The Pastures of My Eccentric Uncle
Illustration by Fiona Marchbank
Eccentric Uncle swings me up into the air in a single joyous movement, throwing me high—flinging me from floor to over his head as I gasp with fear and delight. For a moment I'm floating, suspended in mid-air above his wonderful, darkly handsome face, reaching down towards his outstretched hands, a dizzying terrifying moment. And then I fall.
"Oof," he grunts, as I tumble down against his chest. He holds me tight and falls with me, bending his knees to kneel as I land on the kitchen floor, its earthen surface hardened and smoothed by years of scurrying feet. Kneeling still, my uncle continues to embrace me, laughing: "You've grown heavy, Aki! Feel like three bags of rice now, instead of two!"
I flush and wince, for at eight I am already too tall, too long of every limb. But Uncle's laugh is full of affection and he strokes my head with his strong broad hands. Eccentric Uncle has returned at last and at this moment I don't care if I am bigger than a girl should be. I look up at his laughing face; it looms high above me because he is extraordinarily tall and large-boned himself. I lean against him, my arms wrapped around his hips, my cheek pressed against the scratchy gray weave of his strange, form-fitting clothes, a musty salt smell filling my nostrils.
Around us the servants and maids laugh at my embrace ("like a cicada stuck to a tree," someone says), the bow-legged men squatting on their heels, the older women grinning so hard their eyes are but another wrinkle, the younger women demurely covering their mouths with the sleeves of their cotton kimonos, because it's unfeminine to show big open mouths, or to be big in any way at all.
They cluster around us in the great kitchen of the main house, as Uncle begins to describe for us his travels to Europe and the United States, far-off lands filled with strange stone buildings and strange stony-faced foreigners, places so far across the ocean that most of us thought he would never return. But here is, bronzed, more muscular than I remembered him, his voice booming like summer thunder, rising upwards and ringing against the blackened wooden beams that criss-cross the ceiling. I marvel at the change in him; he seems so sure of himself; it must be because of the confidence his travels have instilled in him.
He tells us of ocean voyages, of standing on the rolling decks looking out over horizons of only water and sky; he describes the great cities of the West with their low gray skies and pointing smokestacks, the heavy fabrics and tight, funny clothes that the people wear, the rainbow colors of their eyes and hair. We sometimes forget to breathe, mesmerized as we are by his stories, stories that seem as fantastic as the legends of palaces and princesses at the bottom of the sea.
Crowded against the dark wooden walls, perched on the wooden sinks and freshwater barrels, some three dozen people listen, their eyes wide, their mouths half-open in goldfish-puckered wonder. The big dark kitchen is hushed, a faint afternoon light filtering in through the cold, north-facing windows. I think as I listen that the kitchen must be like the huge cathedrals Eccentric Uncle is describing, cavernous buildings with slanting rays of cold sunlight falling through the darkened air. We watch and listen to him reverentially, as might followers a priest; though a funny priest he would make, with his strange Western suit and pointed wisp of a beard.
"Where is Uncle? Has no one found him yet?" cries a voice from the stairs, the self-important voice of my brother. He bursts into the kitchen, the sleeves of his dark silk kimono flapping as he scatters the household staff. His eyes widen with relief upon seeing us. Without any formality he strides over to grasp Uncle's arm, no matter that he's only thirteen and Uncle nearly thirty.
"Is this where you've been?" he asks as he tugs Uncle's arm, though it's more an accusation than a question. "Spending time with servants? Haven't you heard us calling for you? Come, Father's demanding your presence right away." He pulls Uncle along as he speaks, although the latter is twice his size. I hurry behind them, determined not to be left behind.
"We've never had such important guests before, at least not so many and not all at once," my brother continues as we trot along the open corridor, row after row of sliding paper doors on one side, the gardens spreading out on the other. "We're receiving messages from all over the province. Everyone is eager to meet you." His chest swells; he is after all the eldest son of the master of the house. "These truly are quite impressive people, Uncle, so you must stay in the banquet room; we can't keep scrambling out to find you each time a new visitor arrives."
As we reach the hand-painted silk-covered doors beyond which the guests are waiting, my brother suddenly notices me.
"Aki," he says, his constant disapproval of me already etching a permanent groove between his eyebrows, "go and play or something. This is no place for children. You know you can't possibly come inside."
