*This section of the story is longer than the previous two, so I’ll be posting it in two parts. Hope you continue to enjoy the story!
By Kunikida Doppo (Tr. C E Zambrano)
I had him sit at the veranda and offered a cup of barley tea before asking for a song. I’m a complete novice when it comes to the shakuhachi, so I can’t attest to his technical proficiency or how good the tune was. But he played with such feeling that I found myself deeply moved as the sound of his shakuhachi came over me. It was a deeply melancholy tune that made you feel as though you might cry, and I wondered if he playing had ever been moved to such emotion.
The song ended, and though you might expect a smile or a few humble words from someone who plays for a living, he just sat there in silence as though about to vanish into the very emptiness his song had. It was enough to make me consider following after him should he actually vanish.
From the very beginning I had thought that there must be some story behind his current circumstances. There was something about his bearing and the way he talked that told me so. That’s why I finally had to say something.
”It’s terribly rude to ask, but did you study the shakuhachi formally?”
“No, I did not. I’m entirely self-taught. When I was a child I began playing for fun, but I really shouldn’t be subjecting other people to it, haa.”
“No not at all. You’re incredibly skilled. As good as you are, it would be easier for you to take on a pupil and not have to walk around to all kinds of people’s houses. Are you all by yourself?”
“Oh, I have no parents and no children. I’ve very comfortable by myself, he-he-he.”
“There’s no way you could have it that easy. This mysterious life you live, burnt by the sun and drenched by rain, traveling from town to town with no home, it can’t be easy. But I wonder if there isn’t some reason for all this; I would like to hear a little about your life,” I said straightforwardly. It felt like taking advantage, and I knew it wasn’t right to pry into the secrets of another person’s misfortunes, no matter how much I wanted to know. Yet I couldn’t help it; I had encountered him twice, and on both occasions something about the place and circumstances had moved me greatly.
“Oh, sure, I’ll talk about it. I’ve been thinking of my childhood a lot today for some reason. Just earlier I saw some kids out in the yard of their parents’ vacation house; I heard their voices singing in unison, and it made me want to cry.
“When I was nine or ten, my mother would often take me with her to my aunt’s home to stay for two or three nights. She lived deep in the mountains, about 7 miles away from the castle town where we lived. Today I just happened to think of those trips for the first time in a long while. When I was seventeen or eighteen, I used to feel as though my heart were being torn apart when I heard someone play the shakuhachi; now that’s exactly how I feel thinking about when I was nine or ten.
“My father left us when I was five, and so I was raised by my mother and grandmother. The large home we lived in was over one thousand square meters; there were camellias and crape myrtles, and I can see even now the gold-colored lychee nuts littering the ground near the fence. Though our family was respectable and our home large, we were the poor descendants of a samurai. Mother took a second job just to keep food in our mouths, but for a child like me, life was easy.
“It was lonely, for both Mother and me, so it was always so exciting to go back to the mountain village where my aunt lived. I can’t describe to you the feeling I had getting up early in the morning, plodding through the cedar-lined yard to set off toward the mountains. At the beginning I would be in high spirits, trotting ahead of Mother and throwing rocks at the carp in the irrigation ditches between rice paddies. But seven miles through the mountains is a long way for a child, and about halfway through the pass I would get exhausted. Mother would spur me on, reminding me of the teahouse at the peak. The old woman who ran the place would give me tōgemochi, her self-proclaimed local specialty. The thought of that was enough to muster the strength to go on just a little more. Once we got over the pass and halfway down, my aunt’s village came into view below us. It was just like a painting, the mists of early spring hovering gently over the valleys. Once the village came into view it felt like we had already arrived, and we would take a rest on the side of the road. Mother would smoke and I would drink from the stream that ran down the mountain.
“My aunt’s family were descended from country samurai, and though the family’s fortune was beginning to fall, to me they seemed incredibly rich. Their home had a huge central pillar, a gloomy granary, outer walls covered in vines, and a deep well. I loved everything about the place, so the servants always called me the “young master from the castle,” which made me even happier.
“But what I remember the most fondly is playing with my cousin who was the same age as me.”