Umi, the kiss of the ocean
by Julie O’Yang
**Short sotry first published in Japan Anthology, Pirene’s Fountain, Chicago, 2011. See cover below.
His name was Kawa, meaning river.
Today Kawa gave a party to celebrate his 9th birthday. It was not the kind of party he had expected, since everyone told him 9 is a cool number. But his grandfather did come when others had left. Grandpa brought him a very special present.
‘I found it in the Pacific when I went out fishing one summer night last year. I have kept it for this occasion,’ Grandpa said, showing him something he held out in his fisherman’s palm.
‘What is it, Ojiisan?’ Kawa cried out, his eyes glued to the object of almost unbearable brightness, which seems to rouse from an infinite slumber as he touched it. Dazed, Kawa felt a shudder through his entire body.
‘Are you going to take it or not?’ Grandpa urged. ‘Has your mother already told you 9 is the number of forever, kyu? When she gave birth to you, you were so little, we didn’t think you would make it. I guess it’s our genes. I came six weeks too early, on New Year’s eve. My mother believed it was her fish soup I couldn’t wait to taste! You collect them, don’t you, boy. Well, add this one to your treasure trunk. Go on, don’t be shy. It’s a magic charm of unimaginable power. Wait and see,’ a smile flickered on the fisherman’s face.
‘The boy doesn’t collect marbles anymore,’ his mother interposed. ‘Kawa-san is a pianist now, giving his first solo concert soon!’
‘But yeah, of course. I almost forgot to thank you for the invitation, Kawa-san! Believe me, this is not a marble, this is a star fallen into the ocean from the sky!’
‘Whoa!’ Kawa let go a small sound. He nipped the bright sphere between his gingerly fingers. It was only a tad bigger than a marble, with convincing weight. He felt convinced by Grandpa’s words, because when he played Debussy, his favourite composer, his hands moving on the keys, he had the feeling he was touching the stars in the sky, ebony and ivory stars. He was guided into the realm of forever!
He peered again into the depth of the shining in his hand. A sudden storm of nausea hit upon him, as if the ground had suddenly turned liquid ebbing away under their feet.
‘Are you all right, Kawa?’ his mother flashed him a worried look, reaching out one hand to feel the pale face covered with a thin film of sweat. ‘You haven’t caught a cold, have you? This weather is treacherous.’
It had been hellishly hot the past few days, it was not even spring yet.
Kawa pushed his mother away. ‘I’m OK. Grandpa, tell me how you found it…the Pacific, you said?’
‘I have dived for conch shells my whole life,’ Grandpa answered, detouring, the way old people talk. ‘We fishers believe every shell holds a dream of the ocean, a memory. What do you think, Kawa, am I a dream diver or a memory keeper?’
‘What kind of memory, Grandpa?’
‘Shells are like fossils. Every loop, every mark and hole can tell what has happened in the past. People, mythology and ships; earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunami…’
‘What is tsunami?’
‘How many times do I have to tell you, my boy? When the tsunami hits, it’s impossible to imagine what that is like,’ the fisher raised his eyes high to look in the air, his clear voice clouded in awe. ‘Your grandma used to work as a nurse in a sanctuary a long time ago. She told me when a patient got unmanageable, they’d always try the art therapy. They give the patient paper and crayons and tell him to draw the Big Washing. Because tsunami is something beyond a sane man’s comprehension – you won’t forget what I told you last time, eh? When the ocean starts to disappear?’
‘Drop everything and run.’
‘Even when you are kissing a girl on the moon-lit beach, drag her up a hill first thing. Now, you were asking where I found it, Umi?’
‘Umi is her name?’ Umi,the ocean.
Kawa didn’t know why he said “her”, it just felt right for him. Tempted to steal glances, not quite knowing what to expect, he discerned, to his amazement, that inside the blinding brilliance it had slowly turned a cobalt blue. Mini tidal waves multiplied from its core to the edge, fading and starting all over again. Celestial sea.
‘I told you it has magic, now you believe me!’ Grandpa said, winking. ‘I found it on the day of Tanabata. As usual, I went out to the water to talk to your grandma.’
Tanabata is an ancient tradition. On the 7th day of the 7th month, the two lovers, Vega and Altair, two stars who are in love but separated by the Milky Way are reunited for one night, on the heavenly bridge made by magpies lining up in endless rows. That was the story at least. On this day swarms of birds would be found flying in one direction to finally disappear behind the horizon. Some regarded it as an auspicious sight, a fabulous sight as it is; others found it gloomy, like a Delphic oracle, always a bag full of surprises. Come what may, Tanabata is the traditional Valentine’s Day. Grandpa and Grandma met each other during the festive occasion long ago. Even after she died, Grandpa celebrated Tanabata, alone. He would sail out in his little fishing boat to somewhere on the open sea. Kawa’s mother had tried to convince the stubborn man that he was too old for this kind of adventure, but without much success.
