July 14, 2024
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Story

Fiction: Beauty Contest By Yoko Ogawa

Reading Time: 16 minutes

My mother had two treasures. One was an opal ring, the only present she ever received from my late father. She kept it in a small box and took it out only once or twice a year, on special occasions, for a few short hours. The box, which was covered in deep-blue velvet, made a little sound, like a kitten yawning, when it was opened.

When I was alone in the house, I often opened the box to stare at the opal. This wasn’t expressly forbidden, but, child that I was, I somehow felt it was better done in secret.

The ring was old, a fact that was apparent from the state of the box. The cardboard had begun to show through in places where the velvet covering had been rubbed thin, and the address printed inside the lid mentioned a street whose name had changed when the town was rezoned.

The ring was embedded in a wad of cotton batting that was stiff and discolored, and I worried that the unpleasant wrapping might be bad for the gem. But it never occurred to my mother to change it.

When I looked at the opal, I was invariably reminded of ice cream—in particular, a flavor called Starry Night, which was sold at the candy store in front of the station. Vanilla ice cream flecked with orange, pink, yellow, and pale-blue chips of ice. The packaging, too, was quite attractive, an aluminum container as big around as a baby’s head, covered with silver paper stars. The containers were lined up in a freezer case near the store window, but, needless to say, I had never tasted Starry Night, or even seen the real thing. I had only glimpsed the plastic sample displayed on top of the freezer. In fact, I had never had so much as a cookie from that shop, which was far too expensive for us.

I would set the ring on my pencil case or hold it up to the fluorescent light or even try it on for just a moment. But it was too large for any of my fingers, and, as it dangled from my hand, I felt that it was much less appealing than a scoop of Starry Night.

I always returned the ring before my mother came home. I would replace the cotton and close the lid of the box, taking care not to leave any fingermarks on the velvet.

The other treasure was a newspaper clipping that she kept in a plastic sleeve. The paper was stained and curling at the edges, but you could still make out the date—November 30, 1962—as well as the photograph of me, as the winner of a baby beauty contest.

Unlike the ring, this treasure was often brought out to show to others. Whenever relatives or friends—or anyone at all—came to the house, if the topic of conversation turned to me, my mother would produce the clipping and talk about it in a tone that suggested she hadn’t thought of it in a long time. Most people were kind enough to respond by exclaiming—“How sweet!”—but they were clearly uncertain what to add to that. So they were forced to feign interest and pretend to read the article while my mother went on about the judges’ criteria, the number of contestants, the prizes (a set of wooden blocks from Europe and a carton of baby formula), the scene in the auditorium, the reporters’ questions.

Aged all of eight months, I appeared in the picture with a lace cape knotted under my chin. Since I was still in diapers, my frilly little skirt was all puffed out. Head tilted bashfully, I was eying a lollipop that someone had put in my hand.

As precious as the clipping was to her, my mother had apparently never bothered to read the article on the other side of it, though I knew it almost by heart:

. . . on the evening of the 28th, ________ (72yrs) made sukiyaki for her family from mushrooms she had gathered in the mountains near her home, and on the morning of the 29th, her husband, ________ (76yrs), her daughter-in-law, ________ (39yrs), and her granddaughter, ________ (6yrs), all presented symptoms of poisoning. They were transported to the local hospital by ambulance, and ________ and ________ are still listed as in critical condition. The police have sent the remaining mushrooms for identification.

The rest of the article was cut off, but, whenever my mother brought out the clipping, I remembered the little girl who had been given poisonous mushrooms, and I felt sick to my stomach.

Inever thought of my face as cute. My eyes were uneven, my chin pointy, and my hair frizzy and totally unmanageable. I liked the shape of my forehead, but that was because it looked like my dead father’s, not because it was beautiful.

But my mother was always intent on convincing the world of my beauty. She sewed all my clothes herself, copying designs she’d seen in the fanciest children’s stores, and, even for a trip to the dentist, she made sure that I had my hair tied up with ribbons and was wearing my shiniest shoes. We may have gone hungry from time to time, but she never skimped when buying material. Each year on my birthday, she had my portrait taken at a photography studio, agreeing to let the studio display the pictures in the window and use them in brochures in exchange for free prints.

