12 • MISSING PERSON
“No. Stop asking.”
“Oh, c’mon. Just a peek. Pleeease…” she asked with a big grin on her face, batting her eyelashes childishly.
“Aren’t you the least bit curious why some Buddhist monk is using you as a courier service for this enormous trunk instead of just calling UPS or something?”
“First of all, there is no UPS in Japan. Second, I promised him we wouldn’t open it.”
“And you’re always a man of your word are you?” she sneered. It was obvious what she was talking about.
There was no need to respond. I was well aware of the terrible things I had done. I already had two bruised and swollen eyes. I didn’t need any more reminders. The truth was, I hadn’t really come to terms with my past. I ran away and buried that ugliness along with everything else I hated about myself deep in my memory where I would never find it. Now back in the heart of Kansai, my past was catching up to me. I was tired of running.
It was getting colder. My wool pea coat was buttoned up all the way and topped off with a red knit scarf. I sat on top of the massive trunk I was transporting with my hands thrust into the pockets of my coat. She was wearing her brown leather jacket, as usual, with a dark brown and cream bordered scarf. She finished off her winter look with a black knit radar cap that covered her ears. We were shining examples of human adaptability.
On a normal day, the mountains of Northeastern Kyoto were colder and windier than Chicago in the height of its worst winter. The whole Northern Kansai region was meteorologically unforgiving, blistering heat and humidity in the summer and bone-chilling cold and snow in the winter. Why anyone would willingly choose to live here was a mystery to me. The train was mostly empty as it winded through the mountains and sparse villages. There were only a handful of old retired couples with their little canvas grocery bags on the seats next to them and two middle-aged rugged looking men that reeked of cigarette smoke and laughed way too loudly. We were all together in the same train car; it was the only car, a single massive off-white diesel train with red maple leaves painted rather poorly on the side. It looked ancient. The undercarriage was full of rust and the seats on the interior were faded and stained. Compared to the gleaming modern 20 car trains in Osaka and Tokyo, it was a pretty sad sight. The wind whipped through the valleys and slammed against the side of the train, rattling the windows. Gusts of frigid air rushed in from between the automatic doors and forced the passengers to shiver in chorus.
The train slowed down and jerked to a stop. The engineer’s voice came on over the loud speaker to make an announcement. His tone was exactly as it had been during the previous four announcements, tired and frustrated and deeply apologetic.
“Jesus Christ! Again?” she spat impatiently.
“It’s the wind. There’s nothing he can do.”
“But this is the fifth time we’ve stopped. You said this was a three-hour trip and,” she paused to look at her watch, which I hadn’t noticed before. “…it’s been almost five already.”
“Yeah,” I mumbled. I was still focused on her wristwatch. It was made of soft blue plastic and had a picture of Donald Duck on the face. It was a Disney watch. It was completely at odds with everything I had assumed about her until now. It cheapened her image somehow. It was too childish, too commercial, too haphazard. It was disappointing. For whatever reason, it bothered me.
She followed my gaze and looked down at her watch, “What?”
I redistributed my attention accordingly, “nothing.”
The wind howled through the crack between the doors and rocked the train car back and forth. We had stopped about 300 yards before a small trestle bridge that signaled a gap in the mountains. The bridge rose high above a river that broke through the range. It was much too dangerous to attempt a crossing where the wind would be strongest. So, we waited. The engineer was talking on the radio the whole time we were stopped. I could hear a little bit from where we were sitting. He was in contact with someone who was monitoring the conditions ahead. I guessed they were waiting for a break in the wind. It was either that or we would have to turn back and drag the trunk on foot all the way from Ninose. Waiting in a semi-heated train car was the lesser of two evils, but I could see her patience waning.
I pulled my hands out of my pockets and leaned forward, resting on my knees. The old trunk creaked under my shifting weight. I looked up at her and said, “let me ask you something. What are you really doing here?”
“What do you mean?”
“You hardly know me. Why did you invite me to come with you to a country you’ve never even been to before? Why do you trust me? What are you getting out of this? Why do…” I cut myself off, realizing she needed time to respond to my first batch of questions.
“Yes. This again. This until it makes sense,” I belted out, my voice slightly raised.
“I told you. I came here to help you.”
“And now that you know what I did?”
“I’m having second thoughts, yes,” she spoke so calmly. It sounded like she had already made up her mind about it.
I sighed loudly through my nose, “me too.”
She looked up at me from across the aisle and our eyes met. It was then that I realized she hadn’t looked me in the eye once since the morning she punched me. It felt good to see her look at me with those golden eyes of hers. It was like returning from exile. Her brow was arched in sympathy as she stared at me.
She broke off suddenly and shouted, “why do you always do that?”
“Make me feel sorry for you when you don’t deserve it.”
“Just shut up for a while.”
I nodded slightly and then hung my head down by my knees. I sat there hunched over for a while before my back started to hurt and I sat back up. The trunk groaned again as I leaned back against the closed automatic doors. We sat in silence for a time. The old couples were quiet. After a lifetime together, they had nothing to say to each other and no need for small talk. They looked comfortable in their silence. Meanwhile, I was fidgeting with the large buttons on my coat and she was batting around the tassels that hung from the mittens she was wearing. The two middle-aged men were talking and laughing at the other end of the train car. They seemed completely oblivious to their surroundings. Lucky them. The wind continued to whistle through the cracks in the doors and windows. The train made a high-pitched squealing sound as it swayed in the wind, the wheels scraping against the rails under its shifting weight.
“Okay. That didn’t work. I still feel bad for you,” she blurted out abruptly, obvious fed up with the awkward silence. “Level with me. At least tell me what happened with you and…”
“Kaori,” I said in a whisper.
She was looking at me again. “Please,” she pleaded softly.
“I don’t even know where to begin.”
“How did you meet?”
“We met at Kameya, the bar I took you to in Sayō. It was only my fourth or fifth time in the place, but Master and I were already close friends. He introduced me to everyone as his long lost little brother. It was a convenient lie for him, because he could claim to have ‘western’ blood and, as a consequence, a giant cock. His words, not mine. Anyway, Master and I were arguing about which Tom Waits album was the best when Kaori walked in with two other girls. The only other bar patron was one of the regulars who was already passed out at a table. Essentially, it was just the four of us at the bar, plus Master. Of course he took it upon himself to introduce me as embarrassingly as possible…”
“This is my little brother, Matto-chan. He has a huge penis.”
