Masaru (Chapter 2)

“Things are not always what they seem; outward form deceives many; rare is the mind that discerns what is carefully concealed within.” (from Plato’s Phaedrus)

“A frog in the well knows nothing of the great sea.” (Japanese proverb)

Are you ready to receive the Blessed Sacrament?” Father Olivera put this question to Shirō as they walked the path that meandered alongside the Kuma River. Now that Shirō and his mother were baptized, they would be able to fully participate in the memorial of The Lord’s Supper. Father Olivera took the opportunity on this day to see if his young friend understood what this meant. A warm breeze caught the loose folds of the priest’s cassock, making the sleeves billow and flap about like the koi nobori banners flown on festival days.

He had first arrived in Japan when he was only a few years older than Shirō. He’d felt a calling to the priesthood, as well as adventure, from an early age. When the Society of Jesus opened Japan’s first seminary on the island of Amakusa, just south of Nagasaki, young Manuel jumped at the opportunity. Upon his ordination, Father Olivera was assigned to the inland city of Hitoyoshi and all the outlying villages in the Kuma region. Over time, the language and customs of the converts he served, now well into the thousands, became as familiar to him as those of his native Portugal.

“I am not certain,” replied Shirō. “It is a hard thing to believe. I have been coming to Misa for many months now. I see the pan. I do not see that it is anything other than pan.”

Father Olivera looked up at Shirō, and then turned his gaze again upon the path. “Yes, well, that is certainly something worth considering.” They continued a short distance until they came to the small Shintō shrine they often passed on their walks. At the entrance stood the customary torī, the bright crimson wooden structure of two vertical posts and two horizontal crossbeams, the gateway representing the transition from the mundane to the sacred. At the river’s edge, a small fishing boat lay moored to a nearby maple tree. Father Olivera went over to the tree and, placing his hands upon it, he asked Shirō, “What do we call this?”

“What do you mean?”

“What is the word for this thing I am touching?”

“You know it is called ki.” Shirō might have wondered about such a childlike question, but he knew Father Olivera well enough to know that his questions always had some purpose.

“And what is the actual stuff of which ki is made?”

Shirō pondered this for a moment before answering with the Japanese word for wood. “Moku?”

“Yes, moku. So, you agree we can say that moku is the stuff of which ki is made?”

“There are other parts, such as the leaves, but yes, I do agree.”

Following the length of rope to the empty boat, Father Olivera asked in a similar way, “And what do we call this?”

“You know it is called fune,” replied Shirō, speaking the word for boat.

“Indeed. And what is the stuff of which the fune is made?”

“It, too, is made of moku.”

“We know this to be true. We even know the man who cut down and hollowed out the tree to make it. And, having done so, he now has something quite different from that with which he began.”

“Yes,” Shirō agreed. “Ki and fune are quite distinct from one another.”

“And yet both are moku.” Father Olivera stepped away from the river’s edge and back toward the shrine’s entrance along the path.

“And what about the torī? Was it not also constructed from ki taken from the forest?”

“Yes,” answered Shirō. “I agree with all you say, though I do not understand what any of this has to do with the pan and the Blessed Sacrament.”

“My young friend, my question is this. If man, himself a creature and limited in his powers, can transform a thing into something else, while the very substance of the thing remains the same, would it not also be possible that God, the author of all creation and whose powers have no limitation, could change the substance of a thing while its form and all appearances remain the same?”


Screwtape 2020

I hope Mr. Lewis (and his estate) don’t mind that I’ve taken this liberty…

My Dear Wormwood,

I couldn’t help but notice your celebrations over the current epidemic. After the abysmal failure with your first patient in the previous century, I’d expect perhaps a bit more cautious pessimism from you. Frankly, I didn’t think you deserved another chance. Lucky for you, there are many at Low Command who predict the War may be nearing its end, and we need every available tempter working overtime. (While many of the humans are scurrying about trying to supply themselves with certain foodstuffs and paper products, we need to be about the business of hoarding souls.)

Let me begin with some larger scale items before moving on to the particulars of your own patient. Of course, all of us down here are ecstatic over the shuttering of the churches. To see the shepherds withholding essential nourishment from their own flock is indeed a delightful thing to behold – the foot soldiers of the Enemy being cut off from their vital lines of supply. (This is, I admit, a feat that we ourselves could not have been able to pull off.) We do not know whether this decision of the shepherds was made out of prudence or cowardice. In the light of recent history, we’d like to believe it’s the latter, but our intelligence has not been able to ascertain for sure.

While it’s true that the suspension of their sacraments will at least temporarily render the patients weaker, there is also an inherent danger to us. With the deprivation of the food that only the Enemy can provide, the humans may become more acutely aware of their hunger and need for that eternal sustenance. (One of their ancient Roman poets penned a phrase about the way in which “absence makes the heart grow fonder.” A sentimental cliché perhaps, but it seems to hold some water.) The absence of the Enemy, at least in the form of His True Presence, may prompt the minds of patients across the globe to seek Him in other ways. And this is the point at which we must intervene.

We see that many of the humans, even while experiencing confusion and anxiety, are nevertheless finding some measure of solace in their state of retreat. Though faced with circumstances quite strange to them, many now find themselves, at least in some respects, settling into routines that are actually more natural — mothers at home with young children, fathers with more time to devote to domestic duties, siblings bonding and helping one another. All of this threatens to undermine the decades of progress we have made toward the dissolution of the family dynamic the Enemy intended – a dynamic that reflects His own unity of being – part of what he meant when He said, “Let us create them in our own image.”

As for your own patient, I see that he has been using some of this unexpected gift of time to bolster communications with the Enemy. Had you even taken notice? Or were you too intoxicated with delight over exponentially increasing numbers of infections and deaths? Remember, while we might take some pleasure in their sufferings and death, these things are but inevitable realities. For us, it is only the state of their immortal souls that matters. Death, in and of itself, does us absolutely no good. (The Enemy saw to that on a Sunday long ago – a day they will soon commemorate, shuttered churches or no.)

I also took notice that you permitted your patient some genuine pleasures this week. The book that was collecting dust on his nightstand – the one he had been meaning to read for months – he picked it up one afternoon and read it. What’s worse, he really enjoyed it! As he was reading, he couldn’t help but recollect the joy he experienced as a child – the joy that comes from the unlocking of the imagination by a good story. That’s just the sort of thing that places him safely in the Enemy’s camp. As if the book itself weren’t bad enough, there was something within its pages that inspired your patient to go for an outdoor excursion he’d been contemplating for some time. The afternoon spent in nature ended up being refreshing for both his body and his soul. Where were you the entire time?! That same book also led him to the discovery of a piece of art which he found delightful to gaze upon. Three healthy pleasures all within the space of a few days. You should be turned into fodder for more deserving tempters.

But not all is lost. After all, your patient is a creature of habit, and prone to dabbling in this or that. Get him to regard these recent uses of his time merely as a phase. Tell him it’s really only a matter of time before he must return to “real life.” And make sure he includes under the heading of “real life” such things as “staying informed.” The next time he reaches for a book, be sure he notices the television remote control lying beside it. Suggest to him that watching considerable amounts of the news is part of what it means to be a responsible citizen. (Television has been one of our greatest tools. The staff in our Technology Department should receive commendations for their efforts to support the humans in growing the thing from a little box with black and white images to the oversized panel that overtakes their living spaces.)

Useful as well is the social media of their current age. The next time your patient gets it in his mind to pray or read or whatnot, remind him that it’s been at least half an hour since he sat before The Book of Faces. Encourage him in the belief that, if he just spends enough time scrolling through the endless parade of meaningless memes, eventually he will stumble upon one that offers enlightenment. (It really is great fun watching as they run their fingers across those little screens – like some domesticated rodent in a wheel.) They think they coined the term “social distancing,” when in fact we’ve been applying that principal on them through technology for decades.

You might wish to try suggesting to your patient that maybe the sacraments aren’t so necessary after all. When he experiences hunger for the Enemy’s bread, or spiritual festering due to a prolonged period without absolution, convince him that these sensations must be the result of the new reality in which the humans now find themselves. Dangle before him the possibility that perhaps the sacraments really are mere symbols of something greater and more abstract. You might lead him toward the modern camp of, “I don’t need the Church – I can just pray from the comfort of my garden,” or, “I don’t need a middle-man to absolve my sins – I can just go directly to the source.” The contagion of these beliefs has been far more valuable to us over the course of history than any virus could be. Admittedly, your patient may be too far gone for this particular line of attack, but you can always work on his frustration with the Church hierarchy. Never miss an opportunity to scatter seeds of doubt and division whenever you can. You never know what thorns might spring up amongst the flowers.