For a moment I hesitate. Then I reach up and grasp Uncle's other arm.
"No," I say, firmly. Though even to my ears my voice sounds whispery-soft, my insistence only a piteous plea.
I don't care. I'm desperate. Over a year without Eccentric Uncle, and then suddenly, this morning, his unexpected dazzling return, and my heart beating with such joy that I thought it would burst like a rice kernel left too close to the fire.
Yet instead of letting me sit with him, touch him, hear his golden voice, I was promptly plucked out of his arms ("wait until he's finished paying his respects to your father, Aki"), abandoned to aimlessly pace the carefully manicured gardens, the stepping-stone pathways that separate the main house from the smaller ones of my uncles, the smoothly-polished verandahs where we are served tea on summer evenings, listening to crickets and admiring the moon for its perfect roundness. All the long morning and through most of the afternoon, while he spoke of his travels with Father and my other uncles, I waited and waited until finally he was released to us. How can I bear to wait again?
My brother creases his brows into a menacing frown. But to our surprise, Eccentric Uncle intervenes.
"I'd like for Aki to listen," he says, softly but firmly, with no hint of a plea. My brother is startled, as am I, for this is not the apologetic voice of my uncle of a year ago—my father's youngest brother, who grew tallest of the family but who learned early to make himself small and deferential. It was Father who began calling him "eccentric", declaring that it had been a mistake to pay for my uncle's studies in the great capital of Tokyo, with modern tutors who taught him to look only towards the West. "Theories, ideas, nothing of substance, you've forgotten who you are," Father had scoffed; at which Eccentric Uncle had become even more eccentric, burning up his allowance in the purchase of the odd European clothes that he liked so much, and strange perfumes, and books and instruments found in the foreigners' markets in Yokohama.
Before my brother can recover, Uncle slides open the heavy partitions and pulls me into the banquet room. The smooth tatami floor of the long chamber can hardly be seen, covered with low lacquered tables piled with food and flasks of sake, and lined with rows upon rows of elderly men, each seated on the best-embroidered cushions in the House. Village leaders, local administrators from the imperial government, wealthy landowners like my father, all eagerly turn their heads as we enter. They shout greetings, some even clap; they cannot wait to hear firsthand the latest reports of the strange wide world outside Japan.
It's hard to remember that many of them used to belittle Uncle for his admiration of the West, how a year ago many rolled their eyes at my father for finally consenting to pay for Uncle's passage to study abroad.
"Even your father realizes that we need information of our own," Uncle had told me on the eve of his departure, wiping away my tears, "and I can speak English and even some Dutch." And I'm expendable, he did not say, but even I understood.
Now Uncle leads me behind him as he makes his way to the far end of the room, bobbing his head quickly to the murmuring men we pass. Most are slightly drunk, sleek burnished men wearing expensive silk kimonos, some with the traditional topknots of samurai, even if the samurai are no more.
"Sit here, Aki," Uncle whispers, pushing me down on a large silk cushion that is still warm with another's heat, "and stay quiet, please." He eyes the men around him as if daring them to protest; they cross their arms and peer down at me, a few harumph but say nothing more. Then the very thin man beside me offers a plate with a sweet beancake, which I gratefully accept and place before me, so that I'll look as though I belong.
Uncle reaches the head of the room, where Father is conversing with the most important arrival, a white-haired man with a pale smooth face and soft expressive hands. He's a member of the new aristocracy, a remnant of the samurai lords we once served.
Eccentric Uncle hitches up his heavy trousers and drops to the floor, places both hands palm-down before him, bows his head deeply.
The old man smiles. His dark eyes glitter with interest. "And so the young hero has returned," he says with a benevolent smile, his voice high and lilting, so soft that all conversation in the crowded room stills. Uncle keeps his head modestly bowed as the aristocrat turns to the alcove behind him. In the place of honor are displayed Father's prized possessions, two samurai swords from his father before him; long thin blades curved like great crescent moons, resting in their embroidered silk sheaths.
"I was admiring your elder brother's swords," the aristocrat says. "They represent a very different world from the ones you have visited, do they not? And which will be the world of our future, I wonder?"
