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The Sadness of Things

Writing Sample
When the inhabitants of Lorota saw the sign perched above the shop, no one could make any sense of it.

“What does it mean, ‘The Sadness of Things’?” asked the baker, standing outside his store.

“No idea,” said the mechanic. As the nearest neighbors they wondered what sort of business was entering into their small town. “They say that these Japanese who keep coming since the end of the war bring with them their own culture, their own way of seeing things.”

“Of course,” replied the baker, though he hadn’t the slightest idea of such things. Then he chuckled and patted his neighbor on the back. “It’s hard enough to understand a Japanese when he speaks. Damn near impossible to understand his culture.”          

He shook his head and continued on his way down the hill in the direction of the plaza. From this height, where the Japanese man’s shop was situated, there was a marvelous view of the old town center. In truth, it was a village like any other in this humid part of the country’s less populated interior. Low, dull houses circumscribed a central square, and a predictable set of grid streets filled in the rest of its utilitarian charm. The only exception to its repetitive architecture was the town’s clock tower, an imposing relic from the early nineteenth century, constructed after small deposits of gold found in Minas Gerais funded this artifact of progress and efficiency. It was the jewel of the small village, and stood side by side with the church—both in location and in importance.

The Japanese man had not selected the location of his shop for its marvelous view, though he did take pleasure in it. Living at the top of the hill, at a distance from the town center, was simply more economical. It was also right beside the main highway, and as he was getting on in years, he thought it best to live near the bus stop. In any case, being isolated from most of the villagers did not inconvenience him in the least. He had his neighbors, the baker and the mechanic, and he hardly spoke to either of them anyway.

At first, the Japanese man’s shop did not do very well. Some inquiring people from down the hill did cross through the threshold, hesitantly snooping about as they marveled at the immigrant and his various wares. No one ever questioned why he had moved across the globe; only sparingly did they ask for details of life in the Orient. Above all, no one thought to buy anything. The Japanese man principally offered oriental ceramics; he repaired mechanical contraptions; he sold miniature trees that needed excessive care. In effect, for the majority of inhabitants in Lorota, these were luxuries they simply would never think to obtain.

“Sadness is the vendor of such things,” commented the mechanic.

“Have faith in God,” said the town’s priest as he passed by. But even he seemed a little bemused.

As this conversation was taking place, the Japanese man was, as always, inside his shop. The doors opened at eight in the morning and remained so until eight in the evening, six days a week. On Sunday he was there as well, cleaning and arranging the store and his small adjoining property. He greeted the people coming up the hill after church, hoping to catch a bus to Belo Horizonte.

With especial courtesy, the Japanese man waved to the two figures chatting outside his store.

“Will you have time to oil the mechanism in the clock tower?” resumed the priest.

“Of course,” said the mechanic. “One hundred and fifty years on, she needs a cleaning.”


In this way things continued for some time. The Japanese man spoke little to his fellow citizens; he had still not learned much Portuguese, though he spent hours behind the counter with a language text in front of him. Perhaps he had no interest, or simply, for the lack of anyone with whom to practice, he progressed slowly. What remained certain was that the people of Lorota came to respect the newcomer. He was courteous, he worked conscientiously, and he gave contributions to the town’s church, which he never attended. In these ways he was a model citizen for the entire village, or so at least some townspeople believed.

Years past, and though no one thought to ask, all began to wonder quietly to themselves just how it was that the Japanese man continued to make a living without selling anything. This assumption was not completely true, however. He did in fact sell things, nearly all of it to tourists who lodged in the town occasionally, and to truckers that stopped to obtain help from the mechanic or to buy a sandwich from the baker. The highway brought these individuals, and with such a steady stream of customers, the Japanese man earned his humble living.

People who came to see him seemed to stay longer than they should have. They were asking questions of the Japanese man. When the townspeople inquired of what, these visitors would say that the foreigner had an uncanny way of fixing things. He would take their broken items, each of varying nature and complexity, and bring them with him to the back of the store. Sometimes they heard him singing, or whistling, in a low sort of voice in his own incomprehensible language. On one occasion, a Japanese tourist passing through the town confirmed that the language of the mysterious shopkeeper might well not have been Japanese.

