Secrets and Things We Don’t Say Out Loud
by José Pablo Iriarte
Blame cabin fever–I don’t usually do stupid things. (Continue Reading…)
Blame cabin fever–I don’t usually do stupid things. (Continue Reading…)
Jun slogged through the rice paddy, muddy water swirling around her calves. She glanced behind her, checking again to make sure that Reiko and her cronies hadn’t chased her. The only figure in sight was a lone scarecrow, wearing a pointed straw hat and a tattered blue yukata.
Its face, two wide eyes and a softly smiling line for its mouth, was painted onto a rough woven sack, and its wooden pole tilted slightly to the left. It looked like it could bounce away at any second–Jun couldn’t imagine a single crow braving it.
She bowed. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
“You are welcome anytime.”
Jun started back and almost fell. She looked around again, but saw nothing but green stalks, heavy with yellowing rice, and the occasional glint of water. She walked around the scarecrow. Even the water was still–the only ripples were from her own passing. She remembered her manners and bowed again. “Thank you.”
“If you would stay and keep me company, I will share a secret with you.”
Jun’s socks were soggy and the sun was sinking in the west. If she was late for dinner, her mother would worry. But she liked secrets, and she’d never met a talking scarecrow before. Jun knew that he must be a spirit, or a god, but he seemed kind. And lonely. Jun understood loneliness. “I’ll stay.”
“Thank you. Tell me, child, what brings you to my field?”
“There’s a girl at school who hates me. I ran away from her.”
“You must have run very fast to find this place.”
“I am fast. That’s why she hates me–she used to be the fastest girl on the track team.”
“Maybe she only chases you because she wants to catch up.”
Jun remembered rocks whistling past her ears, and the sting of a stone clipping her calf. “I don’t think that’s the case.”
“I don’t know why it bothers her so much. She’s better than me in every other way. She’s pretty and has tons of friends and is top in our class and her parents buy her anything she wants.”
“I will tell you her secret, if you wish to know it.”
Jun hoped she could use the secret to stop Reiko from tormenting her. “I do.”
“Her parents do not love her, and she knows it.”
“But they’re her parents.”
Jun frowned. She didn’t want to feel sorry for Reiko. “How do you know that?”
“I know many things,” the scarecrow said.
“Do you know about me?”
“Yes, I know everything about you, Shuuichi Jun. You love pork cutlets and math class and running makes you feel free. You want to take care of your mother and you worry about your grades, but have a hard time making yourself study.”
“How do you know all that?”
“That is my secret, child.”
“I need to get home–my mother will be worried.”
“Yes. And she made you your favorite dinner.”
“Will I be able to come back?” Jun asked.
“The future is always uncertain. But it would please me to see you again.”
Jun bowed again. “Thank you for the secret.” She walked back toward the path. When she turned around, the paddy was empty.
Jun had no idea how to use the scarecrow’s secret. She couldn’t imagine her parents not loving her. Had Reiko done something horrible? Or had they not wanted a daughter in the first place? If they didn’t love her, why did they buy her so many presents? It didn’t make sense. Maybe the scarecrow had lied.
But Jun didn’t think so. She couldn’t help but trust the scarecrow.
Reiko glared at her during track practice, just like she always did. Then she and Reiko raced, just like they always did. The coach believed they pushed each other.
Jun won, like she always did. “Good race,” she said.
Reiko’s expression darkened. “Don’t patronize me.”
Jun tried to keep her pity off of her face.
Reiko’s hands tightened into fists. “What is up with you today?”
Jun shrugged. “Why does it bother you so much?”
“Why does what bother me?”
“That I’m faster.”
“You bother me because you’re ugly and stupid. I don’t care about track. I’m only here because my father made me join a team.”
“Is he going to come to any of the meets?”
“Don’t talk to me, Shuuichi.” Reiko snapped, then stormed off.
Reiko wasn’t waiting to torment Jun after practice, and she couldn’t find the path to the scarecrow’s rice paddy.
Jun stared down at her homework, but she’d read the poem a dozen times and it still didn’t make sense. She padded out to the kitchen, where her mother was washing dishes. “Mom, do you know anything about poetry?”
Her mom paused and pushed her dark hair away from her face with a soapy wrist. “No, I’m sorry, sweetie. Have you tried asking one of your classmates for help?”
“Good idea,” Jun said. She went back to her room and flopped onto the floor. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and stared at it for a long time. Reiko was top of their class. She probably understood poetry. What would she do if Jun asked for help?
