A Christmas Gift – A Story – “You Are Just Like Gods”
“You are just like Gods . . .”
By David Niall Wilson
Myoshi felt his foot slip on the slick, moss-covered rock, and he gripped the rocks above him more tightly. The sharp lava stone cut into his fingers, but he regained his balance and remained very still, letting his breath and heartbeat calm. The sun rose slowly, warming his back as he climbed. Birds cried from the rocks above, and from the depths of the trees. Myoshi brushed his fingers across his brow, wiping away the sweat.
Fuji rose above him, grim and imposing, but no more so than the formidable drop behind. Myoshi had begun his climb at first light, and he had made good time. On his back, his school book bag bulged with supplies. There was a souvenir shop at the edge of the forest, but he’d wanted to avoid prying eyes.
He carried some well-packed fish and rice, and two small packets. One was his school work, graded and banded carefully to be saved and shown to his parents. The other was a packet of letters. Letters from Myoshi’s grandfather. Letters Myoshi’s father had kept, wrapped carefully in rice paper and bound with a silken ribbon. Letters that one day would be missed.
The mountain leveled off for a time, and Myoshi was able to walk normally, sweeping his gaze along the trail that wound up and up until it was lost among trees and clouds. It was a wonderful day for a climb.
Far below, beyond the ocean of trees that was the ancient forest of Aokigahara, school was in session. Myoshi’s father had been at work for two hours, and his mother would be home, cleaning and organizing. Nothing in their small, neat apartment was ever out of place. Myoshi’s father would not have permitted it, and his mother would do nothing that shamed her in her husband’s eyes. Perfection. Myoshi yearned for that. In everything he did, he fell short.
In school, his mind wandered. His grades were not bad, but neither were they good. In Myoshi’s household, mediocrity was not an option. Other children excelled. Some were athletes, others could calculate in their heads faster than Myoshi could press the buttons on his calculator. Myoshi could write, some, but even in this he fell short in his father’s eyes. His marks in penmanship were less than satisfactory, and his grammar was erratic. His teachers said he lacked focus and discipline.
Myoshi’s grandfather had known about discipline. He had understood about being different, as well. It was all in the letters. Letters written by a man who died before his own young son could bring home grades, or books of letters. Letters that were Myoshi’s father’s one link to the past. A fragile link, built of memories half-forgotten and fantasies long rehearsed. Myoshi had heard those fantasies. He had met his grandfather through his father’s words. He had seen the glint in dark eyes, and the shining leather of the uniform. Myoshi had heard the roar of engines as great birds of war took flight.
“You are just like the Gods,” Myoshi breathed, “Free of earthly desires…”
He slipped under the umbrella of tree-limbs and continued up the mountain. His father’s voice echoed through his mind. The mountain slipped away, just for a moment, replaced by white, billowing clouds. The soft cries of birds and the chirping of insects gave way to crackling static. He sensed the others, tightly formed squadron of death, moving as a single unit with the sun blazing above. Myoshi could feel the sweat beneath the flight helmet. He could sense the symmetry of the squadron’s practiced motion. One great bird. One bolt of lightning aimed at those who opposed the Emperor.
“To fly as one bolt
From the crossbow of a
A tree root protruding from the mountain’s rough hide sent Myoshi tumbling, and his mind returned to the moment. He caught himself on both hands, scraping one palm, and fighting the urge to cry out. The weight of the pack pressed him more tightly to the earth. Turning, he seated himself on a rock and caught his breath. The sun was bright, and as he looked back the way he’d come, he saw that the trail had disappeared, the winding course cutting off his entrance to the tree-line completely. Nothing below but the green tops of the trees, obscuring the forest floor, and the rocky peak above rising on a gentle slope above a second line of trees. Myoshi could just make it out, and he smiled.
From his pack, he pulled free a rice cake, and the packet of his graded school papers. Carefully, he unwrapped the bundle, plucking out the sheets one by one. He laid them on the stone beside him, tracing the even lines of his script with a critical eye. He had been doing well on this one. Line after line of formulas strung together in the proper patterns. Then the error. One figure out of place, another line used to scratch the mistake from the paper and the continuation – flawed. Beside each figure, a corresponding red character in the elegant script of his teacher. Corrected. Berated. Imperfect.
