Half of me
It was a brisk winter morning by the lake the last time I met the demon.
He appeared as he always did: unexpected but with the subtle, foreboding twinge of cold twisting my stomach. Shivering, I pulled the heavy uwagi coat tighter over my kimono--the demon offered his Montbell down jacket. I declined.
Following the creaking bamboo grove on my left and keeping the demon between myself and the reflections of the orange sunrise over the lake to my right, we shuffled along the marked trail, our breath misting the air and mingling between us. With falling snow coating our tracks behind us, we walked a good hour in silence before his graveled voice carved through it.
"Do you still hate Japan, Naomi?"
Fear didn't grip me. Instead, my chest tightened with nervousness, my throat with shyness. I kept moving forward, one foot in this world and the other in the next. Snow danced in a breeze, powdering the slumbering pines, barren cherry and plum trees, and my wrinkled face, which began to match the paleness of the demon's own.
Folding his arms, he again broke our silence. "Japan has insulated coats, you know." He frowned. "You'll freeze out here in a kimono."
"I'm fine." I rubbed my hands together. Paper-thin and dappled with dark liver spots contrasting with my slightly lighter brown skin, they were numb to the cold. "I brought something to warm me up."
The demon sniffed; a sly smile parted his lips just enough to see one scraggly fang. "That's why I came."
"That's why you always come."
"Tell me again why you let me."
"You help me understand things."
"Is something troubling you?"
In a sense. But I wasn't ready to let him know that. Instead, I unwrapped a red furoshiki cloth and handed him something I had kept out of my world for so long: a piece of cornbread.
He snatched it and scarfed it down. "I haven't had this in years."
"Brings back memories, doesn't it?"
"I wish they sold these here."
"I'm baking it again because I finally understand what I am."
"Took you long enough."
"Do you remember how many times you tried to tell me?"
"I can't quite recall." His quiet smile said differently.
I bowed my head, clutching the furoshiki to my chest like armor. "Three times."
As snow gathered upon his hair of matted snakes, he listened to my memories float in the breath connecting us, the lake's rolling waves lapping away my words.
In the schoolyard
"Hey, Naomi. Hey! Wait up," the demon said, his high-pitched nasally voice needling into my ears. He sidled up to me, sniffing the hardened leather randoseru on my back like a stray dog.
"Got any left? Gimme some."
The demon liked cornbread. Throwing him a piece usually got rid of him. Rummaging through the cloth pouch hanging off my side to pick through the lunch I wasn't planning on eating anyway, I averted my eyes so I wouldn't have to look at the wriggling mass of worms piled atop his head and his inward-turning fangs. But mostly, to avoid looking into his fiery eyes or seeing his dark skin.
"Give it over, Naomi."
I fumbled out the entire cut of bread and handed it to him. Our hands brushed as he took it; the two tones of our skin briefly matched shades: chocolate-brown against a light bronze. The sun had shaded his, unlike mine, which had been dark since I was born. He could be as pale as a lily if he wanted to, but spending so much time out of the world he should have stayed in had tanned it.
My teeth ground together at the thought.
"Where do you get this bread anyway?"
"My mom makes it." I bowed my head and swiftly jogged toward the iron gate of the school.
Catching my sleeve, he forced me to face him. Crumbs dappled his shirt as he gobbled down the last of the bread. "Why're you leaving?"
Frustration pierced my throat hard enough to shove an answer through my clenched jaw: "Because I hate Japan."
"But you've never lived anywhere else."
"That's exactly it!" I bolted.
Reaching the front gate, I jerked it open just enough to slip through. Now I was free of stares, sniggers, classmates' nagging to stroke my curly hair, their giggles when I struggled with words and insistence that I wasn't one of them. Even though I was--sort of. My father is Japanese.
Well, they wouldn't "other" me anymore. Especially not Yui and her horrible group. For the rest of today at least.
Though the demon shouldn't have been able to leave the school grounds, he wiggled his way through the gate, grinning. Cornbread mash filled the gaps in his teeth. "Yui again?"
"Leave me alone."
Skipping ahead of me, he delighted in getting in my way and making my steps falter. "They get to you 'cause you let 'em, you know."
"I don't let them. They attack me."
"You're putting a target on yourself." He pointed to the woven Shinto omamori--talisman--hanging off my randoseru and then to the golden cross around my neck. "Two targets, really."
"Three if you count my skin." I buttoned up my top button to hide my mother's birthday gift.
"If you hide that you'll get teased more."
"It doesn't matter. I can't hide my skin."
The demon snort-laughed. "You could, you know, like a mummy."
