The Lone Pine by Nicolette Vajtay
THE LONE PINE is set in the true event of the 2011 tsunami in Japan, a commercial upmarket fiction at 93K words, a coming-of-age, multi-generational family saga that embodies the struggles of the human experience and the mystical muse of awakening. A story of terrible loss and rising hope, sprinkled with magical realism, as experienced through the lives of the women of the Matsuoka family; young Michiko, her mother Shizuko, and her grandmother, Azumi.
Michiko, a bright and confident bi-racial ten-year-old, is visiting her grandparents in Japan when the tragic 2011 earthquake incited a 45-foot tsunami. The wave decimated the northeast coast of Japan, killed over 20,000 people, and washed away all 70,000 trees of the ancient pine grove. Except one! One tree survived, and this lone pine inspired a nation with the hope that the values and traditions of Japan would also survive.
But merely surviving is no longer enough. The tsunami uprooted everything, including the outdated values that often silenced rather than uplifted women. It is because of this crisis the women of the Matsuoka family decide to rebuild their lives in a new way. Michiko’s mother Shizuko rushes to Japan from America in hopes her family has survived, which includes a reluctant reunion with her estranged parents. While Michiko’s grandmother refuses to speak, what words could she say without rage and heartache behind them, the women decide to heal the intergenerational trauma of their mother/daughter relationships and truly grow. To craft this change, the women must navigate around Michiko’s old-fashioned grandfather, who rules with patriarchal traditions dating back to the days of the Samurai. Like the lone pine, he clings to his roots, desperate to save his traditional way of life.
This single moment in time reshapes the family, and the essence of the tsunami, a dynamic infusion of water, becomes both the destroyer of life and a blessing that creates life.
Currently seeking literary representation.
Read the first chapter below.
Chapter 1: ザ・余波
March 13, 2011
Young Michiko floated in the old red rowboat on a lake where the ancient forest used to be. She could see everything from there, with the sea on her left, and the village, where the village used to be, on her right. A million worries screamed in her head but just one question perched on her tongue. Why?
“Why?” was Michiko’s favorite question as a toddler, a question she asked a hundred times a day to anyone within a two-foot radius. Most often that person was her mother, from whom Michiko demanded answers with her hand planted on her right cocked hip like a defiant teenager. Not just any answers, but good ones, that made sense in her young mind. “Why do dogs eat grass? Why does it tickle under my arm? Why aren’t there any more dinosaurs? Why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk?”
When she was ten, floating in a rowboat in her grandparents’ flooded village, Michiko learned that sometimes there is no answer to the question why.
Her grandparents had lived there on the northeast coast of Japan, their entire lives. They raised a child, tended to the forest, visited with family and friends, never traveled further than the southern tip of the island, they didn’t have any money. But they were content. Until two days ago, when a vicious tsunami crashed upon their shores, fifteen meters tall, a wall of frigid black water rose up higher than the tallest building and wiped it all away. She was there, she saw it with her own eyes as the ocean dragged the entire village out into the raging sea.
She wanted to ask why, but she dared not wake her grandfather from his rest. Wracked with feverish flu, he lay curled up in the bow of the boat under a heavy gray blanket, mumbling to himself as he dreamed of better days.
They floated together in silence, taking in the destruction of the village, suffering their thoughts on their own. Higher on the mountain a noticeable line marked where the wave could no longer reach. Where trees with plump springtime buds turned toward the sun, where the road wound its way around to the next village, where glass windows in homes sparked with morning light, and where the schoolhouse and temple stood untouched.
But lower in the valley, ravaged treasures lay half-submerged in a swamp of seawater. Twisted lengths of rebar protruded through shattered windshields of overturned cars, chunks of wood and brick and drywall lay strewn over the landscape as if every house in the village had just exploded. Splintered tables and broken chairs teetered atop cumbrous mounds of debris that spread across the once vibrant valley.
Hours passed as Michiko and her grandfather swayed back and forth in the tide. Her teeth chattered as dread covered her body with chills. She shivered, probably in shock, even though a blazing ball of fire hung suspended in the sky above her.
Her grandfather mumbled in his feverish sleep. He mumbled even when awake and said so little to her in the long year she had lived in Japan. No more than a one-word scolding now and then. “Shinai (don’t),” he would say, or “Ie (no).” “Too curious,” he would announce into the room over her head, directed at her grandmother. “That is a dangerous quality.”
Being estranged from their daughter for the past two decades, they didn’t even know they had a granddaughter until she arrived in Japan. And with a shock of blond hair and bright blue eyes, he doubted she belonged in his family at all. Weren’t grandfathers supposed to love their granddaughters by default, Michiko wondered. She couldn’t help that she looked like her father, no matter how much she wished she had her mother’s exotic almond-shaped eyes and jet-black hair. In comparison, Michiko felt plain.
