A Personal Matterby Kenzaburo Oe Translated from Japanese by John Nathan
“In writing novels there is no substitute for maturity and moral awareness. Kenzaburo Oe has both.” –Alan Levensohn, Christian Science Monitor
Kenzaburo Oe, the winner of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature, is internationally acclaimed as one of the most important and influential post-World War II writers, known for his powerful accounts of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and his own struggle to come to terms with a mentally handicapped son. The Swedish Academy lauded Oe for his “poetic force [that] creates an imagined world where life and myth condense to form a disconcerting picture of the human predicament today.” His most popular book, A Personal Matter is the story of Bird, a frustrated intellectual in a failing marriage whose Utopian dream is shattered when his wife gives birth to a brain-damaged child.
“In writing novels there is no substitute for maturity and moral awareness. Kenzaburo Oe has both.””Alan Levensohn, Christian Science Monitor
“[Bird’s] spiritual struggle is depicted in a series of vivid and explicit sexual scenes. The novel ends on an affirmative note as the hero realizes that he cannot run away from reality but must accept life as it is in the real world.”””C. W. Stucki, Library Journal
“[A Personal Matter] owes obvious debts to Kierkegaard: the search for”and confrontation with”the self. Its urban surroundings, the classless misfits that populate it, and its vivid sexual descriptions make it seem socially and thematically similar to its Occidental counterparts.””James Toback, The New York Times Book Review
BIRD, gazing down at the map of Africa that reposed in the showcase with the haughty elegance of a wild deer, stifled a short sigh. The salesgirls paid no attention, their arms and necks goosepimpled where the uniform blouses exposed them. Evening was deepening, and the fever of early summer, like the temperature of a dead giant, had dropped completely from the covering air. People moved as if groping in the dimness of the subconscious for the memory of midday warmth that lingered faintly in the skin: people heaved ambiguous sighs. June–half-past six: by now not a man in the city was sweating. But Bird’s wife lay naked on a rubber mat, tightly shutting her eyes like a shot pheasant falling out of the sky, and while she moaned her pain and anxiety and expectation, her body was oozing globes of sweat.
Shuddering, Bird peered at the details of the map. The ocean surrounding Africa was inked in the teary blue of a winter sky at dawn.
Longitudes and latitudes were not the mechanical lines of a compass: the bold strokes evoked the artist’s unsteadiness and caprice. The continent itself resembled the skull of a man who had hung his head. With doleful, downcast eyes, a man with a huge head was gazing at Australia, land of the koala, the platypus, and the kangaroo. The miniature Africa indicating population distribution in a lower corner of the map was like a dead head beginning to decompose; another, veined with transportation routes, was a skinned head with the capillaries painfully exposed. Both these little Africas suggested unnatural death, raw and violent.
‘shall I take the atlas out of the case?”
“No, don’t bother,” Bird said. “I’m looking for the Michelin road maps of West Africa and Central and South Africa.” The girl bent over a drawer full of Michelin maps and began to rummage busily. ‘series number 182 and 185,” Bird instructed, evidently an old Africa hand.
The map Bird had been sighing over was a page in a ponderous, leather-bound atlas intended to decorate a coffee table. A few weeks ago he had priced the atlas, and he knew it would cost him five months’ salary at the cram-school where he taught. If he included the money he could pick up as a part-time interpreter, he might manage in three months. But Bird had himself and his wife to support, and now the existence on its way into life that minute. Bird was the head of a family!
The salesgirl selected two of the red paperbound maps and placed them on the counter. Her hands were small and soiled, the meagerness of her fingers recalled chameleon legs clinging to a shrub. Bird’s eye fell on the Michelin trademark beneath her fingers: the toadlike rubber man rolling a tire down the road made him feel the maps were a silly purchase. But these were maps he would put to an important use.
