He hoisted her a little higher on his back. …
If only Mother had followed Sister’s counsel about the pumice stone—or had allowed Sister to use the stone on her (and to trim her long toenails, as well!)—her calloused heels would not be chafing his ribs and hips through the thin fabric of his summer yukata.
But, she had always been a stubborn, proud woman; and in her youth she had been considered a bijin—a beauty—who had held her head high among the courtesans—the first wife of the Lord’s First Minister, with her own retinue of servants in the apartments near the Daimyo’s own.
But, that was long ago, and he could hardly remember now, as he carried her, like a sack of rice on his back, up the winding hill, this hot and humid and forlorn day.
Crows cawed above, as if in warning. For what? More calamities to come? Could there be any more in these wretched times? Even Nature had turned against the land, with earthquakes and typhoons rattling and lashing the little wooden homes and shrines, scattering them like chopsticks, and even the stone ojizo that guarded the children’s graves—even these small and tender Buddhas were cracked like eggs.
Everything changed when the wars began, and now his childhood seemed a dream he dared not, for the sake of sanity, indulge.
What had his father done to lose his place among the ministers—what errant word or glance, or mis-advice had caused him to lose favor? Hadn’t he chanted the Lotus Sutra every morning and every evening to secure his family’s place in the Pure Land?
Posh! What nonsense! Yorifumi thought now. So much mumbo-jumbo—incantations to the wind!
Crows cawed, and he half-smiled, half-grimaced at the rumors spread in the villages that even the crows were spies now, that they had been trained to see and report transgressions—and special handlers could decode their messages!
He felt his mother stirring on his back, felt her small breath a little cooler on his neck, knew she was awakening again.
“Son, son… why are you taking me up this hill? I know where we are going! Let me rest. Let me pass water, Yori-kun. Do not shame your mother!”
So he put her down in a shady spot on the trail and he turned his eyes away as she crouched, passed water, wiped herself with some leaves.
“Let us go back,” she said softly. “Not up the hill.”
“There is contagion in the village,” he explained again. “The children are dying… and the old people. … It is as I told you. … As we ascend, the air will clear, you can breathe deeply again, and the clean air will purify your lungs and make you well.”
“I am not well with this world, Son. … And with the lies we tell ourselves… and others.”
He looked into the blackness of her eyes, and felt himself falling into a dark and bottomless well. “I cannot rest too long, Mother. Or, I shan’t be able to go on.”
“Rest, then. Rest long.”
He crouched beside her. Gently he said, “Come, Mother. Climb on my back now. My legs are not so strong as they once were. I, too, feel the weight of these sad years. We must do what we must do.”
His legs were strong enough, but his back ached. Decades of bending over to plant the tender rice stalks, decades of pulling carts like a rich man’s ox, had bent his back and tightened the muscles in his legs.
Meekly, like a child, dutifully, as one who has seen better days, his mother climbed on her son’s back. “Oi!” he cried as he straightened as much as he could. Then, one straw zori after the other, he dug into the upward trail.
Once he had dreamt of being a scholar, studying the sacred texts, decoding the mysteries. Now, every nerve and muscle in his 40-year old body strained under the weight, in the heat, as he proceeded steadily, surefootedly, uphill.
He remembered the lessons of his school days–the golden days of Court and castle–before the clans had broken the peace and plunged the world into hell. The crows cawed, and he heard his teacher’s voice in his mind:
“Rising with first light, the common people wash their faces, gargle water, then bow in six directions—east, then west; south, then north; above, and then below. They make obeisance to the six directions, praying that no misfortune will come from them.
“But Lord Buddha taught us how to bow to Truth; and, behaving wisely, and with virtue, that we could thus prevent misfortune.” The Scholar had turned his gentle eyes on him, nodded his glabrous head. “Yori-kun, can you tell the class the difference between the common man’s understanding and Lord Buddha’s teaching?”
He rose, and, in spite of himself, he felt a little pride, for he had thought about the difference all that evening before when he had read the lesson. “It is the same as when the Compassionate One spoke to Ananda, his favorite disciple; when, near dying, he said, ‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’”
“Expatiate, young sir.”
The other students honored him now, honored him with their attention. “The common people,” he continued, “put their faith in rituals—cleansing themselves and bowing to the six directions. … They think strength lies outside of themselves; they hope to placate the gods and demons. … But, the true disciple knows—this world is an illusion. … Fortune and misfortune are two sides of the coin. The discriminating mind is constantly dividing. … But the mind that is enlightened sees the wholeness of the moment—even as it’s passing. That mind perceives the truth of transitoriness. Its strength is its integrity-honed clarity.”
Even the venerable Scholar could not suppress a smile. And he—the fourteen-year old prodigy—wondered where the words had come from. He had never spoken so eloquently before, never thought such thoughts before. The classroom hushed in silence. …
“Yori-kun,” griped his mother now, “I am tired. Let us rest again.”
