Tani-san stood like a grim little sentinel, gazing out over the wide blue ocean yet there was still no sign of the battered fishing vessel that had ferried them out to this rocky isle on the tip of the Shiretoko Peninsula. Indeed, such was her sense of imminent catastrophe that she would have gladly welcomed a Russian submarine.
“You can say what you like,” she remarked to her less impressive companion, Mrs. Ishihama, who was inclined to take a more cheerful view of their current predicament, “but my instincts are telling me that we could be stuck out here for quite some time. And as you know, they are never wrong.”
If blame was to be allocated, and it surely was, then it was to be laid at the door of their fellow castaway Mrs. Terakado, who had insisted on altering the schedule of their three-day trip to Hokkaido to take in the beauty of this tiny island, which was noted for its dazzling displays of wildflowers. Of course, what Mrs. Terakado had failed to establish was that it was also noted for its remoteness and the treachery of its surrounding waters, which was why the four little ladies had been obliged to charter a fishing boat to get them there in the first place.
“Yes, but surely they won’t have forgotten about us?” said Mrs. Ishihama, who was having to hold onto her sun hat to prevent it from blowing away.
“Well, take a moment and just think about it,” said Tani-san, all too aware that she was asking Mrs. Ishihama to do something that did not come naturally to her like asking a crane to ride a bicycle. “How many people know that we’re here?”
“Mmm. Good question,” mused her slow-witted friend as she gave the problem her full attention. “Well, there’s that fishing boat captain for a start.”
“Yes,” said Tani-san with great patience. “And who else?”
Slowly and with painstaking diligence, Mrs. Ishihama went through her mental inventory of friends, acquaintances, relatives, neighbors, TV personalities, members of the government, and all of the various shop assistants that she’d had dealings with at one time or another, crossing them off one by one until she had finally exhausted the possibilities.
“… Oh,” she said as the penny finally dropped. “I see what you mean.”
Still, it took a great deal more than hard facts to put a dent in her empty-headed optimism, as soon became apparent:
“All the same,” she said, “I wouldn’t worry too much if I were you. I’m sure the captain will be along any minute now. I, for one, have every confidence in him. He’s so rugged and fascinating, don’t you think?”
If truth be told, Mrs. Ishihama had developed a bit of a crush on the wooly-haired fisherman who had deposited them on the shores of this lonely island so her opinion of him was rather subjective to say the least.
“Well, if by ‘rugged and fascinating’ you mean utterly incompetent and blind drunk,” said Tani-san, “then yes, I would have to say that he is by far the most rugged and fascinating seafarer that I’ve ever come across.”
“Ah! So you agree with me, then!”
“No,” said Tani-san, “I most certainly do not. Apart from getting himself all tangled up in that fishing net, he somehow managed to fall off his own boat. Twice. And we hadn’t even left the harbor at that point. No, my guess is that he’ll be slumped across the wheel out cold and well on his way to Vladivostok by now. So I wouldn’t bank on a rescue coming from that quarter any time soon.”
“Oh dear,” said her dim friend, who was finally starting to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. “What are we to do?”
“Whatever we have to to survive,” said Tani-san. “And by that, I mean anything.”
Mrs. Ishihama cast her eyes over the surrounding slopes, which were copiously adorned with pretty roses, but very little else. Certainly there was nothing in their immediate vicinity that would equip them for survival as far as she could see.
“Well, couldn’t we gather some dry sticks and make a beacon to signal a passing ship?” she suggested hopefully.
“We could and we should,” concurred Tani-san, “but that would still be leaving everything to chance. I see no alternative but cannibalism.”
With that, she turned her gaze toward the other two members of their party — Mrs. Terakado and Mrs. Sekiguchi — who were sitting on a rock some distance away, chatting quietly and eating their packed lunches. The implication, it seemed, was patently obvious. All the same, it took Mrs. Ishihama a moment or two to make the connection.
“… Oh, no!” she exclaimed utterly aghast. “You can’t seriously be suggesting that we eat our dearest friends?”
“I don’t like it any more than you do,” said a stern-faced Tani-san, “but we may have no choice. Every now and then, a certain set of circumstances comes along that obliges you to eat an acquaintance. It is, perhaps, one of the more unpalatable facts of life, but there it is.”
“Yes, but I really don’t think that I could eat Mrs. Sekiguchi even if my life depended on it,” protested her friend. “Not only is she a member of my Tuesday evening flower arranging class, but she also happens to be my youngest nephew’s school teacher.”
“Well, I’m pretty sure that one flower arranger won’t be missed and you would undoubtedly rise in your nephew’s estimation,” said Tani-san. “But if that’s the way you feel about it, we shall start with Mrs. Terakado, who would have been my choice anyway. After all, it was her ineptitude that got us into this fix in the first place, aside from which there is a lot more meat on her. Her bottom alone would see us through the winter.”
Mrs. Ishihama shot a glance at Mrs. Terakado, who had just finished her miso-marinated asparagus and was about to start on a salmon rice ball.
“Even so,” she maintained, “I don’t think that I could bring myself to eat her either. As a rule, I draw the line at whale blubber. And even if I were to contemplate something so unspeakable, it would only be as a last resort.”
“Ah well, there you are, you see?” said Tani-san. “That’s where most castaways make their mistake. For some reason, they tend to regard the eating of their fellow survivors as some drastic final measure when, in fact, it should be the first thing they think of.”
“Oh?” said her puzzled counterpart. “Why’s that?”
“To conserve vital resources,” explained Tani-san. “Observe, if you will, the sheer greed with which Mrs. Terakado is devouring that salmon onigiri. You can guarantee that she is not giving a single thought to the long-term sustainability of our supplies even though we may shortly be facing extinction. In no time at all, she will have emptied that lunch box and will soon be hungry again. What will happen then, do you think? Will she expect to share in our own meager provisions thereby jeopardizing the survival of the entire group, or should she pay for her selfishness in human burgers?”
