Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tokyoites (Edokkotachi): City of Dreams, a short story by Jacob Ritari

Inari statueEach Wednesday in September, author Jacob Ritari is sharing with us one of his unpublished short stories set in Tokyo. This week's story is City of Dreams. This story is structured a little differently from the previous ones and as you'll see it's not the story of one or two main characters, but rather a whole eclectic handful of them. You might also recognise a particular name, and a kind of re-telling of the old folk tale from which it comes.

If you've looked at the calendar, you'll have realised as well that today is the last Wednesday in September, and therefore today is the fifth and last of Jacob's stories to share with you this month. However, I hope you'll be as thrilled as I am that Jacob has agreed to entertain us with further guest posts, every couple of weeks or so, when the inspiration strikes. To that end, he'd also be very happy to respond to any of your requests. If you have a topic or question relating to his writing, or his life being newly back in Japan, or something else that you'd like to hear his take on, please don't hesitate to leave a comment, or to email me, and I'll be sure to pass them on to him. I know I'm certainly looking forward to hearing more from him. But for now, on to the story...

*****

City of Dreams
Jacob Ritari

I.

The story goes that in China a Buddhist initiate asked his master if a dog possessed the Buddha-nature. The master replied in the negative, but rather than the conversational “no,” he used wu: a reading of the character for negative, nothing, nonentity. Scholars since have debated what to make of this puzzling evidence. But isn’t it fairly obvious that he was punning on the sound of a barking dog?


II.

The story goes that the Jade Emperor, the ruler of Heaven, had a daughter whom he named Orihime—being translated, Weaving Princess—in that age when a name was an accurate descriptor of the thing named. She labored day and night to produce beautiful silks for her father. But perceiving that she grew lonely, he arranged a marriage for her with the Celestial Cowherd who lived on the other side of the milky way.
As usual, love spoiled everything; the princess slacked at her weaving, while the cowherd let his flock wander all over Heaven. The Jade Emperor dissolved the marriage. But his daughter, in tears, implored him, until finally he made this concession: the lovers could meet only on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month.
It is unsurprising that this historical event captured the popular imagination; many people, also, find one day of happiness out of three hundred and sixty-five a sufficient incentive to go on living. Slaving away at their work, they await with varying degrees of patience the hour when their Father in Heaven will grant their wish. The seventh day of the seventh month—that now falls sometime in early August by the Gregorian calendar—became the Tanabata festival, when people across Japan write their wishes on narrow strips of paper and tie them to bamboo stalks.
This year, the Marui department store in Shinjuku planted huge shoots of live bamboo in their basement food court. A glance at the prayers that quickly accumulated there reveals the people of the city:
May all the world live in peace and harmony.
May everyone in my family be happy this year.
Many prayers along these lines could be seen on any prayer-tree. Some are more specific or, one might say, more honest:
Dear God, please help me quit drinking.
Please help me get into Tokyo University…or at least Waseda.
I wish mom and dad would stop fighting.
May I get to see H.N. naked this year.
May Japan never again know the horrors of war—Yukihiro Suzuki, age eighty-seven.
And reading certain prayers, one has the nagging feeling the story is familiar:
May my brother rest in peace—Takeru Satou.
May that person get off his butt and go outside—Rinko Ueno.
May I find a new job before the landlord kicks me out—Mako Tsuji.
May…
According to the Christians, this is how God created the world: let there be light. It is the peculiarity of Occidental thinking that it acknowledges the spontaneous generation of created things, but insists on inventing some explanation for human suffering. The God known to the hearts of most people said, first and foremost: let there be suffering. And He saw the suffering and thought that it was good.
A junior high school student walking by the tree, a shop-lifted CD in his back pocket, sneers: as if a bunch of prayers written on pieces of paper could warp the fabric of the universe which, as he has just learned in science class, is a cloud of atoms swirling endlessly around and around until one day, we predict, they will settle in one heap of cosmic dust.


III.