When my father died in a traffic accident, soon after my first birthday, my mother went to work at a dry-cleaning factory, and we moved in with my grandmother. Whenever I felt sad that my father was gone, my mother figured out some way to cheer me up—turning on the sewing machine or redoing my braids or taking out the newspaper clipping.

In retrospect, my victory in the baby beauty contest was a ray of sunshine illuminating the last moments of my father’s life. The article included a quote from my mother: “She’s a wonderfully easy baby. My husband sings Irish tunes to her, and she always laughs and pretends to sing along. No, it doesn’t work with Japanese songs—they have to be Irish. She’s crazy about her papa and has even learned to recognize the sound of his footsteps. No matter what she’s doing, when she hears him coming home from work she crawls to the door as fast as she can. She drags around a stuffed animal shaped like a chicken all day long, and if she wakes up crying I just slip it into her crib and she’s fast asleep again in no time.”

When I was ten years old, my mother found an application for another beauty contest somewhere and asked me if I was interested in entering. I told her I wasn’t, but of course she didn’t listen.

“It’s sponsored by a magazine, so it’s nothing like the baby contest, which was just part of the local festival. Reiko, you must have seen the magazine School Girl? We’ve never bought it, but it’s there on the shelf in the bookstore. If you win, you’ll get your picture on the cover. Like a real model. That would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?”

“Wonderful” was her favorite word, and her greatest hope was that I would prove to be “wonderful” in some way.

“But I have no chance of winning,” I told her.

“How do you know if you don’t try? And it doesn’t matter if you win—think of all the fun you’ll have going someplace new, making new friends.”

“You know I get sick on the bus.”

“You can take something for that. I’ll go with you, and, if you do your best, I’ll buy you a present, anything at all. What would you like?”

“A scoop of Starry Night.”

She immediately set to work on a new dress for me. The fabric was a silk-wool blend in reddish brown, to which she added a white collar and cuffs and a strip of Tyrolian ribbon to emphasize the high waist. It was a design that had been in the window of the store whose dresses she often copied, and it would no doubt have cost a quarter of her monthly salary had she bought it there.

My grandmother ventured the opinion that the color of the material might be a bit drab, but that was dismissed out of hand. My mother felt that gaudy clothes only hid the inner beauty of the child, and that the charms of a clever girl like me were better served by subdued tones, which would underscore my refinement and intelligence.

To avoid catching a cold, I was made to wear woollen underwear to school every day. The slightest fever brought out cold sores on my lips, so illness was to be avoided at all costs. After shampooing, I had to rub my scalp with camellia oil and then give my hair fifty strokes with a brush. The camellia oil smelled like the dried beetles from the insect collection I’d made for a school assignment one summer.

The weather was warm and the skies clear on the day of the contest. I ate the two rice balls my grandmother had made, took the motion-sickness medicine, and put on my new dress. My mother, too, made quite an effort. She wore her opal ring and her best suit, even though it was a bit faded.

“Wonderful,” she said, turning me around and around in front of the mirror. “Just wonderful!” As I’ve said, it was her favorite word.

“The important thing is to answer the questions promptly. Do you understand? You mustn’t hesitate or seem frightened. Stand up straight, speak slowly and loudly, and don’t put on airs. Your dress is perfect on you, and I was right about the ribbon. A metre cost almost half as much as the material itself, but that one touch of luxury brings the whole outfit together, don’t you think?”

The contest was held in an auditorium in the center of town. Mother­-daughter pairs, like us, gathered in the lobby. Some girls were accompanied by their fathers, and there were even whole families, with little brothers or sisters in baby carriages.

A young woman at the reception table pinned a round badge with a number to my dress. No. 34. The badge was so large that it covered almost the whole left side of my chest, hiding most of the Tyrolian ribbon my mother was so proud of.

The dressing room was crowded and stuffy. We found two empty chairs in a corner and sat down. It was still almost two hours before the start of the contest.

“Why did they get such big badges for a children’s event?” my mother muttered. “You’ll look like giant numbers walking across the stage.” She tried to shift the offending item to reveal at least a portion of the ribbon, but with little success.

