He was certainly one of the most famous tailors on all of Kyushu. Even women from big cities like Fukuoka and Kagoshima coveted his evening gowns and long skirts and would come driving over the mountains in their fancy cars, descending upon Ebino with eyes that looked neither right nor left as if afraid to take in the details of our shabby farming town. The women would stride into his shop on wobbly high heels only to leave an hour later with large white boxes containing mysteries of silk, taffeta and the occasional sequin. But to us, he was simply Teiraa-san. The Tailor.
The front of his modest shop looked out across main street Ebino, practically unnoticeable between Mr. Noguchi’s fish shop with its mountains of crushed ice and the Fukae’s Soba restaurant. The yawning plate glass window of the tailor’s store was filled with a sturdy hedge of gray and black cloth. Hundreds of suit jackets stacked against each other like flattened soldiers. Squeezing this hedge from the two sides were blank-face mannequins that wore his suits with so much pride. Inside the shop the walls were layered with bolts of somber fabric; grays and navy blues, mossy browns and the occasional pin stripe. There wasn’t even a counter or a cash register. Teiraa-san kept everything in his head.
Teiraa-san’s real name was Nishikokubaru Junichiro. But few people ever called him that. My father, who was ten years older and had once worked for Teiraa-san’s deceased uncle, was someone who did. He called him by his long full last name. And he shouted it. Although my father shouted almost everything and so it wasn’t a great surprise to hear that awful but all too familiar bellow each time I accompanied him to Teiraa-san’sshop.
“NI-SHI-KO-KU-BARU-KUN!” my father would boom, his fingers hooked into the front pockets of his dark suit. Somewhere near the third syllable I would hunch my shoulders and hold my breath, waiting for that final nnnnn to come sliding mercifully out.
Then Teiraa-san would bow and grin and say, “You’ve got a cold or something? Laryngitis? Why so quiet all of a sudden?”
He was an elegant man with limbs like eels. Flowing and in constant motion. The long fingers that stuck out from the sleeves of his yukata (he himself never wore the Western style suits he made with such renown) were knobby yet graceful, and always occupied with a piece of cloth. He was either testing a new stitch while he talked, pulling the darting fish-like needle through a patch of fabric, or measuring. Always measuring. Sometimes he would measure me while he spoke with my father. His nimble hands would wrap the cloth measuring tape around my neck, across my shoulders, down my arm, encircle my waist. All without looking at me. My father never seemed to notice.
Teiraa-san was a single man and as such an object of intense curiosity for me, not to mention for the rest of the town. It was rare in Kobayashi for men to remain single and stay put. If they weren’t married by a certain age everyone knew they were planning to move off to Fukuoka or Miyazaki or once, in a famous case, to Kyoto. But Teiraa-san was different. He was staying and that was clear but no women flitted past his window in their best dresses nor invited him to their families’ hana–matsuri in the spring. Every year in April he made the rounds of the town, stopping to admire the swiftly falling cherry blossoms with all the families in turn.
Once I dared ask my mother how old Teiraa-san was. I was helping her make mochi for our own hana-matsuri that night. In my excitement to see my cousins and aunts and uncles I had more courage than usual.
I asked my bold question but kept my face pointed toward the mass of glutinous rice I was sugaring. I heard her stop and wipe her hands across her apron.
She sighed, “Not as old as you think, Ayaka, but he has lived more than most of us.”
What a magnificent riddle this sentence was for me. I knew that Teiraa-san was the oldest son of his father and so many years my senior. I finished sugaring the mochi, wrapped it carefully in plastic and put it in the fridge, my thoughts bustling with reasons why Teiraa-san might be so lucky.
That night when he finally stopped by our party, after my father had shouted his welcome and two of my aunts had accosted him with dress ideas, Teiraa-san stood alone under the largest cherry tree on our property sipping a frosty mug of beermy mother had pressed upon him. I was, to my great embarrassment, just above him in the branches of the tree. It was the last year I was allowing myself the luxury of climbing the tree during the matsuri, for the next year I could no longer behave like such a child.
I had been studying the effect of the wind on blossoms that didn’t seem at all likely to fall but then did with only the slightest breeze when I heard my father’s customary boom and so knew that Teiraa-san was in the garden. I had resolved to climb down immediately so as to study his face and determine his age but then a handful of enormous dragonflies had landed on the very branch I was sitting and I lost myself completely in an examination of their jeweled serpentine bodies.
“Is the branch sturdy enough for me, too?”
I searched the lawn in the dimming light for one of my cousins. Emiko hopefully, because she was loud and brash and could deal with Teiraa-san without trembling, or worse, crying, like I knew I might.
