Eight cigarettes aren’t enough to celebrate my author’s death. The one between my fingers was smooth as my thumb grazed it up and down. It’s been decades since I smoked. The craving to fill myself with tobacco and surround myself in a cloud never left me. In my present life, my parents warned that cigarettes would rot me from the inside. The pack, lying on my lap, was wrapped with a pale, diseased heart.
If I cared about my choices’ consequences, I wouldn’t have made it to the homeland that inspired my first life. I used my writer’s lighter, smoked his cigarette, and sat on the veranda of the ryokan he rented for our trip. It faced a garden with thin pine trees, a pond, and a plot of raked stone shards. He wanted to re-create the house we lived in in his most famous book.
I found a box of condoms and a woman’s kimono when I rummaged through his luggage. He wanted me to dress up and dance for him as he reclined back and sipped sake. I was nothing more than a marionette to him; if he pulled a string, I had to follow him. This couldn’t have been the first time he’s taken a student on a trip. Pierre Loti travelled back and forth around the world for decades and wrote of his relations with the women and girls he met.
His copy of Madame Chrysanthème rested beside me. The cover had a black and white photo of a seated girl in robes. When readers looked upon that picture, did everyone think that I was her? Did they read every paragraph as the truth? So many writers took my tale to create stories on pages, stages, and films. In their narratives, my death was convenient for every other character, so I could be forgotten as they moved onto the next chapter of their life.
The reality was different. When Loti’s main character departed from Nagasaki, I was swept away into another world.
I took a drag of the cigarette and exhaled. White smoke rose in swirls around the moon. The lunar crescent above Tokyo was alone, bright, and clear. I’ve never seen it so large and shining before.
In 1908, I occupied a table in an American university library with stacks of books. Last year, Madame Butterfly debuted on this continent’s theatres. White women donned robes that were too long and tucked the right side over their bodies like corpses. They wore black wigs with widow’s peaks to become the titular Cio-Cio-san, a fifteen-year-old in a temporary arrangement with a foreign naval officer. They lamented over unrequited love, gave their son to the father, and killed themselves.
Cio-Cio-san, as a former entertainer, should’ve known better than to birth a bastard and end her life over a man. When I learned it was partly inspired by real events, I had to investigate.
Though it was strange I remembered my past life in Japan, I accepted it as a blessing from the Buddha. He must’ve had a reason for me to retain these memories. Or, perhaps it was a mistake; many things could go wrong during reincarnation. Of Pierre Loti’s works, I left Madame Chrysanthème for last. My fingertips sweat as I touched the dark cover. My hand tingled. What was I going to uncover?
Loti’s fictional account of a naval officer’s temporary marriage in Nagasaki described word for word an arrangement I had in my previous life. The details of our first meeting where he rejected his intended bride and pulled me out of a line of attendees, the spices and flowers in the dishes we ate, and the temples we visited were exact. I flipped through and saw black and white illustrations of myself playing the samisen and the vase of flowers I left in our home. The pictures of the streets, graves, and ports we walked through were duplicates from my past. This was too exact to be a coincidence.
The only thing new to me was the perspective. He described me, my friends, my family as small, dainty, and child-like. Or, we were ugly yellow monkeys. In particular, I was tiny brained and thoughtless. Granted, those of us who sold our bodies were girls growing into women, but he didn’t know the training we went through. I spent years perfecting my singing and samisen skills. Would he have thought differently if he knew that part of me? Would he have cared?
I closed the book and covered my eyes; they had dried and gone blurry from all the reading. I hid my head behind the stacks of volumes. The wooden table was cool on my forehead. What was my customer’s name? He was Loti, but also not. I couldn’t remember, despite being with him for months. How could I forget? What was going on?
Once upon a time, Loti went to Japan, had a liaison, and penned my story based on that visit. Somehow, I ended up in the writer’s world. His book inspired others to write similar works. I could locate Loti and get confirmation of what he thought of me and his intentions by publishing all this. I knew French; we had a common tongue to speak with one another. Though, how could I arrange such a meeting? I had to complete my studies and sail back to China. A daughter of educated Shanghai gentry didn’t travel to another part of the world to understand the source of her previous life.
I left the library at night and shook my head as I trekked in the darkness. I needed to smoke to calm my nerves. Madame Chrysanthème’s story should fade away, in time.
After graduation, I became a nun and spent my days studying and praying.
Planes roared above and bombs shook the earth like striking thunder. Debris fell from the roof and covered us in a fine layer of dust and dirt.
My youngest daughter gripped her arms around my waist. She did this before she could talk to tell me she wanted a piggyback. Tonight, she was silent. Her warmth on my back was no comfort. I squeezed both her hands with one fist as a blast flashed white outside.
We pledged allegiance to whoever demanded it, be it the Viet Cong, South Vietnam, or American armies. All we wanted was to be left alone and tend to our fields. It didn’t matter who we sided with—it led to the same end.
“Rarahu,” I whispered.
