By Ben DuPree
My big brother Daichi died on the floor of a subway train between Ueno Station and Tsukiji Station on Monday, March 20, 1995. He was on his way to the office. The train was crowded. He didn’t see the wet and leaking newspaper-wrapped plastic bag under his seat.
Sarin looks like water and evaporates quickly. The doctor at St. Luke’s said exposure causes weakness like a sudden flu. More makes it hard to breathe. Pupils become dots and vision blurs. Soon there are convulsions, respiratory failure, and death.
Daichi fell and didn’t get up. His train arrived at Tsukiji Station and was removed from service. Other commuters stepped over him to escape. He was alone. Sarin soaked into the collar of his navy blue suit and smeared across his face. Eventually a station attendant found him and dragged him off the train. I heard later that the attendant also died.
I saw Daichi’s body early the next morning in the hospital. He was on a metal table and covered up to his stomach by a gray sheet. He had been cut out of his suit and his skin was pale. My brother Shouta and I held hands and stood over him. Mom waited in the hallway.
“He looks like dad,” Shouta said.
“So do you,” I said.
Shouta tugged at his collar to loosen his tie. Mom had insisted we dress up before coming to the hospital. I wore a blouse with a beige jacket because I had work after. Shouta picked a navy blue suit that matched the one Daichi had been wearing.
“I mean after he died,” Shouta said.
“I thought you said you didn’t remember,” I said.
Our dad died when I was six months old; Shouta and Daichi were four and six.
“No, I see it perfectly,” Shouta said. “Grandfather put his hands under Daichi’s arms and lifted him. Mom was holding you with one arm. In her other arm there was white flowers. Daichi took the flowers and put them in the casket.”
Shouta stared at Daichi’s closed eyes.
“Then it was my turn,” Shouta said. “Grandfather set down Daichi and raised me up. I took flowers from mom. They were wet and smelled like grass and felt so big in my arms. I could barely see over them.”
I tightened my grip on Shouta’s hand.
“I squeezed the flowers as hard as I could because I was worried that I would drop them and people would be mad,” he said. “But no one was watching me because everyone was looking at dad. And he looked like Daichi does now. Quiet and cold.”
“You never told me about that,” I said.
Shouta shrugged and was silent.
That evening I found Shouta and mom at home. We lived in a three-room apartment above a grocery store ten minutes from Ueno Station. Mom and I shared a room and, until the day before, so did Shouta and Daichi.
“It’ll be a few more days,” Shouta said. “I’ll make the calls in the morning.”
Mom nodded. She was seated at the kitchen table, still wearing the gray suit and plaid jacket she wore to the hospital. Shouta had changed into sweatpants and a white shirt and was leaning against the refrigerator. I warmed a cup of the morning’s coffee in the microwave and sat across from mom. She didn’t seem to notice I had joined her.
“There’s the funeral home,” Shouta said. “And scheduling the cremation. The rest of the family has to come out. We’ll need food and flowers. And that’s after the hospital lets us have his body.”
Mom shivered. I slid my coffee across the table and gestured for her to drink. She took the cup in her hands but did not raise it to her lips. I glared at Shouta.
“Dying isn’t cheap,” he said. “And Daichi earned the most.”
“We’ll be fine,” I said.
Mom stared into the coffee. Steam rose off the cup and fogged her glasses. Shouta got a beer from the fridge.
“It could be worse,” I said. “I could be in school and not working.”
“Or we could be like the rest at the hospital,” Shouta said. He opened his beer. “Waiting to see who lives and who dies.”
“And how much it will cost.”
Mom stood suddenly. The cup fell from her hands and hit the table.
“Yua, Shouta, stop it,” she said. “Please.”
Coffee seeped from cracks in the cup.
“Your brother is dead,” she said.
I took a rag and began soaking up the coffee. Shouta frowned and sipped his beer.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“We didn’t mean to upset you,” he said.