“Why is the atlas open to the Africa page?” Bird asked wistfully. The salesgirl, somehow wary, didn’t answer. Why was it always open to the Africa page? Did the manager suppose the map of Africa was the most beautiful page in the book? But Africa was in a process of dizzying change that would quickly outdate any map. And since the corrosion that began with Africa would eat away the entire volume, opening the book to the Africa page amounted to advertising the obsoleteness of the rest. What you needed was a map that could never be outdated because political configurations were settled. Would you choose America, then? North America, that is?
Bird interrupted himself to pay for the maps, then moved down the aisle to the stairs, passing with lowered eyes between a potted tree and a corpulent bronze nude. The nude’s bronze belly was smeared with oil from frustrated palms: it glistened wetly like a dog’s nose. As a student, Bird himself used to run his fingers across this belly as he passed; today he couldn’t find the courage even to look the statue in the face. Bird had glimpsed the doctor and the nurses scrubbing their arms with disinfectant next to the table where his wife had been lying naked. The doctor’s arms were matted with hair.
Bird carefully slipped his maps into his jacket pocket and pressed them against his side as he pushed past the crowded magazine counter and headed for the door. These were the first maps he had purchased for actual use in Africa. Uneasily he wondered if the day would ever come when he actually set foot on African soil and gazed through dark sunglasses at the African sky. Or was he losing, this very minute, once and for all, any chance he might have had of setting out for Africa? Was he being forced to say good-by, in spite of himself, to the single and final occasion of dazzling tension in his youth? And what if I am? There’s not a thing in hell I can do about it!
Bird angrily pushed through the door and stepped into the early summer evening street. The sidewalk seemed bound in fog: it was the filthiness of the air and the fading evening light. Bird paused to gaze at himself in the wide, darkly shadowed display window. He was aging with the speed of a short-distance runner. Bird, twenty-seven years and four months old. He had been nicknamed “Bird” when he was fifteen, and he had been Bird ever since: the figure awkwardly afloat like a drowned corpse in the inky lake of window glass still resembled a bird. He was small and thin. His friends had begun to put on weight the minute they graduated from college and took a job–even those who stayed lean had fattened up when they got married; but Bird, except for the slight paunch on his belly, remained as skinny as ever. He slouched forward when he walked and bunched his shoulders around his neck; his posture was the same when he was standing still. Like an emaciated old man who once had been an athlete.
It wasn’t only that his hunched shoulders were like folded wings, his features in general were birdlike. His tan, sleek nose thrust out of his face like a beak and hooked sharply toward the ground. His eyes gleamed with a hard, dull light the color of glue and almost never displayed emotion, except occasionally to shutter open as though in mild surprise. His thin, hard lips were always stretched tightly across his teeth; the lines from his high cheekbones to his chin described a sharply pointed V. And hair licking at the sky like ruddy tongues of flame. This was a fair description of Bird at fifteen: nothing had changed at twenty. How long would he continue to look like a bird? No choice but living with the same face and posture from fifteen to sixty-five, was he that kind of person? Then the image he was observing in the window glass was a composite of his entire life. Bird shuddered, seized with disgust so palpable it made him want to vomit. What a revelation: exhausted, with a horde of children, old, senile Bird. “
Suddenly a woman with a definitely peculiar quality rose out of the dim lake in the window and slowly moved toward Bird. She was a large woman with broad shoulders, so tall that her face topped the reflection of Bird’s head in the glass. Feeling as though a monster were stalking him from behind, Bird finally wheeled around. The woman stopped in front of him and peered into his face gravely. Bird stared back. A second later, he saw the hard, pointed urgency in her eyes washing away in the waters of mournful indifference. Though she may not have known its precise nature, the woman had been on the verge of discovering a bond of mutual interest, and had realized abruptly that Bird was not an appropriate partner in the bond. In the same moment, Bird perceived the abnormality in her face which, with its frame of curly, overabundant hair, reminded him of a Fra Angelico angel: he noticed in particular the blond hairs which a razor had missed on her upper lip. The hairs had breached a wall of thick make-up and they were quivering as though distressed.