My twin sister’s eyes widened as she looked up at me. Our identical faces were inches away from each other. She hugged her infant son closer to her. She shook her head as tears welled in her eyes. We were supposed to keep our original identities secret. It didn’t matter anymore.
Rarahu wedded our author’s stand-in in The Marriage of Loti. After the main character left her, she withered away and died sick and homeless at eighteen.
Born from the same womb, we were finally not alone in this world. We shared a straw bed together as girls and whispered each other the stories of our past. I used sticks and wrote in our village’s soil to teach Rarahu how to read. I wasn’t done teaching her what I knew.
Everything we inhaled was of something burning. The roof shattered. We didn’t know where to go, so we stayed. In those last moments, Rarahu and I held each other with our children huddled around us. We built these walls, the roof over our heads. We’d be buried under it too. We promised to find each other again, somehow. When the bomb burst above us, we were all incinerated in the core of one great fire.
I lived two more lives before my current one. I couldn’t see or move, but I knew my mothers through their touch: one had rough hands while the other had bony arms. Both their hearts beat steady against mine when they held me.
I tried counting the minutes and hours that passed by, but lost track. How does one count to infinity?
Siblings spoke to me and stroked my hair for years until my bodies gave up on themselves. I was embraced and sang to as I faded away. Why did they give me such care when they knew I was poisoned by Agent Orange?
I spent my extra allowance money on a large chocolate bar. It melted in my mouth as I munched down on it. Up ahead, the sidewalk was blocked off partially by fenced construction and a pair of middle-aged men on a bench.
I preferred walking from school to get home. In my third life, I walked further distances to fetch buckets of water for drinking, bathing, and cooking. I needed to save every bus fare for university. Tuition costs skyrocketed since my second life.
Others may have pitied me because my parents could only afford to give me extra change for my sixteenth birthday, but I’d never resent them. Mama and Baba were Chinese immigrants who were raised in poverty similar to my past three lives. Settling in Toronto, Canada, they encouraged me to get good grades and a degree to obtain a lucrative job. I was tempted to remind them all their parents wanted for them was to survive. I wasn’t so successful as a mother. How can they be so worried when we were surrounded by an abundance of food? A single dollar got me a whole bar of candy.
I passed by the men on the bench. Their gazes were obscured by tinted sunglasses. I tucked my hands into my pockets and stared down at the concrete ground.
“Hey, little girl.” One patted his lap. “Come here and give me a massage.”
“What’s wrong? Don’t know English? Me love you long time.”
They cackled and bared jagged teeth like wolves as I passed them. They were going to say the same things again to the next Asian girl that passed them.
Memory worked in mysterious ways. I had over a century worth of lives, yet a few years came surging through me in a flash: planes roared above, bombs crashed, the hopelessness of others shed out as sobs on my bosom. Many of my homes across Asia were gone. Everything my ancestors built for their descendants were incinerated, and for what reason? Politics and ideologies I didn’t understand and generals who never knew me decided I had to die.
The way those men spoke to me came from somewhere. Their jokes surfaced from a film about the Vietnam War. How many people died before white men penned that joke? How did a punch line persist for decades while the victims of war remained nameless? Where did they find the nerve to speak to a teen like that?
In history and war, me, my daughters, and their daughters were trivial. Even the girls I never had were harmed; had war not come to my village, my youngest child could’ve been a big sister. They’d invent new ways to insult and harm us. They had been doing that for centuries in this world.
Loti. When anyone read his works, they saw through his eyes. Mine and Rarahu’s lives survived for over a hundred years with or without the gods. Our author’s words were read, it exposed his characters to minds ready to repurpose us. My story was mangled until it was recognizable and unrecognizable at the same time. Again and again, every character inspired by me had no life beyond pining and losing the love of a white man and committing suicide: Madame Butterfly, Miss Saigon, and all the other lotus blossoms. We were only worthy of sympathy after our deaths.
I’d never get a chance to tell my story. Who would read about a foreigner of this universe living as a nun, peasant, poisoned babies, and then a teenager? I could only do one thing for all the harm that had been done to me and others: take revenge. Loti, or whatever incarnations of his, were out there hurting others and making more myths.
I spent the night online scrolling through pictures. Loti was likely in the army or pursued writing. I stared into the faces of thousands of soldiers. How many people had they harmed?
I sat at a circular table in an auditorium filled with fellow freshmen majoring in East Asian studies. University classes started in a few weeks. Some pupils took abundant notes on lined paper as a student ambassador spoke onstage about the program and provided pointers on succeeding. My notebook was blank. I spent plenty of hours studying in my lives. I spread jam on my bagel and skewered pieces of cantaloupe with a fork.
A professor stepped onto the stage. My teeth slammed against each other. Droplets of juice ran down my chin. That man was identical to the naval officer I was with in Madame Chrysanthème. His hair was trimmed close to his scalp. The mustache was shorter, but the cheeks, nose, and straight posture were exact.
He introduced himself as Professor Grant, the instructor that taught an introductory course. My heart pounded as orange chunks of fruit slipped out my mouth. Of course, he found a position in academia. His publications influenced his field and directed the minds of students and future scholars.
