"A Box of Rain"
A woman makes a stunning discovery about her parents after their death that impacts her marriage forever. A short story about secrets and grief.
“When Tarō returned to his hometown, everything had changed. His home was gone, his mother and father had perished, and the people he knew were nowhere to be seen. After not remembering the princess's warning, he lifted the lid of the Tamatebako box he was told never to open. A cloud of white smoke arose turning him to a white-haired old man.”
“We are a family of secrets… They drag us down like we’re wearing clothes in the water... We pretend that we’re not drowning. We never wave our arms for help… I never wave my arms for help…”
After my mother’s death, my father spent his last eleven months in his office on the second floor, consulting with his old architectural firm when they’d take his calls. The design of his home office was his one architectural misfire, a miserable room with penitentiary cracks of light for windows and a million dollars of lightning to get his cement tomb to glow. Towards the end he stopped changing the bulbs on anything but the desk lamp.
The home had been a middle-aged pet project. When he shared the scale model, he called it our “Hauhaus.” Not one to spare words, my mother called it Runaway Brutalism. She hated the design and had not been allowed input into it.
Soon after, he saw his work through her eyes, but ownership over its creation was its own victory. It was the one area of their marriage where he hadn’t ceded ground. By the end, everything in their marriage was as dead as the rooms that he no longer entered.
My father’s sister Mei from Nagoya came to Salem after his funeral. She was his last living relative, serious, an endlessly hard worker, but like many hard workers, remote and disapproving. Michael and I came up from Oakland to prep the house for sale, and I was going through my father’s things, clearing out office knickknacks when I found the key to the Tamatebako box in a pencil cup.
As long as I could remember, my father called it the Tamatebako box, a name taken from a childhood story. It was the single marriage gift from my father’s parents — heavy and wooden, but adorned elegantly with cheerful, golden hares and cherry blossoms engraved on the lid– fertility the not-so-subtle theme. If my father was going to marry an American after two years in grad school in San Francisco, he’d better come home with children and lots of them.
But then he only came home for eighteen months with a single curly-haired granddaughter before returning to the States abruptly. And all the San Francisco American wife had to offer her husband’s openly disappointed parents was the gaijin granddaughter, a word they were too cultured to ever use, but it was felt. Certainly my mother felt it. Before the stint in Japan she’d been naive enough to think she’d win them over.
The Tamatebako fertility box was, in the final count, bereft of grandchildren except for me, and the box lost its significance for the marriage. It became his box and not their box and took up residence beneath the desk in his office where it remained for as long as I can remember.
“I can reach the padlock with my toe for inspiration,” he joked. “But I don’t open it. I don’t want to let any more babies out. You’re my angel, Midori.”
Even clearing the house to put it on the market, the Tamatebako still felt like none of my business. I assumed it held the sad and weary pornography of a man in a broken marriage. Let my father have his secrets.
But I was wrong.
It was not pornography. The box was, in fact, practically empty. At first, disappointingly so. What was in there looked like nothing, a few random things: a Radio Shack mini-cassette player for dictation that he used when consulting with clients. There was a fresh pack of children’s crayons, a pair of beveled bamboo chopsticks in a simple, velvet-lined case, and, strapped under an elastic sash, a photograph of my mother heavily pregnant.
Someone’s child pressed her face into the leg of my mother’s dress. The girl, maybe four, clung in the way a child that doesn’t want her picture taken still wriggles and shakes to get attention. Her face was hidden. The photograph appeared to be taken in my first childhood home.
I had no idea who the girl was holding my mother so closely. Clearly, she was not a stranger. I took the picture down to the kitchen to show Mei who was cleaning spoiled food from the refrigerator.
“It’s you,” Mei said.
“No, who’s the girl next to my mother?”
Midori pushed the photograph back to me like it was on fire.
“I said you, Midori,” she scolded me over her back now. She’d shifted from English to Japanese.
Mei didn’t need to tell me she’d revealed something she shouldn’t have. I didn’t need to tell her that I didn’t know my mother had been pregnant with another child.
“It can’t be me. My mother is pregnant.”
“No more, Midori. It’s not for me to tell you.”
“Was the baby born? How can I not remember this?”
“Enough,” Mei repeated. I’d never heard her angry. Disapproving and irritable, but never angry. Angry at me but angry at herself, too.
I retreated to my father’s office. From the bottom of the stairs, I heard Mei yell up. “I’m sorry, Midori. This is my fault. I can’t tell you anymore about them.”