“Hey!” said the large woman in a resounding male voice. The greeting conveyed consternation at her own rash mistake. It was a charming thing to say.
“Hey!” Bird hurried his face into a smile and returned the greeting in the somewhat hoarse, squawky voice that was another of his birdlike attributes.
The transvestite executed a half-turn on his high heels and walked slowly down the street. For a minute Bird watched him go, then walked away in the other direction. He cut through a narrow alley and cautiously, warily started across a wide street fretted with trolley tracks. Even the hysterical caution which now and then seized Bird with the violence of a spasm evoked a puny bird half-crazed with fear–the nickname was a perfect fit.
That queen saw me watching my reflection in the window as if I were waiting for someone, and he mistook me for a pervert. A humiliating mistake, but inasmuch as the queen had recognized her error the minute Bird had turned around, Bird’s honor had been redeemed. Now he was enjoying the humor of the confrontation. Hey!–no greeting could have been better suited to the occasion; the queen must have had a good head on his shoulders.
Bird felt a surge of affection for the young man masquerading as a large woman. Would he succeed in turning up a pervert tonight and making him a pigeon? Maybe I should have found the courage to go with him myself.
Bird was still imagining what might have happened had he gone off with the young man to some crazy corner of the city, when he gained the opposite sidewalk and turned into a crowded street of cheap bars and restaurants. We would probably lie around naked, as close as brothers, and talk. I’d be naked too so he wouldn’t feel any awkwardness. I might tell him my wife was having a baby tonight, and maybe I’d confess that I’ve wanted to go to Africa for years, and that my dream of dreams has been to write a chronicle of my adventures when I got back called Sky Over Africa. I might even say that going off to Africa alone would become impossible if I got locked up in the cage of a family when the baby came (I’ve been in the cage ever since my marriage but until now the door has always seemed open; the baby on its way into the world may clang that door shut). I’d talk about all kinds of things, and the queen would take pains to pick up the seeds of everything that’s threatening me, one by one he’d gather them in, and certainly he would understand. Because a youth who tries so hard to be faithful to the warp in himself that he ends up searching the street in drag for perverts, a young man like that must have eyes and ears and a heart exquisitely sensitive to the fear that roots in the backlands of the subconscious.
Tomorrow morning we might have shaved together while we listened to the news on the radio, sharing a soap dish. That queen was young but his beard seemed heavy and ” Bird cut the chain of fantasy and smiled. Spending a night together might be going too far, but at least he should have invited the young man for a drink. Bird was on a street lined with cheap, cozy bars: the crowd sweeping him along was full of drunks. His throat was dry and he wanted a drink, even if he had to have it alone. Pivoting his head swiftly on his long, lean neck, he inspected the bars on both sides of the street. In fact, he had no intention of stopping in any of them. Bird could imagine how his mother-in-law would react if he arrived at the bedside of his wife and newborn child, reeking of whisky. He didn’t want his parents-in-law to see him in the grip of alcohol: not again.
Bird’s father-in-law lectured at a small private college now, but he had been the chairman of the English department at Bird’s university until he had retired. It was thanks not so much to good luck as to his father-in-law’s good will that Bird had managed at his age to get a teaching job at a cram-school. He loved the old man, and he was in awe of him. Bird had never encountered an elder with quite his father-in-law’s largesse; he didn’t want to disappoint him all over again.