My Japanese was terrible at the time, but I was able to pick out a few choice words. I sighed loudly and hung my head in shame. The two girls next to Kaori giggled in high-pitched voices and feigned prudishness. I pulled my head back up and looked over at the girls. Kaori made an obvious show of looking at my lap and then back up at me. She smiled with sinister eyes. I was taken aback.
“Really?” she asked. Her voice was a few shades more womanly than her companions’.
I looked over at Master, standing behind the bar with a goofy grin on his face. He looked like a NASCAR fan fiendishly hoping to see a crash.
“Really?” I exaggeratedly relayed her question to Master.
He nodded and hummed the theme from “2001” as he slowly raised a Japanese eggplant from behind the countertop. He started snickering, desperately trying to maintain the tune. In no time, the snicker erupted into an ear-shattering guffaw and dragged the rest of us in. We laughed for a long time, wiping tears from our eyes and trying to catch our breath.
Tresa looked at me disapprovingly with one eyebrow raised. The look spoke for her and asked, “how old are you?”
“I guess you had to be there. Kind of a visual joke, you know.”
“Yeah, I bet.”
Kaori hadn’t caught my attention when they first walked in to the bar. To be honest, she wasn’t even the most attractive of the three, but there was something about her. To paraphrase the old Billy Joel song, “she had a way about her.” I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was something I had never encountered before and it seemed like I was the only one that noticed it. Among the debris of my failed relationships, there were numerous memories of the immature, the indecisive, the childish, the lazy, and the unstable. In short, all the women I had been with in the past were the emotional equivalents of high school girls. I wasn’t sure if I targeted that type or if I just had shitty luck with women. It was irrelevant. Kaori was different. She struck me immediately as the kind of woman that knew what she wanted and didn’t waste time hesitating to go after it. I liked it.
Master introduced the other two girls first, but my attention was so focused on Kaori that his voiced sounded like the teacher from Charlie Brown. When he got to Kaori, however, I hung on his every word.
“…and this is Kaori. She’s single too.”
“Nice to meet you,” I said, giving the other two girls a cursory smile and nod and then returning my attention to Kaori. My Japanese was tinged with uncertainty. In truth, I had no idea what I was saying.
“When did you come to Japan?” she asked.
“Five months ago…about,” I paused briefly, double-checking the math in my head. “Yeah, five months.”
“You studied Japanese before you came?”
“No. I study here.”
She snickered quietly, “Master ha hetakusona teacher yaro! Watashitachi ni oshiete moratta hou ga ii naa.”
I mimicked the smiles and laughs that her words evoked from the other two girls, assuming that something she said was funny. The only words I was able to pick out were “Master” and “teacher.” She had obviously made some quip about Master, because he jumped in loudly and responded in a defensive tone. Flirting in a foreign language was bound to be fruitless. I would have to rely on my physical charms. I was screwed.
As the night went on, it became a mixture of equal parts flipping through the dictionary and pouring drinks. In almost perfect correlation, more drinks poured equaled less words defined and before I knew it the dictionary had disappeared entirely. It was later discovered in the outhouse behind the bar, but I honestly had no memory of or explanation for taking a dictionary to the bathroom with me. It was just one of those things. Whatever that meant. Night turned to early morning and Kaori’s two companions paid their bill and went home. Master showed them out after a long goodbye and proceeded to turn off all the decorative lights in front of the bar one by one. From where I was sitting, I could see the front door with the small circular window in it, but Kaori had her back to it. Master poked his head into the window and winked at me, making a big show of how slowly he was turning off the lights and taking down the signs outside. He was trying to give us some time alone.
“Idiot,” she said, rolling her eyes.
“Huh? Me?” I said defensively.
“Master,” she gestured toward the door without looking at it. “He thinks he is zurui.”
“Zurui?” I repeated, groping blindly for the dictionary on the top of the bar that wasn’t there. I was drunker than I thought.
She laughed and said, “You are really drunk ne? I think hou ga ii gone home.”
Before I had a chance to explain that I had no idea what she said, she stood up and dropped a 5,000-yen note on the bar. Then, she threw my coat over my shoulders and helped me pull my arms through the sleeves, finishing me off by tying a red scarf around my neck. The scarf was hers. She grabbed my arm and pulled me up, wrapping my arm over her shoulders. I exaggerated my drunkenness in order to stay close to her, faking a stumble here and there as we walked outside. Master was still putting away some of the larger decorations.
He stopped when he saw us and wore a surprised look on his face, “that was fast.”
She freed one of her hands from holding my arm and smacked his shoulder loudly. He reacted with his trademark high-pitched chuckle. Then, he dug around vigorously in his pockets gesturing for us to wait. He pulled out a condom in a bent and wrinkled wrapper and handed it to me.
He pointed at Kaori and said in heavy-accented English, “dirty girl.”
She let go of me completely and, after a full body wind-up, let loose with herculean blow against the back of his head. Apparently, she understood a little English. His laughs turned into the howls of defeat as he rubbed the back of his head and hunched over with his hand outstretched to ward off further attacks. I observed the scene from my new position in a heap on the asphalt. When she turned back and saw me on the ground, she immediately scooped me back up, apologizing.
“I’m fine. It’s okay,” I said with a big stupid smile on my face.
Master recovered quickly and said something to Kaori that I couldn’t follow at all. The two of them had a brief exchange and then Master waved at us with a wicked smile on his lips.
“Goodnight. Have fun.” he said whimsically.
We started walking down the street toward the river. The frigid early morning breeze sobered me slightly. We walked in silence to the bridge, watching our breath as we exhaled in the cold air. The town was so quiet that we could hear every movement of our bodies and the water that rushed beneath us. The sound was crisp and perfect in my ears. There were no cars in the streets and no one walking on the sidewalks. We were completely alone.
“Why did you come to Sayō?” she asked abruptly.
“To run away.”
“Run away from what?”
“Shitsumon ha ‘why Sayō?’ tte iu imi. Not Tokyo. Not Osaka. Not Kyoto. You came to Sayō. Why?”
“I lived in Chicago. I didn’t want to live in another big city. I wanted to really run away.”
“Now, do you koukai?”
She made a long thinking noise and asked, “do you like it here?”
“Right now I do, yeah,” I said with an honest smile.