“Girl and boy,” she said after a long pause.
I did not tell Michael. I couldn’t imagine the sounds my voice would have to make to explain it, and for reasons I could not fathom, I felt guilt, even shame, like an outsider, illegitimate somehow.
I couldn’t continue to pack things up in my father’s study with the box staring at me. I needed to get the Tamatebako into the car. I would figure out what to do with it later. Carrying it outside to the Honda, I passed Michael on the back porch. He angled into my trajectory.
“Do you need me to take the box to the car?”
“No, I do not need you to take the box twenty feet to the car.” Then he did what he always did. Instead of telling me to fuck off which he should have and lancing the pregnant boil of our marriage, he doubled down.
“Do you want me to wrap it up? That’s the Tamatebako, right? Let me wrap it up to protect it.”
“Jesus Christ, Michael. Wrap it up then,” I snapped at him.
I knew Mei was watching from an open kitchen window. On some wild impulse I removed the crayons from the box and threw them towards an open trash can by the door. The box broke apart in the air, and I had to pick the crayons out of the grass.
I regretted it immediately. I didn’t want to touch them — I saw that several had softened tips — and I didn’t want to be on my hands and knees in front of Mei.
Without looking up at the kitchen window, I snapped one for her benefit before throwing it in the trash can, then thought, darkly, of a broken finger, and I let out a disgusted, involuntary “uh.”
I had to steady myself on the trash can lid.
Clearing out the home had forced Michael and me back into each other’s force fields. It had been a long truce, one I measured in the distance and time we maintained apart from each other. Now the cloying solicitude and the passive aggression were suffocating. With my father’s death he had an excuse to strike at close range, and he would be patient and understanding with me no matter what I did or said. “Patient and understanding” is a direct quote.
And I would be cutting and cruel.
I’d learned from the best. My mother was cutting and cruel until the day she dropped and we boxed her up and shipped her off. And still my father couldn’t last a single year without her tearing him apart.
Now Michael and I were each other’s victims, both of us on offense. Each using the other gender’s weapons. Ours had been a miserable marriage out of the gate, our energies pathologically centrifugal, but if either of us let go of our chain, we’d both perish.
The Tamatebako box was in the backseat on the drive back to Oakland. I’d settled down somewhat. At a rest stop near the California border I inspected the box. I felt Michael watch me evaluate his work. I thought of asking him to remove the moving company packing blanket out of spite, but I was afraid to. I was already skirting an edge.
I had a grown daughter that refused to speak to me, two dead parents and now siblings I couldn’t remember. And I had Michael.
It also so happened that I loved him.
“Thank you. That’s very good,” I said without making eye contact.
It was another three weeks before I went back in the box.
The micro-cassette inside the recorder was tiny. I worried that if I removed it the tape might snap or hopelessly unspool, and there might be something on it I’d never get to hear if it did. Or even that I wouldn’t want to hear it. Pushing on the play button was like opening someone’s diary. The Tamatebako was a minefield.
I was able to play it. The batteries, to my surprise, still had life in them.
On the recording my father was talking to someone on speaker phone from work. The first part of the tape was all business, nothing really, but then he got to joking with his client. “I would be happy to autograph the house,” he laughed. His clients loved him, every last one of them. And then my mother came to the door, his laughter possibly an opening to knock. I heard my father tell my mother he was on a call, but he continued to laugh warmly.
“Come in, please. Come in,” he told her, generously, magnanimously, perhaps for the benefit of the client.
My mother asked my father if he wanted to hold them.
Another child’s voice – I’m guessing my own – squeaked to my mother about someone at the front door. My mother said something inaudible. My father said he’d hold them.
“You should see me. I’ve got one in each arm,” he joked with his client. I could hear myself say something indistinct and then a “Tada.” I called my father Tada as a child. I’d forgotten that.
There was the briefest cry from one of the twins and my father chuckled a soothing, “hup, hup, hup” to them. Then nothing: a pivot back to business and eventually dead tape. He’d saved nothing but a chance recording of the twins on his lap while he worked, the slightest mew from one of them, the tape nothing but a thin cassette thread leading to the underworld.
As I went to bed, I made sense of the things in the box in an approximate fashion. My father was ever a man of elusive symbols and what my mother called cowardly subtlety. You always had to guess with him. Was everything in the box an “almost?” A photo where you could almost see them? Almost born? A baby’s cry to hear them almost speak? The crayons to almost love what they loved?
