— whoosh —
The 12-foot tenkara fly-fishing bamboo-rod whipped through the air, releasing the thin line that touched down in the stream over twenty feet away.
The rising sun painted the sakura cherry blossoms in the rose color of dawn, reflecting a light pink sheen in the old man’s steel-gray hair.
The old man knew the water was too cold for the trout to be active and biting, but he loved the sunrise, the cool air of early spring, everything opening up to life again. The world was young.
I feel alive, he thought.
The old man turned around.
A younger man — perhaps in his mid- or late-twenties, dressed in a black suit, white shirt, black tie — was standing at the edge of the stream.
“Are the trout biting?” the young man asked.
“I am so sorry,” the young man said, “my car broke down and my mobile phone doesn’t have any coverage. Can you help?”
The old man waded through the stream. When he made it all the way to the young man, he gave a short, formal bow, and introduced himself:
“Kazuo Nomura,” he said. “I will be happy to help.”
The young man flinched, then quickly slapped the back of his neck.
“The trout may not bite,” the old man said, “but the insects do.” He smiled.
The young man returned the formal bow.
“Yoshio Goto,” he said. “Mr. Nomura —”
“Please call me Kazuo,” the old man said, “if I may call you Yoshio. I live right up there.” He pointed to an old farmhouse with a thatched roof. “My mobile phone works. Most days, anyway. Let’s see if we can get you some help and get you back on your way.”
“I’m so sorry for the trouble,” the young man said.
“Please. I enjoy the company. The trout weren’t biting anyway. Too early. It’ll be better at midday. And I’ve already seen my sunrise.”
* * *
Inside the old man’s farmhouse, the wooden beams, walls, and floor of the central living room were blackened by hundreds of years of smoke from the iori hearth in the middle of the floor.
On the wall was a katana sword beneath a scroll of Amaterasu-ookami, the sun goddess and ancestor of all Japanese emperors. To the left of the katana was another scroll: Hachiman, the god of war. To the right was the scroll of Kasuga-daimyoujin, the deity of Kasuga temple. Below the katana was a butsudan altar, a wooden cabinet with candlesticks, incense burners, bells, and platforms that contained offerings of fruit, tea, and rice.
In front of the butsudan was a large, black-lacquered box.
The old man brought out a bottle of sake, setting it down on the low chabudai table, placing a single cup next to the bottle.
“You may think this is a little early for sake,” the old man said, as he took his seat on the zabuton cushion across from the young man who was already seated. “Hospitality is an honored tradition here in the inaka countryside. At least by old-timers like me. I hope to have you on your way soon, and I do not want to let a guest leave without sharing sake.” He smiled. “Let us drink from the same cup.”
The old man poured a generous amount of sake into the cup, lifted it to his lips and took a sip.
“What brings you here?” he asked, as he handed the cup to the young man.
“I have business on the other side of the island,” the young man said, accepting the cup, “and I thought driving would be the fastest way. It would have been too, except the car broke down.” He took a sip of the sake and put the cup down.
“In a hurry?” The old man stood up, taking the cup with the remaining sake over to the butsudan altar, placing it on an empty platform next to the large black-lacquered box.
When he returned to the table, he carried with him the black-lacquered box which he set down on the table to his right.
“I used to be a young man in a hurry like yourself,” he said, placing both hands on the table, fingers splayed.
The young man’s eyes went to the old man’s left hand, where the tip of the little finger was missing.
The old man wiggled his shortened little finger.
“An accident?” the young man asked.
“Yubitsume,” the old man said, referring to ritually cutting off the tip of the little finger as penance and apology.
“Oh,” the young man said. “You are Yakuza?”
Rather than answer, the old man unbuttoned his shirt, pulled it aside and held it open to show colorful tattoos of dragons, tigers, and flowers, covering his entire chest except for a stripe of clear skin down the middle — the Yakuza ‘full-bodysuit’ of irezumi tattoos.
“But don’t fear,” the old man said, buttoning his shirt back up again. “I left that life. It is more than twenty years in my past now. I’m not a gangster anymore.”
“But is that a life you can leave?” the young man said. “Can you run away from old sins?”
