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.

Blossoms and Ashes, Lost in a Jungle, Part 3

Lost in a Jungle

On December 26th 1944 Japanese intelligence officer, Hiro Onoda was sent on a mission to the Filipino island of Lubang. He was ordered to disrupt enemy attacks on the island by destroying airstrips and docks. It wasn’t long before Onoda joined forces with a group of Japanese commandos also sent to the island to jam the Philippine Commonwealth and Allied forces. Within a couple months most of the soldiers were dead. Onoda, now a lieutenant, ordered the rest of the unit to hide in the hills. They waged a guerilla war under the safety of the jungle canopy.

One day while burning a village’s rice supply they found a letter that said the war had ended in August and to please surrender. The surviving members of the Imperial Japanese Army went over the letter at length and after a fair bit of discussion decided the letter was a fake; Allied propaganda meant to trick them into surrender. Their reasoning was simple, Japanese soldiers do not surrender and their country would never ask them to because Japan would never surrender. There would be no Japan at all if the country had lost the war.

Years passed and every once in a while there’d be another skirmish. The propaganda continued. Family photos and letters were air dropped in, imploring the remaining soldiers to lay down their arms and surrender. Still, Onoda and the three men left felt that these efforts were disingenuous in nature and attempts to entrap and dishonor them. They continued to lay traps, kill innocents and hide.

In time, Onoda was the only man left in the group; the rest had died in shootouts with the enemy. He’d made the dense jungle his home and had learned to survive on what it provided. In his hut slept his fully functional Arisaka Type 99 rifle, 500 rounds of ammunition, a case of hand grenades and most importantly, his sword. Onoda was entirely self-sufficient and still unflinchingly dedicated to the inflexible components of Japanese military moral.

Then, one day a funny dressed Japanese man, with long hair and oddly shaped round glasses found Onoda in the jungle and said to him, I’ve been looking for you, a panda, and the Abominable Snowman, and you were on the top of my list. Norio Suzuki looked so strange to Onoda, but Onoda listened to him anyways. Perhaps, Suzuki signaled within Onoda that things are not as they seem. Perhaps Onoda was just lonely? Suzuki asked him why he wouldn’t surrender and Onoda said he’d only surrender if his commanding officer relieved him of duty.

Major Hoshimi Taniguchi was a bookseller in Japan and was quite surprised when the Japanese government requested his help. He agreed to fly to Lubang Island and meet Lieutenant Hiro Onoda. On March 9th 1974 Onoda gave his sword to Major Taniguchi and surrendered. The war had been over for 29 years, but for Onoda it’d just ended.   

***

            Sleep is still hard to come by and the anime program I fell asleep to filled my head with oddly shaped spirits in need of arcane objects. I’m not hungover, which is a miracle. A strong tangle of competing odors emanate from the kitchen. Midori’s home and is making breakfast. She enters my room.

            “Robbie, you slept with the television on, just like your brother.”

            “Yeah, and now I have a party of anime creatures playing jazz in my head.”

            “You’re weird like your brother too,” she says and returns to the kitchen.

            I get up and pull on some pants and replace my shirt. I enter the kitchen and the table is set with a collection of bowls and steaming tea.

            “Sit down and eat,” she says, rummaging around in the sink.

            I sit and she takes off her apron and joins.

            “That,” pointing to a bowl, “is rice,” she says.

            “Very funny,” I say.

            “That’s dashimaki tamago or Japanese style omelet. That,” moving her finger to the next bowl, “is unohana, which is soy pulp with vegetables. And, that is grilled fish. I also have Japanese style white bread if you can’t handle the Japanese food I made for you.”

            “Oh, shut up, I’ve got this,” I say.

            “Oh, I almost forgot,” She gets up and pulls a dish out of the fridge. “Nori, seaweed salad.”

            “I love nori,” I say.

            “Really, me too.”

            We eat for a while.

            “I even brought you a Japanese newspaper.”

            “I wish I could read this,” I say.

            Midori is happy for the first time since I got here. She watches me eat. The food is good, the textures are foreign to me, but not in a bad way. How food feels in your mouth is important in Japan, and so I take my time with every bite and consider the textures in my mouth in union with their flavor. I finish eating, no longer hungry, but neither too full. I pour more tea.

