Woman in a Tree by Alex Austin  

When Hugh next met Sumiko at a club in the Shibuya ward of Tokyo, he was singing Elvis Costello’s “Allison” through a defective karaoke stage microphone, so that his aim, his voice at least, was never true. Drink in hand, Sumiko approached him and tried heroically to speak English. Hugh’s limited Japanese and Sumiko’s severely limited English were not much of a disadvantage in the thunderous club, to which Hugh had come with a group of associates. Sumiko too had come with friends, but after Hugh and she met, they were alone most of the night, laughing at each other’s language deficiencies and their equally clumsy dancing. They left together shortly before midnight, after which the trains no longer ran. She allowed him to accompany her back on the last train before midnight. A quarter hour into their ride, Hugh pointed questioningly to what seemed to be a castle, strung with dazzling lights.

“It’s a Love Hotel,” Sumiko said. It was not quite what the phrase seemed to indicate, she explained. It was not for prostitutes but for lovers who could not afford their own apartments.

On the following Saturday night, Sumiko showed up by herself at the club. Though she sat with Hugh, she seemed solemn, thoughtful, not quite there. Prompted by his friends, Hugh sang: “… it isn’t you, isn’t me, search for things you can’t see, going blind, out of reach somewhere in the Vasoline.”  He sang it well, and for such a sad song, it made Sumiko happy. Once again they took the train home together. He got off at her stop, though he would have to walk a long distance to get to his apartment. They were both still a little high, and in a small park he challenged her to climb a tree with him. He swung into it easily. She refused his helping hand and climbed up herself. They sat in the thick limbs of the core, staring out through the leaves, listening to the wind whistling though the branches. Sumiko’s hair hung against the heavy wood like water cascading over black stone, and Hugh felt the universe turn as if he were at its very center. The moonlight was broken by a cloud of crows falling on the park. The wind of their flapping wings lifted Sumiko’s hair, and the branches above shivered as the birds settled into the tree, cawing resolutely. Japanese crows will sometimes attack people, warned Sumiko.

“We can’t let them know we’re here,” she whispered in Hugh’s ear. “We must be quiet and still.”

As Hugh tried not to fidget, he saw out the corner of his eye that Sumiko in her immobility and silence had vanished into the branches and leaves. No crow would see or hear her, nor any other agent of destruction. If she chose to hide from him, he too would never find her. Hugh dug his nails into the bark. Inches from the gnawing hand, a huge crow studied the worms beneath the white skin. The bird’s lust thickened like congealed blood. Not much risk, hop, hop. As Hugh squirmed indecisively, a three-foot tongue—as if from a Komodo dragon—shot the darkness, coiled the crow’s head and retracted swiftly. As if disappearing into a black hole, the crow would reappear tomorrow as breakfast for its buddies. As the remaining crows, alert to some inchoate danger, took flight, Sumiko found Hugh’s mouth with hers, moved his lips to force his words. The speed of love.

“What else?” whispered Hugh.

“Anything or anyone who tries to harm it.”

“Anyone?”

“Even you,” answered Sumiko with a laugh.

Alex Austin is a Los Angeles writer and teacher. Austin’s stories have been published in Black Clock, carte-blanche, This Literary Magazine, Rose & Thorn Journal, Heavy Feather Review and Beyond Baroque. His play Mimosa is published by Playscripts Inc.

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