The Shooting Gallery by Yuko Tsushima

Related: Yūko Tsushima

We mourn the loss of the great Japanese writer, Yuko Tsushima (1947-2016), whose writing was “as potent and heady as a dry martini” (The Village Voice), and return to her wonderful, unnerving story, “The Shooting Gallery”, translated by Geraldine Harcourt.

The two children suddenly leaned halfway out of the window of the moving train and shrieked in turn:

‘Look! Over there!’

‘It’s all shiny!’

‘Is that the sea?’

‘Watch out or you’ll get your heads knocked off!’ Their mother gripped the children by the scruff of their necks, one in each hand, and deposited them back in their seats. At the sound of their shouts several other passengers in the coach had roused themselves for a look. But already low hills hid the sea, which had shown its dully gleaming back for the first time in the three hours since the train left the city.

‘Hey … wasn’t that the sea?’ The older boy, the seven-year-old, grumblingly rested his chin on the window-sill and glowered at the green hills. The mother put her arm around the shoulders of his younger brother, who was four, in the seat beside hers and after a moment’s hesitations answered:

‘The sea … mm … Listen, we’re getting off at the station after next. Put your shoes on, please, so you’ll be ready.’

‘The station after next?’ the younger child asked with a sigh. The mother’s only reply was to let her head recline against the backrest and close her eyes.

‘There’s something wrong. Mom, it wasn’t like you said it’d be … ‘

‘Ugh! My shoes are all wet with orange juice,’ whimpered the younger child, who had been investigating under the seat.

‘Hey, you’re right. That’s nothing, though. I’ll make them good and wet.’

‘No! Don’t!’

‘You’re squealing like a girl, stupid.’

The younger child clung to his mother’s arm and burst into tears. ‘Mom, he hit me again.’ He’s always picking on me … ‘

Their mother, her eyes firmly shut, was pretending not to hear.

The thought of the sea had come to her suddenly the night before. She had no idea why; indeed it struck her as very strange. She’d made up her mind to take the two children to the beach.

There she had been, hemmed in by the cracker crumbs, plastic blocks, empty juice cans, underwear and socks that littered the room, the sinkful of dirty dishes, the wash hanging from the ceiling, the sound of the TV, the younger child’s crying, her own voice talking at the office, and the weariness - a weariness that turned her body to a desiccated old sponge. Unable to lie down, she was sitting having a cigarette with her elbows resting on the table when a transparent blue gleam streaked before her eyes. It was brilliant and cool. Like the smell of menthol. The mother chain-smoked three cigarettes, after which, feeling sick, she lay down with her face against the tatami matting. It was then that she recognisied the sea. It could only be the sea. It had completely slipped her mind. She’d known something was wrong all along, though, and now it came to her: it must have been the sea that had got left out.

She eventually noticed the older boy standing just in front of her head. ‘Move out of the way,’ he told her, ‘we want to put our beds down.’

The mother was obliged to get up. As she leaned against the wall and watched the two children carry their folded futons from the closet and efficiently lay them down, she was still thinking, ‘The part that was left out – the sea, blue light, waves, all the things I’d forgotten till now … ‘

After changing into pyjamas she brought out an old bottle of whiskey and began to drink it with water.

’ … Tomorrow we must go to the sea. Before it slips my mind again … ‘

The older child, who was studying an illustrated book of trains, twisted around and lifted his head from the pillow to stare up at his mother’s face already flushed with the whiskey. The child’s pale face with its firm mouth. He takes after his father. But the child doesn’t know his father, nor does the father know the child now. If they don’t know each other, maybe ‘take after’ isn’t the right word. The child doesn’t really take after anyone. His only commitment in life is to himself. A father who never existed. But thanks to the child the mother could never entirely forget the father – in spite of the pride she’d taken in managing to watch him go and not pursue him, nor turn her face away, though she hadn’t quite risen to a smile; and in spite of the way she’d congratulated herself on her courage when, eight months later she’d given birth alone.

‘The sea?’ The younger child stood up on his bed and asked, ‘Did you say the sea?’

