Place of writing: I wrote this piece after returning home to the UK from a year in Nagoya, Japan, which greatly informed my experience of the early stages of the pandemic.
In March 2020, I was lucky enough to be able to do some travelling around Japan with my aunt and uncle, who few out to visit me just as the UK lockdown was being announced. One of the places we went to was a city called Matsumoto, in the mountains of central Japan. Our visit to the city’s most famous landmark, Matsumoto Castle, provides the key inspiration for this piece.
One theme I have recently been thinking about with regard to Covid-19 is that of personal loss, along with how our perception of the linear passing of time has been affected by our immersion in the here and now. By setting the story in the next year of the rat after 2020, i.e. one twelve year cycle of the lunar calendar hence, I wanted to explore how these times are ultimately a passing moment in the cyclical motions of nature, despite their life-changing and (for many) devastating implications.
* * *
Year of the Rat
Most of my nightmares involve staircases. The steep fight of stairs plaguing my dreams tonight is the kind I hate the most; the unmistakable cloy of dust hangs in the air. It is the kind often found in British stately homes, or old churches – the kind with the steps so mercilessly far apart and warped with time that you constantly think you might slip.
I’m not sure when my deep mistrust of stairs took root, and I’m equally lost as to why. Perhaps I have a dim childhood memory of having fallen down some once, or it could be owing to the fact that I grew up in a bungalow. Unable to remember how I reached the top in the first place, I tentatively begin the descent, holding my arms out on either side for balance.
Rather impractically, the only railing visible is against the wall, leaving the side on which falling is physically possible dangerously open. Every time a break in the steps appears, a person I don’t know materialises from the wall to unhelpfully point out that the library is closing very soon, and that I should probably hurry up if I don’t want to stay overnight. Second to staircases, the one thing I hate is being rushed, or pressured – in other words, I don’t take well to direct orders. It is strangely ironic that I now live in a country where conformity to rules, and obedience to authority, is generally non- negotiable. Not unlike having to turn back the other way after climbing a fight of stairs, or the basic instincts of grief. It seems only appropriate, then, that it is Kenta’s ghost waiting for me at the other end.
“Where were you?” he asks, holding out a woman’s coat that isn’t mine, “All of the books are on the first floor anyway.”
“I think you mean the ground floor,” I correct him, taking the coat reluctantly, “I’ve never understood the Japanese system. Why are you even here, Kenta? I haven’t dreamed about you since God knows when. And where is the baby?”
“Baby?” says Kenta blankly, “We don’t have one of those. Where were you? All of the books are on the first floor anyway.”
“What? What do the books have to do with anything? Is my Japanese not clear enough for you or something?”
“No speak Engurishu,” answers Kenta, “Police box, zatto way.”
Before I can scream at my dead husband in frustration, I open my eyes to find not my baby, but a boy of almost twelve – and one wise beyond his years – leaning over me with an anxious stare.
“Okaasan, can you hear me? You said you wanted to get our packing done this afternoon, and it’s almost 1pm…”
“Oh Christ, is it that time already? Sorry my love, I just couldn’t get to sleep last night.”
“Are you sure you’re alright?” A suspicious frown takes over his features. “We don’t have to go tomorrow if you don’t feel like it…”
“Oh, don’t be silly! We can’t cancel your birthday trip now, can we? I’m fine, I promise.”
I reach out to smooth the crease between his thick dark eyebrows, knowing full well that the lie has failed to convince him.
The idea to go to Matsumoto came about during the last Obon festival, held every August against a backdrop of banshee-like cicada song to honour Japan’s ancestral dead. As always, we spent the holiday with Kenta’s parents, welcoming the spirits back to earth before sending them off again to wherever it is they spend the afterlife. After making our offerings at a local temple, we returned to the family home – tucked away unobtrusively in its Tokyo suburb – and as the annual heavy silence fell between my in-laws, I noticed that my son had slipped away. When I found him, he was on the balcony of what had once been his father’s room, poring over an old middle school album. A young Kenta stands grinning in front of Matsumoto Castle, surrounded by other boys in the same black button uniform. The photograph’s sky is a piercing, cloudless blue, and the mountains in the backdrop lock the city in a defensive embrace.
“That was your father’s first school trip.” I placed an arm around our child’s shoulders and tried to accomplish a somewhat normal smile. “He always said it was one of his happiest memories.”
For a while, only the humming of a nearby insect and the chime of a bicycle could be heard. Eventually, a thoughtful voice spoke: “It will be another year of the rat soon.”
I stared at my son in confusion, until the date on the photograph caught my eye. 2008… 2020… next year would be 2032. All years of the rat in the lunar calendar.
