Ikotsu




Saburo lay on the hillside behind the crematorium, surrounded by dandelions and the incessant droning of ten thousand cicadas. The sound of their “mee-mee-mee-meeeeeeee…” had always made him crazy, but not today. Today it was just another knot in the fabric of summer that would hold this moment in place for as long as his memories lasted. With both hands folded behind his head, he watched as the last bit of white smoke rose up from the chimney to spread out and lose itself in the chalk colored sky. When the roar of the furnace and its big fan went silent, he knew the job was done.


His two older brothers, Taro and Jiro, were down in the parking lot killing time. Dressed in their best black suits and black ties, they smoked cigarettes and chatted quietly in the shade of the ornate hearse. As usual, Taro was not saying much and seemed preoccupied — probably with work. Jiro didn’t seem to notice and just kept talking, making small circles in the gravel with the toe of his shoe. Every so often, he would change feet and change direction, but the circles remained identical.


Saburo couldn’t hear what his brother was saying, but the fox who waited in the tall grass beside him was transfixed by the conversation. Leaning forward, she held herself rigid with both ears cupped to catch every word. Her eyes shined like bits of bright amber and her silver coat smelled of the forest at night — all green and cool like pine needles and dew.


Saburo had been startled when the fox first came to him. Touching his hand with her wet nose, she had called him by name and asked if she might sit with him. He had never met a fox before and his head was full of questions, but the only one he dared to ask was why she had three tails. The fox had glanced back and given each a small flick, then shrugged. It was a very human gesture, though not much of an answer. He thought about asking why she was there, but he didn’t want to be rude. He liked her company.


With the cremation finished, he knew he would soon have to go back inside and rejoin his family. He dreaded this and instead wanted to run straight home. His stomach was empty and he desperately needed something to eat. One of the dumplings or bit of the manjū that his aunt had put out for him earlier would be heavenly, but he knew eating would have to wait until after the ashes and bones had been collected.


He closed his eyes.


With the afternoon sun warm upon his face, he let himself drift into his own radiant world of red, yellow and orange light. In that glow, everything felt intensely immediate, and within this sense of the now, it was easy to let himself slip away. He had not slept in two days and this was almost as good.


When he heard his name, he groaned, hauled himself to his feet and started down the hill. Remembering his manners, he turned to tell the fox goodbye, but she was already gone. By the time he reached the lot, Taro was opening the door to the crematorium and Saburo had to hurry to catch up. He smiled sheepishly and apologized as he jumped inside and bumped into his brother’s shoulder.

It was an empty apology, said out of habit really. But as with most things in his life, form had always carried more weight than function — which was funny because sincerity meant a lot to him — so much so, that he had once asked his aunt if he could change his name from Saburo to Makoto. At the time the woman had wrinkled her nose and then chuckled, saying, “Makoto is too good a name for such an indolent boy. You are Saburo.”


Of course, she was right. Following behind his two older brothers as they strode purposefully through those somber corridors was the proof. Taro, the eldest, led the way, Jiro followed smartly at his heels, and as always, Saburo, whose name meant nothing more than son number three, lagged behind.


Inside the lounge, his family was already standing and receiving instructions from the funeral director. Her name was Nomura Hiroko. She was Saburo’s one and only former girlfriend and the tidiest woman he had ever known. With immaculate features and an outfit made entirely of crisp vertical creases, she spoke in short sentences and used her white-gloved hands to make precise, illustrative movements. It was a little like watching a flight attendant explaining what to do in the event of an emergency landing. When their eyes met, there was a momentary break between her words. She flinched, blinked twice, glanced away, and resumed her speech. Saburo, feeling embarrassed for her, sidestepped and hid behind his brothers.


After the instructions were completed, Hiroko raised one hand and led the way to the furnace room. Before opening the door, she reminded the family again that the body had entered the furnace headfirst and that the skull would now be facing them. She said the sight of the skull could be troubling to some and that nobody should be ashamed if they found this difficult. The family’s reaction was quite the opposite. Not only curious, they were now excited. Saburo could sense this in how the little crowd pressed forward, craning their necks to get a better view.


