The Shakespir Edition
Two Heartstrings, Broken
Copyright © 2016 Rajendra Kumar
Shakespir License Notes
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This is a work of fiction, a product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance or similarity to any actual events or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Cover photo by Rajendra Kumar
Formatting and cover design by Debora Lewis arenapublishing.org
This series of love stories presents many different ways in which humans express love, the most personal of emotions, and all the varied ways in which they experience its consequences, both sweet and sour.
Both stories are set in Japan and are about two Japanese women who have their love secrets.
Memories of a Distant Star is the story of a young married woman who is compelled by her emotions to retrace her steps on a mountain trail where her first love had bloomed, a one-sided love for Eiichi whom she would never see again. She recalls the moments spent with her companion, and his enchanting poetic stories about the universe and the life within. She relives the devastation she felt when Eiichi got injured through her folly. Finally, amidst her calmness within the storm, she remembers her use of his own technique to heal him, an expression of love for him without his knowledge, a secret she would keep from her husband forever.
The Bon Festival tells the story of Akio and Hanako who grow together in a small village and fall in love. Yet, they can’t be together. Hanako marries someone chosen by her family and has a son. Although living in Tokyo and married himself, Akio still can’t give up Hanako. When Hanako’s husband dies in a storm, he begins to see her clandestinely every time he comes to the village from Tokyo for the Bon festival. His infidelity is observed by his wife who divorces him. Free from his own marital bonds he asks Hanako to come with him but she refuses. This goes on for several years. However, Akio gets his wish finally when when Hanako’s son becomes an adult. The two have a long life together. Then one day as Akio holds Hanako in his lap on her deathbed, she reveals to him her secret with which she had lived all her life. Devastated, Akio drags himself to where he and Hanako used to meet secretly and lies down to die in memory of their love for each other.
Table of Contents
MEMORIES OF A DISTANT STAR
Typhoon number 18 had just paid a grim visit to the Tokyo area and had moved on up north. Being 40 kilometers inland, straight west from the east coast, I was not affected by it. Not really, if you ignore its insulting assault on my dignity.
In part, I was to blame for it. I did not expect anything more than a little rain from a spent storm. Maybe that was why I agreed to go to a nearby supermarket to buy some sushi and beer for Kiyoshi, my husband, who was busy trading stocks on the computer.
Umbrella in one hand, I rode my bike. Forget the car, it required a five-minute walk to its parking space. Contrary to my expectation, I encountered blowing wind, pouring rain, and flooded streets. I braved it all. What loving wife would not do that for her caring husband?
After placing my purchases in the front basket of my bike, I pedaled on slippery streets toward my condominium. All of a sudden, a strong gust of wind snatched my umbrella from me, taking it away to an unknown destination, and made me lose control of my bike. Sushi and beer spilled out of their containers and quickly made their way into a drain. I was sprawled on the pavement with my skirt wrapped around my waist, my black pubic hair on display through my wet white panties.
That was a pretty embarrassing sight. From the time I had shed my childhood until that day, no one, other than my husband and women in public baths, had seen that part of my anatomy. No, that is not true. One other man had seen it too, I think.
The other man! Last time I had seen him was five years ago when I was only 21. I kept thinking about him as I walked my bike back to my apartment, as I fixed a sandwich as a substitute for sushi, as I sat and looked out at the dreary wet city through my living room window all day, as I watched the ceiling all night, tossing and turning on the tatami until I could not contain myself any longer.
In the morning, I suggested to Kiyoshi, “Let’s go to Nikko.”
“What’s in Nikko?” Kiyoshi asked, meaning why.
“The mountains, the waterfalls, the lakes, the forests, the birds, the… you know. The typhoon season is over, autumn will be setting soon, and then the place will be ablaze with color. Perfect time for hiking.”
I gave all the wrong reasons.
What’s in Nikko? Memories.
I do not love my husband. I know what I said earlier. Of course, I am a loving wife, but I am not in love with my husband. In spite of what it sounds like, there is no contradiction in it. I will never leave my husband. I am happy with him. I hope to live with him until I die. Marriage is happiness, love is a distant star.
As a teenager, I had written a clumsy poem on this theme:
Love is a distant star.
It can still burn you,
Shake the very core of you.
You can never reach it.
You can only talk to it,
In a sad, whispered way.
Its words still ring true, at least to me.
A few weeks later, we drove to Nikko. “It’s more comfortable and convenient than the train, if not more economical,” Kiyoshi reasoned. I let him reason. I was just content to be going to Nikko. But I was also glad that he chose to drive. I had plans for the car.
Once in the city, Kiyoshi asked, “What do we do now?”
“We can pick up a tourist brochure from the Information at the train station, and you can pick out the sights you want to see or things you want to do.”
I wanted him to think that it was our trip, not just mine. I knew fully well that he would leave the decision to me. After all, I had suggested this trip and he was just humoring me.
He said, “You know the place. You choose.”
“Okay. To Ganmangafuchi Abyss. Straight on the highway, then left over the bridge. After that follow the river. I will tell you when to stop.”
We entered the abyss on foot. A few meters ahead there was a smooth flat rock high above the river. I looked at it. The image of the man, who had brought me to this place the first time, emerged beside the rock. I stood frozen.
“I am going to the abyss,” Eiichi said to all of us in the group. The six of us looked at him in amazement.
One of us asked, “You came all the way to Nikko and not see Toshogu Shrine, the most important sight?”
