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, about a multi-generational family saga that embodies the struggles of the human experience and the mystical muse of awakening. It’s 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, was 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 The tsunami uprooted everything, including the outdated values that often silenced rather than uplifted the women.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 One: The Aftermath
March 13, 2011
Michiko floated in the battered old rowboat on a lake where the ancient forest used to be, trying hard to hold back her tears. She could see everything from there, in the floodplains by the shore, a three-hundred-sixty-degree view around, from the sea to the village. Where the village used to be. A million worries screamed in her head; a million more questions perched on her tongue. Why? Why did a tsunami wipe away the village?
“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, and Michiko demanded answers. Not just any answer, but good answers, with her hand planted on her right cocked hip like a defiant teenager. “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?” But 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 in that small fishing village on the northeast coast of Japan their entire lives, raised a child, tended to the forest, visited with family and friends. They never traveled further than the southern tip of the island, they didn’t have any money. But they were content. And then an ugly, vicious tsunami rose higher than the tallest building and wiped it all away. Michiko was there. She saw it with her own eyes as the ocean dragged the entire village out into the raging sea. Nothing remained but huge piles of trash. She wanted to ask why, but she dared not wake her grandfather from his rest.
Wracked with feverish flu, he rested, curled up in the bow of the boat under a heavy gray blanket, mumbling to himself as he dreamed of better days. Michiko had jumped into the rowboat with him as he pushed off into the flooded acres to see what the tsunami had left behind. He was too devastated to argue. They floated silently, taking in the ruin of the village. Higher on the mountain a noticeable line marked where the wave could no longer reach. Where trees with springtime buds prepared to blossom, where the road continued to wind its way around to the next village, where glass windows in homes sparked with the rising sun, where the schoolhouse and temple stood untouched.
But lower in the valley, crumbled walls of wood and brick and drywall, twisted lengths of rebar and wire, overturned cars with shattered windshields, ravaged tables, broken chairs, all stuck out of mounds of debris, covering the once vibrant valley. The freezing Pacific Ocean flooded the expanse of land where the shops and homes and hospitals used to be, leaving behind the treasures of their lives half-submerged in a swamp of seawater.
Michiko’s teeth chattered as dread covered her body with chills. She shivered, probably in shock, even though a blazing ball of fire floated in the sky above her. Her grandfather mumbled in his feverish sleep, words she could not make out, a common trait of his even when awake. He had said so little to her in the year she had lived with her grandparents, 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.”
He didn’t dislike his granddaughter; it just took him time to warm up to people, especially to strangers. 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. Weren’t grandfathers supposed to love their granddaughters by default? Michiko wondered whenever they crossed paths. Michiko 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 her round blue eyes were quite regular.
He may have been grouchy, but Michiko liked her grandfather 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, smell the air and the soil – and every one of his 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 as he surpassed six-two by three-quarters of an inch.
That March morning, he seemed to shrink smaller still in the boat’s bow. The thick gray blankets swallowed him whole, but barely kept out the flu’s chill, even with the harsh sun beating down on them. With no small bit of shade in any direction, Michiko turned her back to the sun’s intensity. Sweat dripped down her neck and collected behind her knees. Her stomach churned with seasickness. And she was thirsty; so very thirsty.
She shielded the sun from her eyes with her hands and scanned the horizon for Kichiro, her only friend in the world. She hadn’t seen him in two days; 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 rang out the warning of the tsunami? 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 from side to side telling herself, I will not cry 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 that 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 five 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 back into the freezing waves. Once the boat stilled again, her grandfather began to impart a small bit from his canon of knowledge, 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. “I will be strong for both of us, Ojiisan,” she whispered, so as not to wake him. 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 into 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.
One leg after the other, she slipped over the side of the boat and lowered herself down into the salty surge once again. Goosebumps raced over her skin and lit her every nerve on fire as she plodded over toward dry land. A white sock floated by, and a book cover with gold lettering, its pages long soaked and dissolved. She skirted around a dead squirrel that made her shiver with sadness and had to duck through a cluster of tree branches that grabbed at her hair with anxious fingers. When she made it the few meters to dry land, she set out on the daunting task, her leather shoes squeaking with every step as salt and water oozed from her soaked knee socks.
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 a dictionary, 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 effort rocking the boat again, and Michiko’s stomach swelled 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. The white knee socks, soaked and soiled, were her only pair. 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 and the dozens and dozens of other houses in the village and all the shops and the cars and the … and the people. What about all the people, she wondered and inhaled deeply to hold back her tears.
Her grandfather pulled the blankets 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 with his slow progress. Is he praying? she wondered. When he finally opened his eyes again, he shook his head in frustration and 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, 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.
Michiko had heard the fantastic story about the Tantō, twice already. Both times because she had done something wrong and needed “educating,” according to her strict grandfather. For almost a thousand years the Samurai’s family had 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. Including her grandfather. It was no wonder that he held the blade with such reverence, like a sacred family relic.
His ancestors, her ancestors, all believed the dagger possessed the mystical 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 where he should have died. He swears it was the Samurai who had saved his life.
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 he had also paused, with true amazement in his eyes as he listened to the mystical 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. It has 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, Michiko.”
He sounded so much like her mother, with her constant whine droning in Michiko’s ears, “Little girls don’t play with knives. Not even a kitchen knife!” How could her mother 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 heavy with 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.
Fear pumped through Michiko’s little heart. 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 craftsman had sharpened the Tantō to kill, not to sharpen a pencil. He 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 blankets 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.
Michiko sat down on the rear seat of the boat and passed the weapon back and forth between her two hands. She needed a moment, to consider its beauty, and its immense danger. 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 before, she somehow knew how to hold it. Which both surprised her and not. From the very first time she saw it, 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 with belief. It must have been the ancient magic of the Samurai pulsing through the Tantō right into her hands. 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 the magic of 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. But when he nodded with approval, she fumbled, nervous about his attention, and pushed her ability into clumsiness. His kindness felt unfamiliar, as he wasn’t a sentimental nor an emotional man, and the dagger jumped in her hands! As did her heart! The blade nearly sliced through her hand. With a gentle touch, he placed his fingers on that soft spot between her thumb and index finger with a suggestion that she slow down. Michiko’s concentration slipped away from the knife to that spot on her hand, to that soft place where her grandfather’s fingers rested, where rough calluses scratched at her skin. It made her think about the trees, the harsh weather he worked in, and the labor his hands performed. When he caught her looking at him, he looked 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.