Excerpt from children’s story collection Solar Girl and Lunar Boy.
Ashita (Tomorrow) – Part 2
Now I was being pulled, like an obsessive magnet, towards Sapporo’s alluring illusion of happiness. I was infected with a virulent virus known as TRISSES (The Rice Is Sweeter Somewhere Else Syndrome).
I wasn’t sure how to make my break – work, elope, runaway or hijack a bus? My teenage desire contradicted all financial logic. Our family had no savings account, wealthy relatives or hidden cash to save me from the purgatory in which I wallowed. My parents had no inkling of my nightly anguish and I wasn’t about to let them in on the secret. If they discovered my desire to go to Sapporo, their fears about “that depraved city of immorality” would descend upon me like a swarm of locusts. I had never forgotten the promise I’d made my father and neither had he.
When times were tough, I’d always been harangued into attending the local temple and praying for understanding and humility. After awhile I discovered that the prayers and priests divination’s often coincided with the will of my parents, teachers, and other illustrious icons of the community, but I figured I might as well give it one last try.
On a sunny Saturday in July, I decided to attend temple on a personal quest. I was turning eighteen in two weeks and could see the tiny grains of sand falling through the hourglass at the speed of light.
I wasn’t the kind of girl to stay home and play house or get married. Having grown up with six younger siblings, I was certain I’d rather be tortured and hanged then ever marry and have children! I didn’t mind if other women want to live that life, but it wasn’t my cup of tea or so I thought at the time.
I entertained the thought, rather briefly, about being a teacher. There were a few teachers I admired, respected and even fell in love with. Mr. Sato was my favorite. He had the nicest smile and always complimented my papers. Simple comments like, “Nice work.” would send Kiri and I into spasms of joy and late night talks about how one of us would make Mr. Sato our boyfriend. The fact that he was married, with children and twenty years our senior, seemed irrelevant at the time. Why should that matter when he was “so nice and cute”?
With somewhat more mature reflection, I doubted I could stand in front of thirty pairs of beady little eyes to impart any semblance of knowledge or words of wisdom. I’d surely wilt on the spot from fright.
Then the thought of working as a nurse embedded its tentacles in my skimming mind. That was something I knew absolutely nothing about. What could be so hard about that, I reasoned, handing doctors instruments, putting on bandages and saving people’s lives? I didn’t know about the ugly stuff, the pictures you don’t see on television – people throwing up on your newly washed uniform; exhausted interns screaming obscenities at your “incompetence”; wiping the bottom of a smelly old drunk dying from liver disease.
Haha (Mother) couldn’t believe how anxious I was to go to temple that day. “What’s gotten into you? I’ve never seen you so fired up.”
“Nothing special, I just want to recite sutras and pray for Buddha’s compassion.”
She looked me up and down, smiling with a look that said, “Yeah, sure.”
We arrived ten minutes early, dressed in our finest attire. I didn’t even mind wearing the totally embarrassing dress Haha had made for me to wear on special occasions. She had hand-stitched it from some strange fabric my aunt had given her. She gave it to me on my sixteenth birthday. You could see the pride she had felt when she handed me the package and bowed. Internally I had moaned. “I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing that old-fashioned fake-flower monstrosity!” But all she heard was my dutiful reply, “Thank you Haha. It’s beautiful.”
I rushed inside and sat on the mat. The rest of my bewildered family soon caught up and joined me, looking around nervously, ill at ease to be sitting so close to the altars.
Reverend Tsukiyama recited his ancient incantations, the followers paraded there off key voices with theatrical vengeance and everyone responded with stifled coughs and yawns. Silently, I plunged the depths of my imagination and begged the Ancestors and Buddha’s to reward me for all my good karma. “Please, please!” I begged. “Take me away from these endless fields of wheat, barley and chickens and deliver me to the Pure Land – Sapporo!”
“Get up child,” Haha whispered. “Service is over.”
The priests were shuffling down the corridor towards the hall entrance.
“Over?” I said in shock. “It can’t be! Nothing happened!”
“What are you talking about?” She felt my head. “You feeling OK Musume (daughter)?”
“I’m fine,” I mumbled, as we formally bowed and headed out. Haha kept eyeing me like a suspicious inspector.
