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By Zach Mann
Fuji was fastening his work belt when he spotted the water basin across the lot, beside the stone steps. As a habit he held his breath and pushed his hands over his crimpers and strippers, silencing them against his jeans. He listened for the whirr of the little motor, if it churned inside the bamboo chozuya, keeping the water running. His ears had been trained to check, so mosquitoes wouldn’t take advantage in the warmer months.
Meanwhile his two Hokkaido dogs skipped around his feet, chomping at snow.
He always commanded the mother, for the pup followed her lead. Dutifully Minke parked herself in the snow. The pup paused, unsure, long enough for Fuji to hear the faint effort of the motor, and the cedar-scented wind, with its metallic aftertaste of cold rock, the sounds and smells of winter in Kochi. Then Fuji stomped at the icy asphalt with his Crocs and chased his dogs across the lot. They yipped, hopped away and wagged their curled tails. They panted back at their owner with red smiles.
Beyond the dogs, past the chozuya, through the Shinto arch and up the stone stairway, Fuji could see the canopy of the tree. The electrician’s tree, he called it, for the metal sheets and cables bolted into its barky flesh, hardware added each decade to keep its three-thousand-year-old bulk in one piece and upright, to delay its natural return to mulch.
But today it wasn’t the monks who called him. The temple shared its lot with an elementary school, out of session for winter. The administrator had asked Fuji to add more outlets to the new computer room, and he was happy to. His wife Kasumi was a teacher there once. It was Kasumi who organized the children to paint the mural on the front wall: monks praying before the tree, and the priest of Susano-o, with globs of white paint to represent his Edo-era vestments, performing a cartoon version of Shinto wizardry. On the trunk of the tree was written the kanji for “old,” a fitting entrance to a school known as Old Tree Shogakko.
Now the mural was one of Fuji’s many remembrances of her. The fell ghost’s capture was Kasumi’s favorite folktale. The priest’s name would have been the name of their first son. Instead it was the never-spoken name of Minke’s pup.
Fuji didn’t get paid for his work at schools and temples. He made enough money from the Kochi prefectural government keeping the streetlights on and the bridges lit, and stringing new feeders across red cattle valleys to catch up with the growing beef trade. But he liked this part, too, driving his truck all around the Shikoku foothills with his dogs, parking at the edges of ravines, by the old houses that fall into hillsides, the homes of old hermits who tended their own rice paddies and grew their own turnips. When the power went out, they called him, not the prefecture.
He walked toward the school, breathing warmth into his palms, as Minke and the nameless pup sprinted past him. But before Fuji reached the school’s entrance, a new uneasiness gave him pause. The wisps of hair on his balding head rose, as if tickled by a breeze, but the wind had stopped. He silenced his tools again and listened. For a moment, there was only the whirr of the chozuya and nothing else.
Then Fuji heard the crack. He heard a heavy rush of wind like thunder, the whine of dogs, the creak of metal like a capsizing submarine, and the unmistakable sound of splitting wood. Without hesitation Fuji sprinted across the lot, past the chozuya and his battered Suzuki pickup, up the stone steps two at a time. Minke and pup followed him, until the top, at the Shinto gate, when their paws scraped the gravel to a stop. They growled and barked behind their owner, who stood before the freshly cleaved three-thousand-year-old tree, and fell to his knees, for he recognized her immediately.
“It’s weird, that’s all,” Joe Meza said, as he turned the Daihatsu onto the main road toward Ozawa.
“It was only fifteen minutes,” Morgan replied.
“But the trains are never late here.”
Morgan Prady didn’t mention the half dream she had on board, when the train was lulling by the unused stops, covered now in dead weeds. There was an earthquake that didn’t shake. The train windows degaussed like old CRTs, re-polarizing the world outside. At least, that’s what her half-open eyes had seen. Instead of replying, Morgan watched Japan pass by the Daihatsu’s passenger window, comparing the watercolor countryside to Oregon’s oily hills.
As they left the suburban sprawl of Kochi City, patches of fog slid into the valleys, graying myriad shades of evergreen, and Morgan wondered what her fiancé’s life must have been like these last few months, living in the middle of such a pretty nowhere.
“Tell me about this area,” Morgan said.
