Marie Mockett was born in Carmel, California to a Japanese mother and American father. Her Japanese family owns a Zen Buddhist temple where she often played as a child, and which, among other things, performs exorcisms. In 2009, Marie attended the Bread Loaf Conference as a Bernard O'Keefe Scholar in Nonfiction. Marie's essay "Letter from a Japanese Crematorium" was published in Agni 65, cited as distinguished in the 2008 Best American Essays, and anthologized in Creative Nonfiction 3, edited by Lee Gutkind. Marie's debut novel, Picking Bones from Ash, was published by Graywolf Press on October 1st, 2009.
Somewhere in the house they would find a treasure. Beyond the hoarded boxes of roach killer and incense lining the periphery of the living room, there would be jewelry, the gold and scarlet kimonos Reiko remembered from childhood, a secret love letter. The house, like the body, would have one heart.
They dug through piles of unfiled hospital receipts—the most recent on top—and boxes of stale cookies. Beyond this they found boxes of free tissue handed out by banks during the post war years when the Japanese economy was just pulling out of recession. By the second day, Reiko and her daughter Junie began to find personal objects; photos, hair combs, a couple hundred-thousand yen stuffed away in an envelope, apparently forgotten. A young man dressed in a suit from the Jazz Age smiled at them from the confines of a black and white photo.
Reiko had the feeling that she was witnessing her mother's life in reverse and the process, compounded by her grief, was deeply unsettling. Her own childhood, marked by war, had been difficult. Adulthood, which included a happy marriage and family life, had been more pleasurable. It had been the opposite for her mother, Atsuko; never had Atsuko been happier than when she had been a child, the adored daughter of her wealthy and popular parents.
Reiko turned to Junie and said, "I promise I won't do this to you."
Junie was initially startled. But of course. One day Reiko would leave her, and Junie would be sifting through the abandoned contents of a house.
After several days, Reiko and Junie stopped their work and went to the temple. At the banquet after the service, Junie peppered the priest with questions. She wanted to know the purpose for the continuous praying, which was interrupting her cleaning obligations, and thus delaying her return to America. The priest drew a circle on the table. He pointed to the right-most side of the circle and said, "Your grandmother, Atsuko, was born here." Then, moving clockwise, he traced the circle to its left-most spot. "And this is where she died."
The way the Buddhist priest explained it, the rest of the circle marked the journey toward rebirth, and Atsuko's safe passage was entrusted to her family. If they did not adequately nourish her spirit through prayer, she might become trapped, stop her journey, and return to the earth in the form of a ghost.
"This is what we mean when we say that the dead are always with us," the priest smiled.
Junie wondered if her grandmother could see the living world. Then again, maybe her grandmother would not want to look at the present; perhaps she preferred to look back on the past, and relive her life backwards.
They returned to the house to filter through the scraps of paper. Letters. Bills.
"Who is this? What is this?" Junie asked over and over again.
"I don't know." Reiko held onto the edge of a letter and had a fleeting image of her mother floating away from her, journeying closer towards rebirth, while Reiko herself was only edging closer to the end of her life.
At cross purposes as usual, Reiko thought, as she continued to sort through the layers of her mother's possessions.
The doctor insisted that nothing was physically wrong. "She's just old," he said. And though Atsuko's symptoms—the lack of conversation, the frequent hospital stays prompted by vague pains—all hinted at simple aging, Reiko suspected that her mother's dementia was all a ruse. Reiko became even more suspicious when, during one hospital stay, her mother turned to her and said, "Please don't bury my ashes with your father. I'd like you to send them to Nagasaki instead."
"Why would you want to do that?" Reiko asked lightly, pretending that her mother's sudden burst of conversation was natural.
"I just don't want to be buried with him. That's all," Atsuko snapped.
Why couldn't her mother choose this moment of clarity to be thankful for the flowers Reiko had brought today, or the grapes she had meticulously peeled and spoon-fed her mother the day before?
"Oh, just forget I asked you." An invisible hand began to draw a shade of blankness across Atsuko's features.
