神かくし / Spirited Away
“There’s a crazy lady at the Tejima place.”
The shouts came from outside the frosted glass windows that looked out over the veranda. A moment later, someone ran by. Without putting on my shoes, I jumped out the front door and ran in front of the house.
From the window of the kitchen where Grandmother cooked our meals and from the front door of the Kubos’ house next door, there was a clear view of the water in the pond, which twinkled brightly in the midday sun. Next to that was Granny Tejima’s house. As soon as you stepped into their yard, tall thick fig trees blocked out the sunshine and the view of the water. The yard always had a cool aroma that suggested moss, centipedes, earthworms, and other earthly things.
There was a young, barefoot girl there, dressed in a long undergarment. Someone had tied her to one of the fig trees with several red cords of the same type one would use to tie a kimono closed. The cords had been tied end-to-end to make a rope long enough to bind the girl to the tree. The undergarments the girl wore were soiled with spring dust, and her hair, face, and limbs were dirty. She looked young, as if she was hardly older than twenty. Both of her hands hung limply at her side, and her fingernails were bluish-black with dirt. She gazed at everyone with big, black eyes that seemed like empty spots, but each time the children said something to tease her, she grew angry and kicked dirt at them with her bare feet like an angry cow on the loose.
Grandmother had come to the Tejima’s well to get some water. As she led me home, I asked, “Why was that person tied up? Did she do something bad?”
“A ‘wind’ got into her. They say that’s the way to chase it out.”
“It’s a fiery ball that floats up from dead people.”
There in the countryside, people believed that drifting souls, which they thought of as a kind of wind, could get into a person’s body. If it did, the “wind” could make them lose their sanity or even give them tuberculosis. The kind of “wind” that could make a person lose their sanity was considered especially depraved, and so country people would tie madmen outside to expose them to the rain and the dust. This form of treatment was intended to punish the evil spirit, not the poor person who had lost his or her mind. If anything, the country folk thought they were being kind to the madman by doing this.
There in the countryside, people believed that drifting souls, which they thought of as a kind of wind, could get into a person’s body. If it did, the “wind” could make them lose their sanity or even give them tuberculosis….
The rain fell, the dust blew, and the days progressed ever further into spring. Before long came the day each year when the pilgrims would dress and white and file by as they made their rounds to the temples and shrines. The crazy girl’s undergarments were just about as soiled as they could possibly be, and the hem had turned into a muddy mess. The front hem had ripped suggestively in two, revealing her legs which were covered with patterns of grime. She would sometimes let out a piercing laugh, but when the old pilgrims wearing their traditional white arm and leg coverings came to stare at her, she did not grow angry like before. When a young woman dressed in her finest clothing would pass by, she would grab at the flamboyantly colored sleeves with her fingers and her bluish-black fingernails and shriek, “Look! Is that silk crepe? Rayon? Manken?” Manken was a made-up word, and the absurdity of her question made her sound truly crazy.
When the gods and buddhas helped her become a little bit better, someone took her away. Grandmother said to Grandfather, “It looks like Ms. Tejima isn’t going to get any more money to take care of her.” That statement was not entirely fair. The money Granny Tejima got to take care of the crazy girl wasn’t her only source of income.
Right in front of the fig tree where the crazy girl had been tied was the room in which Granny Tejima kept her Buddhist altar. It was a gloomy, empty room about ten mats wide. Granny Tejima did not think of it as a regular room; she called it the “Main Chapel,” as if it were the main building of a Buddhist temple. In regular Buddhist temples, priests would receive the authority to serve as mediators between the worlds of the living and the dead from the highest-ranking temples of their individual sects, but Granny Tejima had no need for an official status. She had earned her position as a go-between directly from the spirits themselves. The spirits had chosen her, and in response to their call, she went out into the cold and lived the life of an ascetic on a rocky outcropping. In her eyes, her “Main Chapel” room was an even more legitimate chapel than the ones you would find in “real” temples.
The “Main Chapel” was always dimly lit and smelled of old, wet tatami mats, plaster, and incense. On three sides of the room were an eclectic assortment of statues of Buddhist gods and Shinto deities. There was a stone statue of Jizō wearing a red bib, a stone statue of the fiery Fudō Myōō which had been painted with bright colors, a glass case enclosing a crooked statue of the Goddess of Awa Island with face painted starkly white, a shiny golden statue of Shakyamuni that was missing a hand, and a statue of Kannon whose paint and gilding had worn away or peeled off. There were statues of Sanbō Kōjin, the fox god Inari, and even the see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys. These idols were lined up against the wall in no particular order. In front of the statues, there were artificial flowers in gold and silver, different kinds of cakes, a wooden drum, and a gong, all of which lent an air of legitimacy to her chapel.