“I don’t know,” she said, “something besides the marketing stuff.” It’d been half a year since he left, since she drove him to the airport still asking, “Do you have to go?” Since he proposed, promising he’d be back within the year. Her weekly phone calls from Japan were mostly updates regarding his job and the hospitality business.
As Joe considered the question, Morgan watched him drive. They hadn’t done much looking at each other yet, so she did the looking. His hair spilled out of his beanie, longer than she’d ever seen it. His shirt was yellow, a color she’d never seen him wear before. And the smell, she didn’t know the smell, this new brand of deodorant he used.
“Well, there was an exiled emperor who lived around here once,” Joe said. He gestured out above the cattle fields, to the mountainous horizon and the drifts of snow at its ridges.
“Did he live in Ozawa?”
“No,” Joe said, “His daughter did though, according to the legend.”
Joe smiled. It was the first time his smile didn’t seem forced. “Okay, so,” he started, drumming at the steering wheel with his fingers, “Ozawa is on a river, so it has two sections, one on each side, with a bridge that goes across. And the emperor’s daughter, she lived on one side, well, you know, obviously. She kind of ruled the town, and she was cruel, or something. I don’t remember. For some reason, the townspeople didn’t like her. But she was married to this samurai, who was from an old, old family, who was forced to marry her, because he respected the emperor too much to refuse him his daughter’s hand. Is this making sense?”
“I thought he was an exiled emperor.”
“Tosa, which is what Kochi used to be called, was so far from Edo he was basically a real emperor. Anyway, this samurai, I forget his name, but he had a lover already, before he was forced to marry, and she lived on the other side of the river in Ozawa. According to the legend, each week, when the emperor’s daughter would receive her milk bath, the samurai would sneak out and rendezvous with his lover at the middle of the bridge.”
Morgan liked seeing Joe excited to tell her something. “Let me guess,” she said, “once a week, if you look at the bridge at just the right time, you can see the samurai and his lover making out.”
Joe laughed. Morgan liked seeing that, too.
“Something like that,” he said. Then he interjected, “Oh, you know what? Let’s stop here for a second. I want to show you this tree.” He pointed ahead, to a cluster of buildings tucked into the hillside. He turned the Daihatsu off the main road.
“Yah, a three-thousand-year-old tree.”
Joe pulled into an empty parking lot. The car whined to a stop in front of what looked like a children’s school. The front wall had been painted sloppily, in primary colors. It showed children sitting around a tree, with a magician in the middle, dressed in white. Morgan got out of the Daihatsu and wrapped the scarf higher up her face. When she sniffled, she breathed in the wool. She looked across the valley, at the tufts of bamboo between mountain peaks, rustling out of focus, and her anxieties about her fiancé began to blur, too.
“This way,” Joe said. He led her across the parking lot, toward an old stairway. They stopped at a fountain, which Joe referred to as a chozuya, for purification . He showed her how to take one of the tin ladles, fill it with water and pour some into her cupped hand. The almost-ice turned her fingers blue. But it smelled crisp. And there was something soothing about the whirr from beneath the sink, filling the vacuous silence, buzzing like Portland silence.
They walked up the stairs. “It’s the tallest cedar in Japan, actually,” Joe was saying. “It was planted by the Shinto god or goddess of something or other.” He was laughing when they reached the gate. Then he stopped. “Oh shit.”
They stood on the gravel, looking up at the massive tree, bigger around than Joe’s Daihatsu, plated with steel sheets wet from the snow. One giant crack had recently splayed the tree in half vertically, causing the ancient lumber to flop over like banana peels, held up only by cables bolted into its sides.
“Maybe it got hit by lightning,” Joe said, “All that metal.”
Morgan looked up at the tree-halves, swaying by cables. “Three thousand years old,” she said softly. Sadly. She slipped her hand into Joe’s, but his cold fingers hung lifeless at his side. She squeezed them anyway. “Let’s go,” she said. “It might fall.”
They barely spoke for the next hour, as they drove deeper into the Shikoku mountains, toward Ozawa. A late afternoon sky faded behind the cloud cover. The weather couldn’t decide between snow or drizzle, so it took turns, sending rainbows across the valleys, but Morgan couldn’t appreciate even the overt beauty of Kochi. Whatever comfort she’d begun to cultivate was spoiled by the sight of the tree, so much cumulative life erased in a moment, torn apart by its own weight or who knows what. The image precluded hopes and maybes and returned to Morgan a sense of irreparability.
