10 • MONKS, TRUNKS, and Revelations
I woke up to the ear-splitting screech of a Japanese woman’s voice projected through a loudspeaker. It must’ve been election time in Sayō. As soon as I opened my eyes, a dull pain swelled up in my head followed by a sudden nausea. I was certain of the impending unpleasantness. The question was could I make it down the dangerously steep wooden stairwell, out the broken sliding door and into the adjacent outhouse in time? I quickly stood up, ready to make my way to the stairs, but I could feel my stomach twisting inside of me. I had my answer. There was no way I would make it. I fell back onto my knees and grabbed a nearby trashcan. It was overflowing with garbage like every other trashcan in Master’s house. I dumped the contents on the floor in front of me, deciding that garbage was easier to clean off of Tatami mats than vomit, and let loose with round one.
“Jesus! Are you okay?”
Her voice came from behind me as I was beginning round two. My retching must have awakened her. That, or it was the election car that was still stopped in front of the house blaring its hight-pitched campaign message over and over again. She placed a hand on my back, but the warmth of it made me feel worse and I clumsily swatted her away.
I managed to respond between heaves, “…fine! Why do you ask…”
“Well…for starters, you’ve got your head in a bucket,” she said, pausing to cringe. “And you’ve got a huge black eye. What happened?”
I raised a hand, gesturing for her to hold her questions. I spat and said, “…little busy right now…”
“I’ll try to find you a towel and some water,” she said sympathetically, standing up and making her way down the creaky narrow stairs.
Amid my heaves and gasps, I tried to remember what had happened the night before. Waking up in Master’s house in such a state made me unsure that the last three years had actually happened. The situation was shamefully familiar, with the exception of the beautiful American woman. Did I really leave Japan and my friends and…
The thought of her name sparked the beginning of round three. Never again. It was the same promise I made after every hangover and broke again before every night out. I pulled my head out of the trashcan, breathing heavily, and rested my head on the round edge. I looked at the trash sprawled on the Tatami mats in front of me. The colors seemed too vivid to be real and things kept drifting in and out of focus. It always seemed strange to me how when you’re at your worst, insignificant things seemed to take on new life; colors seemed brighter, shapes appeared sharper, sounds resonated more clearly, and details came into focus. I suspected it was the mind’s attempt to avoid concentrating on the ugliness of present circumstances. If the outside world looked, felt, and sounded a little better, maybe pain wouldn’t seem so unbearable and sickness wouldn’t seem so wretched. However, the senses of smell and taste remained unaltered. Despite the power of mind, there was no avoiding that ugliness. I found myself staring at a mostly empty cup of instant ramen noodles. The design on the outside was bright red and yellow with white lettering and lightning bolts. The edges of the writing seemed to swell and jump out at me like I was wearing 3D glasses. The motion made me feel dizzy and sick all over again. I quickly closed my eyes and prepared for round four. The creaking sound of the wooden stairs distracted me momentarily and I heard her shuffle to my side in her socks.
“Here,” she said softly, setting a glass of water on the floor next to me and gently placing a wet rag on the back of my neck.
The shock of the cold cloth on my skin sent chills through my body, but it seemed to settle the contortions in my gut. I took a deep breath and sat back on my heels. She held the wet towel in place as I sat up.
I hacked, cleared my throat, and replied with a nod, “thanks.”
“Are you ready to tell me why your eye is nearly swollen shut?”
“Master hit me,” I replied, spitting some leftovers into the bucket.
“Because of what I did to Kaori,” as soon as I said her name, I realized Tresa had no idea who I was talking about. “The girl I was going to marry three years ago.”
Her silence signaled her disappointment. She must’ve thought I was leading her on by not telling her about Kaori. Maybe I was. I really had no idea what I was doing here with her. Maybe I just wanted an excuse to come back to Japan and get out of that retail hell in Chicago.
“Are you going to tell me what you did to her?”
“I abandoned her when she was pregnant.”
Again, she responded with pointed silence. I was surprised at how easily the confession had passed my lips. The rag that was pressed against the back of my neck came loose and fell to the floor. I opened my eyes just in time to have them crushed shut again by the force of her fist. The shock of it sent me reeling and I fell sprawled onto the floor. The nausea struck my stomach again, but thankfully I had nothing left inside of me. I made no sound at all. I just lay there on the Tatami mats and let the warm blood fill the swelling skin under my eye. She hit my good eye. I’m not sure which would have been worse. A repeat of last night would have been unbearable, but now I had two black eyes. At least I was symmetrical.
The sliding door that connected the adjacent room slid open and Master stumbled through rubbing his eyes and blinking erratically. He stopped to yawn and then looked down at me on the floor in front of him. He snickered to himself and leaned down, grabbing my arm and hoisting me up by the shoulder. I cringed and moaned as my body stretched out, hanging from his Herculean grip. She jumped up to grab my other arm and together they helped me down the stairs and into the crudely constructed stone courtyard behind the building. They sat me down in a canvas camping chair and I squinted against the light of the sun, which wasn’t hard considering my eyes were already mostly shut. She sat down on a nearby tree stump and Master went back inside.