Above all, remember this, dear nephew – like any war or natural disaster, this epidemic is, at least for us, quite a neutral affair. Some of the humans view it as a horror, yet others regard it as a hoax. Our intelligence agents do not know which it is but, frankly, it doesn’t really matter. As in all situations, everything depends on how we can manipulate it. The humans in certain professions – doctors, nurses, civil servants and such – may have some advantage as their vocations inherently demand self sacrifice for the good of others. (Despite claims that He loves them all, the Enemy certainly exhibits signs of favoritism as far as I’m concerned.) But your patient is not on the front lines of this thing, so he’s not yet a lost cause. Play upon his fears with regards to the future and bodily preservation, as well as his regrets and fixation on the sins of his past. Doing so will help prevent him from living fully in the present, which is where the Enemy desires him to be. Also, do all you can to get him to direct his thoughts inward. So many of the humans are convinced that the key to their own happiness lies in “finding themselves.” Many of them never grasp that insidious paradox of the Enemy — that the realization of their true selves is bound to a willingness to sacrifice for the good of another. Though the Enemy demonstrated this in the starkest way imaginable, many of them remain blind to the reality. Our job is to keep it that way.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape 2020 (link to audio)



Masaru (Chapter 1)

Crossing Waters

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat. But if it dies, it produces much fruit.” (John 12:24)

“Be like wheat whereas the taller you grow, the lower you bow your head to the ground.” (Japanese proverb)

The warm drops upon his head brought Shirō back to the moment of his baptism. He and his mother had received the rite of Christian initiation on the very same day in the small church near the headwaters of the Kuma River. It was six months after her thirty-third birthday, and five months after his fifteenth. Ritual had been nothing new to Shirō. In the first month of that same year, he had gone through the genpuku, the rite of passage in which a samurai received his helmet, armor, and sword. The meticulously crafted and deadly katana, along with its shorter companion, the wakizashi, was more than a weapon. It was an extension of a warrior’s soul.

Shirō Nakagawa was, in many ways, very much like any other boy growing up in the rural region of central Kyūshū, the southernmost of Japan’s main islands. He enjoyed the company of friends, and afternoons spent fishing along the banks of the Kuma. He was tall for his age, something about which he was more self conscious than proud. He had a tendency to slightly slouch, something that his grandmother, Obaasan, was continually correcting. She would poke him with one bony finger in the back, just hard enough to cause a little discomfort, and chide him saying, “Shisei, shisei! — posture, posture!”

He believed himself too skinny, and attempted constantly in vain to gain weight by eating onigiri rice balls as quickly as Obaasan or his mother could make them. He even tried to get them to make chanko nabe, the protein-rich stew consumed in large quantities by the sumo wrestlers of Edo, Nagoya, Osaka, and Fukuoka. But meat was not so easy to come by. Neither the rice balls nor his daily ritual of physical training did much to add girth to his slender frame, something he inherited from his mother. Still, he was healthy and strong, and, while generally regarded as attractive, there was an almost feminine quality in the features of his face. In this regard also, he had the look of his mother about him. From the age of twelve, he had allowed his hair to grow, and he wore it most times in a ponytail that he kept tied high at the back of his head.

Shirō was in many ways like the other boys in his village of Watari, but not in all ways. He liked to spend considerable, what some believed to be inordinate, time alone. Many mornings he would wander off to one of the hillsides, simply to walk and be alone with his thoughts, or find an isolated meadow where he would lie and stare up at the clouds. Though his family harbored some degree of concern about him, Shirō always made sure to be home before dark and in time for bangohan, the evening meal.

His father, Hiromu Nakagawa, was of the warrior class and served under Lord Yanazume, master of Hitoyoshi Castle and its surrounding lands. Yanazume had become one of the many converts to the new religion that arrived with the men from Spain and Portugal on the big ships with their billowing sails. They arrived with the man called Francis in the year 1549 A.D., the twenty-third year in the reign of the emperor Tomohito, about seventy years before Shirō was born. Upon his own conversion, Yanazume had encouraged all his subjects to become followers of The Way, and they did so by the thousands. He had even enjoined all warriors wishing to remain in his service to be baptized. Should they choose not to, they would be fairly compensated before being released.

At thirty-five years of age, Hiromu had no desire to become rōnin, a samurai wandering in search of a master. And so he chose, along with roughly two-thirds of the nearly seven hundred samurai serving under Yanazume, to become a practitioner of The Way. He wished at the time that his decision had been driven by some noble ideal. But the truth was that it was prompted by the practical need to provide for his family, one that would soon have another small mouth to feed. Perhaps that reason was noble enough.

But practicality did not come without a price. In the beginning, Hiromu’s wife was not pleased with his decision to accept the foreign religion brought to their shores by gaijin, the “outside ones.” Hiromu had half-jokingly pointed out that since her name, Michiko, literally meant “child of the way,” perhaps this was some sort of sign. But she was not so easily convinced. Far less pleased was Obaasan, who had lived with Shirō and his parents until her passing. Obaasan was a devout Buddhist and very much set in her ways. Every day, Shirō would hear her reciting chants outside in the garden or before the small butsudan shrine in their home, or observe her meditating before a smoldering stick of incense.

One evening during bangohan, when Shirō was about eleven, Obaasan let her feelings be known. She addressed her son-in-law, “Hiromu, I cannot understand for the life of me why anyone would profess this foreign faith. I’ve been looking into it, and some of the things these Kirishitans believe are simply outlandish!”

Obaasan had a robustness of character that belied her small stature and slight frame. Though in her sixth decade, she still had a thick head of long raven hair with only streaks of silver along the temples. Her face had few wrinkles, most visibly small crow’s feet at the corners of the eyes, and was dotted with several small dark moles, the most noticeable just between her right upper lip and cheek. One vertical crease down the middle of her forehead became pronounced when she was cross, as she was at this particular moment. 

Hiromu gave a half-suppressed laugh in his deep booming voice. It was a voice that Shirō both admired and feared. Very few were the times in Shirō’s childhood that his father needed to raise a hand to him. His imposing stature and the power of his voice were sufficient to remind Shirō of expected parameters and potential consequences. “Yes, Obaasan, I cannot wholly disagree with that charge. But in fairness, Bukkyō also came here from foreign shores.”

Obaasan was indignant. “Well, that’s different! Those who brought it were at least of a kindred race. Besides, the deities of Bukkyō pair up logically with the nature kami of our native Shintō. The Kirishitans worship the image of a dead man.”

“It is not the image they worship — it is the man. And though he died, he now lives. We believe that man to be the one true god incarnate.”

“And why would this god desire to become a man?”

“In Shintō there is the belief that the spiritual manifests itself in the natural world. Kirisutokyō professes something even greater — that the one true God, the creator of time and space, and all that inhabit them, humbled himself to become one of his own creation.”

“To what end? To be killed by his own creatures?”

“He allowed himself to be sacrificed for the atonement for sins, yes. Beyond that, he conquered death by rising again from the grave.”

Obaasan shook her head. “None of it makes sense to me. And what of the belief about eating this man’s flesh and blood? I’ve never heard anything so preposterous!”

Hiromu scraped the remnants of rice from his bowl into his mouth with his long wooden hashi. “Obaasan, I may not yet be sufficiently learned to make all these things clear. You should come with us one Sunday to misa and speak to Olivera-san. He is far better than I at explaining these things.”

Obaasan recoiled at the sound of the name. “I have no use for your priests. The bonze at the temple warned me to stay away from them.”

Though he would not openly say as much, Shirō enjoyed these occasional clashes between his father and Obaasan. Aside from the amusement of seeing Obaasan get rather riled, they gave Shirō much to ponder as he lay at night upon his futon, before sleep would overtake him. Shirō very much loved his Obaasan in spite of her many quirks and eccentricities, and perhaps even more because of them.

From the time he was a small child, she called him by the pet name of Masaru. His real name, Shirō, meant simply “fourth son,” and was given because he was the fourth male child of his generation. (He had three older male cousins, the sons of his father’s elder brother.) The first syllable of his given name, shi, meant “four,” but also happened to be a homophone for “death.” Though the written characters were distinct from one another, still the spoken pronunciation was the same. Obaasan, being superstitious, didn’t care for names containing that sound. Shirō was only two or three when he first asked her what the name Masaru meant. She looked at him with wide eyes and uttered the single word, “Victory.”