            “I can’t believe you’re leaving soon; it feels like you just got here,” she says.

            “I feel badly about leaving for Kyoto,” I say.

            “No, you should see it.”

            “Well, we have today,” I say.

            “And a day when you return.”

            We’re avoiding talking about Franny. His condition has worsened. He slips in and out of delirium. He hasn’t smoked for over a week and still asks for one every day. We both know he’s not going to get better, but neither of us are going to say anything about it. It’d be pointless anyways; it’s obvious what’s going on. I just didn’t think it was going to happen while I was here. But, it is. Midori is calm. Often distant and disconnected, but centered. She fills her day up going between the hospital and doing chores. She made me this breakfast and she didn’t have to. She booked my Nozumi (bullet train) to Kyoto and found me a place to stay. She bought me a map and marked all the shrines I should see. She took me out to sushi last night and the chef gave me a copy of his hand written menu. I don’t understand how she can be so accommodating at a time like this. She’s super human and her strength has rubbed off on me, though I worry that maybe I’m simply avoiding my emotions. If that is the case, I don’t care; I’m happy to be rid of feelings for a couple days.

            “Remember Otōto, eat every grain of rice or else I’ll think you didn’t like the food,” Midori says.

            I grip my chopsticks, bite my tongue, and concentrate to collect every last grain. She laughs.

            “It looks like it hurts,” she says. “Eating should be enjoyable.”

            “Picking up grains of rice with chopsticks is like threading a needle.”

            I take a shower and when I come out Midori is nearly out the door.

            “I’m going to the hospital, will you be coming for lunch or after? If you come for lunch I’ll buy you Hitsumabushi.”

            “That’s grilled eel, right? Unagi?”

            “Yes, it’s a Nagoya specialty.”

            “I wouldn’t miss it,” I say. She leaves, and their cat, Tami comes out from the closet and begins to meow like crazy.  

            “You heard us talk about grilled unagi, didn’t you?” I say to her.

            She looks at me and says, “Why yes I did and I don’t appreciate being left out of these events.”

            “You should take that up with your mother,” I say.

            “I have many times,” she says, “but Haha believes dry food is best for me.”

            “Some people believe crazy things,” I say.

            “You’re telling me. This is why I whine at night; to make her pay for the suffering she causes Tami.”

            We go out to the deck and sit in the two weathered teak chairs.

            “I’m sorry about your father,” I say.

            She says nothing.

            “If I could make him better I would.”

            “He served Tami tsuna and saba. He sometimes reads Isaac Asimov and tells Tami about him. It’s very complicated and puts Tami to sleep.”

            “What else would you and Franny do?”

            “I would watch him write little plays and act them out with him. Sometimes he’d dance and sing, but sometimes he’d get frustrated and yell at me and cry.”

            “I’m sorry,” I say.

            She licks her paw and wipes her face.

            “It’s nothing, he never hurt Tami, only himself.”

            “How do you mean?” I ask.

            “He’d pound his hand with his own fist, slap his face, scratch his chest with his nails.”

            “Why, do you think he did this?”      

            Tami stops cleaning her face and hops off the chair.

            “It happens when he drinks wine alone,” she says. “I just don’t eat or drink things that are bad for me, but master Franny doesn’t care, he drinks wine no matter what. Will you stay here and feed Tami and read Isaac Asimov to me now?”

            “I don’t think so, Tami. I don’t live in Japan.”

            “What is Japan?” she screeches. “You’re making up stories like my father,” she says. Tami walks back inside the apartment and to her sleeping pad in the closet.

            I think about Franny and his life in Japan and it reminds me of something my dad said, that wherever you go, you have to take yourself with you, and I wonder if Japan was an escape or a destination for Fran? Here, he’s still at war with himself, just as much so as at home. But here, and alone in his apartment, he was undercover, in hiding for as long as he needed.

