Momo and Hana
‘He’s so cute,’ said Hana with a sigh. The ginger-red Pomeranian reminded her of the stone-carved lions guarding the entrance to their local shrine, the little dog’s soft orange fur fluffed out and frizzy at the edges.
‘Very,’ agreed Mother. ‘But if I find him in the living room again, I’ll turn him into sushi.’ She picked up a pair of chopsticks from the kitchen counter. ‘His claws are tearing up my straw mats.’
‘Mum!’ exclaimed Hana. ‘You’ll scare him!’
The dog let go a series of emphatic barks and Mother laughed. ‘Ok, Momo. You’re forgiven. But only this once.’
Kenji, Hana’s 8-year old brother, gave the Pomeranian a suspicious look. ‘Where’s it from?’
‘He,’ corrected Hana.
‘He belonged to my English teacher, Amanda Foster,’ said Father.
Hana patted the top of Momo’s head. ‘Amanda said we could keep him.’
‘But why?’ demanded Kenji.
‘Because she had to go back to Australia,’ explained Hana patiently.
‘When’s she coming back to Japan?’ asked Kenji.
Father shook his head. ‘She isn’t.’
‘Which is why we agreed to look after him. Isn’t that right, Mother?’ Please, thought Hana.
‘That was before I found out he was such a handful,’ said her mother sadly.
To prove Mother’s point, Momo began to yap like a maniac, his back legs skittering around on the floorboards, his bottom nudging a stack of pots and pans which swayed dangerously.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Father. ‘We’ll find him a good home.’
‘This is a good home,’ persisted Hana. Their traditional Japanese house was a rambling maze of rooms and creaky stairs that led to three upper-story bedrooms. A beautiful home surrounded by gardens and a grove of plum trees. Plenty of room for a small dog.
‘Exactly,’ said her mother. ‘And I can’t have Momo running loose and destroying the place.’
Momo dropped to his belly and started to whine.
‘It smells funny,’ complained Kenji. He’d retreated to the corner of their kitchen and was stacking coloured blocks one atop the other, the wooden tower already five bricks high.
‘He smells like a dog,’ said Hana irritated. Momo’s eyes were an adorable, liquid gold and sparkled with intelligence. She turned to her parents. ‘You promised,’ she said. ‘You said he could stay in the backrooms as long as I looked after him.’
Kenji delicately placed a seventh block onto the wobbling, wooden skyscraper. ‘Like you looked after the turtle?’
‘Big mouth,’ shouted Hana. Momo leaped to his feet and started barking; short, sharp annoying sounds that stabbed at Hana’s eardrums. His tail thumped against a tall pot of umbrellas sending the whole lot sliding to the ground with a crash.
‘Not again?’ moaned Kenji, clapping palms to his ears.
‘He can’t help it,’ shouted Hana for the tenth time, but even she was beginning to lose sympathy. For the last hour, Momo had whined, barked, yapped and fussed, driving the family half mad and Hana’s eardrums to the edge of pain. If only he’d realise it was ruining any chances she had of keeping him.
Father raised a hand. ‘Enough. Why don’t you take him for a walk? It might help to calm him down.’
Hana slipped on a pink plastic raincoat and glanced at the raindrops sliding down the kitchen window. Outside, the summer rains had stopped and a frog was burping in the rice paddies. Soon the snakes would appear, their long bodies curling up on the hot boulders in the old castle pond. To Hana it looked wet, humid and unpleasant.
‘Can’t we just stay here?’ she said. Down by her feet, Momo barked twice.
‘Out,’ snapped Mother. ‘Mrs Suzuki’s arriving in a minute and I haven’t finished preparing the tearoom. I don’t have time for this, Hana.’
When Hana opened her mouth, her mother glared.
Out in the back lane, the little dog stopped barking and they headed past the rice paddies with their soft green stems, stopping briefly to watch the dragonflies skipping in and out of the water. At the noodle restaurant, Hana turned left and waved at Mrs Hirohito who was selling boxes of shiny orange persimmons, the tasty fruits a real summer treat in Japan. They ended their walk at a tiny park tucked beneath the castle grounds, and Hana plonked down on a swing to catch her breath and think.
Down by her feet, Momo was silent and obedient.
‘Can’t you at least try to be good?’ sighed Hana. ‘I’m sure mother would let you stay if you weren’t so naughty.’
Momo wagged his curly tail and showed her a wet tongue. Scooping him up, Hana buried her face in his fur. He smelt nice and she could feel his tiny heart beating fast. ‘They have to keep you,’ she whispered into his side. ‘They just have to.’
Back at the entrance to their house, Hana kicked off her shoes, stepped into a pair of house slippers and carried Momo into the tearoom.
Old Mrs Suzuki was kneeling in front of a low wooden table a peeled grape poised between two fingers, its plump green flesh moist and glistening. On seeing the stranger, Momo let out a single loud bark and the grape plopped into Mrs Suzuki’s cup of green tea, splashing hot liquid up the front of a pale blue kimono.
Hana blurted an apology and slammed shut the sliding door, leaving Mrs Suzuki’s shocked outline staring back towards the white paper panels.
