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Through batchan's hands

Written by Giu Yukari Murakami

Edited by Lucas Ferraz

Translated by André Colabelli

Copyedited by Iana A.

On a cer­tain night, I no­ticed that the branches from a mango tree planted on my house’s front yard had star­ted to creep in­side my bed­room win­dow. At first, I didn’t mind it. The dis­tor­ted shad­ows un­der the street­lights didn’t frighten me, quite the op­pos­ite: it brought me res­pite to have such un­usual com­pany after so many months without even a single visit.

That all changed when the branches crept through the win­dow, grabbing at its edges and stretch­ing out to my bed. It was the dead hours of an Au­gust night. All I re­mem­ber was that I was so sleepy, my eye­lids too heavy and my body too tired to worry much about the shad­ows that seemed to seep into my room. It was but an­other dream! A dream filled with an un­usual scent of wood and the soft rust­ling of leaves, maybe too real… I couldn’t tell. When the sun rose, I was trapped.

The ac­tual fright came to me even be­fore I opened my eyes after wak­ing up: I felt the sug­ary smell of man­goes and the rough­ness of the branches. When I woke up com­pletely, I stifled a scream. The gnarled arms snaked around me like veins.

At first I fo­cused on breath­ing, fear­ful that at any mo­ment I might be crushed by the wood. After feel­ing my heart­beat slow, I pushed branches and leaves aside, try­ing to open a pas­sage so I could leave my bed. I was able to stand up, but as I star­ted to push my­self to es­cape, the boughs stretched up and held on to me. I let out a pain­ful cry as the branches spiraled around my arms in a slow pro­cess that left me para­lyzed in fear. Fi­nally, the rough­ness of the wood found its fi­nal des­tin­a­tion on my wrists, where leafy twigs stretched amongst my fin­gers like a cape that ex­ten­ded from my back to my hands.

I took a deep breath, try­ing to com­pre­hend the situ­ation. It couldn’t be a dream, not with such a heavy weight on my back, with such a vivid feel­ing of pain. End­less ques­tions ran through my mind as I thought of ask­ing for help, but who could help me? Should I call the cops or the fire de­part­ment? Maybe even a bot­an­ist?

I tried to walk to the bath­room, but the tree branches held me still. I felt my shoulders be­ing pushed, straight­en­ing my back. Then, with a sud­den move­ment, I was turned to­wards the door and out of the bed­room. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see the mango tree re­mained mo­tion­less out­side, as if only its branches were aware of the power they had over me. Such power was re­in­forced through shov­ing and a grow­ing sen­sa­tion of crush­ing weight. The more I tried to stop walk­ing, the harder the branches pro­pelled me for­ward, and after I felt my skin burn in pain from the point­less struggle, I let my­self be led to wherever the tree wished to take me.

It took me down­stairs, to the kit­chen. Dirty dishes and glasses from the pre­vi­ous night made the sink look like a war­zone. I thought about the house chores I’d have to do once I got rid of the tree. I al­ways came home late, after a full day of work and col­lege classes, and I barely had time to eat whatever I could find in the fridge be­fore I went up and slept like a log. Some­times I’d just sleep on the couch in the liv­ing room, lack­ing the will­power to go up to the bed­room.

As my thoughts di­gressed, the leaves stretched as if startled by the sight. Next, the twigs on my left arm pulled it back, mak­ing me raise my hand in front of my eyes. My own hand, gloved in sap­ling, made an in­vol­un­tary mo­tion, bring­ing to­gether my middle fin­ger to the tip of my thumb. I had no time to un­der­stand how it was mov­ing on its own be­fore I flicked my own nose.

Feel­ing that fa­mil­iar sting brought up a memory that made my heart jump.

“Batchan?” My arms, again on their own, drew an arch around my waist in a ges­ture of cen­sor­ship. I blushed. That was im­possible. “Batchan, what are you… What’s go­ing on? Am I dead?”

My right hand moved its in­dex fin­ger from side to side in a re­proach­ful re­sponse, then poin­ted to the cal­en­dar il­lus­trated with cherry blos­soms that was on the kit­chen counter, next to the season­ings.

“Au­gust 13th”, I read it out loud and shrugged. “What about it?”

Even though it wasn’t very hard to ig­nore my tech­nical know-how when it came to my fam­ily, talk­ing to tree branches that made my hands and arms move against my will, as if they were my batchan, made for such an em­bar­rass­ing situ­ation that I de­cided to pre­tend I wasn’t a senior in a Phys­ics un­der­gradu­ate course at Uni­ver­sid­ade Fed­eral do Pará.

Batchan seemed mad with me. She flicked my nose again.

“Égua, that hurts. Will you stop this, batchan? Why did you bring me here?”