The story goes that on the eighth of August that year, the day of Tanabata—the prayers had become accumulating at the Marui department store for a week in advance—a girl was sitting on the old concrete stoop outside the Kagami tanning salon on the outskirts of Roppongi. It was the oldest tanning salon in the city, having been open since nineteen eighty-one, as was inscribed on a small plaque in parody of those found all over the city at the birthplaces of aristocrats or the graves of writers. The girl looked about ten years old and was dressed fashionably, in a denim skirt over striped leggings, a stiff black jacket that had almost a military appearance, and a Rolling Stones T-shirt with the icon of the oversized lips, teeth and tongue of the Forty Licks album. Oddly though, she wore a knit watch cap the reddish-brown of fox fur with two large, upright fox ears.
It was the peak of the late summer heat and all of Tokyo simmered in the great frying pan that is the Kanto plain; alleyways vomited up the stink of garbage, and the bulwark of the Roppongi Hills development flickered behind a massive heat-haze, seeming more unreal than usual. The girl didn’t appear hot. Tired people passed by, tugging on the collars of their shirts, and took no notice of her. But she watched the people intently. She sat motionless except to kick her legs slightly, observing them go past from under the cuff of her cap; even without which her face, with long narrow eyes and freckled cheeks, would have a sly appearance.
Finally the door of the salon opened and a beautiful woman stepped out. Her beauty was unfair. Tall, statuesque, and tanned all over, wearing huge sunglasses and a half-trenchcoat making it look as if she wore nothing else, she might have stepped out of a travel poster or a CD cover; she was the spirit of Roppongi, a hothouse beauty whose only desires, and the means to satisfy them, were artificial. She stepped out and gave a shake of her head that sent dark-brilliant hair cascading over one shoulder; then looked down and said peevishly:
“Inari-kun! How many times must I tell you not to bother me on Thursdays?”
The girl kicked her legs and said: “But I was patient this time. I waited until you were good and ready to come out.”
The woman gave a lordly sigh and said: “Have you been waiting here since morning?” Then, assuming the positive: “What have you been doing all this time?”
“Watching.”
Then the girl raised one small finger and singled out a face in the crowd, the only person that day, perhaps in many days, who would take any notice of it at all. “See that young guy over there? He teaches at Sakura Technical High School. His subject is Japanese Literature, but none of the kids care about that stuff; they flunked out of the good schools, and they know they’ll end up being plumbers and carpenters. Every week he buys a bottle of absinthe at this little place in Shinjuku, pretty much the only place you can get it, and waters it down like crazy to make it last. Each bottle is like seven thousand yen, and his dad’s got medical bills; he’s thinking he’ll have to start living on instant ramen. In college he used to tell people he was training to be a monk instead of admitting he’d never had a girlfriend.”
The young man had disappeared several words into the girl’s explanation, and others swept by, in suits or vests or T-shirts, so many of them nearly identical at first glance.
Standing with her arms crossed, the woman looked unimpressed.
“I hardly think you should be using your powers for something so frivolous.”
“Aw c’mon, Ama-tan,” said the girl and chuckled, and slapped the back of the woman’s thigh, a surprisingly adult gesture, “like you ever use them for anything at all. Why d’you even come to this place?”
With a slight smile the woman answered: “I’m fond of it. I’ve been coming here since they opened…not that they’re aware of that.” Then she thought and added: “It’s simply that one has to do something.”
“Exactly. That’s true for everyone. I just think we should take advantage of being people like us.”
Across the wide street, full of trailer trucks and dirty white vans, that ran along one side of Roppongi like a supply route, the light changed. The little neon-green man started walking. A tune, old-fashioned and pregnant with sorrow, played in a series of electronic notes from the speaker concealed inside the light.
