BLACK-NAPED ORIOLE IN HOKKAIDO SNOW
By: Leonard Seet
irst, write a death poem in the waka style. Then, open the kimono; take up the tantō or wakizashi, holding the blade with a portion of cloth around the haft; plunge the blade into the left side of the abdomen; and draw it across to the right, with a sharp upward cut at the end.
Yasahiro Kobayashi pointed the tantō below his left ribs and was tracing an arc in front of his abdomen when the phone interrupted his contemplation of death. As if trying to distract him from the blade and the book. But he continued to stare at the page and speculate on the samurai’s last thoughts. On the second ring, he put blade and book on the tatami and walked toward the phone. Outside the window, snow had blanketed the nearby slopes and the distant peaks and he wished the scenery could calm his mind. But images of his daughter’s hand slipping away replayed in his head as he picked up the phone. He eased into the coffin he had built from planks the previous night before drinking himself to sleep.
He answered the call.
The landlord greeted him and apologized for disturbing him. The old man wanted to come over and pick up an origami, a wedding anniversary gift he had crafted but forgotten to take along when he left the cabin yesterday. Yasahiro imagined a paper crane dangling from a string. He would like to make Miyuki the Thousand-Crane for their wedding anniversary. He would like to see her smile again and to hold her hand again. But he could no longer. When the landlord apologized again and said he and his wife would be celebrating their fortieth anniversary tonight, Yasahiro realized he was daydreaming. As he leaned back in the coffin, he apologized and said, sure, he could come by anytime.
The old man had hung up and Yasahiro slouched inside the coffin he had planned to die in. After he had died, the paramedics would only have to close the lid and haul him to the mortuary. His landlord wouldn’t have to clean the bathtub or throw away the mattress.
While the wind tossed snow against the windowpane, he drew out a picture of his wife and daughter and tried to recall their voices. He wanted to taste Miyuki’s lips but could only feel the draft seeping through the window. He wanted to listen to Shiori recite her poems but could only hear the wind whistling around the cabin.
Last April, a month after the Great East Japan Earthquake, he and Miyuki had gone to Kyoto’s Tetsugaku no michi. Though waves of men and women and children brushed past them, Yasahiro felt as if he and she had detached from the world, as if the world had abandoned them. When they reached the Silver Pavilion and strolled on the flagstone zigzag bridge, where cherry blossoms showered upon them and the water reflected their profiles, Miyuki fell to the ground. He took her to the hospital and the doctor said she wouldn’t survive past autumn. Her illness had caught up with her.
Now, after nine months, Yasahiro could still recall the scene near the Silver Pavilion as if it had been yesterday. But outside the window, instead of cherry blossoms, snowflakes swirled in the air. He inserted the picture into his pocket and got out of the coffin. He sat on the tatami and, after glancing at the picture of a samurai’s guts lying on the floor, he put the book and the tantō into his backpack. He wouldn’t commit seppuku; he wasn’t a samurai. He didn’t want to mess up the cabin and trouble the old man, who had dusted the shelves and vacuumed the carpets before renting him the place. Vacationers wouldn’t want to rent a cabin reeking of internal organs. Besides, he couldn’t compose a poem, either in waka style or freestyle, and didn’t want to have his guts spilled inside the coffin. He had prepared several bottles of sleeping pills, a twenty-first century solution for a post-modern man.
He pushed the lid over the coffin and covered his resting-place with the sleeping bag. He didn’t want to alarm the landlord or remind him of death, especially on the old man’s fortieth wedding anniversary.
He went into the kitchen and toasted a waffle, Shiori’s favorite snack. Ever since last March, whenever he ate a waffle, he would recall how she had screamed for help as the currents whisked her away and how he couldn’t hold onto her hand. He would rebuke himself for lacking courage and strength. He would feel helpless. He would let the days pass away while Miyuki grasped onto every second.