Bird married in May when he was twenty-five, and that first summer he stayed drunk for four weeks straight. He suddenly began to drift on a sea of alcohol, a besotted Robinson Crusoe. Neglecting all his obligations as a graduate student, his job, his studies, discarding everything without a thought, Bird sat all day long and until late every night in the darkened kitchen of his apartment, listening to records and drinking whisky. It seemed to him now, looking back on those terrible days, that with the exception of listening to music and drinking and immersing in harsh, drunken sleep, he hadn’t engaged in a single living human activity. Four weeks later Bird had revived from an agonizing seven-hundred-hour drunk to discover in himself, wretchedly sober, the desolation of a city ravaged by the fires of war. He was like a mental incompetent with only the slightest chance of recovery, but he had to tame all over again not only the wilderness inside himself, but the wilderness of his relations to the world outside. He withdrew from graduate school and asked his father-in-law to find him a teaching position. Now, two years later, he was waiting for his wife to have their first child. Let him appear at the hospital having sullied his blood with the poisons of alcohol once again and his mother-in-law would flee as if the hounds of hell were at her heels, dragging her daughter and grandchild with her.
Bird himself was wary of the craving, occult but deeply rooted, that he still had for alcohol. Often since those four weeks in whisky hell he had asked himself why he had stayed drunk for seven hundred hours, and never had he arrived at a conclusive answer. So long as his descent into the abyss of whisky remained a riddle, there was a constant danger he might suddenly return.
In one of the books about Africa he read so avidly, Bird had come across this passage: “The drunken revels which explorers invariably remark are still common in the African village today. This suggests that life in this beautiful country is still lacking something fundamental. Basic dissatisfactions are still driving the African villagers to despair and self-abandon.” Rereading the passage, which referred to the tiny villages in the Sudan, Bird realized he had been avoiding a consideration of the lacks and dissatisfactions that were lurking in his own life. But they existed, he was certain, so he was careful to deny himself alcohol.
Bird emerged in the square at the back of the honky-tonk district, where the clamor and motion seemed to focus. The clock of lightbulbs on the theater in the center of the square was flashing SEVEN PM–time to ask about his wife. Bird had been telephoning his mother-in-law at the hospital every hour since three that afternoon. He glanced around the square. Plenty of public telephones, but all were occupied. The thought, not so much of his wife in labor as of his mother-in-law’s nerves as she hovered over the telephone reserved for in-patients, irritated him. From the moment she had arrived at the hospital with her daughter, the woman had been obsessed with the idea that the staff was trying to humiliate her. If only some other patient’s relative were on the phone. ” Lugubriously hopeful, Bird retraced his steps, glancing into bars and coffee houses, Chinese noodle shops, cutlet restaurants, and shoestores. He could always step inside somewhere and phone. But he wanted to avoid a bar if he could, and he had eaten dinner already. Why not buy a powder to settle his stomach?
Bird was looking for a drugstore when an outlandish establishment on a corner stopped him short. On a giant billboard suspended above the door, a cowboy crouched with a pistol flaming. Bird read the legend that flowered on the head of the Indian pinned beneath the cowboy’s spurs: GUN CORNER. Inside, beneath paper flags of the United Nations and strips of spiraling green and yellow crepe paper, a crowd much younger than Bird was milling around the many-colored, box-shaped games that filled the store from front to back. Bird, ascertaining through the glass doors rimmed with red and indigo tape that a public telephone was installed in a corner at the rear, stepped into the Gun Corner, passed a Coke machine and a juke box howling rock-n-roll already out of vogue, and started across the muddy wooden floor. It was instantly as if skyrockets were bursting in his ears. Bird toiled across the room as though he were walking in a maze, past pinball machines, dart games, and a miniature forest alive with deer and rabbits and monstrous green toads that moved on a conveyor belt; as Bird passed, a high-school boy bagged a frog under the admiring eyes of his girlfriends and five points clicked into the window on the side of the game. He finally reached the telephone. Dropping a coin into the phone, he dialed the hospital number from memory. In one ear he heard the distant ringing of the phone, the blare of rock-n-roll filled the other, and a noise like ten thousand scuttling crabs: the high teens, rapt over their automated toys, were scuffling the wooden floor with the soft-as-glove-leather soles of their Italian shoes. What would his mother-in-law think of this din? Maybe he should say something about the noise when he excused himself for calling late.