The girl listened with her head on one side. After a moment, she burst out laughing.
“I never get tired of hearing that!” And looking out across the sun-washed street, the inactive neon signs outside of pubs, house plants slowly dying on windowsills, pigeons rising and falling in gentle arcs as if in time to the traffic’s music, her eyes glowed like two points of pure light.
Two pigeons had come up and were milling around her feet; they, at least, recognized her presence.
The woman wrinkled her nose.
“I can’t say I understand it one bit. Isn’t it filthy?”
“Yeah. That’s what’s so great.”
The woman sighed again. “I know how fond you are of those ridiculous creatures.”
“But, aren’t they cute? Don’t you wish you could give them everything they want?”
The pigeon’s heads bobbed up and down. They walked about in obscure, seemingly purposeful circles.
“You know perfectly well we’re forbidden from meddling. Besides, even if you could, you’d only make them more miserable; because none of them know what it is they really want.”
“Yeah…I know.”
For the first time, sadness touched and distorted the girl’s beautiful face. But it was like a dark drop in a pool of clear water.
She sprang to her feet.
“I can’t just sit by. I’ve got to do something, or else they’ll stop believing in us.”
The woman gave a snort, as much to say as if.
“Inari-kun. It’s been nearly two thousand years—yet still you refuse to grow up.”
Then when she glanced down, from her height, at the little stoop-rat, she thought for the briefest moment that she saw an old man with a mane of pure white hair, bent under the weight of a bale of uncooked rice. She blinked; the heat-haze moved, and the girl was smiling up at her.
“Hey Ama-tan, just for today, call me the dream operator.”
“What on earth?—And in English, no less?”
“Because I’m going to help everyone achieve their dreams. It’s a special event! One night only! Supplies are limited!” And laughing at this language that she found endlessly charming, she reached into a pocket of her coat and took out a piece of smooth jade in the shape of half the ying-yang symbol, a small hole pierced through its bulb.
The woman’s tanned skin acquired a flush.
“How did you get that!”
“Relax, I’ll put it back when I’m done with it.”
“You have been in the Imperial Palace!”
“Ol’ Saru-tan agreed to look the other way; I did when he wanted to borrow the sword from Nagoya last month. These things are supposed to work miracles…” and she tossed the jewel high in the air, where the light glanced off its side and spattered the pavement, the bald head of a passerby, with sunbeams. “Why keep ‘em locked up?”
The woman reached out her hand as the jewel fell; but it slipped through her fingers and the girl caught it fast.
“You little meddler! Your plants would never grow without my help!”
“So just sit there, since you’re so good at it. I’ll take care of the rest.” And she pulled down the skin underneath one eye and stuck out her tongue. “Ba—ka!”
“So help me, I’ll skin you alive and hang up your hide in my dressing-room!”
“Catch me if you can! Nin, nin!”
The girl flung the jewel to the ground, and momentarily the woman’s face was gripped with horror; but rather than it shattering, clouds of smoke rushed up and obscured the small form.
A man with a golf bag on his shoulder, with a shake of his head as if struck by a nagging thought, moved slightly to one side to avoid the pair. His nostrils clenched as the smoke rushed over him. When it cleared just as abruptly, three small dogs stood in its place—all white-furred, unusual-looking, with pointed muzzles and huge bushy tails. They looked together at the woman with bared teeth suspiciously like sneers, then in a flash, took off running in separate directions.
The woman stood for a minute glowering, her fists clenched; then with a wince, she quickly inspected the fingers of both hands. The glossy red nails were undamaged. With a disdainful noise, and another toss of her head, she began to walk.
It was as if she had just now stepped through the doorway. Men on the sidewalk turned, rooted to the spot. Their eyes followed each smooth turn of her hips, the hair that floated out gently in a train, the glow of the sun trapped in her skin; and from their mouths issued collectively a sigh of broken masculinity, another hot draft in that steel-and-concrete trap of odors and smokes.