            I finish getting ready, slug a glass of cold green tea, and pop in my headphones. Franny loves Peter Gabriel, so I turn on Solsbury Hill, and I’m eight years-old again watching Franny practice his golf swing in the back yard. His hair is long and he has a single thin braid hugging the back hip of his right ear. His t-shirt is pink and large, his shorts are khaki and short. His golf shoes are black and white wingtips. He’s smoking and his skin is young and tight. He says, catch, and hits a golf ball at me. I miss it and it hits my chest with a thud. It hurts, but I’m already embarrassed enough for not catching the ball, so I suck up the sting, throw the ball back to him and say, another. He hits another, and I leap and catch it. He says nothing, but is smiling. I know he’s thinking of something to say to take me down a peg, but decides against it. He gives me this win.

I’m in Chikusa Station and the ushers are here. They’re wearing suits, bright white gloves, and peaked hats. The platform is crowded, my train arrives, a flood of people spill out, I’m lifted off my feet and poured in. We are all stuffed inside, the bodies of strangers touching mine. Still, no eyes on eyes. I have to change trains and I’m anxious about getting off, but when the time comes packs of passengers liquefy and drip off the exits, allowing me a pathway to escape through. I want to high-five everyone, but this exercise is not exceptional, it’s just the right way to go about things—to-step-off-to-step-on-again. 

            I eventually arrive to the hospital and step up to the Starbucks counter inside and order an aisukōhī with bullet-between-the-teeth confidence. After a minute or two, In perfect English, the girl at the counter says to be, here’s your iced coffee, sir. Again, on the elevator, a middle-aged man asks me point blank in English which floor I want. The rest of the people in the elevator don’t even flinch. Business as unusual. I arrive to Franny’s room concerned that maybe I look lost today and in need of an extra hand, but why should people going out of their way bother me? I put it aside.

            Franny’s awake, laying on his bed, looking out the window like I’ve seen mom and Liam look out a hospital window. I’m sure I’ve looked out a window the same way, but from home, when I’m alone. I pull a chair next to him and hope he’s not delirious.

            “Are you delirious?” I ask.

            “No, I’m Francis,” he says.

            “Midori made me breakfast,” I say. “And Tami says you read her Asimov.”

            That sparks his interest and he turns to me.

            “She wasn’t supposed to do that,” he says.

            “What, make me breakfast?”

            “No, Tami wasn’t supposed to tell anyone I read to her.”

            “She’s got a lot to say.”

            “You’re telling me,” he say. “I try to go over my scripts with her, but she won’t shut up about her favorite kinds of fish and the power of bonito flakes!”

            We pause to take in a breath and see the sun pouring into the little room.

            “Where’s Midori?” I ask.

            “I think she went out to pick up your unagi lunch.”

            “Are you eating with us?”

            “I hate unagi,” he says. “It tastes like kippers in old slippers to me.”

            “Kippers in slippers? Wow, sounds as fun as Bananas in Pajamas.”

            “God that was a weird kid’s show,” he says.

            “Tell me about it, all the sexual tension between B1 and B2 sleeping in separate beds. I couldn’t take it.”

            “Man, that’s the truth,” Fran says, laughing.

            Midori comes into the room.

            “It’s nice to see the brothers laughing,” she says.

            “We’re not laughing,” Franny says, pretending to act grumpy. “Now go eat your kippers in slippers in the cafeteria and leave me to my ice water and unlimited supply of rescue shots. I might just take a rescue and trip out to the X-Files while you guys are away poisoning yourselves on grilled sea snake.”

            “Someone’s in a good mood,” Midori says. “Okay, Mr. Francis, we’ll be back.”

            We make our way to a small dining area located on the same floor. My favorite feature of this room is the green tea machine. It comes out either hot or cold. It’s a true miracle maker.

We sit down, unpack our lunch, and Midori explains to me the condiments and broths, which come on the side. We dig in and say very little until only grains of rice are left.

            “Who will I offend if I don’t eat these grains of rice,” I say.

            “Me,” she says. “I bought this meal for you and it’s my favorite.”

I keep picking away.

            “You know, thank you so much for being here. Franny didn’t say a single word today until you got here; you make him feel better.”

            “I hope so,” I say.

            “Through all these years why didn’t any of you ever come to see Franny? It hurt him a lot.”