He continues to wonder—for much too long I think, as my legs beneath me begin to quiver from sitting so long—about the traditions we are losing, the past we are forgetting. I would much rather hear Uncle speak, but as the nobleman ruminates on what modernization—the imitation of the West—is taking from us, I see that most of the men are nodding. They are like him, they are like my father. They admire the swords that I know Uncle considers barbaric. He's often told me how good it is that the law now forbids even samurai from wearing them.
When finally Uncle is permitted to begin, he speaks not of the sweeping oceans, nor of the wonderful buildings of stone, nor of the games children played in the streets, as he did for the servants and me in the dark kitchen.
Instead, he speaks of industries, of the military might he saw, of powerful machines that skimmed over land and water. He tells us that we are nearing the end of the nineteenth century, as calculated by the Western Christian calendar. "A time of apprehension and fear in the capitals of the West," he informs the room of solemnly-nodding men, "that's apparently how ends of centuries always are."
"Ahh," the men continue to nod, though neither they nor I can quite comprehend a calendar running for hundreds, even thousands of years, a calendar that does not start over, clean and fresh, whenever we need to start anew, or when a new emperor ascends the throne.
"Yes, it is a time of change everywhere," Father declares, "and my young brother wishes to present to us all a rather intriguing plan."
Eccentric Uncle's eyes narrow, and I see his body tense with nervousness, though perhaps it's only I that know him well enough to notice.
He speaks to us now in a very different voice, a rehearsed voice; I've never heard it before. He tells us of green fields covered with soft grasses, where cows graze by the hundreds, ponderous heavy animals much larger than the occasional one my uncle says are used on farms in other provinces, to pull ploughs and wagons. "Everything seems to grow larger in the West," my uncle says, "their horses are bigger, too."
These cows are raised for their meat, he tells us, and the people of the West drink their milk. They are not Buddhists there, they have not been told for centuries that four-legged beasts must not be eaten. Even though it is Uncle, I cannot help feeling queasy at the idea, though I listen as intently as everyone else when he tells us that the Emperor himself has tasted cow meat and found it tasty.
Uncle describes the great slaughterhouses he visited with other Japanese that he met in the United States, representatives of the great merchant houses of Osaka and Kobe. Exclamations ripple through the room then, the men nod to each other. They too have heard the rumors of how the Osaka traders are investing heavily in the shipment of cattle to our shores.
"Yes," muses the old aristocrat, "I myself have had the meat of cows, and also found it tasty."
"And I've seen some myself, they make a funny cry," recalls another man, puffing on his long thin pipe. "They say 'moe'". We all laugh at the impossibly odd sound, and there follows a series of attempts by others who try to mimic the strange bellowing cry.
It is the news of the Osaka merchants, however, that brings forth the greatest interest. As the afternoon progresses, it's clear to me that my uncle is considered a blessing, a man who is showing them a way to ride the crest of the sweeping changes of our times, a way to scramble after the clever, forward-looking merchants of Osaka, the well-connected businessmen of Tokyo. Slowly, the idea of bringing cattle to our province and raising them for their meat, their milk, begins to germinate and flower, elevating in the process the value of Uncle in their eyes. The room is full of excited murmurings as Father and the village elders embrace this grand new plan; not because they would eat the meat themselves, but because certainly a new generation of Japanese will not think the killing and eating of such creatures repulsive.
The moon is high when Uncle leads me out into the corridor, nudging me gently towards a maid.
"Good night, Aki," he says, stroking my hair. "Did you understand everything you heard? That we're going to be the first in our province to raise cows?" He stretches his long arms above him, and I feel his pride, even through his exhaustion and my sleepiness. "I'll be asked to arrange a shipment very soon; I can feel it." He caresses my hair again as he muses; no one else ever stroked my hair after my mother died. "I think our slopes will be filled with grazing cows very soon, perhaps as early as next spring."
He bends down towards me, and whispers in my ear. "These cows are going to change everything, Aki. We won't be a backwater little village any longer." His eyes sparkle, or perhaps it's the reflection of the flickering oil lamp the maid is holding. "Your father's accepted my ideas—and me—after all." He squeezes my shoulder, and then as the maid leads me towards my room, I can hear him call after me: "Just wait a year, Aki. There will be a hundred cows moe-ing on the slopes above the rice fields. Wait and watch. I'll make you proud. I'll make everyone proud!"