"It's not an impossible request," Reiko said quickly.
Her mother's face cleared. "No. It's not," she agreed.
"But," Reiko began, "if you die before he does, he'll want to know where your ashes go."
"I've already thought of that," Atsuko said. "I made arrangements."
"You have?" A nurse walked by, her plastic white slippers slapping the linoleum floor. Reiko waited for the sound to fade. "Who agreed to do this for you? We don't pay people to . . ."
Atsuko sighed. "This conversation is getting complicated. I just wanted to let you know that I spoke to the priest at Muryoji a few years ago. I told him I wanted my ashes to go to Nagasaki, and he agreed to help me."
"He said it was possible to bury a false urn at my funeral. He will hide my ashes until your father dies. Then you can rebury me in Nagasaki," she said proudly.
"But, why?" Reiko asked. "You know that father loves you. You do know that, don't you?"
"Nisaku is where I belong," her mother said.
"Who is Nisaku?"
"Nagasaki is where I belong," Atsuko corrected herself, closed her eyes, and either pretended to sleep or actually went to sleep; Reiko couldn't be sure which.
In the onion existence, one survived by slowing peeling off layers of a former life. The onion existence was addictive. A person might find herself asking what else she could do without, like an ascetic practicing increasingly severe self-denial. How many layers of life could a person shed? Would she give up her hopes for the future? An attachment to elegance?
Atsuko extracted a bulky package wrapped in paper and hidden behind her sweaters in the closet. She gazed at the kimono inside the paper. It was an anachronistic item, made at a time when elegance had been so easy to come by that artisans had striven to make beauty unique—even subtle. She held a bit of fabric in her hand and turned it back and forth in the weak, amber light, and the silk obediently shifted from navy blue to silver and back again.
She stood in line for two hours, finally receiving a large radish, two shriveled cucumbers, and a bag of cornstarch. There was no rice. She calculated how many days they would be able to stretch the remaining grain at home, and the process felt like a tortured exercise from school. Worse, she had no idea how long it would be until the next ration, for when the Japanese army had been defeated, Japan lost its territories in Korea and Taiwan and the grain that went with them. To add insult to injury, the Japanese harvest was terrible—the worst since 1910 the newspapers declared—and many farmers had determined they could sell their grain at a better price on the black market. Atsuko was outraged at the government for causing her family to suffer this hunger. And yet we are all the same, she told herself as she looked around at the tired and hungry crowd, all dressed in the same ugly blue monpe pantaloons that she too had to wear. Therein lay the difficulty, for she still carried in her head an image of herself as a young person of promise, a woman to be pursued and admired.
Atsuko took a guilty pleasure in the black market. It should have been shameful to see people so destitute, pawning their possessions—the very mark of the onion life. She should feel a resentment toward the Korean gangs pooling together to sell grain, but instead she was fascinated. The stalls with the pots and pans intrigued her the most. It was so rare these days to see such a collection of metal in one place, as nearly everything had been melted down for weapons. Yet here and there were stalls selling frying pans, pots, rice cookers. Occasionally she saw something unusual—a rectangular pan specifically shaped to make paper thin egg "omelets," which, before the war, would have been cut into narrow strips and placed inside maki-sushi. Her eyes craved these impractical things, rendered frivolous by the deep hunger everyone shared.
At last Atsuko found the person she was looking for, a woman rumored to have run a brothel before the war, and who now dealt in Japanese "luxuries" which were bought then sold to American GIs, and eccentric aristocrats convinced that better days were ahead.
The woman was unusually critical of the kimono this time, and gave Atsuko a smaller bag of rice than expected. At the last minute, the woman threw in a pack of cigarettes and Atsuko's heart leapt at the idea that her day's introspection would be accompanied by smoke.
Back in the house, Atsuko drank a cup of weak tea, then re-opened the secret hiding place in her closet. She found a pair of tiny Parisian shoes made of gold silk and beads. They had been a gift from her grandfather. Atsuko applied a thin layer of white paint across her face, and rouged her cheeks and mouth. She slipped on the shoes, strode around the kitchen, and smoked a cigarette. She carried on imaginary conversations with her grandfather who flattered her brilliant mind, and with ex-suitors whom she summarily dismissed. Then she chattered with her three sisters, gossiping and laughing about the behavior of these men.
