Fiction / September 2014 (Issue 25)


Hotpot

by Michelle Tudor

"How are the tomatoes today, Toshiko?"

"Sweet as always," the sun-broiled older woman replied.

"They look good. I'll take them," the man said, handing over a thousand yen note and putting the tomatoes into his briefcase.

"See you tomorrow," Toshiko said.

The man gave a small wave and ducked into the train station.

Toshiko Yanae was eighty-eight years old and had been hauling her produce on the same train every day for the past sixty years. It took her two hours each way, and she left just as the sun came up every morning. She sat outside Otsuka train station in the northwest of Tokyo for as long as it took to sell out, and then she'd make her way back home.

Inside the heavy boxes, she carried the produce that her family had been peddling for years. Every morning, she got up at four o'clock, loaded the boxes and strapped them onto her weary back. In her small allocated space, she lay out bags of green beans, perfectly tapered and ready to pop; tomatoes, four to a bag, plump and red like a painted geisha's pursed lips; potatoes, still smothered in the dusky earth, piled up like an ancient pyramid. Sometimes a small child came along and grabbed one from the bottom, sending them tumbling to the ground. His mother would look up, face flushed and offer a small bow of apology, but Toshiko would chuckle and shake her head.

"Do you think they're afraid of a little bit of dirt?" she'd say before tossing them back on the pile.

***

It was late March and the cherry blossoms were almost in bloom. The dark pink buds ready to explode with their ephemeral beauty. Soon the streets would be carpeted with blossom, a dusky pink ocean to wade through.

In front of the station, there was a huge tree that Toshiko loved to sit underneath, watching in awe as the petals fell down on to the produce. In the spring on her farm, she would gather up vegetables for a hotpot: carrots that were the perfect shade of vermilion, misshapen sweet potatoes longing to be baked until their skin burst with flavour and onions that would sting her eyes so badly they streamed for hours afterwards. She'd boil them up, then add her stock; a perfect sweet and salty mix, the heady ginger flavour tantalising the taste buds through the earthy stew, a dash of soy sauce, a splash of sake and her secret ingredient, a sprinkling of cherry blossom petals. She remembered trying them once as a child and knew they had no distinctive flavour, but, when placed in the hotpot, they gained a whole new life. It was as if the very aspects of spring—the slightly warmer temperatures, the misty mornings across the harvested fields and the simple beauty of a lone cherry tree blowing in the wind—could give the meal a more delectable taste.

***

The man with the briefcase came by at ten the next day. He was tall with angular cheekbones and eyes that popped out as if continually in awe of his surroundings. Toshiko teased him often, telling him he should eat more and fatten himself up for the spring, a new beginning. He bent down in front of the boxes and eyed the produce longingly.

"The peppers look good today," he said, picking one up.

"Of course," Toshiko said, smiling a toothless grin.

"What would you recommend?"

She looked up at him from her small perch on an old crate, "I highly recommend all my produce," she winked.

"I'm going to visit my mother. I thought I might take her some fresh vegetables," he said, fondling an oversized onion.

"What a good son," she said, and he blushed under his dark eye circles and greying stubble.

Toshiko picked up a paper bag and began selecting from the boxes, stopping to consider every choice. She took the onion he had picked up, four potatoes, two carrots, a small yellow pepper, a bundle of asparagus and a sprig of chives.

"Here," she said, handing him the bag.

"How much?" he asked with a smile.

"A gift—"

He began shaking his head, "No, no, I couldn't," he said, reaching for his wallet.

"For being such a good son," she said and shooed him away.

"Thank you," he said, offering her a deep bow.

***

It had been three years since Toshiko's husband had passed away. Her daughter lived a few hundred miles away in Osaka, and her son, not far from where she was, on the east side of Tokyo. He came over to see her occasionally, checking the farm was okay, getting the gossip on his brother-in-law and almost always asking her to throw a few extra roots of ginger in his bag. Toshiko saw her family on two occasions each year, her birthday at the beginning of May, just at the end of cherry blossom season, and New Year when they would all pray for good health and a bountiful crop for the coming year. She would put on a huge spread, feeding them until they couldn't eat a morsel more.

***

She didn't see the man for a week after she'd given him the free vegetables. He turned up at noon just as she was packing up. He scurried over to her and cleared his throat until she turned around.

"Good afternoon," she said.

"I guess I missed all the good stuff?" he said, looking down at the empty boxes.

"I sold out early today," she said, strapping the boxes together.

"I'll have to make do with this," he said, holding out his boxed lunch.

"Oh dear," she chuckled.

He sat down on the small wall beside her, and she looked over at his lunch. In a small red box separated into compartments lay a rectangular lump of sticky white rice, in the middle of it was a single wilting red ume plum, straining in the heat of the box, but perfectly positioned on the rice to echo the image of the Japanese flag. In another compartment, lay pieces of sliced daikon radish, slightly brown and already soggy. In the final section, there lay a few pieces of fried chicken, garnished with sprigs of parsley, the whole thing, although impeccably presented, looked wholly desperate.

