The Taste of Cedars
In a cool, sweet-smelling forest of cedars, Ellen seeks a place that's no more than a traveller's jottings. She pauses to look back, pleased with her progress. The track ahead is barely visible. Curving its way up the slope like a vein, it weakens and fades, only to revive a little further on. Her guide is an article from an old book on Japanese culture found at the back of a tiny foreign bookshop. She'd been lost and the poky place had beckoned her inside. Armed with directions from the bookseller, she'd left to find her way back to the apartment, with the book in her bag, and the desire to make one last pilgrimage.
Follow the track towards the summit. You will find the small statue of the venerated Buddhist saint, Jizo, not far from the shrine precincts. Years have passed since it was written, but she wants it to be true.
The traveller's rough-hewn haiku is a sign. She's chosen the right place:
Weeping Wind, hidden Sun
Jizo open your arms
Takashi is waiting at the bottom of the mountain. She left him sitting in the car smoking a cigarette. He'd be content with the natural beauty and tranquility of the place, for a while. Then he'd catch up on some sleep.
He is growing impatient with her "pilgrimages".
"Why Jizo?" he'd said as they drove out of the city that morning. Tak was one of many Japanese men who did not know which shrines conferred what blessings. Only women know. It wasn't his fault. There were too many shrines, with too many observances.
"Climbing about in places Japanese don't even go to any more. Ellie, what is it with these statues?"
"Please, Tak. Just this one."
"You said that last time."
Tak's made it clear he wants her to settle happily into his country, and he'll indulge her a bit longer. Perhaps he thinks her current interest in the religious customs is a step in the right direction, though he hasn't questioned her in any detail about her visits to shrines and temples. She imagines he sees her preoccupation as too esoteric to last—he'll just ride it out.
When they'd reached the place and parked off the road, she struggled with her longing to make the climb alone.
Tak, ready for a stretch, tucked his leg back into the car and shut the door. "Don't you want me to come?"
"It's up to you. I'll be fine." She knew how it sounded, but what else could she have said?
He shrugged it off. "I'll wait here. You go."
"I'll be back soon."
"Ellie, it's alright." He took off his shoes and adjusted his seat. "You know, I'm a smart guy. Why would I spend my day off slogging up a mountain?" Touching her gently on the arm, he settled back with his cigarettes. "I'm sure the gods will understand."
Ellen is deep inside the territory of the cedars, spiked, wooden sentries standing aloof. Watching her. She listens for the familiar sound of a temple bell undulating like velvet through the valley. The only sounds, however, are trees breathing steadily and Ellen trying not to pant too loudly, an indulgence a penitent can't afford.
When she first came to Japan, she was taken by the sound of the bell; perhaps it was inevitable that she would find herself caught up in the obscure rituals of Shintoism and Buddhism. She became acquainted with their deities, some manifest in misshapen rocks or tumbling water, others banished to lonely summits where the ancestral spirits harmonised their sorrow with the wind. All of it intrigued her. Then she found Jizo, the protector of aborted and miscarried babies, and her interest in Japanese religions was no longer innocent.
Ellen shivers; the trees block the sunlight, stealing its warmth. She climbs faster. Tak deserves an explanation for her actions, but how can she tell him what she's done? Their life is of this country, this time; things in the past are from another place. Besides, in the clumsy conversations of their early courtship, when neither of them spoke the other's language well, she was afraid of how the intimate details of her life would sound, how Tak might see her. She'd sensed the vagaries of unfamiliar cultural territory and had been unwilling to take the risk. She wants to put things right, but her way of doing this is probably not something Tak would like. What would he say if she explained that only Jizo could help her, that she'd set out to seek forgiveness from a stone replica? He'd want to know the whole story. But it didn't concern him. He wouldn't understand. She didn't understand it herself.
It was Tak, in the unknowing grip of a strange irony, who introduced her to Japan's beautiful mountains and the shrines grafted on to their slopes. They'd made love in the courtyard of one such place, long abandoned to languorous vines and bright green moss. A pillar of Shintoism was its reverence for Nature. Making love, he'd explained, was both natural and spiritual and the old shrine was "perfect". Ellen smiles, remembering shafts of sunlight slanting through the canopy to touch Tak's smooth, brown shoulder.
White stones protrude from the slope like chipped teeth. Once steps showing the way, they lead to a wooden frame set between trees and barely upright. It marks the entrance to the sacred path that traverses each small courtyard and ends up at the inner place of worship, now barely visible, with few relics of its sanctity; just this flimsy frame, and the restless and wary ghosts of its neglected ancestors.
Nervous, shaking a little with exertion, she bends, balancing her weight and manoeuvres carefully over the threshold.
The forest is closing in, asking what it is this solitary woman from another land wants from this place. Ellen listens. There's only the scratching of pine needles, damp and sharp, with none of the sweetness she associates with such trees. Tak described their smell as delicious. She'd thought it an odd word at the time, but later, when she thought about it, the fragrance did enter your nose, rest a while on your tongue and leave a taste that was sweet. There's nothing sweet about this climb. It's part of the ritual; she will cleanse her body and her mind with physical exertion, cast out all impurities through her pores. Only then will she be ready to petition Jizo.
Finally, she reaches another wobbly frame. Bobbing her head she enters an earthen courtyard, but one with no weeds and most of the fallen leaves swept into piles. Opposite is a weary building, shuttered, but with a plume of smoke hovering above the thatch. She turns back. This is someone's dwelling, not the right path.
