Shakuhachi by Debra Carlson
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Yayohi, 20th year of the Showa Emperor
Month of Grass Grows Dense
Old age and war days have mummified me. If I were a man, I might even be a Buddha. But I am no man, and—so say the priests—no woman can enter Buddhahood. Yet my teacher taught me that, in the dawn of days, priestesses spoke trance poems that were messages from the gods. She said the people revered the holy women. But time passed; priests took power. And they told a different story—that birth and rebirth is a curse—with women as the gateway to misery.
“Yet whose wars leave the world dripping blood and tears?” mused my teacher. Perhaps, when she peered through fire-cracked deer scapulas into the future, she glimpsed the shape of the days to come. Had she seen bomb-ravaged cities? Boys arrowing airplanes into warships? What herb or poultice had she taught me that could preserve life in the face of so much death?
Such were my thoughts as I stood at the edge of the terraced, snow-blanketed rice paddy, looking toward the forest. The sift of snow and chill air promised a fine harvest of snow bugs, and the collection basket rested easy on my shoulders.
Then came the scrunch of snow beneath two sets of snowshoes. Long, stamping steps interspersed with shorter, swishing ones from the path that curved up the mountainside from the village. I eyed the cedars, wondering if I could make the cover of branches before whoever was crunching their way uphill crested the ridge
Kanemura and a boy appeared, ruddy-cheeked from the climb. Their rice straw snow cloaks and hats bore thin crusts of snow. Beneath his conical hat, Kanemura’s face was pinched, his forehead grooved with lines, and his eyes chilled with something no fire could comfort. The boy—was he eleven now, or twelve?—hunched his head into his chest and stared at the ground. Whatever news had driven the head of the village up the mountain to my hut through the press of snow with the boy in tow, I was certain I did not want to hear it. I considered turning my back, as if they were simple ghosts I could banish with disregard.
Instead, I bowed to them. And fate.
Kanemura dabbed a folded white cloth at the sweat that streaked the sides of his face. I asked after his wife, his son, and he offered polite responses. The boy stood still as a snow monster.
Then Kanemura asked, “Did you hear about the Tokyo air raid yesterday?”
I shook my head.
“Asakusa and Honjo were destroyed. And,” his voice faltered, “Nihonbashi.”
My heart squeezed into a hard, pointed chestnut. “They were there?”
“There’s been no news.” He said softly, glancing at the boy who had been left in his care when his grandparents had left to retrieve their errant daughter from the city. Had they made their peace with Yukiko before the bombs had fallen?
“Nothing is certain,” he said more loudly for the boy’s benefit, then in an undertone, “tens of thousands are dead or missing.”
Useless to ask why. The gods rarely reply—they simply point the way.
The snow hat obscured the boy’s face.
“Is he ill?” I asked, nodding toward him.
“No, no,” Kanemura hands fluttered, “he’s healthy enough. But, well, it’s difficult.”
Indeed. The expectation when his grandparents had left for Tokyo was that their grandson would stay with Kanemura and his family for a week at the most. Between Kanemura’s ailing wife and his own son, who had lost an arm and much more in Manchuko…well…he could hardly be expected to shoulder another family’s tragedy.
“A family with children would be best,” I suggested.
Kanemura tilted his head and sucked air between his teeth in a hiss that signaled futility. “Well…with so little food, and then, his mother…”
Ah, Yukiko. Scorned throughout the village for jilting the schoolmaster, for defying her parents, for running off to Tokyo. Difficult indeed to find a home for the son of such a one.
Kanemura cleared his throat, as if to free up passage for words he did not particularly wish to speak. “The council has agreed that it is best he stays with you.”
Age has it compensations. I snorted in derision and glared at him, old enough not to care about being rude. How many years since Yukiko’s abrupt departure had passed while I waited for another girl from the village to train? How many years had I pined for one who would become a daughter to me? Yet no girl had come.
Yukiko had left with her head high that day. Not like her son now, whose head hung almost to the ground.
“What of his schooling?”
“He can snowshoe to school. The schoolmaster requires full participation.”
“There is space, but little food.”
Kanemura shrugged. “Hunger is everywhere.” He leaned forward, his eyes pleading.
I could feel the weight of obligation in him. The boy’s grandparents had been his good friends. But the boy…well, even the conical rice straw could not hide his stubborn chin.
“For a few weeks, then,” I relented, underscoring the deadline.
Kanemura passed the white handkerchief over his forehead in relief, then motioned the boy forward. “Kenji, you remember Granny Nobu.”
The boy neglected the normal greetings. His face was blank, his eyes obsidian. One hardly needed the trained eyes of a healer to see how shock had immobilized his chi the way frost freezes grass.
Long after Kanemura had vanished down the path, we stood in the thickening snow. Finally, I gestured the boy into the hut where I set down the basket and hung my snowshoes from pegs on the wall of the genkan. The cleansing cold of the outdoors magnified the inside scent of the hut: smoke and cedar, dried honeysuckle and pulverized tangerine peel. The boy pulled off his leggings, cloak, and hat, then sat beside the fire pit. An iron pot hung over the coals, but the water wasn’t boiling.
“Raise some flames and we’ll make some tea.”
The boy picked up a long stick and nudged the ash gray logs, which rolled and glowed crimson. He eyed the woodpile but made no move to add logs. His lethargy was troublesome. A body without life force invites illness and accident.
“You understand why you are here?”
He poked the coals. “My grandparents left to get my mother. They’re delayed.”
Understanding rippled beneath his words: Not delayed, but likely dead. At least he recognized reality.
I set logs on the hot coals and a few moments later flames flicked up. In the light cast on the boy’s face, I saw his grandmother Michiko’s angular cheek, his grandfather Seibei’s thick eyebrows, and his mother Yukiko’s pointed chin. Smoke stung and I blinked back tears. Old and scarred as I am, grief never loses its razor edge. I’ve just learned not to fight the blade.
I felt heavy, and old, and useless. How could I possibly help this young one?
Because my teacher had wanted me to know life, she took me to see the face of death. On a similar winter day, she led me deep into the mountains. Our snowshoes scored oval holes in the snow as we trekked beneath pine and hinoki to a cave where I gazed at the withered skin, sunken eyes, and pursed lips of a mummified monk.
