Blossoms and Ashes: The Swordsman, Part 4

The Swordsman

Kyoto’s a steam room with a broiler for a celling. I’ve been to Arashiyama and somehow beat the crowds to bury Franny’s kerchief amongst the tall bars of bamboo. Sweat dripped off my brow and when I was finished I felt like I was one step closer to Franny’s death. I sat by a gem green river for a while wishing I had more control over what’s going to happen. I feel powerless and it’s distressing to know things beyond my control are on a collision course. I avoid a small Shinto shrine near me by the water’s edge because I’m not sure what to believe anymore. I decide to leave the forest and find food and air conditioning.

I’m still in Arashiyama, near the bamboo forest, at a small sushi restaurant. It’s a square shop barricaded with gridded paper screens. I’m sitting at a bar and next to me is a Japanese man wearing traditional Japanese clothing, which I assume means he works in the tourist industry. He’s pushing fifty. Freckles are chained underneath his eyes. His hair is greying. He’s lean and fit, and also oddly content to not have his food yet. He’s not reading on his phone, nor checking on a social media update. He’s simply staring forward, lost in his thoughts. Then, without turning to me he says, “Ahi tuna sushi is very popular in the States, but have you tried Yellow Tail? Now that’s a treat.”

            “I have once,” I say. “But I’d had too much sake beforehand to properly taste it.”

            “And today, too many cigarettes and Oi Ocha,” he says.

            “He turns to face me and I see that he’s blind.”

            “You’re right, can you smell it on me?” I say.

            “As soon as the door opened and you entered. American. Smoker. Iced tea.”

            “I hope it’ll not spoil your taste,” I say.

            “No, but thank you.”

            He remains turned towards me and seemingly hyperaware of my movements. As though, he can hear my eyes move and my facial expressions crane. He chuckles and turns back. He says something to the sushi chef in front of us and the chef looks at me briefly before continuing his work.

            “I told him to not service you with the best fish because you’ve spoiled your tongue today,” he says, chuckling again.

            I’m a little confused about how to receive this news, but I remain a keen participant.

            “Maybe, that’s a good idea, I wouldn’t want him to waste his best product.”

            Now, the blind man laughs.

            “You’re not your average American,” he says. “Somewhere close to Canada, but with a Westcoast accent. Seattle, it must be. Yes, your restraint matches there as well.”

            “Good guess,” I say.

            His smile snaps shut and he says gruffly, “It is no guess.”

            “My apologies.”

            He loosens up again and smiles.

            “Would you share a tokkuri of sake with me?”

            “Yeah, sure.”

            The tokkuri soon arrives and we clink plates.

            There’s an awareness to this man that defies explanation. He’s the one who grasped the tokkuri, he’s the one who pours the sake, he’s the one who clinked his sake plate onto mine. If it wasn’t for the fact that I can see his eyes rolled back inside his head, I’d have said he was a liar. Both of our meals come at the same time and we eat.

            I mash a mound of wasabi into a pool of soy sauce and separate the leaves of pickled ginger from one another.

“That’s a lot of wasabi,” he says. “You like intense tasting things.”

“I suppose so,” I say.

“People who like intense tasting things are intense thinkers.”

“My thoughts are usually quite loud, can you hear them?”

“Yes,” he says, but then looks away and continues to eat.

“I hope I didn’t offend you?” I say.

“I was sure I had offended you.”

“No, I’m just unsure of your intensions, that’s all.”

He laughs and says, “My name is Akira.”

I introduce myself and we shake hands.

“Tell me, what tragedy brings you to Japan,” he says.

“How do you know that?”

“Because your demeanor is heavy and I’ve been around it enough to know when I sense it.”

“I wouldn’t want to bother you with it,” I say.

“You’re right, I’ve been rude,” he says, “it’s just that I don’t speak to many people, especially Americans from Seattle.”

I hesitate, something’s strange about this man, but to his defense, something has been strange with me since I arrived to Japan. Perhaps it’s not a bad idea to humor him—what’s the worst that could come of it?

“My brother is dying in Nagoya,” I say. “And, my mother is dying in Seattle.”

“I’m very sorry,” he says. “Is there anything I can do?”

“If you can ease their suffering and make it quick, I’d be much obliged,” I say.

“Of course,” he says and lifts his plate to toast.

“Well, that was easy,” I joke.

“You never know who you’ll run into at a sushi bar in Kyoto,” he says, chuckling.

The sushi chef looks up at me, then to the strange blind man, and then back to his fillet of tuna.

“Do you believe if two family members are dying at the same time they can bind to each other, and one feel the pain of the other?” I ask.

“It would take strong feelings to make something like that happen, but people don’t think like that anymore,” he says. “In old times if one person was showing the symptoms of another patient and visa versa, that’s what they’d think. Why do you ask?”

“It’s nothing,” I say.

“You find yourself thinking things you’ve never thought of before,” he says.

“Perhaps,” I say.