“This man has a talent for setting right what is wrong with things,” he said. “He fixed my pocket watch, an old antique that no one had been able to set right before. Now it keeps excellent time. Better than new,” he added.

“What was the problem?”

“Something inside. It just didn’t want to work anymore.”

“It was sad,” laughed the baker. “Like the sign says.”

“Yes,” replied the traveler. He said this in a very serious manner. “Mono no aware. Very few people can set right the sadness of things.”


It was in the summer that the rains did not stop that the people of Lorota first began to understand the import of the traveler’s words. Four years had passed since the Japanese man had first arrived. The summer rains, habitual and important always, were a necessary part of the yearly cycle. Many of the citizens, tired of the incessant heat, especially looked forward to the intermittent rainy days of December and January that refreshed the ground and kept them temporarily indoors.

But it was in this summer when the rains did not stop that things began to go wrong.

The first things to break were those that were low-lying, near to the flooded ground. Chair legs and sofas began to crack, the legs of the beds collapsed. Those inhabitants who had floorboards saw them bend up out of shape and had to remove them. Books, entirely soaked through, doubled in size before disintegrating to pieces. For the most part the citizens were able to repair their things, and accustomed to the occasional adversities of life, persevered.

“I’ve never seen it rain so much.”

“It’s over now. You’ll see, everything will be the same as it was.”

“God willing,” said the priest.

But the next year the rains were even more severe than the previous summer. It rained for over a month without stop. The inhabitants of Lorota witnessed every conceivable type of rain, from heavy droplets that broke open the solid ground, to wispy sheets of rain that came sideways like needles in their ears. Animals had to be evacuated to higher ground. Most of the townspeople resettled, at least temporarily, nearer the top of the hill along the main highway. When the rains subsided in February, they moved back down. To their dismay, they noticed that this time the flooding had not only damaged the wooden frames of the houses. Everything seemed to have been affected.

“My dishes break on me when I use them. They are as brittle as stale bread.”

“Just slippery, I suppose. But my doorknobs— they have all fallen out. Even my clothing seems to rip whenever I put it on.”

Though the townspeople had always gone to church on Sundays, it was at this period that they began praying in earnest. To what affliction did they owe these strange floodings? Why did their things suddenly seem to be falling apart?

It was the priest, on his way to the main highway, who noticed that the Japanese man’s store had hardly been affected by the two years of rain. His ceramics and peculiar imports did not seem frail or damaged. They were entirely intact and, on the contrarily, gleamed with fresh luster, shiny from the new wash of rain. His bonsai trees radiated a green brilliance. In fact everything in the store was strong and robust, glistening stubbornly in the newly returned and brilliant sky.

“I am at the top of the hill,” explained the Japanese man. He smiled pleasantly, his deep-set black eyes reflecting the autumn sun. Disappearing again into the back of the store, he wished the priest well on his journey to the city.

Not long after this, another year’s summer rains behind them, the townspeople assembled at a meeting to discuss their collective fate. They gathered at the church at midday, when the clock tower—thankfully, for the most part unaffected by the floods—chimed the full length of its beautiful song, Se Deus Quiser. “God Willing.” Some of the most respected in the community began to speculate how such an inopportune fate could befall their small and faithful flock. A few of the elder members openly wondered if the foreigner had brought some sort of jinx upon them.

“Nothing of his is in ruins, and look at us.”

“Even the jeweler, once the richest man in town, has packed up and moved. Penniless.”

Certainly not everyone was convinced. Some spoke up for the foreigner, and the matter was tabled for the moment, though it would come up again and again.

“He must deal in illegal things on the side,” suggested the mechanic. “No one buys his things but travelers.”

The priest was no less suspicious. “And those drifters— they have an almost unholy respect for him.”

