Keystone Trigger

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Chapter 29

The utaki is where the gods go. A home for village spirits. Sometimes a hut, others a natural formation. South of Naha it was a portal formed by slanting shelves of rock, where worshipers left home-cooked meals to get in good with their ancestors. A landmark solemn but inviting, whose doorway faced the beach and granted a lush cross-section of ferns and cypress.

Hidari washed ashore as a swollen lump. Her knees curled into her chest, conserving what warmth remained after hours in the waves. Beside her a horseshoe crab squirmed on its shiny back. The peace activist woke up, flipped the creature over by its tail before she knew if she was alive or dead or caught in some hellish middle zone, and watched the crustacean scuttle down the shore. Not even a thank-you. Yards away lay Glen, hair slick with seaweed, pale as the sand beneath him.

She gazed ahead into the utaki, up the path that lead to the souls of Naha’s loved ones. Sho Norito might find her out here, demand explanations for laziness. More sugar cane, quick. Mabuya, mabuya. She vomited salt and liquid until her stomach clenched. Gulls cawing in distress or mockery. Close to dawn, windless. She flung her head from side to side, pulled herself a meter up the slope so the grains sieved through her fingers.

A gray partition hovered behind her, over the ocean. Inside the eye, then. At least she was clear of the water; the calmest part of a typhoon, on the sea, can kill you with rogue waves whipped by the winds on either side of the eyewall. Yet it was dangerous to be outside, no matter what the terrain. The rear line of thunderheads was en route, and they would be just as destructive as before, unless Hidari was somehow fortunate, which seemed a bit much to expect after thirty-six hours in the care of a violent child rapist.

She hobbled over to Glen. War survivor, too. He knew what happened in the netherworld of human contact: incongruous farce of calm, unexpected joy buffered by corpses. The first time Hidari had seen the aftermath near Shuri Castle, in 1945, she had felt thrown into some ancient wood carving, an artist’s vision of carnage issued from a friable mind. Earthy streaks of brown and blue and mud-green. Then the smell came over on the wind.

She remembered an American without a helmet, blonde hair, pointing his rifle at bodies and screaming, “Is it you? Is it you? Or you?” She learned, later, that green recruits seeing their first combat at Okinawa had gone insane from the sight of maggot-wracked human remains. They had been made to crawl through excrement, entrails, garbage, to hose the other side of a hill with napalm. To this work they had added the scent of burning grass and skin. They had come upon caves full of Japanese who had unpinned grenades and held them to their chests as a final move of fealty for the Emperor. Okinawans bayoneted to save ammo.

Hidari's stomach screamed for rice and yams. Some tea at Reiko’s, that was all for the past twenty-four hours, and she had tossed it into the sand a few minutes ago. The salt had drained the moisture from her cells and left her tongue brittle. Perhaps the utaki could offer nourishment.

First, she turned Glen on his side and took his pulse. Snoring like a kid in a bunk. She patted his shoulder, then froze, watching the sleeve she’d touched. Why this need to protect? She’d been relieved when she thought him dead. She’d told Etsu to shoot him.

Pinned between the soldier and the utaki, under the vacant eye of the typhoon, she lingered. Why not teach him the harm violence left upon those who survived it? He could learn.

Stupid. What Americans change in the face of new information? They have their bases, their happy globetrotting swagger, they think they defecate progress and build every trend worth enslaving yourself to.

Hidari stopped. She tried to savor the hush, just Glen and the cormorants and her. Understand what must be done. Walk to the road, hail a car, call the police. She could still end it like this.

“Look at that garbage,” Glen said with his eyes shut. Spit dribbled down his neck, curved around his Adam’s apple. Sand on his throat and cheeks.

Hidari shook her head. Two humans fall off a boat (she had jumped, did she forget already?), and they reach an utaki in a state of unconsciousness. In the dawn she shivered, sick with her next choice while watching the typhoon spin around her. Was it more frightening to meet the storm again after a calm spell? To have peace and lose it, to collapse in that routine fear.

Here the pain was only external, she should be glad. All the times she’d writhed under Western hands, forbidding the kiss but granting the foreign penis. Her bullied spirit had seized up, piece by piece, and died.

Now she was thankful to be done with her private parts. To shut them up as you would a house you couldn’t stand living in, then enter the endless wrestling match of forgetting.

The day broke around her and she thought: what else have I tried to forget? All her sins, from the kids to her lover, and this, right now. She dwelled in the past, as she had always done, even as she rejected the memories. Such was Hidari Wasayama, who clung to the bloody scenes but shielded her eyes. She shook Glen even harder.

“You swim like a duck, but made like a goose,” he mumbled.

“Excuse me?”

“What? Get your hands off. Shit, I thought I was dead.”

“We are both alive. On Okinawa.”

“Jesus. Oh, my leg, I can’t feel it.”

“We will see. For now, rest. I will see if I can find water.”

Hidari rose and stumbled up the dunes to the utaki. Not even the chirping of crickets to accompany her.

