"Drat," Teruko whispered as she hit the wrong key, filling her ears with dissonant noise. Good children kept their lips closed when they played music and did everything they could to make their families smile. Teruko had to make do with scanning the parlor every so often to make sure Grandmother or Mama wouldn't catch her carelessness. They deserved better than her.Teruko had no place in the elegant parlor. Papa said the piano and Art Deco wallpaper stood for modernity while the tatami mats and floor cushions were reminders of tradition. Grandmother kept the black and gold family altar immaculate, giving special care to the funeral tablets. Eight notes later, Teruko stopped to wiggle her birth arms, which never formed elbows or fingers. Her steel arms were strong enough to endure earthquakes and chafe her nubs through three layers of arm socks. If Papa wanted her to wear his creations more often, he should have made them fit her now, not for growing into. A few days after the first fitting, Papa had replaced the casing and elbow joints with lighter material, and Mama refashioned some of Teruko's outgrown socks into nub covers. The arms felt better, though she lost count of how many tries it took to pick up a glass without knocking it over. The bright eyes of her parents kept her from complaining about having the grace of a baby. After Papa brought home the piano, Grandmother didn't speak to her son or daughter-in-law for a week. Whenever he found Grandmother and Teruko in the same room, he'd explain to Teruko how playing music was the best way to learn to use her new hands. Performing a song beautifully in front of the right people would mean that Papa's company would get more money. The extra resources would lead to countless arms and legs for people who couldn't go to the New Dawn school. "Teruko-chan!" The voice shot though the doorway, ripping the girl from her thoughts and stopping her heart. If she had time enough to dawdle, she had more than enough to devote to her duties. She ground her stocking feet into the floor, waiting for tremors. Holding her hands above the keys, fighting to keep from shaking, Teruko called out "What is it Grandmother?" The floor creaked behind her, each sound growing in volume until Grandmother, a stooped woman in a striped kimono and wooden prayer beads in her hands, stepped into view. "Enough of that nonsense for today. I'd like your company this afternoon." The girl's eyes darted between the piano and beads. Willing moisture to return to her mouth, she said, "Papa will be cross if I don't master 'The Flea Waltz' by Sunday. Besides, Mama needs my help making dinner." "Your mother isn't helpless, she knows enough to cook rice and fish alone." Ice crept into Grandmother's voice. "As for my son, I'll speak with him later." Teruko held her nubs tight against her sides. Her ears still rang from Grandmother's last talk with Papa. It included words like "Why are you denying all your family has worked for?" and "What message will it give the school, that the headmistress" great-niece must resort to machines to reach greatness?" The house had shaken so hard, Teruko's prayers must have been the only thing keeping Tokyo standing. Rising on jittery legs, Teruko followed her elder into their shared bedroom. Here the walls were covered with family portraits, photos of Teruko's class and pictures of Grandmother's teaching days. On the space above Teruko's desk hung last summer's attempt at toe-calligraphy, the phrase "Good Wife, Wise Mother." Next to it was a magazine cover of an earthquake goblin attacking a woman in frivolous clothes. Teruko started to unbutton her middy, her metal fingers slipping off the celluloid buttons, when she felt Grandmother's stare burning against her back. Biting her lip, Teruko headed to a portion of wall sporting a knob and rubbed against the piece until she wriggled off her top. Grandmother hurried to undo the prosthetic straps that crisscrossed Teruko's chest, grumbling at how they were creasing the girl's undershirt. "Get dressed now," Grandmother said, "Make sure to put on a hat and sweater. We're going to the temple." It took Teruko a moment to remember to breathe. "Isn't it too cold to go out?" she asked, her voice barely audible. "I don't want you to get sick." Grandmother's mouth pressed into a thin line. "Tokyo's no longer burning, and?" Her face went slack. Clearing her throat, she added "And it's been months since New Dawn School reopened." The tatami protested as Teruko's feet fought to turn into roots, keeping her forever at home. She'd be unable to flee the next earthquake or fire, but no one could drag her out into danger. Grandmother's gaze turned to steel. "A future wife must do more than travel between school and home. If you're going to raise intelligent children, you need to follow me and learn." Teruko nodded, her shoulders sagging. "I'll do my best." She liked learning to be a good wife better when Grandmother tutored Teruko's class after the quake. "You did just fine at the one hundredth day and first year memorials. You will do well today." Grandmother's smile didn't spread past her mouth. "Get my dochuugi and shawl." Teruko hurried to do as she was told, memories warring for attention. That September and October, she heard little but funeral chants and voices on the radio. Priests, academics and philosophers argued with one another as to the cause of the disaster. Some insisted it was undesirables who started the fires that filled the air with the meaty stench of ashes. Others said the morally weak brought the earthquake into being. As she gathered Grandmother's things, she took a few moments to sit down and shake any wrinkles or mothball scents out of the wool. Surely giving extra care to Grandmother's outdoor clothes outweighed the damage of keeping her waiting.