The stones that were intended to form the floor of courtyard were unevenly spaced and some of them were flipped up on their sides or broken in half. They looked ancient, as if they had been plucked from the volcanoes of prehistoric Japan. Maybe they had been. At Master’s place, nothing would have surprised me. From between the stones and among the mismatched outdoor furnishings, weeds of all shapes and sizes stuck out and gave the place that forgotten-by-time feeling. Stone statues with features warped by decades of meteorological abuse were scattered randomly about the courtyard. They didn’t match in theme or design, but their presence was creepy. Vines hung down from the trees and the surrounding rooftops and grew along the broken stone floor, engulfing several of the warped statues. The whole scene looked like a set from an Indiana Jones movie. I half expected a tribe of angry natives with spears and loincloths to storm the courtyard yelling in some ancient language. I clenched my jaw and tensed my throat to stifle the laugh that the image triggered. I managed to reduce it to a strange nasal grunt and a belly quiver. Tresa didn’t suspect a thing. I looked up at her, but she was looking away.
She didn’t say anything at all. She didn’t need to. I now had two black and blue reminders of my misdeeds. I deserved it. Master emerged from the broken sliding door a moment later and shoved a wet bag of frozen French fries in my face and a hot cup of coffee in my hands. He handed Tresa a cup of coffee too and went back inside. The air was alive with the sounds of morning in Sayō, bird songs, road construction, a distant train, old women beating the dust off of their hanging futons, early deliveries, and political messages blasting from car-mounted loudspeakers. I soaked up the noise, fearing that when it fell silent the fantasy would end and I would be surreptitiously transported back to Chicago, to a life without living. I lifted the bag of frozen French fries from my face and looked at the label. Steakhouse Wedge Cut Fries, a reminder of America. I pressed the bag back over my eyes.
“How could you do that?” she asked, shattering the near-Zen moment brought on by the symphony of morning noises.
I gave an exaggerated sigh, tempting another punch, and said, “What do you want me to say? I was young? I was stupid? I was scared?” I paused, my train of thought interrupted by the image of Hopper’s Nighthawks. “Maybe I’m just doomed to repeat my father’s mistakes. They’re all just excuses. Is that really what you want to hear?”
“I just want to understand why you did it. I thought you were…” she hesitated, choosing her words carefully. “…different.”
“You don’t know anything about me.”
“I know what you’re missing. And now, I think I know how you lost it.”
“No, I never…”
Master came back outside with a tray in his hands and set it down on two nearby cinderblocks, forming a makeshift table. There was a plate and a bowl on the tray. On the plate, there was a generous helping of Omuraisu, a Japanese omelet wrapped around a pile of rice with ketchup. The bowl was filled with rice floating in a light green broth.
“Let me guess, the Ochazuke is mine?” I asked in Japanese.
Master nodded and pulled the French fries from my hands shoving another frozen bag in my face, carrots this time. Ochazuke was Master’s hangover cure, green tea poured over a bowl of rice. It was light and easy on the stomach. I was still a little too queasy to attempt eating. Master dropped a straw in my cup of coffee and went back inside.
“Is he always like this?” she asked as the door slid closed behind him.
“Waiting on his guests hand and foot.”
“Welcome to Japan,” I said in a smartass tone, as if she had any idea what I was talking about.
“Anyway,” she continued, ignoring my quip. “What were you going to say? You never what?”
I struggled to get the words out of my mouth, “I…never really loved her.”
“That’s even worse,” she almost shouted, her voice filled with disgust. “Did she have the baby?”
“I don’t think so,” I responded in a submissive voice, consciously trying to convey my own disgust with my actions. “That’s why Master hit me. He lost his daughter in a car accident five years ago. Knowing the loss of a child and then being confronted by someone who willfully abandoned a child tends to bring out the violence in a person who actually has a heart. Not to mention, he introduced us.”
“But you didn’t love her?”
I shook my head weakly and condensation from the frozen bag of carrots dripped on to my jeans.
“Then why were you going to get married?”
“I thought I loved her.”
I still had the cold bag of freezer vegetables over my eyes, but I swear I felt her scowl at me. “Then you loved her. That’s what love is, a state of mind.”
The air between us became cold and empty for a moment and a tense feeling seemed to wash over me like waves from the wake of her disgusted expression. I could hear her fork scrape angrily over the plate as she took a few bites of her Omuraisu. She must have liked it, because the clinking sounds became more frequent and clumsy. My stomach felt like it had a cement block in it, but somehow I was hungry. I reluctantly picked up the spoon and tried a few sips of the Ochazuke. It tasted like it always did. I set the spoon back down on the tray and waited to see how my body would react. The broken sliding door behind me clumsily skidded open again. Master sat down in the chair next to mine and slurped up some ramen he had made for himself. The three of us sat in silence, eating our mismatched breakfasts and taking in the sounds of morning. What an odd trio we made, a middle-aged Japanese man accused of being ex-Yakuza, a black woman from Chicago with the ability to read a person’s last meal from their face, and a heartless bastard with two black eyes. It sounded like a bad sitcom pitch.
“Why’d you really come back?” Master asked, apparently finished with his noodles.
I sniffed loudly to keep my nose from running and pulled the bag of carrots away from my eyes. Squinting at him, I said, “I have no idea.”
“What did he say?” Tresa interjected, frustrated with the language barrier.
“He asked me why I came back and I said I don’t know.”
“That’s not true. You came back for your heart.”
“Tresa, I don’t even know what that means. And neither do you.”
Master gave me a gesture telling me that he didn’t understand our English and wore a matching expression. This was going to be a busy morning.
“She said I came here for my heart.”