“Not to me. I’ll catch up with you guys later somewhere, at the lake, on the trails, somewhere. Anyone want to come with me?”
Why did he ask that question? Did he know I might?
We, young college students, had come as a group to Nikko during summer vacation for a few days of camping, hiking, and sight-seeing, away from the grind of books and tests. We had an unspoken understanding of staying together. Why would Eiichi want to break away? Why indeed? I wanted to find out.
“You abandoning the group?” I asked.
“No. Just want to do what’s important to me.”
“Spirituality. Toshogu Shrine is a showcase of man-made treasures. It is materialistic.”
“Yes. People go to these shrines, clap their hands, sound the gong, bow their heads, and then wish for material gains. Nothing’s spiritual about that.”
‘Huh,’ I pondered momentarily. To the group I said, “I’ll see the shrine later, on my way back, maybe. I want to see Eiichi’s place of spirituality, just for the heck of it.”
A brisk 40-minute walk brought us to the abyss. We strolled beside the river on a path lined with statues of the disciples of a Buddhist monk.
“So what’s spiritual about this?” I asked.
Eiichi did not answer my question directly, “You know, the monks used to sit on these rocks and meditate. They listened to their inner voices, sometimes merging them with those of nature. They were closer to Nirvan. Want to experience it?”
“The path to Nirvan. Come here and sit on this smooth flat rock above the river.”
He must have assumed I would. He assumed correctly.
“Sit comfortably, close your eyes, breathe deeply. Just listen to the crashing of the water on the rocks, the whisper of the air, the chirping of the birds, the rustling of the leaves, the sounds of nature. You will soon lose your physical identity. You will traverse the path of spirituality. You will come back to the material world when you want to.”
“Isn’t nature material?” I asked doubtfully.
“It is, but it is different from the man-made material world. It is free. It is a vehicle through which you leave everything behind, including nature, eventually. Try it, only then you will understand.”
I did. I understood.
Life is bondage. Spirituality is transcending it. I did achieve that state for a few minutes. During those minutes, I heard the sound of the rhythmic flow of the river until it blended with my heartbeat. After a while, I lost track of it, even lost track of my own self. In that state, I had a glimpse of ‘nothingness,’ the essence of Nirvan.
When finally I opened my eyes, there was Eiichi, standing before me, smiling. That was when I decided to follow him, see what other marvels he had in store for me.
Not that there was anything new in what he said or did. He only helped me hear what I had ignored in the past and experience what I never had time for.
“Aren’t they cute, these statues with red bibs, some with red caps. Must be a hundred of them, all lined up,” Kiyoshi commented.
The image of Eiichi broke into a thousand pieces like cracked ice, melted, and flowed down the river. I sighed.
“Could you please drive up to Chuzenji Lake now?” I directed. Only I kept my tone suggestive, a way to maintain marital harmony.
When we got to the lake, it was afternoon.
“We better get a hotel room before we do anything else,” decided the ever pragmatic Kiyoshi.
“Of course,” agreed the ever supportive wife, then added a request to sneak in her own agenda, “After that, can we walk beside the lake?”
There was a place I had to find.
“We need to find the others. They must have come out of the shrine by now,” Eiichi suggested.
We did not find them.
“Must have gone up to the lake,” he said.
We took a bus to the lake high up in the mountains. We did not find our friends there either, at least not in the places we checked.
“It is a big lake. They could be anywhere or, for that matter, they could be camping somewhere other than the lakeshore,” Eiichi explained.
“We broke away from the group. Now it’s just you and me.” I stated the obvious and implied what was not so obvious, ‘We are charting our own path, the breakaways, the free.’
“So we should pitch our tents somewhere, anywhere,” I added.
We did. We sat side by side, watching the setting sun turn the lake surface into dancing ballerinas, costumed in bronze and silver. No words were exchanged, yet a lot was said. If you can’t figure that out, I can’t explain.
We lit a campfire. Our provisions allowed us to share a meal of grilled trout. We had moved from the sharing of ideas to the sharing of a meal. What else would we be sharing? Where were we headed? The thought of the unknown waiting for us made me shudder. It lasted only a moment, however.
We lay beside our tents, in the open. We watched the stars dance, the breeze flowing through the trees and waves lapping at the lake surface provided the music.
Somewhere in the middle of it, Eiichi spoke, “If you look deep into the sky, you will see a play.”
“A play?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes. The story goes something like this. There is a bubble made of consciousness. It bursts and its fragments turn into material, organic and inorganic. The universe, thus, comes into existence with its stars and planets, hills and valleys, rivers and oceans, light and sound, air and fire. Also come into being the creatures of all sizes and shapes and colors. Among them is man, the only creature who sets out to reshape the world and conquer all life within it. He builds cities and develops technologies to create new things. In time, he comes to see himself as the center of the universe, the most magnificent being, who can reach any height, dive into any depth, travel any distance, enslave any living being including other men. As he proclaims his mastery over others, he causes wars and misery. Yet he continues to believe himself to be the embodiment of all that is good and great. One day another bubble of consciousness emerges. It does not burst. It only sucks in and assimilates all the debris produced by the first bubble, the debris that includes man. Only the consciousness prevails.”
“Cosmic debris? We are the cosmic debris?” I asked to confirm that I heard right.
“How does spirituality fit into all this?”
“Spirituality is how you give meaning to this otherwise meaningless life.”
“But why and how?”
