Authors: Nina Schuyler
a novel by
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
for Peter and Fynn
Clouds come from time to time—
and bring to men a chance to rest
from looking at the moon.
PROLOGUE: JAPAN 1870
Y NAME IS
and I am someone who should have died a long time ago. Sometimes when I look at a person, I wonder, what does he think is the worst way to die? Is he frightened of raging water’s hand pushing his head under? A glittering sword hurling through his heart? Poison shocking his blood? A smashing of horse hooves caving in his skull? Which way is it, I want to know.
As I sit here, waiting to be killed, I can’t help but wonder how it will be for me.
Fire. For me, fire is the worst way, the lashing flames scorching the skin, the seething hiss of a blaze, smoke’s smothering smell.
Fire grabbed my body when I was ten years old; it burrowed into my skin and crept under my eyelids. It plastered itself to my feet, nosing my soles.
The black smoke spilled from our burning house and snaked into the town of Chigasaki. The villagers woke to sooty grit in the spaces between their teeth. Someone shouted, Fire! and the men grabbed their kimonos and ran outside.
With buckets of sloshing water, the townspeople ran to our home. The heat! It scorched their hair and singed their eyelashes, it flashed against their skin and tore at their resolve. The heat! I heard my sister crying. The townspeople threw water on their backs and wet down their hair before they ventured closer to the spiraling flames. My mother’s sobs clamored beside my sister’s, and from my bedroom, hunched down on the tatami mat floor, my
hands cupped to my face, a small space of air, I strained to hear my father’s voice, but there was nothing.
. The words crackled behind the roar of flames. Someone shouted, A boy! I put those words in my mouth and sucked. A boy, I said, telling myself I was still here. My sister’s screams thrust through the wall of fire. Quickly they folded themselves into something smaller and smaller, like a sea anemone withdrawing. Lie still, I told myself, if you move, you will draw the ire of the fiery beast clawing and growling all around you. As I child, I learned when the god Izanami gave birth to the fire god, she became extremely ill. Her husband-god, Izanagi, wept bitterly, but his sorrow did not stop Izanami from descending into the Land of Yomi. Death, I understood, had a home; death, a place.
I thought I was dying, descending into the Land of Yomi.
Underneath the flames, I tried for circumspection, prayed for my father and mother, and my sister, taking refuge in Buddha, as my father had taught me. Time stretched; I felt as though I’d met infinity, and I was terrified.
The men of the village unpeeled me from the perfect kindling of cypress and bamboo. I was lying on my stomach, my arms thrown above my head, as if I were preparing to dive into the earth or up to the sky, anywhere to escape the heat. My lips were moving when they lifted the huge center post from across my legs. A man shouted, His feet! I jerked my head from the charred mass and looked down. My feet wore slippers of fire.
Water splashed on the burning pile of wood, on my face, rolled underneath my arms; it wriggled into my mouth and between my teeth. My drought-ridden insides drank and drank, expanding in the liquid. The air, watery, like someone’s breath. This began my love affair with water. Water flowed into every nook and crease; each trickle, a caress, each thin line of liquid, a tender finger.
They put me in a wooden cart and rolled me for hours and hours, or maybe a handful of minutes, to the healer’s house. When she lifted me from the cart, my body’s heavy scaffolding fell into the soft pillow of her body. Her thin arms were cool and it seemed as if she had ten arms, her coolness all around me. For a brief moment, the fire never occurred.
She said she knew the way of fire. Ever since the Tokugawa shogunate had sent the new feudal lord to Chigasaki, the old woman had treated many burned bodies, along with people dragged from their homes and beaten, men stabbed in the chest or sliced through the neck, rope burns on wrists, on ankles, and nerves poked with needles that left chronic pain. I tried to thank her, but my lips were heavy and refused to bend. Stay quiet, my boy, she said. After her cool body, her breath was what I knew. Cinnamon, with mint. Later, I learned she sucked on cinnamon bark tucked into the soft curtain of her cheek. With my fingers, I traced her hair all the way down to her waist. Weeks later, when I could finally open my eyes, I saw it was black, with few streaks of gray, even though she was quite old. The skin on her hands, spiderwebbed with wrinkles, but her face was smooth. Each night, I watched her rub ground pearl on her cheeks and forehead, sanding off time. When she smiled at me, she revealed soft, pink gums.
My place in her home was her floor. She lived in a small hut at the edge of the village, a one-room house close to the sea. I lay on her mat with the glorious sea air wrapped around me. From my spot, I watched the woman in white tabi socks scurry from her kitchen to her Buddhist altar, where she kept lit a slender stick of incense. The smell of her home was a blend of lilac and thistle, milkweed and witch hazel, and scents I could not name. The fragrances were tucked in glass bottles that lined her shelves. Each bottle was filled with a different color of liquid. I watched the light pour through all of them. Sunlit blue. Golden peach. The purple black of blackberries. As I speak of them now, they sit immobile, lifeless, but then, as I lay on my back, they gave themselves to me so willingly, offering me a beauty that made me cling to the earthly world.
One day, she built a large flame under her cooking pot. The heat from the fire alighted my sister’s and mother’s shouts; they called out my name, begged me to help. I couldn’t stop screaming. The old woman wrapped me in cold towels and doused the fire. From then on, she had to cook outside.
I saw through the window to the sky. I kept track of the days. They will come, I told myself; each knock on the door, my heart leaped against my ribs, the rush of questions through wide eyes, Where have you been? Why not
sooner, Mother, why did you wait? Father? And to my sister, Not yet, not now, as she prepared to pounce on my chest and wrestle my limbs. When two months passed and still I had not seen my family, I stopped the steady rhythm of counting.