“He was a holy man who sought Buddhahood through starvation,” my teacher had whispered. Gray shreds of what had once been a crimson robe hung from shrunken shoulders. Ridged skin-bark bunched against bone. My teacher’s voice sounded oddly muffled, otherworldly, in the damp cavern. “This man ate pine needles, then fasted over a thousand days. His disciples buried him alive with a tiny bamboo stick for air. Years later they dug him up and brought him here.” The monk’s shriveled lips—permanently puckered—sucked at the frigid air.
But I wasn’t sitting in that cave and the boy was no monk. He was a child who had lost first his father, then his mother and grandparents.
A spark popped and landed on the boy’s forearm; he didn’t swipe it away. Sitting would be his death.
“There’s work to be done,” I said, rising to my feet.
His eyes traveled around the room, examining collecting trays for maitake and shimeji, knives and rice-harvesting sickles, sharp-toothed saws and shovels for bamboo shoots. His gaze lingered on the many drawers of the medicine chest, filled with mulberry bark, cicada moltings, burdock root, apricot kernel, sappan wood. He stared at a tub where skullcap, snakeroot, and scale larvae soaked in sake. His mother had learned the names and properties of them all, but this one would never study wolfberry, lovage, or yarrow, or any of the hundreds of other roots, seeds and leaves that healed or harmed depending on their measure.
“You’ll sleep overhead in the loft. Take your things upstairs.”
He gathered a small bundle wrapped in a frayed furoshiki to his chest, then climbed the kaidan tansu to the loft.
Listening to him arranging the futon overhead, as I had listened to his mother so many years ago, I mixed drops of kesso tincture into his barley tea. It would help him sleep more easily beneath the claws of dried ginseng and clumps of nettle and comfrey that hung from the rafters like bats.
The boy would need his sleep.
* * *
“There are three things you will do,” I told the boy after breakfast. “You will do chores without complaining, you will continue with school, and you will avoid the river.”
Kenji stared at the steam curling from his mug of tea, then angled his body in what barely passed for a bow. He had his mother’s willfulness, but none of her joy. How I had missed her singing and humming when she left.
“What are you studying at school?” I asked, testing to see how things stood with the schoolmaster.
Kenji’s face remained expressionless. “Kanji and the lives of the Emperors.”
“Are you working on a pageant for the spring graduation?”
“We were, but now we make mulberry paper to send to the cities.”
“Ah, yes, for the balloon bombs,” I said.
He looked at me with sudden intensity. “We must work harder to ensure victory.”
That sounded like the schoolmaster’s voice. And wherever there’s steel-tipped single-mindedness, I try to temper the sword.
“Many have worked hard and many have died,” I said.
“Dying for the Emperor is our greatest service,” he said emphatically.
“Then your family has acquitted itself well.”
From a true believer’s mouth, he might have taken comfort from the words. From my mouth, they were poison. His eyes hardened, he pushed back from the fire, pulled on his straw coat, and stalked outside.
I called out after him through the still-open door, but did not expect a response. And in truth, his anger was a relief. It’s much easier to divert rage to health than move despair to vigor. Perhaps the vitality of his fury would stoke his life force.
Maybe he would return to Kanemura on his own, and leave me in peace. Curses on Yukiko for leaving. Curses on Kanemura for bringing me the boy. And curses on myself for becoming so comfortable with rocks and trees for companions that the boy’s presence felt like an intrusion. The memory of my teacher chided me from beside the fire. No one appears at the gate by accident. The suffering arrive seeking healing. We track the tangled threads of their pain and teach them a more harmonious weave.
“I will do better when the boy returns,” I promised.
* * *
But the winter sun sank toward the mountain and Kenji did not return. I built up the fire below the water kettle, pulled on my boots, and set out to find him. I had barely started down the path when Kanemura staggered around the corner.
Kenji hung down his back. Water streamed from the boy’s hair, his fingertips, the straw cloak. His skin was blue. His breath barely stirred against the palm I held to his lips.
“He was at the river’s edge and it gave way,” gasped Kanemura as we stripped the boy’s wet clothes from him. I ran my hands over Kenji’s head, torso, and limbs, feeling for broken bones.
I arranged bedding by the fire-pit, and Kanemura laid Kenji down. We wrapped his torso in blankets. But when Kanemura began covering Kenji’s feet and hands, I stopped him.
“No. He has to warm slowly, from his center.”
Kanemura began shivering from cold and shock, so his next words were hard to understand. “The cur-current shoved him against a br-branch and he caught hold.”
Kenji’s skin was rigid with goosebumps. I rested my hand on his chest, closed my eyes, and felt the icy rush of the winter river tumble through him. The heat of rage and ice pick of pain carved channels through his bones. I pressed my fingertips into the nooks where bones meet, feeling for a pulse, feeling for release points, then chanted chi around him. His blue-gray skin warmed to the hue of diluted barley tea. It was safe to wrap his feet and hands.
I bowed to Kanemura and thanked him for saving Kenji’s life.
“There was a fox on the other side of the river…” He shot an assessing look at me, then looked away embarrassed. “Perhaps the boy should return with me?”
I thanked him, then said it was better for the boy to recover here.
My words had driven him out; now they must call him home.
* * *
The next morning the boy sat upright by the fire pit, examining the dull purple-brown bruise stretched across his rib cage.
“So, the river spirit took you for a ride,” I said, pouring hot water over roasted barley. Kenji stared at me, unblinking.
“And you were lured by a fox. Strange for one to be out so early in the year. Was she so lovely you were prepared to swim to her?”
He ignored my attempt at a joke. His eyes followed me through the room, and he responded to me through his actions, but did not say a word. Not that day, or the next.
A week passed. That inner river continued to scour his bones and wash away his words. But I was patient. I’d learned to nourish imbalance, so I added yang foods—with their heat and dryness—to his broth: dried scallions, dried mustard greens, salt.
“What did the river teach you?” I asked each morning, handing him a steaming mug.
And each morning, he touched his throat and shook his head. He would not—or could not—speak. No amount of prodding, joking, or irritation moved him to words. I had spoken too plainly once and driven him to silence. So I remained patient, believing he would speak when he was ready.