He reached for the waffle as if it were his daughter’s hand but stopped an inch from it, knowing he could never touch those fingers. He glanced at the snowcaps beyond the window and wondered whether he was in a nightmare. But the dryer in the utility room buzzed to remind him of his chores in the real world.
He put the knives into the rack and stacked the bowls and plates on the shelves. Then, he went to the utility room and collected the laundry and he returned to the living room with the basket and turned on the TV. As he listened to the news of the Greeks rioting over the proposed austerity measures, he folded his clothes. A cashmere sweater Miyuki had bought him for their twelfth wedding anniversary. He would wear it to the grave. A wool scarf Shiori had bought him for his thirty-seventh birthday. He would wear that, too. Whenever Miyuki had to work on weekends, he would take care of the laundry and Shiori would help fold the clothes. He would pair the socks while his daughter would just shove them into a pile. He would iron the shirts, pants and dresses while she would call him mother.
As he recalled Shiori’s laughter, he smiled and folded the T-shirts, shorts, and underwear, sorting them into separate piles. While he matched the socks, the newscaster’s voice reached him across the living room. The local police was looking for three delinquents who had killed two girls and four elderly men. They didn’t rob the men or rape the girls. Thrill kills.
He was following the news when he discovered a missing sock, from the pair Miyuki had bought him just before the tsunami took Shiori. He rummaged through the laundry but couldn’t find it. He checked behind the TV and under the sofa but still couldn’t locate it. He wanted to wear that pair of socks in the coffin as a reminder of his love for Miyuki. Losing the sock would ruin his death. While the newscaster reported the deaths in Syria, he rushed into the bedroom to check whether he had left it on the bed. But the sock wasn’t there. He realized he would fail his wife just as he had his daughter.
Then, he saw it inside the trophy case at the other end of the room, the origami in a plastic box. A bird. A black-naped oriole. The black band painted around the nape from one eye to the other.
He opened the trophy case and picked up the box. He admired the handiwork and praised the old man, a romantic. On their wedding anniversaries, Yasahiro would take Miyuki to dine in her favorite French or Italian restaurant. They would have pot-au-feu with Chateau Margaux or agnolotti with Chianti. He would give her a necklace or a dress, but never a handmade gift. Looking at the origami, he wished he had arranged for her the algae from his research, which would glow orange under light, into the words "I love you." But he had forgone the chances just as he had those to take Shiori to the zoo during her summer vacations.
He shook his head to dispel the images from his mind and returned the box to the trophy case. He left the bedroom and inspected the floor along the hallway. No sock. He dragged himself into the utility room where the heat still warmed the air. He opened the washer. Empty. He opened the dryer. Nothing. But when he thrust his hand into the cylinder just below the opening, he felt the sock. He grasped it as if seizing Shiori’s hand, a plank among the waves.
Last month, he had returned with Miyuki’s ashes to Taro, where the tsunami had decimated the town. He had searched for three days before finding a fisherman willing to take him out to sea. On the first day, he only found overturned sailboats and half-sunken cabin cruisers along the piers where he had collected algae for his experiments. Most of the fishermen had left the area and wouldn’t return until next spring, leaving the smell of the sea to accompany the cranes removing the debris. On the second day, beside the dock where a yacht still sat on top of a two-story apartment building, he met a few old men who referred him to a local fisherman ready to leave for the winter. On the third day, he searched among collapsed townhouses and crumbled automobiles for the fisherman. After he had helped an old lady rummage through the debris and locate her husband’s memorial tablet, she directed him to the trailer next to a fence on which a sedan was dangling. He hiked through the bricks, pipes, planks and sheet metals, and reached the trailer. He found the tan-skinned man, who agreed to take him out to sea for twenty thousand yens.
The next day, an afternoon zephyr pushed the fishing boat out to sea while Yasahiro surveyed the debris on water and listened to the rhythm of planks against the hull. Though the wind chilled his cheeks, his head fevered with images of Miyuki while he cuddled the urn that stored her ashes. But when a ghost ship, a yacht without sail or mast, drifted out of the fog, a chill traveled through his spine. The fisherman didn’t expect bodies on board the vessel drifting at sea since the tsunami, but still radioed the Coast Guard. After the initial shock, Yasahiro ignored the phantom and surveyed the sea’s mass grave as he prepared for the rite.
