Flash Fiction Fridays is an online series from Stone Bridge Press devoted to bringing readers short stories from and about Japan and East Asia. This month's piece comes from author, journalist, and academic Roland Kelts and tells the poignant tale of a traumatized woman as she desperately searches for spiritual solace and emotional peace after losing everything to a tsunami.
After the quake, what Kaoru wanted was a carapace, some sort of hard outer shell shaped like herself, following her own body’s contours but harder, much harder, inside of which she could retreat when trouble came, when the earth shook and the seas steamrolled in and the animals and plants and soils were poisoned by radiation. A turtle, maybe, but sexier, and with the resistant agility of a cockroach.
She liked her own body fine. Even after giving birth to Miyuki and returning to work, she found her body resilient, eager to replenish its muscle memories. When her husband, Takayuki, aged into fatherhood and became more placid in bed, she knew that it was his body, not hers, that required more rest, and she was happy to let him have it.
But the talismans and stone statuettes outside their home were gone now, swept away, like her husband and daughter, by the tsunami, leaving behind a bare skeleton of their two-story farmhouse, a traditional minka that was an inheritance from Takayuki’s parents – deep-eaved, with curved bamboo beams and buffed timber floors, edged by rice paddies just half a mile from the Tohoku shoreline.
“Kimura-sensei,” she said to the town’s surviving Buddhist priest, a handsome but surly man in his mid-forties. “I cannot bring back my daughter or husband, I know. I cannot even find their bodies to honor their lives through cremation and burial. But may I pray for myself now, so many years after my losses? May I beg the gods for an act of grace and condolence?”
The first time she asked him, Kimura looked sideways, turning his head sharply and wincing, as if a high-pitched sound were stinging his ear.
“You know what you need,” he said. “You are a grown woman yet you think only of your own desires. You must first show the gods signs of honor.”
Kaoru stumbled from the temple and phoned a taxi.
An elderly beggar who called himself “Mr. Kaz” sat at an easel and tried to draw her as she waited for the car. “Your face,” he said. “Pure sadness.”
The cab took her back to her tiny six tatami mat government shelter in Izumi, where she drank herself to sleep with two glasses of sho-chu.
But she kept at it. Even when rumors in the village, now populated mostly by elderly widows and widowers, since the young who weren’t dead would never return, got nastier.
‘Some nerve that woman’s got,’ went the party line. ‘We’ve lost everything and she wants magic. Tsk.’
One day, Kaoru decided to visit Kimura early on a Sunday morning. Every time she’d seen him, he looked pained even before she repeated her request. Maybe he had stomach problems. Maybe late in the day was a bad time.
So she arrived at the temple at 5 a.m., when the monks were just finishing prayers and eating their morning mix of root vegetables and seaweed. A fresh hour, when the winds are soft and the trees are shafts of violet across the sky.
“Kimura-sensei, gomen,” she said. “I’m sorry. But I beg you one more time to ask the gods if they can grant me this one small wish. That I will have a body that is a shell, that I will have a way to protect myself when the earth shakes again, and the seas rage, and the lands are poisoned, and the world is at war with itself. I just want a body that is my body that will help me protect myself from the horrors.”
Kimura, whose skin was now smooth and shiny, said: “I need images. Your daughter and husband, who are they to the gods of thousands dead? We do not remember them.”
“But our photographs were washed away,” she said. “You know that. The tsunami stole the lives, and the images. How can the gods not know?”
“Bring images,” said Kimura.
Stepping down from the temple stairs, Kaoru tripped, toppled, then grabbed the handrail and stood still.
From the corner of the parking lot she heard this: “I am Kaz. Remember me? I can see your daughter and husband right now, in your face, in your eyes, around and inside you. They are here in my sketches. Give them to Kimura-sensei. They, like you, are beautiful. The gods will recognize.”
Roland Kelts is an author, editor, journalist, public speaker, professor, and consultant who specializes in contemporary Japanese culture. He is currently a 2017 Nieman fellow in journalism at Harvard University. His book Japanamerica has been widely lauded as a consummate exploration of Japanese pop culture that covers everything from the Japanese attitude toward pornography to a meeting with the creator of Pac-Man. For more info on Japanamerica, visit Kelts’ website, www.japanamericabook.com, or get into contact with him by sending a tweet to @rolandkelts.