Kenji’s bruises faded from blue-black to yellow-brown, and I insisted he return to school. He went, came back, split wood, and carried water. I could only assume he spoke at school, but what if he did not? What would the schoolmaster make of this silence? Well, schoolteachers have ways to motivate students. And if not, I could expect a summons.
But it was Kanemura who trekked to my door two weeks later. Kanemura who bowed his head low to the tatami mat and spoke, in a trembling voice, of the charred remains of tens of thousands of people in the streets of Tokyo. So many, they were stacked on bridges. They clogged the Sumida River.
“If they were alive, they would have sent a message by now,” Kanemura said. “I have already sent for information from orphanages in Niigata. The boy can come back with me.”
“Until we know for certain,” I countered, “Kenji can stay. He is helpful. And it would be best for him to be speaking before he goes somewhere new.”
Kanemura hesitated, then nodded. “Until we know for certain.”
Kenji’s face did not register emotion when I told him his grandparents and mother were still missing. Later that night, after he’d climbed to the loft and lay beneath the thatch, I heard only the black rush of the river.
* * *
That night, a man who pranced and laughed and held his fat belly with two hands danced into my dreams. Then the Buddha said, “Bring back two voices.” A tear curved down his smiling cheek as he touched the space between my eyes.
I startled awake in the predawn. The divine dream throbbed between my eyes as I gathered rice, a shovel, and a saw. Although I did not know why, I trekked to the bamboo grove. There was no moon to light the path. My snowshoes scratched across crystalline snow as the tools weighed on my shoulders.
Dawn’s gray lines ribbed the black winter sky as I arrived at the grove. The outermost bamboo bowed low with snow, forming a white, rounded mound, like the burial grounds of old. When I reached in, clumps of snow slid to the ground. The branches parted like sections of noren. I pushed inside and stood beneath a leaf-latticed arc of ice and snow.
I had arrived, but still did not understand my task. So I stilled my breath and felt for the pulse beneath the frozen earth. I filled my lungs with air and rested into the warmth of my belly.
And I waited.
Patience serves the gods, who reward stillness. An image formed in my mind. I peeled off my gloves, closed my eyes, and extended my bare fingers into the cold air. They stretched forward until my fingertips met the cool, firm, sticky-smooth cane of bamboo. For a moment the column pulsed in the notch between my thumb and forefinger, then the warmth faded.
This was not the one.
Eyes shut tight, I eased my way through the grove, feeling my way forward, cane to cane, reaching, grasping, releasing… reaching, grasping, releasing, until there was no time and no direction. Deeper and deeper into the grove I moved, turning sideways between canes, sliding around thick clumps, reaching with bare hands and closed eyes.
And then a bamboo shaft pressed into my palm and warmth radiated up my arm and into my chest. I knelt in a frozen crinkle of fallen bamboo leaves, shook a handful of unpolished rice from my pouch, and poured the grains into a mound to honor the spirit of bamboo. I sang prayers of gratitude until the offering was accepted.
After the blessing came the work. My breath billowed in gusts of white as I worked the shovel into the frost-encrusted ground. When the hole was finally large enough, I carved out chunks of crystal dirt with the pick, exposing bamboo root. I set the sharp teeth of a hand saw to the smooth skin and worked the blade with short thrusts. The bamboo shivered. Shuddered. Leaned onto my shoulder.
I eased the cane to the ground, then sat cross-legged in the hush beneath the latticed roof of ice and bamboo leaves. The stalk balanced on my legs, my hands rested on its smooth length.
When I opened to seeing, the vision arrived. Kenji stood in profile to me with a bamboo flute lifted to his lips. A desolate echo scattered blood-red maple leaves, and for a moment, he stood suspended in a scarlet whirl.
As I trudged back to the hut, I understood that I would carve the bamboo into a flute. Somehow the shakuhachi would meet the boy and both would find voice.
* * *
Satsuki, 20th year of the Showa Emperor
Month of Planting Rice Sprouts
We watched the mountain for signs of spring, and when the shape of a rabbit emerged from the retreating snow line, we prepared to plant the rice. Conscription had emptied the village of young and middle-aged men, so it was women, children, and the elderly who prepared the fields—clearing irrigation channels, fixing gates, and flooding the paddies. Green shoots would pierce the water’s surface. Pearls of rice would turn brown. Amaterasu would bless us all.
A girl arrived shortly before noon with a summons from Kenji’s teacher. I saw in her skittish eyes that Shimizu-sensei had reached the end of his patience. Perhaps, between the two of us, we might convince Kenji that his insistence on silence was not only hurting himself, but others as well. Perhaps the schoolmaster could be an ally in my efforts. It had been many years since Kenji’s mother had thrown him over for the upstart merchant from Tokyo.
The village bristled with preparations for invasion. In front of the inn, members of the civil defense unit held a training session for fire-fighting and basic first aid. Young boys and girls dodged each other’s bamboo sticks while their mothers practiced wrapping bandages. A hand-written notice announced orders to form guerrilla warfare cells in every village. I bowed to the haggard tatami maker who was bent to his new task of shaping bamboo spears. The chipping sound of his axe followed me into the unusual quiet of the school grounds. War work in nearby cities had claimed the older children, the youngest were planting rice.
Inside the school, wooden desks lined up in precise rows. The white flag with its round, red sun and its blazing, thick lines dominated the front of the classroom along with a framed portrait of the Showa Emperor. Kenji was the lone student in the room.
Shimizu sat at a desk to the side of the blackboard. His pencil scratched corrections. Kenji hunched over a desk right at front with his head bent over a small chalk board. When I looked over Kenji’s shoulder, I saw the character for poem. On the right, was the kanji for temple, on the left, the one for speaking. Sacred speech.
Shimizu acknowledged me with a brief nod and I bowed. Then the schoolmaster fixed his eyes on Kenji. “Are you ready to recite?”
Kenji stood and bowed but did not speak.
“So, you insist on silence?” Shimizu demanded.
Kenji stared blank-faced at the flag and its radiating beams.
Shimizu gestured to the large black board. “Go on, then. Show me.”
Kenji picked up a stub of chalk. He wrote “poem” with a wavering hand. When he was done, he set the chalk carefully on the shelf in front of the board with two hands.