A wave of panic swept through me. I gasped. It was the second involuntary sound to escape me. I couldn’t believe I’d thrown out the crayons. For a minute I thought of driving back up to the Salem place to rescue them from the trash. Maybe they’d still be there at the bottom of the can somehow.
Then the wild stirring inside me again.
I don’t know what the chopsticks were for, but there would be no accidents in the Tamatebako box. Everything would have meaning. My father was Tarō from the story he’d explained long ago, and my mother was the princess that he’d saved from the turtle.
“It’s not my favorite story,” he said more than once, “but it is my story. Don’t open the Tamatebako box unless you want to turn into an old man.” He would wag his finger at me sternly but playfully.
I would make Mei tell me what the hell chopsticks were doing in there.
The goodbye with Mei had been unpleasant, and it took me two months of apologies on voice mail before she’d return my calls, but I finally got her on the phone. She’d softened as much as she was able. Again I pressed her.
“Your mother cleared the house top to bottom. Everything that was left of the children was thrown out. The toys, the bedding, all the pictures. It was a purge. I was there for her just like I was there for you, Midori.” This sounded like accounting and not generosity.
I asked her why chopsticks would be in the box.
“When we bury our dead, they are cremated. Chopsticks are used to remove the bones. It is a sign of respect for the dead. They should have been buried, too.”
“What happens with the ashes and bones?”
"We keep everything in a jar and then bury it. Put the chopsticks in a jar, too. Burying the jar is an important ceremony. It is part of kotsuage. You should know this. My brother should have buried them.”
“Where were they buried, Mei?”
“I don’t know.”
“Why would he keep the chopsticks?”
"I don’t know.”
“Why won’t you tell me what their names were?”
“I’m respecting your mother’s wishes. Tarō shouldn’t have kept them.”
We went around and around. I couldn’t get any more out of her not in Japanese, not in English.
While I was still on the phone with Mei, I opened the chopsticks box and saw a smudge of grey dust on the silky interior fabric. The horrors were starting to accumulate.
Mei actually began to speak about the weather.
“It is unforgivable that you won’t tell me their names. Unforgivable. It’s cruel. Goodbye, Mei.” I hung up before she could return the good-bye. We have not spoken since.
My father had saved memories of them from the womb and from the grave.
The chopsticks were to remember them almost alive.
Michael and I met at Berkeley my junior year as an undergraduate. Michael was pursuing a Masters in Architectural Design. There was just enough time for me to get a minor in Architecture after I met him. It was juvenile to do it, but Michael and my father were equally pleased. What a good girl.
The summer before my senior year, we got engaged and stayed up at the Salem house for the entire August. I was proud of Michael and proud of how he managed my father and mother. Several times Michael was invited into my father’s study to look at his work. In the firm’s office this would have meant a lot. In his home office this was an honor. Michael didn’t appreciate how important that was for a Japanese man. It was a message to my mother and to me, and I felt some relief. My mother must have, too. She approved of Michael.
We were forbidden to sleep together in Salem, but of course, the two of us had already slept together and endlessly. We had already lived in each other’s beds for a year. He was the first man I was comfortable walking naked in front of – and I even felt pride in those early days – and delighted in the pride itself.
He knew when to see me and when not to see me. I told my friends he was a completely tuned-in man. I told them he was kind and wise. I told Michael I didn’t know what he saw in me mind or body, but I did know what he saw in me on both counts, and I was damn proud of it. This was all new.
“You love me up and down and in and out and front and back and over and over,” I would laugh with him over Sunday morning coffees. I felt older saying that, and it became a catchphrase, our joke, and the sex was always good, and I made the joke coquettishly vulgar.
He knew the words to my little saying and he would say, “Yes, dear” like a bored middle-aged man looking over a newspaper, and then he’d ask me if he might love me up and down and back and front and over and over.”
He didn’t need to ask. He screwed me all the way through spring and smack into womanhood the summer of the engagement.
I fucked him just shy of his own results.
He fucked me a little too successfully.
While we were in the Salem house the last week of August, I had proof. I bought a pregnancy test, pulled off to a roadside service station coming home, and peed on the stick in an open-doored stall. Understand that there wasn’t a shade, not even a hint of a question of keeping the baby, not in a million years. Michael would have felt no differently.
When I imagined other women having abortions, I imagined weakness and friends comforting and red eyes and stretched, grieving mouths, but I went alone. I felt nothing but my eyes moving. Watching. Blinking. My head barely turning. Hearing myself breathe. Staring at white medical equipment. Sinks. Charts. Latex gloves. I named everything I saw. I took inventory. Afterwards, I focused on the word discomfort. I denied myself eye contact. I refused myself the word pain.
