The favorites: a novel - By Mary Yukari Waters

Part 1

chapter 1

It was an early morning in June 1978, and the Ueno neighborhood was just beginning to stir.

This was an old neighborhood, far enough north of the city’s center to have the feel of a small village. It lay in the shadow of high green hills that surrounded the city of Kyoto like a giant horseshoe, trapping the moisture from its four rivers. A century ago, before the emperor’s seat had moved to Tokyo (and before smog and pollution made their appearance), this moist climate had been considered ideal for the refined senses of the nobility: it captured the subtle fragrances of each season and fostered the most delicate complexions in the country. The downside, of course, was that Kyoto summers were brutally humid.

Fortunately the air was still cool and crisp, laced with the smells of moss and verdure that had sprouted so lushly during this month’s rainy season. The walls and fences, their planks aged as soft and dark as velvet, reflected the pink glow of sunrise. Within cool pockets of shadow, the smell of dew-soaked wood still lingered.

At the open-air market, behind iron shop grates not yet rolled open for customers, rubber-booted fish vendors arranged the morning’s catch on beds of ice. Several blocks away, a procession of shaved, robed priests from So-Zen Temple clip-clopped on geta through the crooked, narrow lanes. “Aaaaaa…,” they intoned. “Ohhhhh…Ehhhhh…” They performed these vocal exercises each morning to develop stamina of the lungs, and indeed their deep, resonant voices rose up from their diaphragms and into the morning air like the long aftermath of a gong. All throughout the neighborhood, produce peddlers were beginning to make their appearance. These farming women, brown from the sun, came in each morning from the surrounding countryside. Noticeably shorter than their urban counterparts, they padded through the lanes on old-fashioned tabi shoes made of cloth, leaning their weight into wooden pushcarts and grinning up at customers from beneath the shade of white cloths draped under their straw hats. “Madam…? Good morning…,” they called out every so often, as a gentle signal to housewives in their kitchens.

None of this registered with fourteen-year-old Sarah Rexford, who slept soundly after yesterday’s long plane ride. She didn’t hear her mother rising from the futon beside her, or the priests’ distant chanting as they headed down Murasaki Boulevard on their way back to the temple complex, or the murmur of women’s voices directly outside in the lane—among which the excited tones of her mother and grandmother were mingled—as they gathered around a peddler’s cart.

The house in which Sarah slept had a gray tiled roof with deep eaves; its outer walls were left unpainted in order to display the wood’s aged patina, which had deep chestnut undertones like the coat of a horse. This had been her mother’s childhood home, but only her grandparents lived here now. The house stood on a corner, where a narrow gravel lane intersected a slightly wider paved street that fed into Murasaki Boulevard. Each summer the Kobayashi house attracted attention because of its morning glory vines, whose electric-blue blossoms blanketed the entire eastern side of the house. The locals—housewives walking to the open-air market, entire families strolling to the bathhouse after dinner—often altered their routes in order to admire the view. As Mrs. Kenji Kobayashi liked to tell people, she had nurtured these vines from a single potted plant that her granddaughter Sarah had given her eight years ago: a first-grade science project, grown from seed. The younger generation of adults would nod, remarking fondly that they’d had the same assignment as children, that they could remember documenting the seedlings’ growth in sketch journals. Under Japan’s public school system, all schools used the same government-issued textbooks.

Sarah Rexford hadn’t attended a Japanese school since she was nine years old. That was the year she and her parents had moved away to America, after selling their home up in the Kyoto hills. There were various reasons for this move, one being that they thought it might be easier for Sarah to be with “her own kind,” meaning children who wouldn’t stare at her on the street or bully her after school. She was a mixed child, or as they said in Japan, a “half.” Her features, however, were predominantly Western: straight nose, light gray eyes, dark wavy hair with brown highlights instead of blue.

The marriage of her mother, Yoko, to John Rexford, an American physicist almost old enough to be her father, had shocked everyone back in the