“Your heart?” his question matched the confusion on his face. He looked over to Tresa and gestured at his chest, “haa-to?”
“Yes, yes. His heart,” she responded in over-annunciated shouts.
“Jesus. He’s Japanese, not deaf.”
“I was just trying to be polite.”
“Well, the army doing marching drills in my head really appreciates it,” I responded in abuse of sarcasm, waving off Master’s impending what-did-she-say question with my hand. “Not important.”
“What happened to your heart?” he asked instead.
“I don’t know. I didn’t even know it was missing until I met her. The truth is I have no idea what’s wrong with me or why I’m here. The whole thing is ridiculous.”
“Maybe…” he cut himself off and seemed to be examining me. “…but, there is something different about you. I don’t know what, but something’s off.” He leaned forward and tugged down on my cheeks with his thumbs, staring into my eyes.
“Ow! Dammit! Haven’t you done enough damage already?”
He began snickering to himself and it grew into an uncontrollable high-pitched cackle. Obviously, it was contagious, because Tresa began laughing with him. I grabbed my bag of frozen carrots and pressed it against the swollen skin under my eyes. The two of them laughed harder now.
“What? What’s so funny?” I asked in a mixture of Japanese and English, directed at them both.
He tried to calm himself down enough to reply and said, “hers is worse than mine!” He had barely enough breath to finish the sentence before he erupted with laughter again.
“Oh fuck you.”
“What did he say?” she managed to ask between gasps and giggles.
The two of them laughed for a bit longer and then finally calmed down, slowly catching their breath. Master pulled out his pack of Seven Stars and lit up a cigarette. I took a sip of coffee through my straw and gave them both dirty looks.
“Finish eatin’ and grab a shower,” he ordered, standing up. “We’re goin’ to Tottori.”
Before I could offer a word of protest, he dashed back inside, cigarette still clenched between his lips, leaving the sliding door wide open. She looked up at me, waiting for an explanation. I took another sip of coffee and set the cup back down on the tray. I thought about the drive to Tottori and how much I didn’t want to spend two hours in the backseat of Master’s truck. I leaned back, the plastic feet of the camping chair clattering along the stones in the courtyard floor as it bent slightly under my weight. I heaved a sigh and looked over at her sitting on her tree stump.
• • • • •
Two hours of translating, four cans of vending machine coffee, and three bathroom breaks later, we arrived in the seaside town of Daisen. It was a small town, the combination of two formerly separate fishing villages that thrived on the seasonal tourism drawn by the nearby mountain of the same name. The highway swung around the north face of the jagged peak and we could see the midday sunlight glittering on the waves of the Japanese sea. The sky was a way-too-perfect shade of blue. It almost looked fake, like the backdrop on the set of a low-budget movie. It was the kind of beautiful day that tugged at your pessimisms saying, “it’s too good to be true.” We drove onto the exit ramp with our windows down and the Wailers’ Burnin’ buzzing from factory speakers. The weather was practically begging to be accompanied by reggae rhythms and the voices of Marley and Tosh. Master couldn’t help but reach for the disc as soon as we sat down in the sun-warmed interior. I had been lying down in the backseat with my eyes closed for most of the trip, translating and popping my head up every so often to see where we were. I finally sat up as we pulled on to the stretch of the Tottori highway that was sandwiched between the ocean and the mountain. The air rushing in through the windows was cool and clean. I looked around as we came to a stop at the bottom of the highway off ramp. The town was just as I remembered it, quiet and quaint and contradicted by the myriad tourism signs for skiing, mountain climbing, famous dairies and their romantic picnic spots, and the historic Daisen Temple.
The clumps of narrow Japanese houses stretched off into the distance toward the foot of the mountain. The traditional hipped-gabled tile roofs with their delicately curving eaves seemed to go on forever, creating the illusion of slowly moving waves in various shades of blue and green and brown. There were beautifully cultivated Japanese gardens poking through cast iron fences and climbing over stone walls. The streets were sparsely populated with little old ladies hunched over from a lifetime in the rice patties and pushing their groceries in bag carts, middle-aged men riding bicycles with cigarettes in their mouths, and loud children playing games in the labyrinth of winding alleyways. Street-side shop owners opened doors and windows in response to the nice weather and patiently carried their wares outside to lure tourists. It was the kind of small town where things were still sold the way they were supposed to be sold; there were tailors, produce markets, dairy shops, cobblers, mechanics, bakers, noodle shops, opticians, apothecaries, and stationary stores. In Daisen, you could walk into a meat shop and the butcher could tell you where and by who the cow had been raised and how and when it had been slaughtered. If you were really interested, he could probably even tell you the history of the farmer’s family and the names of his children. Everyone knew everyone and respect was something that was given, instead of earned.
I was disappointed to see some modern chain stores that had sprung up along the road that paralleled the main Sanin train line. The train line ran along the coast and as Master turned left to venture inland the Doutor, Starbucks, Sukiya and McDonalds signs were replaced by Kanji-only shop plaques. We drove through the tiny streets, drawing ever closer to the mountain and toward the heart of the old town. Master’s giant Toyota S.U.V. seemed totally out of place among the scooters, bicycles, and mini pick-up trucks. I was wondering what we were doing in Daisen. I had been in such a bad state when Master told me we were going to Tottori that it didn’t even occur to me to ask why. I figured he had his reasons. He always did. I leaned up between the seats and cleared my throat.