“Terrible,” snapped Shimizu. “Maybe something easier. Write home.”
Kenji picked up the chalk and wrote the character.
Shimizu grunted. “Try mountain.”
Mountain. A character any toddler can write. A request designed to humiliate. My chest ached as Kenji’s fingers gripped the chalk. I imagined this scene playing out in front of Kenji’s classmates. Pictured how the other students’ derision had pressed against his narrow back. And as Kenji leaned into the board, as if the black rectangle was a portal to the underworld, I knew something must change.
Kenji’s vertical lines tilted.
“Your mountain looks like it was struck by an earthquake!” Shimizu said, slapping Kenji’s head.
I moved forward. Shimizu narrowed his eyes and waited for me to speak.
“You wish to discuss something,” I said softly.
Shimizu nodded vigorously as he eyed Kenji sternly.
“The boy doesn’t talk. He doesn’t answer. His lack of effort undermines morale.”
“It must be difficult for you with so many students gone and so many disruptions.”
One corner of Shimizu’s mouth pulled down in scorn. “I manage. So must my students. The strength of the nation depends on us all. The boy is weak. He allows personal difficulty to overwhelm his duty.”
The chip, chip, chip of the tatami-maker’s axe as he shaped a spear came through the open window. The melody of rice planting songs rose from the fields. Kenji’s jaw worked, but no sound emerged.
Shimizu’s face pinched and his voice lowered to a hiss. “Selfish! You think you can do as you like, but you cannot. Not here. Here,” he loomed over Kenji, “you have no self.”
Chip, Chip, Chip.
Shimizu struggled to contain himself, then wiped his hand across his flushed forehead. He glared at me, yet it was my own hard-heartedness, my own bitter edge, that I recognized in his eyes. Both of us pressed Yukiko’s son for something he could not give.
Who is wise enough to know what is done for good or bad? The gods give us many parts to play, so I did not blame the teacher. Instead, I tested my way toward a face-saving solution.
“Kenji’s trouble has created problems. Perhaps it is best for the other students, for the morale of the school, if he works with me until he is ready to return with a full effort.”
“Perhaps,” the schoolmaster muttered. Then he took the slate from Kenji’s desk. “Take this. Practice what you have learned.” He held out the slate.
For an extended moment, Kenji considered the board. Shimizu’s knuckles whitened. I held my breath.
When Kenji accepted it, I breathed out with relief.
I did not speak on the way up the mountain. But as soon as we arrived at the hut, I told Kenji to put the slate away. It was time to resume his studies—this time with frogs and mud.
We walked to the terraced rice paddies. It was late afternoon, not an ideal time for planting, but it was necessary to fully break the schoolmaster’s spell.
I gestured to the first of three water-filled fields. Kenji walked to the edge of the paddy and stepped down. Cold mud and water rose almost to the top of his boots. He shivered, but he would be grateful for the cool water soon enough. He shouldered the harness of the tray and held it so the slender rice shoots wouldn’t slide off. Until six months ago, when Yukiko had sent him to her parents’ village for safety, he had been city born and bred. He’d never planted rice before.
“Take the plant between your thumb and forefinger.” I demonstrated. “Then push a small hole into the mud with the other hand, set the plant in and pinch some mud around the base.” My fingers mimed the motions in the air. “Tug gently to make sure it is set.”
He nodded with a touch of dismissal. He thought planting would be easy, as the inexperienced often do.
“Good. Now finish planting this row.”
He slid the shoulder strap of the tray over his arm, steadied it with one hand, then wobbled to the far corner. I watched his first fumbling efforts from the shadow of the hut. Having never planted, how was he to know that usually a row of people stretched across the width of the field? Or that planters advanced together, leaving behind even rows? Kenji balanced the tray, scrabbled with the shoots, plunged the plants into mud. After seven plantings, I stopped him.
“Look behind you,” I said. His neck flushed a deep red when he saw how the line of plants staggered from side to side.
“Pull them out and do it again.”
His anger pricked my back and I hoped for some verbal retort. But he started over silently, this time checking the positioning of the rice plants. As the sun began to dip, he finished the last of the five rows.
I poured hot water over barley for tea, then sprinkled nanakusa into millet. I’d gathered the seven herbs on the seventh day of the first moon of the year: chickweed, Buddha’s Throne, daikon, parsley, shepherd’s purse, nipplewort, turnip. The spring herbs would remind him that life returns. Despite the chill air, I carried the food outside.
“We’ll eat dinner here,” I said, gesturing to the camphor tree.
Kenji waded to the side of the rice field, sat on the bank, and pulled off his boots. He padded barefoot through the clover and sank into the grass. Hard work had sharpened his hunger, and he reached eagerly for the millet cakes, bobbing his head in thanks.
As she set, Amaterasu-Ominokami wove her magic around us. And in the darkening valley below, the village spread out like a blanket. The square edges of meadows and rice paddies abutted paths and roads that wove into the heart of the village. To the north, the river flowed in a sunset-sparkled ribbon.
“Your future here is unclear.”
I had not planned the words. Kenji chewed slowly, gazing down on the village.
“Usually, we plant shoulder to shoulder, so that the rice is easily planted in straight lines. Each person is guided by the next without having to decide where to go.”
The dipping rays of sun lit his shoulders, the fine hairs on his neck, the sweat beads on his brow. I saw for the first time that his eyes were a rich chestnut brown, not black. And, in what would become our way, I understood his wordless question.
“Your life won’t be guided by the shoulders of others, so you must practice finding your way forward by yourself.”
Later that night, I reached for the bamboo cane to feel if it had cured enough. My hands tingled, as if I had grasped a dozen nettles, so I took out a knife and began to carve.
* * *
Hatsuki, 20th year of the Showa Emperor
Month of Leaves
That summer brought a heron that swept through the leaden heat with a gravelly, rumbling caw. Its shadow skimmed the valley below—the sluggish river, the thatched roofs, the green hillside with its temple. In early August, white-robed priests swept and prepared the temple and cemetery grounds. Before the sacrifice years of the war, Obon had been a time of flutes and drums, stamps and claps, dancing and cries of “yo-i, yo-i!” But that summer, our welcome of the ancestors was subdued, without dancing or festive foods or bonfires.