When finally she commented on the scenery, Joe launched into the latest drama at work, a series of Skype arguments with headquarters back in Portland, an ongoing disagreement over exactly what color gray-green to use for the trim of their new project, Tosa, a Japanese-themed resort outside Ashland complete with yuzu orchard and a real onsen.
But Morgan was only reminded of the possibility that Joe might need to stay in Japan longer than the year he had promised. She was thankful the Daihatsu’s dashboard rattled so loudly, so Joe wouldn’t notice her trembling. She felt wrong. Being a passenger on the left side of a car driving on the left side of the road on the left side of the Pacific Ocean. Split robot trees. This land of gray-green. Being with Joe.
Some of Morgan’s favorite memories with Joe were those loping drives over Oregon’s green hills, and their idle, front-seat dialogues. But now, as Joe’s occupational whines faded without discussion, the memory of how it used to be weighed on their silence.
“Oh, right,” Joe fended off the tension. “I didn’t finish the story about the emperor’s daughter.”
He nodded. “So,” he started, echoing his narrative tone from before, “The emperor’s daughter found out about her husband’s secret meetings. Don’t know how. I think someone told her, some other important character I’ve forgotten. Anyway, the next time she only pretends to take her milk bath. Instead she follows him to the bridge. When they get to the middle, she has her servant cut the ropes, sending them into the river.”
“The samurai and his lover?”
“Yes,” Joe continued, “but also, as they fell to their death, the emperor’s daughter had her servant cut her throat, as she watched, so she could have her vengeance and not have to live with it. I saw a really bad woodcut of it once... Anyway, now there’s a saying in Ozawa; don’t bring your beloved across the bridge after dark. Or at dusk. One of those.”
Morgan didn’t like ghost stories. “Does everyone know the legend?” she asked.
“Yah, it’s the town story, basically.”
By this time the road had shrunk to one lane and the Daihatsu grumbled up and down taller and taller mountains. Occasionally Joe would tell Morgan some factoid about Ozawa, or point out one of the roadside shrines, carved into the rock faces as they passed, telling her which one is for frogs, which one is for monkeys. When the Daihatsu reached Ozawa, it was unclear, by the gray of the sky, whether or not the sun had begun to set.
Ozawa was even smaller than Morgan expected. She could see the entire town from the window, a handful of buildings huddled around a river bend. A lone bowstring bridge connected the two halves, about fifty yards long and wide enough for only one car to cross at a time. Aside from the size, the bridge was not unlike bridges in Portland, with pale yellow lights built into the support beams, ready for the approaching dusk.
“I thought it was going to be like an old, creaky drawbridge,” Morgan said.
“It used to be.”
“We’re not going to cross, are we?”
Joe’s lips curled into a wicked smile. “Well, we need to get to the other side.”
The Daihatsu whined down the hillside. When they neared the bridge, Morgan noticed a mud-bellied white pickup with hurried tire marks in its wake, parked just before the bridge’s entrance. Two mean-looking dogs were tied up beside it. They had white bellies and golden splotches on their brows and backs like sunburns. The older one growled. The puppy barked viciously at nothing in particular, pulling desperately at its leash.
“Let’s not cross it,” Morgan said.
Joe laughed. “Don’t bring your beloved across the bridge at dusk,” he repeated in a ghoulish voice.
“I’m serious, Joe.”
“Oh come on,” Joe said. He pushed her shoulder playfully. “Perfect timing, huh? It’s almost as if I planned it. Maybe I should try and talk the committee into adding a spooky bridge in the yuzu orchard or something.”
If Joe was joking, the joke fell flat, because Morgan didn’t respond, because the Daihatsu turned onto the bridge anyway. She was gripping the corners of her seat and watching the two dogs as they kept growling and barking, not turning in their direction, even when the Daihatsu passed within ten feet. She knew she was being ridiculous, that it was only a folk tale, but ever since she purchased a ticket to Japan, had decided to visit her fiancé, she sensed some undefined, inevitable disaster. And it loomed now more than ever. She couldn’t help but imagine the bridge like the old tree, splintered and swinging by cables.
As the car crunched snow on the planked surface of the bridge, Morgan tried to close her eyes, to let the moment pass over her. But she still noticed something jump in front of the car. She still couldn’t stop herself from screaming.