It's hard for me to understand why some beasts will bring about such great changes, but I nod and smile, because I still feel the warmth of Eccentric Uncle's fingers on my shoulder, and because I am so happy that he is back, that he will again spend the days with me, telling me stories of shape-shifting foxes and secrets that no one else ever would—you know we're not descended from samurai, Aki. We're just peasants. And there's nothing wrong with that. That silly scroll with the elaborate family tree—your father bought that from an impoverished samurai...
Who else would spend an entire afternoon drawing me diagrams to explain why ships float? Who else would teach me birdsongs, show me how to catch a dragonfly by sneaking up behind one resting on a reed, and grasping a shimmering wing between two fingers and holding it tight? He'd take me on long walks to pick mushrooms—not the poisonous kind that make you giggle and laugh until you choke to death, but the deep-brown frog-umbrellas that we would grill over charcoal braziers; every now and then he would carefully let a single drop of soy sauce fall onto the glowing embers, letting the sputtering black smoke permeate the mushrooms and give them that sweetly-burned flavor I loved.
It'll be like that again, I think. I'll trot beside him from morning till night, listening to his tales, his stories, feeling the shivering wonder with which he sees our rapidly changing world.
But it was not to be.
It was never the same after his return; he did not have time for me as before, as I had hoped. My uncle was caught up in overseeing the felling of trees on the warm hilly slopes, in supervising the ploughing and planting of the fields so that the pastures would be ready. He had to find, and bring, and work with the German architect from Yokohama, who designed the barns where the cows were to be kept in the winters, huge squarish structures that could have housed half a hundred farmers and their families, long low buildings that threw strange shadows over the afternoon slopes and even down to our gardens.
I saw them together once, leaning over a newly-built fence. They were alone and I should have taken the chance to run to them. But I hesitated, for I could not speak any language but my own. And then I saw Uncle reach out and stroke the strange man's hair, the way he sometimes stroked mine, and I turned and ran home, for I had chores to do.
There were endless consultations with my father, and my other uncles, and the other important men of the province who came and went; men who soon discarded his nickname and called him by his real name, or who called him master, and addressed him with respectful honorifics.
And then in the fall he was on another boat to the United States, gone for months to arrange the purchase of a shipment of a hundred and twenty head of cattle. He returned again as winter was breaking, haggard and thin, but happy, assuring us that the cows were safe, free of disease, fully paid-for, and soon to be boarding an American freighter.
He had a little more time for me then. During those short spring months we often climbed the hillock he loved best, high above the half-moon bay. We would stand together and look towards the horizon of sea and sky, straining to catch a glimpse of the ship with its moe-ing cattle, even though we knew they were still far from due. But even then he spoke little, weighed down by responsibility, and worry, and the details of a hundred other tasks that were his to oversee.
I remember the day when the messenger came, with a strange paper called a telegram, and of Uncle's paleness, and Father's fury; but I do not like to remember such things. I want only to remember the happy times, the day when he lifted me high in the big dark kitchen, when I was a child and he could still swing me high; the day he'd returned and I felt complete again, not so alone.
I'd prefer to forget the sad parts, the terrible days, the days of shaking as my father shouted, of my being rushed off to bed by the maids but still trembling in my bedding as the voice of my father rang and reverberated throughout the family compound; my small thin father, huge in his violent anger and despair.
I'd like to forget the weeks of nightmares that I had, the same nightmare of a hundred and twenty cows, gentle beasts Uncle had said, struggling against the dark ocean, struggling against the cold dark waves that sucked them down to the palaces beneath the sea. Father lost a third of his estates because of his investments in the shipment of the cows; and Uncle lost his life.
Sometimes I still walk up the hillock where Uncle and I scanned the horizon, searching and hoping for a ship of cows that would never reach our shores. I think of Eccentric Uncle, and of the silence with which he took his life, he who disdained the traditions of the samurai.
Uncle spread a clean white square of silk in the banquet room, late at night when we were all asleep, and he plunged Father's best sword into his belly. I don't like to remember this, because it makes the tears well up, and a different nightmare begin again.
Uncle was brave, braver than any warrior; it's difficult to die by a sword, the legends never truly explain. And so he bled slowly and painfully to death, but never did he cry out, not once through the long long night, when the moon was perfectly round and the crickets were chirping, and the manicured gardens lay darkened by the shadow of the barns.
A previous version of this story won the Wingspan Short Story Competition sponsored by All Nippon Airways and was published in the ANA in-flight magazine.