The Lone Pine by Nicolette Vajtay
In 2011 a massive tsunami pummeled the northeast coast of Japan and decimated the island, wiping away twelve prefectures and the people who lived there. Nearly 20,000 would be recorded as dead. The tragic wave also uproots all 70,000 trees from the ancient pine grove, smashes them into pieces, and washes them out to sea. Except for one. One tree survives. And like this one tree, Akio, a Japanese grandfather, clings to life, desperate to save his values and traditions. But the tsunami uproots everything, including the customs and rules of their patriarchal society. The women of the Matsuoka family come together to rebuild their family, and in doing so, break a multi-generational cycle of being silenced. A compelling tale of hope, narrated by Azumi, the grandmother, Shizuko, her daughter, and Michiko, her granddaughter, filled with the struggles of the human experience and the mystical muse of awakening.
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————— Michiko —————
“Why?” was my favorite question as a kid, a question I asked a hundred times a day to anyone within a two-foot radius. Why are those sneakers orange? Why do dogs eat grass? Why am I ticklish? Why do ladybugs have spots? Why does daddy snore? Why aren’t there any more dinosaurs? Why is Barney purple? Why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk? Why do I have to invite that girl to my party?
The constant task of answering my questions most often fell to my mother, but her one-word responses lacked any real information. “Because,” she would say.
“But why, mama?” I’d look to her for more, but nothing more would come.
“Because, Michiko,” she’d reply with a sigh of exhaustion.
She told me years later that I would get so frustrated with her. That I would place my hand on my right cocked hip and stamp my foot in demand of a better answer. I must have been a terribly stubborn three-year-old as she said I could stand there for an hour to see if she would look up from her sewing or reading. She never even stirred.
“Why do you cry, mama?”
“Enough, Michiko. I’m tired. Go play,” she’d say, and I would stomp out of the room completely unsatisfied.
More and more questions poured out of me over the years. Why couldn’t my dolls talk, why was school only nine months out of the year, why do the boys push me on the playground and bark in my face, why did soldiers fight in a war in the middle east, why did my father have to fight in that war, why did I have to go to Japan alone without my mother?
But at ten-years-old, I learned that sometimes it’s better not to ask because sometimes there is no answer to the question why.
Why did a tsunami wipe away my grandparent’s village? I simply don’t know.
It’s hard to believe I’m twenty now, and we are honoring the ten-year anniversary of that fateful day. My grandmother, mother, and I strolled to the beach at dawn this morning just as the gentle Hawaiian sun peeked out from under the horizon in all her glory. We released leis of love and chants of prayers like we have every March eleventh and hoped the tide would carry them all the way to Japan. We sat on the cool sand on a large yellow beach blanket under an oversized pink striped umbrella for many long hours navigating our grief. And as the sun rose higher into the sky, the warm rays of light snuck around cotton-candy clouds and caressed our tear-stained faces.
I tried to remember my grandparents’ tiny fishing village, but the details were already fading. They had lived there on the northeast coast of Japan their entire lives, raised a child, my mother, tended to the forest, visited with family and friends, never traveled further than the southern tip of the island. They were content.
And then the tsunami wiped it all away.
I was there. When I was ten. I watched the ocean drag the village out to sea. Nothing remained. I needed to know why, but grown-ups tired of my questions, especially my grandfather. My Ojiisan.
Living in Hawaii, the morning sun greeted us most every day like a watercolor-painting, a soft daub of golden paint hovering in the bird-filled sky, a scene poets struggle to describe. But on that March day ten years ago, the same ball of fire blazed blood-orange in the skies of Japan.
Like a dragon, the sun raged with authority and breathed spiky rays of heat onto us without apology. Ojiisan and I sat in a battered old rowboat, floating on a lake where the ancient forest used to be, rocking back and forth in the restless tide. We could see everything from there. A three-hundred-sixty-degree view around the village. Where the village used to be. Higher on the mountain a noticeable line marked where the wave could no longer reach, where the schoolhouse and temple remained untouched. But lower in the valley, mounds of broken debris covered the acres and acres that had been my grandparents’ home. Crumbled walls, overturned cars, broken tables, smashed dishes. The Pacific Ocean flooded the acres that stretched out in all directions where the shops and homes and hospital used to be, with the stuff of our lives half-submerged in a swamp of seawater.