The phone rang four times before his mother-in-law’s voice, like his wife’s made somewhat younger, answered; Bird immediately asked about his wife, without apologizing for anything.
“Nothing yet. It just won’t come; that child is suffering to death and the baby just won’t come!”
Wordless, Bird stared for an instant at the numberless antholes in the ebonite receiver. The surface, like a night sky vaulted with black stars, clouded and cleared with each breath he took.
“I’ll call back at eight,” he said a minute later, then hung up the phone, and sighed.
A drive-a-car game was installed beside the phone, and a boy who looked like a Filipino was seated behind the wheel. Beneath a miniature E-type Jaguar mounted on a cylinder in the center of the board, a painted belt of country scenery revolved continuously, making the car appear to speed forever down a marvelous suburban highway. As the road wound on, obstacles constantly materialized to menace the little car: sheep, cows, girls with children in tow. The player’s job was to avoid collisions by cutting the wheel and swiveling the car atop its cylinder. The Filipino was hunched over the wheel in a fury of concentration, deep creases in his short, swarthy brow. On and on he drove, biting his thin lips shut with keen eyeteeth and spraying the air with sibilant saliva, as if convinced that finally the belt would cease to revolve and bring the E-type Jaguar to its destination. But the road unfurled obstacles in front of the little car unendingly. Now and then, when the belt began to slow down, the Filipino would plunge a hand into his pants pocket, grope out a coin, and insert it in the metal eye of the machine. Bird paused where he stood obliquely behind the boy, and watched the game for a while. Soon a sensation of unbearable fatigue crept into his feet. Bird hurried toward the back exit, stepping as though the floor were scorching metal plate. At the back of the gallery, he encountered a pair of truly bizarre machines.
The game on the right was surrounded by a gang of youngsters in identical silk jackets embroidered with gold-and-silver brocade dragons, the Hong Kong souvenir variety designed for American tourists. They were producing loud, unfamiliar noises that sounded like heavy impacts. Bird approached the game on the left, because for the moment it was unguarded. It was a medieval instrument of torture, an Iron Maiden–twentieth-century model. A beautiful, life-sized maiden of steel with mechanical red-and-black stripes was protecting her bare chest with stoutly crossed arms. The player attempted to pull her arms away from her chest for a glimpse of her hidden metal breasts; his grip and pull appeared as numbers in the windows which were the maiden’s eyes. Above her head was a chronological table of average grip and pull.
Bird inserted a coin in the slot between the maiden’s lips. Then he set about forcing her arms away from her breasts. The steel arms resisted stubbornly: Bird pulled harder. Gradually his face was drawn in to her iron chest. Since her face was painted in what was unmistakably an expression of anguish, Bird had the feeling he was raping the girl. He strained until every muscle in his body began to ache. Suddenly there was a rumbling in her chest as a gear turned, and numbered plaques, the color of watery blood, clicked into her hollow eyes. Bird went limp, panting, and checked his score against the table of averages. It was unclear what the units represented, but Bird had scored 70 points for grip and 75 points for pull. In the column on the table beneath 27, Bird found GRIP: 110–PULL: 110. He scanned the table in disbelief and discovered that his score was average for a man of forty. Forty!–the shock dropped straight to his stomach and he brought up a belch. Twenty-seven years and four months old and no more grip nor pull than a man of forty: Bird! But how could it be? On top of everything, he could tell that the tingling in his shoulders and sides would develop into an obstinate muscle ache. Determined to redeem his honor, Bird approached the game on the right. He realized with surprise that he was now in deadly earnest about this game of testing strength.