‘Yes, I did … You two ought to have a chance to see the real thing too … ‘

‘The sea … but there’s school tomorrow.’ The older boy sat up in bed.

‘Tomorrow’s Saturday. It’s a half-holiday anyway … Take the day off.’

‘But … why are we going? Is there something special?’

‘Don’t be silly,’ his younger brother objected. ‘It’s the sea. The sea! … Wow, can we really go?’

’ … What beach are we going to?’

The younger boy hugged his brother’s head from behind and gave it a good shake. ‘The sea! The sea!’

Their mother laughed.

‘It’s deep blue,’ she said, ‘and it sparkles different colours. Sometimes it glitters like gold. Maybe it’ll smell like oranges – those navel oranges you like so much. And maybe we’ll hear the fishies’ voices coming from under the water.’

‘You’re kidding,’ said the younger child.

‘Bet you’ve never even been,’ said the older.

The mother turned her face away. The whiskey bottle was empty. Drinking had made her hot. She caught a whiff of the sea, but it was sickeningly strong. A nasty smell. The idea of going began to scare her. She was afraid something would be taken from her, afraid of disintegrating. Maybe it wasn’t the sea she’d seen after all – that transparent blue gleam just now. Then what could it be? … The sea. It had to be. At least, she couldn’t think of anything else. Then she’d have to go. Courage. She’d go and have a look even though – no, because - she was scared. A silly sort of courage, but courage none the less …

The younger boy was pretending to swim on his bed. Soon both brothers were tumbling together. It was after eleven o’clock. The mother lay down and, since there was no more whiskey, started on the cigarettes. She tried to see the whiteness of sea spray in the smoke issuing from her mouth. It wasn’t easy.

She’d grown up far from the sea herself. The view from the department store’s roof or the hilltop lookout point in the park was of mountains, not the sea. Her first outing to the beach came during summer vacation when she was eight years old – a day trip with her mother to her aunt’s house in a seaside town. It was not long after her father’s death. The train was packed with picnickers on the way there and again on the way back. The two of them sat on sheets of newspaper they’d spread on the corridor floor in a crowded compartment. The day might as well have been an exercise in learning what exhaustion meant. As she knew more or less how to swim from lessons in the school pool, she was able to make a fair enough showing in her first encounter with the sea. Once she was over her initial wariness of the waves there was nothing to it. She had a go at the sorts of things the other kids were doing, building sandcastles and burying her mother’s thin body in the sand, though not entirely sure why these were meant to be such fun. She smilingly agreed that she’d had a good time. But she hadn’t really appreciated the sea that day. The sea wouldn’t share any of its light or smell with a mere girl of eight.

They’d gone again two years later, and two years after that there’d been a class picnic. On each occasion the sea remained plain tepid salt water. She’d never felt any great desire to go there. In those days, she now saw, it was the surface of a swimming pool in the centre of Tokyo that had sparkled for her.

Then when had she discovered the sea? Her memory was vague on this, the most important point. Ten years ago? Five? A friend had once invited her to the coast in winter. She’d gone once by herself, and even made the ferry crossing to an island. None of these scenes was clear in her mind. In fact, perhaps she, like her children, had yet to see the real thing. Conceivably, though, the sea might have filtered into her body over the years in tiny fragments like the parts of a picture puzzle which, while she’d never identified the while, had pieced themselves together as the sea in all its sparkling radiance. An internal sea. Untouched by anyone …

Having drunk too much, the mother was beginning to drift off with the sound of the children’s high-pitched voices in her ears.

Fragments of the sea … Could she trace the matrix into which she’d fitted them all the way back to the flood of light she’d experienced at the moment of birth? The light was pain. She didn’t actually remember that time, of course. She’d thought she was reminded of it when she heard the first cries of her own children: yes, she’d thought then, it was painful and dazzling, and I couldn’t help crying. With every cry I was longing to accustom myself to the flood of light. But before my body had time to adjust, the light had ceased to exist as light. Perhaps what I was seeing was the brightness of the internal sea? My mother’s sea.