She’d probably laugh and call Jun stupid again. Jun scrolled through her classmates’ phone numbers. She wasn’t really friends with any of them.
Jun climbed out the window and ran. The packed dirt path was hard against her bare feet.
The scarecrow’s rice paddy was different in the moonlight. Silver and black and clearly magical. Cold mud oozed between her toes.
“Hello,” Jun said, bowing.
“It is good to see you, but it is dangerous here at night,” the scarecrow said.
“What will Reiko do if I ask her for help?”
“I do not know what the future holds, child. I only know the now.”
“Well, what do you think she’d do?”
“She might help you. Or she might lash out. She is not a happy girl.”
“Why don’t her parents love her?”
“Do you think she would want you to know that, when she herself doesn’t?”
“No. I suppose not.”
“I will tell you something else, instead.”
“There is a monster hiding by your path home.”
Chills ran along Jun’s skin. “A monster?”
“Yes. It is an angry spirit, hungry for human life. It is strong, but you are fast.”
“What will happen if it catches me?”
“I do not know the future.”
“What does it normally do when it catches someone?”
“It eats them.”
“I’ll run as fast as I can, then.”
“Good. I hope to see you again, child. In the daytime.”
Jun sprinted down the dark path. The moonlight cast deep shadows, and she imagined figures lurking in each one. Her bare foot caught on a rock, and pain spiked through her. She felt hot breath on her neck, but heard no sounds but the pounding of her own heart, the rhythm of her feet hitting the path, and the ragged cadence of her breath.
A shadow engulfed hers and spread before her on the path. It was huge, with two tapered horns.
Jun pumped her arms faster. Icy claws ripped through her hair and sliced the back of her left arm.
She saw a streetlight ahead and managed one last burst of speed.
The shadow faded, and she burst onto the road. She collided with someone and tumbled to the ground.
Jun stared up at the sky and panted. Blood dripped down her elbow.
“What’s wrong with you?” Reiko loomed above her, scowling. “Do you run everywhere?”
Jun blinked up at her. “Would you help me with my poetry homework?”
Reiko rolled her eyes. “No.”
Jun sat up and winced. Her whole arm ached, and it felt like she’d plunged it into an icy river.
“Are you bleeding?”
“Are you okay?”
“I don’t know. Could you–could you help me home?”
Reiko rolled her eyes again, but gave Jun her hand and pulled her to her feet. “Just don’t bleed on me, okay? This is a new top.”
The cold spread up Jun’s arm and to her chest. She started to shiver.
Reiko pulled Jun’s good arm over her shoulder. The contact was warm and comforting, even through Reiko’s new top. “There’s something really wrong with you, isn’t there?”
“I–I’ll be okay.” It was difficult to speak through her chattering teeth.
Her tiny house looked like an oasis of light and warmth as Reiko dragged her to the front door. Jun saw her mother’s worried face, then darkness took her.
She woke tucked into her futon with a clean bandage around her arm. A hot water bottle was nestled into the crook of her elbow, and another warmed her feet. Her arm hurt, but she felt warm all through.
Her mother had dragged her own futon in and was sleeping beside her. “Mom?”
“Oh, thank goodness. Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m feeling much better.”
“What happened? Why were you out without your shoes?”
“I went to visit a friend,” Jun said.
“The girl who brought you back? She seemed very worried. She offered to bring your schoolwork by today.”
“No, I met her on my way home.”
“Was it a boy? Did he hurt you? You can tell me sweetie, I promise I won’t be mad.”
“No. I–I was running from a monster.”
“I found a rice paddy with a scarecrow, and he could talk, because he’s really a god, and he told me secrets, but it’s dangerous at night and then there was an angry spirit–“
Her mother pressed the back of her hand to Jun’s forehead. “Why don’t you lie back down. I’ll make some tea.”
Her mother didn’t ask what happened again, but she brought a steady stream of hot drinks and made more pork cutlets for dinner.
Reiko arrived with a stack of books just before dinner. “I’m so sorry,” she said, bowing. “I didn’t think–“
“Come on in, dear!” Jun’s mother said. “I was hoping you’d get here in time to eat with us. I made enough for everyone–I wanted to thank you for getting Jun home last night. That is if your own family won’t miss you–“
“They won’t,” Reiko said. “Thank you, Mrs. Shuuichi.”
“I do hope you like pork cutlets. They’re Jun’s favorite.”
“They’re mine, too. Thank you.”
After dinner, Reiko followed Jun to her bedroom. “I’ll help you with your poetry, but only if you tell me what happened last night.”
“What if I tell you and you don’t believe me?”