As the door opened, the inner chamber gave a quiet moan and sent a wave of warm air rolling out into the air-conditioned corridor. This caused a brief moment of hesitation, before the party began shuffling into the room. The air smelled faintly of burnt paper and sandalwood.


When Saburo entered and saw those empty eye sockets gazing back at him, he felt nothing. There was no sense of recognition or connection whatsoever. And that troubled him. He wanted to feel something — anything — but it was impossible. The collapsed remains bore little resemblance to a skeleton and even less to a person. The skull was simply anonymous, and Saburo, backing into the far corner near the exit, endeavored to become equally so.


The urn was brought forward and set beside the ashes, and Hiroko distributed several pairs of oversized ohashi. The long white chopsticks again reminded him of how badly he wanted to eat and his stomach gave a terrible lurch.


Hiroko once again explained the order in which the bones were to be selected. Then with her assistant’s help, she demonstrated how to use the long chopsticks to lift the bones and place them within the urn. Saburo’s two youngest cousins were then invited to pick up the first of the toe bones together. Both girls had nervous smiles, but did as they were told. After that, his Aunty Eiko joined them and went to work plucking up all of the remaining bones of both feet and adding them to the urn. Once upon a time, she had been a production chef and it still showed. When she was finished, she handed off the long ohashi to her husband. She stood at his shoulder and looked down her nose to make sure he did his part correctly.


Bone by bone and shard after shard, they worked their way from bottom to top so that the spirit, like the remains themselves, would be able to enter the afterlife standing on its feet rather than on its head. This all struck Saburo as a little silly, but he appreciated its thoughtfulness. Unconsciously, he rubbed the top of his head and then combed back his hair with both hands.


About midway through the ceremony, Hiroko came and stood across from him in the other corner. She leaned back, pressing only her shoulders against the wall, and lowered her chin to rest upon her chest. They had become a couple just after graduation, and while their relationship had only lasted for a short time, Saburo knew she was the best thing that had ever happened to him. He had actually felt useful when they were together. But when his aunt learned what Hiroko’s family did for a living, she immediately intervened and insisted that the two stop seeing one another. Saburo wanted to refuse, but he had folded without so much as a word.

Now four years later, Hiroko was still unmarried and even more beautiful. There was a kind of grace about her, an artistry that must have blossomed as a result of her work. It left Saburo both impressed and profoundly grateful.


After a moment, he mustered his courage and stepped across the narrow strip of light that stretched between them from the open doorway. Whispering her name, he bowed all the way down as deeply as he could. Then while holding the bow, he thanked her formally for all that she had done for his family. The words felt dead upon his lips, too stilted and empty, so he thanked her a second time and plainly. Then he apologized.


Hiroko said nothing. Her face though grew more pale and severe and she made a small, irritated sound with her tongue against the back of her teeth. She was facing straight ahead, but looking to the side and away from him. Still, Saburo could see the gleam of tears in the corner of her eye and he bowed again before backing into his own corner.


Hiroko kicked one of her heels against the gray linoleum tile and bit her lower lip. She tapped the foot a few more times before letting out a long sigh. Then taking two deliberate steps away from the wall, she straightened herself, seemed to think for a time and at last turned to face Saburo directly. The hardness of her expression tumbled away and was replaced with a helpless sort of sadness. She gazed into his eyes as if to tell him all that she could not with words, and then returned his bow. After that, she made her way back up to rejoin the family.


Of all those who had come to the funeral, she at least could look him in the eye and acknowledge him. She saw him. It meant a lot.