“To reduce the pain we all feel, physical and mental. You do this by your healing touch.”
“You touch a crying baby and it calms down, you touch a plant and it grows and blooms. Yes, by touch.”
I promised myself to remember that. I also tried to lose myself in the cosmic consciousness but only succeeded in falling asleep. During my sleep my consciousness must have merged with that of Eiichi, because when I woke up I thought, for a moment, I was Eiichi.
Kiyoshi and I walked beside the lake for an hour or so and then I found the place. I stood looking at the spot where Eiichi and I had built a fire. Many more fires must have been built since then, because there was evidence of recent ones.
“Look at the charcoal, half burned wood, blackened rocks, and ash,” Kiyoshi complained.
‘How else do you build stories?’ I wanted to ask but bit my tongue.
That night I had a fitful sleep. Every time I dozed off, I dreamed of a rock slide and woke up in a sweat. Was it some kind of premonition?
In the morning I was in no shape to do what I wanted to do. Yet, I had to do it.
“Today, could we go hiking?” I asked Kiyoshi at breakfast.
“If you wish. Where do we go?”
“We climb mount Nantai.”
“I don’t think I can do it. I am not an experienced hiker like you are.”
“It’s all trail, almost like a road.”
I convinced him that he could do that hike. Besides, I had no intention of going to the top. I just wanted to hike for about an hour which would bring me to a distinct rock, that looked like a bear leaning against a tall pine, signaling my real destination.
When I found it, I stopped.
“It would be fun to go off trail here,” I suggested to Kiyoshi. The suggestion was only to let him think that we were hiking together. I did not want him to go with me, and I knew he would not. He could not hike very well on the trails, let alone bushwhack.
“Not for me, not in the bushes.”
“You will enjoy it, I am sure. Try it.” I wanted him to believe that I wanted him with me.
“I can’t. You go if you want to.”
“You won’t mind? I won’t go far, just meander around.”
“Not at all. I’ll stay put. Could use some rest.”
“I won’t be long,” I assured him.
In the midst of our morning coffee, Eiichi looked at a mountain peak and exclaimed, “Mount Nantai, a man’s mountain.”
“Are you being sarcastic?” I asked.
“Only partly. A sacred mountain reserved for man only, as if women have no claim on Nirvan.”
“Not any more,” I corrected him.
“About time. So, will you accompany me?”
“You planned that?”
“No, but looking at it I think it will be fun and an opportunity for spiritual experience.”
“Yes. The farther you get away from the blacktop and other man-made objects the closer you are to spirituality.”
Our talk at the abyss echoed in my ears.
“How can I miss this opportunity? Of course, I will go with you.”
About an hour into the hike, I saw a rock which looked like a bear leaning against a pine tree.
“Look, a bear,” I exalted.
“Bear? Where? I didn’t know there were bears in these mountains.” He sounded concerned.
“Not a real bear. This rock, it looks like a bear.” I calmed his disquiet.
“It does?” Disbelief in his voice.
“Look at it from where I am standing. Tilt your head right. Now do you see it?”
Eiichi followed my instructions but came up with nothing. “I don’t see it, but it does not matter. It is a bear, your personal landmark.”
“Let me give it a hug before we move on.”
“You know what? I’d like to celebrate this spot, your special spot, by leaving the trail.”
“What do you mean?” I asked as I hugged my bear rock.
“This trail is more like a road, it has too much of a man’s involvement. I’ll like to bushwhack up to the summit, find our own path from this point on.”
“We won’t get lost?”
“Not as long as we keep going up. And I have a topo and a compass.”
Our progress was slow, hindered by the undergrowth, fallen trees, drainages, waterfalls, and rock croppings. About an hour later, we found ourselves faced with a rock wall about two meters high at the lowest point and about 100 meters wide.
“Either we go back down a ways and find another route or climb over it,” Eiichi presented the options.
He pulled out his binoculars, surveyed the terrain, and made a decision, “Let’s climb over it. It’s doable.”
“How?” I asked skeptically.
“I will kneel against the wall, you stand on my shoulders while keeping your hands on the rock for balance and support. I will stand up slowly. That will put your face above the wall. You find handholds, pull yourself up as I push you up from below. Once you are on the ledge, I will throw my rope to you. You tie one end of it to something secure and let the other end dangle down. I will use it to climb up to you. Then we will rest.”
The unexpected adventure. I was thrilled. We followed the strategy. It worked. Yet, it did not.
It worked up to the point of me getting on the ledge. I had my fingers grabbing small rock protrusions and my knees resting on the edge of the rock wall. I tried to stand up by pulling one leg over the ledge. And that was when it happened. The left leg of my pants got caught in a small jagged rock and was torn. The tear reached all the way up to my crotch. I could mentally see my white panties and black pubic hair sticking out of its edges in full sight of Eiichi below. Embarrassed, I abandoned the slow, cautious straightening of my body, and hurriedly pulled both my legs forward simultaneously. I did manage to stand up, but immediately after that I staggered and dislodged a hefty rock from its precarious perch over another. I heard its rumblings and then Eiichi’s scream. The realization of what I had done petrified me for a second, then I cried, “No.”
I looked down. Eiichi was on his back, his right leg under the rock I had caused to fall. “Oh, what have I done? What do I do now? What, Eiichi, what?” I was raving.
Eiichi answered effortfully, “Can you get down?”
“Yes,” I said and jumped without thinking. A cushion of leaves broke my fall. I was lucky.