“Master, what the hell are we doing here?” I asked bluntly. Getting punched in the face by someone has a funny way of removing all of the indirectness from a friendship.
“We’re goin’ t’see an ‘ol friend ‘o mine,” he replied in his usual cheerful voice.
“Ah. You know…to be honest, I’m not feeling all that social right now.”
“He can help ya.”
As if she understood our Japanese, Tresa quickly looked up from the passing scenery at Master’s cryptic response. I sighed deeply and leaned back again. He can help me? What did he mean by that?
The road climbed steadily toward the foot of the mountain and the old wooden houses became more sparse and spaced out as we approached the mouth of dense forest. The road ran under a large unpainted wooden Torii gate and through a dark tunnel formed by the trees that leaned over the narrow stretch of pavement. Branches hung low and brushed the roof of the car as we passed slowly among the trees. Soon the pavement became gravel. A little farther along, it turned into a dirt path that was only recognizable by the spacing of the trees that formed the canopy above. As if passing into another world, a bright light appeared far ahead of the car at the end of the dense wood. The light began as a pinprick and grew as we approached, until finally we could make out a wide green meadow full of wild flowers. It was like the picture on a postcard of Holland, minus the windmills. Master accelerated as we neared the opening and we emerged from the darkness, squinting and trying to take in the beauty of our new surroundings.
Suddenly, something burst through the windshield, spraying bits of glass everywhere. Master slammed on the breaks, flinging my still hungover body lifelessly into the back of his seat. Tresa let out a high-pitched screech and the three of us clenched our jaws and flinched, covering our faces with flailing arms. The rear end of the oversized S.U.V. fishtailed and swung around as we skidded to a stop on the dirt. The tires kicked up a huge dust cloud that surrounded the front of the car. I couldn’t see what was in front of us, but I began to look around the floor of the car for what had broken through the windshield. The hole it had made was small and circular. Tresa was panting heavily, obviously still in shock, and slowly reopened her eyes. Master groped around underneath his seat. My hand met with something small, hard and covered in uniform dimples. I pulled it out from underneath Tresa’s seat and held it up between the two of them. It was a golf ball. Master looked up briefly to scan the brand and number and then continued searching.
“That’s mine,” he said, gesturing with his hand to the back of the vehicle.
I turned around and saw a blue and grey golf bag behind my seat with the cover half unzipped and a myriad of empty golf ball boxes, some of their contents lying among the surrounding chaos and garbage. Master was anything but a clean freak and I was probably lucky to have only found a golf ball under the seat. I set it on the seat next to me and continued the search for the elusive projectile.
Again, the glass in the windshield cracked and shattered as a second object blasted through it. We all flinched and cowered again trying to take cover behind whatever we could. The entry point of the second projectile had been so close to the first that it merely enlarged the original fracture on one side. A few clinging pieces of glass fell from the top of the hole onto the dashboard. We came out from behind our hiding places and cautiously peaked through the windshield, anticipating another attack. The dust cloud had mostly cleared and we could see the enormity of the meadow. It stretched out in front of the car bordered on all sides by the dense forest except where it met the foot of the mountain. In the distance, I could see what looked like a pair of small temple buildings. Master began looking around for the second object. So, I did the same. Tresa reached over next to her and then held up another golf ball. She turned it in her fingers with a shocked look on her face. As she turned the ball, the Japanese phonetic characters for the word “gomen” written in black marker came in to view. Master’s eyebrows arched and he leaned back over his seat and grabbed the ball I had found on the floor. He rolled it over and examined it, then took the second ball from Tresa to compare. He began laughing as he read the marker written message on the second ball again. His laugh shook the air around us and evoked a smile from my black and blue face.
“What does that mean?” Tresa asked, still wearing her shocked eyes.
“It means ‘sorry.’”
She began chuckling uneasily. I opened the door and hopped out of the car, looking for the source of the golf balls. The two of them followed suit and stepped out of the car too. I walked around the back of the car and saw a small triangular red flag on a white pole sticking out of a hole in the ground just in front of the tree line. It had obviously been the intended target, but what kind of maniac would send an apology ball after the first one busted through the windshield of a car.
“Gobō-san!” Master shouted through his hands at the small temple buildings.
In response, we heard a distant voice yell, “Four!”
We all collapsed into fetal positions in the grass, covering our heads. We heard the ball make a thud in the nearby dirt. I cautiously rose and began looking through the tall grass for the ball. Master, bent down and scooped the white ball out of the grass. He held it up, looking for another message. I walked over to see it for myself. In the same black marker and the same bad penmanship was the character “yama.” Master and I both immediately looked up and began scanning the mountainside for a sociopathic golfer. Tresa looked confused, but followed our lead and looked up at the mountain.
“There,” she shouted as she flung out her arm to point the way.
Master and I closed in on either side of her outstretched arm to follow the line of sight it suggested. I held my open hand up over my eyes to block the sun and tried to focus my eyes on the spot to which she was pointing. There was a clearing in the trees not too far up the mountain where the slope leveled out a bit and stuck out in a small cliff. In the clearing, I saw the glinting of something metal moving in the sunlight. I squinted as if narrowing my already swollen eyes would help me see any better. It was just another one of many pointless habits developed over a lifetime of mimicking other people. Monkey see, monkey do. The glinting object was a golf club being swung slowly back and forth above the head of a small bald man wearing a dark robe.
Master lowered his hand from above his eyes and said, “Tha’s my friend.” He smiled and snorted and began walking back to the car.
