Over Mount Fuji – Chapter 4 –

An Epic NovelMarch 6 —

As the days grew warmer and cherries blossoming in the foreground, Mrs. Chiyo Okino strode into her garden. She took some fresh air and studied the surroundings. Against a blue sky, the conical shape of Mount Fuji had become more magnificent over the horizon. She smiled, glad that the end of winter had brought a sense of tranquility and optimism.

But four days later, the sky darkened at noon. A wreath of clouds hid the peak of the sacred mountain, and thunder rumbled across the sky. Chilly winds slashed through the shrubs, and branches creaked. Scattered birds flew in all directions, squawking and cackling.

Chiyo stood, transfixed. It reminded her of her son, Captain Okino, had disappeared off the coast of Kyushu. She still couldn’t understand the cause of it, after seven weeks ago. No trace, no word, no explanation. And nothing about any of his compatriots.

A crow fluttered past, breaking her reverie. It flew into her house through an open window, and she rushed after it. Perched on a shrine, the black bird flapped its wings. It cawed and strutted around, overturning a jar of oil, a packet of incense and scrolls of sutras. Worse, the scavenger’s wing knocked over the urn containing her father’s ashes, spilling a portion. Chiyo clapped her hands and tried to shoo the crow away, it but refused to leave the prayer alcove.

She frowned, her gaze riveted on the crow. Was it conveying a message from her son? Or were the gods feeling uneasy on the mountains? “You bring bad news.”

“It’s only a silly bird, Obaachan,” her ten-year-old grandson said. “It’s just frightened by the noise of the airplanes.”

Chiyo turned to see her grandson with a neighbor, Mrs. Toshi Nishimi, following behind.

“Maybe the gods are reminding us of their dominion,” Toshi said. “And these are signs of their displeasure.”

Chiyo shook her head. Not only had a new series of eruptions rocked Mount Fuji, but dormant volcanoes had awoken. “If they were only earthquakes, perhaps we shouldn’t panic, but the rest of nature has gone berserk.”

“Nature has its cycles,” Toshi said. “It declares war on humanity, but it always affirms peace later.”

Chiyo squirmed, pointing at the crow with its head under its wing. “But what about the birds? They’re lost, they fly in circles and cower in people’s homes.”

Silence, except the intermittent rumblings from Mount Fuji.

For the next few days, Chiyo serenaded her home with Shinto melodies. But even as she prayed and meditated, the weather worsened. Like Amaterasu-Omikami simulating the sea and winds when typhoons sank the ships of Kublai Khan, she called upon other goddesses with a sound only she could make, a sound her grandson said was nothing more than the reverberation of planes flying overhead.

“Surely this is the Land of the Gods,” Chiyo said. “A similar typhoon is picking up from the South. They’re sending us the same message.”

“It’s nothing unusual, Obaachan.” Her grandson laughed. “You’re seeing things.”

A naïve laugh. “The birds are afraid of something.”

After another week of rumination, Chiyo paced the room and squinted out the window, mediating on the fact that she was a descendant of a samurai. But when a humming sound started to loom through the breeze, she felt as if the weather was conveying a message, a message from her lost son at sea. Emotions and pains gripped her, and she felt compelled to consult the Goddess as to why her son was taken away. To accomplish that, she needed to purify her soul.

Early the next morning, Chiyo carried an offering of sake, water, salt, fish, vegetables and fruits into the Akaishi Mountains, forty miles west of Mount Fuji. She also took the remaining ashes from her father’s urn. In the undergrowth, an eerie silence descended with the morning mists while she trod the familiar sodden trail. She climbed halfway up Akaishi-sanmyaku where she turned from the trail onto a hidden path concealed by thick scrub. In the primal gloom, she shuddered when she heard the lonely howl of what could be a wolf. She slowed, and when an owl hooted nearby, she paused.

After another twenty yards tall bamboo, covered in snow, cast shadows along her path. A load of snow thumped to the ground as the wind rustled the leaves and poles squeak in their grove. She gathered her courage and walked past. An aged red torii marked the gateway to a small temple; twin bronze fox statues sat on either side of the entry, one with a paw on a ball, the other baring its teeth.

After entering the temple, Chiyo placed the incense sticks around the altar. She measured and mixed the various ingredients with care as her mother had always done when producing the Smoke of Mount Fuji. It released a scent of camphor and sandalwood. From the urn, she emptied her father’s ashes and blew out the residue into the bowl. A pungent fragrance filled the temple.

“Is there a special purpose for coming to pray in this shrine?” the priest asked in a monotone from behind the altar.

“No, not really . . . just thanking the Kami.” Chiyo couldn’t keep her lips from trembling.