            I want to believe it was a money issue for us, which is partially true, we’re always broke, but that’s an issue of misappropriated funds, rather than hurting from want. I want to tell Midori I’m not included because look, I’m here now, but honestly I could have found a way here before the cancer. As for the family: mom, Aja and Liam, maybe they were scared to, but I cannot say for certain. I know that I didn’t because I wanted to go to other places, and when I was away I was too preoccupied with my own life. I don’t have an answer for her without throwing someone, including myself, under a bus. We’re all guilty.

            “You were young,” she continues, and you are here now, but what about Liam and Aja? What about your mom?”

            “I think they thought there’s always time, and now there’s not,” I say.

            “It’s too late now because I cannot accommodate them,” she says.

            “Yes, that’s what I mean,” I say.

            “You Americans,” she says. “You Americans like tragedy, especially if you live through it. It makes you feel strong, but in reality it makes you weaker because a piece of you has been bitten off. A chunk you cannot recover.”

            “A lot of our stories are about overcoming obstacles,” I say. 

            “People and their condition aren’t obstacles, and when they die there’s damage, even if you jump over their bodies.”

            “I know,” I say. “That’s what I believe too.”

            Despite a few bits of rice still left in my bowl she collects what’s left of our lunch and throws it away. All of a sudden, Midori isn’t well, and I feel it’s partially my fault. I stop her.

            “My family doesn’t make much sense, and they can appear self-centered and callous, but I promise you, that isn’t the case. The truth is, many of them never thought Franny wanted to see them, they thought they’re too much for him, and they should stay away unless Franny asks for them. My family feels love for each other, but never says it, and barely ever shows it. It’s a mystery, but not simply a situation where they don’t care.”

            “I don’t understand that,” she says, and leaves the room.

            “I don’t understand either,” I say to myself.

            “I understand,” a nurse says to be, again in perfect English. “They’re shy with emotions. My family’s the same way.”

            “Perhaps they are,” I say. I think on it for a moment and decided I like the sound of it. “Doumo arigatou gozaimasu,” I say.

            “No problem,” she says, holding in laughter. 

***

            Franny and I go on a walk and we’re sitting by the shrine where he had his seizure. He’s distant, either sullen, or lost in thought. He looks awful, fatigued and emaciated. He drops his head like he’s sleeping. I look into the little shrine and I see a figurine of a woman in a red Kimono. There are offerings of fruit and yen in little bowls surrounding her. I look at her closely and see she’s smirking. I wonder if she knows something about Franny I don’t? That’s the thing about Shinto kami, they always know what’s up and they always have a plan. At least, that’s what I’ve surmised in my short time here.

            Franny wakes up and looks at me like I’m a polished figurine myself.

            “Hi brother,” he says. “When’s the game?”

            “What game?” I ask.

            “The Mariners game.”

            “Not until later,” I say. “Since that win streak in April we’ve been nothing but poop stain and skid mark.”

            “It’s the Mariners, Robbie,” he says.

            “I wish they’d just make a deal with the devil already and win the pennant.”

            “They already did in ’95, and we’ve been suffering the consequences ever since.”

            “What about Ichiro and 2001,” I say. “One of the greatest hitters ever to play and we won 116 games, which tied the all-time record?”

            “I know the stats, but look at the results. We lost to the Yankees in the first series of the playoffs and haven’t been to the post season since. One of the greatest feats of underperformance in the history of baseball.”

            “I see your point,” I say.

            I get a message from Aja.

            “Hi little brother. How’s Franny doing? I miss him so much and it kills me to not be there. Instead, I’m here with mom, or at least, what was mom. I suppose, it still is mom, but the mean 1974 version of mom who ruined my life. I don’t mean to spoil your trip at all, but you should know mom’s really slipping. When she’s not catatonic, she does this thing where she thinks everyone around her is a demon and she begins to hyperventilate until she’s shot with a sedative to knock her out. It’s distressing to watch.

“Liam was here the first time it happened and it sent him away in pieces. Just so you know, Ronda somehow broke Liam’s contract with his horse dealer, and bought the horse out from under him and took it to her property. Least to say, Kayleigh’s now at her mom’s nearly all the time. Watching mom freak out sent him over the edge and no one has seen him in a couple days. Have you heard from him? Margo and I are worried. Sorry to dump this on you, but you need to know. Is it bad to want mom to die? How’s our brother doing? Kiss Franny for me. Hugs.” [Message, Aja]

            I look up at Franny and he says, “That bad, huh?”