We followed him and climbed back into the big S.U.V. He sped off toward the small buildings, kicking up a cloud of dust on the road. Tresa fumbled around trying to put on her seatbelt and I grabbed on to the headrests in front of me as tightly as I could. We crossed the meadow at speeds too terrifying for rational thought as the afternoon sunlight chased after us. A breeze was bending the tall grass and the wild flowers in sweeping waves. Gradually, the volume of everything around me got turned down and I loosened my grip on the headrests. There was something beautiful in that moment; the meadow and the mountain, the sun and the wind, and rubbing elbows with death. Everything seemed so relative. Tresa was missing it, her hands covering her eyes and a look of panic on her clinched lips. Master was just enjoying the drive. He loved tempting fate. The car fishtailed this way and that as he skidded through the curves in the dirt road. There was something so simple in what I saw, but I tried too hard to imbue it with my own sense of profundity and the truth slipped by me. The immediacy of life was staring me in the eyes and waiting for me to flinch, but a sort of peace washed over me and I accepted death as a real thing. I didn’t long for it and I didn’t anticipate it, but in that insignificant moment I accepted that it would happen at some point. As a child, death always seemed like some impossibly distant foreign country to which I would never go. I was young and convinced I would live forever. Death was an obscure Eastern European country with a name that ended in “-stan.” Most people had never heard of it or had only heard the name mentioned on BBC radio in reference to some tragic event in world news. I knew nothing about “Death-stan,” but from what I had heard it was not the kind of place I wanted to visit. So, it remained buried in my mind, hidden away like guilt. I had been certain its time would never come, but in the back of an S.U.V. hurdling through a beautiful clearing in the woods of western Japan, death made its presence known. I knew death was inevitable and, considering Master’s driving, very likely. The knowledge made me feel free. I let go of the headrests completely and let myself slide back and forth on the leather seat as the car swerved this way and that.
We skidded to a stop just in front of the bigger of the two temple buildings. The thick, pitched roof was made of reeds and the eaves hung over the walls so low that they almost touched the ground. The rest of the building was made of ancient looking wood. The window covers were all held up on metal hooks, allowing a breeze to rush through the temple and fan the bright purple banners that hung over the front of the building. The temple was sparsely decorated and only a single unpainted wooden Torii gate stood at the mouth of the gravel path that extended to the front of the building. The smaller adjacent building had a matching roof, but looked like a tool shed. It had only one window and one door, both open. There was a neatly stacked pile of wood next to one of the outside walls of the small shack and a covered fire pit in front of the building surrounded by benches made of crudely cut logs.
We got out of the car again. I stretched my arms out above my head and my sternum cracked loudly. Tresa was still whimpering slightly from the ride and Master wore a huge goofy grin on his face. He was obviously very pleased with his driving. My stomach had stopped doing back flips and my head was beginning to clear up a bit. I opened my mouth to ask Master what the plan was, but I was cut off when I heard footsteps coming from behind me. I turned around to see a frail-looking, bald Japanese man wearing a dark blue Yukata and carrying a 3-iron. He shuffled out from among the trees at the mouth of a narrow mountain path next to the temple. He was wearing Geta, a Japanese wooden sandal with an elevated base held on by a fabric thong. I was always impressed when I saw someone who was able to walk in them. To me, they looked like an ancient form of torture. He walked with a lopsided limp. I couldn’t tell if the limp was caused by the Geta or his age, or a combination of the two.
“Gobō-san. It’s been a long time,” Master greeted with a bow.
“Mori-kun. A very long time ne,” the old monk replied with a slightly shallower bow. Hearing Master called by his real name did little to mar his legend, but for some reason it bothered me.
Tresa and I both bowed and introduced ourselves as politely as possible. Gobō-san introduced himself as “Okamoto Ryūji” and gave us a big smile that crushed the leathery skin of his face into a landscape of folds and wrinkles. He led us over to the fire pit and gestured for us to sit down on the benches. Tresa and I sat down and he shuffled into the small shack and emerged a moment later with a large teakettle. Master brought over some logs from the woodpile and stacked them in the gray ashes, filling the crevices with kindling and crumpled paper. He flicked his lighter several times and the paper quickly caught fire. Gobō-san hung the iron teakettle on the spit over the smoking pile of wood. He sat down on the bench across from us while Master continued tending the fire. The two of them exchanged pleasantries and caught up. I listened and waited patiently for the purpose of our journey to be revealed. I didn’t want to interrupt two old friends while they reacquainted themselves. Their Japanese was a little hard to follow, but I was able to understand the gist of their conversation. They began with the usual stuff, how-are-you’s and remember-when’s. Then, they briefly discussed the incident with the golf balls and how and when Gobō-san would be paying for the repair of the windshield, Master laughing throughout. Finally, the conversation moved to the topic at hand.
“What brings you to Daisen Mori-kun?” Gobō-san asked in an old-fashioned eloquence. His accent was a interesting mixture of rustic Tōhoku dialect and a dated Tōkyo standard reminiscent of Classical Japanese literature. It sounded like the product of privileged rural upbringing and years of dedicated study.
Master answered by pointing to me and saying something in Japanese that I didn’t recognize.
Gobō-san nodded and said, “mind the tea.” Then, he stood up and walked over to me. “Matto-san, would you take a walk with me?”