“And what is that thankfulness for?”

She bowed her head lower. “For taking care of me . . . and my grandchild.”

The priest raised his arms and chanted the sutras.

Chiyo said her prayers, inhaling the lingering scent and feeling the essence of her ancestors and the absolution of the gods. When she finished, she bowed, stood and left the shrine, traversing the same path back to her home.

A week passed, but the wind didn’t abate. Ferocious gales swept and whipped waves to lofty heights that crashed upon the coasts, tearing away rocks and eroding shorelines. The ground started to rumble. A succession of powerful blasts roared through the mountain, brightening the sky. Like colors from a thousand festive lanterns, the sky glowed smoky red over Tokyo. The sacred mountain raged and smoked more fiercely, presiding with a titanic smugness over the ruin it had made since its last explosion hundreds of years ago. Chiyo felt the evil spirits hadn’t been repelled, nor the gods appeased. Karma! Aren’t we all predestined?

On March the thirtieth, just after midnight, Chiyo awoke to her grandson’s screaming and explosions erupting in the distance. Sirens shrieked and temple gongs clanged, amid dogs howling far and near. She ran to the window see plumes of fire shooting out of Mount Fuji, heralding an event with terrifying red pumice and black ash.

Chiyo felt a bewildering fear as an image of Amaterasu-Omikami appeared over the sacred volcano. Tasting bile, her stomach flipped, but the image brightened in the darkness. She squinted behind her grandson. Did the Goddess have a message for her, or for him?

She turned to look at her grandson’s pale face; he stared blankly, unable to speak. She turned back to the sky, but the image had vanished. Darkness resumed, and the eruption stopped.

Silence loomed in the eerie stillness.

She listened to the news on the radio, but heard no mention of any scene over Mount Fuji. By dawn, she’d learned the tolling of the bells wasn’t just a warning that the sacred volcano had erupted, but that two earthquakes registering a nine-point-one and nine-point-two on the Richter scale had struck six hundred miles southeast and northeast of Tokyo.

Clinging to the TV remote, she surfed through the channels.

“The twin jolts were ferocious,” the announcer said. “Seismologists estimate millions of cubic meters of rock had been dislodged from a seamount located at the edge of the Japan Trench.

“In less than an hour, the first two of a series of tsunamis hit the Japanese coast. They joined forces with a violent typhoon that culminated in even more gigantic waves, smashing seafront homes, plucking away piers and erasing beaches. The hardest hits are Kamakura and Katsuura on the eastern coast of Honshu, where the tsunami converged to create a hundred-foot wave that obliterated the towns.”

Why is the Goddess so angry?

Through radios and television, scientists reported more aftershocks. Seismic activities continued as far as the Kuril-Kamchatka Trench in the north, and the Mariana Trench in the south. Giant waves had inundated the coastal regions like monstrous sea caterpillars munching noisily from the ocean.

In regions considered safe from tsunamis, torrential rains brought floods and ruined crops. Landslides destroyed roads and houses, taking lives with them. The city of Hokota in eastern Honshu was submerged. Onlookers on nearby hills watched helplessly as a new lagoon formed after the carnage. Across all media outlets, people talked of destruction of homes and loss of loved ones.

Television broadcasts showed the mayor of Hokota holding a copy of the Japan Times. “The occurrence of two seaquakes at the same time is no coincidence,” the reporter quoted Wilhelm Wulfstein as saying. “This sinking is not just a catastrophic event. It is a bad omen.”

The next morning, seven crows flew into Chiyo’s house and landed on the shrine, dropping their wings and refusing to eat. She tried chasing them away, but couldn’t. Nauseated by the sight, she shivered. Within an hour, they died one after another.

Chiyo wailed while burying the birds in her garden.

An Omen! Her heart ached at the reversal of providence—her son’s disappearance and the unbearable torment caused by the changing weather patterns. Everything that happened in life was reward or punishment for one’s deeds. Her son must have died, so had her hope. Now, she sensed her own end and, for a moment, felt glad. Only the ignorant resented their destiny.

The following day, after a bath, Chiyo donned two layers of ceremonial yellow and white kimonos in a rite of purification. A sword and a dagger she had carefully removed from the family chest lay on the silk-covered table. She avoided fingering the blades, for conventional wisdom said that even a single touch might mar their perfection.

The blades of antiquity had been made by the master sword-smith, Miyoshi-Go, centuries ago, and once belonged to the famous warrior, Minowara Yoshitomo, the first of the Minowara Shoguns. Her ancestry could be traced back through her maternal grandfather to the scion of the great Fujimoto clan. Only a samurai could wear the two swords—the long, two-handed killing sword and the short, dagger-like one.