 * * * 

Over time, Hiromu came to realize that being a disciple of Iesu entailed much more than adherence to a weekly ritual. It demanded a change to nearly every facet of one’s existence, and even an altogether different understanding of reality itself. But, for his part, Hiromu took considerable pains not to force The Way upon his family.

He recalled from his own childhood the excitement he once experienced upon seeing a full and radiant rainbow after a torrential downpour during the annual season of tsuyu. He stood outside and called with great excitement until his parents and siblings came running out of the house to see what all the fuss was about. He hoped that The Way might be something akin to that rainbow, something whose compelling beauty, a splendor too great not to be shared, might draw his family out from the comfortable confines of their own certainties.

And eventually this did happen. To Hiromu’s joy (and much to Obaasan’s chagrin), Michiko and Shirō together had agreed to be baptized. For Michiko, the decision was at least partly born of a desire to please her husband and to maintain harmony in the home. For Shirō there was something in the teachings of The Way that stimulated his intellect. This was also true of the teachings of Bukkyō, with which Shirō had become quite familiar. The Four Noble Truths, for example, offered insight into the nature of suffering that was difficult to dispute.

But there always seemed something lacking, something about Bukkyō that did not ultimately satisfy. Perhaps it was the perpetual looking inward and a preoccupation with self in the quest for nehan. Kirisutokyō also held as a principal aim the attainment of a particular state, namely a “state of grace.” But this state was inextricably and beautifully bound to an intimate relationship with an actual person. Where Bukkyō concerned itself with the questions of “what” and “how,” everything in Kirisutokyō flowed from the understanding and friendship of a “who.”

Shirō had spent the previous year studying medicine on the island of Amakusa to the west. When he first approached his parents about this vocation, his father was dubious. Hiromu put the question rhetorically to his son, “How can someone be both a warrior and a healer?”

But Shirō replied, “Was not Iesu both?” With that answer, Hiromu had little choice but to bestow his blessings.

Some days before their baptism, Shirō and Michiko were in the house as she made the usual bangohan preparations. She was a tall and slender woman, with signs that she was with child only just beginning to show beneath the folds of her loosely fitting yukata robe. From the v-line of her yukata rose her long neck, like the stem of a chalice, the bowl of which was formed by the round smoothness of her jawline. Her full lips and high bridge of the nose were crowned with a pair of kind eyes that, if one looked just a little deeper, conveyed a sense of sadness and longing. Shirō, washing his hands in a small basin, called to his mother, “Okaasan, you know we’re soon to be baptized. Perhaps we should get in a little practice!” With that, he took a scoop of water in his hands and splashed it playfully onto her face.

She stood frozen for a moment as the water dripped down her neck and into her yukata. “You rascal! I’ll give you some practice!” Grabbing a wooden spoon from a bowl of utensils, she chased him, both of them laughing, out of the house. Some neighbors looked up momentarily from their gardening and shook their heads.

 * * * 

“Do you understand why baptism is necessary?” Father Olivera had put this question to Shirō as they walked through the nearby woods of Ishino, as they had on so many occasions. Shirō became acquainted with Father Olivera, the man he called Shinpu, shortly after his father’s conversion. Manuel Olivera was a ruggedly handsome man. His dark features might have allowed him to be mistaken for one of the native population, if not for the thick wavy hair, and full but neatly-trimmed beard, both of which were beginning to show distinguished streaks of gray. Shirō very much enjoyed their talks, and he appreciated that Shinpu always spoke to him in an adult manner.

“Yes,” replied Shirō, “My father explained it to me.” Hiromu had indeed told Shirō the story of the first man and woman in the garden of perfection, and of the circumstances and consequences of their disobedience. The effects of their choice would be passed along to their offspring and the entire human race. A spiritual defect, not necessarily visible to the eye, but just as real as any physical flaw, would be the inheritance of all. All but one.

Though Shirō found the tale intriguing, the reality of shared dishonor was not something unfamiliar to him. When he was a child, one of his cousins had stolen a mikan orange from a vendor in a neighboring village. Returning home and discovering the small item in the boy’s possession, his parents, along with the grandparents, aunts, uncles, and all the cousins, including Shirō, made the two-hour-long trek back to the merchant to return the item and beg forgiveness. Shirō understood well that even small transgressions could bring shame and dishonor not only upon oneself, but to one’s entire tribe.

“There is one thing I do not understand,” said Shirō.

“Oh? And what is that?”

“Why was it necessary for Iesu to be baptized? If he is truly divine, he could have no sin to cleanse.”

“Very true. But it was for our sake, not his, that Iesu was baptized. The baptisms performed by John were a sign of repentance. But when Iesu entered the river, the waters of baptism through all space and time were sanctified.”

Shirō pondered that for a moment. “You mean his ki entered into the water?” Ki was the word used to describe the energy or life force of a living being. From the time Shirō was a small boy, greater awareness and focus of ki was always at the heart of his training in the fighting arts.

Father Olivera smiled. “Something like that, yes.”

* * *

The waters of the Kuma River crept lazily in the warmth of the early afternoon. In another season, one might have seen through the crystalline water, right down to the smooth round stones that lined its bottom, and the abundant ayu fish darting about in search of food. But the kōyō season had just surpassed its peak. Now this section of the river was covered with a blanket of fallen maple leaves, moving almost imperceptibly and shimmering in the mid November sun. It appeared from a distance like a silken sash of crimson, separating the dancing brown plumes of miscanthus on either side.

From the dense forest along the river’s western bank emerged a dark figure. By the silhouette of its thick body, six legs, and two long prongs projecting from its head, it appeared like a giant kabuto-mushi, the rhinoceros beetle common in the broad-leaved forests of Kyūshū. Lord Onizuka, in full battle armor and perched atop his satiny black stallion, surveyed the river. He and a battalion of three hundred strong had made the two-day trek on horseback and foot from the castle in Yatsushiro to the north. Onizuka and his men had camped the previous night beside a small Shinto shrine at the river’s edge. The shrine was dedicated to Inari, goddess of rice and fertility, and Onizuka used the occasion to pray that his mission bear fruit.

In the time of Onizuka’s grandfather, the new religion had arrived along with the traders who sailed into Nagasaki from the faraway Iberian peninsula. And for a long time, it was generally tolerated by the military and political authorities. In exchange for allowing the Kirishitan missionaries to build places of worship and make converts, the feudal lords reaped the benefits of trade made possible by the big ships of the gaijin. As an added benefit, the arrival of the new religion, it was hoped, might counteract the growing influence of the Buddhist monks, whose numbers and opposition to samurai rule were threatening to become more than a nuisance.

But what was perceived as a seemingly benign, though misguided, belief system had become an even more potentially serious threat. What no one could have predicted was the spread like wildfire of the Christian hukuin, what they called “the good news,” among all the classes — peasant, warrior, merchant, and noble alike. It began as something of a regional phenomenon in the port areas of the south, but before long made its way to nearby Shikoku and deep into the main island of Honshū. It was widely feared that the infusion of this foreign belief system, along with its allegiance to a foreign figurehead, might upend social and political stability. Some believed this may have been the aim of Spain’s King Philip all along.

One final straw was the growing agitation stemming from recent reports that some of the Portugese traders were taking peasants and selling them as slaves in the Spanish territories of mainland Asia. The shōgun had finally had enough. He ordered the closing of all Christian churches and missions, the expulsion of the priests, and a ban of all Chrisitan practices and images.

Onizuka was certainly the right man for the task at hand, and he’d been appointed by Lord Iemitsu Tokugawa himself — the man who assumed the title of shōgun from his father and predecessor, Hidetada. Though the elder Tokugawa had tried to exercise control over, and thereby discourage, the growing Christian population by means of heavy taxation, it proved to be insufficient in stemming the tide of conversions. Now the younger Tokugawa was determined to use more direct and, if necessary, brutal means.

At twenty-six years of age, Onizuka had ample experience in the tactics of warfare, both on and off the open battlefield. He was full of ambition and fire coursing through his veins. He had little love for the Buddhists, and even less for the followers of Kirisuto, for whom he harbored a particular disdain. He loathed the absurdity of the worship of a simple peasant man turned rebel and insurrectionist. That the image of this man nailed to a beam could be their symbol of hope and salvation defied all dignity and reason. He had never approved of the past permissiveness in allowing the foreigners to spread their pious poison. Now he was all too happy to assist in the administration of the antidote.