“Am I supposed to say yes or no?” asked Mrs. Ishihama, who had lost the thread of the argument after ‘vital resources.’
“Yes, of course!” said Tani-san. “To both questions! For make no mistake, things will soon start to turn nasty once the food runs out. Even now, the two of them could be plotting against us. Oh yes, it may look as if they’re just sitting there, enjoying the scenery, but who knows what they’re talking about? Why, they might be planning to turn us into sukiyaki at this very minute!”
“Well, I don’t like the sound of that,” said Mrs. Ishihama, who was rather perturbed by the idea of being talked about as the dish of the day.
“No,” said Tani-san, “neither do I, which is why it’s so important that we act first.”
“By eating our own lunch boxes, you mean?”
“What?” said Tani-san, dismayed, as always, by Mrs. Ishihama’s uncanny knack for missing the point. “How does that help to conserve resources? No, what I’m saying is that we have to get them before they get us!”
“Oh, right, I see,” said Mrs. Ishihama, who really didn’t. The confused silence that followed indicated as much:
“… But if we don’t eat those burgers soon,” she went on, “they’re bound to go off in this heat. And the last thing we need right now is a case of food poisoning.”
“WHAT B—— ?”
Tani-san stopped herself, having realized that it wasn’t worth spending the next 10 minutes going through the whole thing again. It was so much easier just to go along with it.
“You’re right,” she said. “We’ll gobble them up once we’ve dealt with those two.”
“The two lunch boxes.”
“No!” said Tani-san, rapidly approaching the limit of her self-control. “Mrs. Sekiguchi and Mrs. Terakado!”
“Ah yes, of course,” said her brainless co-conspirator with a vague nod. “And how are we going to do that?”
Surprisingly enough, it was a good question, and so Tani-san looked about for a suitable weapon. On the grassy bank to her left there were some loose rocks, but when she tried to lift even the smallest of them she found that it was too heavy for her. So she then picked up a long stick and began to swish it about in the air, yet that, too, failed to meet the necessary criteria: It was well suited to giving someone a good crack across the behind to liven them up a bit, but too thin and reedy to deal a fatal blow. Then, however, the answer came to her. So straightaway, she reached down and took off her shoe.
“I know!” she said, brandishing it in the air. “I’ll come up behind them and hit them over the head with this!”
Mrs. Ishihama looked at the shoe and then at Tani-san.
“Are you sure that’s going to work?” she asked doubtfully. “You only take a size 3.”
“Oh, yes,” said Tani-san. “I’ve done it before. The problem is that I can only hit one of them at a time, which means that I may need your help with the other one.”
Automatically, Mrs. Ishihama bent down and began to undo her shoelace.
“No, not now!” said Tani-san. “First we have to create a distraction so that they’re not ready for us. So here’s what we do: When they’ve finished eating, I will suggest that the four of us go for a walk along the cliffs. Then once we’ve reached a suitable spot, I will give you the signal and then WHAM!!”
“We all have a nice sit down,” said Mrs. Ishihama.
Tani-san took a very deep breath.
“No one sits down with a wham,” she explained very slowly, “no one, not even Mrs. Terakado. When I give you the signal, you take off your shoe and hit the person in front of you as hard as you can. That’s what I mean by wham. Got it?”
“Oh, I see. So this ‘wham’ is like a game, then,” said Mrs. Ishihama.
“Yes,” said Tani-san, “exactly like a game, but with more dead bodies.”
With that, she left Mrs. Ishihama at the water’s edge and wandered over to where the other two ladies were finishing their lunches. Tani-san sat down with them and there was a brief discussion although every so often she would look across at Mrs. Ishihama just to make sure that she was still paying attention.
When the time came for their postprandial walk, Tani-san called her over and then the four of them began heading up a narrow path towards the cape with Mrs. Sekiguchi and Mrs. Terakado leading the way. It was a tedious excursion as far as Tani-san was concerned because her three talkative traveling companions walked slowly and kept stopping all the time. Each new flower seemed to warrant some discussion. Then, just around the next headland, they chanced upon a startling rock formation that looked like a willy although everyone was too polite to say so.
It was as they were approaching a little waterfall that Tani-san saw her opportunity, so she bent down to take off her shoe, signaling to her accomplice to do the same, although I have to say that she had drastically overestimated the storage capacity of Mrs. Ishihama’s short-term memory.
“Oh yes!” said Mrs. Ishihama with great enthusiasm. “Mrs. Tani has had an excellent idea! Let’s all take off our shoes and bathe our feet in the sparkling water!”
This was met by murmurs of approval from the two prospective murder victims, so now everyone was taking off their shoes.
For all the confusion, Tani-san had the presence of mind to realize that she would have to act quickly if her plan was to be salvaged. And so stepping up behind Mrs. Terakado, she lifted her right shoe high above her head. But then just as she was about to bring it down with every bit of force that she could muster, Mrs. Ishihama stepped in to save the day:
“Oh look!” she said, pointing to the open water. “There’s the captain! We’re saved!”
And sure enough, there was the little blue-and-white fishing boat, no more than a fleck on the ocean, chugging steadily towards the bay.
With her characteristic aplomb, Tani-san turned the raised shoe gesture into a shake while making some vague remark about small stones getting into her footwear, and with that, the whole unnecessary business evaporated into thin air. Having said that, she was rather surprised that her instincts, which were usually so reliable, had turned out to be so wrong on this occasion. For the wooly-haired fisherman, whom she had so harshly criticized, had actually proved to be as good as his word.
In fact, he was only 20 minutes late.