IV.

A camera crew was filming in Yoyogi Park.
The sun was beginning to set, and most of the families had gone home to suppers of hamburg steak, omelet rice or sukiyaki; those who remained were students in two groups playing frisbee; a few lucky businessmen and women who had been let off work early, enjoying a soda or a beer on the benches; a young boy in a school coat with an intent expression, sketching two trees that intersected at a striking angle with the fire of the setting sun behind them. In one secluded corner of the lawn, a man with a bald spot, who had just walked from his recording studio in Roppongi, had brought a bag of golf clubs and was practicing his swing. Three boys with piercings had brought a radio. A young couple, dressed conservatively, the girl in an ankle-length skirt—perhaps members of some religion—walked around and around the path in silence. A girl in a tank-top with muscular arms was strumming on acoustic guitar and singing in English, while behind her and to one side, a skinny young man, wearing a flannel shirt and glasses was looking up at her in quiet adoration.
Three men in suits, one of them carrying the heavy camera, followed a girl with a handheld microphone. She was in her late teens with a small but proud bust, and wore a knit watch cap with a pair of fox’s ears. Those who saw her took her for some sort of idol.
Walking effortlessly backwards, she waved into the camera and chirped:
“Hi-hi everyone, and a big foxey welcome to another of Foxey Lady’s spe-ci-al—investigations! We’re here in Yoyogi Park to ask the wonderful people of Tokyo about their Tanabata wishes. I don’t know about you, but I always thought Tanabata was the most romantic holiday. Forget Valentine’s Day and White Day, this is the real ‘day for lovers’! But whether it’s love, money, or something totally crazy you want, tell Foxey Lady and maybe it’ll come true!—That means you, grandfather, so give our nice viewers a big wave and tell us your na-ame!”
The old man sat alone on a park bench, the sun at his back. He was bald, his shoulders slumped, and he wore a leather jacket rubbed smooth by the passage of time like a second skin. With the microphone thrust in his face, he managed a smile.
“Shouhei Imura,” he said.
“And what do you do for a j-o-b?”
“Used to be a taxi driver. Now I own a fleet of cabs.”
“That is so-o cool! Of course, Foxey Lady has her own limousine, but I bet lots of people appreciate the work you do. So, tell us your Tanabata wish!”
Imura squirmed a little before answering, with another tight smile: “I suppose world peace.”
“Come on,” said Foxey Lady, rolling her eyes, “is that the best you can do? The gods are granting wishes! Tell us your heart’s desire!”
“Well…” and Imura made the compulsive gesture of an ex-smoker, putting a knuckle to his lips, before replying, “I suppose if I could have anything…I’d like a last visit from my wife.”
Foxey Lady’s face wilted with pity.
“I’m so sorry. Where did she run off to?”
“To heaven,” he said, with a firmer smile. “It’s been three years now. You know,” he chuckled with a glance at the camera, “I used to run around on her—but we were happy together, and now all I want is to see her face one last time. I know it won’t be long, but I guess you could say I’m impatient. They say they come back at O-Bon…but I’ve never seen her.”
His eyes grew distant.
“I guess that’s a tall order, even for the gods,” said Foxey Lady, gently, “but Foxey Lady supports your love! I’m sure your wife is smiling in heaven.”
“If she is in heaven,” said Imura, and coughed. “It’s awful, really, not knowing if there’s a heaven or not. They don’t send you into this world with answers, if you ask me…only questions. But somehow, in spite of everything…I don’t feel that death is a bad thing. But it’s terribly inconvenient at times.”
“Hey now, there is a heaven. You’ve got to believe. I’m sure the gods will grant your wish.”
“Thank you,” said Imura in a weak voice.
The camera crew picked its way across the lawn to the golfer, who was tossing pinches of grass into the air; for the fun of it, the air was dead still.
He was a tall lean-bodied man with sunburnt skin, wearing a polo shirt, who spoke with a faint Kansai accent. His name was Katsurou Ohara.
“I want to be a pro,” he said, hefting his club. “Why isn’t there an international league, like there is for soccer? That Tiger Woods isn’t such a big deal. I bet I could whip him if we went up in a tournament. Just the other day I got a hole-in-two on a par seven!”
“The gods will see what they can do, but in the mean time, please do your best!”
Do your best,” said Ohara, and shook his head with a wry look. “I been hearing that all my life. I have, haven’t I? I started out with nothing and now I’ve got it all. Well, almost.”
A woman wearing torn jeans, smoking a cigarette, leaned against the stone wall outside the Emperor Meiji exhibition hall. Her name was Tsuruko Masashiro. She’d married her husband for his brains, but then he was offered a lucrative post in Nagano, he worked eleven hours a day, and there wasn’t yet enough money to relocate the family. He slept on the couch of a co-worker and friend, and was lucky if he could return to Tokyo to see her and their infant daughter once a week.
“I didn’t think he was good-looking when I married him,” she said, and blew out a strong drift of smoke. “But every time I see him, he looks better. I guess if his lazy butt were around the house all day, I might not like him so much…but I wish he’d get a promotion, or just call in sick for a month so we could spend it together.”
One of the boys listening to the radio, with a big gold ring through his nose and, somewhat incongruously, a Radiohead T-shirt, called himself Bull. He was sick to death of the Japanese music scene, and his friends nodded agreement; the place to be was England, the birthplace of punk, the land of Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer. Sure, that was all in the past; but just to walk those streets, see the sights—the hotel where Hendrix died; the Salford Lad’s Club where The Smiths had posed.
Foxey Lady pressed on, followed by her implacable, strangely expressionless camera crew. As they returned to the path, attention was diverted from them by a solitary jogger wearing a sweatband and a Chicago Bulls jersey. People watched him with guarded smiles, too shy to approach him. It was the famous writer, H.M.
“Oh Mr. M., I’m such a huge fan of your work! Won’t you tell our viewers what you’re up to these days?”
Good-natured, H.M. jogged in place, catching his breath before he replied: “Actually, I’m working on a new story. It’s been going through my head all day. You want to hear an exert?”
“Oh, yes please!”
“Alright, here goes.—‘One night, I was sitting on my back porch reading the collected works of Immanuel Kant, drinking Rolling Rock beer and listening to Puccini’s greatest hits in techno format. All of a sudden a raven flew up and said nevermore! Then the raven turned into this beautiful woman. We made love. It was super hot. But then it turned out it was all a dream’…” And with a pointed look, he concluded: “Or was it?—Anyway, that’s the gist of it. What do you think?”
“It sounds great. I think you’ve got another bestseller on your hands.”
“Thanks.”
“Now won’t you tell us your Tanabata wish?”
“Hmm—well, I suppose I wouldn’t mind winning the Nobel Prize in Literature.”
“Wow, that’s totally not impossible! But a lot of people are competing for that prize.”
“Don’t worry. Mishima killed himself when Kawabata won instead of him. I’m not about to go down that road.”