Feeling an august calling, Chiyo thought of herself a sacrifice. Although she’d done nothing to warrant the Goddess’s anger, she would perform this ritual to prove her earnestness.

Chosen to be her second, Toshi came to her house.

In silence, they bowed low to each other, their faces expressionless. Chiyo handed Toshi the long sword as she kept the dagger in her sash, reminding herself not to fear the outcome of her mission. After pouring two cups of sake, she gave one to her friend. They bowed again and drank in unison. Now, Chiyo was prepared for her most important undertaking.

She meditated upon the procedures and tradition of her samurai heritage, struggling to overturn its two ancient codes—that women commit seppuku with a knife to the throat and that this should be done in private, not as a public spectacle.

A white car stopped in front of her house.

Chiyo glanced at her wall clock and noted her time had come. Tense, yet determined to settle the rumblings of the Goddess, she stepped out the front door and slid into the back seat of the car, with Toshi beside her.

HAVING JUST FLOWN into Tokyo, Eileen puzzled over the flurry of activity along the streets, telling her that something unusual was going on. After she’d checked into the Daiichi Hotel and brought her suitcases into her room, she rushed back to the concierge. “What’s happening?”

“There is a seppuku underway,” the hotel concierge replied. “You need to hurry if you wish to watch its progress.”

Eileen dashed out the hotel and joined the crowd in time to see a white car whiz by. She hopped into a taxi and directed the driver to follow the white car. Already tired from the long flight, she forced herself to remain composed.

When her taxi reached the temple with its distinctive curved roof, she paid her fare and alighted, inhaling a cloud of incense rising from bundles of joss sticks. The temple bell tolled, sending pigeons off in all directions. The red torii gate towered over her as she passed through.

New leaves sprouted amidst ancient maples. Clean-shaven Shinto priests meditated, chanting sutras, rubbing beads between clasped hands while waiting in front of the shrine.

Around the courtyard, newsmen mingled with spectators but Eileen hung back, her nerves rattling. When the temple bell stopped tolling, she could hear her own heart pounding.

The woman in her yellow kimonos looked familiar.

Damn, the operation was deliberate. But why had she planned this? It would be a horrific way to atone a wrong. And why was everybody cooperating?

Before the temple, the lady undid her obi with help from her friend, allowing the yellow kimono to fall. Under the outer layer, she wore a most brilliant white kimono and obi. In this ceremonial outfit, she paced a few steps forward and knelt on a tatami mat facing the shrine. She removed the dagger from her sash and placed it on a tray in front of her. To the right stood a bamboo pole with fronds.

Stupefied, Eileen stared at the woman’s small nose, her almond-shaped eyes, her round face with a slightly pointed chin. Why was she so familiar?

Eileen trembled. Her head began to pound; her temples throbbed. Surely it was Chiyo Okino-san—her landlady ten years ago, the one she needed to interview.

The priest came forward, poured a cup of omeeki, a purifying sake, and offered it to Chiyo, who took it. He bowed and departed, but Chiyo looked up vacantly, sipped her omeeki, and placed the cup on the ground.

Eileen shook her head, wondering why the priests were cooperating with her.

A brief hesitation loomed in the calmness before Chiyo pulled her long broad sleeves out and tucked them under her knees to allow her to fall forward instead of sprawling. She held her dagger firmly by its paper-wrapped hilt with both hands at a short distance from her body, blade pointing inward.

Mrs. Okino! Eileen felt faint as certainty rushed in. “Stop this! Stop this!”

All eyes turned to her as she rushed forward.

“Don’t do this. Okino-san! Please stop it. I’m Eileen . . . Eileen Hewitt, remember me?”

Two monks grabbed her arms.

“Let me go. Get the hell off me!”

Eileen’s arms were locked, one monk on each side.

She struggled. “Get the hell . . . ”

They dragged her to where she’d stood before.

After lifting her head, Chiyo paused for a moment, as if her eyes registered recognition, then swiftly plunged the dagger into her belly, below the navel. Her face contorted as the blade cut across horizontally, concluding with an upward jerk.

Toshi stood behind Chiyo, a sword drawn and poised. She completed the final ritual of seppuku with a single slashing arc.

Blood spurted as Chiyo’s head thudded to the ground but still attached by a strip of skin at the throat. With a white cloth, a priest rushed to collect the head, severed it with a cut, wrapped the cloth around and put it in a basket.

Eileen cursed and screamed as everyone from the crowd grimaced in silence. Once the mumblings subsided, dark clouds rippled the sky and the humming sound returned.

©) Joel Huan, author of Over Mount Fuji (available from Amazon and Barnes&Noble)

~ by Joel Huan on January 8, 2010.

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