The Sparrows’ Valley – HANMURA Ryō

Kenkichi? From Onoda? He’s doing alright then, is he? … What, he’s been taken into hospital? … Blimey, that’s a shame. Well, he’s done quite alright livin’ this long – getting ill at his age ain’t too much of a shock. After all, time’s man’s greatest enemy, as they say. But did you know, he was quite the tough man back in the day? Me and him, we used to argue loads. All the time.  Saying that though, right, around here in Noto, no one really says “argue;” we prefer to say we “disagree.” Thinking ‘bout it though, there’s quite a few different types of “disagreement” in’t there? Comin’ all together like the eaves on a house-filled street. From the day we started at Jinjo Primary School till the day we left, I don’t think there was a day when me and Kenkichi didn’t see each other.

“Arguing friends…” Yeah, I s’pose saying it like that, that’s ‘bout right. I’ve lived here for my whole life so I know nothing outside it. But Kenkichi, well, I’m sure we would’ve quarrelled, if he hadn’t left. And though I can’t say for sure, I think I’d’ve lived a more interesting life. To be honest with ya, I’ve thought a lot about Kenkichi recently. I’m pretty damn old now, and I think a lot about my old friends and get all nostalgic about the “good old days”… But t’be honest, it ain’t the best feeling. Say, lad. Listen to me now. It’s a funny thing; even though I’m an old fogey now, I don’t want to notice that I’ve been getting old. Lad, if you’d ask me how I remember Kenkichi, I’d prob’ly just fondly remember the old times, long gone. Summat like that. And so, I try my best to avoid thinking about him.

I’m sure he was living in Kameido up in Tokyo, but is he still there now… Oh, he is? Haha, thought he might be; it must suit him after all … That means he’s been there for thirty years now. Can’t believe it’s been so long. Which means it’s been over forty since we last spoke… It was ten years after he told me that he was getting married, y’see. Ah, it’s not just me who’s gettin’ old.

You’re his second daughter’s husband, aren’t ya? You’ve got two kids? And the eldest is already in high school? Bloody hell, I can barely believe it… But back to Kenkichi. What’s he ill with then? I’m sure he’ll be up and about in no time; he used to be such a hardy guy after all. Bet it’s nothing to cry home about, right?

What? Cancer?! Kenkichi’s got cancer? You’re taking the bloody piss… I can barely believe it… It’s that bad is it? He won’t get better. Well ain’t this unpleasant. Everyone I know dropping dead like that. He was such a tough one and now even he’s at death’s doorstep. I doubt you’d know, but Kenkichi’s the last one. All my other school mates are dead as doornails. I’ve known him for my whole life. When you know someone for so long, it don’t matter how many years pass; that friendship doesn’t change. Ahh, lonely, lonely me. The years that’re gone are gone for good. As I watch my friends and pals pass away before me it makes me realise my own old age and, blimey, that is a lonely thing.

You’ve come all the way from Tokyo to tell me this. Thanks for coming so far to tell me. Well, even though it’s not the best news to hear.

Huh? That ain’t the only reason for your visit? … Why’d you come all the way out to Noto then? You wanna ask me summat about Kenkichi? Why d’ya not say so earlier! Kenkichi is on his deathbed isn’t he?! I wanna know after all. What Kenkichi would be askin’ about now. … Ah. I know. It’s about the sparrows…

I was right then was I. Well I had an inkling the moment you came in, sayin’ you were related to Kenkichi. “This lad’s come all this way to ask about the sparrows’ valley,” I said to myself, I did. So, what’d he say then? About the sparrows’ valley?

He said he wanted to see it, did he? He’s stuck in hospital and doesn’t even know how he’ll be tomorrow, but still wants to see the valley, eh. I suppose I can empathise with that. But he can’t come himself is that right? Haha. That’s pointless in’t it? Saying he wants to see it even though he can’t. Hey, I’m not tryin’ to be completely heartless – I want to see the valley with Kenkichi too after all. The sparrows’ valley is a secret place that only Kenkichi and I know about. The sparrows’ valley is where sparrows from all over the country come to die.