I will wait for you.
Miyuki’s last words still echoed in his mind as he stood against the rail and opened the urn. Her last smile, sad to unspeakable beauty, touched his heart as he scattered the ashes into the sea where Shiori rested. He rejoiced in the thought that the molecules and atoms of mother and daughter would touch one another.
After Yasahiro had returned to the living room with the sock, he packed the clothes into his suitcase and tugged his luggage next to the coffin. He cleaned the toilet and the shower, then returned to the kitchen with a mop. As he was mopping the floor, the newscaster repeated the news about the killings. The delinquents had escaped into the mountains and last night the police lost their trail in the snowstorm.
Yasahiro expected his landlord to have walked half way up the mountain. He phoned to warn him of the criminals, but the old man didn’t pick up the call.
After mopping the floor, he washed his hands and grabbed the waffle. While eating it, he walked to the window, outside of which the wind continued to play with the snow. If he stayed in the cabin and the delinquents injured or killed the old man, he would never forgive himself even if never would only be a few hours. He would have to help the old man, if only for Shiori.
He finished the waffle and put on his parka. He grabbed the origami, a thermos and Shiori’s poems, which had gone with him everywhere. He strapped on his backpack and shut the TV just as the newscaster warned of another snowstorm. When he opened the cabin door and stepped out, the wind crashed against his body just as the tsunami had on March 21st, when it took Shiori. But today, unlike that day, he was ready to confront the elements and though he might fail again, he no longer feared defeat. He stepped into the knee-deep snow to face the white surfs.
Last March, Yasahiro had taken his family to Miyako so his wife could convalesce from chemotherapy. On March 11th, he took Shiori to Taro to collect algae while Miyuki stayed in the hotel room to paint the city’s skyline. Under the gray sky, he and Shiori arrived at the coast where yachts and fishing boats had parked along the docks. They rented a boat and went out to the reef, where they collected orange coralline algae. He didn’t need them for his research; he just wanted to dazzle Shiori with the phytoplanktons. After lunching on the boat, they headed back to shore with their mementos. Shiori complained about school and wanted to transfer to a public junior high school. But he reminded her the private school would pave the way into a prestigious university and she might even get into an Ivy League school in the U.S. He wanted her to get a good grade in school and she threw the algae overboard.
Just as they approached the dock and while Shiori was sulking, tiles slid past eaves and dropped onto the roads. Store signs and beverage bottles crashed onto the ground. Displays toppled and old men collapsed. Several hydrants burst and water gushed into the air. Across the bay, rocks rolled down the mountainside and splashed into the water. Further down the coast, a petroleum refinery burst into flames and plumes of black smoke thrust into the air and darkened the sky. Yasahiro just felt the waves against the hull but could imagine the tremor on shore. The screams died down and he could only hear the sound of waves against the boat and the dock. After squeezing his arm for a minute, Shiori joked that their quarrel had saved them from the disaster. He laughed but remembered the 2004 Indonesian earthquake, where a tsunami had reached as far as India.
When they docked the boat and went ashore, men and women and children were staring at one another as if inquiring about the next move. Then someone mentioned tsunami.
Yasahiro expected the tsunami to arrive within minutes. He grabbed Shiori’s hand and ran toward the distant hill, not sure whether they would reach it. As they stepped off the boardwalk and approached the street, where several cars were speeding away, an old man raised his head and pointed at the sea.
Yasahiro heard the rumble and felt the breeze against his back. Shiori turned her head and gazed into the sky and she staggered and fell. After lifting her up and carrying her on his back, he dashed toward the parking lot at the foot of the hill while the air began to reek of seaweed. He spotted a canoe on top of a trailer and knew that was their only chance to survive. By the time they reached the trailer, yachts were rolling onshore and knocking down the row of trees along the boardwalk. Convenience stores crumbled and parked cars overturned and the debris erected a wave front pushing inland.