The other parents were busy fussing over their daughters. One little girl, whose dress was decorated with frills at the collar, sleeves, and waist, had apparently soiled her stockings in a puddle on the way to the contest and was being scolded by her mother. While the mother dabbed at the stockings with a wet handkerchief, the girl swung her bare feet back and forth and yawned, twice in a row.

Another girl, whose hair was rolled into a ball on top of her head, was letting her mother rub cream on her face. The mother was dripping with costume jewelry that jingled every time she moved. After she’d finished rubbing in the cream, she applied lipstick to the girl’s lips. The girl’s eyes looked as though they’d been pulled upward by the perfect bun, giving her a slightly angry expression.

“How ludicrous, putting makeup on a child,” my mother whispered. I was too young at that point to know a word like “ludicrous,” but from her tone I could guess that it wasn’t a compliment. “There’s nothing more grotesque than making up a little girl to look like a grown woman.”

Mother seemed to have finally given up trying to adjust the badge, though not before her repeated attacks with the safety pin had poked any number of holes in my dress.

At that moment, I suddenly became aware of the girl sitting next to me. She was all alone, without an adult to hover over her. She seemed perfectly calm, her expression relaxed, as she stared off at some point in the distance. The reason I had noticed her was that she was not in the least bit pretty.

I am not generally interested in my own appearance; nor do I care much about the appearance of others. Even though I was here for a beauty contest, I had not spent any time comparing my looks with those of the other girls in the room. But there was something about this girl that had caught my attention and would not let it go. I now wasn’t sure that her lack of prettiness was the quality I’d noticed. I was sure, however, that she was different from all the other girls.

Her individual features were all quite ordinary: oval face, pale complexion, small, round eyes with double lids. Her nose and lips and eyebrows were unremarkable, and her hair was cut in a bob that was so even it might have been measured with a ruler. She was simply dressed, in a white blouse and a gray jumper. But something about her seemed out of whack, as though her looks were clashing with themselves. Her appearance was inexplicably disturbing, yet I found that I could not stop looking at her.

“Some of these girls aren’t at all pretty,” my mother whispered in my ear after glancing at the girl next to me. “Though they must have gone through the application process.” I felt myself getting angry with her, though she had only said aloud what I’d been thinking. She’d spoken so quietly that no one, not even the girl herself, could have heard her, but that didn’t make it any better.

“We’d like to ask family members to take their seats in the audience now, so that we can have a meeting with the girls,” the pageant director said. The noise in the dressing room grew louder. Not a single mother seemed able to leave without a final word of advice to her daughter.

“Be sure to speak up, and don’t hesitate. Chin up, back straight—that’s all there is to it.” My mother gave me one last look, waved her hand, and left the room. I sat there, my lips tightly sealed. When my irritation subsided, I began to feel sad. I wasn’t quite sure whether this was because the contest was about to start or because I was still fixated on the girl next to me.

The pageant director described how things would go, using grand, theatrical gestures. In his left hand he held what appeared to be a rolled-up script, which he rapped on the table from time to time to emphasize a point.

“There are three things you need to pay attention to. Is that clear?” He raised his hand above his head and held up three fingers. “First, no idle chatter. Just like at school. Second, no running, either onstage or backstage. There are all kinds of things back there—boards, plywood, elec­trical cords—and it’s dangerous to run. Understood?”

Several girls spoke up to acknowledge what he’d said. The girl next to me said nothing, and her expression had barely changed since I’d first noticed her. It was difficult to tell whether she was listening intently or was bored to tears.

“Good for you girls who answered me. Manners are one of the judges’ criteria for the pageant. And the third thing to keep in mind is that you are to move as pairs during the contest. As you enter the hall, as you approach the microphone, and as you exit, please hold hands and walk with your partner. Understood?”

This time, everyone answered in unison, except, of course, the girl next to me—and me, since I was too busy watching her.

“Right, then, line up here by number. Hurry along.”

There was a buzz as everyone started to move at once. No. 34 would be somewhere in the middle of the line, which grew longer as it snaked through the room, odd-numbered girls joining hands with even-numbered ones. No. 33 was the girl who had been sitting next to me.

I screwed up my courage. “Did you come by yourself?” I asked.

