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Filed in: autumn

Cold Watermelon by the Edge of a Salty Sea

In Japan Autumn begins in August with a hot, slow slide away from summer. The heat no longer builds but lingers like an oven that’s just been turned off. The cacophonous cry of cicadas crescendoes to a peak. The constant drone of their frenzied roar is as oppressive and aggressive as the suffocating sun. It feels like the reverberating hills are closing in on us and we plan our escape. We pack the car and set off for the coast north of Nagasaki where the sky is big and the water is crystal clear and salty.

Driving around Kyushu in summer I often think of my grandmother who rode in the passenger seat as my grandfather drove her around the flat wide boulevards of Florida to do her shopping. She would turn on the air conditioning and roll the windows down. She knew better but she did it anyway. Conditioned air is antiseptic and more uncomfortable than the heat so we roll down the windows and make do with the hot breeze, our backs and legs sticking to the seat. We park and gather our things, folding chairs, hats, towels, sunscreen, books, a big watermelon and a large chef’s knife, the blade wrapped in cardboard for safety. We walk along the water’s edge, past the cordoned off shallow area where children splash while their mothers, covered from head to toe despite the heat, watch them. We walk past the breakwater where fishermen sling their lines out to sea. We clamber over rocks, a sort of sandstone lava field pocked and beautiful, and find a secluded beach on the far side.

I lower the watermelon in a netted bag into a pool of water where the waves lap in and out. Secured with a rope wrapped around a nearby rock we let it chill while we wade and swim and float. The water is perfect, shallow and clear. I lay back and close my eyes feeling the hot sun above and the cool sea below. It fills my ears and I welcome the quiet as the rattling echo of cicadas fades away. I drift for a long while, weightless in the salty water.

We prop the melon atop a heavily barnacled rock and cut into it. The flesh is a brilliant tomato red. We dip slices in the ocean and dig into the salted fruity flesh. Water laps around my legs as watermelon juice runs down my wrist and chin and drips onto my chest. There is pure joy in letting all manners fall away and surrendering to the sticky nectar drying on my salty skin. I wade back out into the water splashing my face and rinsing my arms. I feel a feather light wisp almost like a spider’s web coil around my left wrist. I shake it off and catch sight of a small translucent jellyfish bobbing away just as a ring around my wrist begins to sting. A red welted bracelet forms and I retreat to my chair in the shade.

Mosquitos quickly find us and Hanako lights a coil of katori senko and sets it on the ground between our chairs. The flat spiral of pressed pyrethrum seed powder burns slowly sending up a white waft of smoke. The classic retro swirl is the quintessence of summer, a design that conjures an image of muggy, buggy days. The sight of the sea calls to me louder than the book in my hand and I gaze out at it. I have always had a fondness for staring out at the natural world. It’s my manner of meditation. Whether on trains through Britain in college or on busses through Guatemala soon after, on the Shinkansen to and from Kyoto for work or driving through the countryside of Italy or Portugal on vacation, I have happily spent great portions of my life staring out at the passing scenery, imagining the future, remembering the past, thinking of everything and nothing for hours on end.

Even as the sun burned high and bright in the sky, poets of old wrote of autumn blowing in on the hot August breeze. It’s hard to fathom, sitting here at the edge of an azure ocean under a searing sun. But the tapestry of Japan’s psyche is a weft of anticipation woven onto a warp of memory. As the days pass and the seasons come and go the shuttle oscillates, threading the longing of things to come into the sweet melancholy of their passing.

This day is passing too and it’s time to go home. We drive home through valleys of rice illuminated by the slanting rays of a sun just sinking behind the facing mountain. The plants are flowering and in between the blades of grass I can see panicles forming that will bear those precious grains. We arrive home as darkness settles. If I set my mind to it can I can feel a whisper of autumn’s coming coolness in the evening air? The melodic call of higurashi, those singular songbirds of the cicada family, that serenade us in early summer as they sing a soft opening to warmer days, sound lonesome and melancholy tonight, their ballad bidding adieu the dissipating light and warmth and their own short season.

comments +

  1. Mora says:

    Heat, sun, water, and watermelon are quintessential summer icons. While reading your story I reflected back to the hot summer days eating watermelon on the pack porch with my father. He’d cut a large slice for each of us and we’d use knife and fork to eat within the rind, enjoying the sweet heart/center first. Once finished, we’d defy my mother and roll the rinds down the hill to see how far they’d go before coming to a stop. Thanks for the memory, Prairie!

  2. John P Weiss says:

    My father used to buy fresh plums from the market and eat them over the sink in the summer. Their juice was so flavorful. Whenever I enjoy plums now, they teleport me back to those summer days in the kitchen, eating plums with my father.

    Thank you for your wonderful writing.

    • Prairie Stuart-Wolff says:

      Such a wonderful memory, John. There is something special about summer that facilitates joyful memories.

  3. Chad says:

    wow, I love this. PLEASE keep posting! Can’t wait to read your next blog!

  4. You and Hanako know how to get joy out of every last thing! Brilliant watermelon salting too. I do wish there were more days of warm ocean bathing here in Maine. I keep meaning to tell you how much I love Willa Cather’s writing too. I read that you are an admirer on an earlier post. I spent my childhood pretending I was a “pioneer girl” too. But you have the name to go with it!

    • Prairie Stuart-Wolff says:

      Lari, I agree, the ocean beckons and intimidates here in Maine. But I’m sure it would salt a watermelon just as divinely. I love that we share the childhood pioneer woman dream!

  5. kathryn camicia says:

    You bring forth Proustian memories of my childhood where the senses are in constant recording of something new. My first watermelon, first ice cream, first peach. And first beach.
    Thank you and please keep writing.

  6. […] We are swimming through sultry days. Hot, still air vibrates with the high-tension shrill of giant cicadas. But by all accounts this is still the minor phase of heat, the prelude to a major swelter soon to come. Mornings are moderately cool. Higurashi, herald an early dawn. My alarm is useless for its ring of songbirds is indistinguishable from the chorus right outside the open window above my head. But no matter, I’m already awake. […]

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