            “Mom’s doing real bad and Liam had Ronda do one over on him again,” I say.

            “What did she do?”

            “She bought a horse out from under him,” I say.

            Franny lets out a fantastic laugh.

            “Come on, man,” he says. “First of all, what the fuck is Liam doing buying a horse to begin with—leverage to win over his daughter? Secondly, if he were Ronda and saw the opening, he’d do the same thing. Never forget he and Ronda are more the same than different.”

            “I just want to be left out of it,” I say. “I could give a shit about their fucking horse. It’s so bizarre anyways, like a total cliché.”

            “And so coded in their bizarre hang up with appearing high class.”

            “You can learn a lot from watching Masterpiece Theater,” I say.

            “Table manners, back handed compliments, and yes, the finer aspects of horse care,” he says.

            I let the air out of the bag, “We should stop talking shit, but I know how hard it can be with those two.”

            “Kayleigh’s joined the club, huh?” Franny says.

            “What club?” I ask.

            “The Family suicide club.”

            “Apparently, a two time member.”

            “Fuck, before 16, she’s on pace for greatness. I wish there was something to say to her to make her see her parents’ affection isn’t worth the labor,” he says.

            “Speaking from experience,” I say.

            “I’m still stuck where Kayleigh is, Trauma does that to you; I still want everyone to feel badly for me. That’s what’s getting me through.”

            “If you know you’re doing it, then why don’t you stop?”

            “Because I can’t see the forest through the trees—makes it hard to escape.”

            We sit in silence for a few minutes and I look back inside the tiny little shrine and see the figurine now smiling.

            “What if I told you, you could walk in any direction and find an exit,” I say.

            “I’d say it’s a trick.”

            “Why?”

            “Because childhood trauma doesn’t just keep you bleeding, it’s also a shield which keeps you safe from adulthood trauma, but at the price of normalcy and happiness. I don’t want to be right, I just want to feel right.”

            “So, you’re saying you knowingly stay locking inside your childhood trauma even if it means you miss out on a chance of normalcy and happiness?”

            “It’s not as easy as that. I’ve got too many mistakes to face up to,” he says. “That’s when all my addictions take hold and I blame mom again for her mistakes. It’s a loop.”

            “Like I said, stop walking in circles and aim in one direction,” I say.

            “That’s not an option now,” he says. “I’ll be dead in a few days.”

              “Don’t talk like that.”

            “Why, does it offend you?”

            He rolls away from me, stops in the middle of the narrow side street, and then rolls back to me.

“ Speaking of which, buy me a pack of cigarettes, will you? I want one more before this is all over.

            “I can’t, doctor’s orders.”

            “Who cares,” he says.

            “I do. I don’t want to be the reason you get kicked out of the hospital. Plus, it’s wrong,” I say.

            “This isn’t about your feelings,” he says, growing dark, “This is about me having a moment of joy and relief before I go back inside.

            “Franny, I can’t do it. Don’t ask me to do it again.”

“I’m going to fucking die anyway, give me a cigarette,” he says.

            I ignore him and the wide grin now pasted on the face of the Shinto goddess. She must have something to do with death, or at least trickery and deception. Maybe, she’s the goddess of cigarettes? It’s no matter. I get up, unlock the wheelchair brakes and begin to wheel Franny back to the hospital. As long as we’re outside he’s going to keep working on me.

            “I don’t want to go in yet,” he says. I ignore him and keep wheeling him through the parking lot.

Suddenly, he stomps both feet onto the pavement to stop the wheel chair, but instead of stopping the chair, both feet roll underneath themselves and under his seat. Fran howls in pain.

            “You fucker,” he says. “You rotten little shit.”

            “I’m sorry,” I say. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

            “You fucker,” he keeps repeating while rocking in his chair, reaching down but failing to grasp his feet. 

            I don’t know what to do, I look at his feet and one appears dislocated. Several people look at us and one woman says something to be in Japanese, but I don’t understand. I make a sign for a telephone and point to the hospital, which seems to make sense and a couple people jump on their phones. An older man walks up, looks at Fran like he’s a hurt animal, and begins to speak with several onlookers. He looks at me and says in a thick accent, “doctor?” I say, hi. A couple people walk quickly towards the hospital. The pack of good Samaritans pass an expressionless Midori who’s standing like a dagger buried into a card table. The wind brushes passed her and she’s looks right at me. I jog to her.