That summer we were the bonfires: Tokyo, Kobe, Osaka. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. We watched the skies and wondered if we heard the drone of enemy aircraft.
We went to the graveyard to stand before Kenji’s family’s ancestral gravestone. We recited prayers, lit incense, and framed the weather-beaten characters of his mother’s family name with bellflower and boneset. Bees hummed in the locust trees. Cicadas chirred from the riverbanks. Thin smoke columns of aloeswood incense threaded the air, lifting Kenji’s silent prayers to the stone sky.
Five months since his icy plunge into the river and still he had not uttered a single word.
On the way back, I announced that the schoolmaster planned to resume classes in September. Kenji offered no reaction. But when a grasshopper trilled from the tall grass and landed on a broad rock, he kicked out. The grasshopper leapt away. The air quivered with the lashing intensity of his act.
That night, I pulled the flute from the wall and set it beside Kenji without comment. It was a rough instrument, but the gods had shown me how to flare the end and space the finger-holes.
First, he ignored it, then curiosity drew his hand. He hefted the length and pressed his fingers over the holes. When he blew into the mouthpiece there was only the sound of huffing breath. Again and again, he blew. And again and again, there was only the sound of rushing air. He coughed, then took a deeper breath and blew. A thin, quavering sound emerged. Raspy. Frustration bunched his brows, but he kept up his effort to find a sustained sound. Then, with a final hard cough, he thrust the flute aside.
He stood, wordless, and retreated to his loft. I replaced the flute on the wall, trying to quell my disappointment.
Later that night, Kenji slipped down the narrow stairs from his bedroom loft and padded across the tatami. He knelt in front of the butsudan and bowed his head before the photographs of his family inside the altar. I strained to hear words, certain he would speak at last, but he only stared at the shallow cup of sake. The liquid mirrored moonlight in front of the pictures. Through the hour of the rat he stared at the cup, as if waiting for someone to drink. But the sake merely quivered at the rim of the cup.
* * *
August 15th dawned, rice drooped in the heat, and Kanemura lurched up the path.
“The emperor will speak today at noon,” he rasped.
“Speak?” I stared, uncomprehending.
“On the radio. At noon. At the inn. Everyone must come.”
So we went. As we neared the village, we joined clusters of people moving from the river, the rice fields, the huts, all converging on the inn in the middle of the village. We were neighbors, yet we acted like strangers, gathering without greetings beneath the thousand-stitch cloth that the innkeeper’s wife had sewn to assure her son’s safe return. A framed poem by Bashō, who had recuperated here during one of his walking pilgrimages, hung beneath a round clock.
The cry of the cicadas
Sinks into the rocks.
Bodies formed tight circles around the radio. Hand-held fans flicked like the white wings of moths. Beneath the torpor surged an urgent, frantic tension. Sweat beaded men’s brows, women’s napes, children’s upper lips. Yet even in the press of people, an infinitesimal buffer of space existed around the two of us. Kenji’s mute suffering had not gone undiscussed in the village, and humans shy away from tragedy as if it were contagious. I pulled Kenji in front of me and held his shoulders lightly to shield him. As the gathering grew, so did the dizzy sensation of a breath held for far too long.
At noon the static hiss and crackle of the radio radiated through the room. We strained forward to hear the Emperor-god’s Jewel Voice, which was high-pitched and odd.
“To Our good and loyal subjects…” People looked around, confused by the high court language. Phrases came and went, some impressing meaning, others flowing by.
“…How are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our imperial ancestors? . . .”
Faces registered pain, helplessness, utter stupefaction. I wondered if I had understood the Showa Emperor’s meaning.
“Cultivate the ways of rectitude, nobility of spirit, and work with resolution so that you may enhance the innate glory of the Imperial State and keep progress with the pace of the world.”
“What does it mean?” someone asked, in the static that followed.
A man murmured, “Nippon maketa.” Japan lost.
The words scythed through the room like wind through susuki grass. A woman sobbed. The radio crackled and the newscaster announced in plain, direct language.
“The Japanese military will be disarmed and allowed to return to Japan.”
Only then did I trust that I had truly understood. The war that had encased us all these eight long years was finally over.
When springtime sun melts the snow from bent bamboo, some lengths spring back—supple and strong—while others splinter. All around me in that crowded room, I heard snapping.
I squeezed Kenji’s shoulder. “Come.”
He walked beside me stunned, like one who walks in his sleep. We had heard the voice of the god for the first time, and it had admitted defeat in a land that had never been vanquished from outside. How to make sense of all the loss, all the sacrifice?
That night, after Kenji had gone to bed, scuffling steps and raised voices approached. Kanemura knocked at the door, then half-dragged, half-carried his son into the hut. I hastened to the boy’s arm-less side and helped hoist him onto the tatami and to the fire, where he collapsed in an alcohol-drenched fog. Spittle seeped from Tomo’s half-open mouth and his eyes rolled. The boy was drunk on sweet potato liquor, yes. But a pale mist also drifted from his nose and ears. While I prepared a sleeping draught, I directed Kanemura to build up the fire, boil water, and tear sheets of ramie cloth into strips.
“In the name of the Emperor, banzai!” Tomo shouted, opening pathways through time. I remembered how he had joined his classmates in an energetic parade to the train station, his marching precise and his uniform crisp.
“Go,” I said to Kanemura. The father would be no use now, and witnessing would only bring him pain. “Come back in the morning.”
“We will meet at Yasukuni!” Tomo roared, raising an imagined cup of sake with his remaining hand as his father left the hut.
Tomo’s death wish clamped onto my spine. I saw how he tormented himself, imagining his friends’ spirits at peace in Yasukuni, nourished by the prayers of the nation that honored the war dead, while he was condemned to live a life of shame, half-human, half-yurei. Tomo, a one-armed survivor, was denied that relief. I saw how part of him strained to die, while part strained to live. How to heal his guilt? His feelings of failure and disloyalty?
I fastened magatama beads around my neck, wrists, and ankles, then attached a mirror to my waist to capture unhelpful spirits. I placed herb-soaked poultices on his forehead and chest. Heat radiated from his skin.
“Kill all! Burn all!”