We stopped and I sat on the stone wall on the side of the bridge. She buttoned up her coat and turned up the collar. She sat down close and huddled against me. I took her hand in both of mine and held it tightly. I didn’t know what I was doing. When I stepped off the plane at Kansai International Airport, I had told myself that I was going to be alone for the length of my stay in Japan. I needed to be alone. I needed to figure out who I was before I could ever try to figure out someone else. And yet, here I was snuggling with a “someone else” on a bridge in the December cold. Who was I kidding? I was incapable of being alone. I needed someone. I needed someone to be with me, needed someone to need me.
“Why are you taking me home? I’m not that drunk?”
“I don’t want to sleep alone tonight.”
She rested her head on my shoulder. It didn’t seem real. Something about it all seemed like a dream, like I would wake up any minute. How did I end up in a tiny rural town in the mountains of Western Japan holding hands with a beautiful woman I had met only hours earlier in a bar? There were so many questions within that one question, answering it would be an undertaking worthy of Archimedes. The situation in which I found myself was unlike any experience I’d had in my previous life. I became hung up on that word, “previous,” in my head. I really had begun a new life. The memories and scars and baggage from my past just melted away. They belonged to someone else. In that moment, the world became more exotic and fantastic than it had ever been before. I felt like the possibilities in my life were endless. I felt like I had control. However I had arrived here, it had been by choice. She awakened something in me that had been asleep for a long time. I didn’t have a word for it, but it was something that I needed. She had done all of this without speaking at all. It seemed like sometimes language only got in the way. People could say more in a single gesture than they could with a thousand words. Suddenly, the language barrier between us didn’t seem like such a hinderance.
I took my own advice and raised her hand to my mouth for a kiss. She turned her head on my shoulder and peered up at me with a look of decisiveness. She reached up and pulled my face down to meet hers in a kiss that I was sure would go down in history. Our embrace was long and intense, but it was soft and precise. She knew what she was doing. After the dust settled and the historians had their say, we found ourselves sitting on the same bridge in the same town in the same early morning chill. The universe did not explode.
“Matthew?” Tresa interrupted.
“You’ve been working in that bookstore for way too long.”
I rolled my eyes and nodded. “Anyway …”
“Where do you live?” she asked, still licking her lips.
I looked around thoughtlessly, still in a stupor, and said, “uhhh…this way.”
I hopped up and pulled her along behind me. She continued to hold my hand all the way back to my apartment. The sky was unbelievably clear and we could see some of the constellations, although they were rotated slightly from what I was used to since we were on the other side of the planet. The change in perspective didn’t make a huge impact on me. I had only seen the stars when I was forced to go on school-sponsored camping trips and the like. In Chicago, there were no stars and no constellations. The night sky was painted by the lights of the Sears Tower, the John Hancock Center, and the Trump Hotel. I stopped abruptly, mesmerized by the stars. They were endlessly strewn across the black sky. There were no lights or tall buildings in town to block our view. It was perfect.
“You okay?” she asked, standing a few paces in front of me.
“I’ve never seen it like this before…” I spoke in English without realizing it. “Eh…sorry. It’s the first time I’ve seen so many stars,” I recovered in Japanese.
“Really? What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful…” my voice trailed off. As I finished the word “beautiful,” I found myself looking at her.
She smiled, “do you want to stay out here?”
“No…no, it’s freezing. Let’s go.”
I took her hand again and led her up the steep road that rounded a sharp curve at the top of the hill and emptied into the parking lot of my apartment complex. I pushed the door open with my foot. I never locked it. She slipped in gracefully and took her shoes off in the entryway, waiting for me to show her around. I knew this feeling, the tingling in my stomach, the Goosebumps on my skin, the fluttering in my chest. My blood pumped faster and my senses became attuned to the moment. I was bathed in anticipation. I hopped inside the door and kicked my shoes off. I stepped up out of the genkan and kissed her softly on the neck. She…
“Whoa. Whoa,” she cut me off with big open-handed gestures and a slight turn of her head. “I get the picture. I don’t need the brush strokes.”
“I know. I got it. You guys slept together the night you met. Check.”
“Actually we didn’t.”
“You didn’t let me finish.”
“So, what happened?”
“We slept together, but we didn’t sleep together,” I emphasized the word “sleep” and made big quote marks in the air with my fingers. George Carlin would’ve had me executed. “She was serious when she said she didn’t want to sleep alone that night. She just wanted someone there next to her to hold her. And that’s all that happened.”
“That’s kinda sweet, actually.”
Suddenly, the train came alive and jerked into motion. The engineer’s voice came over the speaker again and said he was going to attempt a crossing now that the wind had died down a little. He sounded nervous.
“We’re going ahead?” she asked impatiently.
“Looks that way.”
The train continued to creep forward toward the bridge. As soon as we met the break in the mountain range, the wind slammed against the broad side of the train and shook it back and forth on the rails. The grinding noise was deafening and it drowned out the obnoxious laughs of the Marlboro men at the other end of the car. They were holding on to the rails too, though their faces showed no signs of concern.
“Jesus Christ! Is this safe?” she shouted in a panic.
“It’s common. Up here, anyway. Not necessarily safe, though.”
“Oh thanks. That’s a great comfort.”
I smiled fiendishly and she returned the gesture with a scowl. The train car continued on at a crawl, battered by blast after blast of freezing wind. The windows and doors rattled so violently, it sounded like they would explode into the interior of the train. As we passed the midpoint of the bridge the engineer revved the engine a bit and sped the train up. The train clattered and shook intensely as the bridge curved slightly into the wind and finally returned to the safety of the mountains. We returned to a normal operating speed and the engineer made another announcement apologizing for the delay.
Her eyes were clenched shut and her knuckles were pale from where she squeezed the rail. I stood up, tapped her leg, and peeled her fingers off the railing.
“It’s alright. It’s over,” I said in a voice imitating sincerity. To be honest, I thought she was being a baby.
「Oh yeah. You were a real hero the first time you made this trip. You’re so quick to dismiss the importance of sympathy, the importance of being human. And, why did you lie about the night you met Kaori? Why couldn’t you just be honest with her? She wanted the truth. You’re still protecting yourself with all of these little lies that you believe. I don’t believe them. You can’t lie to me. We both know what happened that night. You didn’t take Kaori home with you. You…」
I buried his voice under a Neil Diamond song I remembered from my childhood. I played it loudly in my head so I wouldn’t have to hear him. After all, he was right. He always was. I knew what really happened that night and it was neither romantic nor inspiring. I liked my version better. My imagination had a way of improving upon my past that made me feel less disgusted with my life. So, I let it do its thing. Lies were just different interpretations of truth. Who decided what was true anyway?