I’d gone to a bank beforehand so I could pay in cash. I’d promised the nurse I had a ride waiting outside. I didn’t. I took a city bus home, in the rain no less. Everything was hidden. There was no reason that Michael would ever need to know. It would save the marriage I convinced myself. We had only been engaged in June. The whole thing was a curse. Everything would crash if I told him.
I knew even then, though, that I’d never walk across his wood parquet floors so lightly again, and for a while I still joked with girl friends over drinks that Michael fucked me into womanhood, but it held something different now. I worried my words might be tinged with loss and betray me, and then I stopped saying the word “womanhood” altogether as if nothing had happened.
But something had happened.
It was still the era of monster Yellow Page phonebooks, great flapping tomes like doorstops, and when I was searching for the number of a clinic near Salem they gave me an appointment time. Without thinking about it, I scribbled the appointment time in the phone book page margin.
On the bus home from the clinic, I remembered what I’d done, and I was mortified. Had I left the phone book open on the kitchen table? I made myself crazy. When I got home the phone book was still on the table but closed. I had in fact closed it. Without thinking, I found the yellow page with the number I’d written and I tore it out.
But then I became obsessed with the missing page. I worried they’d figure it all out from the section it was in. Businesses were grouped by type then. I imagined endless scenarios where I would be caught. Torture by conjecture.
Luckily, the phone book was new, and they were distributed everywhere those days, given out for free, and I replaced the one we had in the kitchen with a new one. It was impossible to tell the difference, although even then I worried that there might have been other numbers in margins scribbled by someone else that would also have disappeared mysteriously, too. The imagination has no limits.
The secret ate me alive through the end of August. I distanced myself from everyone. I wanted to get out of the house and escape all three of them.
About a week before Michael and I planned to return to Berkeley, I went to look at the phone book again.
The identical page was torn out.
A second time.
From the new phone book.
My mother had torn it out. She tore it out to punish me. Not to say anything, just to tear it out so I’d know she knew. She’d never been this cruel. I wept like a child in my old bedroom before pulling myself together. I told Michael we were leaving immediately. I couldn’t stand to be anywhere near her.
She smiled as we said goodbye, peering in through the passenger window that I did not roll down. I remember her grey roots. I remember her strained smile. I never forgave her for that. That smile of hers was the end of the end for us. I let her see from my expression that we were done, and it worked. I knew I’d gotten her back. So did she. She certainly knew why.
Michael and I fought furiously on the car ride back to the point that he pulled over at the train station in Albany and told me to drive back without him. Of course, he had no idea where all the anger was coming from. It was our first ugly fight. He wouldn’t get back into the car. Then I grew frightened and begged him not to leave me. I was still young.
An elderly man with an attaché case bullied himself right in front of Michael and asked if I was alright. It was all me, I explained. I apologized to the stranger like I’d done something to him. I was ashamed the man would think anything was Michael’s fault. When he left, the energy shifted and settled, and Michael got back in.
Michael did not leave me, and he never heard me beg again. He should have, and I should have. The fight at the train station drop off was a fatal crack in a marriage that hadn’t even begun.
The inertia of our engagement carried us through to a fall wedding. I changed course and insisted we elope. It was a way of escaping my mother, but it was also a chance for a fresh start with Michael. To his surprise I reversed an earlier monologue and told him I would take his last name after all. I wanted out.
A few weeks after first playing the tape, I shared the fact of my siblings with Michael, in part because I trusted that he would have a sense of how to orchestrate burying them.
I called them “the children” now and not “my brother and sister.” I am not sentimental. I hardened my heart to the Tamatebako box and everything in it. I wanted “those children” out of our house, out of limbo, out of our walk-in closet. And, exactly as I’d planned, things finally settled down.
The weekend we closed on the sale of the Salem home, I brought the box back up with Michael and me. I would bury the box on the property where the children’s parents lived.
And, of course, Michael did know how to bury them appropriately. We would dig a hole deep enough to hide the box forever, and I would read the words of a song I loved in college. I would say goodbye to the things in the box, item by item, which was everything I knew of them. There would be pain, but closure and dignity he explained.
But at the last minute when we were pulling in to the driveway I went off script. I asked Michael to stay in the car and took the shovel and box myself. I know how to shovel, and I wouldn’t let him help.