Her grandfather may have been grouchy, but Michiko liked him right away. She liked how he talked to the trees in the forest and how the pines rustled as if in response. He’d lay his hands on a tree with a firm touch, rub the needles between his fingers, or smell the air and the soil – every one of these actions filled his mind with volumes of information about the tree’s health or decline. She liked how he could tell the weather from looking at the stars. She even liked his frown. It made him appear distinguished, and it made her curious about his unhappiness. Deep creases underlined his dark, sad eyes, and dozens of gray hairs crossed the top of his head. Thin and limber, his body seemed strong and his will sturdy for his almost seventy years. One day, Michiko would grow beyond his five-foot-five-inches height. She would be tall like her father; he surpassed six-two by three-quarters of an inch.
That March morning, her grandfather seemed to shrink smaller still. The thick gray blanket swallowed him whole, but barely kept out the flu’s chill, even with the profusion of heat that consumed them. With no small bit of shade in any direction, Michiko turned her back to the sun. Sweat dripped down her neck and collected behind her knees. Her stomach churned with seasickness. And she was thirsty; so very thirsty.
She shielded her eyes with her hands and scanned the horizon for Kichiro, her only friend in the world. It had been two days already. She prayed for a glimpse of his bushy white tail wagging in the distance but saw nothing but mounds and mounds of rotting trash. Questions raced in her mind. Why didn’t he walk with me to school that day? Why wasn’t he in the garden when the sirens started screaming? Why did my grandparents leave the house without him? She hoped he had found some kind of safety, something solid to rest on. How long could a dog tread bitter-cold water? Her nose stung as tears threatened to burst out of her eyes, but she shook her head, I will not cry, she promised herself and pushed those horrible thoughts out of her mind.
When her grandfather opened his tired eyes, he squinted up sideways at the summer sun throbbing in the spring sky, then looked at Michiko long and hard. So long, she thought he had fallen asleep again with his eyes open.
She couldn’t hold it in any longer. “Ojiisan, I want to help,” she said. “What can I do? Would you teach me? Please?” she asked in perfect Japanese. He didn’t speak English, but Michiko had practiced his language since the age of three. Her mother taught her. And after living in Japan for a whole year, she had grown confident in her new vocabulary.
It took her grandfather many long minutes to untangle himself from the blankets and prop himself up into a sitting position. Michiko tried to hide her anticipation, which was quickly turning into impatience. When he finally settled, he nodded his head twice, once seemingly to acknowledge his inner consent, the other nod for Michiko. He would let her help.
With that agreement, she jumped up and landed on the seat closer to him, steadying herself before the rocking boat dumped her into the freezing waves. Once the boat stilled again, her grandfather began to impart a small bit from his canon of knowledge, on how to build a kēson.
“What’s that?” she asked. She 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. Michiko had to lean in closer to hear him, and they both noticed that when she bowed in, he tilted further away. He wanted to pull her close and hold her in his arms, 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.
Michiko didn’t understand the big Japanese words he used – but giving up was not an option. If they were going to get anything done, she and her grandfather would have to communicate in a different way. But when she looked out toward the horizon, she questioned her own positivity. She sent a silent prayer to Kichiro, hoping he was somewhere safe and followed a new idea out of the boat.
Resting her belly on the gunwale, she crawled over the side of the boat and lowered herself down into the salty surge. Goosebumps erupted up and down her submerged legs! Every nerve in her thighs and lower back sizzled as if on fire! With her arms held up by her shoulders, trying to keep some of her body dry, she sloshed through the sea toward dry land. A white sock hung limp under the surface. Michiko breathed in deeply as if breathing for that sock. As she reached for it, the tide pulled it under and out of sight. A red envelope, a book, its pages long soaked and dissolved, a pair of jeans, a child’s sippy cup, floated around her on the surface of the waves. A dead squirrel brushed her leg, forcing her to skirt to her left, right into a cluster of tree branches that grabbed at her hair with anxious fingers. When she made it the few meters to dry land, she shook off the wetness, like she had seen Kichiro do a thousand times. With her leather shoes squeaking with every step, as salt and water oozed from her soaked knee socks, she set out on her daunting task.
When her grandfather woke from his troubled sleep, he found Michiko settled again in the boat, back on the seat closest to him as if she had never left. She held out a piece of drywall she had found in the debris, about the size of an encyclopedia, and stranger than strange, a number 2 yellow pencil.
“It won’t write,” she said. The tip had snapped off during its cruel 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 his granddaughter’s smart thinking. And at that moment, he made a quiet vow to himself, to know her in a way that he had never known his own daughter.
He shifted his tired body and propped himself into an upright position. The arduous effort rocked the boat again and Michiko’s stomach gurgled 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 her soaked school shoes. She stared down at her black penny loafers… and had a sudden realization they were her only pair of shoes. All the clothes she had left were on her body. The school uniform, with a blue-plaid skirt, a white blouse, and a dark blue sweater that she had tied around her waist. Every other thing in her small closet and smaller bureau, her few toys, and several books, all drifted on the tides of the Pacific Ocean, seized by the greedy tsunami as it raced back into the sea. Along with her grandparent’s house, the shops, the cars, and the … and the people. What about all the people, she wondered and held her breath to hold back her tears.