“So you think it’s too weak? That is sad indeed. You might have to cut the tree down in a few years then.”
“It’s not weak,” I answered despite myself. “It’s the strongest tree in the garden.”
“I see the genetics of volume do not run in your family. That is a relief.”
And then I couldn’t help but laugh because I knew he was making fun of my father and no one had ever dared do that in front of me. But I stopped laughing right away because he was climbing, and quickly. Soon he was seated on the branch next to me, holding onto to a higher branch for support.
“You don’t like parties, Ayaka-chan?”
He knew my name and this was enough to send me into a mortified silence.
“I know what you mean. Sometimes it is nice not to have to speak to anyone. Let’s just admire the cherry blossoms, shall we? People talk too much anyway.”
Sitting in the tree was also the first time I had ever seen Teiraa-san without something in his hands. And so those two awe-inspiring appendages were motionless. He had let go of the upper branch and was resting them on his knees. I was unable to stop looking at them. They were not beautiful objects, by any means. In fact, they were scarred and pricked, ragged with hangnails and his fingernails badly needed cutting.
He caught me staring and laughed, “Pathetic aren’t they?”
I shook my head with defiance, swelling with respect for arguably the most famous of Ebino’s citizens.
“No, Ayaka-chan,” he said, holding his hands up to touch a withered blossom. “These are useless.” He plucked the browning flower and it fluttered to the ground. “That one didn’t even have enough sense to fall on its own.”
He changed the subject then, complimenting me on the mochi which my mother had informed him I had made. We discussed the weather and my suspicions that we would see a dragonfly plague before the end of summer. He agreed with me, I realize now with a certain condescension and good humor, that this infestation would be a marvelous thing indeed.
Before long he bade me goodnight and slipped down from the tree to continue his visiting with other families around town.
In May the year I turned seventeen I was invited to my first dance by a university student who would later become my husband. I knew exactly who I wanted to ask to make my dress for me but was relieved when my mother broached the subject with my father on her own.
“You will ask Teiraa-san to make Ayaka a dress, won’t you?” My mother always had a knack for understanding the potential of a situation.
“Of course. Who else?”
My father grunted his assent and I could let out the breath I was holding. But I was not allowed to choose the pattern for my dress. Only the color.
My mother said, “Do what you want. But I think you should consider a light green. Like the ocean. You will look nice in that.”
I didn’t want light green. I knew what color I wanted. I wanted plum. A deep plum. So deep there were other colors hiding inside. When I told my mother she smiled and said, “Not a bad idea now that you say it.”
It took a few weeks for the dress to be ready. I was in agony over what style my mother and father had chosen for me. Each day when I came home from school I hovered near my mother, offering to help her chop vegetables or run an errand.
“It’s not ready, yet,” she would laugh. “Now go do your homework and leave me alone.”
Finally the day arrived. I came home late from cram school where I had spent hours preparing for my university entrance exams. It was the first evening my head had been so filled with other concerns I had forgotten about the dress.
My mother surprised me by saying, “You can go pick it up. Teiraa-san wants to do the final fitting with you there. You better hurry.”
She wasn’t coming with me. No one was coming with me. This was both a certain joy and a source of panic. I almost telephoned my cousin Emiko to come along. But decided against it. She would bear exuberant witness to my failure if the dress wasn’t all I had hoped.
I raced toward the tailor’s shop, hardly aware of people or friends I might be passing. It was already dark but the evening was warm, hinting at a long and early summer. Teiraa-san’s shop was only a few blocks from my family’s home but the distance seemed to take me forever. As I walked, I remembered his quick moving hands on me when I was a child. Measuring, always measuring. I realized suddenly he would do the same tonight. Those days I was gradually becoming aware of a confusing universe existing between men and women; a universe I knew would soon open itself up to me. But just then, the idea of anyone having access to the skin of my neck, my shoulders, my arms and then reaching around to measure my waist was enough to send a ferocious heat to my face.
I stopped outside the front door to gather my courage. This is when I saw the buttons.
Like neatly planted rows of shiny vegetables, the buttons sprouted from the garden of Teiraa-san’s carpet. Pink ones, red ones, blue ones. Black with polka dots, orange cloth with embroidered daisies, white with gold anchors. The buttons were everywhere. I had never seen so many. I couldn’t even push open the doorway for fear of upsetting the plastic rows. There were triangular ones and circle ones as big as my wrist. What seemed like a million little dots of light in one corner were the white ones; a starry night against the dark rug.