The clock struck four o’clock. They had been arguing for hours. Nothing had been agreed upon except that they should all rebuild whatever they could. Life continued as before; the townspeople still spent their Sundays in church praying vehemently, although what exactly they hoped for no one dared to say. Perhaps some wished ill upon the Japanese man—not because he did not attend the church, and certainly not for his material success, of which he still had little—but instead for his survival.

The Japanese man likely had no reason to suspect that the village was so distraught over the rains, although he did sense the discomfiture they had over their possessions. A few unlikely faces passed through his doorway and asked if he might be able to fix their things. He nodded to them and took the objects—mostly tools and broken utensils—with him to the back of the store. Sometimes it required only a matter of minutes until he returned; other times he asked the patrons to patiently wait up to one week before coming back.

“There is much to do. It will take time to set things right,” he instructed.

Since the first floodings the previous summer, the Japanese man never asked for payment from these afflicted fellow citizens. In truth there was little money available with which the townspeople might have paid them. They gave instead their gratitude and usually some homemade food from their kitchens, a pot of beans and pork, or some baked goods.

“I would bake you a fruitcake,” said the baker, “but I have had no success in getting anything to rise. Perhaps the yeast has gone bad.”

“Because of the rains?”

“Yes.” The baker stood waiting, but at last he asked. “You don’t think they’re sad, do you?”

The Japanese man smiled and returned the mended baking pans.

“I can’t pay you, you understand?”

“It’s nothing,” replied the Japanese man, turning back to his Portuguese books. “Things have a way of righting themselves. In time.”

Time moved quickly in Lorota. In the few months it took to repair what was salvageable from the floods, the townspeople began to worry about the future. Church attendance was at its highest, and weekly community meetings were held to assess the town’s progress and plan for the anticipated third year of summer rain. When they assembled at midday one late autumn Sunday, the town unhappily confronted yet another setback. The music of Se Deus Quiser did not play.

“The clock tower,” said the priest. “It’s stopped.”

Though no one had noticed it until noon, the clock tower had in fact stalled at precisely twenty minutes to five that same morning. When the baker looked up to see, he noted that it had fallen resolutely in the shape of a frown.

“I’ll fix it,” said the mechanic. “Before the rains come.”

But the rains did not wait. The first disquieting precipitation fell in July, ordinarily the driest time of the year, and the mechanic—though having spent his weekends fiddling with the inner workings to the best of his limited ability—was simply unable to locate the cause of the problem. Some of the townspeople suggested asking the Japanese man, who still never came to church or to their meetings, for advice or assistance.

“Beg him for help?” cried the priest. “He is most likely the cause.”

No one had yet been bold enough to say it, but quite a few of the eldest members of the community had been thinking the same thing. They encountered fierce resistance from some of the others, those whose most necessary objects—and often their most precious—had been repaired or set right by the Japanese man.

“You simply cannot,” said the baker. “He has done nothing.”

“Nothing to help, certainly,” replied the priest. “All must have faith in God.”

By August the drizzle had developed into a steady and unabated rain. The soil, full from more than two years of flooding, spit out the falling rain like a sickly fountain. Homes began to flood more quickly than before; the clock tower’s stairwell was inundated from both the ground and from water leaking in from the top. Outside, the central plaza and the adjoining church became a shallow lake traversed only by the Lorota’s children. And its priest.

The Japanese man was ordered arrested. He offered no resistance, and it was the mechanic who was chosen to escort him to the church, that building beside the clock tower he had always admired from the top of the hill. The priest’s vestry was used as a makeshift cell, though because of the proximity to the deepening lake, it already contained the stench of mold.

The Japanese man looked at his captors sympathetically.

“It will not help,” he said.

Over the following few days, the situation worsened. The torrent of rain mixed with occasional hailstorms which overflowed not only the ground, but damaged the roofs and windows of homes as well. When the baker braved the plaza lake to bring the prisoner his food, he noticed that the windows in the vestry had shattered. The Japanese man could easily have escaped, but instead he remained cold and shivering inside the room.