“Not yet, Mother.”
“Did you bring the mung beans?” she asked him. “Did you bring the onigiri?”
He reached into the pouch at his belt and handed her mung beans and a rice ball filled with dried fish over his shoulder. Soon, she wanted water, so he handed her the gourd at his belt and she gulped twice noisily. She was quiet for a while and he thought she slept, but soon she was murmuring to herself. “I know where we are going. My own son is taking me, my second son, now that my first son has died in the wars.”
“That was long ago, Mother.”
“No…, it was yesterday,” she said. And then she slept.
He had watched his wife wrap the onigiri rice balls with dried seaweed and a little vinegar in the first light of dawn. Neither of them had slept well, knowing what must happen.
“There is no other way,” she had told him yesterday evening. “It has all led up to this… since the edict.”
They had discussed it before, two months earlier, when the edict had been published and the literate men had read it and discussed it, then broken the news to their wives.
“Fumiko is with child,” his wife had said. “It is either grandmother or the baby. Our daughter has had two sons already, one still-born. If she has a girl baby now. …”
She did not need to finish. In adjacent provinces, hunger and starvation had spread like wildfires, parents had begun to smother the girl babies. Now, hunger lurked in the eyes of the watchers in his own village. Their hollow, sallow cheeks reproached the elderly: why do you cling to the tatters of life like withered leaves on a cloven trunk? No one escaped the watchers.
That was the stark choice. … And if not his daughter’s baby girl, then someone else in the village. There was no longer food enough for all, especially since the taxes took so much for war.
That was the essence of the edict they called “Solving the Poor.” He wondered what minister of the Court, what word-mincer, what officious, sycophantic imbecile had dreamed up such a title? Not, “Solving Poverty”—ending the wars and the taxation that took the best of their labors to give it to the courtiers and superfluous ministries, and then to feed the soldiers who no longer worked in the paddies or fished the seas and rivers. “Solving the Poor,” they called it! By destroying them!
He watched the bandy-legged man descend the trail above him. The man’s face was grim, hard-set, his eyes fixed. He thought he recognized him from years before—someone from another village. But the man would not acknowledge him, would not acknowledge anyone. “He and I are the same man,” Yorifumi thought now. “He has done his work already… and I am nearly done.” The man’s rigid expression chilled him.
A cool wind blew through the bamboo copse at the side of the trail, rustling and clicking the tall stalks. When he was a child, his mother had told him, “If an earthquake comes, go to the bamboo copse, for the roots are knitted together there, underneath, where we can’t see them. The earth may crack around the copse, but there the earth is sewn together. There… is safety.”
But no place was safe in the days of the marauders. The soldiers invaded all the refuges. Minamoto or Taira—it did not matter what they called themselves, whether they fought for the Lord of the allied provinces or against them. All the earth quaked under the war horses’ hooves.
Across the western sea, in the land of Ch’in, in ancient times, they had fought four hundred years. … How long would the wars last now, he wondered. …
“Son, I am tired,” his mother murmured. “Let us rest again.”
“We are almost there, Mother. … At the resting place.”
Bamboo could knit their long, green fingers reaching for the sky—but men could not! No bamboo stalk begrudged another’s height or heft… but men made wars for straws.
“Another onigiri,” his mother begged now.
“Soon, Mother, soon.”
He had asked his wife to add a little rice wine and the last of the dried fish they had. He had hoped the wine would make his mother sleepy. And the fish… because it was the last they had!
Now the crows were circling and cawing. He remembered when he had come upon the hanged man in the tree, how the crows had perched on his shoulders, and how they ate the man’s eyes like a jellied delicacy.
The scrawny stranger was a runaway from another village, another province. Now he swung and turned slowly, suspended from a branch of cryptomeria. They learned later that he had murdered his girl baby. And then his wife. And then went mad.
He set his mother down upon the ground. She could barely stand on her spindly legs. He turned her to look at him, away from the precipice. Looking beyond her, he saw the tattered rags of the corpses.
How beautiful she had been in that other world—before the wars, before the devastation! How proud and dignified his father had been before losing favor at the Court, before his seppuku.
And now her hair was gray and patchy, and her skin bronze and leathery.
“Think not that this world is meaningless and filled with confusion,” the Scriptures taught. “Taste the way of Enlightenment in all the affairs of this world.”
She stood at arm’s length from him, sad and frail as a scarecrow. She sniffled and smiled weakly at him, understanding.
He meant to touch her shoulder gently, as he had when he was a boy. He could not do what had been ordained—edicts be damned.
He bowed to her, touched her gently to reassure her, touched her gently as a falling leaf alighting on her shoulder.
But she fell over backwards, tumbling down the ravine, breaking her neck as she fell. The crows swooped up and down in a storm of wings.
His knees buckled under him on the trail, and he hit the hard ground with his bony rump. He heaved for air. Then the floodgates of his tears were opened, and could not be closed.