The sudden clatter of a shutter being forced along a wooden rut startles her. An old woman in the drab garment of a peasant farmer, long skirt hitched up with a frayed cord and plaited rush sandals, holds a broom made of dried grasses and stares out at her visitor. "Come closer, pilgrim," she calls in the rough staccato of her region, waving her broom. "Can't see you."
Ellen moves a little nearer, and bows deeply. The woman hoists herself off the raised verandah with her broom. Bent by years, she peers up at Ellen, her head cocked to one side and fixes the younger woman with a single eye. The other eye an empty socket filled with folded flesh and pink gristle.
"Shocked, are you? No matter, I can see what I need to." The woman moves towards the next wooden frame. "Come on then, sun won't last long up here." Then she's off, like a brown beetle scuttling across the floor of the forest.
The sun is weak, its warmth seized by the canopy. The air chills the sweat on her arms and legs, but Ellen doesn't care; she only wants to keep up with her guide. If that's what she is. The path becomes so overgrown, it's hard to know where it will go next. Without warning, the woman stops, pausing and brandishing her broom in the air.
"Look, pilgrim, over there. That's it."
The cause for such triumph is a diminutive statue of Jizo, sitting humbly on a small stone platform wedged between tree trunks. On the ground are burnt incense sticks, soiled plastic yogurt bottles—small ones made for babies and children, stuffed animals, some torn and spilling their insides, and faded prayer papers folded onto the branches of the trees. Motionless pinwheels like dead flowers flank Jizo, their energy sapped by wind and rain, and, as Ellen knows, the screams of those caught in the place of pain. In this limbo, infant penitents suffer to atone for the sins they were born with. They pile up pebbles for their devil masters and wait to cross into Heaven.
The scattered remains of stone cairns are gestures from parents desperate to help their children in any way they can. Mothers come to beg Jizo, the protector saint, to hide their children in his cloak, safe from the demons, and carry them secretly across the river. Once there, they can slip back into the pool of waiting babies and try for a better life next time. Some women even dare to hope their baby might return to the same womb.
Jizo's carved body is worn and untended, the crocheted cap on its head frayed like the bleached tentacles of a dying creeper. Its cloak is no more than shapeless bumps, its child's face, once sharply chiselled eyes, mouth and nose, flat and lifeless. Even its traditional scarlet bib has been forgotten. It must be cold.
Ellen has seen many such silent, grey creatures throughout Japan. She's stood in front of them on busy city streets, wondering at what midnight hour someone has come to plead forgiveness, to clothe its cylindrical body in a red bib, red like a blood-soaked hospital pad.
"Isn't this what you are looking for?" the woman asks. She pokes at the rubbish with her stick, the debris of so much grief. Then she sighs and takes a seat on a fallen tree trunk. "They soon forget. Okaasan, take your time."
Ellen starts. The old woman has called her "mother". Perhaps many of the women making this climb had wanted to be called "mother", but no one's ever used it with Ellen.
The woman says no more and Ellen turns back to Jizo, trying to see where its eyes and mouth would have been, trying to imagine a tiny mound on its abdomen into fingers. She stretches out her hand to touch it, willing the stone to soften and become flesh, a child's fingers to grasp and a stomach that she can stroke. She feels a grief so heavy she sinks to the ground, pleading with the confessor to help her.
The old woman stands up and leaning on her broom, begins a long, deep-throated lament. The notes swirl around them, trapping Ellen in words she doesn't understand, but she feels her guilt. The chant calls up Ellen's past; it inhabits the broken cairns, the pinwheels, the prayer papers. Now she is exposed, her body, heart and soul, all accomplices, all shameful. A simple event behind a door manned by security guards. On a white table, her legs spread and suspended in stirrups, babbling as she went under. All over in two hours. A bus home. She'd slept for the rest of the day. Nobody had ever known.
"Take your time," the woman says wearily. "Your baby has all the time in the world."
She'd heard about grieving women who carried out rituals to ease their suffering. She read about Jizo and the shrines. He might help her, too: help her rescue the baby from the flames. Then it would forgive her and she could continue with her life. He could do this, Jizo could do this.
The woman strikes her broom handle on the ground: "You thought you could rescue it from the flames, stop the hurting. They all do," she mutters. "Look at this stuff. Here..." she calls out, poking about with her stick. "Take it. Wet the baby's head." She thrusts a discarded bottle of water into Ellie's hands.
Ellen pours the water over the stone head. Her hand shakes.
"You flail Jizo with your tears, but you don't know him. Why don't you speak to the god you know? Tell him you went to a doctor to make it all go away, but every night it comes back to your pillow and makes you cry. Ask him to help you."
"I'm sorry," she says, bowing to the old woman. Ellen turns back to the dripping figure, touching the place where the folds in its cloak might have been, where the baby might have hidden.
"Stop crying now." The woman places her hand on Ellen's back. "It's not Jizo who can forgive you. Jizo and his babies have their own destiny. But it's not yours. Stop pushing stones for the devils. They will drive you mad." She hobbles around to peer into the younger woman's face. Gently, she shakes Ellen's arm. "Go back home; your journey is finished. Jizo doesn't want to see you here again." She hitches up her skirts and says, "Come, a man is climbing the path. He's looking for you."
Ellen looks to the sun, catching it sliding through the cedars.