Just as they were securing themselves in the canoe, the trailer jerked. Shiori gripped his arm and he embraced her and felt helpless against the rage of the elements. He could no more fight against the tsunami than Miyuki could against her leukemia. And if both he and Shiori perished, his wife would have to live her life alone and fight her illness alone. Just as he vowed to survive, a hydrant smashed against the trailer and after a shock, the canoe fell into the water and the waves tossed it up the hill.
Yasahiro had wrapped himself and Shiori onto the canoe with the rope, but when a roof smashed into a utility pole, a wave flipped the vessel and tossed them into the water. Shiroi squeezed his arm at the sight of a body floating amid cars, boats, doors and walls. He held onto her and tried to comfort her but in the distance, a stove blew up and a terrace began to blaze. He tried to swim but the current shoved him against a tree trunk. The wave front pushed down a row of two-story houses and swept away several cars speeding down a road. A man was struggling in the water several meters away but Yasahiro couldn’t reach him.
He tried to climb on top of a roof, but a car smashed it into several pieces. When a rowboat passed by, he reached for it. But just as he grabbed onto the stern, a wave tossed him over the boat and he lost his grip on Shiori. The current swept her away. He called her name and tried to swim toward her but a section of a house blocked his path. Though he knew he couldn’t reach Shiori, he continued to swim in her direction until a door knocked him out.
Now, as Yasahiro trotted along the snow trail, between the sky and the canyon, he was glad he had survived to take care of Miyuki and to mourn with her the loss of Shiori. He had stayed with his wife during her last days and had fulfilled her wish to rest in her daughter’s grave. He had thanked his rescuer, a fisherman who had lifted him from the water. Now, he would also leave this earth. But not yet. He had to warn the old man of the criminals.
Last night’s storm had paved the paths with a foot of snow but he still could recognize the trails hugging the cliffs and sloping into the valley. A sheet of ice glazing the cliff surged into the clouds and another plunged into the chasm. As he negotiated a bend on the path, snow slid down the mountainside and patches tumbled onto his head and shoulders. He stopped and faced the expanse of sky and canyon, waiting for the snow to bury him. After the elements had spared him, he continued to tread through the snow. The old man was probably somewhere down the path, whistling a jingle and hiking toward him. If he reached the old man’s age, Yasahiro wouldn’t be able to hike such a trail. He had never come to Hokkaido before, but would have loved to walk among the lavenders with Miyuki and Shirori during the summer. Instead, he had spent his life in a laboratory designing biological sensors and switches, shining lights on or passing electric currents through phytoplanktons to change their colors.
After rounding a cliff, he confronted a range of snowcaps cascading into the horizon. A bird was cutting through the sky above the range. Below, the slopes rippled toward a canyon where a ravine must have flown during the summer. As on that March day, he felt the elements overwhelming him. He had spent years manipulating the biology of algae but nature, through the tsunami, showed he was a grain of rice in the cosmos. Still, given the chance he would continue to battle with nature and design more accurate light-sensing algae.
As he approached a forest of cedars sloping down toward the main road where a toilet stood amid the snow, he heard a shout around the cliff. The sound ricocheted among the snow-walls and a patch of white fell on his face. He stopped. He looked up. When he saw snow coasting along the slope, he smiled and raised both arms.
The avalanche would bury him just as the tsunami had Shiori. He wouldn’t resist and couldn’t even if he wanted to. Under the snow he might struggle with his every cell but now he welcomed the burial. He would like the snow to bury the delinquents and stop them from further crimes. Still, he would feel sorry for the old man, the romantic who couldn’t give his wife the present, his handicraft.
After a sheet of snow fell on top of the cedars and several patches bounced off the branches, the avalanche stopped. He watched the branches wave at him until more shouts behind the cliff woke him from his daydream.