            “Franny’s feet got caught underneath the wheelchair. He’s hurt.”

            She makes a quick phone call, the Japanese words fly by my head like sparrows, and she hangs up. She remains lost in thought and doesn’t move.

            “Midori, he just stomped on the ground while I was pushing him, it happened so fast.”

            She says, I know, to me and places her hand on my shoulder before leaving me to see Franny. I follow behind her a minute after and Franny’s head is slumped forward and he’s crying. Midori hugs him and speaks to him gently. He nods to her song and I see in front of me a side of Franny seldom available. Around him a jungle forms and he shrinks down to his seven year-old self. He has a wooden sword, a pirate’s hat and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. I begin to laugh, but quickly realize that it’s inappropriate. In fact, it’s rather sad. The whole fucking scenario is sad and tears form in my eyes. A hand grasps mine and an older woman appears beside me. Her hair is grey, her shawl is red and her scarf has foxes printed on it. She’s saying things to me in Japanese and I understand them; they’re the universal words one delivers to another who’s grieving.

            I thank the older woman kindly and approach my brother. Two doctors are working on Franny’s feet. I see him grimace in pain whenever the doctor tries to manipulate his ankles. Words are exchanged and indeed Franny dislocated an ankle and the other is sprained. Midori keeps Franny company, but he’s nearly unresponsive, either to control the pain, or because he realized this is another turn for the worst he won’t recover from. After some time Franny is hoisted onto a gurney and wheeled away.

Midori remains, as do I. We look at each other and it’s nothing like how we were at breakfast; now it feels like things are speeding up and that Franny wants it that way.

            “I’m so sorry,” I say.

            “You have to be gentle with Franny,” she says. “I say that to him too. You have to be gentle with yourself, Franny, I say this to him and he drinks and smokes. I don’t know why he lives like that.”

            Her face stretches into the amorphous shape of profound sadness and I feel something inside me begin to break. I hug her to make her feel better, but she cries instead, and she cries for a while in spite of the onlookers. When she pulls herself away from me and asks me for a cigarette. I go to the market across the street from the hospital and do for her what I couldn’t do for Franny. She’s sitting on the bench next to the little Shinto shrine and I light her cigarette for her.

            “You must go to Kyoto and take this scarf to Arashiyama bamboo forest and tie it somewhere,” she says.

            She hands me the scarf, which is more so a handkerchief and says, “Franny loved Arashiyama, he’d want this there.”

            “Of course I’ll take it.”

            Midori smiles and takes a drag.

            “I wish he’d let go of the past,” I say.

            “It’s important for your mother that he does,” she says.

            “How do you mean?” I ask.

            “Your mother is tied to Franny because of his anger. That’s why they’re sharing symptoms. Franny’s making her death worse by not letting go. Nothing works, I’ve tried, he won’t let go.”

            “I’ve tried too,” I say. “So you think they’re linked because they’re dying at the same time?”

            “I think so,” she says. “At the very least, they’re tied together by an unhappy accident of fortune.”

            I don’t know what to think of this, but it’s interesting, and at the very least would explain Franny’s delirium.

            “I just want Franny to surrender,” I say. “All that hurt was from so long ago.”

            “That’s Franny,” Midori says.

            I think, what if the world was actually as magical as Midori says it is? I’d prefer that to the other school of thought that life is just a cosmic pool table of balls hitting balls in a chaotic game with no premise or object. I like the idea that’s there’s an unseen orchestra of actors walking among us, making both good, and trouble. The idea that mom and Franny’s deaths are linked gives the unfortunate coincidence of their dual demise meaning. It’s tragic, but at least it’s not pointless. I look inside the tiny little shrine next to us and notice the statuette is gone.

            “Which god lives here?” I ask. “The statue’s gone.”

            “Inari is the god of foxes.”

            “Wasn’t the shrine of a woman?” I ask.

            “Inari can be either a man, a woman or a fox. I’m sure she’ll be back once she’s finished playing.”