Paula R C Readman
Saki (fermented rice)
A weary looking young man, travelling alone, carrying a single bag, stood at the crossroads with his hand raised to shield his eyes as he stared towards the heavens. The sun already well-travelled is making its own journey towards the horizon.
I watched him from my rocking chair in front of my old family bamboo home. Through foggy frosty eyes as old age has nearly blinded me, I wondered if he journeyed on a whim, with no particular destination in mind.
As I rocked, the smoke from my pipe wound its way up into the clear blue sky, while on the far side of the road, the man stood youthful and as straight as a reed growing at the water’s edge.
I squinted at him. There was something familiar about his stance I noted as I tapped my pipe on the side of the chair, dislodging the burnt tobacco. It fell onto the dusty ground causing ants to scurry away.
As I took another pinch of fresh tobacco ready to fill my pipe, I recalled my own life’s journey as a youth. In the past I’d stood before a number of crossroads trying to decide what route would be the best one to take.
Suddenly, I call to mind telling my father, “All roads seem the same to me.”
He stood before a shaving bowl, beside an open window. His neck stretched while he peered into a mirror as he pulled the wet blade over his skin.
Through the window of our hilltop home, I could see the cherry blossom in our small garden moving slightly on the tree as a soft spring breeze raced up from the harbour far below us.
Father wiped his face with a hot cloth before turning to face me, “My son, Taro all roads are not the same. Some have dead ends, some bring you full circle and some take you on to new places.”
I laughed and told him, I would take the train, “A swifter journey to a destination in one direction.”
Father didn’t laugh, but smiled gently and patted my head. “Life isn’t a straight forward journey, my son with simple stops along the way. Life is a cobweb of possibilities and mishaps.”
I watched as the youth hitched his shoulder bag into a more comfortable position on his back. He must have decided which route to take as he moved off with long, regular, relaxed strides.
Above the sounds of the birds I heard him whistling a familiar tune. The song filled my heart as memories came flooding back. I found myself whistling in time with his retreating back.
Once upon a time and long ago, I had left my hilltop home heading for the city with its bright lights. I wanted to break free from the life that my ancestors had, being a charcoal maker wasn’t for me. I’d taken a train on the Tokaido Eastern Sea Route line and headed in land to Nagoya. Travelling on a whim, I never stayed in any one place for long, only just long enough to earn some money to take me onto my next destination.
Then one day as I wandered along a dusty riverside path with holes in my shoes and an empty belly, I heard someone singing. I sat down and listened as the sweet haunting voice carried on a light summer breeze drifted over the gentle swaying reeds made me forget my hunger.
As I sat studying my sore feet an angel appeared before me. Her eyes shone with happiness. On her back, she carried a basket of laundry. I slipped my shoes back on and stood. “Please let me help you,” I offered.
She bowed slightly, and I noticed how the sun shone off her jet black hair. “Thank you, kind sir, but I think I can help you far more. Come meet my father.”
Days became weeks as I settled into the rhythm of the household and before I knew what had happened a wonderful year had passed. I woke every morning to the sound of Chieko’s sweet voice as she sang while helping her mother with chores around the house.
I would dress quickly, and find her father, knowing he would be down by the water’s edge fishing.
Once we had enough for lunch and with vegetables from the garden we sat cross-legged enjoying the fruits of our morning labour. On market days, I’d help push the hand cart for Chieko as we went to sell the surplus vegetables and fish.
Soon it became time for me to go, as I felt I’d outstayed my welcome. Chieko’s parents hugged me like I was their son. A tear rolled down her mother’s cheek as she handed over a food parcel for my travels. Her father thanked me for all my hard work as I helped to repair their house and boat. I turned to Chieko who stood nervously to one side; her head bowed, not meeting my eyes.
She turned to her Father, “May I walk with Taro to the top of the road?”
“Of course, my dear girl,” he said before turning to me. “A safe journey home to your father, Taro and I hope you’ll return to us one day.”
“I shall never forget your kindness, or the joy I’ve shared here in your home,” I said, sad to be going.
In the dusty sunny morning Chieko and I walked with slow, steady steps up the steep lane which led to the main road that would take me to the railway station. I wanted so much to tell her what was in my heart, but after her father had told me exactly what she had said a month ago, I knew there was no use in trying to persuade her to come with me.
I’d wanted to tell her father that I had dishonoured her that we had shared the pleasures that only lovers could, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, to destroy the beauty of the afternoon we had shared on our way back from the market.
As we lay among the long grasses by the fast flowing river, I kissed her alluring lips after our moment of passion. As we broke our embrace, I started to tell her how much I loved her, but she silenced me with her finger.
“Please don’t say it, Taro for I’m to wed another,” she said, with tears wetting her soft honey coloured cheeks as she sat up pulling her gown over her shoulders.
Tears filled my eyes, as I too sat up, “Why give yourself freely to me, if you’re not mine to keep?”
She lowered her eyes, and brushed her hair back from her face, refastening it as she spoke, “I wanted to have something beautiful to remember you by when the time comes for your leaving.”
“I shall ask your father for your hand,” I pleaded.
She shook her head, “You cannot change the course of my destiny. It was planned before I was born.” She stood and smoothed down her dress. “Come Taro, we mustn’t be late home. I’m sorry, but we can never share a moment like this again.”
A week later as we said our goodbyes, I stood longing to taste her lips once more, but all I could do was gently bow before her. Without looking back, I left her standing, watching me go.
As the road wound its way up the mountains, through the broken tree line I could just make out the slight figure of the young man as he continued on his travels.
For a moment I wondered whether he was heading homeward after seeing the world. Had he, like me had his heart broken, or was there a sweet hearted girl waiting for him.
I tapped my pipe clean and pushed the chair back away from the door. On entering the hut, I set the kettle on the stove and lit it. As I set the table for my evening meal, a light knock echoed round the room.
On opening the door, I found the young man standing there.
“Hello, can I help you?” I asked, even though I knew what he was about to say.
“Yes, I think you can. I’m looking for my father.”