‘Kissy, I believe that is a fib. The truth of the matter is that you consider that your nakedness might arouse dishonourable thoughts in my impious Western mind. That is a most unworthy suspicion. However, I accept the delicacy of your respect of my susceptibilities. And now let’s cut the cackle and get going. We’ll beat the awabi record today. What should we aim at?’
‘Fifty would be good. A hundred would be wonderful. But above all, you must row well and not let me drown. And you must be kind to David.’
‘Who’s David?’ asked Bond, suddenly jealous at the thought that he would not be having this girl to himself.
‘Wait and see.’ She went back indoors and brought out the balsa wood tub and a great coil of fine quarter-inch rope. She handed the rope to Bond and hoisted the tub on her hip, leading the way along a small path away from the village. The path descended slowly to a small cove in which one rowing-boat, covered with dried reeds to protect it from the sun, was drawn high up on the flat black pebbles. Bond stripped off the reeds and laid them aside and hauled the simple, locally-made craft down to the sea. It was constructed of some heavy wood and lay low but stable in the deeply shelving, totally transparent water. He loaded in the rope and the wooden tub. Kissy had gone to the other side of the little bay and had undone a string from one of the rocks. She began winding it in slowly and at the same time uttering a low, cooing whistle. To Bond’s astonishment, there was a flurry in the water of the bay and a big black cormorant shot like a bullet through the shallows and waddled up the beach to Kissy’s feet, craning its neck up and down and hissing, apparently in anger. But Kissy bent down and stroked the creature on its plumed head and down the outstretched neck, at the same time talking to it gaily. She came towards the boat, winding up the long line, and the cormorant followed clumsily. It paid no attention to Bond, but jumped untidily over the side of the boat and scrambled on to the small thwart in the bows where it squatted majestically and proceeded to preen itself, running its long bill down and through its breast feathers and occasionally opening its wings to the full extent of their five-foot span and flapping them with gentle grace. Then, with a final shimmy through all its length, it settled down and gazed out to sea with its neck coiled backwards as if to strike and its turquoise eyes questing the horizon imperiously.
Kissy climbed into the boat and settled herself with her knees hunched decorously between Bond’s outstretched legs, and Bond slid the heavy, narrow-bladed oars into their wooden rowlocks and began rowing at a powerful, even pace, more or less, under Kissy’s direction, due north.
He had noticed that Kissy’s line to the cormorant ended with a thin brass ring, perhaps two inches in diameter, round the base of the bird’s neck. This would be one of the famous fishing cormorants of Japan. Bond asked her about it.
Kissy said, ‘I found him as a baby three years ago. He had oil on his wings and I cleaned him and cared for him and had him ringed. The ring has had to be made larger as he grew up. Now, you see, he can swallow small fish, but the big ones he brings to the surface in his beak. He hands them over quite willingly and occasionally he gets a piece of a big one as a reward. He swims a lot by my side and keeps me company. It can be very lonely down there, particularly when the sea is dark. You will have to hold the end of the line and look after him when he comes to the surface. Today he will be hungry. He has not been out for three days because my father could not row the boat. I have been going out with friends. So it is lucky for him that you came to the island.’
‘So this is David?’
‘Yes. I named him after the only man I liked in Hollywood, an Englishman as it happens. He was called David Niven. He is a famous actor and producer. You have heard of him?’
‘Of course. I shall enjoy tossing him a scrap or two of fish in exchange for the pleasure he has given me in his other incarnation.’
The sweat began to pour down Bond’s face and chest into his bathing pants. Kissy undid the kerchief round her hair and leant forward arid mopped at him gently. Bond smiled into her almond eyes and had his first close-up of her snub nose and petalled mouth. She wore no make-up and did not need to, for she had that rosy-tinted skin on a golden background – the colours of a golden peach – that is quite common in Japan. Her hair, released from the kerchief, was black with dark-brown highlights. It was heavily waved, but with a soft fringe that ended an inch or so above the straight, fine eyebrows that showed no signs of having been plucked. Her teeth were even and showed no more prominently between the lips than with a European girl, so that she avoided the toothiness that is a weak point in the Japanese face. Her arms and legs were longer and less masculine-than is usual with Japanese girls and, the day before, Bond had seen that her breasts and buttocks were firm and proud and that her stomach was almost flat – a beautiful figure, equal to that of any of the star chorus girls he had seen in the cabarets of Tokyo. But her hands and feet were rough and scarred with work, and her fingernails and toenails, although they were cut very short, were broken. Bond found this rather endearing. Ama means’sea-girl’ or’sea-man’, and Kissy wore the marks of competing with the creatures of the ocean with obvious indifference, and her skin, which might have suffered from constant contact with salt water, in fact glowed with a golden sheen of health and vitality. But it was the charm and directness of her eyes and smile as well as her complete naturalness – for instance, when she mopped at Bond’s face and chest – that endeared her so utterly to Bond. At that moment, he thought there would be nothing more wonderful than to spend the rest of his life rowing her out towards the horizon during the day and coming back with her to the small, clean house in the dusk.
He shrugged the whimsy aside. Only another two days to the full moon and he would have to get back to reality, to the dark, dirty life he had chosen for himself. He put the prospect out of his mind. Today and the next day would be stolen days, days with only Kissy and the boat and the bird and the sea. He must just see to it that they were happy days and lucky ones for her and her harvest of seashells.