There were other memories. The tale of the Little Mermaid she’d come across in a foreign picture book. Though it would never have occurred to her to see herself in the person of the lovely little princess, she’d been haunted by the idea that perhaps she had been present herself, somewhere in the deeps where the princess lived. She sensed the sea’s wan bluish gleam in the Little Mermaid’s sobs.

And then eight years ago. She was was walking the busy streets of the city centre with the children’s father. It was early spring, a day of particularly heavy smog that was blurring the many-coloured neon lights. She’d suddenly heard waves booming. That was how she thought of it: not the sea, waves. Waves closing in. The children’s father was having a fit of coughing, but insisted it wasn’t a cold. What had it been, then? Was he choking on the smell of the sea too? Was that what drove him to try living with me? Being invisible, the sea could materialise anywhere. Like a thick bullet-proof glass wall rising on all sides. You raised your eyes to find a smooth, sheer blue surface towering over you. Over an island like the bottom of a well. Cill and lonely. He’d been driven into the arms of something that had body warmth – was that how it had happened? But the sea inside the body is different, it’s hot and intensely bright, it seethes whitely. That was the sea she wanted to see. To go back to. And if it meant disintegration, she was ready for that too …

That part of the coast was predictably deserted, as the swimming season hadn’t started. Only two local people got off at the same stop as the mother and her children. A large sightseeing map was displayed in front of the station beside the public toilets. The paint had peeled here and there, interrupting the black lines that represented roads, but it gave a general idea of the stretch of coast. There were more white-flagged swimming areas than she could count. It was still only April, however. It was enough for the mother if they could just go down to the shore. The souvenir shops were nearly all closed too. The road was broad and dry. They turned their backs to the station.

The houses soon thinned out and gave way to a weed-covered scrap yard, a factory that made motorboat parts, a service station, while up ahead a tourist hotel reminiscent of one of the blocks in a housing development rose into view. The mother walked on in silence. The children were following behind in a surprisingly good mood, picking the flowers off weeds, peering into the ditch where a trickle of clear water flowed. When they entered the lane below the hotel the crash of waves reached their ears at last. At the same moment they caught the sea’s smell. Breaking into a run, the mother emerged onto a concrete breakwater. There was the expanse of sandy shore, and there the rolling grey sea. The wind was cold and driving; it struck her a body blow. The sea’s surface appeared dusted with iron powder. Dazzled by its dull light, she shaded her eyes with her right hand. There was no one on the beach. The amount of refuse was very noticeable - detergent bottles, rotting tangerines, rubber sandals, old tires, even a broken swivel chair lying on its side. The mother stepped down onto the sand. The children had fallen silent.

Strung out along the water’s edge were more beer bottles, soft-drink cans, plastic bags, ice-cream containers and bits of broken crockery, all tangled in seaweed. Standing still above the tide line she gazed at the horizon which merged imperceptibly with the overcast sky. No silhouettes of islands, no boats to be seen. The mother headed along the shoreline. On her right she could see a long narrow sea wall jutting offshore, with what seemed to be a rock platform on the far side.

The older child spoke for the first time: ‘Stinks, doesn’t it? … ‘

The younger child continued: ‘It’s dirty, there’s lots of dog poop.’ He was right, she noticed, and the beach was tracked with pawprints as well.

‘It’s not like this where we’re going, is it?’

The mother walked rapidly on without a backward glance.

As she’d expected, the shore on the other side of the wall was rocky. Massed black shapes glowered at one another like live creatures that had been cavorting in the surf only moments ago when they were frozen in mid-plunge. The waves smashed with a scatter of white spray. Again there was no one else in sight. The mother made her way onto the rocks. By now the children had started whispering in a dissatisfied tone behind her.

She came to a square, shallow depression. Emerald-green algae, an aquatic forest in miniature, flourished in the warm water. Crabs large and small were scuttling among its stems, and she spotted hermit crabs and sea slugs too.