Yoyogi Park at sunset was a golden field on which companies of heroes reclined, apart from their caparisoned horses. But they were modest in their valor, unlike the heroes of old; for the most part, no one would ever know what they had endured, what sacrifices they had made to be able to witness that sunset on that day in their eleventh, their twenty-first, their forty-ninth year. And as the sun dipped behind the evergreen trees marking off the forest at the center of the park, it stained them red, transforming them into a memorial—living and yet indelible—to those who had not made it; who had fallen in battle, or had succumbed to their wounds after a long struggle.


V.

A fever patient, lying on a mattress rank with his own sweat, writhing and lashing out, will eventually sink into an uneasy sleep. The human need for sleep is as strong, if not stronger, than that for food or water. The friends or doctors watching over the patient hope that with dawn, the fever will have broken.
The sun sets on Tokyo as it has every day; on the day of the Great Kanto Earthquake, the Doolittle raids, the national surrender, the nineteen-sixty riots, the subway gas attacks. And as on the day of the victory over Russia, the resumption of home rule, the nineteen sixty-four Olympic ceremonies, the opening of the Rainbow Bridge; and on that day, over three hundred years ago, when the great Tokugawa Ieyasu founded his new capital in the middle of a swamp. Learned men see the sun rise and fall and conclude from such regularity that it must be dead, as if a man wouldn’t do a thing he enjoyed over and over, every day of his life. Darkness spreads over Saitama and Chiba, over Shinjuku, Shibuya and Harajuku, Akihabara and Kanda, Yotsuya, Hachioji, Mitaka, Odaiba and Ginza. It can be and often is said that a city, especially one so shot through with lights that burn with their unearthly promethean fire, never truly sleeps; but good men and women always sleep. A girl struggles to open the door of her apartment, where she lives alone, and collapses dead drunk on the sofa. A child of eight who’d fought with his parents, sulking the rest of the day, eases open the door to their bedroom and calls at the top of his lungs “goodnight!” and vanishes. A vice-president who used to shine the boots of soldiers during the occupation told his wife to stay up for him, and they’d have a drink together; he was detained by friends; he comes home to find her asleep in a chair; he kisses her forehead, careful not to wake her, and goes to undress. One student isn’t sleeping. Wearing a headband with the insignia of the rising sun, he pours through binders of notes on German grammar and conceptual physics. But then his sister opens the door to bring him a cup of tea, and he knows that she won’t go to sleep until he does. It’s Thursday night. Most of them have one more day of work or school to look forward to.
There are prayers, too; Tanabata, like Christmas in Japan, rarely being marked by separate religious observances, but there are those who pray anyway. To a host of Shinto and Buddhist deities, to the Lotus Sutra itself, to deceased spiritual masters, to Kobo Daishi in his sleep atop Mt. Kouya; to that ubiquitous God, who has never been purged from the language since His introduction in spite of the Christian persecutions. Filipino workers, helping to throw up another hotel in Asakasa, gather in their dormitory and pray to the Virgin Mary. Others—though few—pray to the God of the Jews; to Allah; to Ainu tribal spirits; to Baron Samedi and Papa Legba; to Haruhi Suzumiya.
Silent, invisible longshoremen are loosing the city’s moorings, and it drifts out onto the sea of dreams.
The writer H.M. is in his room at the Green Palace Hotel; he’s here on business. His wristwatch lies on the bedside table beside a glass of water and he switches off the lamp.
Moments after his eyes shut, he is standing on a brightly-lit stage in Stockholm, Sweden, behind a podium. On the podium is a glass of water and his wristwatch. He’s come to give a speech, but where are his notes…his mind is confusion. He feels he’s been the victim of a practical joke.
Then all at once, a speech, that he’s sure he hasn’t authored, is placed in front of him by a pair of unknown hands. He raises his eyes from the podium and begins to speak with authority.
“Ladies and Gentlemen of the Academy,
“It seems to be the fashion with laureates from my own country to mention in some way the name of Yasunari Kawabata, and the speech he delivered on this very spot. Of course, it’s rather a short tradition, consisting only of my eminent predecessor K.O. and Mr. Kawabata, who of course mentioned himself. But Japan has been very conscious of its achievements in those years since most of our country was leveled by a senseless and inconceivably bloody war. We ourselves were largely to blame for that war, but the scars left by hatred and shame persist after any conflict on all sides. In that war, Russia lost about fifteen percent of its population, Germany about ten; Japan lost just under four percent. But it’s as if I were to take a hundred recent graduates from a good high school, bright-eyed kids with the whole world in front of them, and shoot three of them in the head, and cripple a fourth.
“It’s been about forty years since Mr. Kawabata stood here and addressed you—and it is you, isn’t it, still same embalmed cast of mummies, searching for beauty and truth and ideals in literature. Forty years since he was led onstage like a deposed sultan of Araby, draped in silks and chains, leading a trail of clowns, elephants and monkeys, to your polite laughter. Mr. Kawabata gave a speech which I understand is translated into English as Japan, the Beautiful, and Myself. He talked about Zen, the delicate, subtle Japanese soul, and poetry. None of you understood that Mr. Kawabata was laughing at you. He wasn’t talking about Zen poetry; he was talking about the experience of absolute misery and despair. When he talked about Nothingness, it wasn’t the Buddhist concept—except insomuch as it represents a universal experience—he meant the experience of losing everything; having all one’s ideals torn down in one night.
“But even when everything is taken away from you, there’s something left. That’s how emptiness becomes a positive concept, and that’s what Miyamoto Musashi meant when he wrote that emptiness is either what doesn’t exist or what can’t be known. A human being can lose everything but still feel that somehow, life is worth living. And even though Kawabata eventually succumbed to suicide, like so many of us Japanese writers, in this world permeated with sadness, he had a glimpse of that pure, holy essence of life; that all your learning and your talk about culture can never fathom. A writer doesn’t transmit culture; he’s a prophet who speaks to people of all times and places.
“But, since our Japanese mode of expression is so fine and subtle, worked in such tiny characters, let me rephrase for you what I’m sure Mr. Kawabata meant to say, in the modern dialect,” and H.M. climbs up onto the podium, looses his leather belt, pulls down his trousers and moons the Academy……………On the street outside the hotel, between the puddles of electric lamps, taxi cabs sighing past, a brown-haired American is making his way, unsteadily, back to a different hotel. His pockets are empty and his breath reeks of gin. He sings to himself in a wavering voice that sends anyone he happens to encounter rushing to the other side of the street:

There is a house in New Orleans
They call the Rising Sun
And it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy
And God I know I’m one

……across the city, in his penthouse apartment in Ebisu, the golfer, Katsurou Ohara, sleeps alone on white sheets. At the same time he stands on a windswept field, whorls of dust forming about his ankles.
He approaches a tall dark-skinned man.
“You’re late,” says the man.
“Forgive me,” says Ohara, and bows. “This delay was not my intention.”
In his hand is a golf club he fashioned himself from wood. His opponent carries a metal club, stained dark in its grooves.
“You’ve offended my honor for the last time,” says the dark-skinned man, and slowly turning, raises his weapon. “This ends now!”
Ohara is silent. He nods his head once.
The sun is high overhead. Far-off carrion birds, sensing a meal, call to each other.
Ohara holds his club in a low stance. His opponent is nervy and overconfident. The African has a powerful style, but Ohara fights with the club of the spirit.
Slowly they raise their weapons. Slowly the dust rises and falls. The fate of a man is to fight and die; the only sure method of victory is to transcend the limitations of human nature………At two in the morning, Tsuruko Masahiro finally eases her bawling one-year-old daughter to sleep. Standing in the living room of their three-room apartment, with two walls full of windows looking out on the suburb of Oji, she smokes three cigarettes and drinks a can of Takara chu-hi. Her bones ache. Especially the cheekbones just underneath the eyes; but ever since she was a girl, she alternately prided herself, and felt a deep pain, that she seemed unable to cry. She lies down in her empty bed.
A moment later, she dreams that she wakes up. The faint but persistent buzzing of the doorbell, that inane noise like so many in the city, divorced from human intention. At this time of night…? She opens the door; it’s her husband Shuji.
He’s in his shirtsleeves and carries a bouquet of gladioli. Three pens stick up from his shirt pocket. His hair also sticking up hopelessly, his broad goofy smile.
“The boss saw things my way. I got two weeks off.”
She throws her arms around him, trying to draw him into an embrace that surpasses the physical, forcing her soul to merge with his; but the effort is difficult, like pushing two magnets together. And he babbles, overwhelmed by a wave of love:
“I’m sorry. I said I couldn’t help it, but I lied. I always thought you were too good for me. Deep inside, I never believed a beautiful, cool girl like you could like a nerd like me. I always told myself that if you cheated on me, I wouldn’t get angry; I’d let you do what you wanted…the truth is I’ve been running away all this time. I’m sorry.”
“It’s alright, I forgive you,” says Tsuruko, smothering him with kisses, “I forgive you,”………
Shouhei Imura is fourteen years old. He stands with his friends, watching a girl named Ritsuko run around the oval school track, her lean, powerful legs emerging from her bloomers, and feels above his friends’ taunts.
Imura falls from a tree and breaks his leg. Just two years later, he escapes the draft because of the imperfect setting. His father is sent to fight in China. The bombing starts, and Ritsuko moves to the country with her grandparents. Imura follows her.
They crunch on raw vegetables and feed each other from decanters of peach nectar, still thick with pulp. Imura milks a cow. Soon they’re giving away the milk to whoever wanders by, whole families carrying their possessions in a sad bundle. Tokyo is burning and they hardly care. He lies on the grass with his head on Ritsuko’s knees and silently begs never to be separated from her.
Ritsuko, who turned her head away and blushed whenever the subject of emotions came up, no matter how trivial. She wouldn’t even say she “liked” a brand of soda. She worked at a laundry and came home each night with a grim face set like clay. One night she ran out into a storm to take in their own laundry, her long braid beating against her shoulders like a whip. It never occurred to him to ask her anything about her life before they met. Both her parents were killed in the raids. She was a miracle; and like most miracles, was taken for granted in the end.
Imura’s chest heaves in his sleep. Sweat runs off his forehead. Then his body rises off the bed in a rictus.
In the morning, his housekeeper will enter at noon with a hesitant air—he’s typically an early riser (at his age!)—and call softly to the apparently sleeping form: “Mr. Imura? I beg your pardon Mr. Imura…” She draws closer. His face, projecting above the sheet, bears an expression of perfect tranquility. “Mr. Imura. Mr. Imura…?”