Mom trembled and looked to Shouta and then to me, like she wasn’t sure whether to be angry or sad.
“Your brother is dead,” she repeated.
Mom went into the bedroom. I threw the rag down in front of me. Shouta finished his beer, opened another, and sat where mom had been.
“This would be easier if she helped,” he said.
“She’s doing the best she can,” I said.
“So am I.”
I took Shouta’s beer from him and drank.
The next night I met Shouta after work in Shinjuku. I was between finishing high school and studying for college entrance exams and had taken a part-time job at a Shibuya accounting firm. Daichi was an accountant and I thought I might learn something, but I mostly made coffee and cleaned the office. I worked four days per week, including the day Daichi died.
Shouta and I walked to a late-night coffee shop in the basement of a tall and skinny apartment building. Students and young couples sat at adjacent tables. I felt out-of-place in my work clothes.
“Did you work today?” I asked.
Shouta sold appliances for an electronics retailer in Shinjuku, a job he took after he graduated college the year before. But, that evening, he wasn’t wearing his uniform.
“I took today off,” he said. “Probably the rest of the week, too. There’s so much left to do for the funeral.”
“Can I help?” I asked.
“I could use a beer.”
I laughed. “You’ll have to stop at a bar later.”
“We could go now if you were a year older.”
I shrugged and sipped coffee.
“Things are coming together,” he said. “The cousins and our aunt are making arrangements to come out. They should be here late Friday.”
“What about Daichi?” I asked.
“The funeral home gets the body Friday morning. We can do the ceremony first thing Saturday and the cremation after that. Is that okay?”
I wrapped my hands around my coffee mug and sat silently because I didn’t want to look at Shouta or answer him.
“Little sis?” he asked.
“I wonder if this is how mom feels,” I said.
“I doubt it. We were all so young when dad died. Mom’s carried that burden a long time.”
We finished our coffees and left the shop. The night was warm for early spring but still brisk, the kind of night where people don’t wear jackets but then a breeze kicks up and leaves them shivering. We walked to Shinjuku Station and took a train bound for Ueno. But I got off instead at Tsukiji. Shouta followed.
“This is where he died,” I said.
Wind blew across my face as the train departed.
“Yes it is,” Shouta said.
Some time later we learned a man named Yasuo Hayashi killed Daichi. The sarin attack took place that March, but Hayashi wasn’t found for almost two years. He was arrested on an island near Okinawa and eventually sentenced to die. I often saw him on television during his trial; the cameras focused on his pocked face and his distant expression between solemn and concerned.
Hayashi and my brother boarded the train at the same time and sat near each other. For years after Hayashi’s capture I pictured them together and felt bitter over life’s mysterious strangeness, how Daichi faced his killer without knowing it. Then Hayashi placed a newspaper-wrapped plastic bag filled with sarin near Daichi, punctured it, and left the train.
“I know this is what I have to do,” Shouta said. “But I resent it.”
The air was hot and close. People were all around us. Shouta looked like he was in pain. I took his hand and we left the station, walking until we reached a park overlooking Tokyo Bay.
“I was difficult yesterday,” Shouta said.
He leaned on a railing and stared at the water. The park was empty except for us. Lights from a distant boat shimmered on the bay’s gentle tide. I leaned in next to him. He turned to me like he wanted to say something, but instead stayed silent and returned to watching the water.
The day of Daichi’s funeral I awoke before dawn. Mom was still asleep. I showered, got dressed, went to the kitchen, and microwaved water for instant coffee. When it was ready I sat at the table and watched the sky slowly grow bright through a window over the sink.
Daichi woke early each morning. He drank coffee and sat alone at the kitchen table, sometimes reading a newspaper, sometimes staring at the sky. By the time I was up and preparing to leave for school or work, he was often already gone.
I respected my eldest brother’s routine because he was precise. Each work day he wore one of a few suits that were black or blue or gray. He ate at the same ramen stand for lunch. He rode the same train to the office and sat in the same seat. I wasn’t sure if a life like that was what I wanted, but it made Daichi happy. I tried not to consider how routine played a part in his death.