The man brushes his hand across the thick black cane resting beside him on the bar and  smiles.

“We seek answers when there are none.”

“I’m just confused about what’s happening to me,” I say.

“Intense thinking leads to intense emotions,” he says, with his mouth full.

“Are both your mother and brother intense thinkers?”

“I’d say so.”

“Then the idea of their connection will be intensified by their legacy.”

“I don’t follow?” I say.

“When you ponder one, it will match their intensity, but if you ponder both the intensity is quadrupled. It sounds like they might be working out their past with each other. You must figure this is more important than their deaths.”

“So you do believe they might be bonded?”

“They are mother and son, of course they are, this isn’t magic.”

“I know, I—”

“You must sleep more,” he says. “Things won’t be as confusing if you sleep.”

I nod feeling as though this man is reading my thoughts. 

We eat some more in silence, joke around a bit, and Akira tells me of some of his favorite shrines in the city. “From the train station you must walk to Fushimi Inari-Taisha,” he says. “When you arrive you must then walk through every gate.”

“I will,” I say. 

He comes in close to my face.

“I mean it,” he says. “Inari is fickle and quick to anger. Every gate.”

“I understand.”

“You seem like a good person, let the shrines cleanse you.” He turns his head around as if he’s hearing something far off and trying to identify where it’s coming from. “The rest of this sake is for you,” he says. He stands up, slips on a red yukata and grabs his cane, which looks more like a katana sword’s saya, and says, “I have a tour group to lead, I need to be sharp.”

“Of course you do,” I say, “Arrigato. Thank you for the advice.”

He bows and says, “It was a blessed chance encounter.”

He leaves. When I’m finished I ask for the bill. Akira’s meal is on the ticket. The extra sake softens the blow.

***

I could have taken the train to Fushimi Inari-Taisha, but instead I stabbed the hot concrete for an hour to get there because I didn’t want to deviate from Akira’s directions. I’m sweating profusely and out of Oi Ocha. I arrive to the great shrine of Inari and find that it’s a mountain. The old man made me walk all this way to the foot of a mountain and now I’m supposed to climb it. I begin snaking my way through crowds of tourists until I arrive at the first gate. It’s a large red gate comprised of two thick pillars called hashira holding up a two pieced lintel made up of a lower beam called the nuki and the crown called kasagi. I know this because I read the sign below it. Passing through it, there’s no other way to go, but up, so I remain with a large mass of hikers and climb the pathway.

Every several feet there’s another red gate. I turn a corner and look up to see a long train of gates stapled in a row up the mountainside. Like a dog, I want to run through all of them, but I’m frustrated because there are too many people in my way. However, the further I climb the thinner the masses become, but the more exposed I am to the hot sun. My shirt is soaked now, and my legs are beginning to burn. My pack is barely full, but it weighs a ton.

With each gate I begin to feel weaker, but I’m too hard-headed to stop. I feel as though I’ve been summoned to the shrine because there’s some meaning up there for me. I continue up. Soon, I pass through each gate alone. In between, tourists pass me and give strange looks. I ignore them. I’m weak and thirsty, uncharacteristically so, more than I should be and I wonder if something else is the matter with me. I tell myself, the struggle is part of the process, that this is a test of spirit. Akira told me to do it this way to challenge me. I accepted the challenge and I intend to finish it. I trudge on, the sweat on my skin makes it appear oily and iridescent. My mouth is as dry as a desert. My skin feels like it’s cracking like baked mud.

After an hour and a half I stumble to the top of Mt. Inari and I’m greeted with statues of foxes. I find a bench and sit. I feel as though I might be sick, but I concentrate on my breathing. I concentrate for so long that I stop thinking, and no longer thinking I stop remembering, and not remembering, I feel groggy. I fall asleep on the bench and remain there for some time. When I awake it’s night. Someone set a bottle of water by my head. I sit up and my head drains an ocean out from it and it feels as though all my hair could fall out. There are other people up here, so I’m not alone; I’m just surprised I wasn’t bothered by anyone. I drink the bottle of water in one go and try to stand up. I totter a little and realize the sun baked the energy out of my body. A group of University kids are laughing. One asks, if I’m alright, and I say too much sun, and they laugh some more. I’m not offended, because I’d think it’s funny too. I begin my descent, knees knocking all the way down, each gate reminding me I accepted a strange challenge with zero benefit. That’s yet to be determined, and all I should concentrate on is getting off this mountain to buy food and water.

I reach the streets and I have just enough phone battery to find my hostel. When I arrive I’m so happy to find Midori booked me a private room. I go to the bar and people from all over the world are partying. I order a hamburger and eat the whole thing in two minutes. I drink only water and I keep drinking glass after glass. During this whole process of recovery, from the foot of the mountain to the hostel bar, I’m not thinking and still not remembering. I just want food and water. I’m a machine for once and I’m happy. I eat and drink, resting in the total present, not taking on any responsibility, not administering guilt, nothing. That is until I receive a message from Midori.