“I’m sorry,” I managed a few words through my hysterical sobbing. “What now Eiichi, what now?”
“Go into the town for help. A cell phone won’t work here.” Each word Eiichi uttered was clearly weighted down by pain.
“I don’t know how to get back to the trail. I was just following you.”
“Keep going west and you will hit the trail.”
I quickly discarded my torn pants, replaced them with another pair, and raced through the forest, every now and then wiping the continuously flowing tears. In my hurry, I had forgotten to touch Eiichi’s leg to heal. So, instead, I kept repeating to myself, “Eiichi, please live.” I was afraid that he might die before I could summon help. In that moment of his pain Eiichi had become important to me. I did not want to lose someone who had introduced me to cosmic consciousness in a way that made my heart dance. Perhaps, that was when I made my unconscious offering to him without any expectation of reciprocity.
I found the rock wall. I looked for the offending rock. I did not find it. I am sure it was there, I just did not recognize it. I don’t know what I would have done even if I had found it.
‘Why have I come here?’ I asked myself. ‘What compulsion?’
I did not have any satisfactory answer, but I think it was to relive the regretful moments and to suffer the pain again, because it is only through suffering that I could live with myself.
I scanned the place and saw the fragments of my heart strewn around, miraculously still throbbing.
I sat where I thought Eiichi had fallen. I cried. I don’t remember for how long. Then dragging a heavy load of guilt, I headed back to the bear rock on the trail where Kiyoshi waited.
“I want to go back,” I conveyed my desire. Kiyoshi did not need to know that I had reached my destination.
“How come? You were so excited about the hike, wanted to go to the top. … And your eyes are red. What happened?” Kiyoshi sounded worried.
“Something got in my eye, some bug I think. That’s why I am not up to it. But it’s nothing. Don’t worry.” I camouflaged the truth.
In the hotel, I turned on the TV and sat in front of it, letting Kiyoshi think that I was watching a program. I did not want to talk to him.
My lie caught up with me. “Aren’t your eyes hurting?” Kiyoshi asked.
“Not any more. Didn’t you notice I was able to walk back?” I explained away my lie.
No, I am not in the habit of lying to my husband. But this was different. It had to do with the part of my heart that did not belong to him. It was private, personal. He had no right to know about it.
Besides, what man would be comfortable knowing about his wife’s emotional infidelity. The lies I told my husband on this trip were to sustain my marriage, the truth would have destroyed it.
I sat in front of the TV, not wanting to be there. My mind was somewhere else, somewhere I wanted to be. I kept my eyes darting from the TV to Kiyoshi to my wrist watch. I don’t know how long this subterfuge continued, but it ended when Kiyoshi got up to go to the bathroom. I seized the opportunity.
I scribbled a note on the hotel stationery, “Be right back.” I left it at the dresser and sneaked out the door. Sneaking out was easier than explaining where I was going alone. I got into our car and drove furiously. Why furiously? Don’t ask me. I don’t know. Later on my way back to the hotel, I was going to pick up dongos, mochis, or some such thing, making Kiyoshi think that I had a sudden craving for some sweets.
I went to see Eiichi in the hospital after he was airlifted. He was lying in bed and his right leg was in a cast. I sat beside his bed. I could not utter a word.
But Eiichi could, “Thank you.”
That somehow brought my speech back, “You will live.”
“No Nirvan for me yet.” He smiled, a sad and tired, but a grateful smile.
“For me neither.” I tried to be light hearted.
After a moment or so, I asked, “Do your folks know?” A ritualistic question. That was not what I wanted to ask.
“Yes. The hospital called.”
I watched Eiichi for a while, then I mustered enough courage to ask what I really wanted to ask, “Would it have been better if I had not gone with you? It’s a man’s mountain.”
“It was an accident, like our lives. We can’t be blamed.”
“But we must be responsible for our actions.”
“For only the deliberate ones, and there are very few of those in our lives. Remember we are not as important as we think we are.”
“Yeah, the cosmic debris.”
Our eyes twinkled, and our lips broke into a secret smile, sharing a thought few others would credit with meaning.
Just then our friends showed up. The news of Eiichi’s accident had spread quickly in the small town. Some brought flowers, some brought candies, all brought get well cards. That reminded me that I had brought nothing but my pain and something else which still remains undefined.
The friends offered routine best wishes. When they were ready to leave, one of them asked me, “Coming with us? We are leaving by the evening train.”
“No. I’ll stay.” I said. Then by way of an explanation, I added, “I haven’t seen Toshogu Shrine yet.” Of course, it was not the real reason, but it was one our friends could understand.
They left. I sat.
“You should have gone,” Eiichi obviously knew my real reason for staying.
So, I confirmed it, “No, I will be with you until you heal.”
That was what I said to Eiichi. But to myself I said, ‘If I touch his injured leg, his pain will go away, the bones will set magically, and the wound will heal.’
I knew it to be true. Yet, I did nothing. The doctors were in charge of healing. I was allowed only to watch.
After the dark curtain of the night had fallen, I said to Eiichi, “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Eiichi acknowledged my pledge with a smiling stare.
I stood in the parking lot and looked at the boarded up building which once was a hospital. Eiichi had been treated there after his accident. The sign at the gate announced that the hospital had been relocated and the building was due for demolition. I could not go in, but my dissociated self could. She stopped at the door to what was Eiichi’s room at one time. It was the second time I had found the room empty. The first time?