Somewhere, perhaps, the door to a wooden cottage opens and a man enters with a sheepskin thrown over his shoulders. He scuffs his boots, removes them, places them to one side.
“I’m dying of thirst,” says the Celestial Cowherd. “Get me a beer, will you?”
The Weaving Princess looks up from her work.
“I haven’t seen you in over a year, and this is how you greet me?”
“You’ve had a year to put beer in the fridge.” He blows on his hands to warm them—it gets cold, even in August, at these altitudes—and glances around the drafty cottage. “I still don’t see why your dad couldn’t shell out for a nicer place. He’s rich, isn’t he?”
“Oh, let’s not bring my father into this again.—Here. Beer.”
He winces as she presses the cold can into his hands.
“Whoo! Thanks.”
And they stand for a moment together, by the small window, glance at each other, and a furtive smile passes between. Outside the milky way rushes by, a million points of light.


VI.

The girl doesn’t sleep. She never sleeps, and she says she will never die. She walks the streets of the city slicked with a light mist of rain, neon signs becoming blurs of yellow and pink. Signs: beer one hundred yen. The system of this pub. A college for people who look toward the future. Hairdresser’s. Historic Kamakura. Love for sale.
A train rattles by overhead. Cars pass in a single line, a metal snake winding all over the city, so long it’s forgotten its tail; impulses travel from the brain and are lost, miles of it lie dead everywhere. It constricts the tall buildings where people live and they cry out. Their cries reach her: Where will I live? Who will I love?
She’s the one who hears the cries of the world, not Kannon. And old stick-up-his-butt Sakyamuni sitting under a tree. She’d told him a thousand times, people didn’t want inner peace; they wanted bicycles and mangoes, pink curtains and stainless kitchenettes, a girlfriend with a tan or a husband with a PhD, a trip to Rome or a day at the public pool, burning burning burning, a ritual bonfire around which the people danced and threw up their cries of joy and pain, and Heaven was pleased to grant their prayers, the joy of endlessly giving and receiving, that is the real meaning of the ying-yang and the engine of the cosmos.
She has the keys to the city and goes where she wants. At three in the morning, she finds herself in Asakusa. It isn’t as lively as it used to be. When there was less skin on display, more people turned out to see it. Junichirou Tanizaki sat in a coffee shop with a long cigarette in one hand, discoursing on Stendhal to a wide-eyed girl. The buildings of the Kannon shrine are deserted and silent, but a pleasing odor still reaches her; devotion and humility.
She goes down the steps into a basement club. A sign: Wild-Wild Life. The heartbeat throb of the music reaches her even on the steps. She needs no identification; everyone nods as if they had known her all their lives, then when she passes, their faces go blank and they worry they’re falling asleep. At the bar she orders sake in a porcelain flask and downs the whole thing. The dance floor is heaving. She slides in and among them, her lithe body, perfectly capturing each movement she sees, rays of endlessly revolving light pouring over them all; they see her and feel they’ve seen her somewhere before, and feel unmoored affection, that gradually transfers to themselves, their friends or their lovers. Everyone is having fun. Shouts erupt. The DJ is dancing and forgets to change the record. But the music is always present. Why do they need to go down into a basement to hear it…? That time when the sour-lipped shogunate was in decline, when people took to the streets, led by Ippen the “singing saint;” clutching amulets, whirling in the dance, swapping partners, eating and drinking to their heart’s content, chanting their refrain: ee janai ka? Being translated: It’s alright, isn’t it? Or: Ain't it grand? She’d had some role in that but even then her power was waning. What had happened? The murderous shogun had been replaced by the Emperor, who kept his hands clean even while people died. When would people learn that singing and dancing weren’t just meant for festivals—that life, itself, was the festival? She moves through the light and smoke, she is a great favorite and she never stops dancing.