The air was crisper than before, carrying a sweetness of rain. Droplets stood out like jewels on the fronds of the cycads, and they weighed down the orchids woven among the bushes.

All at once Hidari’s terror departed. She couldn’t see the sun, but she felt it overhead, seeding the ground with its warmth. After drinking from the upturned leaves, she found what she was searching for at the base of a coconut tree, smooth, cold, and heavy: a stone for contrition.

Remember the old days, Ouya and Nayu. The GIs with their filthy pubic hair. Mud and no money and strutting to feed your brother, dead ten years now.

“I love you all,” she said, to herself, to the waiting globe. She returned to Glen.

“Hey, what are you doing with that—ow.”

She reared back, holding the rock, watching the bruise swell on the soldier’s nose. He floundered in her direction, seething, milling his fists.

“What gives, you crazy bitch?”

“Not you, who only takes.”

“Hey, fuck you. Go die in a nursing home, huh?”

“I will not. I took my life, and the water refused me.”

“Shit, what? You did a piss-poor job of killing yourself, that’s all. Ow, my nose.”

A smile opened up on Hidari’s face, and the hurricane disappeared. No more eyewall and thunder now.

“You trying to kill me or something?”

“Perhaps.”

Thwack.

“Cut it out.”

Thwack.

“I’m going to smack you if you don’t stop.”

“Hit me? Hit me like you hit the little girl you picked up? Kumiko Natsuharu?”

Glen wilted before his parent. He shrank away, curled back toward the sea, as if begging it to swallow him up. No lofty rulers here; only the kid from N.J. who’d stayed inside far too long.

“Did you rape her? Did you steal her? Answer me.”

Familiar, hiding under a woman’s blows. Glen didn’t know the protocol for how to react. He wanted to reach out and grip her throat, crush the windpipe into powder; and at the same time, embrace her and plead his case. No forgiveness, of course, for that was an easy measure his life had never encountered. Only a functional ear, if she could manage it. If she wasn’t deaf by now.

A memory rose to the surface.

“You’re not going outside, you hear me? That Arab lady tells me you messed with her daughter again, I’ll kick your teeth out. It’s sick.”

Glen cowed, whimpering, oblivious to misdeeds. What if she’d asked for it?

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, but he lied. Not with a shellacked hand in his face, across his forehead.

“For shame. You should be ashamed of yourself. Why would I let you out of the house now?”

Glen screamed and tore at the old woman, but she danced backwards, too nimbly for a person in her nineties, and he fell over in the sand, kicking up wet clumps into his eyes and nose. He swore. Scrabbling against the mess in which he was buried, he fought for shelter and succor and the lonely marriage of his past to the gray presence before him. He didn’t know how to apologize truly. He swatted back.

“No no no no no.”

Hidari held her ground but lowered her hand. Glen laced his squat fingers over his skull to become a ball, and give up whatever fury he thought could destroy her. So this was defeat, the place it could drag you to.

“Are you done?” she asked.

With what? When she prodded him, he realized from the tension of her finger on his chest that he was still screaming, frantic enough to rip his muscles, blotting out the sin of responsibility.

He closed his mouth. Tears puffed up his cheeks, soaked into the lines around his eyes. He ground his teeth and tasted the maddening, damp sand that doesn’t rub away. He heaved himself toward the surf and swept a mouthful in as it surged up to meet him. He scoured his mouth. He rubbed with caked fingers around his gums, his filmy teeth, his tongue.

Hidari watched in surprise as Glen ingested part of the island. She was not surprised when he hurled it back up at once, encased in orange ribbons of liquid. He coughed and shrieked, leaning with his palms into the beach. Spit hung from his cheekbone and strung to his lips in a gossamer pendant.

Glen tried again. She hastened to stay his hands, and had to fairly wrestle the mush away from him. Like he’d become an infant again, didn’t know what was harmful to him.

“Don’t eat it, please. Sit and talk.”

Glen bawled without shame or fear. He was cracked into pieces, a few silvers of humankind left for this Okinawan to mend, except she knew she wielded no power in this regard. Hidari watched him as the sun crept above the utaki and tossed its shadow onto their faces, informed them of their utter smallness before gods and history. She turned her face toward the ocean.

“Look.”

Glen obeyed. He sat with his injured leg splayed out, fingers in the shore’s damp, watching sunlight cascade above the gray water. It streamed freely through the eye and lit each heavy spiral of cloud into iron layers. Where the waves plied under the opening, sparklike angles of light gilt the sea as if with unrefined nacre.

“This is what we have come to.”

Glen nodded. He understood. Somewhere in his reptilian brain, amid whirling anxieties, a switch clicked and shifted into some different cycle. It was only temporary, perhaps—what yuta might call a vision—but he felt it lighten the load that had tamped his life into a series of bottomless tunnels.

“Did you rape that girl?” asked Hidari.

“I don’t even know what that means.”

She had expected this. The plants and air and salt all around her grasped the importance of the day. Hidari knelt down and explained.

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