Every little pocket held a gaping sea anemone.

In the deeper pools between rocks, silver schools of tiny fish skirted the red fronds as they swayed and flowed.

The mother picked her way across, holding her breath. Then she scrambled onto a great rock that overlooked the area, settled herself in a convenient hollow and lit a cigarette. The transparent blue sparkle was not to be found. And yet: the crash of the waves. The sharp smell flung up with the spray. The sea inside her, having reached its lowest ebb, seemed to be on the rise. She lay back, smoking. The sky pressed softly down. The mother closed her eyes. She told herself repeatedly she was glad to be there; though not the one she’d had in mind, it was still the sea. She could always be reborn, as long as she had the sea …

The mother smiled with closed eyes.

… My tiredness will go and the energy I had at twenty will return, but that’s not all. My whole body - from the toenails to the insides of my ears - will turn into something new. And then … ah yes, one day my back will sprout a pair of lance-shaped wings which will begin to bead, my body will visibly expand, and when the metamorphosis is complete I’ll be a dragon that ascends spiraling to the heavens. I’ll leave everyone watching astounded on the earth below as I soar aloft, my golden scales gleaming. Refreshed. When would this be? She didn’t know, but if she kept looking forward to it one day it would really happen. And when it did, everyone would finally realise that she hadn’t been just some mother. Whispering in each other’s ears, ‘You know, she always did seems different somehow … ‘

‘What’re you doing? Come on, Mom, it’s no fun here.’

‘Mommy, I have to pee.’

‘Come on, hurry up, let’s go to the beach you told us about yesterday. So where is it? Is it near here?’

Instead of answering, the mother threw away the cigarette she still had in her hand.

… A golden dragon, yes. And here I am, always interrupted. Why is that? When all eyes ought to be on me in a breathless hush of anticipation. As it is, not a single wing dares poke through. This isn’t how it was meant to be. I don’t understand it. In the children’s eyes right now there’s no golden dragon, there’s a black ant not a quarter of an inch in length. The lively youngsters cheerfully raise their feet to stamp on it. Hold it, you two, don’t you recognise me? - But our Mom’s huge, she’s tremendous, she can carry us on her back and fly through the air. She isn’t a little pipsqueak of an ant. - Take a closer look, now. That pipsqueak is your mother …

‘Are you asleep? Don’t just sit there. Come on, take us where we’re going. I’m hungry.’

‘Me too. I’m starving.’

‘Get up stupid … ‘

… The wings are ready to grow at any time. One day, when the sea rises and threatens to engulf everything in its blue light, a golden dragon will appear in the sky. A male dragon. He will utter a cry. He will cry repeatedly as he circles above the boundless sea. At the sound I’ll wake where I’m lying trampled and destroyed on the bottom and float very cautiously to the surface. Waves of green, blue, yellow, red. And a flash of gold. The male dragon’s long whiskers brush the lobe of my ear. My body whirls into the air. I grow wings, I grow scales. I let out a cry. My voice is no longer human – nothing so bland. With the male dragon for my guide I fly off over the sea. In my true colours. The sea spreads beneath my eyes like a glassy plain. I’m reminded of glass beads I played with often as a child. I scoop them up by the handful and they sparkle undiminished. They sparkle with my gentleness. The very thing the male dragon wanted. Where’s he got to? When I’m right here waiting … Now why’s my body shrinking? At this rate I’ll end up smaller than the children. Look, I’m supposed to sit tight and wait. And here I am being swept down what seems to be a muddy ditch, and everything else along with me. I’m so pitifully small, can’t you two watch what you’re doing? – Oh, you again! Listen, we told you, our Mom is a golden dragon who flies through the air. – Can’t you understand? That was years ago, it’s all over now, I lost it somewhere and nobody will ever find it again …

‘Get up, you old bag, or I’ll kick you.’

‘Mommy, I’m hungry. I don’t like this place. It’s cold.’