With the alertness of wild animals whose territory is being invaded, the boys in dragon jackets froze as Bird moved in, and enveloped him with challenging looks. Rattled, but with a fair semblance of carelessness, Bird inspected the machine at the center of their circle. In construction it resembled a gallows in a Western movie, except that a kind of Slavic cavalry helmet was suspended from the spot where a hapless outlaw should have hung. The helmet only partly concealed a sandbag covered in black buckskin. When a coin was inserted in the hole that glared like a cyclops’ eye from the center of the helmet, the player could lower the sandbag and the indicator needle reset itself at zero. There was a cartoon of Robot Mouse in the center of the indicator: he was screaming, his yellow mouth open wide, C’mon Killer! Let’s Measure Your Punch!
When Bird merely eyed the game and made no move in its direction, one of the dragon-jackets stepped forward as if to demonstrate, dropped a coin into the helmet, and pulled the sandbag down. Self-consciously but confident, the youth dropped back a step and, hurling his entire body forward as in a dance, walloped the sandbag. A heavy thud: the rattle of the chain as it crashed against the inside of the helmet. The needle leaped past the numbers on the gauge and quivered meaninglessly. The gang exploded in laughter. The punch had exceeded the capacity of the gauge: the paralyzed mechanism would not reset. The triumphant dragon-jacket aimed a light kick at the sandbag, this time from a karate crouch, and the indicator needle dropped to 500 while the sandbag crawled back into the helmet slowly like an exhausted hermit crab. Again the gang roared.
An unaccountable passion seized Bird. Careful not to wrinkle the maps, he took off his jacket and laid it on a bingo table. Then he dropped into the helmet one of the coins from a pocketful he was carrying for phone calls to the hospital. The boys were watching every move. Bird lowered the sandbag, took one step back, and put up his fists. After he had been expelled from high school, in the days when he was studying for the examination that had qualified him to go to college, Bird had brawled almost every week with other delinquents in his provincial city. He had been feared, and he had been surrounded always be younger admirers. Bird had faith in the power of his punch. And his form would be orthodox, he wouldn’t take that kind of ungainly leap. Bird shifted his weight to the balls of his feet, took one light step forward, and smashed the sandbag with a right jab. Had his punch surpassed the limit of 2500 and made a cripple of the gauge? Like hell it had–the needle stood at 300! Doubled over, with his punching fist against his chest, Bird stared for an instant at the gauge in stupefaction. Then hot blood climbed into his face. Behind him the boys in dragon jackets were silent and still. But certainly their attention was concentrated on Bird and on the gauge; the appearance of a man with a punch so numerically meager must have struck them dumb.
Bird, moving as though unaware the gang existed, returned to the helmet, inserted another coin, and pulled the sandbag down. This was no time to worry about correct form: he threw the weight of his entire body behind the punch. His right arm went numb from the elbow to the wrist and the needle stood at a mere 500.
Stooping quickly, Bird picked up his jacket and put it on, facing the bingo table. Then he turned back to the teen-agers, who were observing him in silence. Bird tried for an experienced smile, full of understanding and surprise, for the young champ from the former champion long retired. But the boys merely stared at him with blank, hardened faces, as though they were watching a dog. Bird turned crimson all the way behind his ears, hung his head, and hurried out of the gallery. A great guffawing erupted behind him, full of obviously affected glee.
Dizzy with childish shame, Bird cut across the square and plunged down a dark side street: he had lost the courage to drift with a crowd full of strangers. Whores were positioned along the street, but the rage in Bird’s face discouraged them from calling out. Bird turned into an alley where not even whores were lurking, and suddenly he was stopped by a high embankment. He knew by the smell of green leaves in the darkness that summer grass was thick on the slope. On top of the embankment was a train track. Bird peered up and down the track to see whether a train was coming and discovered nothing in the dark. He looked up at the black ink of the sky. The reddish mist hovering above the ground was a reflection of the neon lights in the square. A sudden drop of rain wet Bird’s upturned cheek–the grass had been so fragrant because it had been about to rain. Bird lowered his head and, as though for lack of anything else to do, furtively urinated. Before he had finished, he heard chaotic footsteps approaching from behind. By the time he turned around, he was surrounded by the boys in dragon jackets.