He marched forward, kicking up snow.
Last January, when Miyuki was in chemotherapy, he had felt the futility of the human will under natural laws. He had felt helpless against entropy, which was nudging decay and death. On Chinese New Year’s eve, after Shiori had gone to sleep, he stood on the balcony and surveyed the Tokyo nightscape. Skyscrapers lined the city blocks and their lights lit up the night sky and outshone the stars. In the distance, stacks spewed smoke into the air. Down in the street, cars honked amid the New Year’s Eve din. He had lived in the city his whole life but at that moment he couldn’t relate to the buildings, the streets, or the night noise. He felt as if waves were tossing him about the sea and the water was swallowing him. Dread and despair had swamped his blood and was filling his every cell. Before Miyuki’s diagnosis, they had lived like other Edokkos. He and Miyuki worked twelve hours a day, six days a week. They had saved enough money to buy a hundred-square-meter flat, a residence more than double the average size. They hired a tutor for Shiori so she could enter a top-ranked private prep school. She attended night classes and summer schools to prepare for the exams into a tier-one high school. But after Miyuki’s diagnosis, their fortress seemed to be caving in and he questioned their choices. On that winter night, on the balcony, he despaired of ever seeing the sun again. He feared the next crossroad, knowing he would hesitate while the currents of time would carry him into the desert.
But now, his feet light, his breathing even and his mind certain, he cut through the air and walked around the cliff. Without Miyuki and Shiori, he didn’t dread or despair of his future. He had shed his burdens and now could squander his life. He stopped and glanced across the open area. Several meters from the toilet, a teenager with a scar on his left cheek punched the landlord and knocked him down, while two other boys cheered.
Scar-Face, about sixteen years old, brushed back the hair covering his right eye, and said, "Pops, that’s only the freaking appetizer. Wait till you taste the bloody main course."
Yasahiro knew they were lusting to mutilate their prey. He inhaled, filling his lungs with the cold air, and trotted toward them. The teenager with an eye patch, slightly younger than Scar-Face, was walking toward the old man, who was struggling in the snow, when he turned and stared at Yasahiro.
"Hey, jackass, what you looking at? Tired of living, huh?" Eye-Patch flaunted his hunting knife and slashed it through the air several times.
Yasahiro would have nodded if the boy had asked again but now he just marched toward the gangsters while the third and youngest teenager, whose pimples covered his face and forehead, lifted his ax and licked his lips. Though unsure whether he could handle even one of them, he didn’t flinch or hesitate.
"I want the loser’s balls." Pimple-Face waved his ax and hacked down a branch.
"You dork, the sissy’s got none." Scar-Face rushed past the other two and, taking out a switchblade, said to Yasahiro, "Hey, old man, the wolves here would love your guts for dinner. But I just want your eyeballs."
Yasahiro stood before Scar-Face as the switchblade danced in front of his eyes and fanned his face. He had never fought anyone, not even in high school when a bully punched him in the stomach to pick a fight. He wished he had boxed the bully in the face on that distant day but rejoiced in another chance to redeem his courage. He would rather fight Scar-Face than the tsunami. He would rather fight this gang than the elements. Then again, an avalanche might bury them.
Scar-Face spat in his face and the gang laughed. Before he could feel the liquid on his face, his right fist had landed on the scar and his left heel on the teenager’s stomach while snowflakes gushed into the air. Scar-Face grunted and tumbled onto the ground.Eye-Patch’s face froze as if still laughing. He raised his hunting knife and said, "You’re dead, jackass." He treaded through the snow and Pimple-Face joined him.