Kissy said, ‘Not much longer. And you have rowed well.’ She gestured to the right, to where the rest of the Ama fleet was spread out over the ocean. ‘With us, it is first come first served with the sites we choose. Today we can get out as far as a shoal most of us know of, and we shall have it to ourselves. There the seaweed is thick on the rocks and that is what the awabi feed on. It is deep, about forty feet, but I can stay down for almost a minute, long enough to pick up two, three awabi if I can find them. That is just a matter of luck in feeling about with the hands among the seaweed, for you rarely see the shells. You only feel them and dislodge them with this,’ she tapped her angular pick. ‘After a while I shall have to rest. Then perhaps you would like to go down. Yes? They tell me you are a good swimmer and I have brought a pair of my father’s goggles. These bulbs at the sides,’ she showed him, ‘have to be squeezed to equalize the pressure between the glasses and the eyes. You will perhaps not be able to stay down long to begin with. But you will learn quickly. How long will you be staying on Kuro?’
‘Only two or three days, I’m afraid.’
‘Oh, but that is sad. What will David and I do for a boatman then?’
‘Perhaps your father will get better.’
‘That is so. I must take him to a cure place at one of the volcanoes on the mainland. Otherwise it will mean marrying one of the men on Kuro. That is not easy. The choice is not wide and, because I have a little money from my film work, and a little is a lot on Kuro, the man might want to marry me for the wrong reasons. That would be sad, and how is one to know?’
‘Perhaps you will go back into films?’
Her expression became fierce. ‘Never. I hated it. They were all disgusting to me in Hollywood. They thought that because I am a Japanese I am some sort of an animal and that my body is for everyone. Nobody treated me honourably except this Niven.’ She shook her head to get rid of the memories. ‘No. I will stay on Kuro for ever. The gods will solve my problems,’ she smiled, ‘like they have today.’ She scanned the sea ahead. ‘Another hundred yards.’ She got up and balancing perfectly despite the swell, tied the end of the long rope round her waist and adjusted the goggles above her forehead. ‘Now remember, keep the rope taut and when you feel one tug, pull me up quickly. It will be hard work for you, but I will massage your back when we get home this evening. I am very good at it. I have had enough practice with my father. Now!’
Bond shipped the oars gratefully. Behind him, David began shifting on his feet, craning his long neck and hissing impatiently. Kissy tied a short line to the wooden tub and put it over the side. She followed, slipping decorously into the water and clasping her white dress between her knees so that it did not flower out around her. At once David dived and disappeared without a ripple. The line, tied to Bond’s thwart, began paying out fast. He picked up the coil of Kissy’s rope and stood up, his joints cracking. Kissy pulled down her goggles and put her head underwater. In a moment she came up. She smiled. ‘Yes, it looks fine down there.’ She rested in the water and began making a soft cooing whistle through pursed lips – to fill her lungs to the uttermost, Bond assumed. Then, with a brief wave of the hand, she put down her head and arched her hips so that Bond had a brief sight of the black string cleaving her behind under the thin material. Suddenly, like a fleeting white wraith, she was gone, straight down, her feet twinkling behind her in a fast crawl to help the pull of the weights.
Bond paid out fast, keeping an anxious eye on his watch. David appeared below him, bearing a half-pound silvery fish crosswise in his beak. Damn the bird! This was no time to get mixed up with retrieving fish from the extremely sharp-looking beak. But, with a contemptuous glance, the cormorant tossed the fish into the floating tub and disappeared like a black bullet.
Fifty seconds! Bond started nervously when the tug came. He pulled in fast. The white wraith appeared far below in the crystal water, and, as she came up, Bond saw that her hands were tight against her sides to streamline her body. She broke surface beside the boat and held out two fat awabi to show him and then dropped them into the tub. She held on to the side of the boat to regain her breath and Bond gazed down at the wonderful breasts, taut beneath their thin covering. She smiled briefly up at him, began her cooing whistle, and then came the exciting arch of the back and she was gone again.
An hour went by. Bond got used to the routine and had time to watch the nearest of the fleet of other boats. They covered perhaps a mile of sea, and, from across the silent water, there came the recurrent eerie whistle-a soft, sea-bird sound – of the diving girls. The nearest boat rocked in the slow swell perhaps a hundred yards away, and Bond watched the young man at the rope and caught an occasional glimpse of a beautiful golden body, shiny as a seal, and heard the excited chattering of their voices. He hoped he would not disgrace himself when it came to his turn to dive. Sake and cigarettes! Not a good mixture to train on!
The pile of awabi was slowly growing in the tub and, amongst them, perhaps a dozen leaping fish. Occasionally Bond bent down and retrieved one from David. Once he dropped a slippery fish and the bird had to dive for it again. This time he received an even haughtier look of scorn from the turquoise eyes.
Then Kissy came up, her stint done, and climbed, not so decorously this time, into the boat, and tore off her kerchief and goggles and sat panting quietly in the stern. Finally she looked up and laughed happily. ‘That is twenty-one. Very good. Now take my weights and pick and see for yourself what it is like down there. But I will pull you up anyway in thirty seconds. Give me your watch. And please do not lose my tegane, my pick, or our day’s fishing will be over.’