Myoshi had done well enough to pass from this class to the next, but with no honors. No fine words from teacher to parent. No pride. It had taken him hours to complete that assignment, painstakingly forming each character. He had wanted so badly to please his father that the old man’s image had formed in Myoshi’s mind. The words, and the stories, and lectures slipped in to distract.
Myoshi traced the scratched out character’s with the nail of one finger. He whispered to himself.
“You are just like gods.”
The figures mocked him. The red letters, so bright in the sunlight, glittered like the eyes of serpents. His father had not seen them. Myoshi had kept the papers, folded and tied. Bound and under his control. He could not control the characters, or the formulas, but he could control their outcome, for a time. The birds did not threaten to expose his secret, and Fuji beckoned.
Myoshi glanced at the second packet of papers. He slid his hand into his pack, stroked the silk bindings, but he did not open the letters. Not yet. He quickly packed the wrapper from the rice cake, and the school work, and rose, turning to face the mountain once again.
“Free of earthly desires,” he said softly.
Free of his family. Free of school, though it tugged at his heart. He would be a disappointment to his father this final time. Myoshi had not missed a day of school in five years. The only desire he could recall in all those years was to please his father. The most wonderful moments of his life had been spent at that great man’s feet, listening to stories of emperors, and wars. Stories of his ancestors. Stories that filled his heart and mind with dreams of other places, and other times. Times and places where he was not a clumsy young boy, but a hero. There were ways for those unworthy of honor to regain it. There were answers to the loss of pride.
The good times with his father had grown fewer and further between as Myoshi had grown older. As the piles and piles of papers, just like those in his pack, had stacked themselves against his future, and his honor, his father’s eyes had grown distant. They still saw Myoshi, but not the same Myoshi they had seen before.
Myoshi rose once more, his gaze sweeping up the winding trail to where the peak of the mountain slipped through the clouds. Eagles soared through the highest branches of the trees, circling slowly. Myoshi screened the sunlight by cupping his palm over his eyes and watched them. The brilliant light glittered on a bit of mica imbedded in the mountain, diamond glimmer nearly blinding him. Myoshi squinted, cocking his head to one side to listen.
He could hear his father’s voice as the mountain faded. Could sense the shift, and welcomed it.
“We watched from the decks as the pilots swarmed to the sky, a black horde, synchronized and dangerous. It was not our time. We were too far from the enemy, and these would return, but they were majestic in flight.
“I remember standing very still on the flight deck, watching them shrink to fly-specks on the horizon, and knowing, when it was my time, that speck would be me. Shrinking to nothing. Here, and then, no more, a bright spark in the Emperor’s eyes – a memory in my family’s heart. Just like the Gods.”
With his eyes squinted so tightly, Myoshi saw the aircraft shimmering against a darkened sky, saw them bank and circle against the clouds. Saw them focus. Eagles. Eagles were like the Gods, as well, but a different sort of God.
Myoshi picked up his things and started up the mountain once more, suddenly eager for completion. He could feel the wind on the wings of the eagles, and that same wind shivering through his hair.
There were not many letters. Myoshi’s grandfather had not served for years in the military, or even for a year. Months, only, and he had never returned. He had not been a precision pilot, nor had he been blessed with the blood of the Samurai. Still, he had soared.
Myoshi had read those letters again and again. He had begged his father’s indulgence to allow him to watch over them. To guard them. He had seen in his father’s eyes the struggle this had been, but those words, those images, were ingrained in his father’s mind. That great man no longer required the letters, and so they had passed to Myoshi, who had cherished them as no other possession.
His grandfather’s penmanship had never faltered. There were no red characters or strike-outs. There were clear thoughts, worded in poetry stretched to prose without loss of continuity. It was his grandfather’s words that inspired Myoshi’s own writing, unworthy as it was. It was the images of his grandfather’s death that stole those words, and distracted him from his own honor. His teacher said his mind wandered. Myoshi knew it soared.