Yasahiro didn’t know how to deal with both the knife and the ax and wished the avalanche would bury them. He wasn’t a hero even if his life depended on it. He opened his backpack to retrieve the tantō.But before he could take out the blade, a hiking-stick smacked Eye-Patch’s nape and the gangster grunted and tumbled onto the snow. The old man, his lips bleeding, struck the fallen teenager again.Pimple-Face turned around and glanced at Eye-Patch. When the old man trotted toward him, the boy dropped the ax and rushed down the path. He slipped and rolled down the slope. His body smashed into the toilet and shattered its walls before stopping at the ledge. Yasahiro held the tantō and was turning to congratulate the old man when he felt the chill in his abdomen. He looked down and saw the switchblade plunged deep into his parka, a bony hand grasping it.Scar-Face licked his upper lip while blood dripped from his mouth. "You won’t die so easily, you son-of-a-bitch. Now, guts out." He tightened his grip and began to turn the blade when the stick landed on the back of his head.After Scar-Face had grunted and released the switchblade, Yasahiro dropped the tantō and collapsed onto the snow, the pain beginning to replace the chill. When his left cheek hit the snow, the origami sprang out of his backpack and landed next to the tantō. Blood was oozing out of his parka and staining the snow.
What a mess. But at least it isn’t in the cabin.
He had wanted to die without the pain or the mess, but couldn’t fulfill either wish. Still, he didn’t trouble the old man. As his left cheek began to numb from the cold, he took out of the parka pocket the picture of Miyuki and Shiori. He knew from the noise and the snowflakes showering on his right cheek that the old man was fighting with Scar-Face, but he ignored them. He only wanted to think of his wife and daughter in his last moments.
Two weeks before Miyuki passed away, her sister Toshiko, a professor of chemical engineering at Osaka University, had taken an extended leave and traveled to Tokyo. Though his sister-in-law had booked a capsule room near Shinjuku, Miyuki insisted she stay at their home. She wanted Yasahiro and Toshiko to support each other during her last days and even after her death. He would take Toshiko to the malls to shop for essentials after visiting Miyuki. But every evening after dining with her at a sushi bar or a ramen shop and escorting her home, he would roam the streets of Tokyo, or stand on the sidewalk opposite the hospital and stared at Miyuki’s room. In the morning, he would return home and apologize to Toshiko for the lack of hospitality. He needed the solitude and the night air, and he couldn’t share his feelings with his sister-in-law, a stranger.
He and Miyuki didn’t exchange a word on the night she passed away. He held her hand while Toshiko wept on the other side of the bed. He could hear Miyuki’s breathing. He could feel her grief and her relief. She had fought the illness to the end and now had to let go. For her to let go and for him to let go. She smiled and then closed her eyes. Her hand went limp and he felt the void in his stomach. He didn’t check the clock. But outside the window, flurries swirled in and out of the darkness as if trying to distract him from his grief. Another part of him had died.
After the cremation, Toshiko returned to Osaka. Before leaving, she invited him to visit in the spring. He told her he would be traveling to Hokkaido, but didn’t reveal his intentions. When she encouraged him to stay away from Tokyo until his heart heals, he advised that she take a sabbatical and travel aboard for a semester. Soon after she had left, he resigned from the laboratory and sold the flat. When he left Tokyo, he glanced at the skyscrapers and the rush-hour crowd and pushed himself into the sardine-canned subway train. He took the Cassiopeia Express from Tokyo to Sapporo. When the train stopped at Sendai, he surveyed the darkness beyond the train station and imagined seeing the dunes of planks and metals along the coast where former residents would scavenge for pictures, ancestral tablets or the remains of loved ones. When he arrived at Sapporo, he took a bus to the Daisetsuzan National Park near Ashikawa, where the snowcaps and geysers welcomed him.
He welcomed Hokkaido and would rather die in the snow than in his bed. When his hand could no longer hold the picture, he planted it in the snow next to the origami. Then his eyes began to blur as the red patch in the snow expanded. Someone screamed, but he didn’t look. He closed his eyes and a patch of snow fell on his right cheek.
