Read The Gift of Numbers Online

Authors: Yôko Ogawa

Tags: #Fiction, #Humorous, #Psychological, #Sports

The Gift of Numbers (4 page)

BOOK: The Gift of Numbers

My son soon grew accustomed to the Professor's enthusiastic
greeting and even came to enjoy it. He would take off his cap at
the door and present the flat top of his head, as if to show how
proud he was to be worthy of the name Root. And for his part, the
Professor never missed his cue, he mentioned the square root
whenever he met my son.

My contract stipulated that I would make dinner for him at six
o'clock and leave at seven after finishing the dishes; but the Professor
began objecting to this schedule as soon as my son arrived
on the scene.

"I won't stand for it! If you have to finish here and then make
another meal once you get home, Root won't get his dinner until
eight o'clock. That just won't do. It's inefficient; it's illogical. Children
should be in bed by eight o'clock. You can't deprive a child
of his sleep—that's when he does his growing."

For a mathematician, his argument wasn't very scientific, but I
decided to ask the director of the agency if it would be possible to
deduct the cost of our dinner from my salary.

The Professor had never before thanked me for my efforts in
the kitchen, but his attitude changed when the three of us sat
down to dinner together for the first time. His manners were exemplary.
He sat up very straight and ate quietly, without spilling so
much as a drop of his soup on the table or his napkin—all of
which seemed odd, given how terrible his manners had been
when it was just the two of us.

"What's the name of your school?" he asked.

"Is your teacher nice?

"How was lunch today?

"What do you want to be when you grow up?"

As he squeezed lemon on his chicken or picked out the carrots
from his soup, the Professor would ask Root one question after
another, without hesitating, even when the question concerned
the past or the future. He was determined to make our dinner
hour as peaceful and pleasant as possible. Though Root's answers
to his questions were mostly perfunctory, the Professor listened
attentively, and it was thanks to his efforts that we ate together
without drifting into any awkward silences.

He was not simply humoring a child. Whenever Root would
put his elbows on the table or clatter his dishes or commit any
other breach of etiquette (all things the Professor had done himself
at his earlier solitary meals), the Professor would gently correct

"You have to eat more," he said one evening. "A child's job is
to grow."

"I'm the shortest one in my class," said Root.

"Don't let that bother you. You're storing up energy, pretty
soon you'll have a growth spurt. One of these days, you're going
to feel your bones begin to stretch out and grow."

"Did that happen to you?" Root wanted to know.

"No, unfortunately, in my case, all that energy was wasted on
other things."

"What other things?"

"On my friends. I had some very close friends, but as it turned
out they weren't the sort you could play baseball or kick-the-can
with. In fact, playing with them didn't involve moving at all."

"Were your friends sick?"

"Just the opposite. They were big and strong as a rock. But
since they lived in my head, I could only play with them there. So
I ended up growing a strong brain instead of a strong body."

"I see," said Root. "Your friends were numbers. My mom says
you're a great math teacher."

"You're a bright boy. Very bright. That's correct, numbers were
my only friends.... But that's why you need to get lots of exercise
while you're young. Do you understand? And you have to eat
everything on your plate, even the things you don't like. And if
you're still hungry, you can have anything on my plate, too."


Root had never enjoyed dinner as much as he did when we ate
with the Professor. He answered the Professor's questions and let
him fill his plate to overflowing, and whenever he could, he looked
curiously around the room or stole a glance at the notes on the
Professor's suit.


Root was a child who had rarely been embraced. When I first saw
him in the hospital nursery, I felt something closer to fear than to
joy. His eyelids and earlobes and even his feet were still swollen
and damp from the amniotic fluid. His eyes were half-closed, but
he didn't seem to be asleep. His tiny arms and legs, protruding
awkwardly from the oversized gown, flailed from time to time as if
in protest at having been left here by mistake.

I was eighteen, ignorant, and alone. My cheeks were sunken
from morning sickness that had continued right up to the moment
I lay down on the delivery table. My hair stank with sweat, and my
pajamas were still stained where my water had broken.

There were fifteen babies in the nursery and he was the only
one awake. It was before dawn and the halls were empty except
for the women at the nurse's station. His fists had been clenched
tight, but at that moment he opened them, and then awkwardly
bent them closed again. The small fingernails were dark and discolored
with traces of what I assumed was my blood.

"Excuse me," I called, staggering down to the nurse's station.
"I'd like to cut my baby's fingernails. He seems to be moving his
hands a lot and I'm afraid he'll scratch himself...." Perhaps I was
trying to convince myself that I was a good mother.


From the time of my earliest memories, I had no father. My
mother had fallen in love with a man she could never marry, and
she had raised me by herself. She worked at a reception hall that
people hired for weddings. She had started out helping wherever
she was needed—bookkeeping, dressing the wedding parties,
flower arranging, table coordination—and ended up managing
the whole place.

She was a strong woman who hated nothing more than having
people think of her daughter as poor and fatherless. Though we
were, in fact, poor, she did her best to make us look and feel rich.
She asked the women who worked in the dressmaking department
to give us scraps of material from which she made all my clothes.
She arranged for the organist at the hall to give me piano lessons
at a discount. And she brought home the leftover flowers and
made pretty arrangements for the apartment.