My teeth chattered, though I felt no cold. Dread covered my body with chills. I imagine now that I had been in shock, my brain numbed. A million questions perched on my tongue and a million more worries screamed in my head. But I waited for Ojiisan to speak first.
An hour passed, maybe more. Ojiisan rested, tucked in the boat’s bow, wracked with flu, mumbling grunts of words I could not make out. A common trait of his even when awake. He had said so little to me in the year I lived with my grandparents, no more than a one-word scolding now and then. “Shinai – don’t,” he would say, or “Ie – no.” Sometimes he spat at me with a quick “tst-tst,” which I learned also meant no. “Too curious,” he would announce into the room over my head, perhaps directed at my grandmother. “That is a dangerous quality.”
I don’t think he liked me. I couldn’t understand why. I thought grandfathers had to love their granddaughters by default. But given my mother’s estrangement from her parents, they didn’t even know they had a granddaughter until I arrived in Japan. I’m sure my blond hair and blue eyes created some doubt in my grandfather that I even belonged in his family. I looked like my father. In sixth-grade science, we learned about genetics, so I assumed my father’s genes were more potent than my mother’s. I wish I had my mother’s almond-shaped eyes and jet-black hair. She seemed exotic. In comparison, I thought my blue eyes were quite regular.
Ojiisan may have doubted, and he may not have liked me, but I couldn’t help liking him. I liked how he talked to the trees and how the pines rustled as if in response. I liked how he could tell the weather from looking at the stars. I even liked his frown. It made him appear distinguished, and it made me curious about his unhappiness. Deep creases underlined his dark, sad eyes, and a few dozen gray hairs crossed the top of Ojiisan’s head. I counted almost all of them one day while he napped on a cushion in the living space, but jumped away as he woke so as not to be in firing range of his constant disappointment. While thin and limber, his body seemed strong and his will sturdy for almost seventy years. One day I would grow beyond his five-foot-five-inches height, as my father surpassed six-two by three-quarters of an inch.
That March morning, he seemed to shrink smaller still in the boat’s bow; the blankets wrapped around him swallowed him whole but barely kept him warm. It seemed like he had given up, defeated by the devastation of his village. He refused my offer of help and any little comfort I could share. So, I sat there under the vicious sun, with no small bit of shade in which to take refuge, annoyed by the sweat that dripped down my back and collected behind my knees. My stomach churned with seasickness. And I was thirsty; so very thirsty.
I shielded my eyes with my hands and scanned the horizon for Kichiro, my only friend in the world. Why didn’t he walk with me to school that day? Why wasn’t he in the garden when the sirens rang out the warning of the tsunami? Why did my grandparents leave the house without him? I hadn’t seen Kichiro in two days. I prayed for a glimpse of his white tail wagging in the distance, but I saw nothing but mounds of trash. I hoped he had found safety; I hoped that a house hadn’t fallen on him, that he had found something solid to rest on. How long could a dog tread bitter cold water, I wondered? And then I pushed those horrible thoughts out of my mind and prayed some more.
When Ojiisan opened his tired eyes, he looked at me long and hard, so long that I thought he had fallen asleep again with his eyes open. I couldn’t hold it in any longer, “Ojiisan, I want to help. We have to do something. What can I do? Would you teach me? Please?” I asked in Japanese. He didn’t speak English, but I had practiced his language since the age of three. My mother taught me. And after living in Japan for a whole year, I had grown confident in my new vocabulary.
It took him five long minutes to prop himself up. I tried to hide that my anticipation turned into a bit of impatience. Eventually, he settled and nodded his head twice, once to acknowledge his inner consent. The other nod for me. He would let me help. I jumped up with excitement and landed on the seat closer to him, just before the rocking boat launched me into the black sea.
And then, with great focus, he began to impart one small bit from his canon of knowledge. Step by step, point by point, he described how to build a kēson.
“What’s that?” I didn’t know that word.
His entire body shook as his lungs clenched and squeezed out spasms of raspy barks. When the coughing fit finally passed, he tried again to describe a kēson in his flu-soaked voice. I had to lean in closer to hear him, and we both noticed that when I bowed in, he tilted further away. He wanted to pull me into his arms and hold me; he told me so years later. But his conditioned mind would not respond to his heart’s desire. He tried again to speak, but by then exhaustion had won and forced him back with a sigh that sounded like despair.