Her grandfather adjusted the blanket over his shoulders, then looked around, sighed, and closed his eyes as if he wished the misfortune away. Michiko fidgeted in her seat, growing anxious about his slow progress. Is he praying, she wondered. When he finally opened his eyes again, he trembled. Does 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.
His hand traveled to his belt and 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 a 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 called a Tantō, still as sharp that day as when the master craftsman forged it for the Great Samurai Yuudai in the twelfth century.
Michiko had heard the mystical story about the Tantō, twice already. For almost a thousand years the Samurai’s family had passed the dagger from generation to generation to the first-born son. Each young boy received the knife when he turned ten years of age. Including her grandfather. It was no wonder he held the blade with such reverence, like a sacred family relic.
His ancestors, so her ancestors too, all believed the dagger possessed the powers of the spirit of the Samurai Yuudai. Michiko wasn’t so sure; her grandfather didn’t subscribe to the supernatural either. Not till one day in his early thirties when he found himself in a deathly dual. He swears it was the Samurai who intervened; he saw him with his own two eyes even if he didn’t believe in ghosts.
Another cough wracked her grandfather’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 quieted Michiko’s heart with comfort. When she looked up, she saw that her grandfather had also paused, with true amazement in his eyes as he listened to the ethereal music. Then with a contented sigh, he retrieved the dagger from the puddle and did something that took Michiko by complete surprise. He raised his arms and reached them out to her; 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.”
Michiko didn’t understand. She had been forbidden even to be near the dagger, let alone touch it. He had warned her over and over. “It is a powerful weapon, Michiko, and little girls must not touch! You must listen and obey.”
He sounded so much like her mother with her vigilance of caution droning in Michiko’s ears. She never understood how her mother could not see that you needed a knife to carve boxes into forts, to cut water bugs in half, to dissect frogs.
Her grandfather moaned from the exertion it took to hold the blade, his arms weighted with the fatigue of flu.
“I don’t want it,” Michiko 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 held the dagger out to her with instructions to carve the pencil into a point.
She had learned to whittle a stick in Girl Scouts, but her grandfather wouldn’t have known that, and she certainly wouldn’t have trusted a ten-year-old like herself with such a weapon. The master had crafted the Tantō to kill, not to sharpen a pencil.
Her grandfather used all his remaining energy, leaned toward her, and pushed the handle of the Tantō into her small hand. She wanted to give it back, but his face flared red as his lungs coughed up a spasm of searing need. Michiko reached out to him, but he shook her off and leaned back again, wrapped the blanket tighter around his shoulders, and directed her attention to the blade. She looked straight into his dark eyes for confirmation, which were clouded with fever but clear with intention.
“Leave me be. Get on with your task,” he said, then closed his eyes in search of some relief.
Sitting there on the rear seat of the boat, Michiko passed the weapon back and forth between her two hands, taking a moment to consider its immense danger. And its noble beauty. The weapon felt much heavier than she expected. But it also felt natural in her hands, as if she had held it a million times before. Without ever having seen such a weapon, she somehow knew how to hold it. Which both surprised her and not. From the very first time she saw the dagger, she felt a connection to it, like in some strange way it had always belonged to her.
When she touched the blade to the edge of the broken pencil, the knife began to vibrate, and a gentle tingling tickled her fingers. Magic and joy and suspicion and awe and doubt and surprise all coursed through her mind at once. She thought she should have been afraid, but she was too excited. The teeth on the knife’s edge carved 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. Michiko smiled, it must be the magic of the Samurai, she thought. At that moment, she accepted her grandfather’s story as truth, that the Great Yuudai had infused his Spirit into the dagger. It was he who carved the pencil, not her.
Michiko knew she would never forget that day. Not because of the bizarre circumstances, floating in a rowboat with her grandfather in his flooded village. Not because she felt the profound Spirit of Yuudai all around her. But because on that day, after living in his home for over a year, her grandfather touched her hand for the first time.
From the corner of her eye, she saw him watching as she carved the pencil. His wrinkled features softened, and a noticeable turn lifted his constant frown. When he nodded with approval, she fumbled from his attention, and her natural ability slipped into awkward clumsiness, nearly slicing her fingers. He hadn’t expressed any emotion toward her before; the surprise of it made her feel self-conscious. With a gentle touch, he placed two fingers on that soft spot below her thumb with a suggestion that she slow down.
Michiko’s concentration slipped away from the knife to the mound on her hand, to that soft place where her grandfather’s fingers rested, where rough calluses scratched at her skin. It made her wonder about the harsh labor his hands performed. When he caught her looking at him, he glanced away, uncomfortable in such an unguarded moment, and rested back again into the bow of the boat.
After a few more passes over the pencil, Michiko presented her grandfather with a point of lead that could write a novel.