mean, people here will always see you as foreign, no matter what you do.”
“My whole life, I’ve tried…” He trailed off, his face twisted with a new kind of pain.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t—”
“Were you so nasty to your mother before she died?”
“Is your cruelty what killed her?”
Now it was Yoshiki’s turn to hurt.
She couldn’t be there any longer. The cottage was too small, its walls too close. She dashed towards the door, threw it open, and disappeared into the growing storm.
The house was empty without Yoshiki. Takakura turned the radio up as far as it would go, but the blaring jazz only reminded him of her absence.
“Forget her,” he said to no one. He’d lived for seventy years without a caretaker. He could manage just find without a nurse. And he was sure she’d be back soon. The storm had turned into a blizzard. She’d come crawling back any moment, cold and contrite.
But as the sun fell and Yoshiki failed to return, he began to worry. What if she’d gone into the forest and gotten herself lost? The snow was deep enough to cover their usual path. How would she find her way back to him?
Yoshiki returned after dark with a bag of noodles from Takakura’s favorite food stall.
“I’m sorry. I had to clear my head and the weather turned nasty –”
Takakura’s chair was empty. So too was the rest of the cottage.
She stepped outside and yelled his name into the frigid night. The snow, falling softly now, had turned the whole world into a quiet room. Her voice carried for miles, but she received nothing but silence in response.
At the corner of the yard she found a single set of footprints. Slipping her own feet into the twin impressions, she looked up and saw that they pointed to the forest.
She found him under the branches of a maple tree, half-frozen and wholly incoherent.
“Ah.” One eye was frozen shut. “There you are.”
“What are you doing out here, foolish old man? Do you have a death wish?”
“I was looking for you.”
“Well you found me.” She opened her coat and pressed her chest against his.
“That’s right,” he said, slipping back towards unconsciousness. “I found you…”
“Takakura has fallen,” she told Mr. Yamato. “You have to drive us to the hospital.”
“The bottle of wine I had with dinner says I don’t.”
“Won’t you help?”
“Sure.” He underhanded the keys. “Bring it back in one piece this time.”
Takakura woke only once on the way to the hospital. “Ah,” he said blearily from the back seat. “Du fährst ein auto.”
“What?” But when she turned to look, he was already gone.
Yoshiki awoke to find herself slumped over in a chair beside his hospital bed. “Yes.”
“I don’t know.” She wanted to tell him something, that maybe she’d realized the
only thing worse than dying is dying alone, but she couldn’t find the words. Instead, she took a
jug of water and a clean bed pan from the nightstand.
“A baptismal font.” She filled the pan. “Do it quick, before I change my mind.”
“At long last.” He smiled. “But first you must confess your sins.”
“I don’t make the rules.”
“Fine. I once stole a watermelon from Suzuki’s Grocery.”
“Bigger than a watermelon?”
“I meant metaphorically.”
“Oh.” She bowed her head. “I once hurt a dear friend with my thoughtless words.”
He looked up at her, his eyes for a moment clear. “You are forgiven.” He dipped his fingers and flicked drops in her direction. “I’m afraid that’s all I’ve got. The words…”
“That’s okay,” she said, wiping the water from his hand. “That’s all I needed.”
He shifted as a new thought occurred to him. “That dish you made me all those months ago.”
“My mother used to make something just like it, when I was a boy in Essen. Back when my
“You don’t have to say,” she gently interrupted.
“But you’ve always wanted to know.”
“That’s alright.” She smiled. “I already know it. And besides, I’d rather hear about your life here.”
“Settle in then.” He smiled. “There’s a great deal to tell.”
He told her of his flock and the fine church he’d built for them before the war. He told her of
the first wedding he officiated, and of the last funeral—a Hiroshima Maiden who died on an operating table in New York trying to regain her stolen beauty. He told her everything he could, for hours and hours, until they both felt sleep approaching.
“You’d best go,” he said, his eyes drooping. “There’s a couch in the hall.”
“What if you need me in the night? I’d rather be here with you.”
“My vows… sharing a room…”
“I phoned the Father Superior before you woke.” Only a Christian for a few hours and she
was already lying. “He said it would be fine, given the circumstances.”
“Good.” He closed his eyes and shifted to make room for her on the narrow bed. “That is a relief.”
The room was cold when Yoshiki awoke. So, too, was Takakura. She stayed with him until the
nurses forced her to go. As she left, she stopped in the doorway to take one last look at the man named only Makoto Takakura.
His face was relaxed and finally free from pain.