What went wrong? I’d done everything! I helped take care of my brothers and sisters, seldom argued with my parents and never even thought about sex or drugs – well, not about taking drugs anyway. I said my nightly prayers and didn’t even hit Sashi Mutsui when she called me a “stupid little pig”.
I was a good girl. Why was I being singled out for punishment? Who were these dead priests and Bodhisattvas anyway . . . the farmers of suffering . . . the divine bean keepers? “This one’s good. That one’s bad. You deserve pleasure. You deserve pain. And you, Yuki, you have to live in Hamatombetsu until you shrivel up and die!”
I swore I’d never set foot on temple grounds again. “You call this a temple?” I admonished, looking at the empty space between the high, engraved ceiling and polished floor. “If I’m going to be stuck here the rest of my life, I might as well jump into the funeral pyre now and let my ashes blow away with the wind!”
As we reached the entrance, Reverend Tsukiyama motioned our family aside. The Reverend was somewhat of a village icon. In his forty years of service he had initiated, married and/or buried almost everyone in town. He’d known me since I was a wailing little bundle of flesh. He was a creaky, robust, silver-haired representative of communal devotion and tradition. Seeing his face reminded me of the day he caught Kiri and I orange-handed, sort of speak, on these very grounds.
We had snuck into the temple courtyard one day after school, like teenage fruit-stealing ninjas and devoured some delicious temple persimmons. They had been hanging invitingly on the lowest branch when we’d first eyed them after service the previous week. We had gleefully conspired then and their to stop by, when we thought the reverend was out making house calls and help ourselves to one of our favorite treats. Everything had gone according to plan, until we’d turned to leave and Reverend Tsukiyama entered the courtyard.
What could we say? We had orange persimmon juice all over our hands and faces. At first, it looked like he was about to laugh, but then his face turned very stern and he admonished us severely, naming every hideous realm of suffering we would end up in if we continued our lives of crime. We hadn’t known that after we’d gone running home that it had taken every ounce of control he had to not break out laughing when he’d discovered our shocked, setting-sun colored faces.
“Yuki,” the Reverend whispered. “Have you thought about your future?”
“What?” I said, still in a belligerent, melancholy daze.
“Your future. Have you thought about your future?”
“My future? It’s all I think about.”
“Well,” he chuckled mischievously. “If you don’t want to be a teacher or politician, I heard about a hospital in Sapporo that trains young girls to be nurses” his eyes sparkled, “and it doesn’t cost a single yen.”
I was stunned. He smiled a rapturous grin, then put on his stern, fatherly face. “Of course, it’s not entirely free. There is a catch.” My eyes were as big as saucers. “Once you finish their two-year program you have to work at their hospital for another two years. They provide room and board.”
I felt like I’d just been hit in the head with a large rock. “I thought you knew about this,” he said. “I’ve been telling all the girls about it.” My mouth hung open like a hungry carp.
I managed a few syllables, “No. I never . . .”
“If your parents don’t mind,” he continued, “I’d be glad to stop by later this week with the application and phone num . . .”
My shouting drowned out the good reverend before he finished his sentence.
“Yes, yes, yes! How do I apply? When does it start?”
He didn’t have time to answer. I turned to Haha and Chichi and pleaded shamelessly, “Please, please say yes!” I was jumping up and down like a kid who wanted a sweetened dumpling.
They hesitated, then Haha anxiously asked, “You want to be a nurse?”
“Yes!” I shouted. “With all my heart.”
“You never mentioned this before.”
“I thought it was impossible.”
Chichi turned stoically towards my black-robed savior and stated calmly, “We’ll think about it Reverend. It’s most kind of you to consider Yuki worthy of such a program. You know you are always welcome in our home.”
“They’d think about it?!” I screamed in my head. The answer to my prayers had just been delivered like a divine telegram and all they could say was, “they’d think about it!” I took a deep breath, put on my best face and managed a feeble semblance of control. At least they were considering it. In my vocabulary, that was as good as a yes!
At that moment my little girls promise to my Chichi to never leave our village had been washed away in a flood of excitement, but he hadn’t forgotten. Caught up in the moment, I didn’t allow myself to see the pain and sense of betrayal that was boiling under my father’s skin.