She turned to look at me and blinked once, quite slowly. “I did,” she said.

“That must be hard,” I said.

“Not so hard. There just wasn’t anyone to bring me.”

Three people exercise in the park.

“Why’s that?”

“Because our dog died this morning, and everything was crazy at our house. They forgot all about the contest.” Her hand was cool and bony.

Up close, it turned out, her appearance was remarkable after all. The shape and spacing of her features, the color of her skin, the way her hair moved, the sound of her voice—everything about her made me feel something I’d never felt before, something subtle but impossible to ignore, a feeling that was fragile and altogether strange. But one thing was certain—it was in no way unpleasant.

“Was he sick?” I asked.

“No, he suffocated.”

“Suffocated,” I repeated in spite of myself.

She nodded, pulling the strap of her jumper back onto her shoulder.

“He had dug a hole under his doghouse, and we found him with his head stuck in the hole. The house was held in place with stakes, and the edge must have dug into the back of his neck.”

“But why would he have done that?”

She tilted her head to one side, as if asking herself the same question.

“When I found him this morning, I didn’t think he was dead. I thought he must have done something really naughty, and he was afraid to look at me. His head was underground, but his back legs were tucked under him, and he was sitting normally. But when I went to pet him he was cold. I dug him out as fast as I could. There was no sign on his face that he’d suffered. He looked thoughtful, as though he were trying to hear some faraway sound. The only sign of anything wrong was the mark on the back of his neck. His fur was mussed up, and there were abrasions on his skin and some blotches of blood.”

Suffocation, abrasions, blood—the words seemed to come easily to her, as though she were recalling a fairy tale she’d heard when she was younger.

None of the other girls in line were chatting. They had apparently been silenced by the mounting tension and excitement. Or perhaps they were just remembering the pageant director’s first instruction. But the girl next to me seemed completely oblivious of everything that was going on around us.

“So, what do you think about the way he died?” she asked suddenly. I was flustered, having no idea how to answer her. I’d never had a dog, and I’d never thought about possible causes of death, either a dog’s or my own. “Sticking your head in some place so tight and dark,” she continued. “It goes in easily enough, pops right in, but when you try to pull it out you’re stuck. At first you think how strange it is and you try all sorts of maneuvers, twisting your neck this way and that. But gradually you realize that it’s hopeless, that there’s nothing you can do. And all along it’s getting harder to breathe. Your neck is getting torn up. Your bones start to crack. Despair creeps over you. . . . That way of dying?”

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Her voice was quiet and slightly husky. Her hand, which I still held in mine, was cold.

“Did you love your dog?” I asked, without answering her question.

“He was already there when I was born. He was a scrawny mutt with black spots inside his ears. He loved to play with toilet-paper rolls.”

“But why would he have wanted to dig a hole in a place like that?”

“Maybe he was trying to catch an earthworm.”

“But you never heard a strange bark or anything?”

She shook her head and her hair swayed back and forth with it.

“I wonder what dogs think about when they’re dying,” she said. “Do they think back to happy memories, like people recalling their childhood? Or maybe they think about someone they love.”

I watched her out of the corner of my eye, unable to think of what to say. Oddly enough, she didn’t seem at all sad. She simply blinked slowly from time to time—as though that might help her see what the dog had been thinking.

“Well, then,” the pageant director said. “We’re about to begin. Are you ready?”

We could hear a fanfare coming from somewhere.

The stage lights were so bright that it was difficult to keep my eyes open. My cheeks were flushed and warm. We passed in front of the audience, two by two, and then lined up along the bleachers on the stage. The hall was dark, and it was hard to see beyond the footlights, but it seemed to be half empty in the back. The mistress of ceremonies, a woman in a frilly dress who was no longer young, stumbled twice while pronouncing the name of the chair of the judges’ committee.

We were to advance to the front of the stage in our pairs to answer questions from the judges. What is your favorite subject in school? How would you describe your personality? What book has made the biggest impression on you? What would you like to do in the future? Whom do you admire most in the world? Some of the girls who weren’t satisfied with simply answering the questions launched into impromptu songs or dances.

A great deal of time seemed to have passed. I could feel that a bead of sweat had formed on the tip of my nose. I wanted to wipe my face, but I had no handkerchief, since my mother had not added pockets to my dress.