“Forever in Blue Jeans?”
“The song you’re humming. Neil Diamond, right?”
I hadn’t realized I was humming it out loud. How embarrassing. “Yeah, right. What can I say? I love Neil Diamond,” I said with a subtle hint of sarcasm. I had to cover my ass in case she was mocking me.
“So does my mom. I grew up listening to that stuff. I hated it when I was young, but it kinda grew on me.”
“Tsugi ha Kibuneguchi. Kibuneguchi desu…” the engineer interjected over the speakers.
“Ours is the next stop after this one,” I said, sitting back down on the trunk.
We sat in silence for the following 20 minutes until the train finally pulled up at the tiny wooden station that was literally the end of the line. The station looked like a medium-sized traditional Japanese house from the outside. The inside was just one open room with a high ceiling. Despite the cold of an early winter, the large windows were all propped open with long wooden rods. There was no door to close, just an open entryway. The two ticket machines on the wall near the gate were easily 30 years old. There were three large chandelier-like light fixtures with big round bulbs hanging from the wood-paneled ceiling. The floor was concrete and covered in ruined Autumn foliage. There were four benches in the center of the room that formed a square around an old kerosene stove with a teakettle on top that pumped a continuous cloud of steam from its narrow spout. Hanging from the wall over a row of vending machines was a large red Tengu mask . The mask was roughly the face of a man, but had red skin and yellow eyes. His downturned mouth and anger-slanted black eyebrows made him look more demon than man. His distinguishing feature was the long bulbous nose that stuck out from his face at least a foot. He looked like Cyrano de Bergerac if he’d been spat out from the hell of Japanese mythology. The ticket gate was wide open with no automatic ticket-taker. There was just a large metal box next to the gate in which people threw their tickets. We threw ours in as well and strolled into the freezing room, staggering as we each carried an end of the massive trunk. We set the trunk down behind one of the benches and sat down to warm ourselves by the heater. The smell of kerosene was pungent, but it reminded me of winter in Sayō.
“Wow. This is a pretty squalid train station,” she said, vigorously rubbing her hands together near the heater and looking around.
“I like it.”
“Because it is what it is. It’s a train station. It’s not a shopping center like Osaka station or a work of art like Kyoto Station. It’s not a medium-sized city like Tokyo station. It’s not a tourist attraction or a hotel or a museum. It’s a station and it functions as a station. It’s all it needs to be. There’s something comforting about that.”
“You’re the kind of person who boycotts Wal-Mart aren’t you?”
“Like that’s a bad thing?”
“It’s convenient. Just like it’s convenient to have a shopping center or a hotel or a restaurant in a train station. Why do you think everything should be so narrowly defined?”
“Would you ask your gynecologist to perform spinal surgery on you?”
“Of course not.”
“Why not? They’re both doctors. Wouldn’t it be convenient if you only had one doctor for everything?”
“Okay, okay. Point taken.”
“Mark my words. Convenience will be the death of the human race.”
“Yeah, yeah. Let’s all go live in the woods and hunt elk and wear leather loincloths.”
“Is that an offer?”
“Oh shut up.”
Once we felt warm enough to brave the frigid wind outside again, we hoisted the trunk and carried it out of the station. The wind picked up the moment we stepped out of the station and made us both tense up and groan. We waddled past another representation of the Tengu mask in front of the station and an enormous wooden Torii gate at the foot of a steep staircase that rose up endlessly and then became a narrow road that wound its way up the mountainside. The staircase started at the road near the station and ran underneath the Torii gate and up into the oblivion of the forest that covered the mountainside.
“Fuck me! Please tell me we’re not going up there!”
There was something endearing about the way she swore. “Nope, we’re going up on that,” I replied, pointing ahead at a funicular tram on the other side of the gate.
“Blasphemer,” she scolded with a smile.
We each dropped a 100-yen “donation” into the wooden box in front of the boarding platform and loaded the heavy trunk on to the tram. It looked like a large enclosed moving staircase. Each row of seats rested on a single step and ascended respectively. The seats were narrow and there was nowhere to put the trunk. So, we dropped it just inside the automatic doors on the wide entry step. I sat down on the trunk again and Tresa sat nearby, huddled over for warmth. The trip took only about 10 minutes and passed through some of the most beautiful native forest in Japan. Through the trees, we could see the bolder travelers hiking up the endless stairs and paths, periodically stopping to take a break or take in the beauty of their surroundings. Some of them wore white robes and carried tall walking staves made of wood and decorated with bells and charms. We got to the top of the cableway and dragged the trunk out to the tiered platform. With a grunt from me and squeak from her, we picked up the oversized piece of luggage for what we hoped would be the last time and clumsily hauled it up the stairs to the small ticket booth.
“Wait here for a sec. I’m gonna ask where we can find this Gōda guy.”
I approached the window on the tiny building in front of the top platform. The man inside was dressed in black robes and had a shaved head. I remembered something my old British hiking buddy Daniel had told me when we climbed Kurama together years earlier. The Kurama cable car was the only official railway in all of Japan operated by a religious institution. It might have explained the bumpy ride.
“Excuse me. I’m looking for Gōda-sensei. Is he here?” My Japanese felt surprisingly articulate using the Teinei form.
He was obviously surprised to hear a foreigner ask for a monk by name. He was probably used to hearing inquiries regarding bathrooms, train schedules, and how to get from A to B, but the look on his face said that this was the first time he had seen a foreign traveler come to Kurama with a purpose outside of sightseeing.
“Sorry. He’s not here right now. He’s been called away for consultation in Kyoto. He’ll be back this evening.”
“I see. We were given this package by Gobō-san at Daisen-ji to deliver to Gōda-sensei. And…I was also told he might help me with something personal.”
The old monk’s eyes widened even more at this last bit of information. “Please wait just a moment.”
He pulled a small flip phone from the folds of his robe and dialed a quick sequence of numbers. I walked back to Tresa and sat down on the trunk again. She was shivering.