“I’m an Oregon girl,” I told him, whatever that meant. I felt the thing that was leashed inside me stirring as I passed into the tree line.
Michael had purchased a large square of green velvet to set the box on while I dug so the Tamatebako wouldn’t sit directly on the ground. I laid it out but then forgot to use it.
I eventually got the Tamatebako box into the hole. I didn’t open it or look into it again. I said a few words about not growing up with them, but heard something false in my voice and stopped mid-sentence. I covered the box back up with dirt and smoothed some leaves over the wound of grave.
I never got anywhere close to reading song lyrics.
But it was the leaves somehow, sweeping the leaves with the blade of the shovel, I think, that tore things open.
I felt some lid inside me strain open, cracking apart like split lumber, and for good this time. I started to walk quickly towards the car, then almost to run.
When I got back to the Honda, I threw the shovel hard into the trunk to start a fight with Michael, to get control from some familiar place, from anger, but he didn’t respond. I took a breath leaning on the trunk. Again I settled.
Then, when we were pulling out of the driveway, I looked at the back door of our Brutalist home, at the crayon trash can, at the doorway where I fought with Mei, at the lightless slats of my father’s windows, and the broken gutters and the rain-wet cement, and it overwhelmed me.
“Stop the car, Michael. Stop the car,” I ordered him. “I need to go back. I need to go back.” I was wild. The thing inside was out.
“Let me just park off to the side,” he said. The car continued to roll on the gravel.
“Stop,” I screamed, truly screamed. He still didn’t stop. It was like I’d frozen him.
I grabbed the wheel and shook it up and down. The car lurched. Screaming without words directly into Michael’s face. Raw sound. He was frightened and leaned backwards away from me. His head struck the driver’s window.
He stopped with the car halfway out of the driveway. I ran to the back of the car. Michael knew to pop the trunk. I grabbed the shovel and ran back to the gravesite. As I ran across the back yard and into the woods, I felt like I’d buried them alive, and they wouldn’t have oxygen. I’d buried my family alive.
I dug up the box and wrestled it out.
Afterwards I sat crisscross on the green felt. I wept with my arms folded onto the top of the box, my face pressed onto the golden hares and cherry blossoms of the dirt-caked wood.
Michael kept his distance or a long while, and when I finally lifted my head from the box and looked in his direction, he took it as an opening to come towards me.
I don’t know why, but I told him everything from the pregnancy test at the rest stop to the phone book page and then all the rest of the lies from there and then everything that I’d lost.
“That we’ve lost,” I corrected myself. I was whispering.
“But I would have been there for you.” He began repeating himself. “How could you not know that?” It was like he was begging me. “I would have been there for us. I would have driven you home.”
I didn’t understand.
He covered his mouth with the back of his hand. His eyes were closed.
“You wouldn’t have had to take the bus.”
And then I did understand.
After a long while he said, “We are a family of secrets. They drag us down like we’re wearing clothes in the water.” And then the rest.
He was right, of course, and he’d named it. Someone had named it. And then neither of us could speak. We could only nod. Twenty-two years of marriage and a gulf between us.
Michael was wiping his own face, sighing tearfully, and then he fumbled into his back pocket for his wallet, and dug into the recess of some inner pocket. His hands were trembling.
He handed me a white envelope no larger than a credit card, the kind that holds a set of keys. It was sealed and scuffed. Flat. The envelope must have been in his wallet forever.
“Open it,” he said. “I’m so, so sorry, Midori.”
I tore the seal on the little envelope. Inside was a thin folded scrap of yellow paper, a neat rectangle folded over on itself several times and creased with a fingernail.
I could make out the fine edge of printed phone numbers.
I shook my head to let him know I understood.
Eventually I refolded the paper and tucked it back in its envelope. He took it from me and set it in the box.
We placed the Tamatebako in the grave together.
Michael covered it up with dirt. When he was done he sat down next to me on the green felt and then reached across the gulf and held me, and from the bottom of my heart I let him.
So that he would know, and so that I would know.
And then, when I could, I read the lyrics to the children, to all of them.
To all of us.
And it's just a box of rain
I don't know who put it there
Believe it if you need it
Or leave it if you dare
And it's just a box of rain
Or a ribbon for your hair
Such a long, long time to be gone
And a short time to be there
– A Box of Rain, The Grateful Dead
100 Stories. One a month.
A Box of Rain was my entry into “Same Walk, Different Shoes,” a community writing project that Ben Wakeman organized as a practical exercise in empathy. You can find the collected stories at Catch & Release.