AYS TUMBLED BY IN
a blur. So much so I can’t recall. What did I eat and dream? How did I endure those long afternoons on my back? I stared at a white wall, wondering, Why do we—Why do any of us—go on living?
Then the day I met clay. I’ll never forget it. For three days, we’d had dripping hot weather, and I hadn’t slept at all, my body twisting from the unbearable heat. The night lifted its curtain to another scorching morning, heavy with the scent of fairy bell lilies below the northern window. A blue dragonfly darted through the door, buzzed round and round my head. The healer frowned at me for a long time, then left, rolling a heavy wheelbarrow. She returned an hour later, blue-black clay spattered on her clothes. Working her way from my feet to my head, she grunted, slopping on the cool clay. The smell of pungent earth and deep fertility suffused the room. It took her an hour to cover me completely; I’d become a blue-black sheet of thin cloth, hideous and monstrous. Yet I slept deeply, like a tree snug in its bark. When I woke, she took a hammer and tapped on the dried mud, cracking open my chilled home. I asked for the rest of the clay and plunged my fingers into the mud, down to the bottom of the bucket, my fingers ecstatic and playful. I began to hunt for my first shape.
A crude figure of a boy. I worked the clay on top of my chest. I named the boy Jimu, and kept him beside my head. A friend, I told the silent old woman as my fingers worked furiously.
After ten months, thick sheets of shiny, pink skin covered my body, as if I were wearing new clothing. Everywhere but my feet, still black and carrying their flame.
Hayashi, she said, shaking her head as she stared at my feet. She wrapped me in a heavy quilt and set me on a piece of deer hide stretched between two long bamboo poles. She pulled me up the mountain Haguro-san. Thumping along the ground, I left my painful body by staring at the twittering pale
thrushes and a swooping brown hawk owl, with its chocolate head and yellow eyes. There, the smell of pine from the crushed needles below my bedding. I tasted wood wind. I prayed to Buddha, and in my mind recited the sutras. For the second time in my life, I thought I was dying.
We reached the top. Bowed over and weary, she leaned over and kissed me on both cheeks. I thought it was my time to join my parents and sister. Why should I be spared?
She’d brought me to live with the monks. Their temple was at the top of the mountain. They were the ones who had taught her the healing ways.
I woke in a small hut. Out the window, I saw a waterfall of melted snow. The air smelled as if someone had recently wrung it out. Suddenly from my window view, an old man appeared, took off his clothes, and stood naked, a paper-thin body with no hair on his head. He stepped beneath the rush of cold water and stood there until his skin turned bright red. Then he dressed quickly and walked with the stride of a young man into my hut. He wore the strangest pants and shirt. My fingertips found silk. He told me he’d pounded the bark of a cherry tree with a hammer until it was as soft as new leaves. He smiled then; his whole face turned into a wrinkle.
Last year I climbed the mountain thirty times in bare feet, he said. He knew the way of feet. Bowing to me, he said he was going to be my healer.
I called him the cherry-bark man.
These were days marked with new smells—citrus and pine, pungent oils, and scents sweet and loamy. Slowly, my lips formed more words and my hands gained more agility. As he worked, he told me the story of his feet: On one of my hikes up the snow-covered mountain, a sojourn to find enlightenment—not yet found, he said, smiling—my feet turned a pure blue. I had three more miles to go.
What happened? I asked.
He sat down in a pile of snow and, with his mind, moved the warm heat of his body down to his toes. The snow melted around him, and he sat and sat, putting fire in his feet. When he reached the top of the mountain, he fell into a trance and found the right healing roots and herbs. You have too much fire in your feet, he said. He was doing for me what he’d done for himself,
but reverse, calling the heat from my feet, returning it to where it belonged, nestled in my heart.
From my vantage point in the hut, I could see the waterfall—A most auspicious view for you, he said—and then one day two red paper lanterns appeared at its base. The cherry-bark man put them there. Red, for good luck, he said. The lanterns were made in Gifu, the ones used during the festival for the departed who return to the world of the living for three days. You’ve brought so many spirits with you, the cherry-bark man said, I want them to feel welcome. He knew my father. He was a great man. Your father’s spirit is smoky gray, he said. I see it all around you.
One morning he stood at the edge of my bed.
He lifted me up by my waist. I beat on his back with my fists. I pleaded and cried. He planted my feet solidly on the floor. Neither of us moved. The room brimmed with stillness. I sunk my weight down. Through each pad of my toes, I felt the wood planks of the floor, the coolness, the roughness of an errant splinter. My legs wobbled, but there was the dizzy power of standing upright and the uncertainty of being so far above the ground. How far the descent would be if I fell. Almost two years had passed since I had stood on my feet. Everything at the ground level had become my companion, the ants and spiders, the mice and dust balls. Beneath the light, you feel as if everything above you is bobbing on the surface. But standing now on two feet, the world changed. There were people and bookshelves and brilliant, almost hurtful bright light.
Walk, he said.
For a long time, I waited. Then I lifted my right foot an inch off the floor and slowly lowered my heel, rolling through the arch, the toes. I learned this: A foot concedes to catch you at the threshold of falling. The other foot shuffled forward. I did it again. And again. It took me a half hour to walk three feet. There was pain. Immense pain. I walked to the doorway and held onto the frame. Sweat trickled down my sides. I peered outside. Rows and rows of small, stone Buddha statues. The monk had put them there and sprinkled
the ground with red rice. A good luck celebration for my feet, he said. I stood under the smooth cold sky, surrounded by a sea of red and small Buddhas smiling.