“I’ve had a good run these more than twenty years. I settled down here, minding my own business. No one from my old life have come to bother me.”
“My apologies for not being clear,” the young man said. “I had something else in mind with the question. I understand that Yakuza live a violent life.”
“That is true.”
“Have you ever killed a man?”
“I have killed many men. Never a civilian, which would be against the code of jingi, the Yakuza rules of justice and duty. But yes, I have killed many. Were those the old sins you refer to?”
“You are right,” the old man said. “Those old sins one cannot run away from. They stay with me, the ghosts of those I killed.”
From the inner pocket of his black jacket, the young man pulled a shiny black pistol, pointing the barrel directly at the old man’s heart. His hand was not shaking.
“I wanted you to know,” the young man said, “that an old sin has caught up with you. A ghost has come to claim your life as payment. I wanted you to know who I am before I kill you. I am —”
“I know who you are,” the old man said. His hands were still palms-down on the table and they were not shaking. His voice was steady and strong. “Yoshio is your name, but not ‘Yoshio Goto.’ You are Yoshio Nomura. I knew as soon as I saw you down by the stream. You look just like your father, when I knew him, more than twenty years ago.”
“When you knew him,” Yoshio said. “You mean, when you killed him. You are a thief. You stole my father’s life. And now you have even stolen his name. You are not Kazuo Nomura. That is my father’s name. You are Saturo Kodama, my father’s killer.”
The old man bowed his head, lowered his eyes. “I am Saturo Kodama.” He looked back up again. “I killed your father, my friend, Kazuo Nomura. Do you know why?”
“Because you have no honor.”
“No. Because I had too much honor. My honor required that I kill my shatei, my ‘little brother’, Kazuo Nomura, because he had transgressed, and the Oyabun boss did not accept my attempt at atonement on his behalf.” The old man again wiggled the shortened little finger on his left hand. “My honor demanded, but my soul should have refused. So, because of my honor, I killed my friend, Kazuo, your father. This was my great mistake. My soul grieved. And so I left the Yakuza.”
The young man said nothing and kept the barrel of the gun pointed at the old man’s heart.
“Permit me,” the old man said, “three last requests.” He placed the fingertips of his right hand on the large, black-lacquered box and pushed it across the table towards the young man. “The first request. Please open the box.”
The young man opened the lid of the box.
“The document on the top is the deed to this house,” the old man said. “It is all I have.”
“You cannot bribe me with an old farmhouse.”
“Look at the deed, please. Whose name do you see on it?”
“Yoshio Nomura. My name.”
“And if you look at the date, you will find that it is more than twenty years ago. When I bought this place, I did so in your name, knowing that one day you would come.”
The young man said nothing.
“Second request,” the old man said. “In the box there is also hanchi paper, a fude brush, black ink. I would like to compose my jisei no ku, my death poem.”
“And the third request?”
“What do you mean?”
“You and I have shared sake, the sakazuki ceremony, properly in the presence of the three deities,” the old man turned his face to the side so he faced the three scrolls above the butsudan altar, then turned back to face the young man, “as required in the oyakosakazuki, formalizing a parent-child relationship.”
“Stealing my father’s name and tricking me to share sake does not make me your son. None of this will save you.”
“Son, I do not want to be saved. I want the katana.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Son, do you know the katana?”
“Son, you are Yakuza?”
“Like my father before me.”
“Then grant me this final request, son. After I have composed my death poem, use the katana to take my life, not the gun.”
Yoshio stood up, gave a formal bow, then walked to the wall and took down the katana.
“It is a good sword,” he said.
“It is yours, son, along with this house and everything in it. Who knows, perhaps there will come a day when you want out of the Yakuza. You can come here.”
With that, the old man placed the calligraphy implements carefully on the table, the shitajiki soft mat, the hanshi paper on top, the bunchin metal sticks weighing down the paper, the bottle of black ink, the fude brush.
He looked out the open door to the mountains covered in pink cherry blossoms.
I feel alive, he thought, as he composed his death poem:
even your mistakes
will be held in your favor
no judge — only love
— THE END —