Tomo’s shriek tore open time and revealed another path. This one crowded with bent and twisted figures, faces distorted by cracked eyes and gaping mouths. Two hazy forms materialized, then sharpened into a woman and a young girl, both with black hair that floated as if submerged in water, dark holes for breasts, gaping gashes across their bellies and necks. Their elongated fingers penetrated Tomo’s eyes and mouth, and they hissed as they caressed the life force from his body. The victims of his bayonet stroked him viciously, tenderly. The metallic iron stench of his sweat spiked the air. I held up the mirror, but the figures, mouths open in howls of horror and pain, were not contained.
“I will kill you! Kill you all!”
This one-armed warrior would never accept surrender and so would live the rest of his life haunted and infused with death. Who would choose such a life? I tapped an excess of the sleeping root from the mortar into a bowl and ladled boiling water over it all. Sparks snapped. Sweat slid down my back. Tomo’s face twisted into ancient lines, even as his body writhed. How to succor the victims of his blade, or his soul? Better, surely, for him to leave this world and begin the work of reparation in the next. I held the bowl with both hands and the liquid surface vibrated with the tremor of my fingers.
I almost missed the movement as Kenji stepped down the stairs. His large eyes stared at me. Suddenly the bowl felt fused to my hands. I lowered it to the table and uncurled my fingers. Even if the warrior longed for death, and deserved it, who was I to judge the timing?
“Kill them!” Tomo started up, eyes staring, hand swiping weakly at the ghost-women.
“Distract him,” I said to Kenji. “Music.”
Kenji took down the flute, uncertain. I examined the ghosts, knowing that my mirrors could not contain their hatred and pain. Nor could my bells disperse the bloodlust coursing through Tomo as he lay panting. So I bowed to the broken and the bleeding. The war-crazed and the war-torn. The living and the dead and the ones in-between. The soldier-boy and the women he had killed. I pressed my forehead to the meadow-sweet tatami until I felt the weave of the mat imprint upon my skin.
Something wheezed as Kenji tried to coax music from the bamboo. Then he choked and coughed. Tried again. Then came a high-pitched, quaver.
Tomo’s eyes flew to Kenji. “Demon!” He yelled, struggling to sit upright.
Startled, Kenji thrust aside the flute, and backed up against the wall.
Tomo’s eyes bulged. “Get back, demon!”
“Bring broth,” I said as I knelt at Tomo’s head and put my hands on his shoulders. He struggled to pull away.
I infused my voice with authority. “Stay still!” Tomo quieted. Kenji handed me a bowl of broth.
I held the liquid to Tomo’s lips. “Drink, so you can live with honor.” He shuddered.
“Drink,” I repeated. And he did. Then his head became a weight in my hand and I eased it onto the pillow. The elongated ghost fingers continued to suck his life force, but he no longer struggled.
“Please,” he whispered, “forgive me.” His eyes fluttered closed. The figures faded.
When I pulled away the poultices, they were dank and brown.
Kenji took the empty bowl and returned with a mug fragrant with ginger and burdock. Grateful, I drank as he gathered the contaminated cloth in a basket. My body throbbed with exhaustion, but I gestured him outside, where the sun had just risen above the mountain. The dew-damp grass soothed my feet. Kenji’s eyes rested on me, intent and full of questions.
“Sometimes the body recovers,” I said, “but the spirit keeps bleeding.”
I closed my eyes and inhaled the honey-tar scent of summer forest. “There are many ghosts in this world. Some we meet,” I opened my eyes, “and some we make.” Kenji trembled, as he had when Tomo had mistaken him for a demon.
“You did well in there.” He looked at me, doubt in his eyes.
“When ghosts arrive, Kenji, sit with their poison. Learn their names.”
He tilted his head to one side, then held up the basket of the soiled wrappings.
“Burn it all.”
* * *
Kannazuki, 20th year of the Showa Emperor
Month of Gods
The end of the war did not bring an end to the hunger. I hauled up buckets of rice bran from beneath the floorboards and sniffed at the contents. Musty, yes, but safe to use for one more year of pickling. Stories spread of people in ruined cities eating dirt dug from rubble.
Still, I made apologies for the poor quality of the tea even as Kanemura took long, appreciative sips. When I asked after Tomo, he brightened. His son, he said, continued to improve.
“We are all grateful for your efforts in caring for Kenji,” he said, setting the mug down. “And I’ve found a place for him.”
My mouth dried, but I didn’t dare reach for my tea. I didn’t want Kanemura to see the tremor in my hands. His gracious words didn’t disguise his discomfort at sending his friend’s grandson from the village, or his sadness that the boy remained mute even with my care.
He continued, “I know it has been difficult these many months.”
“Where?” I asked through stiff lips, ignoring his attempt to soften the blow.
“Niigata escaped bombings, and many orphans from Tokyo are being sent there.”
“So, it’s an orphanage?” Kenji, a lost child amongst lost children.
“What if the boy wants to stay?”
Kanemura looked surprised. “Has he said so?”
Kanemura folded his arms and heaved a deep sigh. “There are those who believe he will recover more quickly if he is with children his own age.”
No. Not now. I’m close. I know I am. “It’s too soon,” I said.
“It will be harder to travel in winter. If he doesn’t go now, he’ll have to wait for spring.” His voice softened. “It is time to find another solution.”
From outside came the thunk of logs against the side of the hut as Kenji stacked wood.
“No,” I said.
Kanemura’s eyebrows pinched in surprise. He picked up his mug and swirled the cooling contents to cover his discomfort.
“Surely…” he began.
“I want the boy to stay.”
“He will only find more pain in Niigata,” I said, the certainty of a truth-sayer shivered through me.
Kanemura heard my conviction. Still, he sucked air through tightened lips in a mix of consternation and uncertainty. “Yes, well, it’s difficult.”
I sensed that he was getting ready to make a final declaration, and that he would take the boy as abruptly as he had brought him. “If the boy isn’t talking by springtime, I will bring him to the orphanage myself,” I said.
Still shaking his head, Kanemura walked down the path to the village alone.
Late into the night, I pondered my next step. Waiting for the boy to learn the flute wouldn’t be enough. It was time for a more direct approach.
