Pagodas of the Sun – A New Excerpt by G. S. Arnold

Joint Winner of The Letter Review Prize for Manuscripts & Unpublished Books

A Difference of Nothing

That September after she spent a month in Tokyo with my ex-husband, Kyoko stood at the kitchen counter digging a fingernail into a gutted vanilla bean.

“You’ve joined a circus,” I said. 

I had just come upstairs from my clinic to boil water for tea. Kyoko stood five foot eleven in platform shoes. Her bleached hair looked raked through with particles of moon or maybe the dust of frosted light bulbs and her clothes were a bright kaleidoscope of wounded fruit. She had booth-tanned skin and white concealer over the eye sockets and lips. The new millennium was just a few months away, and I thought maybe she needed to express herself now in case the world ended at midnight, 2000.   

She smeared a loamy knot of vanilla across her tongue. 

“I’ve turned myself inside out.”

She flashed her teeth and I told her that her face resembled a photo negative.

“There are ways the daughter of a physician should conduct herself,” I said.

Her middle finger slid up from a nest of fingers with smiley peaches painted on them. She stuck out her tongue and on it sat the black vanilla mounded in the center like some muddy portent of all that would follow. I had an urge to slap her but instead I pressed a thumb into her wrist. The white depression floated in the beachy skin. 

“I thought natural selection weeded out vulgarity from the Fujitani blood line decades ago,” I said.

“You’re a divorcee,” she said.

“You’re searching for something that isn’t there.” 

“Mother,” she said. “So are you.”

The newborn wailed and Shizuka, the midwife, clamped the umbilical cord. We had just delivered a footling breach. The cord looked like a spindle seashell that had been stretched. The mother cast her head back onto her pillow and her body creaked, or maybe it was the bed. I hooked my two thumbs under the newborn’s armpits while Shizuka wiped off a cheese of vernix caseosa. My baby, my baby, the mother was thinking. This woman, still plugged into her child.

“When do you lose that,” I said to Shizuka later as we were cleaning up. 

“What,” she said.

“That connection.”

Shizuka snapped the hand towel to dry it. She had an eye that strayed to the right.

“Maybe when the cord is cut,” she said.


Mrs. Akanishi’s stomach entered through the waiting-room door. A pregnant woman doesn’t carry her stomach, she follows it around. Midori, the receptionist, shot out a hand to help her squeeze a swollen foot out of her Manolo Blahnik alligator boot. Mrs. Akanishi’s head nodded towards the window: “Aliens are invading.”

I stepped outside, felt the driveway rumble beneath my feet. In front of me sat a custom van with tinted windows and Batmobile fins. It had swoopy side pipes and this three-pronged muffler, the kind that doesn’t just vibrate but shakes. This was Kensuke T. The boyfriend. Jobless. Aimless. Hopeless.

My neighbor Mrs. Tomozaki stood on the other side of the barberry bush squeezing a garden hoe. “This boy,” she whispered to me, “once burned my niece with a candle lighter.”

Kyoko exited the house draped in three pink Hawaiian leis and a floppy yellow sun hat.

“Don’t keep your friend too long from the office,” I said.

“Jobs,” she said, “are for people like you.”

Then the front window slid down and there was Kensuke T slouched behind the wheel, his hair licked into a wet pompadour. Three Cuban-link chains cut gold strips across his neck. He didn’t look at Kyoko. He just nodded towards the passenger’s side with his permanently slack face.

“His cheeks sag like wet laundry,” said Mrs. Tomozaki after the van thudded down the street. The slow and deliberate care he’d taken to back it out of the driveway. You can tell a lot about a person by the attention they pay to their vehicles. He could have been transporting chests of leaky dynamite.

“You say he burned your niece?” 

“That’s him. That looks just like him.”


I brought home the ingredients for a meal I’d seen on Bistro SMAP. Salt-grilled pork belly and cow tongue, caviar and spring onions peppered with Maldon crystal sea salt, an ochazuke set of rice with abalone and sliced tile fish. This was me extending the umbilical cord. After my divorce I’d once overheard Kyoko tell a friend that marriage was for the walking dead. “Unless,” she’d added, “it’s one of the boys from SMAP.”

At the kitchen table her thumb punched out a text message to Kensuke T. No makeup, a pair of house sweats and a loose V-neck. Except for the tan and high-bleached hair she looked almost normal. Even a peaking fad has moments of remission.

I set down an appetizer of crab cream croquettes in front of her. 

“This won chef’s choice on Bistro SMAP,” I said.

A roll of the eyes, their white sclera popping, her big teeth suspended in her face. 

“SMAP is for kids,” she said. “I listen to Eurobeat.”

She shoved the plate away, leaving the food untouched, and walked to the fridge. The door sucked open. She pulled out a loaf of cold bread and a jar of mayonnaise and said something about when did I learn to cook anyway, and this chamber inside me cracked open. I had sprung a gasket and knew it but couldn’t stop myself. My hand acted of its own volition. It snatched her cell phone off the table and dropped it into the garbage disposal and flicked on the water and the switch. Into the rubber grotty mouth and down it went. Kyoko’s teak-colored face blanched white. A garbage disposal does not discriminate. It will devour a phone as fast as an abalone shell.

G. S. Arnold has an MA in English in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto and works at a career college in Toronto, Canada. His work has appeared in The Malahat Review, Echolocation, Event Magazine, Ninth Letter, Asia Literary Review, Glimmer Train, Prairie Fire, The Puritan, and The Master’s Review. His short story collection Pagodas of the Sun has been a finalist for the AWP Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction and the Prairie Schooner Book Prize, and he has received numerous Toronto, Ontario and Canada Arts Council grants. Along with a Pushcart and a Journey Prize nomination, his stories have been short or long listed in contests such as the Writer’s Union of Canada Short Prose competition, the 2019 CBC short story award, the international Bridport Prize for short stories, and the Master’s Review Short Story Anthology Volume XI contest. He has recently finished his debut novel Sea of Clouds, set during the 1923 Tokyo earthquake.