Even though they’re small, they’re everywhere y’know? In every village, every town, every mountain, every valley… On power lines or roof eaves, you’ll find those little sparrows all across Japan. They ain’t intending to be a nuisance to nobody, y’hear. You hear ‘em chirpin’ away every morning, mindin’ their own business. I hear people moanin’ about how the sparrows are ruinin’ their crops and rice fields. But they don’t know a thing! Those sparrows ‘ave been there far longer than those rice plants have. Even then, what’s so wrong with them havin’ a peck now ‘n then. “Oh those sparrows are ruinin’ me crops!” Yeah, yeah, I ain’t never heard a more selfish thing. I hear them spoutin’ on that we could do without sparrows – that they’re the most useless bird around. Heard this local sayin’ before? “Even the sparrow makes its nest for its young”… Even the sparrow. What cheek! If that’s the case I wonder what good the sparrows do for their chicks in the city. What kinda grand nests do they build there, eh? Two bedroom apartments? Detached houses? The sparrows there would do at least that, surely. Though they’d probably need a loan to afford it!

The sparrows laugh at us you know. And they’ve prepared their graves long, long before they come to die. And, me and Kenkichi, we actually found this grave of theirs y’know… Once you get me started, this story’s bound to be a long one. If ya don’t mind I just need to do something quickly. Wait there lad, I’ll be right back.

Sorry for keeping ya. No one really comes down from Tokyo, so I just chopped up some wood. It’s just me here, and I’m a bit old fashioned y’see. I just can’t get meself to eat anything cooked on a propane cooker! Nothin’ beats an open fire.

By the way, lad, after talking with old Kenkichi, d’you come straight from Tokyo? … Ahh and you were in the middle of work? My, my, what an admirable young lad you are, makin’ time for Kenkcihi when you’re so busy. So what d’you do then? Normal office job I s’pose? No? … Bloody hell, that is a job to suit the times! A cameraman, eh… Shootin’ the generation’s new stars I s’pose, ha ha ha. Kenkichi is blessed with a fine son in law indeed.

Eh? … You want to hear the rest of the story? Oh yes, of course, the sparrows. Right, I’d just told you how Kenkichi and I had just found the graveyard of sparrows. The graveyard, right, is in a valley that lies behind our village. Don’t ask me why, but it’s been called the Sparrows’ Valley for generations. It’s a small valley, with naught there, so no one really goes there. Me and Kenkichi were but lads ourselves, and were really taken in by this deserted place. We went together this one time, and God knows why, started picking at the ground. Eventually, these tiny bones started comin’ up from the ground, one after the other. It was spooky as hell I’ll tell you that much.

Don’t ask me why, but we knew these were sparrow bones… I dunno, call it a kid’s instinct. The sparrows who’d just flown there and died recently were at the top, of course. Now, let me tell you something. People often say things like “Huh, I’ve never seen a dead sparrow before.” Even though you see ‘em every day, it’s weird that you don’t see any sparrows before they die. Fool me if I know, but I’ve heard in the city they say that the two things you never see is an old hostess or a dead sparrow. I s’pose that’s only a natural outcome. Anyway, it was a pretty gruesome thing. When I got home, I asked me old man about the valley. He’s long dead now so there ain’t no point getting angry at him now, but was he livid. He gave me the beating of my life I’ll tell ya.

You want me to tell you more about the valley? Hmm, I wonder. It’s where sparrows from all across Japan come to die. And no matter who it is, everyone wants to see it. Hey, lad. You heard of the valley from Kenkichi, and thought to take a photo back to him, s’that right? Oh is that right? “Obviously he did”? That may be so, but I think you’re lying to me, lad. No, no, I understand, crystal clear, like. Kenkichi wouldn’t ask anyone, even you lad, to take a picture of the sparrows’ valley for him. Even on his death bed, he wouldn’t want to see the valley! Remember the firewood I was chopping? Well this is the axe I was using. Well, there’s nothing else for it; I’m sorry lad, but there ain’t no way you can leave here alive. Don’t even try’n leg it you bastard! How’s that!? Still alive, huh? Watch me smash your fuckin’ head in. Had enough? Already dead are we? Well, let’s just separate your head from those shoulders of yours, thank you very much. And oh, look, there it goes. Your head. How’s that, dead man? Can’t rat me out now then, can you?! My family’s been protecting the sparrows’ valley for generations. I told ya, didn’t I? Not one of my classmates is still alive. All ‘cause they found out my secret. That Kenkichi had let his mouth run a bit too much. And then that coward ran away himself. Well. Guess I’m gonna bury you too lad. Over in the sparrows’ valley.

Hmph, I barely understood what being human means. Protecting these tiny little sparrows. They were always more preferable to people. Kenkichi won’t live much longer. And there’ll be no one to find out his secrets beyond the grave. Isn’t that right, my sparrows?

Translated by Arthur Reiji Morris

Original title 雀谷 (suzumedani)

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