She moved the branches in my back, mak­ing me walk to the fridge. It took me a few seconds to un­der­stand that she wanted me to open it. When I did so, she stretched my arms, search­ing around to take sev­eral in­gredi­ents: eggs, nori sea­weed, the plastic bottle with tucupi[1] I’d bought at the Ver-o-Peso street fair, and ginger shav­ings I used to put on pine­apple juice. She closed the fridge and spread the in­gredi­ents on the kit­chen counter, next to the sink.

Batchan used my hands to turn on the stove, put a fry­ing pan over the heat and start pre­par­ing the go­han on the rice cooker, while I tried to un­der­stand why that was hap­pen­ing to me. It’s not that I didn’t miss batchan, but she’d been dead for some seven years and one couldn’t be ex­pec­ted to deal very well when be­ing vis­ited by a dead re­l­at­ive in the shape of branches from a mango tree.

Then I gasped.

“Good­ness, batchan”, I said as her skill­ful hands, or rather, my hands, skill­ful thanks to her, moved quickly between break­ing the egg and stir­ring it on a bowl us­ing chop­sticks, so it could then be placed on the fry­ing pan. “That mango tree was fer­til­ized with your ashes. Does that mean that if I die I could be cremated and have my ashes scattered on an ipê tree, and could come back and fly around as petals? And on that note, why did you only come no--”

My left hand moved to hold my mouth shut. This time I had to stifle a laugh. That was such a batchan move it made me feel happy and nos­tal­gic.

She kept us­ing my hands to cook the meal. After the rice was done, she let it cool in front of a fan while she boiled the tucupi and threw some fresh shrimps on the yel­lowed broth. The acid smell in­vaded my nos­trils, con­trast­ing with the mildly salty scent com­ing from the nori sea­weed stripes spread on a large plate.

Col­ors and smells from my child­hood. That was when I un­der­stood why batchan had poin­ted out the cal­en­dar.

Au­gust was an im­port­ant month. That was when our old home in Tomé-Açu was filled to the brim with re­l­at­ives, and a pro­fu­sion of con­ver­sa­tions in both Ja­pan­ese and Por­tuguese mixed with the noise of the knives batchan and the aunties used to cut ve­get­ables. The air was heavy with fra­grances: the pitiú[2] of whatever kind of fresh fish we could af­ford, spicy carê[3], the leaves-and-pork smell of the man­içoba[4], the earthy açaí. That was the res­ult of many stor­ies that had come to­gether over the years.

I would run along with my cous­ins around the house, play­ing tag, and some­times I’d be the brave soul to sneak into the kit­chen and filch a mak­izushi, well stuffed with ginger, cu­cum­ber, eggs, and chicken. When I man­aged to get past batchan, I’d take an en­tire roll to my cous­ins. When I got caught, in­stead I got end­less flicks to my nose. By the end of the day, with a belly­ful of açaí, all the scold­ings would have been for­got­ten.

Over time, some of my great-uncles passed away. Sev­eral ill­nesses, they said: over­work in Ja­pan, the hot sun while farm­ing, crooked-spine dis­ease, stung by a Uwabami, one of them had his soul taken away by the Moon Prin­cess… As a child, I sus­pect about half those stor­ies were lies, but the cir­cum­stances didn’t mat­ter: I knew all of them would be cremated, burned to ashes. The first time I saw an uncle turn to dust I was ten years old, and I could swear it was ma­gic.

When it was my batchan's turn, I was already in col­lege. My dekasegi[5] par­ents weren’t in Brazil dur­ing her last days. They gave me their sup­port through phone calls, giv­ing in­struc­tions and money from Ja­pan. I re­mem­ber I was with her every day and night at the hos­pital. I tried to do all she asked through her si­lent eyes. We didn’t talk much be­cause I, like an in­no­cent child, al­ways thought I’d have time to learn Ja­pan­ese the proper way, so I never made an ef­fort to un­der­stand much of the lan­guage bey­ond ba­sic every­day sen­tences. And as batchan had grown up us­ing her mother tongue, she couldn’t ad­apt to Por­tuguese to over­come my own lim­it­a­tions.

It happened in Decem­ber. We’d ar­rived from a routine visit at the hos­pital when the doc­tor had already warned me that there was noth­ing to be done. I made her some miso soup just the way she liked it, with plenty of soy. She drank all of it and we stared at each other through­out the night. I told her about col­lege, ex­plain­ing to her sci­entific ter­min­o­logy she would never com­pre­hend. Batchan listened in si­lence un­til she star­ted talk­ing about her own life, or, at least, so I sup­posed. We both pre­ten­ded to un­der­stand each other so we could etern­ize a mo­ment that my memory could reach whenever I felt alone.

That night, she gave me a kiss on the cheek. It was the first kiss I’d got­ten from her in all my twenty years. The first and the last.

That memory choked me, and the breath I’d been hold­ing ex­pan­ded faster than I could be ready. I shook my body in a vain at­tempt to keep my tears from fall­ing on the rice balls my batchan rolled so care­fully in nori sea­weed.