"How do you ignore them? The stares and the name-calling, I mean."
The demon shrugged, his pointed shoulders bending skyward like two orange traffic cones. "I guess they don't bother me as much as they do you. The others don't see me as I am because I don't let them. That's all."
"Maybe they're blind," I said. "Or you are."
"I am, now!" He shut his eyes tight and stuck his arms straight out, shifting from foot to foot as he shuffled around me. Pointed nails on the end of his fingers swiped playfully at the air.
I turned and ran. He gave chase. Then I chased him. Then we chased dragonflies until we both collapsed from exhaustion beneath a huge stone torii gate leading to a shrine to Omi Hachiman--whoever that was.
Sweating, he sucked on my thermos while I caught my breath. Above me, a thick twisting rope--shimenawa--dangled between the gate's stone columns, and hanging off it, four strings of zig-zagging folded paper--shide--swayed in a breeze. Made of a strip of paper folded into several uniform rectangles that looked stuck together at the corners, the shide had a curious quadruple Z-shape. The rectangles seemed to fight against each other as the wind lifted the paper at the angles, but they didn't tear away.
"Praise and lies may be snakes and spies so find the clear path between them."
I cocked my head at the demon. "What?"
"You asked how I ignore bullies. That's what my Dad tells me to do."
Advice from Enma, the King of Hell, himself. "Does it help?"
"Sometimes." He handed my thermos back. "But it's easier if I just focus on me, you know?"
I didn't know, and his smirk told me he knew I didn't.
"Nao, you're so hung up on what you are, you can't see who you are. But we're sixth-graders now. Almost adults. We can't hide what we are, not to ourselves or others, so just be what you are and find who you are."
"I know what I am!"
"I dunno. I like butterflies and the color orange."
The demon laughed. "You're not saying it. It was hard for me to say 'it,' too. We're different, you and me. You gotta see that. My Dad told me I had a truth I couldn't embrace, and everything got better when I could. I mean, when I could embrace my truth, the difference between me and them, then people saw me for me."
"What does that mean?"
"Embrace? It's like a hug. You gotta give the thing you hate the most a big ol' hug. Or you know, you'll always be sad or angry or something."
What kind of demon was he, anyway? Hug the things you hate?
"Who do you hate right now," he asked.
"Yui." And there was no way I was going to give her a hug.
"She makes fun of me. Calls me 'burnt girl' and 'dirty.'"
"Because of your skin."
"Do you hate your skin?"
I nodded harder. "If I had skin color like everyone else--"
"You don't. And who gave you your skin?"
"My mother. She's not Japanese."
"Do you hate her?"
I folded my arms. It was her fault I was who I was.
But hate? Hate? Bunching the fabric of my collar, I clutched the golden cross I had hidden.
Mother knew me as well as she knew the color of her own skin--black, and two shades darker than mine. Her skin drew her away from America. She wanted to live in a world where she would have a clearly defined reason to be an outsider, not just because of her skin. She chose Japan and struggled with its language, culture, and ideals. But her struggles made her stronger. She said it would make me stronger, too.
I doubted that.
The demon frowned. "Do you, Nao? Do you hate her? You gotta say it if you do."
I toed the gravel underneath my feet. Whenever I had a problem, her smile was a warm tea on a cold morning, and her hugs tight. "I can't hate my mother." She gave three gifts to me, after all. Life. A cross, though Father didn't believe. And her skin. "I don't."
"Then you can't hate yourself. Because that would be like hating your mom."
"Did your father say that, too?"
The demon's grin became fire. "Yup. If you can't hug your skin, go hug your mother. I do. I give my dad loads of hugs."
I smirked at his casual admission of affection, but he just grinned harder.
"Embrace your truth, Nao."
"They'll still make fun of me."
"They still make fun of me. Because being different in Japan is like being a wolf in a flock of sheep. Except the sheep eat you." He gnashed his teeth and growled. Cornbread bits spotted the torii gate. "We are strong wolves, though, right? We can't let the sheep see that, or they'll get scared off. I don't want to be scary. There's nothing wrong with wolves living with sheep, you know."
"What if I want to be a sheep?"
"You can wear their wool if you want, but you'll look silly."
"Are you saying, 'just be myself?'" I wrinkled my nose at him. "Being yourself" didn't work here. Japan wasn't an American after-school special.
His eyes darkened as though insulted, but he just laughed. "No. That's stupid." He squinted his eyes up at the crooked paper shide above us. "If those paper things there were straight, they'd be boring, huh? But they're not. They're cool. They know they have to zig and zag, or people wouldn't think they're cool. And what if they were straight?"