Whenever something happened, Mother would scoop me up and run to Granny’s chapel. She would listen to Mother say what was wrong, then would either shake or nod her small head, which was covered with wiry, white hair smoothed into place. She would turn her back to us and face the buddhas. As she did so, this small, stooped old lady, who usually looked just like the kind of persnickety old lady you might find anywhere, straightened her back to suddenly take on a magnificent, dignified look.
She struck the wooden drum and rang the bell at certain intervals, summoning up the spirits that resided in the darkness behind the statues. Her speech fell into the classical patterns of five and seven syllables, and this rhythm struck me as quite beautiful.
…Your power is not to be wasted
After that, she continued with an entreaty for the forgiveness of the spirits since she had awakening them from their peaceful slumber, then she delivered an impassioned plea for them to accept her prayers.
When the flame of the great candle burning in front of the statues grew thin and stretched toward the ceiling, we knew the spirits had forgiven us and accepted her prayers. The spirits would borrow the mouth of the old woman and speak through her, declaring their will in sad rhythmic cadences.
…Oh how pitiable
After the spirits spoke, Granny Tejima would close her prayers with a recitation of the Heart Sutra or the Kannon Sutra, then turn to us and start talking to us about more worldly affairs, saying things like “So-and-so’s bride is really lazy and won’t even wash her underclothes” or “So-and-so from such-and-such a place committed adultery with so-and-so from over yonder.” Mother would slide the change she had wrapped up in a cloth during the prayers and slid the bundle across the tatami. As she spoke, the old lady would stretch out her hand, take it, and squirrel it away in her sleeve.
Once, soon after Father died and Mother moved from Yawata to Naokata, Mother’s aunt from the Nakahara side of the family did something terrible to her. Mother picked me up and ran to Granny Tejima’s chapel. The spirit that was summoned was that of my maternal grandmother Shikano. The spirit grew angry at her younger sister’s cruelty toward Mother and stated, “Something unusual will befall the Nakahara family within a year. Just sit back and wait. Wait as if you were taking a ride on a boat.” When the spirit had finished, Mother picked me up in her arms, and we left.
Before long, Mother forgot all about the spirit’s proclamation, and a year went by. The daughter of the Nakahara family married into the family of a distant relative with the name Misaki, and she in turn gave birth to a daughter. The fingers on one of the baby’s hands were completely motionless, as if they had been stuck together with glue. As she grew, it became clear that she was severely mentally handicapped. Other than looking at her own mother and cooing happily, she showed no sign of being aware of the world around her.
‘Something unusual will befall the Nakahara family within a year. Just sit back and wait. Wait as if you were taking a ride on a boat.’
Mother was now deeply sorry for having borne a grudge. The grudge was against her aunt, not her daughter, with whom Mother was relatively close. And what crime could the daughter’s daughter, who no more than a little newborn, have possibly committed? There was no going back now, however. Shikano’s spirit had sworn revenge, and the revenge had taken place just as sworn.
Grandmother’s extraordinary stinginess was another thing that Mother repeatedly complained about in Granny Tejima’s chapel. This complaint from my devout mother was also answered somewhat after the fact.
The summer I was in third grade, we went back from Moji to visit Grandmother’s house when we found her wearing a patch over one eye. When we asked what had happened, she just responded, “I lost sight in the same eye Grandpa can see out of. Between the two of us, we’d have one set of eyes.” Still, she would not tell us the particulars of what had happened.
When Grandmother went out into the fields, Granny Kawahara from next door ran in. She had been waiting to tell Mother the news. Grandmother had gone into the fields one day recently to harvest the barley, when she stuck herself in the eye with an ear of barley. They had tried a local folk remedy and crushed bagworms from the persimmon trees and dripped the juice onto her eyes, but her eye did not get any better. At Granny Kawahara’s suggestion, Grandmother had finally started to think about going to consult with the spirits, but she was too stubborn to go to Granny Tejima since she had been so tight with Mother. In the end, an acquaintance gave her an introduction to a faith healer who lived in town. When the healer was praying on her behalf, the spirit of my father appeared and said, “You are much too stingy with your grandson, and so that’s why your eye got poked out — as punishment. If you don’t fix your ways, I’ll poke out your other eye too!”
Granny Kawahara shook her head back and forth on her half-paralyzed neck and made a rather nasty smile, “Granny had better give you something this time, eh?”
Sure enough, soon afterwards, she packed up about four cups worth of uncooked rice and gave it to me, saying, “You’ve come a long ways so take this home and make something with it.” The war had ended only a short time before so four cups of rice was tremendously precious. She had obeyed the spirit’s warning even though her stinginess ran to the marrow of her bones.
When I look back across the distance of the years to my childhood, one of the things I see is my poor grandmother scrimping and saving on food and her own son poking out her eye in retribution.
— EXCERPT FROM THE MEMOIR Twelve Views from the Distance (1970)
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