It was almost dark. “Ooame desu ne,” said Yumiko Sakuragawa barely audible, as she gently placed the final two bowls amongst the myriad of others on the small table, and took her place on the tatami mat floor opposite her husband. He sat with his gaze fixed through the open shoji doors, beyond the polished pine veranda, out across the patchwork of rice fields, colourless now in fading light and heavy rain. Two weeks ago he would have said, “It will be a good crop.” The temperature and the humidity were favourable. But he had become uneasy. It was near the end of tsuyu, the rainy season, but the old man in his ninety one years, had never lived through a downpour of unceasing weight. Such rain is not sympathetic to rice saplings. Since morning stories he had heard when he was young, that the old people told, of a deluge that washed away the rice and the villages, had come to him. He nodded pensively. “So desu ne. Ooame desu.” Yes. Heavy rain.
By the open doors incense smouldered sweetly. Its smoke kept mosquitoes at bay. In the rice fields frogs had stopped calling. This was not a good omen. Those who grow rice know the sounds and the silences. Husband and wife closed hands holding chopsticks and bowed respectfully eyes shut. “Itte dakemasu,” they said together. Thank you for this food. They ate without hurry or conversation, and listened to the rain. There was no other sound. The old man sipped his hot miso soup. He was pensive. This evening everything blended together; the mountains, the clouds, the darkness and the rain, to create a colossal looming presence. Yet, still he knew the place where the narrow path wound up and up, from the well the other side of the stream, through the tall pine trees and bamboo, to the ancient temple at the top of Mount Yamamoto. It troubled him deeply in his heart that he could no longer go up there. His legs were too old. He had gone there to pray every day for fifty seven years. The last day he had tried to climb, he had managed to get about half way. Some virtuous neighbours had come and quietly taken him home.
“Ocha?” offered the old lady. Juichiro Sakuragawa held out his cup with both hands, slightly shaking though ever courteous, one on the side, one beneath, for the green tea. “Arigato,” he said. Thank you. Yumiko and Juichiro lived alone and had been married seventy of her eighty eight years. They had two children. “This is delicious,” he said taking up his bowl of soft rice. Yumiko’s phone was chiming. She stood without any sign of stiffness and glided across the tatami in her stocking feet. At the kitchen door she smoothly slid these into slippers, flicked on the light and went to the counter. It was Taro. Their son.
“Mother,” he said, “good evening. This is Taro. Have you heard the warnings?”
The old lady noted the particular reserve in his voice. “I have not,” she said.
“I see. Please let me tell you. There are news reports this evening that many places in the province are being flooded. Rivers have burst their banks. Dams are at capacity. This rain is unprecedented. The situation has become dangerous. Local government is issuing evacuation orders. I am going to drive over to collect you and father. Please be ready to leave in one hour. It would be prudent for you to come and stay with us until this danger has passed.”
“Thank you Taro. I will speak with your father.”
“I understand. Thank you mother. Goodbye.”
During the conversation, Yumiko had been watching her husband, small now and frail, as he ate and gazed out into the darkness. At seventeen, a matchmaker had brought them together. His hair had not been like snow on the mountain tops then! She blushed at the memory. The country was rebuilding after the war. There had been much confusion and shame. People did not speak of what had happened. It was better to look ahead than to look back. The war had touched everyone. When married, she and Juichiro had lived with his parents and had taken care of them in their old age. That had once been common, but the young people now have different ways.
Young people do not like to live in rural areas anymore. It is not a life that pleases them. The flat fertile land between the mountains is perfect for rice fields, but holds no allure for the new generation. The old people stay. It is quiet and it is harmonious. The young people do not venerate the growing of rice. Rice growing demands patience and hard work. Those who grow rice must know many things. Things that the young people no longer care to know. The most important of all things, is that there is no beginning and no end to the cycle of rice, and that each grain, like each life, is eternally precious.