Now only the skull and the horn-shaped bone of the Adam’s apple remained amidst the ashes. Hiroko explained that she would disassemble the skull, after which the closest relative or dearest friend of the deceased would be asked to place these final pieces into the urn before it was closed and wrapped. She bowed to the family, bowed to the skull and said something too softly for Saburo to catch. Then with the ohashi she tapped the fragile dome in several places along its seams until the skull parted and fell open like the petals of a flower. With great care and tenderness, she separated and arranged its pieces into the order with which they should enter the urn. Then she bowed again to the family and held out the ohashi, asking who had been chosen for this honor.


Aunt Eiko cleared her throat and stepped up to the slab again. She reached out and gently closed her hands about Hiroko’s. Saburo could not to hear what she said, but by Hiroko’s reaction, he knew.


Trembling, Hiroko shook her head and tried to push the ohashi back towards Aunt Eiko. When both Taro and Jiro also stepped forward and joined their aunt, Hiroko had no alternative but to say yes.


She would place the last of Saburo’s bones into the urn.


There was a murmur of approval from the rest of the family and then everyone bowed to her in unison.


Overwhelmed by the terrible emptiness in his stomach, Saburo fled the chamber. The last thing he heard was the soft clicking of the ohashi and the two women quietly weeping together.


He staggered down the corridor, feeling his way with his hands for the nearest exit. When he drove through the door and burst out into the sunshine, the world spun before his eyes and the drone of the cicada roared in his ears. Stumbling, he pin-balled his way into the parking lot. His joints turned and folded in all the wrong directions, and after half a dozen steps, he fell.


Closing his eyes and covering his ears, he began rocking back and forth, waiting for the attack to pass. It wasn’t until he felt the coolness of a shadow settle over him that the droning ceased. He opened his eyes.


Standing over him was a woman in the white kimono and divided red skirts of a shrine maiden. At first Saburo assumed she was a miko from the nearby jinja, but when his vision cleared, he recognized those bright amber eyes.


It was the fox.


With her silver hair now tied back in a long braid, she wore a garland of small flowers interwoven with tiny bells that shimmered and chimed with even the smallest movement. Kneeling, she cocked her head to one side and peered deep into his eyes.


She made a strange, high sound in the back of her throat, like a mother fox cooing over her kit, but after a moment, she spoke and asked Saburo if he was all right.


Saburo wanted to tell her no, but he could barely shake his head.


“Kite,” she said, inviting him to follow. Then she rose and began walking towards the forest that bordered the eastern side of the lot.

Saburo climbed to his feet, did his best to steady himself and followed. When they reached the woods, the fox sat upon a fallen tree and motioned for him to sit beside her.


Saburo eased himself down onto the moss-covered log and sighed. The forest seemed to breathe with a cooling breeze and slowly but surely, he began to feel more like himself again.


The fox asked if he was hungry and Saburo nodded.


From her sleeve, she drew out a small package of bamboo leaves. It was about the size of her hand and tied with the flower and stem of a dandelion. Plucking off the yellow bud, she unwrapped the package to reveal five strips of fried tofu.


“Aburaage o hoshi?” she said, asking if he would like some.


“Hai,” said Saburo, and with surprisingly quick hands, he snatched up and ate the slender, golden strips.


The fox covered her mouth to hide her laughter, but Saburo was too busy wolfing down the food to notice. When he was finished, he licked his fingers — several times over — and yet his hunger remained undiminished. The fox drew another bundle of tofu from her sleeve. Again, she unwrapped the food and watched as Saburo devoured it. Afterwards, the fox asked if he felt any better and Saburo nodded. It was true, he did feel a little better, but the hunger was still there and he told her so.


The fox patted his hand and said, “Onaka ga suiterunjanai,” telling him it was not hunger that he was feeling at all. Saburo’s eyes betrayed his confusion and she reminded him that he no longer had a stomach. Hunger was merely how his spirit expressed the sensation.