… I want to sleep in peace and quiet. Something is swirling deep in my body. I never knew it had such depths. Clear water streams from my head to my chest, from there to my stomach, and then to a deep, stagnant pool that seems to lie in my pelvis. Deep enough to be the sea, but no, it’s too turbid. Something is swimming in circles in the sediment. How am I supposed to sit tight? The children peer down. I wonder if they can see to the bottom of the stagnant waters? Do they expect to find the sea here of all places? …

‘We’ve had enough of this, you old bag! We’re freezing! Do you want us to catch cold?’

With the older child pulling her hair, the mother struggled to her feet. The sea was undulating as heavily as clay.

They left the shore in search of a restaurant for lunch. She hoped at least to let the children have some fresh fish. First they tried the tourist hotel: only guests could use the dining room, they were told, as it was the off-season. The clock at the reception desk said eleven – it was earlier than she’d thought. They went out into the empty street, which led to the square by the station. There were several cheap places to eat, but none that featured a seafood menu. The sushi restaurant was closed for the winter. The mother wouldn’t admit defeat. If they followed the coastline they should very soon come to the neighbouring town, which was more likely to cater to visitors. This stretch of coast was so well known that even the mother had heard of it, and she had know the name of the next town in connection with a certain legend since she was a child.

Turning back onto the shore, she set off briskly. Ahead she could vaguely make out a row of three white hotel-like buildings. It shouldn’t take them half an hour if they walked fast. The children were tired and starting to complain. The younger one sat down heavily on the way, but seeing his mother press on he came running after her whimpering like a dove. The older child was encouraging him to keep up, then began to ask their mother forlornly if they were going to those white building, breaking off occasionally to throw sand at her back and yell, ‘Drop dead, stupid!’

The shoreline never varied. The sea was the colour of clay. Beyond the sea wall that continued on their right they could see empty drying racks and storage sheds for nets, houses with small vegetable plots, workshops, and a school building which was very quiet – perhaps classes were in session. A single upturned rowboat had been left on the shore. Flies buzzed around a heap of vegetable scraps. A detergent-filled creek drained frothing into the sea.

They made better time than she’d expected to the first of the white hotels. It was a brand-new building, ten storeys high. A bank of tulips bloomed along the broad terrace overlooking the shore. White chairs and tables were stacked in one corner. Not a window was open. The children ran ahead to the lobby, where the mother was again refused service. They tried the second brand-new hotel next door: the dining room was closed. There was one more, its entrance flanked by rows of palm shrubs, but the mother went straight back down to the shore. Dirty water discharged from beneath the hotels meandered over the sands. The mother walked on uncertainly. She was footsore herself by now. She wanted to sit down somewhere for at least a rest, but she couldn’t feel comfortable there in full view of the hotels.

Before long the younger child began to sob. His older brother shied a worn-out man’s shoe at the mother’s back and shouted, ‘His tummy hurts, you idiot!’

She turned to find them both with tear-swollen eyes.

‘Really?’

Rubbing his eyes, the younger boy nodded.

‘How bad is it?’

’ … I wanna go to the toilet … ‘

‘Well … there’s nothing we can do. Why don’t you go here? … ‘

‘No! I’m not a dog.’

‘But nobody’s looking.’

‘No! I’ve gotta go to the toilet …’

His face was the shade of the sea.

‘Will you be all right? Can you make it?’

‘If you don’t hurry up, he’ll die!’

The older child’s voice was shaking. Leading the younger child by the hand, the mother climbed an alley that ran by the hotel off to the right. She shivered at the small hand’s coldness. She’d intended to go into the hotel, but spotted a diner just across the street and bustled him in there and straight into the restroom. The child, who’d been biting his lip in desperation, huddled in tears over the toilet and emitted a groan. The mother waited outside the door till he got up.

By the time she had escorted him back, three large bowls of rice topped with chicken hash* had been set down on one of the tables. The older child had already started on his. Trying not to feel sick, the mother took up her chopsticks. The younger child pressed his right cheek against the table and closed his eyes without so much as a glance at his portion. His colouring was back to normal; there seemed no cause for worry.