"Did your mother enjoy the vegetables?" she asked him as he ate.

"Mmm-hmm," he said through a mouthful of rice, "she said they were the freshest she'd tasted in years."

***

Another week passed, and as April neared its end, Toshiko admired the blossoms as they fell like snowflakes. She watched a young boy scoop up a handful and throw them up high, watching them scatter over his head. She laughed and when she looked up she saw a man standing in front of her.

"Hiroki," she said.

"Hello mother," her son replied.

"Look at the sweet potatoes. They've grown so big this year."

He took one and inspected it, smoothing his hands over the dark purple skin that had no imperfections.

"Mother ..." he started quietly and she looked up, "I don't think I'll make it to the farm next week."

Toshiko looked at him, hiding her disappointment, "Is something wrong?"

"It's just work, it's very busy right now."

"What about your sister?" Toshiko wiped her brow with her small handkerchief.

"I don't know," he stuttered before making his excuses to leave.

She struggled to hold back the tears, busying herself with reorganising the leeks. She dropped one and muttered in frustration.

***

Later that day when she returned to the farmhouse, she telephoned her daughter and, as expected, found out that her son-in-law had been struck down with chicken pox, and her daughter absolutely couldn't leave him alone. Afterwards, Toshiko pondered the thought of a birthday alone. She couldn't remember a time since having her children that they hadn't spent it with her. This thought saddened her. She thought of the hotpot; the bubbling earthenware dish placed over the small stove in the middle of the table, huddling around it, bowls and chopsticks in hand, the smell wafting under their noses as they patiently waited for her to declare it ready.

She thought of her husband and how he would savour every mouthful—delicately, for such an unkempt farmer—taking a piece of potato, not so soft that it would fall apart but not so well cooked that it wouldn't melt in the mouth. The flavour of the musky stock soaked in so deeply it permeated it entirely. She could barely muster up the strength to imagine making the hotpot just for her. But when she did, it tipped her over the edge and the teardrops fell into her crossed hands. Knowing that she wouldn't get to savour the meal this year made her weep, and thoughts of the cherry blossoms and their fleeting existence tugged at her; she had come to appreciate them evermore as the years rolled on.

***

Three days later, she was at her usual spot munching on a peach when the man with the briefcase came over, except he wasn't wearing his suit, and he didn't have his briefcase.

"I almost didn't recognise you," Toshiko said.

"I almost don't recognise myself!" he said.

"No work?"

"I'm on holiday," he said, breathing in and out deeply.

He sat down on the wall and tipped his head back as if sunbathing. Usually he'd be rushing around, standing tall and serious, but now he looked like a different person. The dark circles were now a lighter shade, and he'd shaved his stubble off completely.

"What will it be today?" Toshiko said.

"Nothing, thanks. I just thought I'd come by," he said, blushing again.

Toshiko gave a little smile, offering one of the peaches from the pack, which he took. "All these years ..." she paused, "I don't even know your name."

"It's Hiroki," he said, taking a bite of the ripe peach. Toshiko laughed aloud, and he looked at her, puzzled, "What?"

"That's my son's name," she said with a smile.

"Is that so?"

They sat smiling and eating peaches for a while; Toshiko served her customers whilst Hiroki sat on the wall, looking more and more relaxed as the day wore on.

Just as she was starting to pack up for the day, Toshiko looked over at him and said, "Do you like hotpot?"

"Sure. Who doesn't like hotpot?"

She took a deep breath, "It's my birthday on Friday, and I'm making hotpot. Would you like to come to my farm and have some with me?" she said, and then continued packing.

"I'd like that."

***

Two days later, he sat in the small living room of her farmhouse. Toshiko was the perfect host, and, even though her eighty-nine-year-old frame was weathered and beaten, she struggled on, continuously topping up his tea and stirring the pot. Hiroki told her he'd never smelt a hotpot so good, and she smiled at him. He watched her peel and chop the vegetables with such care, taking time to sip the stock every time she added another ingredient. She cried at the onions, winced at the sake and smiled when he asked her if, like all good chefs, she had a secret ingredient. She winked at him and said, "It wouldn't be a secret then would it?" and they both laughed.

As the day moved on, they talked about themselves, their families and what their favourite seasonal vegetable was. Later, as they sat staring out of the screen doors that overlooked the fields, the smell of the hotpot became unbearable to their hungry stomachs. Dusk was calling, and the world lay silent except the bubbling of the pot.

"Hey, Toshiko, look ..." he pointed at the large ceramic dish. "There's a petal in there," he said in surprise. "It must have blown in from the open window."

"Imagine that," she said, chuckling.

 
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