I went to see Eiichi in the morning as I had promised. He was not there. The nursing station informed me, “His parents came and took him home about an hour ago.”
I went to Eiichi’s room for one last look. I stood in the doorway and thought, ‘It could never be empty. Not really. Eiichi was here, I was here, only a few hours ago. Our share of cosmic consciousness will continue to live here as long as the universe pulsates.’
Yet, there is a vacuum in my heart. It has been that way ever since I had found Eiichi’s empty room the first time. I never saw Eiichi again. But I remember vividly my last moments with him.
Before leaving Eiichi for the night, I decided not to care what the doctors or anyone else thought about the treatment process. I cared only what Eiichi and I thought. I got up from my chair, stood beside Eiichi’s bed, reached over the lower part of his body with my left hand, and touched his right leg.
I headed back to my hotel room. In my heart there was the heaviness of loss, but there was also the lightness of contentment.
I was sure Eiichi had been healed.
THE BON FESTIVAL
Up the brook, behind a waterfall, within a cave, lies a flat rock. Legend has it that if you lie on it, look at the ceiling above, hear the ‘jhar, jhar’ sound of the falling water, all your other senses will be subdued and, in a state of bliss, you will wish to die. The legend started when the skeleton of an old man was found in the cave.
The Kitamura family gathered for the week long Bon festival. Akio came from Tokyo with his wife, Ai, and their eight year old son. As always, he brought gifts, but sadly, this time only for his father Yukio, because his mother had died of a respiratory illness a few months before.
On the day of the festival, everyone pitched in to prepare the dinner. The zataku was loaded with many rice, meat, vegetable, and sea food dishes. The main treats of the day were sushi, roasted whale meat, sauteed octopus, and grilled eel spread over compacted cubes of rice. Sweets, from simple dangos and mochis to imported chocolates, completed the feast. For drinks they had plenty of sake and oolong tea.
After dinner, they walked over to the bank of a nearby brook, sat on the rocks, and lit fireworks.Their eyes twinkled with sparklers and their hearts jumped with rockets. Not everyone’s though. All through this, Akio was jittery and hoped it would not show.
But it must have shown, at least to Yukio, because he asked confidentially, making sure Ai did not hear them, “Hanako on your mind?”
“Yes,” Akio admitted reluctantly. After a moment’s pause, he said, “Yesterday at the village community center, I learned that her husband had died.”
“That’s right. This rainy season he was fishing when suddenly there was a cloudburst and a rockslide, and he was swept away. Isn’t this awful?”
“I think I should go see her.”
“You should. She would be happy to see a friend.”
For almost 10 years Akio had been trying to forget Hanako. It wasn’t easy. Trying also to let everyone in that small community of less than a thousand people think that he knew Hanako as a girl he had grown up with, just knew, nothing else. It wasn’t easy either. Each year during the Bon Festival when he would come to visit his parents he would also visit Hanako. Not visit visit. He would go to her little general store on the pretext of buying some unnecessary trivialities, would exchange some meaningless pleasantries, and leave. His heart would smile at being able to see her and then it would bleed.
The next day Akio went to see Hanako, not to offer his condolences but to make her heart bleed too.
He hesitated at the store entrance, then mustered all his courage and pushed the door open. He walked inside, looked around, and found that, except for Hanako at the cashier’s counter, the store was empty. He felt comfortable and went straight to Hanako. Skipping all formalities, he blurted, “You should have come with me.”
Hanako looked at him sadly and said in a weepy voice, “It was the right decision at the time.”
At the time.
Akio sat on a fallen log stretched over a brook. He dangled his feet in the water below and felt a rush throughout his body. Hanako sat beside him, head bowed, as if in contemplation.
“Come with me to Tokyo. I have started a drafting business. It’s doing well. We will be happy together,” Akio said.
“I can’t,” Hanako gave a definitive answer.
“Yes, you can. You don’t have to go through with your arranged marriage. We can leave tomorrow.
“Yes. Just elope.”
“I can’t bring shame to my family.”
“You’re discarding me?”
“I’m not discarding you. I’ll remember you forever.”
They sat silent for a while, a long while, their hearts fluttering erratically. Then Akio said, “All right. I see there’s no changing your mind. So maybe I can persuade you to do something else.”
“I have a secret place. I’ll show it to you. You can go there whenever you want to be with me. Just you and me. Come.”
Akio put on his shoes and got up. Hanako followed. They balanced themselves carefully on the log and traversed it to get to the right side of the brook. A walk of about 50 meters beside it brought them to the base of a waterfall. They, scrambling over some rocks, went half way up the cascade, turned left, got behind the curtain of water, and entered a cave with a huge flat rock within it.
Akio sat cross legged and said, “This is my secret place.”
“It’s secret for sure. No one can find it. Yet not far from the village. I can come here every day.”
“If you can get away from the daily chores of your married life.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“What do you want to do then?”
“Just sit here beside you and hear the waterfall sing.”
They sat side by side, their arms around each other’s shoulders. A few minutes later, Akio lay down on his back with Hanako on his side. Only a few seconds after that, Hanako hid her head within Akio’s neck. Soon their breathing quickened, pulses raced, hearts pounded, and their bodies became one. Then the earth shook and the stars fell off the sky. After that, all was still. And quiet, except for the continuous ‘jhar, jhar’ sound of the waterfall. The two bodies were drowned in its melody, and all their other senses were subdued.
