Excerpt from Prize Stock
When I woke up, fecund morning light was slanting through every crack in the slat walls, and it was already hot. My father was gone. So was his gun from the wall. I shook my brother awake and went out to the cobblestone road without a shirt. The road and the stone steps were awash in the morning light. Children squinting and blinking in the glare were standing vacantly or picking fleas out of the dogs or running around and shouting, but there were no adults. My brother and I ran over to the blacksmith’s shed in the shade of the lush nettle tree. In the darkness inside, the charcoal fire on the dirt floor spit no tongues of red flame, the bellows did not hiss, the blacksmith lifted no red-hot steel with his lean, sun-blackened arms. Morning and the blacksmith not in his shop – we had never known this to happen. Arm in arm, my brother and I walked back along the cobblestone road in silence. The village was empty of adults. The women were probably waiting at the back of their dark houses. Only the children were drowning in the flood of sunlight. My chest tightened with anxiety.
Harelip spotted us from where he was sprawled at the stone steps that descended to the village fountain and came running over, arms waving. He was working hard at being important, spraying fine white bubbles of sticky saliva from the split in his lip.
“Hey! Have you heard?” he shouted, slamming me on the shoulder.
“Heard?” I said vaguely.
“That plane yesterday crashed in the hills last night. And they’re looking for the enemy soldiers that were in it, the adults have all gone hunting in the hills with their guns!”
“Will they shoot the enemy soldiers?” my brother asked shrilly.
“They won’t shoot, they don’t have much ammunition,” Harelip explained obligingly, “They aim to catch them!”
“What do you think happened to the plane?” I said.
“It got stuck in the fir trees and came apart,” Harelip said quickly, his eyes flashing. “The mailman saw it, you know those trees.”
I did, fir blossoms like grass tassles would be in bloom in those woods now. And at the end of summer, fir cones shaped like wild bird eggs would replace the tassles, and we would collect them to use as weapons. At dusk then and at dawn, with a sudden rude clatter, the dark brown bullets would be fired into the walls of the storehouse. . . .
“Do you know the woods I mean?”
“Sure I do. Want to go?”
Harelip smiled slyly, countless wrinkles forming around his eyes, and peered at me in silence. I was annoyed.
“If we’re going to to go I’ll get a shirt,” I said, glaring at Harelip. “And don’t try leaving ahead of me because I’ll catch up with you right away!”
Harelip’s whole face became a smirk and his voice was fat with satisfaction.
“Nobody’s going! Kids are forbidden to go into the hills. You’d be mistaken for the foreign soldiers and shot!”
I hung my head and stared at my bare feet on the cobblestones baking in the morning sun, at the sturdy, stubby toes. Disappointment seeped through me like treesap and made my skin flush hot as the innards of a freshly killed chicken.
“What do you think the enemy looks like?” my brother said.
Excerpt from the short story “Prize Stock” from Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness : four short novels by Kenzaburo Oe
Translated by John Nathan
Published by Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd., London, 1989
Translation copyright © 1977 by John Nathan
Reprinted by arrangement with Marion Boyars Publishers
Excerpt selected by the Nobel Library of the Swedish Academy.