The something screamed back at them. It was a middle-aged Japanese man with a bald head, shiny from snowflakes, and a white mustache like upside down bull horns. He was slapping at the hood of the Daihatsu and backpedaling across the bridge as tools jangled on his work belt. He was shouting in Japanese. “Joaquin!” the man repeated over and over, using Joe’s full name, spitting on the windshield as he barked, “Futari de wataru na!”
Joe frowned. “It’s Fuji the electrician. He’s not making sense.”
Fuji had seen the records once, fifteen years ago, when he was commissioned to wire the bridge for lights. He saw how many times Ozawa’s bridge had collapsed, without any reason given, every decade at least, until 1872. His wife had poked fun at him then, but never would he have taken her across at dusk, never, even a century later, not after seeing the list of fatalities. Kasumi could smile and kiss his bald spot and call him superstitious all she wanted.
Fuji was still working the bridge job when she passed, only months after they found the tumor.
So the bridge was yet another remembrance of her. He offered her a prayer each time he crossed alone. Now he stood on the pedestrian walkway, halfway across the bridge, and imagined his wife at his side, like the samurai’s lover. These were his thoughts when he noticed an approaching car, a yellow-plate Daihatsu with the gaijin Joaquin Meza driving, and a young woman in the passenger seat.
This was why he’d been guarding the bridge, why he’d raced his truck to Ozawa after the fell ghost descended from the tree and disappeared.
Fuji ran at the Daihatsu with his arms waving, screaming for Joaquin to stop. He could see the woman in the passenger seat screaming too, looking up at Fuji with sepia, semi-circle eyes. The bottom half of her face was wrapped in a red scarf.
“Wakin! Futari de wataru na!” he yelled and slapped at the hood, but the car kept going. Fuji shouted it again and again. Not with her! Don’t cross together! He tried remembering how much Japanese Joaquin could speak, but he’d only met him once. He doubted they even knew the legend of the emperor’s daughter.
By the time Joaquin hit the brakes, it was too late. The Daihatsu slid a couple extra meters on the icy surface and Fuji had to jump back onto the pedestrian path to not get hit. The car had already made it a third of the way across, and it was enough. She appeared.
Fuji screamed for her to stop. He begged for her mercy.
She manifested in front of the Daihatsu, floating a meter above the road. Her milk-bath skin paled even more in the darkening sky and the red gash at her throat glistened in the bridge’s lights, as if the wound had recently bled. Her black hair danced above her head, giving the impression that they were all already underwater, in the icy river below. She was angry, angrier even than when she’d first been loosed from the tree.
Fuji tried to grab the ghost’s wrist, to pull her from the car, but his hand passed through her unnoticed. He saw the ashen faces of the young couple in the car and waved for them to back up, but they kept staring, dumbstruck.
The ghost of the emperor’s daughter leaned toward the windshield. She did not speak. She paused there, looking first at Joaquin and then, more intently and for longer, at the woman in the passenger seat. Then the ghost’s severe face relaxed. She floated backwards, until her bare feet reached the asphalt. Her hair fell with her, long and straight, upon her shoulders. Then, with her head down, she turned away from the Daihatsu and walked to the side of the bridge, out of the car’s path.
Minke’s pup stopped barking.
“Wakin!” Fuji shouted and banged the car window. He waved for them to leave. When finally the Daihatsu rattled forward, the woman on the passenger side craned her neck, keeping her sepia eyes on the center of the bridge until they safely reached the other side.
Fuji watched the car snake up the Ozawa hillside. Then he checked to make sure no other cars approached from the south road. He stood at the center of the bridge, with his hands on his hips, and caught his breath. The sad form of the emperor’s daughter sat at the bridge’s edge, her feet dangling off the side. Fuji couldn’t help but sympathize with her. He wondered if it was even possible, this day and age, to trap ghosts in trees anymore. If it was, Fuji asked, in silent prayer to Kasumi, would that make me the priest of Susano-o, with globs of white paint for robes?
Or does it even matter? Perhaps we were the last lovers to come through Tosa.
Zach Mann was born and raised in Los Angeles. He’s lived in many cities in California and one city in Russia. Currently he attends Cal State University Long Beach’s MFA program in Fiction. On the side he waxes on food at TheEatenPath.com.