Be careful what you ask for! You might already have it and not know it. A mystery and love story in a far-off land.
When the handwritten letter from Japan arrives, Benjamin cannot help but flash back to when he lived in Hawaii and met Hanako, a Japanese stewardess. But Addy, Benjamin’s wife of three years, knows what the letter really means: a love child was born.
Now Benjamin must save a child he has never met, learn the truth behind Hanako’s death, and risk his marriage and his career to do the right thing. But venturing into the lonely woods of northern Ishikawa throws him into an ancient world of strict customs and tight-lipped villagers.
AIKO, a love story wrapped around a mystery, is a modern version of the Madame Butterfly story told from his side.
After a simple breakfast of eggs, biscuits, and fruit that gray Sunday morning, Addy went as she usually did to her home office to study swatches of fabric and Ben went off to his den. He would typically use the quiet morning to catch up on office paperwork. Being late February, however, he was determined to knock out the taxes before the end of the month. So once again he laid out the various documents he needed. The clock on his desk ticked away the morning.
The silence of the house was interrupted by the sound of Addy going down the staircase.
Ben looked up, glanced outside the windows at the soft, foggy front yard. Through the fog he saw the yard was dusted with snow. He paused, listening, expecting that he would have to get up and do something. He had more to do before he dared take a lunch break.
“Hmm, a letter from Japan,” said Addy, flipping through the mail left in the basket by the front door. “Who do you know in Japan?”
That word jumped out and slapped Ben in the next room, sitting at the desk. Aside from the almost daily economic reports, the word Japan had special meaning for him. He had never visited that country and at that moment had no plans to, but hearing that word was like finding the key that fit the lock which opened his private vault of memories.
“It’s got your name on it,” Addy said, coming into the den and handing it to him.
He recalled his mother dropping by to give him a bundle of mail collecting at her house and, lost in conversation about his father’s heart condition, the doctors’ diagnosis, and upcoming tests, he had simply set the mail in the basket there. Addy called him to dinner when his mother left for her Bridge Club meeting. They talked over dinner, then watched television, one of Addy’s favorite shows. After the late news, they watched Saturday Night Live and she fell asleep on the sofa soon after the “Weekend Update” segment. When the show ended, he turned off the light and helped her stumble up to the bedroom.
There was only one person in Japan who might write a letter to him, thought Ben, but he had not heard from her in well over a year and he presumed that the relationship they once had was finally extinguished. His mother had mentioned the letter, asking about the “poor girl,” when she phoned him, but he had broken off the topic. There was nothing new to be said. He had never given her the address of the house where he and Addy now lived; after Hawaii, he had not known where he would be living so he gave her his parents’ address. They had planned to write each other forever. A couple of years was close enough, it seemed.
“Who do you know in Japan?” Addy repeated. Her voice had been light, merely curious with her first questions. Now it had an edge.
“I don’t know anyone in Japan.” He did not look up, pretended to read tax instructions.
“Someone knows you, it seems.”
He glanced up. “I made some contacts in Hawaii. I mean business contacts. Hotels and resorts. I played golf a few times with Japanese businessmen.”
She held up the letter: feminine stationary. “This is from businessmen?”
He took the letter from her hand. It was not a business letter: the small beige envelope had handwritten addresses, both his parents’ home and the return address in Japan. A colorful collection of stamps covered the upper right third of the envelope. He scanned the handwriting, especially the crooked letters of his name, all printed capitals. It reminded him of his grandmother’s arthritic writing.
He started to tear it open, then paused and looked up at Addy, hoping his expression said everything, but she did not get it.
“Need some privacy?” she asked.
“Perhaps that might be....”
He grinned, a deer caught in headlights.
“Could I have some privacy?” said Ben, fearing the worst, that, like one of the old letters, it might begin with ‘My dearest Benjamin.’
“Sure,” she said with a slight scowl, and exited. She seemed more amused than angry.
He need not have worried, he saw, pulling the thin airmail paper from the envelope. The letter was all in Japanese. More crooked handwriting. He could not read it. So what was he to make of it? He looked over the lines of characters—the squarish pictographs with some meaning attached, and the other marks he knew to be phonetic symbols, nothing that was familiar. Despite a night class he took after moving back from Hawaii, now four years past, a few numbers were all he could understand. Probably it was all a mistake. Wrong address, wrong name…pure coincidence….
That night, while Addy slept, Benjamin awoke with an urge to look at the letter again. In the dim light of the desk lamp, the den’s door closed, he slipped the letter out from the drawer and unfolded the pages. He looked more carefully. Some kanji characters he did recognize. He started from the beginning, examining each character individually. At three separate places on the first page, he saw the same characters, and they were the characters he did know. They were the characters he most feared recognizing. It was still guesswork, but he had a bad feeling.
Sitting back in the desk chair, he pondered the characters he recognized. Then he went to the bookshelves and dug out a dictionary he had bought a few years earlier when he had the intention of learning that exotic language and signed up for a night class. He blew off a thin streaking of dust and cracked its cover. With some effort, flipping back and forth among the pages, the dictionary helped him decipher the two characters—rather, confirmed what he already suspected.
As he studied the characters on the page, Addy appeared.
“I thought you said you couldn’t read it,” she mumbled with a yawn, pulling her bathrobe around herself.
He gave her a quick smile. “I was curious, that’s all.”
“Awfully curious, getting up in the middle of the night like this.”
He tried to chuckle. “Just a mystery. I already figured out a couple of the characters.”
She crossed her arms over her chest, her head tilted to one side.
“I didn’t know you were so interested in Japanese.”
“I had a class a few years back,” he said. He watched her face and it seemed that his excuse was going to be believed. “It seemed a good idea at the time. Pick up some of the language for when I have a meeting with some businessmen. The era of Japanese business is coming, you know. We need to be ready to meet their commercial expansion—”
“What are you so secretive about?” she asked.
“I’m not secretive.” He took a breath. “I’m just curious. I like a good mystery.”
“Who would send you a letter in a language you can’t read?”
“Someone who thinks I can read it.”
“Or someone who doesn’t know English. Someone who can only write in Japanese.”
“Like that Takakura family last fall. They bought the house on Moseby Lane, remember? The split-level, not the ranch. I had to get someone to translate for us.”
“I remember them,” said Ben with a sigh. What he remembered was how much Addy had complained about them. So much formality. So much haggling—as though they thought she could set the price herself. And the language barrier. She finally found the limit to her patience. When she closed the sale and was done with them, she took him out to celebrate.
“Well, if you’re so determined to figure it out,” said Addy, turning to leave, “why don’t you go down to the university tomorrow and see if you can find somebody who knows Japanese. I’m sure there are plenty of Japanese speakers in the Seattle area. No reason to lose sleep over it.”
“You’re right,” he replied. He put the dictionary down on the desk, the letter creased between the pages. “It’s nothing important.”
He went and got a drink of water, then joined her in bed.
Laying there, wide awake, he was unable to wipe from his consciousness the two distinctive symbols, the kanji characters he had recognized and confirmed with the dictionary. One of them meant “flower” and the other meant “child”—together forming the name “Hanako.”
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