The trees had begun to thin. All that stood between Myoshi and his goal was a ragged backbone of rock. Far above him, farther than he could have climbed in such a short time, patches of snow were visible. The air was noticeably cooler, and Myoshi was glad, very suddenly, that his mother had insisted on the sweater he wore, though it had been too hot less than an hour before.
“The higher you go,” Myoshi’s father’s voice, “the colder it gets. The harder it is to breathe. It is always dark. We don’t fly by day, and those few of us who get to practice at all are very sparing with our fuel. We are not trained to fire at the enemy. We are barely trained to land. It is not expected of us.
“We study the great maps daily. We listen to the inspirational words of our leaders. I have meditated more this span of two weeks, my son, than I have in the last two years of my life. Things I have never thought of become clear. Your mother. Your face, watching over me in my dreams.
“My face reflected
Bright smile, shining eyes, dark
Like the twilit sky.”
Myoshi’s eyes were dark, as were his father’s. He knew that he resembled both men, third generation to bear that visage, first to fail. There would be no medals hanging on the walls of Myoshi’s home. Not unless he inherited them. He would not write wondrous letters to a son yet unborn, telling tales of glory, and darkness, blood and fire.
He stopped again, shielding his eyes and glancing up toward the mountain’s peak. The eagles had roosted, leaving the sun to beat down on a desolate slope. Myoshi planned to be across the ridge and safely on the plateau on the far side before the afternoon sunlight waned. He considered stopping for another snack, but there wasn’t much shade until he crossed, and he wanted to reach the ledge with enough light for reading.
Not that he needed light. Not that every word in every letter wasn’t ingrained in his imagination, every image fully formed and captivating. He stepped out onto the bare stone. The wind whipped up and nearly toppled him from his precarious perch, no longer blocked by the trees. Myoshi fought for his balance, regained it, and took a quick step forward, then another. It was easier once he was moving, and he concentrated on the stone at his feet.
Myoshi did not want to think about the side of the mountain, or the lava fields, obscured by the forest below. He dislodged a tiny avalanche of dust and stone and stopped, waiting for his heart to grow still.
Myoshi thought of Cherry blossoms. His grandfather had often mentioned them, as had his father. One of the other pilots, younger even than Myoshi’s grandfather, had written a poem that Myoshi loved. The haiku, so simple, so profound and complete in that simplicity.
“If only we might fall
Like Cherry blossoms in the spring
So pure and radiant.”
Myoshi contemplated the mountain. The distance to the base. The remaining climb. There were no cherry trees on the mountain, and somehow, he was glad. He didn’t want to think about the ground littered with their petals. He didn’t want to walk over so many great souls.
As the sun warmed his back, and the wind chilled his face, Myoshi climbed.
* * *
The sun dropped fast beyond the horizon, and Myoshi leaned in close, trying to catch enough of the dying light to finish the letter. It was the last of them. Eight, carefully penned slices of life; all that remained of Myoshi’s grandfather. When he had read the last familiar word, he carefully folded the paper, painstakingly matching the folds and tying the ribbon as it had been reverently. Myoshi tucked the bundle under his shirt, close to his heart.
Next he pulled free a single sheet of blank paper, and his pen. It was getting more difficult to see, but it would not matter. There would be no red glaring characters to mar this piece. Nothing to correct. No figures, only a promise. A single promise.
Myoshi wrote slowly as his mind wandered, for once allowing the words to be absolutely his own. He didn’t watch the paper. It was getting too dark for that. He had to depend on his instincts and luck. He knew his teachers would not approve, but for once, he was beyond that as well. He was not writing a lesson. He was writing a history. He was encapsulating his life.
“Since I was very young,” he began, “sitting at your knee, my father, and listening to your stories of grandfather, I have loved the cherry blossom. I read the haiku, and in my dreams, the blossoms grew to men. In the words of those who died gloriously, taking the paths of falling stars to the hearts of their enemies, I found dreams. As I failed in my life, they gave me hope.”
The mountain faded around him as shadows lengthened. The moon had yet to rise, but only the last rose-tinted hints of the sun licked the skyline. Stars glittered like diamonds. Like petals. So many petals.