“The cell phone kinda ruins the atmosphere don’t you think? This place seems so ancient and mysterious and then this ancient and mysterious-looking monk over here whips out a cell phone. Lame.”
“They’re not Amish,” I retorted, laughing. “They can use cell phones, watch TV, drive cars, drink alcohol…”
“I guess. But…”
“Excuse me,” the monk interrupted. “Our superiors are waiting for you in the office near the main temple. It’s up…”
“I know where it is. Thank you,” I interjected, feeling rushed by the frigid wind to get my circulation flowing again.
I stood up and we took positions at both ends of the trunk and prepared to lift again.
“You can leave the luggage here. It will be taken to Gōda-sensei’s quarters,” the monk said, gesturing for us to release the trunk. “Please.”
“Thank you,” I said with a bow, relieved that we were rid of it.
We turned and started up a winding road that led us among the trees in a series of switchbacks. Most of the trees were scarcely foliaged, but the leaves that remained were painted in brilliant shades of red, yellow and orange. The wind picked up as we neared the top of the mountain, blowing the remainder of the Autumn-colored leaves from the branches that held them. They rained down in swirling clusters, helplessly whipped this way and that by the cold gusts. Looking through the trees, the view of the mountains across the valley and the town below was breathtaking. The entire mountainside was bathed in rusty fall colors with a dusting of snow. It looked like a painters palette, smudged and splotched with different shades of decay. The entirety of the town was visible from our mountain perch. It winded elegantly along the river that cut through the valley below. From above, the layout of the town looked particularly orderly, which was in sharp contrast with the perspective from within the town itself.
“Now we’ll never know,” she blurted out in a tone of defeat.
“What was in that trunk.”
“Let it go already. It’s gone. You lose. I thwarted you,” I said, chuckling.
“Thwarted? Who says ‘thwarted?’” she mocked. “I was just curious about what was in the trunk. I’m not a super-villain.”
We both had a laugh as we continued up the trail around one last bend. The trail became a jagged stone staircase that twisted and rose to the temple grounds. The steps were lined with vermillion-colored wood lanterns that stood atop square posts. The lanterns themselves looked like miniature houses; they donned the same pitched roofs with elegantly curved eaves as in traditional Japanese architecture. They were empty. We passed various freestanding temple buildings and finally arrived at a flat terrace on the mountainside. It wasn’t the summit, but it was close enough. The picturesque view and the way the slope leveled off made it ideal for building a temple, which is exactly what the monks thought and did nearly 1300 years prior. Of course, the grand and ornate temple that stood in front of us was not the original one. I couldn’t remember the specific details about Kurama, but, like all other historic sites in Japan, it had likely burned down and been rebuilt many times over the centuries. It was the price they paid for building everything out of wood.
The view behind us was completely unobstructed and stretched out over the valley and beyond until the horizon lines cut by the mountains became hazy and blue. It was like standing at the top of the world. The building in front of us was a mixture of modern and traditional design. The foundation of the building was made of large stone blocks and rose above the ground in wide slabs that served as the floor inside the temple. Above the slab, vermillion-colored columns and white walls stood high and met with the enormous gables of the steeply pitched roof. Beach ball-sized round paper lanterns with ornate Japanese calligraphy painted on them hung from iron hooks along the front of the building. The stone steps leading up to the entryway were covered in crispy rust-colored leaves that rustled in the mountain breeze. Adjacent to the stairs on both sides, stone tigers sat atop large pedestals. The tigers were elegantly sculpted in the traditional Japanese form, which was established centuries ago by someone who had never seen a real tiger. Whoever it was had reconstructed the image of a tiger after studying its pelt. The original medium was probably ink, but it was a familiar image all over Japan in paintings, sculptures, religious texts, children’s stories, tapestries, and murals. Oddly enough, the form was never updated. Over the centuries, the tiger had taken on a mythical quality and the image maintained the intrigue. The tiger to the left of the stairs had its mouth closed and the tiger to the right of the stairs had its mouth open. It was a common sight at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in Japan. A friend explained the meaning to me once, but I hadn’t understood it then and I still didn’t. It was something to do with communication between the two guardians. One spoke the syllable “ahhh” and the other spoke the syllable “mmm,” which somehow established a connection between the two. By a strange coincidence, the two sounds were similar to the ones that I made upon waking first thing in the morning and stretching.
The middle section of the front of the temple was composed of three pairs of massive wooden doors all of which were standing wide open. We made our way toward the temple, crossing a stone courtyard made of highly polished stone blocks in various shapes and grains. The image in the center of the courtyard was of three concentric circles composed of triangular stones. Within the innermost circle, there was a smaller hexagon and inside that, an even smaller triangle. In the corners of the outermost square, surrounding the circles, there were three smaller triangles. There was likely some meaning in the shape and the placement of the symbol, but like most religious concepts, it was lost on me. The polished stones reflected the clouds in the sky and the barren Sakura trees in the courtyard. The clouds were thick and fast moving and their reflections in the stone made the courtyard look like water. The effect was slightly disorienting. We walked across the symbol in the courtyard and made our way up the stairs to the middle doorway. Just inside the doors was the main altar, hiding behind a short wooden lattice that ran the length of the enclosure. The interior was dimly lit by hanging lanterns, but the altar area was brightened by numerous gold ornaments that bounced light around the small space in dingy little shimmers. The room was filled with deep reds, golds, and polished lacquer blacks. The altar was full of candles, urns, incense burners, and offerings of fresh fruit and Japanese rice spirits called nihonsu. Just behind the altar, there was a myriad of barely visible figures and religious symbols that hovered on the outskirts of the dimness. Most of them were made of gold and poked just enough out of the darkness to be intriguing but unidentifiable. A veil of thin gold plates in various shapes connected by thin wires hung from the ceiling, obscuring some of the larger decorations and tapestries.
“This place is kinda creepy,” she blurted out, shattering the atmosphere.
“Yeah. It’ll get creepier when we go downstairs,” I replied, smiling devilishly. “But, we have to go to the office right now. I just wanted you to see a little of the main building before we went on. Pretty impressive, right?”
“The gold is amazing. It looks like Donald Trump exploded in here.”
I crushed a laugh in my mouth and it emerged from my nose as a sharp snort. The sound echoed around the big hall and drew looks of disapproval from some of the other visitors. My indiscretion evoked the same from her and she covered her mouth and nose with her hands, bobbing up and down as she contained her own laughter.
