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A Too Small Room

Like a Grimms’ fairy tale transported to Japan, “A Too Small Room” proceeds through a world whose houses, forests, and marketplaces are elementary, even quintessential, but make up only half its substance, since the space in which it exists is built every bit as much from story as from landscape. I was delighted by how far it ventured from its initial mood of pained constraint, showing us two women whose lives at first seem “no bigger than a sigh” before they stretch and grow and “curve ahead like a bend in a road.” Though the tone Yume Kitasei strikes is classical, she does the daring work of trading her narrative between two unique points of view—something that’s not easy to achieve gracefully, never mind in a story of so few pages. The balance keeps shifting between Mei’s perspective and Akari’s, so elegantly that you’re hardly aware it’s happening, and the setting expands just as elegantly from a pocket of dirt in the ground to the vastness of the universe. From Judge Kevin Brockmeier.

Akari was born in a room no bigger than a sigh. There was no door. As she grew, the room grew too – but only so much, and then she was forced to stop growing. She had to sit with her legs folded up beneath her chin, her long hair down around her ankles. She didn’t wonder if there was more to the world than the room, she only knew the world wasn’t big enough for her.

She stretched, shimmied, scratched at the walls, and cried out with a voice she didn’t know she had.

Mei, the woodcutter’s daughter, walked through the forest. She was looking for wood to cut for the house she would build for herself.

The axe on her shoulder was rusted and heavy, stolen from her brother. In her backpack was a knife, a raggedy blanket, needle and thread. Also, a sack of rice, saved grain by stray grain for five years, without anyone in her family noticing.

Mei spotted bamboo, straight and tall enough for her to cut, if she wanted to prove to herself that she could do a thing she had always been told she couldn’t.

Akari, in the too small space, thought she heard a voice that wasn’t hers. She pressed her ear against the wall. The wall was singing. Or not the wall. How?

Her world began to shake. She nearly lost her head as the axe blade bit through the top of her room.

The bamboo fell, and the woodcutter’s daughter stumbled back in shock. A girl no bigger than her arm crawled out of the chamber of the bamboo. 

Mei and Akari regarded each other in the soft green light that filtered down through the forest.

Then Akari looked around and began to weep. The world was much bigger than she had thought. She might have crawled back into the bamboo, but Mei reached out and picked her up like a doll.

“What were you doing in there?” Mei asked as if either of them had ever chosen to be born.

Mei laid out the old blanket and set Akari down on it. She went about cutting more wood.

By evening, she’d accomplished little. Mortified, she lay down next to Akari and listened to the crickets and the shush-shush of the leaves. Perhaps she ought to go home. It was too hard. Most likely, she would fail.

But next morning, Mei woke feeling stronger. In the other girl’s eyes, she felt the tendon and sinew in her arms grow taut. She cut trees, made a clearing, built a house. The wood she chose was wrong: the frame splintered, and it fell down. But her second one stood straight, and the roof kept out the rain.

Meanwhile, Akari grew taller and learned to speak. She named herself. She never came inside even in the snow, so Mei built a porch under the roof, and Akari slept there with her toes delightfully cold and sticking over the edge.

This is how the Governor’s son saw her when he came riding through the woods. He was startled by the crude hut, and this strange girl beneath a patched quilt. He stopped and woke her. She was only as tall as a child. Her fingers were delicate, her body slender and twisted.

She answered him in a reedy voice. “Go with you? Where?”

Mei came out of the house and glared at this man.

“I didn’t know there is more beyond the forest,” Akari said.

“Don’t go,” said Mei.

But for Akari, the forest was still a too small room.

The Governor’s son lived in a busy town. He gave her a fine room, but Akari preferred the night sky. She missed Mei. Everyone in town stared at her. But Akari continued to grow.

In the forest, Mei’s rice dwindled, then was gone. She had thought when the time came, she and Akari would journey to town together, but now Mei was alone. At last, she could no longer put off what was necessary, so she built a sled, piled it with wood, and pulled it all the way to town. When she got there, she could barely move. Her whole body ached.

She set up in the marketplace next to the other wood sellers and watched as they sold their wood one by one. All she got were funny looks. Darkness fell, and her stomach growled loudly. She trembled with exhaustion. In the dusk no one could tell she was an eccentric woman in men’s clothing.

A man hurried up. “Thank goodness you’re still here. My master will take all of it.” He gave her a heavy purse, and she followed the man to a large house: the Governor’s!

The man was surprised to discover his woodcutter was a woman, but now that it was at the house, wood was wood.

Akari was sitting on the porch. She had cut her hair short to save time combing it, and her fingers were black from ink: she was learning to read and write.

The two women embraced.

“Tell me,” Akari said when they were comfortable. “How big is the world?” She heard of strange places in books and wanted to know if they were real.

Mei stretched her tired limbs. Her life curved ahead like a bend in a road. “It’s as big as you can imagine.”

The next night, Akari took a horse and rode towards the moon. It was big and orange and couldn’t be far. She left the horse and climbed a mountain.

At the top, she reached out with both hands and stood on her tiptoes. She reached out and caught the wind. Away and up she went, all the way to the moon.

When the Governor’s son returned to the hut, he found Mei singing and sweeping the floor. “Why are you so happy?” he asked. He had looked everywhere for Akari.

“You’ll never find her,” said Mei. “She is out there looking for the walls of the universe.”

Yume Kitasei’s stories have previously appeared in publications including Baltimore Review and Room Magazine.

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