Raising his sword toward the opposite shore, Onizuka urged his horse forward through a shallow stretch of the river. The small village of Kōnose lay waiting idly on the other side. The entire battalion, those on horse followed by those on foot, charged after him into and across the water, churning the still blanket of red into a swirling gray mire of sludge.


Bridges Too Far (1980)

“Fantasy —  it gets the best of me.” (Christopher Cross, Sailing)

Do you remember the first time being in love? I do. It was in the sixth grade, and her name was Truvy Bridges.

Well, alright, there was the cute strawberry blonde girl in the second grade. Her name was Tracy. (I don’t recall her last name.) I sat behind her, and I would toss little pieces of red crayon under her seat. I imagined the bits of wax contained some kind of spell that would make her turn around and fall for me. It never worked. The teacher, Mrs. Malone, did eventually scold me for littering the floor. I can only imagine how she might have reacted had I given an honest answer as to why I was doing that. (I don’t think I’ve ever actually shared that little story with anyone until now.)

Anyway, second grade really doesn’t count when it comes to love. But by the sixth grade, well, by then love becomes a serious matter. Truvy Bridges was, and I believe this may have been a nearly unanimously held opinion, the prettiest girl in the class. Sure there were plenty of other cute girls, but there was something about Truvy that was almost, well, almost adult. And I’m not even referring to physical development, though she was one of the taller girls in the grade. It had more to do with her mannerisms and the way she carried herself. I guess you could say she had the aura of a woman about her.

Truvy’s face was doll-like, flawlessly shaped and complected. It was framed by wavy feathered hair of mocha brown that matched the color of her eyes. Like the stem of a fine chalice, her long neck rose up to meet the smooth roundness of her chin and jawline. She was pretty no matter what she was doing, but when she smiled, well, then she became radiant. Her small mouth would stretch to form little creases from the corners to the sides of her regal nose, as an inviting warmth emanated from her big dark eyes. At times when she looked to be deep in thought, some faraway place seemed to be reflected in those eyes, and I’d long to go there with her.

Of course, the problem was that Truvy was so pretty that I felt nervous in her presence. Don’t get me wrong, she was not at all stuck up. In fact, she was really quite friendly toward everyone, as far as I can recall. But on a romantic level, I could no sooner approach the likes of her than jump into the cockpit of a DC-10 and figure out how to take off. Did I mention that she was also very smart? That made her all the more attractive.

I was one of only a few boys in the class who was taller than Truvy. (I’ve no idea if that would have meant anything to her, but my mother always said she could never marry a man shorter than herself.) I wasn’t altogether ugly, I suppose. Some girls even said I was cute. (“Cute” was a word that to me rang just a bit too non-committal.) But it was an awkward age, marked with pimples, orthodontic braces, and a body best described as gangly. With respect to being in close proximity to Truvy, there was one thing that worked in my favor — my last name followed immediately after hers in class alphabetical order. And so it was that I ended up sitting (in most classes anyway) behind the prettiest girl in school. I just needed a plan to get her attention (and little bits of red crayon were not going to work this time either).

There were two new kids, both boys, in the class that year. I normally feel a bit bad for new kids on the first day of school. They typically stand off to one side, shuffling around and looking uncomfortable. I had been the new kid in third grade, when my family moved from the city to this relatively rural part of north Jersey. I don’t remember being traumatized by it or anything, but I’m sure I stood to the side and did my fair share of shuffling. The two new boys that year didn’t seem to be having any trouble.

There was Greg Kesselman. He was from a neighboring town, so he already had people he knew at Frankford. (That was my alma mater — home of the Bulldogs). In fact, he even had a cousin in the class, though it turned out they didn’t really like each other. Since Greg was from the county, he didn’t exactly generate a ton of excitement. Just another local bumpkin.

But the other new kid was a different story. Jimmy Peterson was from out of state, so there was quite a bit of buzz as everyone checked him out. He was from some town in New Hampshire. Bedford, I think it was. (Before meeting Jimmy, I don’t think I could have named any towns in New Hampshire.) Not exactly exotic, I suppose, but it was far enough away to be intriguing. I’m sure many of us thought of New Hampshire as somewhere “up there” on the way to Canada, where people skied and spoke French.

Jimmy was rather something to behold. For one thing, he looked like a character right out of Grease. He wore jeans, but not normal ones like Lees or Wranglers. He wore designer jeans (Jordache, if I remember correctly). He wore boots, which was not uncommon in Sussex County, but his were not your average shit-kickers. These were fancy boots — black with silver buckles and pointed toes. Up top, he wore a plain white t-shirt, tucked into his jeans, and a black leather biker jacket (also with buckles) with the collar up. His mid-length dark hair was slicked back on the sides with Pomade or something, while the top was teased up. (I guess that’s what they called a Pompadour.) He even had a pair of black leather gloves with the fingers cut off. That might have been the first time I’d seen someone wearing those in real life.

At first glance, Jimmy Peterson was not what I would have called handsome, at least not in any conventional sense. He was actually kind of goofy looking. He wasn’t fat, but he did have rather pudgy cheeks and a slightly bulbous nose — and these big droopy Basset hound eyes. His face rather reminded me of Billy Joel. Yeah, that’s what he looked like, Billy Joel dressed like Danny Zuko.

But the thing was, he exuded so much confidence. Standing in the gym on that first day of school, he had one foot raised up behind him and resting against the wall. He casually took in the scene of kids milling about and forming little packs. The gym echoed with sounds of laughter and friends asking one another how their summer was and to which homeroom they’d been assigned. Jimmy had a look of complete poise, with just a hint of something like impatience, as though maybe he needed to be somewhere more important. (Had he pulled a cigarette from one of his pockets, I would not have been terribly surprised.) Suffice to say, I was drawn to Jimmy from the moment I saw him.

As fate would have it, Jimmy was not only a new kid in school — he was also my new neighbor. The house across the street had been the home of my friend, Charlie Holstein (yes, like the cow), before his family moved to North Carolina. Charlie was something of a pipsqueak, and we had been pretty good friends from the time my family moved onto Davis Road. We’d had a bit of a falling out when, while sparring one day, he gave me the only black eye of my life. (The rule had been only body blows, but he got frustrated when I kept getting the better of him, so he took a cheap shot.) We did patch things up before he moved out over the summer. Jimmy’s family hadn’t yet moved into the house when school started, so I didn’t know he was to be my new neighbor until I befriended him on that first day of school.

Jimmy and I didn’t see each other much during the school day. (We weren’t in the same homeroom, so our schedules were different.) But we spent plenty of time together after school and on weekends. We did the things most kids did — rode bikes, played catch, went on excursions into the woods to find evidence of the Jersey devil. Jimmy was a huge Beatles fan (mostly the early stuff), so we’d sometimes just hang out in his room playing records and singing along to The Fab Four. (Jimmy had actually formed a pseudo Beatles tribute group with three guys from school. Jimmy was Paul. I’d always been a little jealous that he hadn’t invited me to join.)

One day, Jimmy showed up at my house after school. He pulled a hard three-ring binder out of his backpack.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“It’s a novel I’m writing. A science fiction.”

“Seriously? What’s it called?”

“Mission To Alpha Centauri. Read the first chapter, and tell me what you think.”

I really can’t remember what the plot of the story was. I just remember being duly impressed that someone our age was writing a book. He’d cranked out maybe three or four chapters. I don’t know if he ever finished it, but at the time I thought that was just about the coolest thing.

Back at school, I did what I could to get Truvy’s attention. (Though Jimmy had become a dear friend, time spent with him was making me feel like even more of an underachiever.) I did discover, fairly early in the school year, that one thing I could do was make her laugh. One day in science class, Mrs. Christian asked a question — something about molecules. Dwayne, the class know-it-all, shot his hand up as usual. But Mrs. Christian continued with an unanticipated second part to the question, saying, “But….”  Dwayne, realizing he might not have the right answer after all, quickly put his hand back down. I whispered to Truvy, “I guess Dwayne doesn’t like her but(t)!” Truvy started to giggle and that was about the sweetest sound I’d ever heard.

And there were many moments like that in the weeks and months that followed. Sometimes we would pass notes making little witticisms about whatever was going on in class. I learned that Truvy had a very keen sense of humor, which made her all the more attractive to me, if that were even possible. And you can bet I kept every note she ever passed me.