In a state of bliss, Akio wished to die.
“At the time, maybe. But now? Come with me,” Akio said.
“I can’t. I have Takayoshi, only 10, and old in-laws to take care of.”
“Bring your son with you.”
“I can’t abandon my in-laws.”
“Yes, you can, the same way I can leave my wife and son.”
“What have your wife and son done to deserve this?”
Nothing, of course. Akio could not leave his family, but he could not leave Hanako either. Ignoring her question, he complained, “You said you’ll remember me forever.”
Hanako answered in a whisper, “I do remember you. But this is not the time or the place to talk. Come and meet me at our secret place. You know, I go there often like you wanted me to.”
Akio’s heart floated over the hills and valleys, and brooks and streams, and went to their cave even before he could leave the store.
As the time of the rendezvous approached, Akio’s heart raced with trepidation. What if someone found out? He chose to take the risk.
“I’m going for a walk,” he announced for everyone to hear in his father’s home.
“Alone?” asked Ai.
“Yes. I need to think about some business matters.”
“Be back before dinner,” said Yukio in a tone that suggested caution.
Caution for what? Akio knew every centimeter of his village and its surroundings. He had grown up there. He knew how to cross its forests, negotiate its waters, and scale its peaks. It had to be something else, but what? The question remained unanswered. Still to assuage his father’s concern, he said, “I will.”
After leaving the house, he wandered around the farms for a while, then entered the woods and walked zigzaggedly toward the brook, making it look like he was meandering aimlessly. After that, slowly, cautiously, and carefully, he made it to his secret place. Hanako was already there, lying on the flat rock. Within a few minutes all their senses were concentrated on each other. This time the universe exploded and the unbounded space was full of fire. After a while, there was just the ‘jhar, jhar’ of the waterfall.
In a state of rapture, Akio said, “I want to die.”
“And miss out on our future?”
For Akio there was nothing but the moment. “Future, what future?” he asked.
“Same place, same time, year after year, until we die.”
Oh, that future! Akio slowly floated down to earth.
Hanako left first. About half an hour later, Akio walked back to his father’s home.
The secret meetings continued, year after year.
Around the village and even in Hanako’s store, Akio would act reserved, serious, and polite, hiding the relentless thumping in his chest which came from the anticipation of the time he would spend with the piece of his heart in their secret place. He thought he must be a very good actor to fool everyone.
He kept his act going for four years. Then he got a letter from his father informing him that Hanako’s in-laws had died, both within a matter of two months, the father from old age and the mother most likely from sadness.
Akio took the news as a solution to his problem. Now Hanako had no excuse for not coming with him to Tokyo, and he would not have to act anymore. So, during the next meeting with Hanako, he said, “There is no reason for you stay here now. Come with me and bring your son along.”
Once more he got the answer, “I can’t.”
Akio was exasperated. Didn’t Hanako love him? Didn’t she want to be with him? He asked, “Why? What’s preventing you now?”
“It’s my son.”
“What about your son?”
“This is his home. This is all he knows. The ashes of his father and grandparents are enshrined here. Leaving this place would be traumatic for him. Besides, I don’t want to be the cause of the break-up of your family.”
The first reason did not make any sense to Akio. But the second reason hit home. Yes, he did not love Ai the way he loved Hanako, but he cared for his wife and certainly he loved his son. It would be indefensible and absolutely irresponsible for him to leave them just because he wanted to be with Hanako. Then he remembered that at their meeting after the death of Hanako’s husband, Hanako had given him the same reason for not coming with him. Maybe she had a better sense of responsibility than he did.
He continued with his act. Hanako, too. And the years kept sliding.
Then one year, seventh by his count, he sensed someone was following him. A false scare, he convinced himself.
His illusion was shattered on his eighth meeting with Hanako. Her head tucked in the curve of his neck, Hanako whispered to him, “My son hates me.”
“He thinks I am seeing someone, cheating on his father.”
“But his father is dead.”
“I am still supposed to be faithful to my husband.”
“How does he know about us?” Akio remembered the time when he thought someone was following him. He was alarmed a little.
“He doesn’t. He suspects. He notices me disappearing for a few hours during the Bon festival and thinks I’m seeing someone. Says I might be doing this at other times too.”
“What do you say to him?”
“I deny, of course. But he is not convinced.”
“What do we do?”
“Nothing. Let him hate if he wants to.”
Knowing that he himself had not been discovered, Akio was not worried anymore. He went back to his illusion.
It was shattered again the next year. Just before the beginning of the Bon festival, Ai declared, “We’re not going to your father’s home this year or any other year.”
“Why not?” Akio asked.
“Because you don’t go there for our family get-together. You go there to see Hanako.”
How did she know? Akio was perturbed and worried. But he tried to bluff, “You’re crazy to think that.”
“Crazy? Don’t you love her?” she asked.
“I did at one time. Everyone knows that. I wanted to marry her, but she married someone else. It’s over between us.”
“No, it’s not. I know you saw her the year you found out that her husband had died. You had gone for a walk alone that evening. I smelled a woman on you when you came home.”
“You can smell a woman?” Akio used sarcasm to discredit her.
“Yes. But I did nothing. Even told myself that I must be mistaken. Then the pattern emerged.”
“Yes. Going for a walk alone, always on the second day of the Bon festival, always in the evening, always for about three hours.”
“It doesn’t prove anything.” Akio thought Ai was fishing and if he continued to deny she might give up.