When Yasahiro opened his eyes, a nurse was smiling at him through her dimples. The smell of anesthesia nauseated him. He wanted to turn to the side but the pain in his abdomen stopped him and he moaned. The nurse adjusted the intravenous stand and told him not to move or the wound would open up. He remembered what had happened and he asked for the picture of his wife and daughter. The nurse handed him the creased memento and left before he could inquire about the old man. As he glanced at Miyuki and Shiori smiling at him, he lamented he couldn’t join them in the sea. He turned his head and saw the snowflakes brushing against the windowpane.
He still had the coffin and the sleeping pills, but he had lost the will to commit suicide. He couldn’t return to Tokyo and his job. And he didn’t want to see Toshiko again.
When footsteps paused at the doorway, he inquired about the old man. He waited but no one answered. As he glanced at the picture again, the old man, his cheek and left arm bandaged, strolled in front of the window carrying Yasahiro’s backpack and a tote bag and sat down on the chair next to the intravenous stand. He smiled, his wrinkles creasing his leathery face, and said the lord of the underworld had rejected him. After he had knocked out Scar-Face, he lay on the snow for several minutes. But when he remembered Yasahiro, he scrambled onto his feet, stopped the Good Samaritan’s bleeding, and called the police.
"You know what, you’re damn lucky to have survived, with that wound. A miracle, if you ask me. Of course, your will to survive must be damn strong. Sure, might as well put up a fight against death. Nothing to lose, right?" The old man put the backpack and shopping bag on a chair and checked the bandage on his left arm. "Ha, don’t worry about those scumbags. Won’t be bothering anyone else, except the poor prison rats." Pimple-Face had died from a broken neck and the police had arrested Scar-Face and Eye-Patch.
Yasahiro thanked him for saving his life and for bringing along his backpack. But the old man, in return, thanked him for bringing the origami and for helping him fend off the delinquents.
"Probably would’ve died if you hadn’t shown up. Don’t think I couldn’t take on one of those wimps. But the three of them together, that’s kind of tough, especially when my eyes aren’t what they used to be. Just to let you know, I hate getting old. It sucks. You know what I could do when I was young? Well, anyway, would’ve been a pity if we couldn’t celebrate our anniversary. And just because of those scumbags. Oh, we’ve delayed our celebration until tomorrow. What’s the point of celebrating it in the hospital, right? I couldn’t even drink sake here. What’s a celebration without sake? And they wouldn’t let me leave the hospital. Yeah, that’s what happens when you get old. Couldn’t even kick butts. When I was young--" The old man waved his hand and said, "Never mind." He patted the backpack and continued, "Nice book you have in there. Even nicer blade. Kyoto, right? Must’ve gotten it there. When I was in Kyoto, I saw a katana--"
Yasahiro wanted to ponder alone, but didn’t have the strength or the courage to dismiss the old man. He stared at the backpack, knowing he would throw away the book and the blade once he could walk. He might return to the mountains but probably not to the cabin for the coffin.
The old man patted him on the shoulder. "Oh, don’t look so glum. It’s only a stab wound. Just think of it as a vacation. And don’t worry about your coffin. Just leave it in my place until you’re ready to pick it up. I know how important a personal coffin is. I probably should have one made for myself. Just in case, you know. I wouldn’t want to leave all the dirty work for my wife. If you’re going to die, at least be considerate of the people around you. I can see that we’re of the same mind."
As Yasahiro glanced beyond the window into the curtain of snowflakes obscuring the path that led from the town’s gateway into the mountains, the old man showed the origami and said, "Just rest here and recuperate. And talk to those nurses. You know, if I were younger, I’d ask one of them out. So what if she rejects me? Nothing to lose. Life’s too short."BW
Leonard Seet is the author of the novel Meditation On Space-Time. His articles and short fiction have appeared in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and Blogging Authors. While working overseas as Project Director for a consumer electronics company, Leonard came upon a parchment, which he had drafted in college after booing a novel’s ending. The chicken-scratches had begun to fade, but he succeeded in deciphering the text. The writing was amateurish, but the plot had potential. So, to relieve work stress, he began rewriting the story, along the way learning the art of the trade.