I nodded and followed him up the mountain trail behind the shack. The afternoon sun was beginning to hover over the far edge of the mountain behind us, but its heat was almost oppressive as if in defiance of the inevitable coming of night. Our bodies cast long shadows in front of us on the orange dirt of the trail. The path weaved in and out of the solid rock of the mountain it carved. The late afternoon wind blew off the Japanese sea and the air was heavy with the taste of salt. 3-iron still in hand, the monk kept a slow but steady pace in front of me. I was dripping with sweat and struggling to keep up. After four switchbacks he finally came to a stop on a flat rock atop a precipice that overlooked the steep cliff below. I followed him to the edge and took in the view. I could see the meadow directly below us, dotted with yellow and blue wildflowers and surrounded by a thick grove of trees like a barrier surrounding Gobō-san’s humble little world. Beyond the trees was the town of Daisen-chō spread across the foothills leading up to the mountain above and down to the shores of the ocean below. The water looked calm. Lit by the far West sun the sea took on an otherworldly appearance, the surface shimmering over ever deepening shades of blue like one stacked on the next.
“You don’t want to be here do you?”
The question startled me and I was lost for words. What did he mean by “here?” Did he mean this cliff? Tottori? Japan? Or did he mean this moment in my life? Or did he think I didn’t want to be here with him?
“Where do you want to be right now?” he followed up before I could answer.
I was even more confused by this question and I signaled my defeat with a lost expression.
“It’s a simple question, one that most people can answer in less than three seconds. Most people are continuously thinking of the places they’d rather be, no matter their current surroundings. Human beings never see where they are, only where they’ve been and where they want to go.” He held up his 3-iron and gestured out over the town toward the ocean. “Look. Take it in. This is where you are right now. You could not be anywhere else but right here right now.”
“I don’t know where I am,” I finally said. My voice sounded empty against the wind and wash of the ocean in the distance.
“Good,” he said with a smile. “That's the best place from which to start.”
He ignored my questions and continued, “do you know why Mori-kun brought you here?”
“He said you could help me.”
“Help you how?”
“I have no idea.”
“So you don’t need help?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where are you right now?”
“I don’t know!” My voice had taken on a strained quality as I tried to figure out how to answer him.
“Where do you want to be right now?”
“With …” I stopped myself before something deep inside answered.
“With? Interesting. Where are you right now?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s a simple question. Where are you?”
“Here … with you.”
“No, you’re not. Where are you?”
“Lost,” the something deep inside answered.
“Where are you needed?”
“Where are you needed?”
“I don’t want to do this, whatever it is.”
“I just want to ask you some questions. You’re doing fine. Where are you needed?”
“Needed? I don’t know. Nowhere.”
“Then why did you come to Japan?”
“Because I don’t have anything left …” I stopped, breathing heavily for some reason. There was something in me answering his questions, something that I didn’t know was there.
“Thank you for answering my questions.” He looked out over the town and the ocean and sighed with a satisfied smile on his face. “I never tire of this view. I’ve spent decades here, studying, praying, learning humility and stillness, helping others when I can. Mostly, I’ve spent that time reflecting on my own past, trying to reconcile that past with who I am now. And after all this time, do you know what I’ve accomplished in that regard?”
I looked over at him and shook my head slightly to indicate I didn’t know.
“Nothing. Nothing at all. As soon as it becomes a memory that can be recalled and reflected upon the past is gone, inaccessible. It’s no longer connected to the entity that is me. This is not the same as forgetting. I must not forget. But that part of me is extinguished. The me that lived those moments does not exist anymore, like the moments themselves. Just as winter wipes out life so that it can be reborn in spring, so do the seasons of time destroy and create a life with each passing moment. In these eight decades, I have learned how to be present. I have given up asking where I’ve been and who I was. I have learned how to answer those three questions … Where am I? Where do I want to be? Where am I needed?” He looked over at me, raising his 3-iron again, and smiled. “I’ve also developed my golf swing.”
I snorted a laugh through my nose and smiled.
“Do you understand what I’ve told you?”
I let my expression become serious and I shook my head.
“You will. Come,” he said, gesturing for me to follow him back to his shack.
We returned to the fireside where Master was teaching Tresa how to hit a ball with a driver. Cigarette in mouth he was blurting out English words from his limited lexicon and poking her with a club in various places to improve her form. I sat down and Gobō-san and I had a hot cup of tea while we watched the golf lesson. Tresa finally connected and drove the ball far out into the meadow where it disappeared in the tall grass and wildflowers. She looked genuinely happy and her infectious smile made me smirk. She and Master returned to the fire and their tea.
Gobō-san stood up and said, “please take off your jacket and lie down on the bench face-up.”
I did what he said, handing my jacket to Tresa and lying back on the bench. It was difficult to balance myself on the curved seat of the log. I bent my legs at the knee and dropped them on either side of the bench to keep myself steady. He lightly jabbed my legs with his 3-iron and gestured for me to keep them extended on the bench. I did as instructed and spaced my legs in such a way that I could balance my weight over the curve. He stood over me with his back as straight as an arrow and closed his eyes, breathing deeply in through his nose and out through his mouth. He didn’t move or say anything for a long time. Then, he pressed his palms together in front of himself and held his posture. He was so still that he hardly looked alive at all. Only his stomach moved in and out as he breathed deeply. His shoulders and chest were motionless and his hands hovered together in front of him without so much as shaking. He resembled the statue of a bodhisattva, frozen in prayer, delaying his own enlightenment in order to save others from suffering.