Our front door opened and Shouta entered. He skin was shiny with sweat and he wore yesterday’s jeans and wool sweater.
“Good morning,” I said.
“Hi,” Shouta said. He sat heavily in a chair across from me. “Coffee?”
I microwaved a second cup and set it in front of him. While he drank I also warmed a plate of leftover rice, roasted fish, and vegetables.
“You disappeared pretty quickly after everyone left last night,” I said.
We had eaten dinner with mom’s sister and her two sons who arrived from Osaka after work. They were staying in a hotel a few blocks from our apartment.
“I needed time,” he said.
“I got drunk.”
Shouta wiped his forehead and neck with a milky white handkerchief with delicate ashen stitching.
“Is that Daichi’s?” I asked.
“I borrowed it,” Shouta said.
I couldn’t remember a time when Shouta and Daichi weren’t close. To call them inseparable felt wrong because they had their own friends, goals, and happiness. But they were brothers, close in age and in ways I couldn’t appreciate.
“What happens now?” I asked.
“Too much,” Shouta said.
“Are you still worried about money?”
“I think we have enough, but it’s close. Flowers. The casket. Cremation. Food.” He covered his eyes with his hands. “And I wasted a few thousand yen overnight.”
I pulled my chair around the table and sat next to Shouta.
“I feel like my body is ripping open,” he said. “Like everything I am is sewed up with stitches that are coming apart.”
I wrapped my arms around his shoulders and put my head against his.
“I’m not sure I know how to be alone,” he said.
I arrived at work on the morning of the attack a little before 8:30 a.m. to prepare the office and make coffee. Daichi and I left the apartment at the same time, but we took different trains as we always did. The last time I saw him alive was outside Ueno Station.
The people on the television in my office break room said there was a sickness on several city train lines. Work stopped and we watched. The number of sick increased into the hundreds and thousands. I called Shouta, who was still at home. Then I called Daichi’s office, but he wasn’t there.
“We weren’t as close after we started work,” Shouta said.
“People grow up,” I said. “They change.”
“That’s not it. We’ve lived in this apartment since after dad died. Most of our days ended together. We loved you and mom, but we had each other for the worst of it. He’s gone, but when I go to our room I’m still looking for him.”
Shouta’s body shuddered with muffled sobs. He pushed his face into my shoulder; his tears were hot on my skin. Through the kitchen window I saw a sliver of the sun behind an adjacent apartment building.
“I’m still here,” I said.
The water pipes in the walls behind us groaned. Shouta freed himself from my arms and wiped his face with the handkerchief.
“Mom’s awake,” he said.
The funeral home was on the first floor of a cream and stone-colored building two blocks from Ueno Station. We walked there from our apartment an hour before our scheduled 9 a.m. service. The elevated highway was next to us and the pillars holding it up rumbled as trucks passed. Shouta and mom walked together, with his arm through hers.
Mom’s sister and our cousins met us for breakfast at a nearby coffee shop. We sat quietly at a round table in the back. Conversations started and ended abruptly; none of us wanted to speak or look like we had nothing to say. We finished and went back to the funeral home, but we were still too early so we waited in front of the building.
After a time we were called inside and taken to a ceremony room. We were joined by men and women from Daichi’s company and some of his personal friends. The air was thick with incense smoke that stung my eyes. The room was white but color was everywhere; flowers were above and below Daichi’s casket, which was smooth black and raised to eye level. A priest stood to one side of the casket, his robes as orange as a setting sun. On the other side was an oversized portrait of Daichi wearing the same blue suit he died in.
The ceremony was short. The priest prayed and so did we. I held mom and we cried together. Every few minutes she glanced at Daichi’s casket, but she never looked to his portrait. Shouta was the opposite, staring at Daichi’s portrait and avoiding the casket. At one point the priest asked Shouta to speak for the family, but he shook his head.