With our hands still covering our mouths and our heads held low, we rushed out through the giant doorway and past a large iron brazier. It looked heavy and was filled with grey ash as fine as powder. There was a steady stream of musky-smelling smoke emanating from a dozen or so sticks of incense that had been placed in the ash. Our laughs died down as we crossed the courtyard again and followed a stone path to the right through a grove of bare Sakura trees. In short order, the walkway led to a huge hall-like building that stretched out over the edge of the courtyard and down to a lower tier suspended from the side of the cliff. The structure seemed precariously clasped to the mountainside. It was too big to be just an office. The door was shut, so I knocked
“Just a minute,” replied a muffled and raspy voice from inside.
The door slid open and revealed a tiny bald man with dark smooth-looking skin dressed in an indigo-colored robe. He wore small round reading glasses that sat low on his pointy nose. His body was beyond skinny; he looked practically emaciated. The robes hung from his shoulders like a boy wearing his father’s blazer.
“Ah, you’re the foreign boy that Gobō-san sent to us ne? Please, come in. Come in. It’s freezing outside.”
“Sorry to bother you. Thank you,” I gave the standard Japanese preemptive apology as we stepped into the genkan.
The inside of the entryway was large and sparsely decorated. He led us away from the main office area and down a narrow corridor. The wooden floors creaked and gave under the weight of our steps and I couldn't help but imagine the building slipping from its supports on the small tier of rock and tumbling down the mountain in an avalanche of ruin. He took us to a small room that was barely warmer than it was outside. It was a mess. There was a kotatsu in the center of the room with open books, papers, and teacups strewn across its surface. The walls were all hidden behind bookshelves brimming with worn texts and scrolls and loose scraps of paper. A sink and a small window completed the room. The tiny monk led a Spartan life. It was evident that he did little more than study all day, every day.
He directed us over to the kotatsu, brushing some books and papers from the top on to the tatami mat floor, “please. Please.”
“What’s with the table skirt?” she asked under her breath, as if it was likely that the old man spoke English. Even if he did, it was unlikely that he could understand hers.
“It’s a kotatsu. There’s a heater on the underside of the table. The blanket keeps the heat in. Trust me, you’ll like it.”
She sat down and did as I suggested. Slowly a smile emerged on her face. “Oh my god. Why don’t we have these in the States?”
The old monk laughed as he sat down under the blanket. His laugh developed into an obnoxious wet cough that seemed to temporarily drain the life from his cheeks. He quickly recovered, spat in a nearby trashcan, and asked, pointing at Tresa, “first time?”
“Yeah. She wants to take one back with her,” I answered, chuckling politely.
“You don’t have kotatsu in your country?”
“How unfortunate,” he said, wearing a smirk that had an air of smugness. “If you don’t mind me asking, where are you from?”
“San Francisco originally. But, now I live in Chicago.”
At the mention of American cities, Tresa looked up from a book she was thumbing through and waited for translation.
“He asked where we’re from.”
“Chicago,” she said nonchalantly.
The old monk smiled and nodded. “Gōda-sensei may be delayed in his return. The weather is getting quite treacherous outside. The radio said a winter storm is coming. It seems you picked a bad day to come visit our temple.”
“Is there any way for you to contact Gōda-sensei?”
“Well, he does carry a mobile phone, but the reception in the mountains is very unreliable. We’ve been trying to contact him all afternoon. It’s likely he didn’t charge the battery. For all his brilliance, he is a very forgetful man,” he snickered to himself.
“What did he say?” Tresa asked with a look of mild interest.
“He said Gōda-sensei is brilliant, but forgetful.”
“Oh,” she responded quietly, looking around the room for something to peak her curiosity.
“We’re making up a room for you and your friend in the guest house in case the train lines are shut down.” He leaned over the table toward Tresa and smiled, “it has a kotatsu too.”
Tresa looked up from a photo album she had been intrusively perusing and then gave me her big question mark eyes.
“He said there’s a kotatsu in the room we’re staying in.”
“One of these heated tables?”
“Sweet. Arigatou…wait. We’re staying here? For how long?”
“I don’t know. He said there’s a storm coming and the trains might get shut down. If you don’t wanna stay here, we should try to leave now.”
“No, it’s fine. Really.”
“Have you been to our temple before?”
“Yes. I used to live in Japan. I came here two or three times before.”
“What about your companion?”
I thought it was odd that he kept using terms like “friend” and “companion” in reference to Tresa. It wasn’t a cultural oddity, because the Japanese were anything but presumptuous. Still, given that we were traveling together and appeared to be of the same relative age, it seemed only natural to assume that we were a couple or even married. I wondered if it was a racial thing. Being a mostly homogenous country, the Japanese had no real understanding of the complexities of race relations. Since I was white and Tresa was black, it was likely that he had simply assumed we couldn’t be a couple. Of course, we weren’t a couple. I don’t know why it bothered me, but it did. Maybe it was a reflection of my own ignorance. In truth, I knew nothing about black culture.
“Well, you should show her around the main temple hall,” he suggested, smiling. He made it easy to read between the lines. His suggestion was a polite way of asking us to leave. “We’ll let you know when your room is ready.”
“Thank you.” I gave him a polite bow and stood up. “C’mon,” I said, taking Tresa’s hand and helping her up.
We put our shoes back on and walked back out into the freezing cold. The wind had really picked up. The trees surrounding the courtyard were bent over in the gale and the flags and banners hanging from the main temple were flapping about violently. The wind chimes hanging from the gabled roof outside the building were tangled up and slammed repeatedly against the ceiling making a hideous amalgamation of noises. It sounded like the music of John Cage.
We made our way back across the courtyard shielding our faces from the sting of the frigid air. We entered the temple through the middle doorway again. The two adjacent sets of doors had been closed, as well as one of the middle doors. A team of young monks was rushing to take down the banners, lanterns, and other decorations hanging from the front of the temple. We were standing in front of the same altar as before. Some of the candles had been blown out and the room seemed even darker. We could still hear the wind howling outside.
“Why are we back here?” she asked, her voice echoing around the hall.
“The monk wanted me to show you the temple.”
“You already did…”
“I suspect he meant he wants you to see the real temple.”
“The real temple? Oooooh…that sounds ominous.”
