The Lone Pine by Nicolette Vajtay
THE LONE PINE is a story of hope which embodies the struggles of the human experience and the mystical muse of awakening. Sprinkled with magical realism, this compelling tale of 96K words is narrated by the three women in the Matsuoka family: young Michiko, her mother Shizuko, and her grandmother Azumi.
In 2011 a massive tsunami battered Japan, which killed over 20,000 people, and decimated the northeast coast of the island. In three minutes, the violent wave uprooted all 70,000 trees from the ancient pine grove, smashed them into pieces, and washed away four hundred years of history.
Except for 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 to the women of the Matsuoka family, merely surviving in a culture that often held them back, is no longer enough. The tsunami offers them the gift of starting over from a new perspecitve with a change of heart that changes their lives. To truly live they must learn how to turn toward each other, learn how to speak up and ask for help, and how to accept their differences. To build a new kind of home they must start by answering the question, “When you lose everything, what do you have left?” They also must navigate around Michiko’s grandfather Akio, who like the lone pine, clings to his roots, desperate to save his traditional way of life.
Thus, 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.
————— Michiko —————
“Why?” was my favorite question as a kid, a question I asked a hundred times a day, with my hand planted on my right cocked hip demanding answers. “Mama, why do dogs eat grass? Mama, why does it tickle under my arm? Mama, why do ladybugs have spots?”
“Because, Michiko,” was all my exhausted mother could say. 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.
“But whyyyyyy?” I’d ask. “Why aren’t there any more dinosaurs? Why is that man sleeping on the sidewalk? Why do you cry, mama?”
“Enough, Michiko. I’m tired. Go play,” she’d say, and I would stomp out of the room frustrated and unsatisfied.
When I was eleven, I learned that sometimes you shouldn’t ask, because sometimes there is no answer to the question why. Why did a tsunami wipe away my grandparent’s house and village? Why?
I try to remember my grandparents’ home, but the details are already fading. They lived 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 a tsunami, that grew taller than the tallest building, wiped it all away. I was there. When I was eleven. I watched the ocean drag the village out into the raging sea. Nothing remained. I asked why, but grown-ups tired of my questions, especially my grandfather. My Ojiisan.
It’s hard to believe we are honoring the ten-year anniversary of that fateful day. My grandmother, mother, and I strolled to the beach at dawn that morning, just as the warm Hawaiian sun rose from under the horizon in all her glory. Every March eleventh, we released leis of love into the teal ocean waves with chants of prayers and hoped the tide would carry them all the way to Japan. After our brief ceremony, we rested on the sand and sat in remembrance of Ojiisan and all the others that lost their lives to the tsunami. And as the sun rose higher into the sky, gentle rays of light snuck around cotton-candy clouds and caressed our tear-stained faces.
Living in Hawaii, the sun greeted us most every day like a watercolor painting. Soft daubs of gold and pink and orange paint kissed palm trees and hibiscus flowers and followed the dip and rise of happy birds in the sky, a scene poets often struggle to describe.
But on that day ten years ago, the same dazzling yellow ball blazed like dragon fire in the skies of Japan. Spiky rays of red and purple heat rained down on us without apology. Ojiisan and I sat in a battered old rowboat, floating on a lake where the ancient forest used to be. The restless tide of black ocean waves rocked us back and forth and back and forth. 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 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 reflected 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, overturned cars with shattered windshields, ravaged tables and chairs stuck out of mounds of debris and covered the once vibrant valley. The freezing Pacific Ocean flooded the acres where the shops and homes and hospitals used to be, the treasures of our lives left behind like trash, half-submerged in a swamp of seawater.
My teeth chattered, dread covered my body with chills, and I shivered, though I felt no cold. I imagine I had been in shock, my brain numbed, thinking it protected me from the tragedy around me. And still, a million questions perched on my tongue and a million more worries screamed in my head.
I waited for Ojiisan to speak first.
An hour passed. I waited. Ojiisan rested, tucked in the boat’s bow, wracked with a feverish 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.” “Too curious,” he would announce into the room over my head, 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.
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 fed my grandfather’s doubt that I even belonged in his family. I couldn’t help that I looked like my father. In sixth-grade science, we learned about genetics. Apparently, 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 round blue eyes were quite regular.
Ojiisan may not have liked me, but I couldn’t help liking him. I liked how he talked to the trees in the forest 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 dozens of gray hairs crossed the top of Ojiisan’s head. Thin and limber, his body seemed strong and his will sturdy for his 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, Ojiisan seemed to shrink smaller still in the boat’s bow. The thick gray blankets wrapped around him swallowed him whole, but barely kept out the flu’s chill, even with the harsh sun beating down on us. With no small bit of shade in any direction, I turned my back to the sun’s intensity. Sweat dripped down my neck and collected behind my knees. My stomach churned with seasickness. And I was thirsty; so very thirsty.
I shielded the sun from my eyes with my hands and scanned the horizon for Kichiro, my only friend in the world. I hadn’t seen him in two days and prayed for a glimpse of his white tail wagging in the distance. I saw nothing but mounds and mounds of rotting trash and the questions raced in my 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? I hoped he had found safety; I hoped that a house hadn’t fallen on him; I hoped he had found something solid to rest on. How long had it been since he had some food? How long could a dog tread bitter cold water, I wondered? And then I pushed those horrible thoughts out of my mind and sent him a silent prayer to please come home.
When Ojiisan opened his tired eyes, he squinted up sideways at the summer sun throbbing in the spring sky, then 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,” I said. “What can I do? Would you teach me? Please?” I asked in perfect 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 untangle himself from the blankets and prop himself up into a sitting position. I tried to hide my anticipation, which eventually turned into a bit of impatience. He finally settled and nodded his head twice, once seemingly 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 before the rocking boat dumped me into the freezing waves.
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 asked. 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. I would stay strong for the both of us, even if tears threatened to spill from my eyes at any moment. Where was my Kichiro? I had to push onward. Ojiisan and I would have to communicate in a different way, so I let him rest and followed a new idea out of the boat. I slipped one leg over the side at a time and lowered myself down. When my feet touched the ground, the water soaked me up to my waist. Goosebumps raced over my skin and lit my nerves on fire as I plodded toward dry land. 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 that got tangled in my hair. When I made it the few meters up to dry land, I set out on my daunting task, my leather shoes squeaking with every step as salt and water oozed from my soaked socks.
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 a dictionary, and stranger than strange, a number 2 yellow pencil.
“It won’t write,” I 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 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. 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. 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, seized by the greedy tsunami as it raced back into the sea. Along with our 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, I wondered, and inhaled deeply to hold back my tears.
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. 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 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. His hand traveled to his belt and rested 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.
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, which meant they were also 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 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 quieted my heart with comfort. I looked up to see that Ojiisan had also paused, with true amazement in his eyes. He listened to the music with delight 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 ears, “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 held the dagger out to me with instructions to carve the pencil into a point.
Fear pumped through my heart. I had learned to whittle a stick in Girl Scouts, but Ojiisan wouldn’t have known that, and I certainly wouldn’t have trusted an eleven-year-old like me 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, wrapped the blankets tighter around his shoulders, and 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 said, 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 from when I first touched the dagger. I proceeded more carefully. The weapon 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’s edge 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 the ancient magic of the Samurai pulsing through the Tantō right into my hands. And then I too believed. I believed Ojiisan’s story that the Great Yuudai had infused his Spirit into the dagger. 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. 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 hand. And then with a gentle touch, 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 still desperately aware of that need and equally afraid and wonder if I will ever feel the love of a kind man again.
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?