From amidst this mass of buttons, Teiraa-san saw me and waved me to the back door. “Go around!” He pointed left and explained, “That way, around there!”
I wove my way around to the back of the shop, stepping carefully across an unruly garden plot. The fragrance of drying herbs filled my nose. Passing his garbage cans, I suppressed the urge to peak inside. What did he eat? What did he throw away?
I greeted him again at the back door and slipped inside. Once in the shop I remembered why I had come and looked around for my dress.
Seeing my face, Teiraa-san laughed. “You must be patient!”
The buttons were everywhere along the floor. He had pushed back the racks of suits that usually made the area in the shop unbearably tight and was holding a jar of buttons and distributing them by color into rows along the floor. In his fingers were several translucent blue ones, like drops of sea foam.
He motioned for me to pick up a jar. “It won’t take very long.”
I wouldn’t have dared contradict him, although I was already tired from all my studying. I looked into the jar. There seemed to be a million of them. Yellow, green, leather-covered, silver. I could see he had sectioned off the room by color and type and size. But I was afraid to walk around to place the buttons from my jar.
“No, it’s easy. Watch.” He was wearing only tabi-socks and the split between his big toe and the rest of his feet seemed impossibly wide. He stepped out onto the carpet and I looked closer. There were indeed footpaths between the planted buttons, just wide enough to step into with a bare foot. I removed my shoes and reached into the jar.
We worked for an hour and I tested the quality of the buttons between the tips of my fingers before laying them down in their rows. The black ones were the most difficult to arrange. Some had differences so slight it was impossible to distinguish them. A delicate groove, a slight smoky tone, barely visible flecks of silver beneath the black plastic. My favorite, however, were the oversized buttons fashionable at that time. When I found a plum colored one, the color of the fabric I had picked out for my dress, I held it for a moment in my hand. It was a smooth flat disk the size of a persimmon; the edge contained a delicate scalloping with indents the exact size of my fingers.
Teiraa-san saw my preoccupation with the button. “You have a good eye, that is the partner of the button I chose to fasten the sash of your dress. Now it is without a mate. You can put it in that tin on the window.” An old cigarette tin lay open on the sill. More buttons, presumably other matchless ones lay scattered inside like paint drops against the shiny metal.
“May I have it?” I asked, certain suddenly I had to have this matching button.
He watched me carefully. “That’s maybe a good idea. In case you lose the first one.”
My mind raced to why I might lose the matching button that was already on my dress and of course the only scene I came up with involved someone else’s hands. Someone else’s hands in a hurry to untie the sash. I gripped the button between my fingers.
Teiraa-san smiled quietly, knowingly, and went back to work sorting buttons. He began humming to himself under his breath.
Teiraa-san was probably in his late forties by then, an old man to me. But his hair was still very black and the skin on his face unlined. I understood that many women thought he was still handsome. Although when they mentioned this fact, it was always in passing and the idea quickly dropped for another seemingly more important one. He was ‘handsome’ but he was ‘unfortunate’ too.
By then I was well aware of the story behind Teiraa-san’s misfortune. I had heard it in the same way everyone in town had heard it – through snippets of conversation while my mother had tea with a neighbor, at the supermarket when two women bent their heads together at the sight of his lean figure passing the window, once even my father made reference to it after a visit to Teiraa-san’s shop.
Her name was Haruko Tanaka and she moved to Ebino with her family when Teiraa-san was a young man. Most people say she was stunning. My mother says this isn’t really the case, but people love to remember her this way. Apparently, she was delicate and most likely her fragility is what made her so attractive. Within a year of the Tanaka’s arrival, the two families began to have discussions and soon enough Haruko and the tailor were engaged. Some people say the young couple spent many evenings that first spring admiring the fireflies together near the gorge. And that after their engagement was announced publicly they were seen eating dinner together nearly every night, either with his family or with hers. They also say they were once caught skinny dipping in Lake Ohnami.
Things didn’t go well for Teiraa-san and Haruko Tanaka. It was soon discovered in town that the Tanaka’s had moved to Ebino from a suburb of Hiroshima. This fact had obviously been left out of the marriage negotiations. As expected, Teiraa-san’s family withdrew their support.
Some people tell it that Teiraa-san wasn’t swayed by the information. Others say that it was out of a sense of duty that he remained with her. He’d given his word and would not back down. I like to imagine that after the bad news about her origins hit Ebino, Teiraa-san and Haruko passed their evenings in discussion. They weighed their options. Maybe they would avoid having children. Maybe they read medical journals and compared her position in kilometers from the blast to concentric circles of radiation sickness patterns. Maybe they didn’t care and just wanted what all young couples who are in love want. To discover everything there is to know about one another without interference. But none of this mattered in the end. Haruko died of ovarian cancer a few months before their wedding and the Tanaka’s moved away, probably back to Hiroshima where their other children might have some hope of marriage someday.