I led her down a flight of stone steps that arrived at a wide landing, turned the opposite direction, and went down again. It grew steadily darker as we descended into the bowels of the temple. We walked into the blackness of a wide room with low ceilings. The top of my hat brushed the stones above us. It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust, but soon I could make out the dim orange light of candles ahead. The room was a labyrinth of shelves that rose from floor to ceiling; each was at least ten rows in height and made of an old-smelling wood. In fact, the whole basement smelled old and musty underneath the heavy cover of incense. The room was so dim, I could barely see two feet in front of myself. There were clusters of hanging lanterns that looked more decorative than functional and gave off almost no light at all. The shelves formed a maze of narrow alleys that turned and twisted in every direction. Along the floor of the alleys, short candles made of yellow wax and covered in small hand-inked Kanji characters gave off a faint orange glow. They were placed at the bends and turns in the labyrinth to make it easier to navigate in the dark. If you looked through the spaces between shelves you could see other parts of the maze barely visible by candlelight. It looked like an endless web of paths and passageways. Combined with the low ceilings, the place evoked a feeling of claustrophobia, even from the non-phobic. The shelves were lined with small ceramic jars, several rows deep and tightly arranged. There must have been thousands. Some were raw and unglazed urn-like containers, bearing no distinguishing characteristics. Others were elaborately designed and decorated with beautiful glazes and gold seals. Some looked brand-new, some looked like ancient relics, some were nicked and scraped, and a few lay in crumbled heaps. Their designs and conditions ran the gamut. Most of them bore names written in Japanese characters.
We walked cautiously through the narrow alleyways formed by the shelves until they opened up into a small room that was only slightly better lit. In the center of the room there was a wide rectangular pedestal on top of which sat three large stone statues of Buddhist deities. The statues looked basically human, but their faces were fierce. Their bodies were augmented by additional arms or horns or fangs. They stood in iconic poses and held weapons or religious symbols in their hands. The three statues together represented a trinity of the deity Sonten, which was of particular importance in the Kurama-Kokyo sect of Buddhism. The statues were the only things in the whole room that were well lit, but they hid behind a veil of golden trinkets that hung over all four sides of the pedestal like a net.
Tresa eyed the statues intensely without a word and then walked on into the labyrinth where it picked up again on the other side of the small room. She stopped near one of the candles on the floor and leaned in toward the shelves to get a better look.
“Are these urns?” she asked with a note of uneasiness in her hushed voice.
“Sort of, but it’s not ash inside.”
“Nice word usage…and no,” I said, impressed that a native Chicagoan’s vocabulary included such a word.
“So what’s inside then?”
She took a moment to look around at the seemingly endless rows of hair-filled jars and then turned back toward me with a look of horror on her face, “I think I preferred thinking they were urns. There’s something really creepy about being surrounded by jars of human hair in an underground labyrinth. Maybe it’s because urns make sense to me. I understand their meaning, their purpose. I don’t get this at all.”
“When I came here before, my friend gave me an interesting explanation for it. She said that in ancient Japanese culture, hair was very important. Hair was seen as a representation of the self. Cutting your hair was basically like cutting away a part of who you were. Most women back then didn't cut their hair at all. Hair that extended to the floor was common and considered extremely beautiful, especially among the nobility and warrior class. Even men had long hair, but they usually wore it up in a top knot. Anyway, because hair was considered a part of the self, if you did cut it off and leave it somewhere, it was essentially like leaving a part of yourself behind. Since most of the significant centers of Buddhist spiritual healing resided on mountains or in very distant regions of Japan, it wasn’t always possible for a person to go see a healer personally. So, they would cut off some of their hair and put it in a special urn to be taken by proxy to the healer. The hair was as good as the person and so they could receive healing prayers without making a long and potentially dangerous journey. People still cut off their hair and leave it here in urns, for a fee of course. So, there’re a lot of newer-looking urns in here, even some with foreign names on them. According to Gobō-san, Kurama was the birthplace of Reiki healing. I never knew that before. It makes sense now.”
“Okay. That is interesting. I’m just not sure if it makes it any less creepy. Is there an explanation for why it has to be underground in a dimly lit maze?”
“’Ambiance?” I jested with exaggerated French pronunciation. “You can’t be spiritual in Art Deco. You need the right atmosphere.”
“Are you finished with your bowel movement or do you have any more explanations to relieve yourself of?”
“You know it.”
“The truth is I have no idea why it has to be in a dark hole in the ground or even if it does have to be. Maybe it’s just an aesthetic choice. My friend’s explanation is the only one I got and I don’t even know if it’s legitimate. As you so graphically illustrated, people do pull things out of their ass from time to time.”
“Still, there is something about this place. It makes the hair on my arms and neck stand up,” she said with a slight shiver.
“Because it’s creepy?”
“No. It’s like the air is charged or something. You don’t feel it?”
“It’s really warm in here too. Considering how cold it is outside, I expected it to be freezing down here.”
“It is freezing down here.”
“What, really? You’re cold?”
“Weird. I wonder if…” she cut herself off mid-sentence, looking at me. “…never mind.”
“Oh. You were gonna say something about how I’m missing my heart and how it’s hindered my ability to pick up on religious hokum. Right?”
“Exactly why I stopped myself. You’re hopeless. I thought you were going to start taking this seriously?”
I sighed and my shoulders hung low from my neck, “okay. Sorry. I’ll try. But, I really don’t feel anything down here. It’s just a big dark room that smells like incense and mold.”
“But…I suppose it’s possible that since my heart is missing, I’m not as receptive to spiritual mumbo and or jumbo.”
“See. That wasn’t so hard, was it?”