I didn’t understand the big Japanese words he used but giving up was not an option. If he couldn’t help me, then I would help him. I would stay strong for the both of us, even if tears threatened to spill from my eyes at any moment. We would have to communicate in a different way. I let him rest and followed a new idea out of the boat. The only way to dry land was through the water, which soaked me up past my knees. Goosebumps stung my arms and legs as they raced over my skin. I moved as fast as I could while carefully searching for solid footing. A white sock floated by, and a book cover with gold lettering, its pages long soaked and dissolved. I skirted around a dead squirrel that made me shiver with sadness and had to duck through a cluster of tree branches. Their fingers reached upward and tangled in my hair. When I made it the few meters up to dry land, I set out on my daunting task, holding the faith for my grandfather.
When Ojiisan woke from his troubled sleep, he found me settled again in the boat, back on the seat closest to him as if I had never left. I held out a piece of drywall I had found in the debris, about the size of an encyclopedia, and stranger than strange, a number 2 yellow pencil.
“It won’t write,” I said. The tip had snapped off during its journey in the harsh wave. “But I thought you could use it to scratch a drawing into the plaster.”
He shook his head from side to side, not in disagreement, but mystified by my smart thinking. And at that moment, he made a quiet vow to himself, to know me in a way that he had never known his own daughter. Then he shifted his tired body and propped himself into an upright position. The effort rocked the boat from side to side and my stomach swelled again with nausea.
Puddles on the bottom of the boat rippled from his movement, causing chipped flecks of red paint to swirl in the water and stick to my soaked school shoes. I stared down at my black penny loafers… and had a sudden realization they were my only pair of shoes. How would I manage without a pair of sturdy boots, I wondered? All the clothes I had left were on my body, my school uniform. A blue-plaid skirt, white blouse, and dark blue sweater, which I had tied around my waist; it was too hot for a wool sweater. My white knee socks, soaked and soiled, were my only pair. Every other thing in my closet and bureau, my few toys and several books, all drifted on the tides of the Pacific Ocean, swept away by the tsunami. Along with our house and the rest of the village.
Ojiisan wrapped himself up again in the blankets, then looked around and sighed. He closed his eyes as if he wished the misfortune away. I wondered if he prayed, too? I wondered if help would come. I wondered if my mother knew. Had the news of the tsunami reached her yet in Hawaii? How would she know we were okay?
When Ojiisan opened his eyes again, he squinted up sideways at the summer sun throbbing in the spring sky. He shook his head in frustration and trembled. Did he feel as disheartened as I? Then his head bobbed up and down in a nod as if he agreed to a conversation only in his mind, and his hand went to his belt. It rested there on the old wood sheath that housed the knife on his hip. After another moment of contemplation, he pushed the weathered sheath down the length of his cracked leather belt and with the last tug, slid it off into his hands. With delicate care, he pulled the weapon from its wooden home and the double-edged-blade glinted with a spark of sunlight. A striking weapon, fashioned with tremendous skill, called a Tantō. Still as sharp that day as when the craftsman forged it for the Great Samurai Yuudai in the 12th century.
I had heard the fantastic story about the Tantō, twice already. For almost a thousand years the Samurai’s family passed the dagger from generation to generation to the first-born son in their lineage. Each young boy received the knife when he turned ten years of age. No wonder Ojiisan held the blade with such reverence, like a sacred family relic.
Ojiisan’s ancestors, my ancestors, all believed the dagger possessed the mystical powers of the spirit of the Samurai Yuudai. Ojiisan didn’t subscribe to the supernatural, not till one day in his early thirties when he found himself in a deathly dual where he should have died. It was then he believed, knowing without a doubt that the spirit of the Samurai had saved his life.
Another cough wracked Ojiisan’s weak body, and the blade slipped from his hands, hit the bottom of the boat, and shattered the silence with a symphonic tone. The astonishing sound instantly quieted my heart with comfort. Ojiisan also paused, with true amazement in his eyes, and listened to the music with relish before retrieving the dagger from the puddle. Then he did something that took me by complete surprise. He raised his arms and reached them out to me. The knife lay in his hands like an offering. “Take it, Michiko, use it,” he said. “I pray the Great Samurai will help us today.”