Master and Tresa watched the scene intently while the fire crackled and hissed nearby. I had no idea what was happening or what I was supposed to be doing. Master had said Gobō-san could help me. Help me with what? I thought about what Tresa had told Master. He knew I was here looking for my heart and he said there was something different about me. Surely he didn’t believe that nonsense. I didn’t know what to believe anymore. I knew that there had been something missing from my life for a long time, but I didn’t think it was a piece of me. I figured whatever was missing was just one of the usual tenets of modern life: love, success, respect, acceptance, security, power, wealth, immortality. Still, here I was tracking down a figurative piece of my anatomy in the backwaters of Japan. Maybe this was one of those searches where only the journey was important. My heart was merely the catalyst, but it could have been anything. The journey would be just as effective if we were searching for a penny or the Holy Grail or the perfect glazed doughnut. The object wasn’t important. Maybe I would find what I was looking for, whatever it was, along the way. I decided to stop being so skeptical and just go along for the ride.
My thoughts were interrupted when he suddenly changed positions, moving his hands to his forehead directly between his eyes. His hands were still pressed together. He moved again, resting his right hand on the crown of his head and letting his left hand hover in front of him on its own. His breath became labored for a moment while in the last pose and droplets of sweat began to form on his forehead. Despite the sunny weather, it wasn’t particularly hot outside. It looked as if he was generating heat from within himself. There was nothing mystical about it, but it was damn impressive. I had heard of actors being able to control their body functions through extended concentration techniques in order to make themselves sweat or cry or turn pale. British snipers were able to slow their heart rate and breathing before pulling the trigger. So, why couldn’t a Japanese monk increase his body heat? It seemed as likely as any other oddity in the world.
Master leaned forward and lifted the teakettle off of the spit with a towel. He huddled over the tray with four small ceramic cups on it and poured the hot tea carefully into each glass. The smell was light and fragrant. He hung the teakettle back on the spit, but slightly farther away from the fire and handed a cup to Tresa. He took one for himself and slurped as he sipped from the steaming cup.
Gobō-san changed his posture again, stepping forward and bringing both of his hands in front of himself to hover just above my stomach. In an act of exceptional bad timing, my stomach let loose with a gargantuan gurgling noise that seemed to last for a full 30 seconds. The sound was hideous and loud in the presence of our silent spectators. I was embarrassed.
“Sorry. I had a little too much to drink last night and…”
“Please don’t speak,” he interrupted me, speaking sternly, but calmly in his very-studied Japanese.
I turned my head and shot an “oops” look at Master. He immediately smiled and covered his mouth to keep from snickering, but his nose made a quick snort before he could catch it.
“You be quiet too, Mori-kun,” he said a little more sternly, as if Master should’ve known better.
“Haa-ha,” I jested in my high-pitched Nelson voice, pointing at master.
With an open palm, he fiercely smacked my stomach and said, “shut up.”
I grabbed at my stomach, which was noticeably unsettled by the force of his strike, and moaned quietly. He snorted slightly, trying to contain his own laughter. When I looked up at his face, he quickly closed his one open eye to hide his amusement and took a deep breath. I rested my arm at my side and tried to relax again. My stomach was still churning slightly and growling occasionally, but I ignored it. His hands began to move slowly down and stopped to hover over my pelvis. I suddenly became worried I would be cursed with the kind of unprovoked erections that plagued my adolescence. It had always happened when the teacher would ask me to stand up and read or solve a math problem at the board. I would be forced to engage in an act of subterfuge, dropping my book as I stood up, tying my shoe, or pretending to search my backpack for something important, giving myself time to quickly make the appropriate adjustments for a standing posture. Oddly enough, the more I reminisced about my high school years, the more flaccid I became. It was a trick I’d have to remember in the future. Too bad it wouldn’t have worked for me in high school.
Just then, he moved his hands again, slowly moving toward my chest. His breath was interrupted by a chocked gasp and his hands twitched like a chill had run through him. I looked up at him as he opened his eyes and took a step away from me. I smiled, hoping that I was the butt of some spiritual joke. His face, however, was frozen in an expression of horror. I looked over at Master who looked concerned as he surveyed the scene. I sat up on the log bench and turned toward Gobō-san.
“Did I do something wrong?” I asked hesitantly, unsure if I was still supposed to be quiet or not.
Shuttering and speaking to no one in particular, he said, “panda…has no heart.”
I turned around and looked at Master with arched eyebrows, mouthing the word “panda” silently out of view of Gobō-san. He smiled and held his closed fists up over his eyes, pointing out the obvious. I rolled my eyes and turned back toward Gobō-san.
“Panda. Very funny,” I said sarcastically, forgetting that sarcasm was often lost on the Japanese.
“What happened? What did he say?” Tresa butted in with her usual questions.
“He called me a panda.”
“Why?” she asked without thinking and then, looking at my face, snickered and said, “oh, right.”
“Oh, and he said my heart’s missing. But, that’s nothing new. Everybody who isn’t me seems to know that already.”
“Now do you believe it?” she pressed me.
“Why? Because some crazy golf club-wielding monk felt up my aura and breathed at me? I get the metaphor. I really do. But, that’s all it is. My heart is right here where it should be,” I protested, beating my chest loudly.
“Haa-to,” Gobō-san interjected, pointing at my chest. He had obviously recognizing the word in English. “How did this happen?” he asked, reverting to Japanese.