When she finished the last cigarette and returned to the reality of her humble kitchen, the encroaching dinner hour, and the ceaseless appetites of her children, she changed her clothes and sat by the back door. She heard her children moving through the house and the rooms sounded hollow, a far cry from the jocular noises of her own childhood.
A half an hour later, Kim, a young Taiwanese woman, appeared looking over her shoulder. She spoke excellent Japanese, if a little slowly and with a slight accent. She also carried a large jug of soy sauce, which Reiko would divide into smaller jars and trade with her neighbors; despite their hunger, her neighbors were unwilling to lower themselves to speak to someone from Taiwan.
"More in a couple of weeks," said Kim.
Atsuko measured out a portion of her bag of rice, and anticipating Kim's reaction that this quantity was short, presented the shoes to compensate.
When her husband came home, Atsuko could smell fat on his breath. "Eating with the Americans?"
"Just a piece of bacon . . ." he stopped. "You have some lipstick left on your mouth."
She touched her lips. Too quickly, she yanked her arm down to her side, like a child whose hand has been caught in mid-furtive gesture reaching to steal a sweet.
"Why are you still keeping secrets from me!" Hiro roared. "Can't you do anything responsibly?"
That evening, when she checked the bruise on her back, Atsuko thought to herself how curiously like a red onion it looked, in shape, color, and translucence and the thought, the irony of seeing a rare food item appear like a mirage in her skin set her laughing.
The descriptions of Buddhist hell were specific and consistent. It smelled and everything was burning. Bodies were mutilated and naked. Through this red, orange and black land, ghosts stumbled, their arms stretched out before them, hands flopped down. It was partly to help the dead avoid this fate that once a year the living participated in Obon and twice a year in ohigan, rituals designed to nourish the journeying souls of ancestors.
Atsuko was standing outdoors when she saw a garish flash of light. The sky over Nagasaki was cleaved in two, and clouds began to boil out of what moments earlier had been empty air. Unstoppable elements were propelled into a second cloud, bright red like lava. The cloud spread, changing color and shape, and sparkling with numerous small explosions.
A few seconds later, a force lifted her up and whirled her in the air. When she finally awoke, the world around her was exploding. The seams of houses snapped open. Glass shattered. She began to smell smoke. Soon she heard screaming. Naked men and women ran with their arms outstretched to try to cool their burns.
The city she had grown up in as a child, and which she returned to for the sake of Obon, had been replaced by hell. Days passed colored by the garish details of a nightmare, without the neatly punctuated divisions of day and night.
She came across lines of people expired on the side of the road, their bodies naked, clothing ripped off in the blast. It was sometimes difficult to tell if someone was dead, or merely resting; certainly the flies and maggots did not discriminate.
Atsuko ran into Mrs. Yoshimura who confirmed seeing little Ayu playing in the park by Engawa Elementary School. Later, Atsuko would remember the desperation of trying to find the park. For hours—or was it days—she drifted like a character from a Noh play, a hungry ghost yearning for release. Somewhere, just beyond, the Engawa Elementary School would be standing, and her youngest child would be there in a swing. She must look harder!
But the landscape was a ruined, foreign place, erased of any markers, and refused to cooperate with her search. Soon she became convinced that she was passing the same clusters of bodies, still unclaimed by families or by the military police. In places where the fire had raged the strongest, only large bones survived; vertebrae, segments of hip. For years she would have nightmares, in which she was forced to walk around pieces of bone, but as in reality, there would always be so many bones, it would be impossible not to step on them.
Mr. Aoyama, her old art teacher, intercepted her on one of these beds of bones.
"Are we dead?" she asked.
Gently, he suggested she search some of the makeshift hospitals for her daughter. For the next ten hours or so, Atsuko solemnly proceeded past patients who were still expiring on their backs. Never had she participated in such an intrusion of privacy as she gazed upon the face of sick body after sick body. Behind her, an endless stream of people did the same. Atsuko mourned for those who would spend their last days as objects of inquiry for strangers.