The older child, having finished his greasy bowlful long before them, poured himself a cup of tea and gave some to his brother. Then he turned to their mother and said, ‘Why bring us to a place like this? What’d you tell us all those lies for?’

‘It’s my first time here, too … ‘

‘Liar! You were planning to go away and leave us.’

’ … How could you think that?’

Now the older boy’s colour resembled the surface of the sea. The mother pushed her barely touched meal aside and lit a cigarette. The electric clock on the wall said half past one. So they’d walked for a good two and a half hours.

‘I might’ve known a woman wouldn’t … ‘

‘What … ?’

’ … I’ve been to the beach with Dad. I can remember. He gave me a piggyback and ran along where the waves were breaking. It was a beautiful blue sea!’

The younger child said faintly, ‘Did you really? Gosh, I wish I could’ve gone.’

‘Yeah, I’ve just remembered. It must’ve been Dad. It was, wasn’t it? He took me. Why isn’t he here now?’

‘It … must’ve been a dream.’

‘It wasn’t a dream. Liar! He took me to the real sea.’

‘What about me? I want to go too … ‘

The mother stared at the goldfish bowl on the counter, in which a lone pop-eyed black carp was swimming. She’d just been reminded herself of a certain scene that had stayed forgotten for five years. The children’s father and the older boy, who was just two, were standing together outside the house they were renting at the time. As the mother arrived by taxi from the station, the child (was it her imagination or was he a little tanned by the sun?) picked up a fistful of gravel from the road and flung it at her face. Two or three pebbles struck her cheek. He backed away with a frightened smile as the mother reached out to him. At the father’s impatient ‘Come on and get this door open’, she unlocked the house. The father went in alone, carrying his travel bag. The child burst into tears and followed him inside.

That morning, she’d nerved herself to phone her in-laws’ home in the country and check what train the child and his father would be on. She’d intended to go and meet them, believing that if she did so they could be reunited. And then she’d been a quarter of an hour late. Not only had she failed to provide the welcome they hadn’t requested, she’d succeeded in shutting them out of the house as well, since they got there before her. She could no longer bring herself even to apologize. She was convinced that the chance she’d missed had been her very last, and once she had so convinced herself, that was what, in effect, it became.

Three weeks earlier, when the father, his nerves at breaking point, had departed for the station with the child, she had gone with them despite his attempts to turn her away. It wasn’t that she thought she had the right to keep their son with her simply because she was his mother – in fact she wasn’t even confident that she could go on as a parent – but she was terrified of letting the child out of her sight. As the express moved off with him and his father on board the child howled like a wild animal. The mother was left behind on the platform to endure the suspicious stares of other people seeing off the train.

The father’s parents, she remembered now, lived in a distant seaside town. That would be where the child had romped in the sea to his heart’s content …

Leaving the money for the three bowls of hash on the table the mother got up, opened the frosted glass door and set out in the opposite direction from the shore. The older child raced after her.

‘Wait! He can’t walk yet.’

The mother stopped for the younger child to catch up, then took him on her back. The word ‘enemy’ crossed her mind.

‘Here, let me carry this.’ The older child took over her handbag.

The street was lined with a ‘nude studio’ in a shed, a pinball arcade, bars, shooting galleries, and other amusements. Most of the booths and shanties were boarded up an the patches of ground between them were being farmed, though the mother couldn’t tell whether the green leaves on the narrow strips were crops or weeds. The road was surfaced with sand. Before she’d gone a hundred yards under the child’s weight, her forehead was moist with perspiration.

‘That one’s open!’ shouted the child on her back.

‘Let’s have a go!’ The older boy broke into a run. A little farther down the road the mother noticed the shooting gallery they meant – its street frontage was barely six feet across. Of course there were no other customers. The man in charge was outside spreading seaweed to dry. As soon as the older boy picked up one of the toy rifles that were lying on the stand, he came around from behind and supplied a dish of corks. The mother retrieved her handbag and handed the man a coin.

‘Me too.’ The younger child climbed down from her back. ‘I’m going to win those toffees.’