Myoshi continued to write, but his mind closed out the reality of mountain and paper, the pen slid silently, marking the trail of his thoughts, but not carefully. Not with the painstakingly rigid strokes of the school, now empty and silent, like the mountain. Not with the measured rhythm of his grandfather’s even script. With Myoshi’s heart. He penned each character as it felt, and he paid no more attention to it than he did to the breeze. He mouthed his grandfather’s words and shivered.
“The air was cold on deck. We were allowed only minimal equipment. Nothing, really, to prepare for the weather. If we grew ill, we would find our release. If we were cold, we had but to think fo the flame, and the glory to come. Each brow was covered with a single strip of cloth, white, with the rising son emblazoned.
“I remember last night. I went, alone, to the flight deck. The Oka – cherry blossom – stood before me, silent and empty. I tried to picture the skies, the enemy, the waves. I saw a coffin. I saw an end, and a beginning, etched in flame. My heartbeat quickened, fanned like a flame by the wind as it whipped across that dark, empty deck. I stood there a very long time, and when I returned to my bed, I could not sleep. Instead, I turned to the pen, and the paper, wanting you to share the moment.
“Waves lapped gently at the sides of the ship, rocking us like babes in the arms of our mothers. It is the last night we will spend in the arms of any mother, cradled by the earth. I want to sleep and let it slip away. I want to awaken to that last day as I had so many others. I know I will not. I cannot sleep.
“Now the sun is rising, and my hand shakes as I hold the pen; my heart races. The others have tossed and turned all around me. None found the peace of deep sleep, and those who did sleep are round-eyed with visions and final dreams.
“I will close this now, so that I may seal it and put it in the Commander’s hand. He will see that you get this letter, and the others. Tonight, I die, but part of me lives on. I have a sun, and I am blessed.
“I remember the words of Admiral Ohnishi, by whose grace I have this chance to die so well.
‘In blossom today, then scattered,
Life is so like a delicate flower.
How can one expect the fragrance
To last forever?’
“May I honor you. May I honor our Emperor. May the gods embrace me.
Myoshi’s pen did not stop scratching at the paper as his grandfather’s words ended. He could feel the deck swaying beneath his feet. He wrote on until the paper was filled, and turned, and filled on the opposite side as well before he set it aside, unsigned. Only the weight of the pen held the paper in place against the stone, and the edges flapped in the breeze, like the wings of a great moth, reaching into the moonlight.
The takeoff was rougher than usual. The waves had risen higher, and the deck slanted one way, then the other, great sweeping rolls that skewed the skyline and stole one’s balance. Myoshi blinked, the strobe effect easing his nausea. A thousand butterflies had risen to flight in his breast, and his hands shook like those of an old man.
All around him the roar of engines. Each coughing to life, sputtering drowsily then roaring with barely contained life. Life. That is what pulsed through Myoshi’s veins, pounding so loudly he thought of the surf, and the ocean. The air was cool, but he felt a fiery heat building, felt the glorious binding of man to machine to air as they launched.
The air whipped against his face, and he felt the exhileration, the pure joy of release as the deck/earth/world slipped away. His breath was stolen, and though he fought against that breathlessness, he could not quite force the words past his lips.
Myoshi’s body tumbled, falling freely from the ledge of stone, arcing out from the stone and whirling, head over feet over head again and crashing through the upper branches of the ocean of trees, swallowed whole by the ancient, silent forest.
Far above, the clouds opened for one second, and the silhouette of a single plane was outlined – then gone.
* * *
A group of teenage boys, on a hike, came across bones, picked clean and whitened by the sunlight, slipping through the trees. They turned in horror, ready to bolt, but one stopped.
A packet of papers, mildewed and rotting, lay to one side. It was bound by a single ribbon of silk. Forcing his eyes from the bones, the boy reached out and grabbed the packet.
They ran. It wasn’t until much later that the papers were carefully opened. Most were very old, but a single page of newer script was tied atop the pile. On it, this verse.
“White blossom, broken
stained petal, crimson, gliding
Lost in the moonlight”