“That’s why I followed you last year.”
So it was not his imagination, Akio thought, he was indeed followed. But, maybe not discovered with Hanako. He looked at Ai quizzically and asked, “Then?”
“Then nothing. You disappeared into the forest. I was afraid of getting lost in it, so I turned back.”
“Well, you have no proof.”
“I have plenty. Every time you came back from your lonely walks, I smelled a woman on you. That’s enough for me. I can’t take it anymore. I’m leaving.”
All of a sudden, the whole climate changed. Akio had wanted to leave Ai a long time ago, only Hanako had talked him out of it. Now he was offered his wish on a platter. He would be a fool not to take it.
“You serious?” He wanted to make sure he heard her right.
“Yes. I’m going to my parents.”
Ai left. Akio was sad at losing his family to which he had grown attached over years of living together. But happy also at the opportunity to be with Hanako finally, openly. If there was a contradiction in his feelings, he did not see it.
That year he went to the Kitamura home alone. He told his father, “It won’t be much of a festival this year. Ai has left me.”
“I’m surprised it took so long,” Yukio said.
“What do you mean?” Of course, Akio knew what his father meant, but he asked the question just to confirm.
“I know about you and Hanako.”
Akio’s illusion finally disintegrated. Seemed like everyone knew about his relationship with Hanako. No need to deny it anymore. So he asked, “How?”
“It’s in your eyes. It’s in your walk. It’s in the smell of a woman on you after a supposedly lonely walk in the forest. The first time you went for the walk, I knew where you were going. Remember, I had cautioned you to come back before dinner? I had meant for you to come back soon without the smell of Hanako on you. You did not heed my warning.”
It occurred to Akio that he was a lousy actor, that he could not hide his true feelings from anyone. He admitted defeat and kept silent.
So his father continued, “There’s a lot more I know. But I’ll keep my mouth shut like I have done these past years. Let Hanako tell you whatever else you should know.”
Akio wanted to know why? But he did not press for an answer. Yukio must have had a good reason.
Next day Akio went to Hanako’s store. Takayoshi was there, looking like a fully grown man although still in his late teens. He seemed to be doing everything in the store except operating the cash register which had always been Hanako’s territory.
Akio ignored him, walked straight over to Hanako, and said softly out of Takayoshi’s hearing range, “Ai has left me. There’s no need for pretense any more. You reasoned twice in the past that my family should not be broken up because of us. But now that’s irrelevant. One more time, come with me.”
“No excuses,” interrupted Akio. “Takayoshi is grown, your husband and in-laws are gone, and I have no family. Come with me, make me a family, the one I always wanted.”
“This is easy for you to say, but this is not easy for me to do. I love my son and do not want to leave him, something I will have to do to be with you. I am sure Takayoshi will not come with me, will not want to live with someone who dethroned his father.” She stood there behind the counter looking confused, tears in her eyes.
“Come with me. We will talk to Takayoshi, work something out,” Akio said again, loudly this time out of exasperation.
Takayoshi must have heard him, because he came running to the counter and asked, “What’s going on?”
The question seemed to force a decision on Hanako, who said, “Son, I have run this store long enough. It’s yours now. I’m leaving.”
She did not wait for an answer. Did not acknowledge the shocked look on Takayoshi’s face. She walked around the counter and walked out of the store to go with Akio with just the clothes she was wearing.
They took a train straight to Tokyo.
In a few months, Akio was divorced from Ai and he married Hanako. The following year, and for many years after that, he visited the Kitamura home during the Bon festival with Hanako. They made sure to bring all their supplies with them so that they would not have to go to the village store and face Takayoshi. It was not because they did not wish to see him, they just did not feel comfortable face-to-face with him. Akio was sure that Hanako missed her son. He noticed that she would often look in the direction of the Takayoshi store with damp eyes. A few times he saw her walk toward the store but stop in the middle like a carriage that had come against an insurmountable hill. He felt sad for Hanako who had to lose her son to gain him.
One day he said to her, “Maybe this pain will ease when we have our own child.”
Right away he saw Hanako’s eyes mist then overflow with tears.
“Did I say something wrong?” asked Akio, totally confused at Hanako’s reaction.
“No, you didn’t say anything wrong. It’s just that I can’t have any children.”
“You can’t? Why?”
“With Takayoshi, it was a difficult birth. There were complications only a few people know about.”
Akio tried to fathom the depth of Hanako’s pain. He was sure he could not go much below the surface. Then he became aware of his pain too. He also would never have another child. And that made him very sad.
None of this sadness persisted, however, when he and Hanako visited their secret place.
A few years later Yukio died. The village elder informed Akio about it by phone, “Don’t know how it happened. He was at the temple, praying, and suddenly slumped.”
Akio, accompanied by Hanako, went to the village to perform his father’s last rites. The entire village gathered for the ceremony. Even Takayoshi showed up. He acted reserved and even somewhat angry. Akio and Hanako managed to stay calm and controlled throughout the rituals and even through their trip back to Tokyo. After that, they fell apart.
Hanako started to cry. There was no end to her sobs and tears. This went on for hours. Akio was depressed and did not know how to console Hanako, so he drowned his misery in sake. Somewhere in the midst of their anguish, they fell asleep on the floor in the living room. In the morning, Hanako, with puffy eyes, said in a scratchy voice, “All these years I tried to suppress my emotions but seeing Takayoshi in person just broke my heart. I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll let you go back to him, if it will help.”