We then took turns placing flowers in the casket. I chose a handful of white and pink tulips. I kissed Daichi’s forehead and lingered over him, whispering thanks to him for being my brother. I also realized it was the first time I had touched him since the attack.
When I walked from the casket I saw Shouta standing in the back of the room.
“It was beautiful,” I said. “Thank you for making the arrangements.”
“You’re welcome,” he said.
“Have you laid flowers?”
“In a bit.”
Shouta was still staring at Daichi’s portrait.
“It’s a nice picture,” I said.
“His company paid to have it taken last year,” Shouta said.
People began to leave the room. Most would come to our apartment that night for food and drinks, but first the immediate family would go to the cremation house.
“You didn’t say anything when the priest asked,” I said.
Shouta squeezed my arm. “I need to make sure the casket gets delivered on time to the crematorium,” he said. “See you over there?”
The next day, Sunday, we went to Mitaka to place Daichi’s ashes in the family grave. We left the apartment in the late afternoon because mom insisted on being there at sundown. Shouta drove and mom sat up front with him; I sat in the back holding the urn, which was small enough to fit in my hands cupped and held together. A plastic bag of offerings and several bunches of flowers were at my feet.
Dad’s grandparents were the last of the family to live in Mitaka, before they moved closer to Tokyo’s center for work and to have kids. Despite being so close we only visited a few times per year. I believed we all felt guilt about that choice, but not enough to do more than pray at our house shrine.
The cemetery was large, with several smaller sections joined into a park complex. When we drove through the middle I had trouble remembering which road went to our family grave. But mom was certain, quietly pointing turns.
We parked and Shouta unloaded the car. I filled a wooden bucket at the communal spigot and mom set to washing the family gravestone with a wooden ladle and a cloth.
“It’s been a while,” Shouta said.
He set the flowers and plastic bag at my feet. Then he brought the urn and held it before him.
“This is less than half,” he said. “After the home and company shrines.”
I took the urn from him and hugged it into my stomach.
“Not quite the same,” he said.
“Funny how little is left,” I said.
He reached for the urn and I let him have it.
“I’m glad you came,” I said.
“Were you worried I wouldn’t?” he asked.
“I don’t care about flowers or saying words in front of people I don’t know,” he said. “Daichi’s my big brother. I couldn’t be there when he died, but I loved him and I’m with him now.”
Mom gestured to us with the ladle and stepped back from the grave. I placed the flowers, lit incense, and set a Kirin for dad. The sun was behind us and the stones shined with water and orange light.
“It’s time,” mom said.
Shouta held the urn out to mom. She removed her glasses and leaned in, kissing the urn and lingering with her face against the metal. I heard her talking, but the words were barely there and gone as soon as she spoke them. When she pulled back Shouta offered her the urn again, but she shook her head.
“You will do it,” she said.
She unlocked and opened the compartment at the grave’s base and stood behind Shouta with her hand on his lower back. I joined her. Shouta put his forehead against the urn and closed his eyes. We stayed like that for many minutes.
“Thank you,” Shouta eventually said. “For everything.”
He set the urn in the grave. Mom closed and locked the compartment. Shouta and I moved away but mom stayed, getting on her knees to continue her prayer.
“Let’s give her a few minutes,” I said.
We walked to the car.
“Do you work tomorrow?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “I asked off because I knew today would be difficult.”
“Me neither. I’m going to take you guys home and then go for a drive. I want to see the sunrise over Mount Fuji.”
That sunrise would mark a week since Daichi died alone on the train.
“What about mom?” I asked.
“She’s handling things her way,” Shouta said. “And doing the best she can, like you said.”
The sun was now completely below the horizon. I hugged Shouta and put my head against his chest.
“I’ll come with you,” I said.
Ben DuPree lives in Portland, Oregon. His short fiction has most recently been featured in Switchback, Lime Hawk, and Cirque: A Literary Journal for the North Pacific Rim.