‘I prepared my boat in the early evening,’ Grandpa continued. ‘I had cleaned it, it SHONE like a spring blossom. I packed a little jar of wine with me and some sweet seafood, ready to fight the sea monsters – that’s why your Grandma fell in love with me, she always said I looked like Moby Dick when we first met.’The old man chuckled, baring his unflawed teeth.
‘Now you ask,’ he paused to think for a moment . ‘I think it was Umi that found me instead of the other way around – ’
‘I heard it. It called me.’
‘You mean Umi spoke to you?’
‘Didn’t you know, my little pianist? The sea is absolute music. You can never get tired of sea like you never of love. Flute for cooing conversation: you are seducing the girl, you make her believe you will rip out your heart this instant to feed her, and she
threatens she will eat it out your hand right away! Piccolo, oboes, clarinet, bassoon, contrabassoon, trumpet, cornets, trombone, tuba, cymbal, triangle, shrieking strings…The lovers are going through every stage of love making just like going through life – you give everything. His gossamer stroke in her hair, her translucent kiss on his throat…every gesture, every minimal movement a worthy, exciting quest. Finally the two of them have toiled enough, then comes the bass drum. Thunders bring along the ultimate question: What is this? Will it last?’
Kawa was surprised to know that Grandpa was an expert. He had just named almost every orchestral component of Debussy, La mer.
His mother laughed. ‘It must be the sake that made you talk this way. You found the answer to your BIG question, father?’
‘I thought I was drunk too. But the answer was illuminated from below, a frothy yellow and pink light like a shattered neon. At first I believed it was a giant shell, you know, the ones that give light in the dark. I quickly stepped out of my clothes and jumped into water to find out. Then I saw it, suspended in midair, a calmness absorbing all the chaos in itself in order to give birth to…a kiss.’
‘Katsushika Hokusai? He depicted true love’s first kiss in that famous print of his, Tsunami. This is how I found it. I named it “umi no fukami”,depths of the sea. When I held Umi in my hand, I didn’t know why, but I was crying. Keep it. She is yours.’
After the concert, Kawa and his mother boarded the train back home. The route was Kawa’s favourite, with the bullet train curving along the east coast, hugging the green and grey cliff at the back, the Pacific a stone’s throw away, white chains of wave crashing without ever being exhausted. He loved the unhelpful passion, wild, wasted.
‘Let’s visit the temple, shall we?’ His mother suddenly decided that she wanted to stop at the large Buddhist temple complex she had once been to as a child. ‘It’s a lovely town with inns and hot springs. Buy some mochi cakes while you wait for me outside.’
‘But I don’t like mochi, you know that, Okaasan,’ Kawa complained. He didn’t like sweets, neither did he temples. But he understood his mother. She wanted to pray for Grandpa who passed away one week ago.
‘The pink cakes here are delicious. Next month, in the hanabi season, they will be selling them in piles. All fancy tastes cut into flower shapes, offer food for cherry blossom goddesses and sea demons.’ His mother made a ridiculous face to cheer him up.
‘Wait for me at the tree, I won’t be long,’ she instructed as the train came to a halt.
Kawa sat down under the large Zelkova tree facing the ocean. He didn’t know the Pacific could be calm despite its name. He ate the rice cake with gusto. He didn’t have lunch; before the concert he was too nervous to think food. Munching, Kawa felt sad. Grandpa would be proud of him if he had heard him playing Debussy. ‘Kawa-san you are a genius,’ he would have said, ‘writing a symphonic poem, dancing on stars of ebony and ivory.’ His mother had had his ash spread out over the ocean from his fishing boat, Moby Dick went back where he belonged.
He put the rest of the rice cake aside and took out his talisman. Held against the sun, in the peculiar translucency a shadow curved like a rainbow. He thought of Grandpa.
‘The vision stone is a point in space that contains all other points,’ he had told Kawa. ‘Anyone who gazes into it can see everything in the universe. Umi will give you the answer you look for!’
‘But I’m not looking for an answer. I’m looking for a question!’ Kawa whispered, holding the brilliant star to his eyes. The rainbow pulsed inside, filled with shots of orange floods. Glowing intensely, suddenly, it split into a loop hole, bleeding. The dream of last
night rushed back to him, in accurate, heartfelt details. The bright, liquefied silhouette touched his face and called his name, Kawa, my river. Is she the tooth fairy his mother talked about? He had never met her before but it was as if he had known her his entire life – the life before this life.
A hundred yards away the ocean retreated without Kawa’s noticing. When it came back again, Kawa raised his eyes to the sky smashed to smithereens, wiped out. A lazuline, abysmal blue wall rose to ink black, liquid flames, foaming, ear-splitting rage, gashed open by its own, unknown strength. True love’s first kiss. From the bowels of the earth came a ferocious, unruly, unreasonable music. Kawa dropped the stone in his hand. He saw the gazelle eyes he remembered from his dream, dark, pure tiger green…
Say Sea, Take Me! I’m Kawa…He muttered. The ocean didn’t wait for the feeble, puny little spot to finish his sentence. It’s that kiss…the one you lose yourself in.