Feeling somewhat emboldened, I actually worked up the nerve one night to call her at home on the phone. I opened the thick copy of the phone book and looked up “Bridges” in the white pages. There were three listings. I tried the first one. It was some elderly woman who sounded sweet but confused. I apologized and hung up. I tried the second number. A gruff male voice answered.


“Um, hello, Is Truvy there?”

“Who is this?”

“I’m one of her classmates. I had a question about the English homework.”


“Uh, yes.” (I wasn’t sure why I saw the need to specify the subject.)

“You got a name?”

“Yes, sir.” There was a pause.

“You wanna tell me what it is?”

“Oh, yes. It’s Michael. I’m one of her classmates.”

“Yes, so you said. Hold on a minute.” I heard him loudly call out her name. I wondered what she was doing at that moment. I hoped she wouldn’t be annoyed.

“Hello?” My gosh, she even sounded pretty over the phone. Suddenly I got scared. I almost hung up, but realized I’d reached the point of no return when I gave my name.

“Uh, hi.” I tried with only moderate success to deepen my voice. “Do you know which pages of Shane we were supposed to read tonight?”

“She told us to read just the first chapter.”

“Oh, OK. Um, did you read it yet?”

“No, I’ll read it before I go to bed. That’s when I usually read.”

I felt as though she had just opened a curtain on some small window of intimacy, so I decided to step toward it. “What time do you go to bed?”

“I don’t know. About ten or so.”

I didn’t know where else to go with that. (I wasn’t about to ask her to describe her pajamas.) So I asked, “Do you like the book so far?”

“I just said I haven’t started it yet.”

“Oh, right.” (I was imagining what kind of pajamas she wore.) “Well, I mean, do you think it’ll be interesting.”

“I have no idea. I have to go eat dinner now.”

“Oh, sure. Thanks.”

“OK, bye.”

It was awkward, no doubt. But the main thing was that I had spoken to her on the phone, and that was a pretty big deal.

I had another breakthrough in gym class when we got to the dreaded square dancing unit. Normally, Mr. Muskeln would assign us to partners, but I figured what the heck and asked Truvy if she wanted to pair up with me. She said alright. It wasn’t that big a deal. After all, in square dancing, you end up eventually having to hold hands and dance with pretty much everyone anyway. But, still, I was pretty proud of myself just for mustering the moxie to ask.

The school calendar began to fill up with end-of-year events as the warmth of May arrived. One of those events was the 6th grade dance, and Jimmy and I were both on the student council entertainment committee. (I had run for council president twice, but no dice.) We had to come up with a theme for the dance, and it was Jimmy who had the idea of using Sailing, the breakthrough soft rock song that year for Christopher Cross. We set to work creating a big cardboard cutout of a sailboat with the words “All aboard!” across the hull, and decorating the gym with all manner of maritime items.

About a week before the event, Jimmy and I were hanging out in my room when he inquired whether I would be asking anyone to the dance.

“Asking anyone?” I replied, “No, I wasn’t planning to. Nobody really does that. You just show up. Why? Are you asking someone?”

“Sure. I told Tina to meet me there.” Tina Jenkins was very cute. She liked to wear denim and leather. She and Jimmy were friends, and they would routinely flirt with each other quite openly. It was like a show they put on, and I often couldn’t tell to what degree it was real or staged. They rather reminded me of the Fonz and Pinky Tuscadero.

It was then that I confessed to Jimmy my feelings for Truvy. His Basset hound eyes bulged from their sockets. “You like Trout?!”


“That’s what I call her.” Jimmy had a nickname for pretty much everyone. It was usually something he conjured on the spur of the moment. His nickname for me was “Spanky.” The first time he called me that, I wondered what I could possibly have in common with the doe-eyed chubby kid from The Little Rascals. (If anything, I looked more like Alfalfa.) Jimmy explained it was a play on my last name. “You know, Cibenko… Spanko…. Spanky!” I didn’t quite get it, but whatever.

“If you’re going to catch Trout,” he said, “you’ve got to add some tricks to your tackle box.” Jimmy was always coming up with interesting analogies like that. “The first thing we need to do is work on your duds.” He was referring to my clothes. “What were you planning to wear to the dance?”


“That’s what I thought. I have an awesome idea. We’re going to wear tuxes!”

“Tuxedos? Are you joking?”

“I don’t joke when it comes to wardrobe. We’re gonna look like a real couple of Beau Brummels.” He was quoting a line from a song off Billy Joel’s new Glass Houses album. I had bought it just a few weeks earlier at the record store on Spring Street in Newton, the county seat (also home of the county’s only drive-in theater). It was the first album I’d ever purchased with my own money. Prior to Jimmy’s explanation, I had not realized that Beau Brummel was an actual person.

“I’m not going to the dance in a tuxedo. I’ll look like an idiot! Besides, I don’t even own one.”

“You won’t look like an idiot. You’ll look amazing. Trust me, you can never overdress. I’ll wear one too. Since we’re on the dance committee, it makes sense for us to get dressed up. We’ll look cool — like hosts.”

“Yeah, well, like I said, I don’t own a tux.” Jimmy just shook his head. I asked him, “Do you?”

“I was in my cousin’s wedding party last year, so, yeah, I do have one. We’re just gonna have to rent one for you. How much money you got?”

I had about two hundred dollars saved up, mostly from babysitting one of the younger neighborhood kids, Spencer Angel, certain days after school. (His last name constituted the epitome of irony.) One afternoon, the Angels were having their driveway blacktopped, and Spencer’s father had given me very explicit instructions NOT to let their son, or anyone else, tread upon the fresh asphalt. “Not a problem,” I reassured them.

While we were playing Atari, Spencer got up to use the bathroom. I took advantage of the time to improve my joystick skills on Missile Command. I was really getting into it when, after a while, I realized Spencer hadn’t come back. I went to the bathroom, and discovered he wasn’t in it. I figured he was playing one of his little games where he’d act like Cato from The Pink Panther, and jump out from some hiding place to attack me. I searched up and down the house, but there was no sign of him. I was starting to get a little nervous. Then I heard the sound of kids laughing outside.

I ran out and saw Spencer, along with five or six of his friends from the neighborhood, riding their bikes up and down the fresh asphalt, leaving a tangled web of well-defined tread marks. I wasn’t asked to babysit for quite a while after that.

I told my mom I needed to rent a tuxedo. She thought that seemed a bit extravagant. (So did I.) She couldn’t see spending all that money on something I was likely only going to wear once. The following Saturday, she came home with a dry cleaning bag. Turned out she found a used tux in one of the local thrift stores. It was loose in the waist, but she stitched it for me. (Finding pants to fit me was always a challenge. My legs were long but I was thin as a rail.) Mom was always good at finding stuff when it came to clothes.

I told Jimmy about the tuxedo acquisition. He was a bit wary when I told him it was used, but he seemed alright with it once I showed him. The next thing I needed, according to his plan, was to learn to dance.

“I’m not too worried about that,” I assured him. “If she dances with me, I’ll just kind of rock back and forth slow, like everybody does.”

“That’s totally lame,” he said, and gave himself an “I could have had a V8” slap to the forehead. “You gotta show her you have some class. I’m going to teach you to waltz!”

And so, over the next couple days, Jimmy taught me the basic box step of the waltz. He explained that he had been his mom’s dance practice partner for the past couple years since his father, a truck driver, wasn’t home very often. (I think I had only seen the man on two or three occasions.) Even when he was home, he wasn’t the sort who was inclined to spend his time practicing dance steps in the living room. I was pleasantly surprised how quickly I mastered the steps, which are really fairly simple. Right up there with typing, the waltz was one of the most useful things I’d ever learned. (Years later, I’d end up teaching it to my students to songs like Journey’s Open Arms.)

During the lessons, Jimmy noticed my sweaty hands. I’d always had hands that would perspire profusely. What made it worse was that I was a lefty, so whenever I had to write a composition in class, my wet hand would drag across the paper and smudge the ink. (The ink in those new Erasermate pens made the problem even worse.) I’d end up turning in my paper, soggy and ink-smeared, with a look of apology for my teacher, and the ridge of my left hand thoroughly blue. Jimmy recommended I acquire a pair of white gloves before the dance.

So now I had the clothes and the moves. “Is there anything else I need?” I asked, knowing full well that the one thing I was sorely lacking was the confidence to actually ask Truvy to dance with me, let alone reveal to her my true feelings. But that was precisely the thing I planned to do. After a year of tickling her funny bone, and the milestone of talking to her on the phone, I felt it was the next logical progression.