“Where I come from, we don’t run from trouble,” he said.

“You have to understand that this is not Japan.”

“I am Korean.”

The baker stood mutely for a moment. At last, without further comment, he handed the foreigner the plate of food he had prepared.

“They are attempting to repair the clock tower. They believe fixing it will stop the rain.”

The Japanese man nodded politely, pressing his fingers experimentally into the hard roll before taking a bite.

“I saw it myself, from the top of the hill.”

From behind the baker in a great hurry entered the priest and several other community leaders, soaking in their drenched clothing and wearing expressions of extreme wretchedness and fear.

“The mechanic,” said the priest. “He’s dead. We found his body trapped in the gears. No one heard him scream. Come quickly, both of you!”

Calmly the Japanese man followed the group to a space behind the church where the slightly higher ground revealed a crowd of people surrounding the mechanic. His body had been covered with a white sheet, and the old women of Lorota mourned him in loud wails while the children, many too young to understand, splashed in the puddles nearby.

“Please,” said the priest to the Japanese man. “Tell us what is the matter.”

“I’m sorry,” he replied. “I do not know.”

The priest grew suddenly irritated, but calmed himself, reciting prayers barely audible to the parishioners at his side.

“Help us,” he said after a long delay. “Please.”

The Japanese man turned reluctantly to the clock tower. It appeared to him much larger than it had from his distant perch at the top of the hill. As he searched around for a way to enter, he was joined by the baker and a few other townspeople who gathered around. With their help, they tore off the wooden door in the back of the building. A rush of water and mud escaped through pushing them back. The Japanese man waited for the surge to subside before he made his way inside. The stairwell was filled with slippery masonry cased in a think layer of mud. With difficulty he made his way to the top of the tower where he immediately set to work inspecting and pushing the large cast-iron gears that controlled the one-hundred-fifty-year-old relic. With nausea he noted the mechanic’s blood covering the weights and drive cable. It took some time just to wipe the blood from the dials, the last place the mechanic must have checked before the cable weights had fallen upon him. He quickly confirmed that the problem was not there.

“There is nothing he can do,” lamented the baker from below.

The night began to set in with no sign of the rain ending, nor any improvement in the Japanese man’s progress. The people focused on digging the mechanic a grave before his body could be washed mercilessly away by the downpour. The priest performed a brief but heartfelt ceremony, reminding his community of the power of prayer and faith in overcoming adversity.

It was only as they began to disperse for home that someone noticed the Japanese man precariously creeping along clock tower’s outer face, pulling at the minute hand with a brass cable and holding on to the tower frame with his free hand. At this moment, and with the whole town looking firmly on, a single bolt of lightning struck violently a few miles away, illuminating in a flash the summer night sky. The bells inside chimed once, smothered in an off-key tone, and the clock’s minute hand moved a single step.

The slight motion was enough to push the Japanese man just over the edge. He tumbled noiselessly into the shallow lake below, the sound of the splash hidden by the delayed crack of rousing thunder. A few men rushed in the lake to retrieve him, but the Japanese man had died instantly the moment he touched the ground.


The rain did not stop that night, though it did soon calm into a steady drizzle for the remainder of the winter. By spring the sun came out once again, and the people of Lorota gave thanks to God. Repairs were begun, as best they could be, though no more meetings were held to coordinate the efforts. Most of the townspeople kept to themselves, passing time as they always had, spending each day hard at work, and the seventh day of rest sitting in the pews of the moldy church. Each villager maintained a watchful eye on the old clock tower, which continued to function uninterruptedly and at its predictable pace. Few people seemed to mind that it was always three hours and sixteen minutes behind. No one offered to climb up and correct it.

Only the baker and the priest ever discussed what had happened.

“He gave his life to save a stupid clock tower. How could we be so foolish?”

“This is the sadness of things,” said the baker.

The priest returned a wary grimace.

“Faith in God,” he said.

© 2005 by b.z.