I didn’t understand. Ojiisan had forbidden me to even be near the dagger, let alone touch it. He warned me over and over, “It is a powerful weapon, Michiko, and little girls must not touch! You must listen and obey, Michiko.”
He sounded so much like my mother, her constant whine droned in my ear, “Little girls don’t play with knives. Not even a kitchen knife!” How could she not see that you needed a knife to carve boxes into forts, to cut water bugs in half, to dissect frogs?
Ojiisan moaned from the exertion it took to hold the blade, his arms also heavy with flu. “I don’t want it,” I said and crawled over to the rear seat of the boat.
“I am too tired,” he said, “too weak to press the image upon the plaster. It will be easier to draw.” He felt assured in his decision, that the crude task was worthy of the dagger, and held it out to me with instructions to carve him a point on the pencil.
Fear pumped through my heart. I had learned to whittle a stick in Girl Scout’s, but Ojiisan wouldn’t have known that, and I certainly wouldn’t have trusted a ten-year-old with such a weapon. The craftsman had sharpened the Tantō to kill, not to sharpen a pencil. Ojiisan used all his remaining energy, leaned toward me, and pushed the handle of the Tantō into my small hand. I wanted to give it back, but his face flared red as his lungs coughed up a spasm of searing need. I reached out to him, but he shook me off and leaned back again. As he wrapped the blankets tighter around his shoulders, he directed my attention to the blade. I looked straight into his dark eyes for confirmation, which were clouded with fever but clear with intention. “Leave me be, and get on with your task,” he instructed, then closed his eyes in search of some relief.
I passed the weapon back and forth between my two hands and considered its beauty. And its immense danger. And as if on cue, the four little scars on my four fingertips pulsed with remembered pain. I proceeded with my examination more carefully. The dagger felt much heavier than I expected. But it also felt natural in my hands, as if I had held it a million times before. Which both surprised me and not. From the very first time I saw it, I felt connected to it, like in some strange way it had always belonged to me. Without ever having seen such a weapon before, I somehow knew how to hold it.
As I touched the blade to the edge of the broken pencil, the knife began to vibrate, and a gentle tingling tickled my fingers. Magic and joy and suspicion and awe and doubt and surprise all coursed through me at once. The teeth on the knife moved through the lead with ease, as if it sliced through a sweet summer peach, and razor-thin shavings of wood floated down into the boat like a cloud of butterflies. It must have been an ancient magic echoing through the Tantō right into my hands. And then I too believed. I believed Ojiisan’s story that the Samurai had infused his spirit into the dagger. I could feel him. It was he who carved the pencil, not me!
How could I ever forget that day? I remember it as a snapshot in my mind, and if I close my eyes, I can see us there together. But I remember that day so well, not because we floated in a rowboat in our flooded village. Not because I felt the profound Spirit of Yuudai all around me. But because on that day, after an entire year living in his home, Ojiisan touched my hand for the first time.
I saw him watching me as I carved the pencil. His wrinkled features softened, and a noticeable turn lifted his constant frown. He nodded with approval, but his kindness felt unfamiliar to me as he wasn’t a sentimental nor an emotional man. I fumbled, nervous about his attention, and pushed my ability into clumsiness. The dagger jumped! As did my heart! The blade nearly sliced through my fingers. And then, with a touch gentler than I ever could have imagined, he placed his fingers on that soft spot between my thumb and index finger to slow me down. My concentration slipped away from the knife to that spot on my hand, to that soft place where Ojiisan’s fingers rested. Rough calluses scratched at my skin, which made me wonder about the kind of labor his hands performed. When he caught me looking at him, he looked away, uncomfortable in such an unguarded moment, and rested back again in the boat.
At such a young age, I couldn’t have articulated how much I needed a loving touch, even if just on my hand, especially by a man. Something my father wasn’t ever capable of. At twenty I am desperately aware of that need, and equally afraid.
The knife danced in my hands and the Samurai’s wisdom rushed through me, and after a couple more passes over the pencil, I presented Ojiisan a point of lead that could write a novel. And more questions swirled. Could a simple pencil be the answer to our prayers? Could we survive the horrible devastation of the country and our home? How did we get there, I wondered? To that very moment when we needed the strength and wisdom of the Great Yuudai more than ever?