I really had no idea exactly what I was going to say to her. I just hoped it would somehow flow out of me while we were on the dance floor. I admit the reason I planned to do this at the dance had everything to do with timing — not just the timing of the moment, but the timing of what might follow. The dance was on the last Friday of the school year, so I reasoned that if she shot me down, at least I wouldn’t have to face her or public humiliation the next day. The summer would go by, and all would be forgotten. After all, summers were like mini eternities.

“You need to give her flowers,” Jimmy said out of the blue.

“You mean, like, bring a bouquet to the dance? That would be way too conspicuous. I don’t want to draw more attention on top of the tuxedos!”

“So keep it simple. You get her one of those little wrist corsages. You keep it in your jacket pocket and, when you get her on the dance floor, you pull it out and slip it onto her. Girls eat that shit up!” The certainty in Jimmy’s tone bolstered my resolve.

“Are you getting a corsage for Tina?”

“Nah, me and her are just platonic.” Only Jimmy would use a word like that.

So, the next day after school, I jumped on my three-speed English racer and rode to a florist about five miles from my house to buy a corsage. Thankfully the lady there helped me to decide on something under ten bucks. It was a simple arrangement of two small white roses (surrounded by some kind of green stuff) on a lacey elastic band. I only hoped it wouldn’t scare Truvy off. I started to worry she might think I was a weirdo (if she didn’t already).

The day of the dance arrived. The plan was for me to get a ride with Jimmy. My father, who commuted to Newark where he was a cop, didn’t get home until late, and my mom had to attend my kid sister’s dance recital. Jimmy’s mom worked the evening shift as a nurse at the local hospital, so she would drop us off at the school in time for us to get things set up. (In all my preoccupation with getting myself prepared, I had almost forgotten that we had some responsibilities as members of the dance committee.)

Jimmy told me to be at his house by 5:30, but I got there ten minutes earlier. I was looking rather dapper in my second-hand tailored tux. Dad had helped me the day before to get my dress shoes polished to a mirror shine. He’d even lent me his dress uniform white gloves. I took Jimmy’s advice and slicked the sides of my hair back with some Pomade. (I kept my bangs down to cover up a pimple on my forehead.) Checking myself in the full-length mirror in the foyer, I had to admit I looked pretty sharp. Suddenly, Truvy Bridges didn’t seem quite so far out of my league.

I knocked on Jimmy’s door and noticed there was no car in the driveway. The door was opened by Jimmy’s older brother, Toby, a high school student. “Hey, Mikey, you’re looking snazzy! What’s going on?”

I was caught off guard by the question. “Um, I’m getting a ride with your mom and Jimmy to school for the dance.”

“Oh? Well, they left about fifteen minutes ago.”

“B-but, I was supposed to get a ride with them. Jimmy told me to be here at 5:30.”

“Yeah, well, my mom got called to go in to work earlier, so they had to leave right away. I guess he figured you could get a ride with your parents.”

I stared down at the reflection in my shoes and mumbled, “They’re not around.”

I couldn’t believe Jimmy had just ditched me. I mean, what the hell? I lived right across the street, for crying out loud. He could have called me, or just run over and knocked on my door. Maybe there was some good explanation, but I wasn’t going to get it right at that moment. I turned and walked back to my house. I think Toby said something, but I didn’t hear.

“OK,” I said to myself, “So now what?” There in the driveway was the only answer. I jumped on my English racer and started to pedal. It was only about six miles to the school, but it was all hills the entire way. The fastest I’d ever made it on my bike was thirty-two minutes, but I was bent on breaking that record.

The distance to the end of my road was all downhill. I rode it at least twice a week to get milk and eggs from the Dutch dairy farmer. (That was one of my chores.) The problem was the great long uphill after the intersection. If I stopped at the end of the road (which, according to the stop sign, I was legally obliged to do), I would have to walk the bike up a long steep stretch. But, if I blew past the stop sign (though it meant the possibility of being sideswiped by a motor vehicle), I could coast up that hill on the speed harnessed from the downhill run. Under the circumstances, I felt justified in taking that calculated risk.

As I approached the dairy farm, I pedalled in high gear with everything I had. I kept my head and eyes straight ahead as I defied the stop sign and shot across the roadway. I was lucky. No car hit me that day. (I envisioned my guardian angel shaking his head in disapprobation.) For the better part of the trek, I was able to make similar use of the downhills to minimize the imposed slowdown of the ups. As the warm late spring air whipped through my now thoroughly tousled hair, I fancied myself a knight errant in tuxedo armor and atop my two-wheeled steed. I was on a quest to rescue the fair damsel from the doldrums dragon of dull country life. For one brief moment in time, I felt virile and quite invincible. And then everything just stopped.

The bike came to a jarring halt as I felt something jerk my right leg. I toppled to one side and landed in a ditch littered with bottles and aluminum cans. Looking down, I saw that my pant leg had gotten snagged in the bike chain. I tried my best to gently wriggle it free, but the fabric tore, leaving a noticeable flap along the calf. (Why I hadn’t the foresight to roll the pant legs up, I don’t know.) I stood and realized my entire right side was covered with mud. Then, though I hadn’t noticed any dark clouds, it started to rain.

It was just around dusk when I finally rolled into the school parking lot. I placed the front tire of my racer between the bars of the bike rack by the rear entrance of the school, the one closest to the gym. I walked in and could hear the unmistakable sound of Devo’s Whip It echoing into the halls. As I walked past the gym and glanced through the open double doors by the water fountain, I could see Rosanna Falcone in the middle of the dance floor. A crowd of admirers surrounded her as she deftly gyrated her way through a choreographed routine. (She took modern dance lessons, so she knew what she was doing, and she would strut her stuff at least once every school dance.)

I kept going straight to the boys bathroom at the end of the hall by the payphone. The first thing I did was take a long leak. I shivered and realized I was soaked through from the steady rain. Washing my hands, I saw in the mirror above the sink that I was a wreck. My windblown hair was now matted down, and I realized I hadn’t brought a comb. I turned the crank on the paper towel dispenser and tore myself a long sheet to try and pat myself dry. Looking in the full-length mirror on the wall, I could see my mud-caked right side, and the long tear in my pant leg.

Three boys walked in and took quick notice of me. One of them asked, “Dude, what happened to you?”

Another one commented, “Nice tux!” The three all laughed.

I was debating whether I should bother offering them an explanation, when something caught my ear. It was the lush sound of symphonic strings, giving way to gentle guitar-plucked arpeggio triplets. Then an instantly recognizable pinched tenor voice, “Well, it’s not far down to paradise, at least it’s not for me….”

My mind snapped back to the entire reason for my being there. “I’m supposed to ask her to dance to this!” I may have said it out loud as I dashed from the bathroom.

The gym was darkened as colored lights projected from a machine swirled along the walls and ceiling. On the stage was the giant cardboard ship with its message of “All aboard!” (to which someone had added, “for the 6th grade dance”). I pulled the wrist corsage out of my inside jacket pocket. It was still in good shape considering the overall condition of the rest of me. On either side of the gym was a row of folding auditorium chairs. Boys were sitting on one side, girls on the other. (That’s the way it always worked at school dances.) I scanned the row of chairs on the girl side in search of Truvy, but I didn’t see her. Perhaps she decided not to come. A wave of disappointment washed over me, but at the same time some degree of relief. There were several couples on the dance floor, including two of the teacher chaperones, Mr. Cooper and Miss Grayson. (They were both single, so some of the students around them were ooh-ing and ahh-ing.)

Then I saw Jimmy. He was dancing with a girl with a ponytail and a short skirt. I was looking at her from behind, and I assumed it was Tina Jenkins. Jimmy was looking suave as I’d ever seen him. His tux suited him perfectly, and a long white scarf draped down his sides added extra flair. The hand of his extended left arm held her right hand, while his other arm was wrapped securely around her shapely waist. He was leading her in what I right away recognized as the box step of the waltz. (His execution was much smoother and more stylish than the basic one I had mastered.) As he led her in a half turn, I saw her face. As I’m sure you may have guessed, it was Truvy.

I stood there in the shadows with the corsage in my hand, not quite comprehending what I was seeing. I suppose it would have been much worse had they been kissing. They weren’t, but she had her chin resting upon his shoulder, a demonstration of a degree of intimacy that was really just too much to bear. For a brief moment, I imagined myself walking over to them, tapping him on the shoulder, and asking, “May I cut in?” (I was sure I’d seen that in more than one old movie.) But I just couldn’t do it. I turned around and walked out into the hall and back to the bathroom. Standing with slumped shoulders in front of the full-length mirror, I saw again what a mess I was. Then I heard the patter of liquid droplets striking the hard tile floor beneath me. They were coming from my eyes.