‘Big deal. I’m getting the pack of cards.’

The mother handed over a second coin. Relieved of the weight on her back she felt dizzy. She turned for a look at the sea and found it was out of sight behind tiers of tin roofs. She could see seagulls on their ridges.

‘Mister, can I have another go?’ The older boy received a new dish and tried again to hit the cards. He merely grazed them twice, however, and the pack refused to topple. The younger boy hadn’t a hope - corks were popping away in every direction. The mother handed the man another coin for each child. Her eyes met his. She studied his face for the first time: he was a thin young man with pale lips. He gave her a smile which dimpled his left cheek.

The two children returned to their efforts with yet another dish each. This round seemed just as likely to end in disappointment. The young man’s smile broadened, drawing from the mother a wry grin.

‘Rats. I bet it’s rigged. I give up.’

The older child slammed his gun down on the counter. Before she knew what had come over her the mother had picked it up and said, ‘Rigged? Surely not. Watch this.’

The young man placed a dish of corks before her. The mother hastily reached into her purse for a coin. She heard him say, ‘I’ll throw these in for free … ‘

She raised her head and he nodded, straightfaced. After a moment’s hesitation the mother wordlessly positioned the gun. The prizes were arranged on three levels along the wall. Bubble-gum, toffees, dolls, playing cards. The top prize was evidently the cigarette lighter. Holding her breath, she fixed it in her sights.

‘You’ll never hit a thing.’

‘You look silly … Forget it, you’re a terrible shot.’

The finger she touched to the trigger was trembling. She couldn’t steady the end of the barrel. Was the arm which supported the rifle trembling too? She’d just been giving a piggyback to a thirty-eight-pound child, that was why. The crash of waves sounded suddenly in her ears. The mother tightened her grip on the rifle. She couldn’t keep the gas lighter in the sights.

‘I wish you’d stop it,’ said her child, ‘Stupid.’

She shifted her aim from the lighter to the pack of cards. My enemy …

‘You’ll never hit it, ‘cos women can’t.’

‘Yeah. Not a chance.’

The mother rounded on them with the rifle at her shoulder. She pointed the tip of the gun barrel first at the older child’s head, then at the younger. Both recoiled with their mouths half open. Her hands shook and the barrel rose and fell, her heart raced and she breathed hard. Her own mouth dropped open. She choked on something hot at the back of her throat. The eye pressed to the sights began to mist.

‘Bang, bang … ’ The young man’s voice gave her such a start that she staggered as if hit. She quickly settled the rifle back in place on her shoulder and pointed it at him. Their eyes met over the sights. He smiled again. A tear spilled from the mother’s eye, blurring the young man’s face. She aimed into the centre of its vague expanse. The trigger. The mother shut her eyes. Another tear fell. A shot reverberated in her dark field of vision. The next moment, the clear blue sea swelled like an inflating balloon and there was a flash of gold.

A golden dragon …

The children’s laughter was ringing in her ears. But how, when I’ve just shot them? And after I’ve brought them all this way because I felt sorry for them – poor kids, they’d never seen the sea. Fathers … I’d have been happy myself to have a strong father who’d piggyback me and run along the beach. But I’m armed and vigilant now. I’m not the person I was five years ago. I’m not falling for any more tricks, no matter how tired I might be. Now I’m not just some mother. If you ask me, a father is a delicate bird, downed with a single shot …

Though she hadn’t noticed the young man slip around from the back of the booth, when she opened her eyes he was standing at her side.

I’m not just some mother, I don’t need gentleness from people, not from the sea …

The mother replaced the gun on the counter and hastily contrived a smile. As he took up the gun the young man spoke:

‘All right … now first, you’ve got to hold it like this.’

He motioned the mother and children to watch from behind, then confidently took aim at the gas lighter that the mother had singled out.

With the two children, the mother watched the tip of the gun barrel eagerly.

*This cheap rice dish is called ‘parent and child’ after its main ingredients, chicken and egg.

Translated by Geraldine Harcourt