On her way to collect a secondhand bedside table from a Craigslist user, Emma looks up at the sky above Setagaya to find the most beautiful cloud in memory. A mass of corpulent, slow-moving, baby pink sweetness, it hovers in the center of the firmament like a nude Renaissance courtier pillowed in rose-colored velvet, or a bulbous mountain of huge, bruised, tumbling peaches. Caught halfway into a crosswalk, she stops and stares spellbound until a car horn yelps at her and she jumps, half-bows in apology, and hurries over to the other side. The buildings immediately eclipse her view of the cloud, and she puts it out of mind, turning instead to the vibrating, navy blue arrow on her phone screen orienting her towards Setagaya 1-chome.
There is an awkward exchange of greetings and the Craigslist user–a young woman much like Emma–unceremoniously presents her with the little bedside table, made of flimsy plywood and seafoam-green fabric and just light enough, Emma thinks, to carry back to the station. However, having seriously overestimated both her strength and her stamina, she is forced to stop a few times on her return, huffing and puffing under the street lights that are now blinking on. She ducks into a drugstore, bedside table and all, to buy a bottle of sour-tasting, violet-colored sports drink, and chugs it in the shade of the store’s awning.
Even in the evening, summer is woundingly hot, and her undershirt sticks to her skin as closely and as suffocatingly as glossy protective shrink-wrapping. Around her, commuters are walking the last mile home, and the air buzzes with snippets of phone calls and crows cawing. She wipes her mouth and tucks the bottle into her bag. As she looks about her, she spots the cloud again. It feels closer now, somehow, as well as larger and more beautiful. Dominating the darkening sky, it moves, serenely, entrancingly, like a carnation-pink whale swimming in the bluest waters. Emma smiles, saturated in the feeling of wonder that only the natural world’s sudden, unexpected pleasures can provide.
She goes to pick up the dresser again but, as she heaves it up into her arms, she notices something strange and new. An alleyway spirals perpendicularly from the main road where she stands, and, at its end, a soft, strange light flickers. Maybe it’s the cloud, its cool-toned shadow casting far into her mind, leaving her drunken, mystified, sopoforic, and all too eager to participate in the world’s hidden secrets, but she is instantly, overwhelming fascinated. She quickly tucks the chest of drawers against the wall of a nearby apartment building where it can remain temporarily undisturbed, and sets out to investigate the source of the light.
The alleyway is quiet, dimly lit, and cool. Emma passes the colorless, crumbling facades of run-down, Taisho-era residential blocks, their black tiled roofs peeking out from behind vast webs of scaffolding, half-curtains obscuring their entryways. A stray cat watches with wide lavender eyes. As she approaches, Emma realizes that the light is coming from the back of a small white kei truck, parked at an angle at the very end of the alleyway. Several cardboard containers filled with fruits and vegetables are placed hapharzedly in front of the truck’s opened back; Emma sees boxes of spotted green mangoes encased in foam netting, stickered scarlet apples, chunky, soil-speckled mushrooms, and mangled stalks of spinach.
From the corner of her eye, she notices what appear to be three unassuming boxes arranged one next to another: the first is filled to the brim with water, glassy and ultra-reflective in the warm yellow light coming from the back of the truck, the second, filled with dark, earthy-smelling dirt. The third is apparently empty, but the darkness inside it seems solid, material, and Emma, enticed, draws closer. As she moves to look down into the third box, a woman pops out from the truck’s cab, her arms full of bags of tiny, multi-colored tomatoes.
“ちょうど良かった. You’re just in time,” she says, and Emma jumps. In the dark, they size each other up. Later, when Emma tries to recall the woman’s appearance, she is not able to produce any useful information other than a few random, imperfect observations: the woman’s wrinkled hands and face, her tartan smock, her toothy grin.
“ちょうど良かった?” Emma repeats, in halting Japanese.
“I close in a few minutes.”
Emma smiles wanly. She hadn’t gone out with the intention of buying groceries, and she still has the dresser to lug home on the train. But she has come this far and she can’t find the will to politely refuse. She sorts through the boxes idly, plucking out a handful of matsutake mushrooms and a spotted mango, marked nearly a third off its original price. The woman weighs Emma’s items on an ancient scale of rusted orange metal and gingerly places everything into a paper bag. She adds, for free, a bag of the mini-tomatoes.
“Thank you,” Emma says. She goes to leave but pauses a moment and then points to the three boxes of water, dirt, and shadows, and asks, shyly, what they are.
The woman gives Emma a hard, measured look. After a beat, she bends down and, so quickly Emma hardly catches the motion, she brushes her hand against the waters of the first box and then raps her nails against the second box. The water ripples. The soil shifts and sighs. Instantly, a breeze races through the alley, and Emma feels a shiver of delight. She looks up to find the beautiful cloud with the wind cutting through it, shredding it into threadbare strips of pink that quickly dissipate into the blackened purple sky. Emma’s phone buzzes loudly and she looks down to find an alert from the Japan Metereological Agency warning her that she has five or so seconds to find cover. She’s been in Tokyo long enough to have had experiences like this before, and knows what to do. Wordlessly, she and the woman draw close together by the truck and steel themselves against the sway of the ground as it rocks back and forth. The wind returns down the alley, enveloping Emma for a second and lifting her a nearly imperceptible distance off the ground, before colliding full-force against the woman’s chest and shoulders and vanishing. The air around them slows and the earth abruptly stills.
Emma looks at the woman. Her face, sweaty and enthralled, shines like the face of a full, wan moon. She doesn’t know what to say, or what kind of expression to make. Then she remembers there is one box yet remaining. As though reading her mind, the woman shakes her head resolutely. She turns to pick up the boxes and begins piling them into the back of the truck, and Emma, understanding that she’s been dismissed, walks back down the alley to the bedside table. She hides the produce in the table’s green fabric drawers, and then takes the whole unit, mushrooms, mango, and tomatoes rolling inside, onto the train. At home, she slices and fries the mushrooms and tomatoes in oil, adding salt, pepper, finely chopped onion, wilted basil and day-old rice to the pan and cooks the mixture for another five minutes. As the tomatoes char and blister on the pan, a new cloud pops up, out of thin air, huge, lustrous, and heavy with rain, in the window behind her.