Exhausted, she paused on the steps of a building which appeared to have been some kind of bank. Before long, a military man came to see who she was, what she was doing.
"The Engawa Elementary School," he nodded. "Very near the hypocenter."
They discussed the options; the hospitals, the makeshift hospitals. Finally he took her to the one remaining crematorium in the city. To accommodate the number of dead, workers had dug holes outside; bodies were being burned in the open air.
"If you think your daughter is alive, then you should go to the hospitals," she was told.
"I didn't find her at the hospitals."
"Then," the man said warily, "you might find her over there."
He pointed to a tall billboard covered with small bags attached with nails. Atsuko inspected the structure, and began to read the accompanying labels.
"Female. Around 45 years old."
"Male. Less than one year."
She was gripped by a profound sense of unreality. This could not possibly be her life, could not be her world. She was meant to be somewhere else. A second, more rational thought intruded. No wonder, this voice said, that the Buddha was able to speak so knowingly of reincarnation. It was impossible not to feel that the next time she came across this moment, she would do things differently. She would insist that her sister come north, and live with her for the duration of the war. Then none of her family—not her sister and certainly not her daughter—would be anywhere near here.
The air was thick with smoke. Exhausted men and women were picking bags off of the board. She saw two possible candidates. Both bags purported to contain the remains of eight year old girls. She waited for instinct to guide her hand towards one bag over the other.
Su-ling exhaled a long stream of smoke from her mouth. "How old are you, Atsuko-sensei?" the old Taiwanese woman asked.
Su-ling cackled. "If you are twenty-four, then I am a young fifty-year old lady. My dear, how old are you really?"
"Twenty-four," Atsuko repeated.
"And if I were to go and look up your birth record, what would it say?"
"That I was twenty-four."
"Hmm," the old lady exhaled again. "Here I was thinking that you were the impoverished child of a ruined noble family. But you seem to have some active connections."
The two women gazed out at the garden to calm their tempers. It was Japanese in style, all rocks and trees and moss. A large pond filled the center, and inside this were two islands, one styled like a crane flapping its wings and the other fashioned to look like a turtle. Both islands were connected by a stone bridge. The effect was Japanese—almost.
For in the back of the garden Atsuko saw the intrusion of weeds—higanbana, eerie red lilies which only bloomed at this time of the year. They were so named because they coincided with the ohigan, which took place during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes. It was on these unusual dates that the boundary between the living and dead was thinnest, when, as the word ohigan meant, it was possible to actually cross to the other bank.
The sight of the higanbana filled Atsuko with distress. A true Japanese gardener would have weeded out these lilies to keep their unpleasant presence from marring what was otherwise a lovely scene. Atsuko's posture straightened. The old lady might be wealthy, and a landlady, but Atsuko was truly Japanese.
"I heard that Hayashi Seijuro came to visit you at school the other day," Su-ling said. "I thought he was in Korea killing off poor villagers. Instead, he has come to see our poor little art teacher."
"Mr. Hayashi came to see me three times," Atsuko said briskly. "He told me that Mr. Yanagiwara wants to marry me so badly, he is sick and unable to get up out of his futon."
"That's a woman's trick," Su-ling said. "Men are supposed to break things when they are angry. We are supposed to act weak and helpless. It's a bad sign when a husband takes on a woman's trick to get his way." She eyed Atsuko. "I suppose Mr. Hayashi told you what a venerable old family the Yanagiwaras are."
"The Yanagiwaras are a good family."
"Something to do with construction in Korea."
"An exploitative family business. And how old is this Mr. Yanagiwara you are going to marry?"
"Then it is a good thing that you are only twenty-four! A word of advice," Su-ling said. "You had better start having children as soon as possible. That will be the best way to ward off suspicion. Should you become ill, or begin to turn gray, you can always blame it on the stress of childbirth."
Again this impertinent insinuation about age!