Walking back into the hallway, I headed in the direction of my homeroom. I’m not even sure why. I grabbed and turned the door knob, but it was locked. Bucky, one of the custodians, was at the end of the hallway. (Bucky wasn’t his real name, but everyone called him that on account of his pronounced overbite.) He was going through the empty lockers. I saw him take something out of one and put it in his pocket. I guessed it was loose change. He spied me and yelled down the hall, “You need something?”

“I… I think I might have left something in the classroom.” I’m not sure why I said that, just like I wasn’t sure why I headed to the room in the first place. Perhaps I was just looking for a place to hide.

“Oh?” He looked at me with a hint of suspicion. Earlier in the year, Tom Stanhope and I had gone into one of the classrooms after school, and stuffed the pull-down screen full of confetti. The prank had the intended effect. The look on Miss Henderson’s face had been priceless when she pulled the handle on the screen and found herself covered in thousands of little circles of paper we’d collected from hole punchers. She was not amused and thankfully we never got caught. But Bucky knew what we’d done. Custodians always know.

“Yeah, I think I left my hat in there.” That was all I could think of. I actually had been missing one of my baseball caps for a few days.

“Your hat?”


Bucky took a big ring of keys from his waist. It looked like something a prison guard might carry. He unlocked the door and said, “Well, go have a look.”

I walked into the room. The chairs were all turned up on the desks, and you could tell it was in summer mode. I walked over to my desk at the back of the room and looked inside. It was empty except for a paper clip and some of the tattered edges from pages torn from one of my notebooks. Then I looked in Truvy’s desk. It too was empty. I realized I was still holding the corsage. I looked at it, and then placed it inside her desk. I imagined her finding this wilted thing when we came back in September. (But then I remembered that we wouldn’t be in the same room.) I walked back out into the hallway.

Bucky was standing there waiting for me. “Did you find what you were looking for?”


“Your hat?”

“Oh, no, it wasn’t there. I guess I just lost it.”

“Well,” he said, giving me a look meant to be reassuring. “Maybe one of your buddies grabbed it.”


excerpt from Masaru

“There is one thing I do not understand,” said Shirō.

“Oh? And what is that?”

“Why was it necessary for Iesu to be baptized? If he is truly divine, he could have no sin to cleanse.”

“Very true. But it was for our sake, not his, that Iesu was baptized. The baptisms performed by John were a sign of repentance. But when Iesu entered the river, the waters of baptism through all space and time were sanctified.”

            Shirō pondered that for a moment. “You mean his ki entered into the water?” Ki was the word used to describe the energy or life force of a living being. From the time Shirō was a small boy, greater awareness and focus of ki was always at the heart of his training in the fighting arts.

            Father Olivera smiled. “Something like that, yes.”


Nikolai and the Flying Kotatsu



Papa came home, a large box in his arms. “What is that, Papa?”

“I bought a kotatsu for Mama. I just have to put it together.”

Nikolai had spent summers in Japan visiting his grandmother (“Bachan”), so he knew exactly what a kotatsu was — a low table with a top that lifts off so you can lay a thick quilt over it. You put the top back on to hold the quilt in place. The “magic” is a small heating element underneath the table. When you plug it in and turn it on, it creates a cozy space to curl up inside. In Japan, where many homes don’t have central heat, the kotatsu is a way to stay warm while watching TV or having a meal. Since the family moved to America, there were many things Mama missed, and a kotatsu was one of them. He knew she’d be happy with Papa’s surprise.

That night, they sat snug and toasty beneath the quilt of the kotatsu. Mama made popcorn and they watched a movie. Relaxed with his back against the sofa, Nikolai felt his eyes getting heavy. Before the movie was halfway through, he was sound asleep.

He awoke to a bright light upon his face. “I guess we left the lights on,” he thought. But as his eyes adjusted, he discovered he was outdoors and that the bright light was the sun. He looked around and saw he was in the middle of an open field. To his left was the familiar sight of a rice paddy. To his right, at the edge of the field, was a bamboo grove. It was similar to the area surrounding Bachan’s house in the southern Japanese countryside. “I’m dreaming,” he spoke aloud, and rubbed his eyes. He opened them again to find he was still beneath the open sky.

Just then an elderly man came walking toward him from the rice paddy. “Hey, boy, what are you doing here?” His accent was different from anything Nikolai had heard before. Still, he could understand.

“I, I just woke up here.” He felt somewhat frightened by the strange circumstances, but there was something gentle, even familiar, about the man’s face. Anyway, he was still certain he was dreaming.

“Where are you from, and how did you get this table way out here?” The old man didn’t seem so much annoyed as genuinely curious.

“I’m from New Jersey. I just fell asleep and….”

“New what?” The old man looked perplexed and reached up to scratch his balding head. Without warning, the man’s eyes suddenly grew wide. He pulled a long knife from the inside of his cloth belt and, with a single swift motion, swung the blade toward Nikolai. He instinctively clamped his eyes closed, waiting for the knife to strike.

He opened his eyes and was still in the field. The man was crouched beside him, the knife in his hand, the blade stuck in the ground. “I thought it was a snake,” said the man softly. “I thought it was going to bite you.” Nikolai looked down and saw the man had cut the kotatsu’s electric cord. Picking it up by the plug end and examining it, the man asked, “What is this?”

“The electric cord. You cut it.”

“The what cord?” The man again looked perplexed and scratched his head. “Boy, you wait here. I’m going to get my wife, and we’ll see about getting you back to your family. What is your name?”


“I’m Hiromu.” The man walked back toward the rice paddy, leaving the severed cord upon the ground. Nikolai watched him as he walked away, and was overcome by a sudden fatigue. As the old man disappeared from sight, Nikolai was once again asleep.

He awoke back in his living room. “Good morning, sleepy head,” said Mama. “I was wondering how long you’d stay asleep in there.” Nikolai told her about the dream.

“Hiromu?” she asked with surprise. “That was the name of Bachan’s grandfather.” The phone in the kitchen rang. Mama went to answer it.

“What happened to the cord?” asked Papa, seeing it was no longer plugged into the wall. Mama came back into the room. “Who called?” Papa asked, still staring at the broken cord.

“It was Bachan just calling to say hello. Strange thing, though. She said she was working in the garden and found the plug end of a power cord in the dirt.”

Nikolai and Papa just looked at each other.

Prince, Uncategorized

Down Memory Lane in Purple Rain

November 1984. For my 15th birthday, my 10-year-old kid sister gave me a copy of Purple Rain on vinyl. Like so many who grew up in the 80’s, I listened to that album countless times at home, and countless more on the go with the cassette version popped into my Sony Walkman®. Nearly 32 years later, upon learning of his recent death, my first thought was, “Already?” Over the years, when I’d hear one of his songs on the radio, or catch one of his occasional television appearances, somewhere in the back of my mind I’d think, “I wonder how much longer he’ll be around, or if he’ll outlive me.” (I admit my mind is kind of strange like that.) For reasons perhaps primarily sentimental, I felt compelled to allow myself the indulgence of a stroll down Memory Lane to reflect on what made that album so memorable.

Side A: I lay the LP on the player and gently place the arm on the edge of the record. The soft hiss comes through the speakers as the needle settles into the spinning grooves. (33⅓ revolutions per minute.) Single note breaks through and wavers: the high-pitched sound of – a church organ? “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today….” Hey, that’s what preachers say to kick off weddings, joyous and fun occasions, sometimes even emotional roller coasters. You just knew seven seconds into “Let’s Go Crazy” that you were in for a ride.