I finished sorting the buttons and wondered why Teiraa-san never married after losing a fiancé. Being so young I assumed true love came only once and since the tailor had missed his chance, he’d never had another one. This idea appealed to me that day as I waited nervously to be shown the dress that would, I was sure, decide my own romantic fate.
We had finished sorting all the jars and stood for a moment among the fields of shiny plastic color. At my feet were the yellows in a gradual array from cream to mustard. I had a sudden and unexplainable urge to dance across them, to kick the little plastic discs into the air like rice scattered at a festival. I contented myself with touching a few of them with the tips of my toes. Teiraa-san finished a swathe of blues, pushing the tiny buttons into neat lines with his long fingers. He turned in a circle to survey the room.
“Yes,” he said. “That will do.” And then he began gathering them up by color, by type, by size and depositing them in a box, that I saw after further inspection contained an assortment of smaller glass jars. He worked fast, bending and scooping the puddles of buttons, until finally the room was clean again and now seemed suddenly, disappointingly, devoid of color.
“You see, Ayaka-chan,” he began. “That didn’t take too long did it?”
“Not at all,” I agreed, wondering whether I would ever see my dress. “I never imagined there could be so many different buttons. How do you ever decide which ones to use?”
He stared at the box of now-sorted buttons. “It’s hard, the wrong button can ruin a piece of clothing. You have to lay everything out, go all the way to the end before you really know what you have, what you want.” He fingered the buttons, his mouth pinched. “Thank you. That was a great help.”
And yes, the dress was perfect and I wore it well at the dance. I kept in my handbag the extra plum button that Teiraa-san gave me. Just in case.
When I got the news that Teiraa-san had passed away, I was already divorced and living alone with my two daughters in Miyazaki. We spent most weekends at my parents house in Kobayashi anyway, so I didn’t even consider not going. It was August and the typhoon season was well underway. Everyone on Kyushu was waiting for a large typhoon the news stations were promising but as yet we’d only had a continual barrage of small lifeless storms that heated the air to an uncomfortable dampness and then never really blew themselves away.
On the hour-long drive to Kobayashi my oldest daughter considered the particular reason we were returning to my home town that weekend. She was twelve and had met Teiraa-san several times. He even made her a dress once to wear as a flower girl in a cousin’s wedding. “It must be very sad to die,” she said, watching out the window. She had her father’s voice; she’d had this from her tiniest childhood.
I reminded her that Teiraa-san couldn’t be sad. He was gone. He was peaceful.
“But I’m sure he’s not gone, gone, mother,” she sighed, confident I was wrong. “He’s a spirit now.”
This is when my younger daughter, eight years old, piped in, “If he’s a spirit, do you think then that he can fly? That would be wonderful to fly.”
This set the two of them off on a discussion about where they would fly to and how long it would take to get there. And whether it would be more tiring than running, for example.
At the funeral I paid my respects to Teiraa-san’s ashes, lighting a stick of incense for his urn and pausing for a moment to remember him. I had not seen him much in the years since I moved to Miyazaki; it seemed each time I returned he was older, quieter. He’d grown a slight humpback and lost some of his elegance. But not his energy. He’d worked right up until a few months before his death. There was a rumor a few years back that Kato Tokiko, the famous folk singer, had even ordered a dress from him for a concert. But the type of dresses he made had mostly fallen out of style.
Even though I saw him rarely, each time I did run into him he was always polite. And he never forgot my name.
“Good evening, Ayaka-chan,” he would say in passing. He never used my married name and I liked this about him, especially after my divorce. For just a fleeting moment I wasn’t someone who had changed her identity and then somehow misplaced it.
After the funeral, my cousin Emiko and I sipped icy cold mugi-cha on the back porch of the Nishikokubaru house. A flock of pheasants pecked the ground at the outer perimeter of the small yard. My daughters, along with some other children, were chasing the birds and hooting with delight. I had never seen Teiraa-san’s family home and it seemed too quiet, too austere. There was only one sister of the family still living, the youngest one, and she flapped among the guests in a black dress I was certain Teiraa-san had not made. Whenever she passed us, Emiko would lower her voice to barely a whisper but she did not interrupt her story.
“He was supposed to be a doctor, but he failed the exams twice.”