“How did what happen? My heart is not missing. If it was, I’d be dead. Right?”
“You are dead,” he replied, still wearing a horrified look on his face.
“An…onyu…hiya…dammit. I forgot the word. Iya…hiyu! That’s it. Hiyu. It’s a metaphor. You’re just being figurative, right? If not, I’m pretty spry for a dead guy,” I said in a fury of English and Japanese, snickering at my own joke.
“Your heart is still pumping, yes, but your heart is gone,” he explained, using two different Japanese words that are both translated into English as heart.
I thought about what he said. His word choice had been very deliberate. The first word he used merely meant the physical bodily organ that pumped blood and kept a person alive. The second word he used had a whole slew of connotations and nuances. It was used to mean heart, spirit, mind, center, energy, emotion, and thought. However, all of the meanings were not as clear-cut as they seemed. Mind did not mean brain, but rather the ambiguously defined concept of “self.” The mind of a person was what made that person them and no one else. It was a person’s personality and memories, thoughts and opinions, fears and dreams, but more than that. It was something that couldn’t be defined by psychology or located with technology. It was a concept that philosophers had debated about since the time of the ancient Greeks. All of the other meanings were just as complicated and vague. What exactly he had meant by it, I had no idea. Maybe he meant I was missing the thing that made me who I was. He kept pointing to his chest when he said it, but I wondered if that was simply for my benefit since I wasn’t a native speaker.
“Okay,” I said hesitantly. “So, what should I do about it? I mean, this obviously isn’t a good thing. Right?”
“I can’t help you,” he said disappointedly. “After 30 years of study, I’m still only an Okuden-level healer. I never really had a talent for it. And in all those years, I’ve never met anyone like you.” He paused for a moment and looked down at the grass under his Geta. “I know someone who can help you.”
“Healer? What do you mean, healer? What is Okuden?” I fired off my questions in a barrage.
He shot a coarse look at Master and then looked back up at me. “Do you know Reiki?”
“I’ve heard the word, but I have no idea what it is. I got the impression that it was some kind of spiritual practice, like a form of prayer or meditation or something.”
“It’s a method of spiritual healing that uses the Reiki energy of a practitioner to treat the body of another. It’s what I was attempting to do just a few minutes ago with you. However, I can’t heal what isn’t there. This goes beyond my knowledge,” he spoke slowly and enunciated very carefully, obviously for my benefit. “I cannot advise you. You need to consult a Shinpiden-level master.” Again he paused and looked down at the ground, continuing in a soft and heavy voice, “Go to Mount Kurama and meet with Gōda-sensei. He’s an old friend of mine. I’ll notify the Kurama-dera office.”
The way his voice dropped when he said the word “friend” made me think that there was more to the story than that, but it wasn’t my place to ask. I considered his explanation and tried to brush off my early-warning skepticism. Spiritual healing conjured up images of the hokey self-help books in the new-age section at Borders. The thought of my old job made me realize just how far away from that life I was now. It felt good to be free of it, but now I was more lost than ever. All of these people were telling me that there was something wrong with me. It reminded me of a study I had been fascinated with in one of my college psychology classes. It was a controversial experiment conducted in the early 1960’s before studies like the Milgram Obedience Experiments were banned by the Department of Health and Human Services.
The experiment studied the psychosomatic effects of negative stimuli in medical diagnoses. The experimenters conducted a series of medical exams and diagnostic tests on a group of subjects. Only healthy subjects were allowed to proceed through the next phase of the experiment, though the results of their examinations were kept from them. The healthy individuals were then given various diagnoses ranging from perfect health to fatal illness and asked to see only physicians assigned to them by the experimenters for their treatments. The physicians administered tests and placebo treatments following a predetermined course and script designed by the experimenters.
The subjects were tracked for 18 months. Despite being in good health, subjects that were given negative prognoses began to exhibit physical symptoms as well as psychological distress. Subjects that were given positive results showed an increase in confidence and general wellbeing. These subjects also exhibited a greater propensity for taking risks and challenging themselves. The experiment yielded a mountain of data and a number of interesting findings. The main discovery was that the human mind could physically influence the health of an individual based solely on the expectations of a medical prognosis. People who believed they were ill or dying psychosomatically induced physical symptoms upon themselves. For all of the criticisms and condemnations the experiment received, it forever changed the medical and psychological professions. The so-called “bedside manner” was one important change facilitated by the experiment, as well as the inclusion of ethics courses in medical school curriculums.
While I had been lost in my reminiscences, Gobō-san had walked into the small shack, which I now realized was his home, rummaged around, and emerged a few minutes later dragging a large travel trunk. He dropped it near the fire pit and sat down on the bench next to Master to catch his breath. The two of them talked in hushed tones.
I found myself feeling like one of the subjects in the experiment that had received a bad diagnosis. Everyone was telling me that I was missing something and now I was really beginning to feel lost and empty. Was my heart really gone or was I imposing the feeling upon myself? The skeptic in me huffed and turned his nose up at the accusations, but I could still hear Iago’s voice telling me that I was devoid of life. In fact, he had been rather quiet all day. He was usually there to tell me what I was doing wrong. I wondered if his absence meant that I was on the right path.
“Well?” Master prodded.
I decided to conduct a little experiment of my own. “No. I’m not going to Kurama. I’m done with this craziness.”
“Right. Kurama it is. Let’s go.”
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