“No time to discuss, you need to come home now. I’ve purchased a new train ticket for you. Can you be at the station in fifty minutes? Only answer if you cannot. Attached is your ticket.” [Text Message, Midori]

***

I get lost trying to locate the Kyoto train station in the dark, but I follow the Kyoto Tower and eventually find my way. I have a little time to spare so I order an iced coffee at Starbucks, and the teller can’t understand me. Finally I say, aisukōhī and she says, ohhhhhh, aisukōhī. Go fucking figure, if it’s not one way, it’s the other. I take out my change purse to pay her and I swear the coins pass though my hand. They splash across the counter and go everywhere. I pick up what I can and leave what I can’t see. I get to the train deck and step onto the Nozumi headed for Nagoya. It’s late, but there are still people on board. I have the isle to myself though, or at least an empty seat for Inari.

Something is following me or at least playing tricks on me. I have no proof, but ever since I nearly broke Franny’s feet, I’ve felt distressed. I’m losing it and I know it, but I’ve got no other choice than to remain on the road I’m on. I know it’s leading me to Franny’s death bed. It’s happening so fast, too fast. Franny’s never been the same since the seizure. I should have known then that he’d die while I was here. Even if I did know, nothing can prepare you. Soon, a brother I never really knew is going to die. I’ll be left putting together a puzzle of his image for years to come. But, the more I try to rebuild him, the farther away his true image will get.

I suppose that’s why I came here, to give it one last try to understand Franny and why he was the man he was. I figured if I put myself in his shoes, met his friends, and went to his haunts I’d know who he was. But, I’m no closer. Perhaps I’ve put too much into it, and pushed too hard to come to grips with a man that was rarely available, and certainly always gone. Selfishly, I’ve wanted more, too much, more than one life can give another. Still, I wish Franny was capable of being there for me because I’ve known this whole time he has what I have in my head. When his friends speak about his intensity, his creativity, his insatiable hunger for mood altering substances, I feel a profound force of empathy rumble though me. It makes me afraid to watch how he’s dying because I can’t shake the feeling I’ll succumb to the same fate. If not worse. I want to be more than that, but who I am won’t let me. Stability is a dream I’ll never acquire. Happiness is a fox hiding within a shrine.

Franny never found it, but he was so focused on his pain, how could he be? It’s such a shame mom and him are going to die together without seeing each other a last time. I wish Franny could have forgiven mom for her mistakes and that mom could have had a chance to ask for forgiveness. But, I hate Franny for hanging that over mom’s head, Aja too. At least Aja came to help out, but Franny did the Franny thing and went ahead and died.

Soon, I arrive at Nagoya Station and take the subway to Nagoya City University Hospital. There are barely any commuters, all is still and calm. I arrive Inside the hospital and a young man wearing a red Adidas track coat sits on a bench muttering to himself. He sees me and begins to speak in Japanese. He’s drunk and unhappy. I can’t understand him. I ignore him the best I can the take the elevator up to oncology.

Midori sits next to Franny’s bed holding his hand.

“Robbie, You’re brother is dying,” she says with tears down her face.

“I know,” I say and I sit on the other side of the bed and grasp her hand from across Franny body. 

“I shouldn’t have gone to Kyoto,” I say.

“You couldn’t have known.”

“I feel so badly about what happened, I didn’t mean to hurt him,” I say. “If he was going to die I didn’t want our last words to be angry.”

I felt Franny’s hand squeeze mine and my whole body reacts.

“He squeezed my hand,” I say.

“Now your last words aren’t angry words. He talked to me about you last night,” Midori says, wiping her face. “He said he was worried that you dislike him,” she says.

“Of course I don’t. I love you, Franny,” I say to him.

“He said, he wishes you two talked more, that he had things to tell you.”

“I think I know what they are,” I say. “They’re things I have a hard time talking about too.”

“Robbie,” Midori says. “I’m sorry I took Franny away to Japan. I took him away from your family.”

“No, don’t think that, he needed to leave,” I say.

“I think he was happy here,” she says.

“He was happier here than he ever would have been in Seattle.”

“I hope so.”

We hold on as long as we can, but both of us fall asleep beside Franny’s bed. My dreams are troubled. Dying dogs, a Shinto figurine laying waste to the city. A homeless man set on fire. My mouth propped open with a dental gag and fish dropped in. Headstones regurgitating living skeletons like a bellowing smoke stack. An empty bed frozen solid. These images repeat themselves.

I’m roused by sobbing, and when I open my eyes I see Midori looking at Franny and by the pain in her voice I know my brother is dead. His mouth is open, his skin is yellowish grey, he’s more emaciated than before, he will be cremated soon.

“I love you, brother,” I say, and console Midori.

I look up, and behind her stands Franny.

“I’ll explain later,” he says, in usual fashion. “Just help Midori as much as you can before we leave for Seattle. In the meantime, I have a blind man to thank.”

My heart sinks because I know now this is all inside of me.

“I will, brother,” I say.