“Go­men[6], batchan!”

She used my left hand to dry my cheeks. I felt the coarse wood be­fore batchan moved my thumb along my cheekbones in an af­fec­tion­ate ges­ture. I half-smiled as I lay my head on my—her hand.


We con­tin­ued to spread rice on the nori sea­weed, tak­ing some shrimp from the tucupi to stuff the onigiris. I paid close at­ten­tion to how she closed the edges of the nori sea­weed in a pyr­amid shape as she squeezed the go­han. I missed her food as much as I missed the time we’d spent to­gether in Tomé-Açu. As much as it was a fright­en­ingly ab­nor­mal pos­ses­sion, I needed to take ad­vant­age of the fact that she con­trolled my body so well in her tree form.

Batchan used me to as­semble a small feast on a wooden tray: onigiris stuffed with shrimp and tucupi, stripes of sweetened om­elette ac­com­pan­ied by ginger and car­rot shav­ings. She care­fully moved the branches on my arms to sup­port the tray and led me to the front door. I tried to protest as I walked, get­ting in my own way as I opened the door. I felt the boughs un­tangle from me, and batchan re­treated into the house, dis­ap­pear­ing from my sight while she back­tracked through the stair­way to my room, un­do­ing the path her branches had taken.

From the second floor, batchan re­turned through the win­dow un­til her branches were on the right side of the mango tree. An­other set of branches star­ted mov­ing on its left side, con­tort­ing them­selves into a pair of hands with thin, leafy fin­gers. The noodly hands showed what would be their palms, as if they were of­fer­ing some­thing, but its fin­gers star­ted open­ing and clos­ing to­wards the palm; they were in­vit­ing me to ap­proach.

When I took my first step out of the house I found it strange how empty the street was. The heat from my stuffy kit­chen was be­ing softened by the morn­ing wind, a rare cool tem­per­at­ure in Belém. I breathed deeply from the scent of tall grass and stopped in front of the mango tree. It looked big­ger than what I re­membered, im­pos­ing in all its nat­ural majesty amongst the con­crete jungle.

I fixed my gaze in the wide leaves dan­cing against the wind, the man­goes still green, mov­ing dis­creetly. The hand-shaped boughs poin­ted down­wards. It took me some time to un­der­stand what they were point­ing out, so tall the grass had grown, un­til a sparkle drew my at­ten­tion. I opened part of the lawn aside and nearly stepped on a pic­ture in a gold-foiled frame. I stood still be­fore batchan’s photo and felt my knees go weak. The branch-hands held my weight and helped me kneel be­fore my grand­mother’s pic­ture.

“Batchan, I am so sorry.”

Trem­bling, I star­ted to take the bowls from the tray and spread the food around the pic­ture. I let my tears flow free as I whispered apo­lo­gies. How long had it been since I’d last paid my re­spects if I even for­got the spe­cial al­tar I had made for her?

I touched her pic­ture; she was dressed in her party ki­mono, a black one with golden flowers, their petals stretch­ing along the dark back­ground. She smiled in her usual way; a si­lent non-smile, a straight line that some­times frightened and charmed me in equal meas­ures.

Au­gust was the month of the Obon Mat­suri, the Fest­ival of the Dead. It had been seven years or more since I’d last paid my re­spects to any of my re­l­at­ives. It’d been too long, even for Batchan, for­got­ten amongst the tall grass in my yard.

The boughs of the mango tree ap­proached me again. Some leaves rubbed against my face, wip­ing off my tears. I laughed as I clum­sily touched the branches, fear­ful I’d break them, but try­ing to con­vey all the feel­ings that flooded me, between the memory of my care­less­ness and the love I felt. The branches grabbed me strongly, tangling into me like a ser­pent snak­ing up a tree, a crush­ing ten­der­ness we’d never ex­per­i­enced be­fore. I hugged them back as I stared at the onigiris. I would be the one to roll the rice balls next year. Her hands de­served to fi­nally rest.


[1] Tucupi is a yel­low juice ex­trac­ted from wild cas­sava when it is peeled, grated and squeezed.

[2] Slang from the state of Pará for the strong smell typ­ical of fish

[3] Brazilian spelling for Ja­pan­ese curry.

[4] Dish that uses as a base in­gredi­ent “maniva”, ground cas­sava leaves. It’s of­ten called “bean­less fei­joada”.

[5] Term used in Brazil to de­scribe Ja­pan­ese des­cend­ants Bra­sili­ans that went to Ja­pan to work tem­por­ar­ily.

[6] Ja­pan­ese for “sorry”.

Giu Yukari Murakami

Giu Yukari Murakami is a Ja­pan­ese Brazilian au­thor from the Amazo­nian re­gion. She writes fantasy and sci­ence fic­tion, bring­ing cul­tural ele­ments from her life in the North­ern re­gion of Brazil and yel­low people rep­res­ent­at­ive­ness in her stor­ies.


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