Loren Stephens

Spotlight: Burning Nettles

The train ride from Osaka to Arashiyama took an hour. Noriko rested her head against her husband’s shoulder and drifted off into a light sleep. She was exhausted from long days working at the Tesagara Tea Room and taking care of their two-year-old son, Eiji. Disembarking at the station, Ichiro instructed the cab driver to take the couple to the Togetsutei ryokan, where he had a reservation for an afternoon of forest bathing and a sumptuous meal. They passed the soft hills dressed in a vibrant coat of maples leaves.

Stepping out of the taxi, Ichiro felt light-headed. He had taken an extra dose of his medicine, but he was afraid that he had overdone it. The tuberculosis strain that ebbed and flowed through his body was tightening its grip on him, day by day.

From their private room, the young couple watched the Oe River flowing east underneath the wooden pylons of the trestle bridge. In another month, the hillside would be wrapped in a gray shroud and the cedar branches filled with pillows of white snow. For now, the autumn air was a refreshing change from the polluted air of downtown Osaka.

An attendant dressed in a traditional kimono slid the shoji screen of their private room open and brought a lacquered tray with a brazier, which she placed on a tatami mat. The dishes of a traditional kaiseki banquet appeared one by one. Ichiro watched with pleasure as his wife Noriko relished each dish. “It is good to see that you have an appetite today. It must be the mountain air. In ancient times the monks used to wrap a kaiseki, a heated stone, on their stomachs beneath their robes to ward off hunger during their climb up the mountain. We are much more fortunate than they.”

Noriko nodded. “Yes, in one way. But in another we aren’t because they achieved enlightenment through abstinence. We struggle to understand our purpose in life on a full stomach. Perhaps we would have greater clarity with sacrifice.”

“Is that what your religion teaches you? I was near starvation during the war, and all that filled my mind were thoughts of food—even if that meant grasshoppers and rats. Sacrificing for the Emperor Hirohito added up to nothing in the end. Japan lost the war, and most of us barely made it out alive. Even you.”

“I suppose you are correct, Ichiro, but my priest says that when we sacrifice for the good of others, it is not really a sacrifice. It is a way to bring joy to another person, and that is the greatest virtue of all.”

Ichiro did not have the strength or the inclination to argue further with his wife. Besides, he had much more on his mind than a rehashing of their personal histories. He walked out onto the veranda, and Noriko followed him. The sun was warm on their faces, but the breeze from the river was cool, and Noriko began to shiver. She put her hand in the steamy water of the hot tub. Ichiro took his clothes off and stepped in. Noriko could see his ribs protruding from beneath his pale skin. She turned away, unbuttoned her blouse and skirt, and slid into the water beside her husband. He pressed his body against her. She cupped her hands to hold the water and slowly dripped it over his head and onto his face. “This is to wash away all your sorrows, my beloved husband, and make you well, again.”

Ichiro sighed as she slid her fingers down his back. He touched her between her legs and kissed her neck. The twisted branches of the pine trees hid the couple from view, and they took advantage of nature’s privacy. Ichiro found the strength to penetrate Noriko’s body, while murmuring “Star of Mine,” over and over again. Making love to her was his only pleasure. He was afraid that all too soon, she might turn away from him or that she too could contract the disease that would not release its hold on him.

They stepped out of the hot tub and wrapped themselves in black kimonos. A teakettle had been placed on the brazier. Noriko’s cheeks were pink, but Ichiro’s complexion was pallid despite the steamy bath water.

Ichiro’s heart was pounding, and his throat felt like he had swallowed a bowl of burning nettles. He caught his breath while Noriko finished her tea. When she put her cup down, he said, “There’s something I must ask of you. I have given this much thought, and I believe that what I’m about to propose is the only way out of our predicament.”

“What predicament?”

“I am not getting better. Doctor Shizumi has recommended that I go to a sanitarium for up to six months.”

Horrified, she asked, “What else did he say?”

“He says that working as hard as I do is impeding my chance of recovery. Your sister Setsuko has been most generous keeping me on at the restaurant, but I don’t know how much longer she’ll put up with me. Her husband has been complaining to her. She doesn’t mention this, but I hear him growling at her when he comes back from the pachinko parlor. I no longer have the capacity or the will to do a proper job. My father once told me that I must always be proud of myself and do my best. I am defiling his memory; I am failing you, I am failing our son, and worst of all, I am failing myself.”