The saplings in the little fields around and below the Sakuragawa house were planted by hand in May, to coincide with the start of the rainy season. They are pressed, bunch by bunch, into the soft pasty mud that oozes pleasantly between toes. But before that, the fields must be flooded ankle deep with fresh sparkling water which gushes from the heavens, down the mountain streams, guided through gullies by farmers in partnership with all other interdependent families who have connected rice fields. The water is shared from one down to another until it again rejoins the stream. And before that, in spring when splendid blossoms flourish, the rice seeds, held from last harvest, have to be grown in seedbeds. Before even that, in winter, the fields have to be prepared by digging and turning the soil and by adding fertiliser and old straw which is cut the year before.
But this year, the rain was too heavy. It should have waned. The saplings were trying in earnest to grow but they were beaten down. In other times they would reach above the farmer’s knee and produce heads of grain. At this stage long dappled leaves would flicker and swish; shimmering seas of green. Together, the farmers at the opportune time would close the gullies and take no more water from the stream. The fields would dry out and the seas become gold. Harvest time. The sickles would be taken out, the work dutiful and rewarding; the grain gathered and the sheaves stored for next year. Embodied in this pastoral life of coarse cloths, straw hats and simple tools, community reliance and personal friendships, was something akin to spirituality. In the past, each step of the rice cycle was guided by ancient customs that were handed down generation to generation and expressed through the matsuri. Festivals. In the past, the people of the community, young and old alike, would gather joyfully as one family to celebrate. Deities of the mountains, the fields and the homes, would be appeased. There would be drums and bells and a priest. In the past.
“That was Taro,” she said sitting again to resume her supper. “He says that evacuation orders are being made. Some rivers have become dangerous. Damns are at capacity. There is flooding. He asks that we stay with him for the time being. He asks that we be ready to leave in an hour.” The old man nodded solemnly to acknowledge his understanding. The rain changed a tone. They both noticed. A certain flooding is natural during the rainy season. It is part of the cycle. In June the temperature rises dramatically. This creates monstrous thundery clouds which swell until they burst. This is the rain of tsuyu. Streams become rivers for a month and then become streams again. Water levels rise and then recede. It is the way. But sometimes, the elements are not in accord, and people face adversity. No home is forever untouched.
Juichiro Sakuragawa did not want to abandon his home. He had lived his whole life in this valley in this very house. But it was not the valley or the house that tugged his heart. He could feel tears begin. He tenderly placed his bowl on the table and placed his chopsticks across the top. He folded his hands on his lap and bowed his head. The tone of the rain changed again. “Yumiko chan,” he whispered. Dear Yumiko. “You should be ready when Taro comes. He is a good boy. He is a good man. He did not want this life. It was honourable that he discussed it with us many times. He has a good wife. He has three children who have learned respect. They will care for you. We can be thankful.”
The Sakuragawa house was a single story structure built of solid pine beams. The clay and wattle walls had stood for over one hundred years. The house was strong but not proud. It had trembled when the ground had rumbled, but it had not fallen. It was like the other houses nestled at the base of the great mountains. On a clear night, their mellow lights glowed down the valley like fire flies. On such nights, one can sometimes hear, drifting somewhere up high, soft haunting notes of a flute. Yumiko took the bowls back to the kitchen and washed them. It gave her time to think. She then returned to the table and placed a long narrow dish in the centre. It was dessert, manju, made of flour, rice powder and adzuki beans. “Dozo,” she said. Please go ahead. Then reaching out, and using a tiny fork she took some of the sweet paste. But her husband did not stir. He listened to the rain. “Taro is a good son,” she said finally. “We have good relations with his wife and children. We are fortunate. This rain is not kind. It will anger the streams and the rivers. We in the valleys are in danger. We must evacuate. I will prepare our things. We may return in a few days.” She left the room without a sound.
The old man sighed and got to his feet. He took the dessert and crossed the room to the butsudan. House altar. He carefully opened the doors and bowed. He placed the offering inside, and lit some incense. He looked at the kanji scroll displaying his daughter’s name, Takako, which means, Precious. He took his beads and held them to his forehead. He closed his eyes and prayed. Then he opened his eyes and replaced his beads. He smiled sadly as he took a small old photograph, worn and faded with age, and held it reverently in two hands. “You always liked this,” he whispered indicating the dessert. There was a lump in his throat. “Forgive me little one.” He wiped his eyes. “This rain is not good. It is too heavy. It is worse than that time. You were such an excited spirit to see the rushing water. The gullies are dangerous. I told you many times.” Tears flowed down and filled the cracks and crevices of the old face. He said no more. He held the photograph tightly to his broken heart and then replaced it ever so delicately on the altar. He bowed deeply. He returned to the table and sat, and listened to the rain.