"But they can't be straight. Shide aren't made that way."
"Right. And if they were, people would yell and scream to change them back. So why try changing what they are?" He stood and stretched. "Being crooked is cool. And if you try to fix yourself, people will see right through it. Got it? My dad says, 'Don't worry about being yourself.' You will be, even if you try not to be. People make fun of you if you try not to be you, right? But if you be what you are, that won't matter. First, you gotta know what you are."
"Your dad is pretty smart."
"He sure is. So you gotta know who you are. So who are you?"
"And what are you?"
I wrung my hands. "Half. Half-Japanese. Hāfu." I slurred out the English loanword with the thickest accent I could muster.
The demon's brows furrowed. "No, you're not. You're not half of anything because your mother wasn't born here. You are Japanese. Like me."
"The shide is Japanese because of the way it's folded. But it's still just paper." He shoved a pointed finger into my chest, striking my cross and making it dig into my skin. "You. Are. Japanese. A bit crooked, but that makes you cool, Nao."
He ran off, leaving me under the torii, embarrassment prickling my cheeks.
My wedding day
Cheeks stained black with running mascara, I stood in my street clothes between two chairs, glaring at the cursed garments I had to wear: an ivory white wedding dress with satin fixings and lace and an equally white kimono embroidered with nigh-invisible bleached cranes. They draped over the backs of each chair like the dead and gutted hides of a pure animal.
A heavy hand settled on my shoulder, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Furiously sniffling and rubbing my eyes, I turned, expecting my husband--only to be confronted by the demon, his lizardlike hands cradling a half-eaten cut of cornbread.
"You're not supposed to be here," I said.
"Relax." Then, as though sensing my disdain at his crime, he crammed another mouthful of bread into his gob. "Stole it off the catering cart. Want some?"
"No. Get out."
"I can't just leave a bride crying in her dressing room, Nao." He adjusted his bow-tie, adorning it with a smattering of crumbs. "Why aren't you dressed?"
Because seeing both dresses laid out before me reminded me of my split culture? Because I can't disappear into the white fabric of the dress nor wear the pasty white makeup the kimono requires without accenting my darker features? Because it feels like I have to choose one culture over the other? What would a demon know, anyway?
"I don't know." I sat on the floor, refusing to look at his pallid complexion and brows furrowing in infuriating confusion. "I guess it feels like I'm being forced to choose between two things that don't fully make sense and one thing I thought I was so sure of."
"It's tradition to wear multiple dresses."
"But why this dress?" An accusing finger directed at the western-style wedding dress pointed my ire.
"It's still a tradition, even between Japanese people who don't have the culture behind it. Didn't you pick it out yourself? Your husband is excited to see you in it, too, you know."
My eyes dropped to the floor where a twisting pattern of grey and red in the carpet seemed to suck my soul right into them. I could be there, between the patterns, pounding at teardrop bars, screaming, and nobody would hear me. Maybe it would be safer to lock myself away.
"Do you just want to wear the kimono?"
I shook my head. "It's not about the dresses. Am I doing right by myself, marrying a..." My eyes began to wet again. "A..."
The demon smiled. His teeth glistened as though drinking in my misery. "Another hāfu?" He laughed. "Uma wa umadzure--horses prefer the company of horses, Nao."
"Birds of a feather flock together," I translated into English, heat tipping my tongue. "That doesn't mean I can't think about everyone who would expect something like that from... someone like me. And be ashamed by it. Does that make me a horrible person?"
"No. Those thoughts really define you. A zigzagging paper shide, Japanese, in all respects."
I glanced at both dresses again; the demon cradled his head in one hand, sucking in a slow breath between the gap in his fangs.
"You're torn between two things," he said, "but not entirely. You speak your mother's language, but you know less of her country than your own. That makes you Japanese with a few perks."
"Does it?" I narrowed my eyes.
"Teenage mutant ninja what?"
I shrugged. "Kōga?"
"Turtles, Nao. Your mother would say that without a beat. But could she name all the ninja clans of Japan?"
"Japanese with a few perks." The demon winked at me then indicated the dresses. "Your husband wouldn't appreciate you doubting your marriage, you know."
"I wish I could walk confidently between two cultures as he does."
"So do it. You eat curry and rice, but you aren't Indian. You drive a Mercedes, but you aren't German. Cultures merge and cultures change. There's no shame in being a part of two different cultures. Nor choosing the best parts of several others to make them your own."
"Because struggling with the choice is what makes you, you, isn't it?"
"It gives me the chance to still be unsure. To still choose the path that's right for me."