"We're home!" Grandmother called out, removing her zouri sandals and lining them up in the entryway. Teruko too stepped out of her shoes but sank onto the step that marked the end of the entryway. As tempting as staying put was, keeping her head propped on a knee until memories of smoke and death faded, Teruko had lifesaving activities to do. Lurching to her feet, she hurried after Grandmother, saying "I'll take your things and put them away. Please concentrate on looking after Uncle Seisaburou and the others." Stopping for breath, she added "Shall I get some tea to warm you?" "Thank you child," Grandmother said, removing her wrappings, folding and draping them around Teruko's neck. "I'll wait to drink. The rest of the family comes first." Teruko stopped in the kitchen regardless, to ask Mama to heat water. The girl had to fight to keep down the acid tinged disgust of disobeying Grandmother and watching Mama, hands reddened, hurry to place a kettle on the stove. "I'll help you," the girl blurted. "As soon as I'm done delivering the tea, I'll cut vegetables for pickles and kinpira." Mama took a deep breath, tucking a stray piece of hair back into her bun. She stayed silent for a long moment, allowing Teruko to take in the stains and fish scales scattered on her smock. "Has your grandmother said she was done with your help?" No sooner did Teruko shake her head than she was banished from the kitchen. After taking care of Grandmother's clothes, she returned to the now dusky parlor. Teruko flicked on a lamp with her toes, the sudden brightness illuminating Grandmother's face as she stared at the altar. Crammed here and there among the memorial tablets were joss sticks, a singing bowl, and a golden Buddha statue. As much as Teruko would have liked to place offerings of candy or fruit, there wasn't enough space. Many of her relative's names were obscured, crowded behind other plaques. Uncle Seisaburou was in full view, reminding Teruko how he survived the earthquake and days of fire, but couldn't outrun those who heard his stammered speech. "Have a seat," Grandmother murmured, waving at the floor cushion beside her. Teruko quickly knelt, trying to look at the altar while not paying too much attention to who was on it. Good girls cleared their thoughts, refusing to give in to distraction from crucial tasks. She squeezed her eyes shut, concentrating on the low hum of the singing bowl as Grandmother tapped it. As the two recited their prayers, Teruko worked extra hard to say the words just right. No bystanders should mistake her for a fire starter, nor should her family on the altar hear her mumble. Sharp speech showed her family that she wanted them to get the utmost benefit from sacred words, that she cared enough to give them her full reverence. If her prayers were properly done, another earthquake would be kept at bay. Grandmother's voice softened into silence. Teruko's feet prickled, a sensation that intensified as she stood, and grew worse as she looked over her shoulder at the piano. Papa didn't say how much he paid for it. Playing well, showing off the quality of the steel arms he made, was one way to thank him. She curled her toes one at a time, pressing a familiar rhythm. "Teruko!" Grandmother said. "Stop looking at that nonsense and go see what your mother wants." The closer Teruko got to kitchen, the more complex the scents became. Wood smoke untainted by death competed with the saltwater scent of fish, layered with sweetened vinegar, deepened with sesame oil and buoyed by cooking rice. By the time she approached Mama, it was all she could do to keep from drooling. After several swallows she said "I'll help clean up, and be by your side when you make breakfast and dinner tomorrow." Mama's cleaver stopped, leaving a deep rift in the daikon. "You shouldn't make promises you can't keep," she said, monotone. "If your father and grandmother wish you for other activities, I"m not one to say otherwise." Teruko's feet tingled. "It'll be like studying for my cooking and home economics classes," Teruko said, trying to keep her voice even. "Won't that please them?" Mama stared at the mutilated vegetable for a long breath before gesturing towards a small cart against the wall. "The tea's still hot. I'll take the pot while you retrieve the cups." Teruko used her foot to open one of the lower cabinets, and her lips to pick up, one by one, the glazed pieces Grandmother preferred. Setting them on the cart next to Mama's contribution, she bent down, using her chest to guide the tea service into the parlor. "you're a wonderful help," Grandmother said, gathering the cups and moving the pot to the table. Teruko's face burned as pushed the cart to a blank spot of wall to the hum of pouring tea. As she moved to take a seat by Grandmother, the woman moved a cup towards her, beaming. "You learn quickly, do as you're told, and show proper devotion," she said. "No device should ever stand in for hard work." Bowing her head, she banished the piano from her sight. "There's so much to learn," Teruko murmured, "I don't think I can take it all in." Fidgeting, she added, "Papa says that his machines will help those who were hurt during . . . during that time, to feel useful again." Grandmother's spine turned steel beam straight, her body oozing cold. As she picked up her tea and