A week later, the resinous scent of cedar wafted from the valley as the priests lit piles of firewood and shot arrows in the five directions to summon the gods.
“Today you will walk the fire,” I announced to Kenji, who looked startled, but did not withdraw.
We walked past fields stubbled with harvested rice plants. At the base of the stone slab steps leading up to the temple, banners of red and white fluttered in the wind beside stone lanterns. Chants spilled from above. On the temple grounds, flames flared from a pyre. Kenji watched them intently. Would he find his voice in the element that had snatched his family? I prayed that the heat might melt whatever tied his tongue.
Once the blaze subsided and the wood had turned to ash, priests raked two parallel pathways in the burning embers. Devotees and pilgrims bowed as two high priests, barefoot and robed in ceremonial red and white, arrived. It was said that, with each step, they absorbed the scorching heat and transmuted it so that all who followed would not be burned. But first, they approached the altar and bowed. One took up the rice offering, the other a cask of sake. They walked to the burning path and bowed to two other white-clad officiants who each stood at an entrance.
The officiants shook the bonden, a ceremonial staff wound with fringed paper, around the priests. The priests stepped into the mounds of salt, then strode in unison onto the gleaming cursus of coals. Offerings held aloft, they walked and chanted. The 30 shaku length of coals might have been a mossy forest floor. Their measured pace never faltered.
When they reached the end, the priests faced the fire and bowed.
Next, the acolytes walked, their white robes bright in the sunlight. One after another, each was struck first on the chest, then on the back with the staff. One after another each stepped in salt, walked the path, and stepped in salt again. Then all who had come were invited to walk. Kenji and I moved forward, removing our sandals and standing in line. We stood behind a middle-aged mother and her daughter. The girl craned her head nervously around the figures in front of her and tugged at her mother’s arm. “Will it burn?”
The mother whispered something in the girl’s ear that we could not hear. Kenji pressed against me.
“It will not burn, and you will know what to pray,” I assured him.
His thin back flinched as the officiant flicked the bonden staff around him, then struck his back and chest. He tilted forward and stepped into heat. Now it was in the hands of the gods.
The bonden thumped my chest and the space between my shoulders. The rice paper rustled like rain around me. Salt rubbed cool and rough between my toes. Then the undulating, invisible dimension of fire swallowed me. Heat pressed on all four sides and sealed overhead, submerging me in a warm pulse. I pressed my hands together in prayer at my chest. The peeling of bark from heartwood filled my ears. Cedar sap sizzled. A woody-sweet resin drenched the air.
And then I was stepping into the second pile of cooling salt and again the bonden thumped and shook around me, sealing in health and protection. Kenji stood at the altar, hands pressed together in prayer, lips moving. But when I leaned in to hear his words, there were none.
We returned to the hut in silence.
That night, as the firewalk settled through our bones, I ground nettle seeds in my mortar. Kenji took down the shakuhachi. His first notes struggled through smoke, then a haunted tone bloomed through the hut. A sustained quaver grew and swelled. Instead of forcing sound, Kenji simply allowed his breath. His mother had sung the same way—humming, sometimes making up wordless songs.
I felt her with us then, the apprentice and the mother. The woman who had abandoned duty, the mother who had abandoned her son. Music and memory streamed together, became mist across the moon.
Kenji dropped the flute to the tatami. He bent over, as though gripped by a sudden pain. He raised his strained face to mine. When the words came, they sounded as if they were wrenched from him, then ground through his teeth.
“I hate her.” The words hung the air, and he trembled. “I hate her.”
“Yes,” I said.
Kenji’s eyes widened. Of all the responses he had likely imagined, agreement had probably not been one of them. Yet what else? He had endured the scorn of the village, of his teacher, of his peers, on her behalf. He had prayed and he had loved. She had abandoned.
“The day she sent me away,” his voice was an anguished whisper, “she told me to be helpful. And I turned my back. I did not speak.”
Tears stood in his eyes now, and his fingers balled into fists on the low table. I reached over, laid my hands gently on his. He did not pull away.
“You’ve found the courage to walk the fire of your heart and name your poison,” I said gently. “Now you must find the strength to hold your hate and your love.”
He leaned toward me and his body began to shake. As he wept, I held him. That night, for the first time, I did not add resso root to his tea.
* * *
Shimotsuki, 20th year of the Showa Emperor
Month of Falling Frost
We hungered through the autumn, but we did not starve. Still, there was precious little fat on my bones to keep the winter chill at bay. And as I stood beside the woodshed, beating my arms against the sides of my body for warmth, my mouth watered.
“Can you taste it?” I asked as Kenji approached to carry wood into the hut.
He looked puzzled. “Taste what?”
Disappointment welled, but I stoppered it swiftly. Would I never be free of this longing for an apprentice?
I led the way to the shed. He might not detect the nectar of oncoming snow, but he could help me prepare for the storm. Inside, I pointed at the dark planks of wood.
“Set them against the windows.”
“But those are snow panels,” he protested. “It’s too early!”
I gazed up the shadowed slopes of Mt. Hakkai. “If you hurry, you’ll be done by the hour of the goat.”
The panels were dark and heavy with age, and I knew he would struggle to match the grooves of the wooden slabs to the window frames.
“Later, I’ll teach you how to sew.”
“Sew?” he challenged. But he smiled as he bent to the panels.
While he worked, the sky lowered to a gray slab. I stood at the gate, skin tingling with the electric hush. The first snowflakes fell in a delicate veil, then thickened and swirled in a flurry.
At the fire, Kenji jabbed the coals with a stick of pine, sending a fountain of sparks into the air. We sipped our broth and chewed the pickled radish slowly. When the last slices of daikon were gone, Kenji cleaned the bowls and chopsticks.
On the low table by the fire, I arranged scissors, thread, and a red pincushion. A heaped jumble of cloth rose on my other side. I noted his doubtful look and unrolled a length of dark thread.
“Snowstorms are best if your hands are busy. Watch.”
He studied my fingers threading the needle. I picked up an empty, brown cloth sack from the pile and showed him a tear down one side.
“A mushroom sack,” I said, holding the brown cloth out to him. “Smell.”
He inhaled the scent of black earth, decayed leaves, and pine spice. “Matsutake,” he said.