“Somehow, we will manage. And if necessary, I’ll ask my father to lend us some money. His sushi business in Matsue is thriving. He has come to my rescue before, and he can do it again. I can still see him on his bicycle riding through the ruins of Hiroshima to find me at school and bring me home, while the other children were stranded in the fire and ashes.”

Ichiro tried not to raise his voice, but he could not help himself. “Yes, Ryo is your hero, but he is not mine. I would never ask him for money. What would he think of me? I’d rather be a beggar on the street than accept a handout from him.”

“Ichiro, you are not making sense.”

He realized he had lost his focus and needed to get his point across now. “We are hardly ever together as a family, which is not good for our son. You work all day, and I work all night. Eiji needs a father capable of earning a living and a mother who is not forced to go to work.”

“What are you saying? No two parents could love their son more than you and I do. Eiji and you are my whole life. If someone were to tell me that I could become a star on the stage of the Takarazuka Theater if I gave up my son, even for a day, I would turn them down. I gave up that dream a long time ago. You and Eiji are my present and my future.”

Ichiro forged ahead. “Noriko, I have asked my sister and her husband to adopt Eiji. They can give him a better life in the United States. They have written to say that they will adopt him, so long as you are in agreement.”

Noriko felt like a bird trapped in a frozen pond with her wings beating against the air, trying to free herself. She hissed, “You would give our son away? He did not come into this world as ours to be given away, even to your sister.”

“But neither did he choose to have a father who is too sickly and unclean to take care of him properly.” Then he spoke the words that both of them feared, “And what if you should become sick? No, no one will judge us harshly. We have no other choice.”

Crying, Noriko blurted out, “If we give Eiji away, what will fill my starving heart? Will I need to tie a hot stone over my heart so as not to feel hunger? Perhaps one of the monks—whom you seem to know so much about—will lend me a kaiseki to carry around for the rest of my life?”

Ichiro held his breath. Whatever he might say would only make matters worse. He waited for Noriko to say something more.

“I can’t give you an answer now, Ichiro. I must think about this very carefully. I must ask my priest what she would advise me to do.”

“Can’t you think for yourself? You don’t need to consult with your priest. This is between us, and we need to make a decision soon. The longer we wait, the more difficult it will be for Eiji. I am just hoping that there will not be any complications and that the United States will open its doors to our son. Just think of it. Our little boy will be a rich American someday.” Then Ichiro starting singing in a strange voice, “Home, home on the range. Where the deer and the antelope play. Where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day.”

Noriko thought, Has Ichiro lost his mind?

Her husband blinked and then continued rambling. “Noriko, I am struggling to get through each day. Sometimes, I feel as if I do not exist—that I have crossed over into an invisible world where only ghosts live.”

Noriko said, “You are scaring me. I see you with my own eyes. I can touch you with my own hands and taste you with my own mouth. Were you not just making love to me? Or was that my imagination between my legs?”

Ichiro forced a smile. “I didn’t know I still could. It must have been one of the miracles of Tenrikyo that you like to pray to.”

Noriko slapped his face, trying to wake him up from some terrible dream. “I will never let you go, and I don’t want to let Eiji go either.”

She walked back out onto the balcony. The first star had poked through the evening’s canopy, and the moon was hanging low in the sky between the rise and fall of the nearby mountain. Ichiro slipped his hand inside Noriko’s kimono and whispered, “If you love me as much as I love you, you’ll do as I ask.” His hand felt cold on her breast, and she stepped away from him.

Noriko and Ichiro changed back into their street clothes, without saying a word. She watched him put on his father’s navy blue silk tie and wrap his white scarf around his neck—the same one he wore the night she fell in love with him as he played the piano in the tea room, and she sang “You Are My Everything.” That night seemed like a thousand years ago, and while the words she had sung then were still true, her heart had expanded to encompass another love: their son, Eiji. How could she ever let him go? As his mother, she had a right to claim him for herself. He was still part of her, even if the cord which had carried the blood from her body into his had been cut.

Loren Stephens - Photo_ResizedLoren Stephens is president of the Los Angeles-based Write Wisdom (www.writewisdom.com), which provides ghosting services to famous and not-so-famous clients alike. Under her own name, Loren has penned essays and short stories (two of which were nominated for Pushcart Prizes in 2014 and 2015) that have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, Peregrine, The Montreal Review, The MacGuffin, Forge Journal, The Summerset Review, North Atlantic Review, and Eclectica Magazine to name a few. She has just completed with Cliff Simon a memoir/adventure, Paris Nights: My Year at the Moulin Rouge, which will be published in July 2016 by Waldorf Publishing; and her novel, All Sorrows Can Be Borne, to be published in 2017.