This surprised me as I’d always considered Teiraa-san one of the more learned men in Ebino of his generation.
Emiko rolled her eyes to signal her impatience but I didn’t take this personally. She had become impatient with the world in the last few years. “Think about it. Did you ever see him write anything down? What about a cash register? Did you think he was just old-fashioned?”
“He didn’t know how to read?”
She shook her head. “No, dyslexic. But for a man of his generation he was for all intents and purposes illiterate. They wouldn’t have helped him much at school. No math. No writing.” This news was a surprise and made me feel, for the first time, real pity for Teiraa-san. “But,” Emiko continued. “No one would dare say he wasn’t a talented tailor. He was amazing.”
She paused in her story to remind her son not to fall in the pond. From somewhere in the house behind us I could hear my father shouting a joke. In a few seconds a room full of people erupted in peals of laughter. Teiraa-san’s sister paused in her task of filling a plate with crackers to cock her head and smile. Emiko and I bowed slightly to her.
Afterward, my cousin leaned further into me. I could smell the lavender shampoo she had used since we were teenagers. “Do you remember when Ken went to Australia on business last month and I brought Shuji here with me and stayed with my mother?”
“Teiraa-san had just gone into the hospital and my mother, who was visiting Auntie Naoko after her surgery, stopped to see him too. When she got home she mentioned he had been in a bad mood. She was surprised. For someone who’d gone through so much.”
“Poor old Teiraa-san,” I found myself saying, as if by rote.
“She told me he must have terrific regrets about his life. I disagreed with her right away because I think of him as such a successful person.” At this point, Emiko tossed her hair over one shoulder and looked beyond the children. I knew she was thinking of her husband, Ken, and the trouble he’d had keeping a stable job.
Another shout from my father inside the house interrupted us and Emiko shook her head in exasperation. We both thought it was inappropriate that my father, in his 89th year, was still unable to dampen his vocal cords in certain situations. I could see some of the guests were starting to trickle away.
“So?” I prompted Emi, wanting to hear the rest of her story.
She looked me right in the eye and said, “It’s like I said, he never wanted to be a tailor. He wanted to be a doctor.” She paused for a second, keeping me in suspense. “And Haruko didn’t die of cancer.”
This new pronouncement seemed ridiculous. Here we were discussing someone neither one of us had ever met. And with such fervency and discretion. I was reminded of that stifling small town atmosphere I had begun to hate as a younger woman, an atmosphere I believed, with hindsight, propelled me to marry young. To escape at all costs.
“How did she die, then?”
“Apparently, she threw herself in the river.”
“How sad,” I said instinctively, yet I was blindsided for the briefest of flashes by the memory of my own years-earlier depression. I’d stayed indoors for nearly three months, not sleeping and not eating, filling the hours with crossword puzzles and magazines. This period of my life ended suddenly when my youngest daughter decided to drag me outside on the pretense that the street was flooding. With kittens, no less, an invention I am particularly proud of her for now. “Why did she do that?”
“She had cancer, of course. That part of the story isn’t a total lie. But, just wait, there’s more.”
“Emi,” I chided. “This is a sad story. Try at least to sound like you know that.”
She made a face at me but then catching a glimpse of her son chasing my youngest daughter with a fistful of fireflies that illuminated his hand with each collective breath I could see a sliver of chagrin pass across her features. When she spoke again her tone was quiet. Respectful.
“I guess Teiraa-san somehow realized what she was trying to do and he tried to save her. But he didn’t make it in time and she was stuck too far under when he reached the river. He wasn’t even able to pull her out. Instead he fell in himself and some men were called to help him get out. He was sick for months.”
“Why don’t people talk about this part of the story?” I asked her, thinking how many times I’d heard the tale of Haruko and Teiraa-san’s unfortunate engagement.
Emiko shrugged her shoulders and the question hung between us. Yet I knew that I, too, would always choose to remember his story a different way.
We were interrupted then by our Aunt Naoko, our mothers’ youngest sister, who was getting tired and wanted a lift back to her house. Emiko agreed to take her and I stayed behind for a short while longer.
I stood outside alone, in the darkening light that finally forebode the typhoon promised by the news stations, and watched my daughters. They had released the fireflies and were sprawled on their backs in the grass with their eyes closed. Another child, a boy, was tickling their noses with a long blade of wheat grass and I surmised quickly that the first one to laugh out loud would have to suffer some punishment. Their faces, both of which looked so much like their father’s, were scrunched into the delightful grimace of someone trying incredibly hard not to laugh but who wants very much, at the same time, to let free a spectacular whoop of joy.