The lights flickered. Yumiko came into the kitchen. She fetched the flashlight and checked that it was working. She also took some candles from a drawer, and a lighter. She placed everything on the small table beside her husband. She noticed the open butsudan. “Perhaps you would like to go to the toilet before Taro arrives,” she said. The old man swallowed hard. “Yumiko chan. Thank you for everything. I am wholly grateful. I will stay.” Yumiko Sakuragawa glanced at the clock. Taro would arrive soon. The sound of the rain had become louder. She left the room and went to the hallway. She switched on the light outside the front door. The bags for the journey were prepared. In the kitchen her phone was chiming. She was anxious as she picked it up. It was Taro.
“Yes.” It was difficult to hear him.
“This is Taro. I am very sorry. I am prevented from coming to you. There has been a landslide. The road is gone. There is no way past. There is flooding everywhere. I am yet seven or eight kilometres from you. I have called the police. They do not have available units. They warned me to return home. There are many emergencies. I am worried mother. Are you safe?”
Taro Sakuragawa’s mother was smiling and when she spoke, she spoke lovingly, as one who has found peace. “Taro dear, we are fine. We have just had supper. You go home now. Be careful. Do not worry about us. Call me when you get home. Promise?”
“I promise. Please tell me how is father?”
“Yes. He is well. We are both very proud of you Taro. You are a good son. You have compassion. Now go home safely and call me when you get there.” She placed the phone on the counter. Such is the way, she thought. She went to the bathroom and ran a hot bath, something that is done ritually every night in every home, because one must be cleansed and at ease, before sleep. Then she returned to the tatami room wherein she opened a closet and took out the futons. Juichiro discreetly moved the small table to the wall. This was their bedroom. When it is not raining, futons are hung outside in the sun to air. They are slapped by a light bat to release any dust from them, then turned, aired and slapped again. They are then folded neatly away until it is time to sleep, when they are laid on the tatami, covered by a sheet, a pillow and a light blanket. In winter several blankets are needed. But not now, because in June the temperature is high, and there is much rain. “We have not had these in the sun for almost a month,” she said resolutely. “They need a good airing. Next week. When tsuyu has ended. Yes. That will be nice. You can help me.”
Old people know many things. They have lived long, and they understand. “Of course,” replied her husband. “How is Taro? Is he safe?”
“There has been a landslide. The road is impassable. He will not come this evening. Perhaps tomorrow, in daylight.”
“That is wise.”
“Yes,” said Yumiko fixing the sheets. “Now, the bath is prepared you go first. I will wait for Taro to call.”
As he passed his wife, Juichiro affectionately rested his hand on her shoulder. In the bathroom he scooped water from the bath using the bamboo pot and scrubbed himself thoroughly while sitting on the small timber stool. Then he stepped into the tub to soak. The warm water helped soothe tired muscles. He closed his eyes and listened to the rain. Come what may, it would stop eventually. Tsuyu would end for another season. Cicadas would burrow up out of the saturated soil, their rasping rattle whirring from dawn till dusk. Clouds would break up and disappear. The sun would blaze and days, would quickly become very hot. Vibrant dragonflies would hop and lightly touch the delicate tips of tall grass and rice plants. Tiny crickets would sing during the still night. Swift swallows would swoop and dip and bring good fortune. This is the waiting time, as rice grains slowly grow to become that golden harvest under the sun now mellow and kind, the sky a softer blue, and the tranquil evenings cooled by fresh air sieved through the mountain pine.
Juichiro Sakuragawa returned to the tatami room wearing his light summer pyjamas. “Dozo,” he said tenderly. “I am finished. Did Taro call?”
“Yes,” replied Yumiko rising to go to the bath. She had turned off the ceiling light and had on a small lamp which stood on the floor at the head of their futons. The room was pleasant and calm. “He is safely home. He will call us in the morning.”
Image: -Quang Nguyen vinh – Pixabay