“Yes, you’re right. You’ll be twelve come the spring, just like he was in that picture.”
Another pause. Then came the words I did not expect.
“I want to go to Matsumoto for my birthday. I
want to be a twelve-year-old where Otōsanwas twelve too.”
I squeezed his shoulders a little tighter than before, as the last night of the Obon festival dragged on. And so it was decided that we would continue to honour the departed – in our own way.
On the clear March morning of my son’s birthday, that August night steeped in incense is a lifetime away. The former seat of power in the domain of Matsumoto, the black-clad “crow castle” before us, is a dark blotch on unclouded terrain, holding court amid the green moat water and mountain grip. The intimacy of the mountains’ physical proximity often reminds me of how far I am from home; today, however, is different.
Marvelling at all the places in which their peaks rise and fall, I make out the faint shadow of the daytime moon rising above the mountains. The moon – the celestial orb whose movements govern one way of measuring time in this part of the world, pulling us with gravitational force to the foot of the Japanese alps. The hollows and contours of the mountains themselves probably mirror the moon’s own imperfections.
The gentle pressure of my son’s hand abruptly brings me back to the here and now; my moments of reverie never manage to escape his notice. Looking into his keen, knowing eyes, he resembles Kenta so much that a lump forms in my throat. Perhaps being born in the auspicious year of the rat has influenced the traits they share: that quiet intuition, and a talent for sensing the moods and whims of those around them. But I am not inclined to superstition. The coincidence of shared characteristics is mostly likely down to genetics; it is their common upbringing under the faithful watch of the mountains which holds the most meaning. As we survey this historic place hand in hand, I have never been more glad that I chose to raise my son in sight of the landscape which bore his father up from the earth.
We circle the perimeter of the grounds a few times, indulging in our own contented little world before returning to reality. On our way out via the castle drawbridge, a school of jet black koi fish venture close to the surface of the moat, as if to get a better look at all of the curious faces passing through. The meaning of their name in Japanese, ‘koi’, has always associated them with love. Kenta once told me that the black ones in particular are believed to bring good fortune, despite my assumption that they might mean the opposite.
Leaving my side for a brief moment, my son crouches down at the edge of the drawbridge, only just too far away to dip his fingertips in the water. For an instant, I forget my whole lunar cycle of grief; there are no living beings except for my son, myself and these fish. Perhaps I can indulge in superstition for once and take these unsuspecting koi as a good omen – a sign that a singular, uncomplicated present with my child is just within reach.
A sudden ripple makes the fish dart away in fright, and the moment is gone. Rising to his feet with a wistful smile, my son takes my hand once more and we continue on our way, save for a backwards glance at the koi carp in the moat. They have returned to foraging far beneath the water’s surface, turning the other way in a gesture of calm indifference.
That night, I dream of a rocky mountain path, snaking up an unfamiliar peak to some distant summit. Even in the heart of nature, the staircase motif endures; it takes the form of some brutally weathered stone steps, gleaming in the moonlight where the footfalls of countless others have polished them clean. This time, Kenta’s ghost gazes down at me from a far off precipice.
His celestial robes, not unlike those of a saint or bodhisattva, float around him as if he were under water. Only an inch away from the cliff edge behind him, the moon has come down from a distant sky to hover within tangible distance of the earth; its glowing, augmented expanse backlights Kenta’s frame. Once my eyes adjust, I see another fight of stairs conjoining the moon to our earth like an umbilical cord, alluding to a place where no mortal can tread and where I am yet unable to follow.
“This makes a change,” I say, my voice no more than a whisper, “You were always so human before.”
As we stare at each other in silence, it strikes me that this new Kenta is perhaps closer to how he had been in life than all of the other likenesses I’ve met in my dreams. In my previous renditions of him, my husband always managed to aggravate me in some way, which he rarely did over the course of our fleeting life together. This Kenta bears the same look of contemplation which our son has now inherited, and his voice is overwhelmingly tender.
“Do you forgive me?”
Struck with bewilderment at the sudden question, I recall the unworldly chanting of a Buddhist funeral twelve years ago, and the beautiful little boy who has no memory of his father. And like a paper lantern cast adrift down a timeless river, I take my memories and release them before Kenta’s eyes. When I am at last able to answer, I realise that I have begun to cry.
“There is nothing to forgive. And if there was, I’d forgive you over and over.”
For a heartbeat, my late husband’s expression is unreadable. Then, a smile almost like the one I remember so well softens his face.
“That’s all I wanted to hear.”
Without another word, Kenta turns away and ascends the phantom staircase behind him, finally going home to the moon.
Rosi Byard-Jones is a 2015 winner of The Young Walter Scott Prize
All writing, all images © The Imagining History Programme UK