drank, Teruko waited for frost to coat the rim. Finishing her beverage with a sigh, Grandmother said "My son does well in supporting his family, but has lost sight in what it means to be great. Everyone can achieve it, but the ability must come from within, aided by elders. His inventions will hinder, not guide." Teruko nodded, making low noises and trying to ignore the twisting in her stomach. Surely a man as well studied as Papa couldn't be foolish. Leaning over to take a sip from her tea, Teruko's eyes ran over the table's polished surface. While the school was being repaired, Grandmother held sessions for the youngest girls in the morning and for Teruko's class in the afternoons. At this time of day, the table should be covered in books, pencils and abacuses. Rather than two people in skin prickling silence, the air should be humming with busy minds, as girls who had rheumatism, twisted limbs or survived polio worked on fractions. If Papa was home in time to eat and wasn't too exhausted, he would take over after dinner. He'd spread out the blueprints he brought from work, weighing the curled ends with pebbles. Calling Teruko to his side, he'd show her drafts and schematics of a bright modern city, along with the numbers and notes he placed alongside the images. Papa would explain why measurements and advanced math were essential to constructing a new Tokyo, and how they would benefit individual lives. His favorite blueprints were the ones that weren't quite related to his job. On Sundays and most nights, when he could sit without nodding off, he'd go into his study. Whirring noises and strange smells would emanate from the door's cracks for hours. Teruko tried not to wiggle her nubs at the memories. Her steel arms didn't reek with sweat when Papa first gave them to her, and he was kind enough to remove all burrs and rough edges. Teruko should never have imagined kicking her prosthetics into a ditch, no matter how deeply the strap bit into her skin, or when the sockets grew cold enough to make her eyes water. Grandmother lifted the kettle, holding it out towards Teruko. The girl bowed, averting her eyes as her cup refilled to the brim. Papa worked hard for the people of Tokyo as well as the family. Mastering the song would show his efforts weren't in vain. Playing in front of Grandmother would invoke her wrath, start another fight, and destroy the city once more. Teruko twitched her feet, each toe hitting an imaginary piano key. Her mind swirled faster than the tea she gulped. There might be a way for her to fake being a dutiful child, hiding her worst behavior from the others. She'd have to be careful of course, to keep Tokyo safe. If she moved just right, everyone would be happy and no one would have to die. "Is the pot empty, Grandmother?" she said. "Let me get more water." Grasping the teapot between her nubs, Teruko placed it onto the cart and pushed everything out of the parlor, her heart roaring in her ears. With each step she studied the walls and ground her soles against the floor, checking for tremors. It would be all right for a wicked child like her to get crushed, but she hoped Mama and Grandmother would have enough time to flee to safety. As she approached the kitchen, Teruko's back curled, her shoulders rising past her ears. She could be good in a way no one could question, and help Mama straight away. If she insisted on poor judgement, there was no telling how many people she would anger. Taking as deep a breath as her lungs would allow, Teruko climbed the staircase by the kitchen. Her legs were a trembling mess by the time she entered her room, but she didn't dare stop to lean against a wall. Her steel arms were plopped on her bed right where Grandmother left them. Teruko turned away from the sight towards her dresser. She'd need all the nub socks she could carry. Only after stuffing them under her chin did she head for her bed. It took a few tries before she gathered the prosthetics in a way that didn't feel as though they were in danger of slipping from her nubs. Heading down the stairs while juggling her cargo was easy. Placing everything on the cart without making noise or attracting attention was not. Every time her prosthetics tapped against the cart's wooden surface, Teruko froze, bracing for the sounds of an angry Grandmother. After countless false starts, she put down the arms, shook out the stiffness in her neck, and entered the kitchen. "Mama?" Teruko called. Her mother was hovering over the fire, stirring soup as she peered at steam escaping from between the rice pot and its lid. "Grandmother doesn't need me at the moment." Her mother nodded, keeping her attention on the food. "You can start washing the cutting boards." "Actually, I--" Teruko's throat hitched. She gulped and tried again. "I brought my arms downstairs. I want to practice using them here before I play the piano. Could you help me put them on?" As she spoke, she dug her toes into the floor, pressing out a familiar rhythm as she waited for the earth to shake.
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It's enigmatic and complex, but I must admit I found this story fascinating. I'm not entirely sure where Emmalia Harrington was going with this first submission to anotherealm, but I'm glad she got here. Are you glad, too? Let me know on our BBS. - GM