“I’ve been offered gold nuggets from Sado to share where I collect them. Now, the needle enters here, moves forward, swings back, goes forward again. Be sure to go over the stitch like this—it will be stronger.”
He pushed the needle through the material, following my directions exactly. I picked up a shirt I had torn in the summer. The fire cracked beside us as he completed his stitching. When he was done, he handed me the bag. I examined his work and nodded in approval. I allowed the heat to sink through my body.
The hut shook with a burst of wind.
As he stitched, I prepared moxa for my legs. Wind juddered the hut again, then sounded a high-pitched wail. Kenji raised his head and stared at the door with an intensity that drove the fatigue from my body.
“What do you hear?” I asked.
“That sound…” his eyebrows angled in puzzlement.
I strained to listen but heard only the rising howl-moan of wind.
“A whimper,” he said, moving slowly to the door, “and scratching.”
Had I been more alert, less full of ease, I might have sensed what was coming. Perhaps I could have warned him.
He opened the door. A warm rectangle of yellow light fell from the door, sparkling on the rounded white mounds that had been gray stone that morning. Cold whirled into the hut.
In the center of the flaring beads of snow stood Yukiko.
Yukiko reached a pale hand toward him. Her yearning etched frost tendrils in the air. Kenji stared at her--through her—the way a sleepwalker stares into the space beyond space.
When she approached across the snow, her feet left no prints. Kenji trembled, stumbled backwards, and ran to the loft.
I faced Yukiko—who was not Yukiko, but a substance forged from her desperation. A ghost of the girl who had once sung songs, then disobeyed. I held up my palm and concentrated my will at the center of my hand. I would not allow her to submerge the boy again. Yukiko hesitated, but this had been her doorway once. The ghost of my apprentice kept coming.
I rooted to the ground and summoned my strength, forcing it into my voice. “Stop,” I commanded, blocking the doorway.
A silver line streaked down her cheek—and then her desire to drag him to the only world she could inhabit erupted. As she passed through me into the hut, every nerve in my body flared with icy shock. I fell, spinning, to the tatami. I thought fleetingly of the magatama beads, the mirror, the bells. Even if I could reach them in time, they would not contain her.
The hand she held above the indentation in the zabuton where Kenji had sat sewing quivered. Her blank, black eyes roamed the room, then rose to the loft overhead.
The ground, the hut, the room all shook. The black tide of her need spilled through the room. My feet and fingertips pounded with my heartbeat. I began to crawl to the firepit.
Then Kenji stepped down the kaidan tansu and faced his mother. He held the shakuhachi at his side. The shaking of the room became thunderous. Dust and hay drifted from the thatch. Black shadows lapped at his ankles as he walked toward us.
Only then did I sense the fox that had lured him to the river’s edge… and the sound of the winter river water. Her spirit-sending. I shivered.
Standing on the far side of the firepit, swirled in shadow-water, Kenji lifted the shakuhachi to his lips. His fingers relaxed, his chest rose, he exhaled into bamboo.
Even as her hand elongated across the fire, his breath stirred through the wood. I opened my mouth to warn him: Don’t let her touch you! But the words withered in my throat. I shoved myself forward until fire radiated warmth on my face. I reached up an arm and uttered a protection prayer. A veil shimmered to life around Kenji. Yukiko moved closer. She stopped before the protective net of my last supplication, then flicked it away with her fingers as if it were mist.
My arm fell and dragged through coals. Heat seared my fingers and wrist, burned my skin, but I could not look away from the boy and the mother. Only the firepit separated them now.
Susurrant tones flowed from the flute, broken by jagged rasps, then a cascade of weeping chords. Kenji’s body blurred, then brightened, as if the notes had melded his bones and muscle to music. A bridge of sound-light formed across the firepit between mother and son. Yukiko stepped across the quivering bridge of light, blood red maple leaves streaming behind her.
I tried to drag myself with my unburned arm, to stop the merging, to call out and hold Kenji to this world, but my body barely moved. Then, just before she reached him, gold threads spun out from the mouth of the shakuhachi. They met her outstretched fingertips, twined up her arms and encircled her body. The air thrummed, as if with the wings of a thousand herons. Her fingers stopped a hairsbreadth from his cheek.
She closed her eyes and began to hum. A lullaby swelled through the room. Tears streaked from Kenji’s eyes.
The red-edged maple leaves sizzled in the air, then flickered out. The room turned gray, then black. My heart beat in my fingertips, my toes, my chest. I pushed myself to sitting. I heard Kenji’s bare feet whisk across tatami to the open door.
“There’s a fox out there,” he said, “in the snow, looking at us.”
“Be careful,” I said, blinking rapidly to clear my sight.
The door closed. Cold air settled through the darkness.
“It’s gone,” he said.
“We need light,” I said. “Build up the fire.”
I felt his hand on my shoulder. “But it’s blazing,” he said.
Heat caressed my face as flames cracked.
But I did not see.
* * *
Over the next seven days, Kenji made the balm for my burns perfectly. Feeling crept back to my fingertips, but my sight did not return.
One evening, Kenji told me of a plan he had heard from the schoolmaster.
“The Council has agreed to find a home for you in the village. And I am to go to the orphanage.”
It was what I had expected. I bowed under the weight of a fate I could not fight.
“But I don’t want to go,” insisted Kenji. “I want to stay here.”
I shook my head. “It’s time for you to find a new path.”
I sensed him lifting that stubborn, pointed chin. “I won’t go.” His chi flowed and vibrated through the air.
“We can move to my grandparent’s home in the village” said Kenji. “I will attend school, and I will be your eyes. When they come, I will tell them.”
I allowed my tears and bowed to fate.
Glowing by the fire, my teacher nodded while Yukiko hummed.
Debra Carlson lived in Japan for ten years at different times of her life. She moved with her family seven times in eighteen years between the United States, Japan, (then) West Germany, and England. The inspiration for this story came from her time studying at the International University of Japan in Niigata in the early 1990s. She loves reading and writing about how cultures meet, mingle, and evolve. Debra lives in the Pacific Northwest of the United States with her husband, two sons, Pikachu the cat, and two hives of bees. Find more of her work at www.worldweave.com.
Published to the Kaidankai on March 30, 2022.
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Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.