“Thank you for being so considerate, but this won’t work. He hates me and would not want to be with me.”
“Maybe we should stop going to the village now. That might help. With my father gone, there’s nothing left there anyway. I’ll donate the parental home and everything in it to the community center.”
“But what about our visits to our secret place?”
“We have been going there for many years now. We are getting old, and it’s not so easy to negotiate the rough terrain anymore.”
“I gave up my son. How can I also give up the place where our love was born, the love for which I gave up my son.”
Akio had no counter argument. So he said, “All right. We will continue to visit our cave as long as we can. But I think it will not hurt for you to try to reconcile with Takayoshi. Who knows…” Akio left the sentence unfinished.
Hanako fixed her eyes on Akio’s face and then lowered them in acceptance of his suggestion.
Attempts at reconciliation with Takayoshi. Hanako wrote to him, he never answered. She called him on the phone, he hung up on her. Finally she gave up and said to Akio, “Let’s accept the fact that we and Takayoshi will never be together again.”
But they, especially Hanako, could never forget him. They kept abreast of news about Takayoshi by talking to other villagers. One year they found out that he had married a local girl and was running the family business successfully.
Hanako said to Akio, “You know the girl. A very nice girl.”
“Of course. I’ve known her since she was a baby. You must have seen her grow just like Takayoshi.”
“I wish we could have attended the wedding.”
“Since we couldn’t, why don’t we at least send them a gift.”
“I don’t think it will be accepted. Let’s just wish them all the happiness and wish them to love each other forever.”
“You sure?” Akio asked. Without waiting for an answer he added, “Love is joy but it is also filled with pain and sacrifices. You have sacrificed a lot for love and have suffered. I hope Takayoshi and his wife won’t have to go through the same experience.”
As he said it, Akio remembered all the pain he too had suffered because of his love for Hanako. He had to give up his son. He remembered begging Ai to let him at least see his son, give him an opportunity to be a father to him. But Ai had refused to listen to him. She had spewed, “Stay away from my son, you cheat.”
He often wondered if bringing Hanako into his life was worth the pain they both were enduring. Of course it was. He would remember their secret place and would discard any regrets he might have felt.
Fifty-two years passed. Akio and Hanako grew old and frail together. In their nineties, it required walking sticks and a lot of rest stops to get to their secret place during the Bon festival.
Finally came the day, and both of them knew it had come. Hanako was having trouble breathing with pain in her lungs and chest. Akio was going to call an ambulance but Hanako said, “No. Let it be. No need to prolong the suffering.”
Akio sat cross-legged on the tatami and held Hanako’s head in his lap. All of a sudden, he noticed a tremble on her lips.
“What?” he asked.
“I must tell you before it is too late. I couldn’t before for fear that it would hurt you too much.”
Akio remembered that a long time ago his father had left something unsaid to be told to him by Hanako herself. “What?” he asked again.
“No matter what my son thinks, I never cheated on his father.”
A frail old man walks through a forest, slowly and laboriously, while leaning on a walking stick. He scrambles up the side of a brook, goes behind a waterfall, enters a cave, lies on a flat rock, and looks at the ceiling above. As he hears the ‘jhar, jhar’ sound of the falling water, all his other senses are subdued and, this time in a state of unbearable pain, he wishes to die.
Author photo by Bob Cardell
Rajendra Kumar, a retired psychologist, divides in time between writing, hiking, and traveling. Writing has been a passion with him since age 12. His work reflects unconventional ideas which rattle the cage of tradition. It also makes the readers feel all kinds of emotions and prods them to think about a variety of issues. For comments and questions, contact: .
ALSO BY RAJENDRA KUMAR
The Devils and the Damned, A suspenseful, thrilling, action packed novel
Memories of a Distant Star (Love Stories from Heaven and Hell), a collection of short stories on the theme of love
Vishwaroop (The Face of the Universe), a collection of short stories about the man in the universe
The Hasegawa Garden: Love Story 1
The Other Side of the Moon: Love Story 2
Tandav: Love Story 3
These Stories: Both stories are set in Japan and are about two Japanese women who have their love secrets. Memories of a Distant Star is the story of a young married woman who is compelled by her emotions to retrace her steps on a mountain trail where her first love had bloomed, a one-sided love for Eiichi whom she would never see again. She recalls the moments spent with her companion, and his enchanting poetic stories about the universe and the life within. She relives the devastation she felt when Eiichi got injured through her folly. Finally, amidst her calmness within the storm, she remembers her use of his own technique to heal him, an expression of love for him without his knowledge, a secret she would keep from her husband forever. The Bon Festival tells the story of Akio and Hanako who grow together in a small village and fall in love. Yet, they can’t be together. Hanako marries someone chosen by her family and has a son. Although living in Tokyo and married himself, Akio still can’t give up Hanako. When Hanako’s husband dies in a storm, he begins to see her clandestinely every time he comes to the village from Tokyo for the Bon festival. His infidelity is observed by his wife who divorces him. Free from his own marital bonds he asks Hanako to come with him but she refuses. This goes on for several years. However, Akio gets his wish finally when when Hanako’s son becomes an adult. The two have a long life together. Then one day as Akio holds Hanako in his lap on her deathbed, she reveals to him her secret with which she had lived all her life. Devastated, Akio drags himself to where he and Hanako used to meet secretly and lies down to die in memory of their love for each other.