With the faint light at their backs, the boys were in heavy shadow, and Bird couldn’t make out their expressions. But he remembered their denial of him, thoroughly brutal, that had lurked in their blankness at the Gun Corner. The gang had sighted an existence too feeble, and savage instincts had been roused. Trembling with the need of a violent child to torment a weak playmate, they had raced in pursuit of the pitiful lamb with a punch of 500. Bird was afraid: frantically he searched for a way out. To reach the bright square he would have to rush directly into the gang and break their circle at its strongest point. But with Bird’s strength–the grip and pull of a forty-year-old!–that was out of the question: they would easily force him back. To his right was a short alley that dead-ended at a board fence. The narrow alley to his left, between the embankment and a high, wire fence around a factory yard, emerged far on the other side at a busy street. Bird had a chance if he could cover that hundred or so yards without being caught. Resolved, Bird made as if to race for the dead end on his right, wheeled and then charged to the left. But the enemy was expert at this kind of ruse, just as Bird at twenty had been an expert in his own night city. Unfooled, the gang had shifted to the left and regrouped even while Bird was feinting to the right. Bird straightened, and as he hurled himself toward the alley on the left he collided with the black silhouette of a body bent backward like a bow, the same attack the youth had used on the sandbag. No time or room to dodge, Bird took the full force of the worst knock-out punch of his life and fell back onto the embankment. Groaning, he spat saliva and blood. The teen-agers laughed shrilly, as they had laughed when they had paralyzed the punching machine. Then they peered down at Bird silently, enclosing him in an even tighter semicircle. The gang was waiting.
It occurred to Bird that the maps must be getting creased between his body and the ground. And his own child was being born: the thought danced with new poignancy to the frontlines of consciousness. A sudden rage took him, and rough despair. Until now, out of terror and bewilderment, Bird had been contriving only to escape. But he had no intention of running now. If I don’t fight now, I’ll not only lose the chance to go to Africa forever, my baby will be born into the world solely to lead the worst possible life–it was like the voice of inspiration, and Bird believed.
Raindrops pelted his torn lips. He shook his head, groaned, and slowly rose. The half-circle of teen-agers dropped back invitingly. Then the burliest of the bunch took one confident step forward. Bird let his arms dangle and thrust out his chin, affecting the limp befuddlement of a carnival doll. Taking careful aim, the boy in the jacket lifted one leg high and arched backward like a pitcher going into his windup, then cocked his right arm back as far as it would go and launched forward for the kill. Bird ducked, lowered his head, and drove like a ferocious bull into his attacker’s belly. The boy screamed, gagged on vomiting bile, and crumpled silently. Bird jerked his head up and confronted the others. The joy of battle had reawakened in him; it had been years since he had felt it. Bird and the dragon-jackets watched one another without moving, appraising the formidable enemy. Time passed.
Abruptly, one of the boys shouted to the others: “C’mon, let’s go! We don’t want to fight this guy. He’s too fucking old!”
The boys relaxed immediately. Leaving Bird on his guard, they lifted their unconscious comrade and moved away toward the square. Bird was left alone in the rain. A ticklish sense of comedy rose into his throat, and for a minute he laughed silently. There was blood on his jacket, but if he walked in the rain for a while, no one would be able to tell it from water. Bird felt a kind of preliminary peace. Naturally, his chin hurt where the punch had landed, and his arms and back ached; so did his eyes. But he was in high spirits for the first time since his wife’s labor had begun. Bird limped down the alley between the embankment and the factory lot. Soon an old-fashioned steam engine spewing fiery cinders came chugging down the track. Passing over Bird’s head, the train was a colossal black rhinoceros galloping across an inky sky.
Out on the avenue, as he waited for a cab, Bird probed for a broken tooth with his tongue and spat it into the street.