I didn’t hear what she asked me. My whole body became stiff and I couldn’t move. I was transfixed by a name on one of the urns. I knew the name. My eyes dried out and locked in place. No matter how much I wanted to look away, I couldn’t reclaim control of my body. I didn’t want to look at it. More than that, I wanted to unsee it. I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t know how to react. My stomach became tight and warm and I could feel the rush of adrenaline rampaging through my heart and making it race uncontrollably. The first thing that surfaced was a rage that seized my imagination. I tried to picture the man whose name was etched in the unpolished stone of the urn, but I had never met him in my life. Still, my mind needed someone to destroy. I pictured my stepfather. My imagination blanked out his face, but had nothing with which to replace it. It would do. I imagined my hands around his throat, squeezing with all the strength in my body until something gave and there was a horrible popping sound accompanied by gurgling. He flailed wildly trying to peel my grip from his neck. He scratched at my hands and squeezed my wrists tightly, digging his fingernails into my flesh until they drew blood. She was still talking to me, practically yelling. I couldn’t hear it. All I could hear was his wails and pleas to stop. I let go and pressed his head to the stone floor with a hard thud. I let loose with my first blow, an Earth-shattering tight-fisted hit that met with his temple. He screamed, but I swallowed the sound of it in a guttural growl that emerged from between clinched teeth. The next hit crushed his lower jaw between my bloody fist and the hard floor. The cracking sound was hideous, but it only fueled me. His cries sent me into a flurry of wild jabs. The idea that this fiend, this animal, deserved any sympathy at all filled me with an almost senseless animus. I punched and punched until his face was a puddle of jagged bone and mangled flesh. The sound of my fists against the blood-covered stone made only wet smacking noises, like tenderizing a tough cut of beef. I stopped and stood up over his faceless body.
I killed the man I had waited all my life to meet. I could never tell him about my life. I could never forgive him. I could never ask him all the questions I had, “why did you leave” and “why didn’t I matter?” He was gone. I had destroyed my one chance for reconciliation. The tears poured from the corners of my eyes and my stomach loosened and felt heavy. A cry welled up in my throat and my attempts to keep it down in my stomach resulted in a low raspy groan that grew steadily louder.
“Matthew!” she shouted, placing her hand firmly on my shoulder.
I swatted her hand away and grabbed her by the lapels of her leather jacket, violently pushing her against a row of shelves and knocking a few of the urns from their resting places. The remainder of the cry in my throat burst from my mouth all at once in a scream that shattered the silence in the dark chamber. I raised my arm and cocked my fist back. She yelled my name again and again, but all I could hear was “his” voice.
I spun around to find the source of the voice, letting go of her. She ran off the other way and kicked over a candle on the floor. In front of me, there was a candle floating on its own in the middle of the narrow space between shelves. It was moving slowly toward me and as it approached, I could make out a hand underneath it and a dark garment behind it. It was one of the monks. He was wearing a black robe and thick-framed glasses. He stopped close enough to me that I could see his dark skin and wrinkled bald head. The flame of the candle danced in the lenses of his glasses, hiding his eyes. I stood with my back arched and my hands in tight fists.
“Stop, please. What are you doing?” he asked, his eyes still hidden under reflection.
“I…I don’t know…” I replied, panting.
“This is a sanctuary. Violence has no place here.”
“You speak English.”
“Yes. Now, did you come here for our help or did you come here to destroy our temple?”
Stopping suddenly had left a burning feeling in my chest, like the adrenaline was melting my insides. I hunched over in a squatting position with one hand on the cold stone floor to steady myself. I swallowed hard, still trying to catch my breath and said, “I don’t know what I’m doing here…”
“Then you are welcome to leave, after the storm has passed.”
“Yes, I can see that,” he said with a sardonic tone, lowering the candle slightly and revealing the serious look in his eyes. “You need to see it too. I can’t help someone who thinks they don’t need it.”
It was the first time since we arrived that I had heard one of the monks use the pronoun “I.” Until now, it had been “our temple” and “we’ll let you know when your room’s ready” and “Gobō-san sent you to us.” This monk was a shade less humble than his associates. Either that, or he was, “Gōda-sensei?” I asked, finishing my internal thought out loud.
“Yes. My name is Gōda Keisuke,” he said, bowing gracefully. “Why don’t we make sure your friend is alright and then, we can talk somewhere in private.”
“Oh my god…Tresa…I…did I hurt her?”
“Not physically, but you certainly upset her.”
“Upset her? I must have scared the shit out of her.” Despite the burning in my chest, I stood up. Not knowing what to do with my hands and interlocked my fingers and place them on the crown of my head, crushing my face between my elbows and groaning with frustration. “I have to go find her.”
“As I suggested, I think we…”
“Wait!” I stopped myself and walked back to the urn that had temporarily consumed me. “This man. When did this man come here?” I demanded impatiently, pointing at the urn.
“Apart from identifying the urns by name, which is strictly optional, I’m afraid that visitor information is confidential.”
“You don’t understand. I know this man. When was he here?” I was shouting again.
“If you know him, why don’t you simply ask him yourself?”
“Because…” the anger in my voice died down, “…because I don’t know where he is.”
Gōda-sensei made a bit of scowl and then shuffled over to the urn at which I was pointing. He straightened his glasses and leaned in to read the name, opening his mouth slightly, “ah, yes. I remember him. A rather impertinent man if you’ll forgive my saying so.”
“When was he here?”
“I can’t tell you that.”
“He’s my father!” I screamed. Not at him, but at myself.
It was the first time I had ever admitted it to myself aloud. It sounded wrong. It felt unnatural as it left my lips. He had never been a father to me. He was a sperm-donor at best. Yet, despite all my hatred for the man, I wanted to find him, to meet him. What was this power he held over me? I should have moved on years ago, but I didn’t. I had to know why he left. There had to be a reason, something more substantial than the usual fear of responsibility and all that. I knew there was something important about his leaving. It was something that had made me who I was. That couldn’t have been all it was; did I really want to find my father out of sheer curiosity? No. It was more than that. There was some flaw in him that he had passed on to me. I was doomed to make the same mistakes he had made. I wanted to know more about this weakness we shared. It was strange to think that I had only made the connection between what my father did to me and what I had to do to Kaori years after returning from Japan. It wasn’t a coincidence.
「’…what I had to do to Kaori?’ So, what your father did to you was a choice, but what you did could not have been avoided. It was a necessary evil? Tell me, what was it that forced you to leave your pregnant fiancé without so much as a ‘goodbye?’」
“I couldn’t have been a father. I don’t know anything about it and he left me with nothing to go on. She was better off without me.”
“Who was better off?” Gōda-sensei interjected.
Shit! I was talking aloud. “No one. Never mind.”
“Are you alright?”
“Who were you talking to a moment ago?”
“No one…” he scowled at the lie. “…myself, okay? I was talking to myself. I’m cooky that way. Look, are you going to tell when my father was here or not?”
“I’m not,” he sighed. “Please, this is not the place. Come.”
He spun around on his w
Click Follow to receive emails when this author adds content on Bublish