"Nao, you don't have to choose anything. Just be you."
"What about your choice to live in your world or ours?"
"To hell with choosing in which world. I chose to live. You did, too, Nao."
I hugged myself, pulling on my sleeve to hide a ragged scar on one wrist.
The demon knelt by me and placed a soft hand over mine. "By forgiving our wrong choices and extending love to all will rid our mind of evil and thoughts of separation. It's not you against yourself, Nao. Or us against them."
"It feels like it is."
"It does, sometimes. Let them think their thoughts and live in their world. But shine your love upon them, anyway. Isn't that what your little man on the cross tells you to do? Shine into the darkness so that you may wake from dreaming a nightmare of life."
My cheeks again prickled with tears.
"I can stop this marriage if you desire. Right now, with a snap of my fingers." He held up his saw-toothed index finger. "If you need more time--"
"No," I shook my head, then stood and snatched up the wedding dress. "Getting married is the only thing I truly feel sure about. This one?"
The demon laughed, then picked up the kimono and draped it over my empty forearm. "The duality of life is in your arms, Nao. If you focus too hard, you will only see a single point."
The demon cleared his throat, his muffled footsteps in the snow slowing. "And the third meeting?"
"Right here. Right now. You, the cold, and the lake."
He glanced out toward the island in the center of the lake, where a spindly cherry tree craned upward, stretching its crooked trunk toward the sky, catching snowflakes. "So, you need me to help you understand one more thing."
"No. I need you to understand."
The demon cocked his head; snow crystals fluttered to his shoulder.
"I've had a hard time understanding what I am. It's given me great pain."
"A pain we both share, as you know."
I nodded. "Pain is like kintsugi, filling in the cracks of a broken bowl with gold, creating something altogether whole, but shattered on the inside."
"But more beautiful than before the bowl was broken in the first place. And stronger, too, Nao."
I smiled. "I guess you already understand."
"I might, but I'm not in your head, you know. All I know is that pain hurts, but how we deal with it becomes our inner strength. And we all deal with it differently. Because we're all different, no matter the color of our skin or where we were born and raised."
"We are against a world that holds hopelessness and hope, ignorance and knowledge, happiness and sorrow. Love and hate."
"Darkness and light." His gaze centered again on the cherry tree.
I stopped and tilted my head up, letting the falling snow melt on my face. "If I focus too much on one thing, like whether I am Japanese or American, or something else entirely, the pressure of all my other choices becomes too much to bear." I took the demon's hand in mine.
He squeezed tight. "Nao, you know I've always said--"
"Be both. But I can't. The choice of one or the other makes me, me. I understand, now. And I want you to as well. I don't have to be Japanese. I don't have to be American. Or both. Or neither. I can be Japanese. Or American. Or both. Or neither. I can always choose whenever I want, anytime I want. I don't have to be defined by what I am, because I can always change what that is."
"Are you avoiding choosing?"
"No. My choice is that I don't have one, and that makes me strong."
A grin gnarled up the demon's face.
"I hated Japan for so many years. Until I saw it as part of me, not as something to strive for. Or an adversary. That's why you and I are different. I am not bound by trying to live in two cultures or worlds at the same time. If I want fish for breakfast, I'm having fish. If someone chides me in English, I'll give them snark right back. If someone calls me foreign in my own land, I can just smile. Because I know what I can be. And that's ever-changing."
The demon's hand slipped out of mine, and his features melted from sharp and ragged, returning to the soft, confident tones of my husband. "Figuring this thing out they call hāfu is so difficult. I'm glad I could spend so many years with you working through what it means. But I must ask, what spurred your sudden answer, Nao?"
"Cornbread. For our grandchildren. I want them to know what they are before they start to question who they are. Because, ultimately, knowing who they are takes a lifetime. Knowing what they are shouldn't."
"And what will you tell them?"
"That they're beautiful. And that even if the blood flowing in them is different, they are Japanese." I winked at my husband. "With a few perks."
"I'll take those perks, too." He held out his hand for another piece of bread, which I gladly offered.
He paused, the cornbread halfway to his mouth, glancing at his white skin peeking out from underneath his down jacket sleeve. He pushed his sleeve back to reveal his skin and the faded, almost invisible scars crisscrossing his wrist, then scarfed down the bread.
"You'll catch a cold."
"Maybe. But I'm choosing not to hide anymore, either." He laughed. "It feels good to get rid of that demon, doesn't it?"
I laughed with him. "It'll be back when doubts creep up on me. Besides, everyone is married to their demons. Only ours can smile back."