When he asked what it was he felt if not hunger, the fox pointed back to the building. The door was open and there stood Hiroko with her assistant, bidding farewell to Saburo’s family. Hiroko tucked her hair behind her ears and offered a final bow, which she held until everyone had filed passed. The last to leave were Saburo’s aunt, uncle and two brothers. The old woman returned the bow and thanked Hiroko again. His uncle followed suit, with Taro and Jiro waiting several paces behind. Before leaving, Taro stepped forward and handed the assistant a white envelope. Then all four headed off to find their cars. When Hiroko straightened, she turned and her eyes found Saburo and the fox. She brought her hand up to her face and quickly retreated back inside. Saburo felt the emptiness well up again, and he understood.


“Ima wakateru,” he said to himself.


The fox leaned in against his elbow and rested her head upon his shoulder. Her hair smelled like rain and wild irises and reminded him of his childhood.


“The hunger is sadness, isn’t it?” whispered Saburo into her hair.


“And loss,” said the fox. “You feel their loss.”


“But why do I feel it as hunger?”


“Because hunger will call you home,” she said.


Saburo thought about this for a moment, and said, “For the offerings.”


“Yes,” said the fox. “Every bowl of rice, every bit of fruit, every cup of water or saké that they put out for you — and that you accept — will ease their sense of loss. They will offer food to comfort you, but in truth, it is you who must comfort them by eating their sadness until their sadness is no more. Only then can they let you go.”


Saburo thought of his mother, remembered when she had died and how every day after for a whole year, he and his brothers had placed their offerings on the family altar. They had burned incense, prayed and cried — sometimes together, sometimes alone and in secret. But mostly he recalled how his aunt had taught them to prepare the food. A bowl of rice, a cup of saké, slices of fruit, and always the fried tofu, which had been his mother’s favorite.


Even now, he still missed her, but the pain had faded and his sense of loss was gone.


Saburo placed his right hand upon his abdomen as if to touch the sadness. The spasms had settled and the hollow feeling remained, but now that he understood what it was, there was some sweetness to the ache and a kind of comfort as well.


He closed his eyes and thought of his family, thought of the offering of manjū his aunt had put out for him that morning and remembered her tears. Then he thought of Hiroko and the sadness he had seen in her face and he knew he would be eating her offerings as well for a very long time to come.


As the afternoon passed into evening, the fox began to sing a lullaby and Saburo listened as shadows lengthened and the angle of the setting sun colored the light golden. Then when the sky darkened, the fox rose to her feet and held out her hand.


“Would you like to walk in the forest with me tonight?” she asked. Her amber eyes flashed bright and playful.


“I don’t know,” said Saburo. “I’ve never walked in the woods with a fox before.”


To which the fox laughed, saying, “Of course you have.”


Saburo thought about it a little longer then stood up and let the fox take him by the hand. Together, they stepped over the log and onto a narrow path that led deeper into the trees. Neither spoke as they followed the winding trail, but when they reached the heart of the forest, the fox halted. Saburo looked up and found himself enfolded by deep cerulean shadows and a quiet chirping of crickets.


“One for each of the lives I’ve lived,” said the fox.


“Pardon?”


“Or maybe, it’s one for each of my secrets — or each of my children.”


“I don’t understand.”


She squeezed his arm. “My tails,” she said. “You asked earlier why I have three.”


Saburo nodded, scratched the back of his head, and then asked what he should have asked at the start.


“Why did you come to me?”


The fox pressed in closer to him.


“I came because you needed me,” she said. “And to show you this place, so you will know where to come when you are ready.”


She pointed with her chin and Saburo watched, as the forest grew darker and darker, until the darkness itself gave way to a curious luminosity in which he saw the life essence of every living thing. The light flickered and glowed like sparks and fireflies, bright, but cool. It streamed within every branch and every pine needle, flowing outward and seeping inward. It rose to the sky and it fell to the earth. It was life and death in constant motion, coming, going and returning again.


Saburo couldn’t recall ever having seen such beauty. And as he and the fox stood together surrounded by that light, he felt himself smiling, finally recognizing the sudden yet familiar warmth of the fox’s hand.


He looked into her amber eyes and whispered, “You.”






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