While lyrics like, “Let’s go crazy, let’s get nuts,” might not seem like high art, being instructed to “look for the purple banana ‘til they throw us in the truck,” gave us something to ponder. “If you don’t like the world you’re livin’ in…” (What teenager does?) “Take a look around you. At least you got friends.” (Yes, I did, and I was grateful for that.) There was something universal about the metaphor of the “elevator [that] tries to bring you down,” and something with equally universal appeal in the command to “punch a higher floor.” (Even as I write this, I’m struck by the tragic irony of Prince’s body being discovered in an elevator.) By the time he unleashes the Hendrix-esque guitar solo at the end, you’re feeling really revved. The final note slams like a door and you need to catch your breath…

…but you barely have time because now you’re caught up in a tumultuous percussion intro that kicks off the next track, “Take Me With U.” But the drums soon give way to a chill chord progression that (even before having seen the movie) makes you feel like you’re riding a motorcycle on back county roads on an idyllic autumn day, the air dense with the scent of Minnesota pines. It’s a catchy melody, the only duet on the album (featuring the film’s co-star, Apollonia). It’s kind of a sing along with simple lyrics and a sincere vibe. “I don’t care where we go, I don’t care what we do. I don’t care, pretty baby, just take me with you.” When you’re with the one you dig, geography and minor details don’t much matter — a rather cool sentiment.

Into track 3 and we downshift. “The Beautiful Ones” has an ethereal opening with echoing staccato piano chords that sets the stage for what may arguably be the most emotionally intense song on the album. There’s a love triangle, and the singer implores the object of his affection to make a choice. (Looking back, I realize that one of the things that contributed to a sense of direct connection with all the songs on the album is that, with the exception of “Darling Nikki,” they’re written in the 2nd person.) The song escalates to a crescendo and, at the point where he’s wailing with controlled abandon, “Do you want HIM, or do you want ME? – ‘Cuz I want YOU,” anyone who has ever loved someone who was with someone else is right there with him. At the time, I had a crush on a girl who already had a boyfriend. I got up the nerve to call her one evening, and told her to listen to the song. (I happened to know her older sister owned the album.) The next day, she broke up with her boyfriend and she was mine. Music can be a powerful thing.

The next track opens with an oddly robotic yet erotic dialog between Wendy and Lisa, who are apparently getting ready to take a bath together. This is the point at which I feel like maybe I don’t want my parents hearing this, and that I’d better turn down the volume. I plug in a set of headphones instead. “Computer Blue,” the only other song with a color in its title (blue of course being one of the components of purple), is a raw and raucous tune that bridges images of spirituality (“until I find the righteous one…”) and technology (“there must be something wrong with the machinery”). This was the pre-Internet era, and the computer generally evoked an impression of something clunky and sterile. To attribute to it human emotion through the color of sadness produced something of a melancholic musical Frankenstein. This was just one of those songs that made you think, “I really have no idea what this is about, but I like it!”

The fifth and final track on side A: “Darling Nikki.” Even before the singing kicks in, you can tell from the slinky opening bars that there’s something very dirty about this tune. Though relatively tame compared to some of the songs on the Dirty Mind album, it was only the 2nd time I’d heard the word “masturbate” in a song (the other one being from Billy Joel’s “Captain Jack”). For those who weren’t around back then, this was the song that sent Tipper Gore, wife of former vice president Al Gore, into a fit when she heard it coming from their teenage daughter’s room. This led to eventual Congressional hearings, the formation of the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center), and the labeling of CDs containing lyrics deemed as “explicit.”

But what struck me most about that track was the weird ending with its haunting half minute of unintelligible chanting which, I later discovered, contained a back-masked message. In those days, it was easy enough to spin a record counter-clockwise with a deft finger, and so I did. I was slightly freaked out as I heard the quavering voice of Prince as if he were addressing me personally… “Hello. How are you? I’m fine, because I know that the Lord is coming soon … coming, coming, soon …” Beyond being just plain trippy, that was perhaps the only time I experienced such a tactile, as well as auditory, connection to an album.

Side B: Flip the record over. Those first few seconds of hiss are cut into by a crisp guitar intro followed by a bizarre sound that is surely Prince’s effects-enhanced voice, but almost sounds like an Aboriginal didgeridoo. “When Doves Cry” was the biggest hit from the album, and the biggest single of his career. “Dig if you will the picture of you and I engaged in a kiss…” That opening line, and everything that followed, just smacked of hip poetry. There was nothing else like it on the radio at the time nor since. I remember learning from Casey Kasem on American Top 40 that it was the only #1 R&B single not to have a bass track. I hadn’t picked up on that with my own ears. I was more tuned in to the lyrics. I remember thinking to myself, “Yeah, my father is pretty bold and, my mother, she is kind of hard to satisfy.” (Like I said, music can be a powerful thing.)

For the final three songs, you feel like you’re at a live show. Turns out those tracks were indeed recorded at First Avenue in Minneapolis before a live audience. The upbeat “I Would Die 4U” has that ethereal vibe that permeates the entire album. Nowadays, lyrics like, “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I am something that you’ll never understand,” might trigger thoughts of transgender issues. But back then it just seemed like a cool way of expressing a sacrificial form of “Agape” love that transcends that of “Eros.”

If the album’s opening track set the stage for a wedding, then we’re definitely at the climax of the reception by the time we get to “Baby, I’m A Star,” a number that summons the listener to the dance floor (which, for me, was usually the one in my living room or bedroom, or just the one in my mind). As he’s done throughout this sensory epoch, Prince addresses us in the audience directly from the stage. “Hey, take a listen. Tell me, do you like what you hear? If it don’t turn you on, just say the word and I’m gone. But, honey, I know ain’t nothin’ wrong with your ears.” It’s a cockiness we readily accept because he won us over from the very first track. With the command, “Doctor!” Dr. Matt Fink operates on the keyboards with a frenzy that matches the guitar solo from “Let’s Go Crazy.” And, in like fashion, the track closes with a slam.

And then the closing title track. If the album up to this point could be likened to a wedding (a take completely my own, one that admittedly could well have Prince turning in his grave), then “Purple Rain” is the voice of the lover in twilight years as he gazes back upon the long road with his beloved (perhaps even deceased), and hopes that he did right by her. “I never meant to cause you any sorrow … I never meant to cause you any pain…” Of some interest perhaps is that, what is generally regarded as his signature song, made it to “only” #2 on the singles charts. (Personally I think his best music was still yet to come.) But the song is nearly nine minutes long, and you never heard more than the first four of those minutes on FM radio. It’s those last five minutes, beginning with the guitar solo, that are the most emotionally charged. Like The Beatles’ “Hey Jude,” the power of “Purple Rain” culminates in repeated vocal and instrumental motifs that seem to cry out to something universal in the human spirit. There is achieved that rare paradox in art in which an expression of such deep aching longing is simultaneously able to quench and satisfy.

In the days following the news of his passing, I heard so often the question put forth, ”What was your favorite Prince song?” It’s a fair but difficult question considering the span and prolific nature of his career. But Purple Rain is a shining example of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In an industry that is today so driven by hit singles, Purple Rain is a reminder of a time when a great album was like a musical novel. Each song was a distinct chapter, yet there was an omnipresent backdrop hanging throughout (and it was indeed a purple one). On the numerous occasions I slid the album out of its sleeve to lay on the record player, it was never to listen to just one particular song. At most, I would ask myself, “Am I in a Side A or Side B mood today?”


Light of the Son


A few years ago, I had a diseased tree in front of my house taken down. When it fell, it left two shallow holes in my lawn. I ignored these holes for a long time, but eventually got tired of tripping in them while cutting the grass, etc. I didn’t have any top soil handy, so I filled the holes with compost from a bin, and then spread some grass seed over the top. Well, the grass didn’t take, but within a week a sprout emerged from each of the two spots. I nearly pulled them out, but out of curiosity decided to let them grow. Now, about a month later, there are two healthy plants, with large yellow blossoms and leaves bigger than my hands, sprawling across nearly a third of the length of the lawn. (I suspect they might be pumpkins.) For a moment I wondered why the seeds in the compost hadn’t begun to grow in the bin, but of course the answer is obvious. There is no sunlight inside the bin. Even in an environment that is materially rich with water, nutrients, etc., life cannot be without the warm kiss of the sun’s rays. It further occurred to me that, just as material things cannot have life without the light of the sun, so too is the soul doomed to wither and die in the absence of the light of truth.


Pieces of Memories


Pieces of memories scattered,

Across vast plains upon the mind —

Merely fragments of fantasy revealed,

Selectively blind.


Recalling only that which

The inner one would choose,

Paint a picture of gold and crimson,

But somehow neglect the blues.


Pieces of memories battered,

Crafted to conform with desire.

Dulled anger will serve as anvil,

Arrogant pride to fuel the fire.


Gaze not at length into this place,

For truth there is no room.

Once she found harbor within these walls,

But by the flames was she consumed.


Pieces of memories gathered,

Like crumbs in a bottomless bowl,

Fitted to form the unfinished image,

Puzzle of my jigsaw soul.