At four-o-clock, the club shuts its doors. A few people have remained until the end, either those with no particular place to go, or those who were simply intoxicated and remain so, carrying the rhythm out the doors. The girl leaves with them. They are tired and their eyes marked with dark circles; she still moves easily and looks about with her bright eyes. The rain has stopped. She goes down the streets, now mostly quiet, parents and children sequestered inside their homes, stray cats curled up in the shadows. Even the insects silent.
The sky is beginning to lighten. Stars still show faintly in a vast glow emanating from far away. She makes her way through the old streets of Asakusa toward Ueno station. A Buddhist temple with a peaked roof looms out of the mist. The streets are littered with hamburger wrappers, empty cigarette packs, receipts, napkins, here a pale scrim of vomit. A homeless man asleep on a bench, wrapped in a paisley bedsheet. The heat has broken and fall is coming.
There is a private high school not far from the station. The girl picks her way down a flagstone path to their soccer field, ringed by apartments with their damp laundry hanging out, wrecked by the unexpected rain. The apartments are gray and the field, in the half-light, looks all mud.
By the goal at the far end is a group of young people, the only source of noise in the early morning. Four friends since junior high, they were separated in high school but matriculated together, through careful planning and hard work, to Jochi University in Yotsuya, the heart of Tokyo. Two boys and two girls, but all of them are dating other people. They have been drinking all night and now they sit underneath the net of the goal, anticipating the sunrise. A girl with her arms around her knees. Two boys sharing the last tall can of beer. Then the first rays of the sun pierce the clouds, and they give a shout of joy that sets a dog barking inside an apartment overhead. They get up and start to dance. The two boys waltzing the two girls clumsily. A tall boy leads a short, plump girl, and when the light touches her face, he kisses her impulsively on both eyelids.
The girl sits on a bench and watches.
She kicks her feet and leans back; the sky washes over them, clouds moving rapidly in the wake of the storm. She looks back at the students who are still consumed with joy.
But these sights are rare. Why, she asks herself, can’t most people perceive the wild beauty of their own lives? They have to see it reflected somewhere. Just as a certain friend of hers, in a cave long ago, never recognized her own beauty until a mirror was held up in front of her.
The girl takes the smell of wet grass and cement into her nostrils and exhales softly. She takes an unexpressed wish into herself and breaths out an answer. She mouths the words:
Nanimo attemo, boku wa itsumo kimitachi no mikata nandakara. Zutto—zutto.
No matter what, you guys, I’m on your side.
Now and forever.

*****

Note: The story has another layer to it if you're familiar with some Japanese folklore. Click on the following links for information on Inari (the kami (God/Goddess) of rice), Fox spirits, Amaterasu (the Sun Goddess) and more.
Amaterasu Wikipedia page
Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess)
Amaterasu Goddess of the Sun
Inari Okami Wikipedia page
Foxtrot's Research on Kitsune Lore
Oinari (稲荷) Shinto God/Goddess of Rice & Food
Ghosts, Demons and Spirits in Japanese lore

*Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

*****

For more on Jacob and his writing, visit Jacob Ritari's website. You can also follow him on Twitter.

If you missed them, please also check out the previous stories:
The Sound of the Train
Futaride
Maintaining Radio Silence
Fukkatsu no Jumon

Read more about Jacob's debut novel, Taroko Gorge, including an excerpt, at the Unbridled Books website.

Buy Taroko Gorge at: Amazon.com | BookDepository | via IndieBound

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2 comments:

  1. Wonderful tale. It makes me want to go and find out more about Japanese mythology. I always thought oinari-san was just a type of sushi and didn't realise it was a god (!!)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I loved this story. Even though I know next-to-nothing about Japanese folklore, I was able to understand the references enough by googling them as I read. (I'm a 'sucker' for 'modern' retellings of mythology, etc anyway.)

    Besides seeing the name Tanabata in the story, the portrayal of H.M. was also fun. (I noticed the references to H.M. in a couple of the other stories too.)

    Loved this line: "When would people learn that singing and dancing weren’t just meant for festivals—that life, itself, was the festival?"

    ReplyDelete

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