Atsuko's thoughts wandered back to a conversation she had had five years ago. Her father had just died, and she, along with her three sisters and mother, discovered that he had loaned a large amount of money to a business partner in a deal that had gone sour. They had let all the servants go; the two most loyal had refused to leave.
Perhaps 70 years ago when the shogunate had still been in charge, Atsuko's family would have obtained greater help from an outside force willing to send a young man for marriage to help reconstruct the family. But with the Emperor and his men back in charge, and their eyes turned toward building an empire that rivaled the West, the small hurts of a little, if distinguished, samurai family, meant little. Instead, it was her mother's older brother, Ryuichi-ojisan, who came to advise them.
"I don't believe in women not marrying," Ryuichi-ojisan had said to Atsuko. "At some point you will have to." In the meantime, he thought he could get her a teaching job in Taiwan. "There was a ghastly system in place in Taiwan before we took over; children were taught just as they were in mainland China, which is to say, many children did not learn to read. And how can the people of East Asia compete with the West if workers cannot at least read a basic pamphlet?"
"Ryuichi-ojisan asks a good question," Atsuko replied demurely.
With her uncle's connections, five years had been shaved off of Atsuko's age. She was granted a half a decade of freedom and responsibility, during which time she would support her family. When the five years expired, her sisters would be educated and eligible for marriage; so would she.
"Of course any wife wants to begin to have children as soon as possible," Atsuko said to Su-ling carefully.
"The Buddha warned against disillusionment," Su-ling replied.
Atsuko took in the large garden, and the extravagant house with one meaningful, hard look. "He warned against material attachment too, Kaori-san." Atsuko used Su-ling's Japanese name, for the government insisted that, in addition to bowing toward the Emperor in the morning, all Taiwanese must go by Japanese names.
The old woman laughed. "That, my dear, is something I know that you will never conquer. Neither will I, for that matter. When we die, our souls will show up here again until we learn our lesson not to crave. Although, since I am from a defeated people, perhaps I will have more of a chance than you to improve my condition in the next life."
When Atsuko turned five, she was presented with a new servant, a twelve year old boy named Nisaku. They took to each other with great intensity as if they had known each other their whole lives, and had just been waiting for their intimate relationship to be made more formal.
Atsuko and Nisaku were admiring the grounds of Aka-temple when it began to rain. Koi nuzzled the surface of the water in the lake, mistaking the dimpled liquid for fish food. All around, people solemnly opened one colorful umbrella after another. Snap. Snap. Snap. Everyone was tethered to a brilliant disk, a personal sun. Nisaku put Atsuko inside his own kimono to keep her warm and dry. Then he opened an umbrella.
Atsuko felt pressure hanging in the air. She rotated her head and saw other women and children with their umbrellas aloft. "Our umbrella is ugly," Atsuko sighed.
With his free arm, Nisaku hugged Atsuko tightly. "We'll have to get you a new one. Or maybe, I'll find a way to make this more beautiful for you."
Mist descended. Atsuko lost sight of the temple, of the other people. Now she could see nothing but the outline of trees; cherries flexed pink wings, and eccentric pines speared invisible prey. She whimpered and nuzzled against the boy's chest.
"Don't be afraid," Nisaku said. "I'm here. I'll always be here."
"You're going to go away for ohigan."
"But then I'll be back."
She frowned. "When I grow up, I'm going to marry you. Then you won't be able to leave. Not even for ohigan."
Wind stirred the lake and the trees, and soon it was raining pink. Cherry petals sighed through the air. The lake gathered the blossoms into a coat of furry pink. Atsuko put her hand out and the petals landed in her palm, varnishing her skin.
"Ohisan," Nisaku said. Little princess. "You'll marry someone much more important than I."
The umbrella was transformed. The dark red color cradled the pink blossoms like a picture frame, each petal an inspired idea balancing on the dome over her head.
Atsuko's heart was a riot of emotion. She had a premonition that people she loved might disappear completely one day. At the same time, she was silenced into quiet, awestruck admiration as she marveled over the transformation of the previously dull umbrella into a thing of beauty.