The butterknife on my paper plate shined sticky and red. I’ve gutted fish and chickens before; I knew where to cut for ease of access to extract blood, guts, and organs. I could’ve taken that blade and attacked, but I had to plan. Since he took me for a lowly, unintelligent creature in the past, I’d live up to his expectations.
I visited Grant during his office hours and asked for assistance on my assignments and readings. He pointed to passages in the pages of Madame Chrysanthème and explained its influence and the author’s impact on the West’s understanding of the Orient. The corners of his copy were worn from years of use.
At the end of the winter semester, before Grant’s sabbatical started, he asked if I wanted to come to Japan with him. Through all my lives in this world, I never had the chance to visit the land that inspired my writer. My eyes glimmered as I agreed to it.
Grant wrapped an arm around me. His hot breath reeked of alcohol and descended onto my face. Since leaving Haneda Airport, everything happened in a flurry from taking a taxi, checking into our rooms, drinking at a bar, to stocking up at a convenience store; we had enough supplies to feed us for days. This was the first moment I had to take in my surroundings. At night, we sat alone by a stream and nearby bridge. My bag of food from 7-Eleven rested by my feet.
“Can we go back to the ryokan?” I said.
“So soon?” His teeth glinted under the moonlight as he chuckled. “So eager?”
Despite my goosebumps and desire to recoil, I shuffled closer to him and kept my gaze down. “Sorry . . . I’ve never done this before.”
“I have plenty of experience.” Grant’s bloodshot eyes focused on me for a long moment before he began recalling his past lives. Some of his memories from his first life in a European military were intact. He had travelled abroad and indulged in women and girls all over the world. Perhaps he made a mistake by visiting and offering coins to those foreign shrines and was being punished by God.
At one point, he was reborn in America. When the calls for war rang out, he enlisted as an engineer and went to Korea, then Vietnam. He was far enough from the fighting and close enough to the red-light districts to entertain himself. He was a patron of several workers. Some of them may still be alive today, old and withered on the road side waiting for him or another man for their charity.
He lived his current life as a professor. He intended to spend a season of his sabbatical here, with me. In the end, I couldn’t tell if he was my former customer, Loti, or some other character from one of the author’s many works. They were all the same, staring down at me and making up stories.
His hand groped my hip. “Are you ready, my little china doll?”
I was prepared with a pocket knife in my jacket.
“Kiku, are you in there?” Rarahu stepped into the room and pinched her nose. My space was rank with tobacco. We’d have to disperse the odour before guests complained or staff noticed. Rarahu had the housekeeping expertise for that.
I stubbed the eighth cigarette in a tray. I amassed a hill of darkened ash and butts. I waved the smoke away from the veranda and gestured at Rarahu to sit with me.
“I made onigiri with salmon.” Rarahu raised the container up and sat a few feet away from me. This time, she was a woman in her late thirties. She had tied back her dark curls into a bun, as she did when we were twins. Unlike me, Rarahu was fortunate enough to be born in Japan during its economic boom.
“I bought some too.” I pointed to the kotatsu. My 7-Eleven bag had rice balls with a variety of fillings. The container of gratin was still warm with condensation in its plastic wrap. I wanted to enjoy the creamy shrimp and macaroni with her.
Rarahu smacked her forehand. I snorted, then coughed and hacked my lungs until my eyes watered. It took us back to when we prepared food for each other and shared it with our children. Watching our kids eat was a simple joy afforded to us as mothers.
“What’ll you do now?” Rarahu unwrapped a rice ball and handed it to me.
I bit into the seaweed and punctured through to taste sweet rice and salty salmon.
Grant, Loti, whoever he was, may reincarnate again, hunt me down, and expose me for my crimes. It would take him decades to figure out what I did to him and why. I was willing to watch my back for the rest of this life if it meant he’d leave others alone. He couldn’t travel, harm, or influence anyone for a few years.
Soon, my parents would wonder why I disappeared in Japan with friends that didn’t exist. They’d never find an answer. In my first year of university, I worked part-time and stored the earnings in my bank account. My brother was the beneficiary. I hoped those thousands of dollars would ease some of their pain.
I had a few days, weeks, maybe months left to live in this ryokan and use Grant’s credit card before anyone noticed he was missing. The bridge I hid him under would eventually be infested with maggots and flies; they’d be the only attendees at his funeral. I had to go into hiding soon. Rarahu knew of jobs that paid cash only.
Tonight, I had to do laundry and take a long shower to remove any trace of our author off me. Tomorrow, I might stroll through a park to observe the bloom of the trees. I could visit every shrine and pray to put our memories to rest. Moving forward, I’d make my own story.
“Let’s talk about Queen Pōmare’s reign,” I said. We found each other two years ago on a message board discussing The Marriage of Loti. Rarahu wanted to learn about the royal she served. According to our author, Tahiti was a paradise with willing and wanton girls who lulled about, while its streak of resistance was left unwritten.