From time to time, I glanced over at No. 33. Was she still thinking about the dog? I assumed so. Everyone here, adults and children alike, was considering which girl was the cutest. Except for the two of us. We were thinking about the dog that had suffocated.

Our turn arrived. We stepped down from the bleachers and approached the microphone. I could feel her hair swishing back and forth next to my ear. An even brighter light shone directly in our faces. Suddenly, I realized that she was wearing a pair of plain rubber gym shoes—and that her legs were surprisingly slender and elegant. My patent-leather shoes, polished by my grandmother just that morning, glittered under the lights.

“So, let’s begin with No. 33,” the mistress of ceremonies said. The girl next to me was asked to give her name, her age, and her year in school, which she stated in a flat, rather adult-sounding tone. Her name was perfectly ordinary and uninteresting, not what I would have guessed from the strange impression she’d made on me.

“What kind of television programs do you like to watch?” a plump man with a mustache asked.

“Reruns of boxing matches,” she said after a short pause.

“My! That’s quite something for a girl!” the mistress of ceremonies said with exaggerated surprise.

“And what do you like about boxing?” the man continued.

“I like thinking about the sound it makes when you punch a human body.”

I realized that she had no interest in boxing, that these were just meaningless words pouring out of her mouth.

She moved aside slightly so that I could get closer to the microphone. It was my turn. Name, age, year in school. Nothing difficult about that. A kindergartener could tell you that much. I tried to open my mouth, tried to summon the voice from the back of my throat, but nothing came out. A weak breath seemed to leak from me, nothing more.

The mistress of ceremonies came over and laid her hand on my shoulder.

“Are you all right?” she asked. “A bit nervous, I imagine. Just relax and tell us your name.”

I could smell perfume. There was a buzzing from the audience, low whispers, a chuckle here and there, coughing—all this washed over me. Speak up, back straight, don’t hesitate. My mother’s voice echoed in my ears. I tried opening my mouth once more, tried recalling which muscles I used to speak, how my breath moved. But my throat was still frozen.

I squeezed No. 33’s hand harder, and I suddenly felt as though I were petting the dead dog. The color of its fur, the curve of its back, the legs tucked under its body, even the image of the old doghouse—all these things that I had never seen came floating up before my eyes. The floppy ears, the nose covered with dirt, a glimpse of pink tongue.

“Well, then, let’s skip your name. Take a deep breath. Everyone gets nervous from time to time. Even I do! It’s nothing to worry about.” She chattered away, trying to buy me some time.

“Perhaps you could tell us about something you treasure?” the mustache man said. “Treasure . . . treasure . . . ,” I repeated to myself. The girl next to me held perfectly still and looked straight ahead.

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“. . . Dog . . . ,” I murmured.

“What was that?” the mistress of ceremonies said.

“A dog,” I repeated. “A scrawny mutt with black spots inside his ears who loves to play with toilet-paper rolls.”

Words came spilling out at last.

“I see! Well, he must be a darling dog!” She seemed relieved that I’d finally managed something resembling a proper response. “Thank you very much! And let’s move on to our next pair, No. 35 and No. 36.”

Still holding hands, we left the stage.

In the end, it was No. 46 or 47 who won. A girl with long arms and legs who had constantly rolled her eyes.

My mother said nothing at all on the bus ride home. She made a point of sitting a few seats away from me, clutching her purse to her chest and staring out the window. I realized I owed her an explanation, but I had no idea how to describe what had happened, so I, too, remained silent.

When the bus reached the end of the line, at the roundabout in front of the station, my mother stood up and got off without looking back. I followed quickly after her. She marched into the candy shop and bought a container of Starry Night.

In the end, Starry Night wasn’t as delicious as I’d imagined. I put the container on the table and dug in with a spoon. The bits of ice left an unpleasant, gritty feeling in my mouth, and, no matter how much I ate, the amount in the container never seemed to decrease. Colorful stars appeared one after another.

“Still,” I muttered, “it’s better than poisonous mushrooms.” No one answered, and I stuffed another spoonful into my mouth. ♦

(Translated, from the Japanese, by Stephen Snyder.)

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