“I’ll believe you.”
“My mother doesn’t believe me.”
“You appeared out of nowhere, and there was… something behind you.”
“You saw it?”
She shrugged. “I saw something.”
“When I was running from you the other day, I found a rice paddy with a scarecrow. The scarecrow can talk, and he knows things.”
“A scarecrow that knows things? Like Kuebiko–the god in the stories?”
“I think so, but I didn’t ask–I thought it might be rude. Anyway, I went back there last night, and then that monster chased me.”
“It must have been a pretty fast monster.”
“It probably would have caught me.”
“The scarecrow told me not to come back again after dark.”
“Why did you go at night, anyway? And without your shoes?” Reiko asked.
“I had a question.”
“What could be so important that you ran off without your shoes?” Reiko asked.
“Don’t tell me you went to ask Kuebiko about our stupid poetry homework.”
“No, that isn’t what I asked.”
“Was it about me?”
Jun looked down at the floor. “Yes.”
“What did he tell you?”
“He told me that your parents don’t love you.”
Tears welled in Reiko’s eyes. “Oh. That.”
“I’m sorry,” Jun said.
“Did he tell you why?”
“No.” Jun reached out and took Reiko’s hands between hers. “Do you want to ask him?”
Reiko blinked and two tears slipped down her cheeks. “Yes.”
“Let’s go tomorrow, right after school.”
“We can only find the path if we run,” Jun said. “Sometimes, I can’t find it at all. Stay as close to me as you can.”
“Don’t push yourself too hard,” Reiko said. “You’re still recovering, and I don’t want to have to carry you again.”
They ran. The path opened up under her feet, and she splashed into the rice paddy with Reiko close behind.
“The scarecrow really can talk,” Reiko said.
“I can.” It sounded amused.
“Go ahead, ask your question,” Jun said. “I won’t listen.”
She turned away and covered her ears.
After a while, Reiko tapped her shoulder. Her eyes were red. “I’m done.”
“Are you okay?” Jun asked.
Reiko shrugged. “Thank you for bringing me here.”
“I’m sorry I was such a jerk to you.”
“I didn’t mean to hit you with that rock. We were trying to miss. I won’t do anything like that again, I promise.”
“I can keep helping you with your homework, if you want.”
“I’d like that.”
“It is safe to walk down the path now,” the scarecrow said. “Your mother is finishing up your dinner.”
“Thank you. We’ll be going.” Jun asked.
“Can we come back?” Reiko asked.
“I do not know what the future holds,” the scarecrow said. “But I will never shut you out.”
“What is her mother making for dinner?” Reiko asked.
“A hot pot.”
“Is there enough for me?”
Reiko grinned. “Awesome. Let’s go.”
They walked down the path together, then Jun stopped. “Wait for me here just sec, okay?”
Jun ran back up to the rice paddy and splashed out to the scarecrow. “Did you plan all this? Or did it just happen?”
The scarecrow chuckled. “How can I control anything? I cannot move from this spot.”
“Well, I just wanted to say thank you.”
“You are welcome, Shuuichi Jun. You deserve to be happy.”
“And Reiko does too, right?”
“You’ve already answered that question.”
Jun bowed, then ran back to her friend.
“Are there any bandages in this house?” Tina asked. “I’ve found an oulough, but it’s hurt.” She likes to do this: come into my—sorry, make that our—bedroom when I’m trying to study and ask me for something.
Tina’s not my little sister. She’s my half-niece, I guess you’d say. Her mom is my half-sister Shari. If you were ever to hear any authority figure talking about Shari, you’d hear things like “poor impulse control” and “bad choices.” One of those last landed in her in jail, and that’s how Tina came to be living with my mom and me and telling me about a wounded oulough.
I had not actually ever heard of ouloughs before. It’s disconcerting, when you’re nineteen, to have an eight-year-old mentioning animals you’ve never heard of. It occurred to me—this might have been intellectual ego protection kicking in—that maybe it was just that Tina’s pronunciation was off, like maybe she was trying to say, I don’t know, orangutan or something. Not that it’s likely she would have run across an orangutan in Indian Orchard.
“Say that again? You found a what?” I asked.
My mother used to tell stories of how I talked to animals when I was a little girl. And then she’d laugh when she described how indignant I got because no one believed they talked back.
I don’t remember much of that period of my life. There were a lot of hospitals—white rooms, other pale children next to me, all of us with clear IV tubes taped to our parchment paper skin—and doctors, smiling men with haunted eyes that they tried so hard to keep us from seeing. That’s mostly what I remember.