The Onion Harvest

I exit the highway at the off-ramp nearest Okadama Airport and turn at the first traffic signal, driving beside a dimly lit runway that disappears into farmland shadows. A metallic bitterness lingers at the back of my tongue from the black coffee I’d left in the cup that morning. Then an unexpected sweetness from the grounds. I feel my hands relax on the steering wheel now that my headlights are the only illumination on the road. It took three years to find this route, navigating the maze of countryside asphalt with only a dashboard compass, unable to read Japanese maps or afford a GPS. Then as the headlights snare in drifting smoke, my fingers clench and go numb.

The four-month snows come in a month, but in the morning you can already see long greenhouse tunnels where the onion farmers have begun tilling orange soil rich brown with compost from manure and straw, stretching vinyl sheets over metal pipes stuck in the earth like the exposed ribs of prehistoric beasts. In March the skin will glow a faint neon green, and then they’ll peel it back in May so their tractors can scatter onion seedlings over bare fields like wilted pine needles.

The smoke clears on the curves and my lights pick out wooden crates with onions curing inside them in the cold, 1½-meter cubes of weathered slats on a side, stacked three high down a long tractor path, blue tarps tied to the tops. But I have to look twice driving through haze rising from the onion harvest’s smoldering debris as my lungs fill with smoke reminiscent of maple leaves several months before I turn four. My sister and I are raking leaves into piles, waiting for an adult with a lighted match. I’m also waiting to be scarred for life when her bamboo rake’s teeth expose another side of loss hidden within the flaming color of maple leaves before burning, when both cupped hands also fill. At odd moments I see her rake inscribe that same arc in slow motion. Then I touch the scar furrowing my left brow and listen to my mother scream in our foyer. It was impossible to explain then—still difficult today—but my own blood was all the proof I needed that beauty lay concealed inside me.

I follow winding roads out of Okadama, far past the local airport and smoke, then hit a wall of fog, not uncommon in late fall, that lasts through Shinoro and into Tonden—a single narrow bridge before coming into Hanakawa and feeling my hands again. The kids squeal and search my briefcase for gifts, returning empty-handed and sullen to the TV… mistaking me for a delivery man at the wrong house?

You barely lift your eyes from the dishes, then nod toward my covered plate of food. Your first streak of gray hair is shining in the light of a 60-watt bulb over the sink—fine trickles of milk spilling over black rock. You ask if I know what time it is, just a bit louder than the splash of dishwater. There is no way to answer such sadness.

I’ll bathe the kids and put them to bed. Later, on the futon, the cool shock of your back against my stomach, the warmth of your breasts in my hand, if it is not already too late, I will try to peel the years, one layer at a time, down to another awakening of your weary skin.

Stephen Toskar is a longtime US expat resident of Japan. His work has appeared in Exposition Review, Arc Poetry Magazine, Chattahoochee Review, The Pedestal Magazine, LA Progressive, Hollywood Progressive, Tokyo Poetry Journal, Dissident Voice, and Poetry Nippon, among others, as well as in the anthologies Sixty Four Best Poets of 2018 (Black Mountain Press), Enough (Public Poetry, forthcoming), Manifestations (The D’arts Literary Anthology), and Farewell to Nuclear, Welcome to Renewable Energy (Coal Sack Press). He co-translated Selection from Mother Burning and Other Poems: Parallel Translation of Selected Poems of Soh Sakon. Living on the northern island of Hokkaido, he is a professor of English at Hokkaido Bunkyo University in Eniwa.