‘Hana Yoshimoto!’ barked her mother, scaring her twice over.
Startled, Hana let go of Momo who fled into the kitchen barking furiously. There was a sudden scream and the sound of wooden blocks clattering to the floor.
‘Mum!’ bellowed Kenji.
Mother took a deep breath. ‘Take Momo upstairs, please, Hana. We’ll talk about this later.’
Hana didn’t miss the intonation or the look in her mother’s eye, both of which were promising trouble if she didn’t obey. She took the stairs to her room on the second floor, slid open her door and flopped to the floor. Momo was two steps behind. Hana reached out a hand and let the dog lick her palm. ‘Good dog,’ she said sadly. ‘Good Momo.’
He wagged his tail.
Later that afternoon, Hana heard her parents talking quietly downstairs, her mother’s voice concerned, insistent. A few minutes later, she heard her name being called. Father was standing in the kitchen beside a two-ring burner on which bubbled a pot of fish stew. His expression was grave.
‘Mother and I are taking Momo to Mr Yamamoto’s house in the morning,’ he said.
A painful lump formed in the back of Hana’s throat. ‘But their house is tiny,’ she said. ‘They don’t even have a garden.’
Father looked away. ‘I’m sorry Hana, but he leaves in the morning.’
Back in her bedroom, Hana pulled out a heavy cotton mattress and unrolled it beneath the window. A butterfly was battering its tiny wings against the square panes of glass. The rain had started up again and cars sighed through the puddles that criss-crossed the lane outside. To say that Hana felt sad was an understatement. Her stomach ached with sadness. Downstairs, she could hear Momo barking and whining non-stop. The little dog had been confined to the kitchen and didn’t sound too happy about it.
At midnight, Momo’s barking got even louder. Already wide awake, Hana heard her father stomp downstairs but as soon as he opened the kitchen door, Momo shot out and up the stairs to scratch at Hana’s door. Worried he would damage the paper panels, Hana scooted out of bed and let him in.
‘Bad dog,’ she hissed as he leapt onto her bed. ‘Naughty Momo.’
Momo began to whine, an urgent, unsettling sound which made Hana’s skin crawl. ‘Stop it!’ she ordered. The little dog looked afraid, the whites of his eyes gleaming in the low light. Despite the absurdity of the situation, Hana began to feel frightened, too, although she couldn’t have said why.
‘Stop it,’ she pleaded.
Momo ignored her and began tugging at the hem of her nightgown, jerking Hana back towards the open door, his feet digging into the soft matting, strong, sharp claws ripping out fine slivers of golden straw.
‘No,’ snapped Hana. ‘Bad, Momo. Stop.’
Hana turned to find her father standing in the doorway, his hair mussed up, eyes blurred by sleep. In the half-light of the landing stood Mother and Kenji. All three looked furious.
Oblivious to the trouble he was causing, Momo flattened his belly to the ground and started to howl.
And then, very slowly, the floor beneath Hana’s feet began to quiver. Beside her, the windows rattled and shook. Hana felt her heart thud.
‘Earthquake!’ shouted Father.
Momo’s howls became louder.
‘Outside,’ shouted Father. ‘Now!’
Hana took the stairs two at a time, her bare feet sliding on the polished wooden floorboards at the bottom. She could hear the others close behind. Around them, the house began to shake, the ancient wooden beams groaning, cups and glasses clinking together, the paper screens shuddering with the growing tremor.
To their left, Mother’s favourite china vase toppled from a shelf and smashed to the floor, the broken white shards continuing to tremble at Hana’s feet.
‘Move!’ yelled Father.
Hana ducked out of the back door and bolted towards the open garden, the plum trees quivering like tall wooden jellies. Then, as suddenly as it had started, the earthquake stopped, leaving behind a thick, shocked silence.
One by one, the sounds of a summer’s night began to return; crickets chirruped, a night bird screeched, doors slammed, windows slid open, and somewhere, someone started to laugh. Everything, it seemed, was wide awake. Everything except Momo. Curled up in Hana’s arms, the little dog had fallen into an exhausted sleep.
‘He knew,’ said Mother, her tone one of amazement.
‘How?’ asked Kenji.
Father scratched the top of Momo’s tiny head. ‘My grandfather often said that animals can sense earthquakes. Even scientists admit it’s possible but no-one quite knows how.’
‘Maybe he could feel it coming,’ suggested Hana.
‘Maybe,’ agreed Mother. She smiled. ‘I guess that explains why he’s been so naughty.’
Hana’s eyes lit up. ‘Does that mean we can keep him?’ she asked.
‘We’ll see,’ smiled Father, but Hana could tell that he and Mother had already made up their minds, and she grinned all the way back to bed.
‘Goodnight,’ said Mother with a light kiss.
Hana wrapped her arms around Momo’s warm body and closed her eyes tight. ‘Goodnight, Mother. Goodnight, Father.’
Father turned off the light and Hana heard him whisper something that sounded very much like, Thank you, Momo.
By her side, the little dog answered with a soft, contented sigh.