I suppose I became a housekeeper because I kept house for my
mother from the time I was a small child. When I was barely two
and not quite potty trained, I would wash out my own panties if I
had an accident; and before I was even in elementary school, I was
using the knives in the kitchen and cutting up the ingredients to
make fried rice. By the time I was ten, I not only took care of the
whole apartment, but I was even paying the electric bill and attending
meetings of the neighborhood association in my mother's

My mother never said a word against my father and always insisted
he was a fine man and terribly handsome. He managed a
restaurant somewhere, but the specifics were always kept from
me. I was given to understand, however, that he was tall, fluent in
English, and a connoisseur of opera.

The image I have of my father is that of a statue in a museum.
No matter how close I come to him, I can't get his attention, he
continues to stare off into the distance without looking down, and
he never reaches out his hand to me.

It wasn't until I entered adolescence that it occurred to me how
odd it was that the wonderful man my mother described had
abandoned us and had never offered even the least bit of economic
support. But by that time I had no interest in learning more
about him, and I accepted the role of silent accomplice when it
came to my mother's illusions.

It was my pregnancy that utterly destroyed those illusions,
along with the others she'd carefully stitched together from fabric
scraps, piano lessons, and leftover flowers. It happened not long
after I'd started my junior year of high school.

The boy was someone I'd met at my after-school job, a college
student majoring in electrical engineering. He was a quiet and
cultured young man, but he lacked the decency to take responsibility
for what had happened. The mysterious knowledge of electricity
that had attracted me to him in the first place proved useless,
and he became just another careless man who vanished from my

Once my pregnancy became obvious, there was nothing I could
do to appease my mother's anger, even though we now shared the
experience of giving birth to a fatherless child. It was a melodramatic
sort of anger. Her feelings seemed to block out my own. I
left home in the twenty-second week of my pregnancy and I lost
all contact with her.

When I brought my baby home from the hospital, it was to
public housing that had been set up for single mothers, and the
only person who welcomed us was the woman who served as matron
for the institution. I folded up the one picture I had saved of
the baby's father and stuffed it into the little wooden box they had
given me at the hospital to hold the umbilical cord.

As soon as I'd managed to get the baby into a day care center, I
went straight to the Akebono Housekeeping Agency and arranged
for an interview. It was the only job I could think of that matched
my limited skills.

Shortly before Root entered elementary school, my mother and
I reconciled: a fancy backpack arrived in the mail for him. This
happened at the same time that I had left the single mothers'
home and set up house for ourselves. My mother was still managing
the wedding hall. But just as our troubles seemed to be over
and I'd begun to see how comforting it could be to have a grandmother
for my child, my mother suddenly died of a brain
hemorrhage—which may be why I was even happier than Root
himself when I saw the Professor hug him.


The three of us soon fell into a pleasant routine. There was no
change in my schedule or workload, other than making more food
for dinner. Fridays were the busiest, as I had to prepare food for
the weekend and store it away in the freezer. I would make meat
loaf and mashed potatoes, or poached fish and vegetables, and explain
repeatedly what went with what and how to defrost the
food, although the Professor never quite figured out how to use
the microwave. Nevertheless, when I arrived on Monday morning,
all the food I'd prepared was gone. The meat loaf and fish had
somehow been thawed and eaten, and the dirty dishes had been
washed and put away in the cupboard. I was sure that the old
woman took care of the Professor when I wasn't there, but as long
as I was around, she never made an appearance. I had no idea why
she had placed such a firm restriction on communication between
her house and the Professor's, but I decided that my next challenge
was to figure out how to get to know her.

The Professor's problems, on the other hand, were all mathematical.
He never seemed particularly proud of his accomplishments,
even when he had spent a long time solving an equation
that had won both the prize money and my praise.

"It was just a little puzzle," he would say, "a game"; and his
tone sounded more sad than modest. "The person who made the
problem already knew the answer. Solving a problem for which
you know there's an answer is like climbing a mountain with a
guide, along a trail someone else has laid. In mathematics, the
truth is somewhere out there in a place no one knows, beyond all
the beaten paths. And it's not always at the top of the mountain. It
might be in a crack on the smoothest cliff or somewhere deep in
the valley."

In the afternoon, when he heard Root's voice at the door, the
Professor came out of his study, no matter how absorbed he was
in his work. Though he had always hated to have his "thinking"
interrupted, he now seemed more than willing to give it up for
my son.

Most days, however, Root simply delivered his backpack and
went off to the park to play baseball with his friends, and the Professor
would retreat dejectedly to his study.

So the Professor seemed particularly cheerful when the weather
turned rainy and he was able to help Root with his math homework.

"I think I'm a little smarter when I'm in the Professor's office,"
Root told me. There were no bookshelves in the little apartment
where we lived, so the Professor's study, with its stacks of volumes
lining the walls, seemed magical to him. The Professor would
sweep aside the notebooks and clips and eraser shavings on his
desk to make space for Root, and then he would open the textbook.

How is it possible for a professor of advanced mathematics to
teach a child in elementary school? The Professor was especially
gifted, he had the most wonderful way of teaching fractions and
ratios and volume, and it occurred to me that all parents should be
giving this kind of help to their children.

Whether it was a word problem or just a simple calculation, the
Professor made Root read it aloud first.

"353 × 840 =...

"6239 ÷ 23 =...

"4.62 + 2.74 =...

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