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Fire and the mountain men by T.Church

© T.Church

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A short story.

What was my aunt up to?

Ten o'clock that morning, I followed the rattle of wheeled trolleys as the passengers moved to the exit at Japan's Narita airport. How will it be with Aunt Claire and Uncle Richard. I'd always wanted to go to Far Eastern. Someone called me.
"Karen. Hi!"
I saw a aunt Claire's familiar figure waving. She towered over the other by-standers.
"I'm glad you came today. It's my day off."
"Lucky for me too. I found a cheap flight. My boss -"
She glanced down at her sandals. "Your Uncle Richard couldn't make it today. He's busy. He would've loved to be here too."
I doubted that. What about last time in the UK? He ignored everyone, especially me. Mind you, that was ten years ago. It might be different now I'm in my twenties. Perhaps it'll be better as he's on his own territory. I doubted that.
"It's good to be here." Despite my jet-lag I musn't miss anything. I've only got two weeks here.

From the car window, large Japanese castle towered over concrete buildings. Buds were starting on trees.
"It's a shame you'll miss the Cherry Blossom season."
"Why's that Aunt Claire?"
"It's a special time in Japan. People have picknicks or walk under the blossoming trees."
"What a pity."

The car stopped at a concrete block of flats. How can people know which flat to go to? There aren't any street markings anywhere.
I followed my aunt as I carried my rucksack. Once in their flat, everything was not as I'd expected. All was modern- like a rabbit warren with endless doors along a series of long corridors. Their vast sitting room was in two sections. At the end of one, three settees and two armchairs lined the walls. The other was a more intimate set-up with a couple of armchairs and a sofa around a low table. A mixture of European and Japanese paintings covered the walls. A series of screens of dancing ladies on the mock plaster walls lead to the master bedroom.
Mum thought her sister and her husband were struggling- everything was so expensive in Japan.

Mid-morning the next day, the front door clicked open. My uncle called out. Aunt Claire shuffles out to greet him. Why did he leave work so early? Wad he taking time off to be with his niece. Rubbish. He didn't care about me. Why were my relations muffling their words to each other?

After the meal, I found an armchair in the sitting room. I looked at a golden screen on a wall in front of me. On her solo visit to England, Aunt Claire said this very screen had a special significance for Uncle Richard. What did the cranes flying towards the sun past a figure of Buddha under a tree mean to him? What was so special about it?
I averted my eyes when he cleared his throat.

“I thought you'd like to go and watch some Sumos and their great champion Konofuji training. In a few days, they'll be taking part in a major tournament here in Tokyo."
How odd? Not quite a girl's scene. Maybe he thought I'd like it as I was keen on sport. I remained silent. He stopped fidgeting with the top button of his shirt. "I can't come with you this time," he said. What a surprise, "Your aunt will take you.”
Why was he being so nice to me now? Had my aunt said something to him? Seeing a tea ceremony was more my scene. Perhaps that'll come later. I could tell he was pretending- trying to be civil. Would it last two weeks? Were there going to be anymore surprises?
“What a good plan darling." Aunt Claire turned to me. "Karen. When we go there, we'll see Konofuji." She grabbed my hand. "He's the champion you-"
"I know. Your husband said."
Her eyes narrowed then she laughed. "Of course he did. Well, we don't know how long he'll stay as champion. We'll see...” She brushed strands of red hair away from her green eyes. Passing a hand through her hair, she glanced at her husband again. It must be hard for them to know what to do with a teenager when you're childless.
Realising he was being watched, he turned. “It'll be rewarding watching this Konofuji take part in this important Sumo contest."
Why 'rewarding'? Was he placing a bet in that sport? My aunt never said he was interested in that sport. A facet of Japanese culture I'd not expected to see.
My uncle paced the room, then stood in front of me. “At the moment, Konofuji is in the lead position-" He stared at me. His eyes were full of questions. Why, was he, like my aunt, repeating himself? I smiled. He carried on. "I really hope he doesn't lose his place.” He stared into nothingness. "I'll try to get tickets.”

“That'll be great!”
Was I misjudging him?
Thinking about these huge monster-like men wrestling with each other amused me.
“Karen. We'll have to start early in the morning.”
“Ok, fine Aunt Claire, but why?”
“Because they stop at about ten thirty in the morning to have breakfast. Before that, they'd been doing their strenuous exercises for two and a half hours and -"
"What! That early!?"
She grinned. "After that, they all have a nap.”
I would have done any hockey practice at that time. I thought back about those school days- hockey was optional.

I remembered my mother's words- ' Don't pester your Aunt Claire’ hounding me to the gates at the airport. That annoyed me. Certainly I'd been a help to her, staying with her after dad's sudden death. But she had to be reasonable. I wasn't a little child anymore.
“Mum told me you were teaching English literature at the CHIBA Women’s University in Tokyo. She didn’t know how much spare time you had to be with me. My studies were mostly on Japanese culture rather than on its language but I can manage. I can easily wander around Tokyo on my own. She doesn't want me to be a nuisance.“
My aunt was silent then chuckled. “My sister’s daft! It’s great to see you again. How many years has it been?”
She gave a start."That long ago?!" Her fixed smile reminded me of a cartoon character but I couldn't remember which one. "Don't worry. I'll look after you," she added.

“Rosie doesn’t know... I only work three days a week now.”
Typical. She'd forgotten again. But judging by the grandeur of the flat, what kind of promotion had Uncle Richard been given? Why had she not said anything to Mum? They were both close. More so now Dad has gone. What were my aunt and uncle hiding?
I was startled when Claire tapped me on the shoulder. “Why don’t we go tomorrow- Friday? Not much goes on that day. Most of my colleagues will be thinking about the weekend. I’ll probably be able to get away early too." She turned."Richard darling, what about doing something on Saturday or on Sunday?”
I smiled at him.
“Oh no! I thought watching Sumos training would be enough. I don’t feel like doing anything this week-end- I just wanted to watch TV.” He stopped short. Claire scowled at him. He mimicked a cough. “On Saturday, I’ll take both of you to my golf club. You’ll meet some of our friends.” He looked at my aunt again and continued, “... and you might meet some of my Japanese colleagues.”

I knew things were not right. Every time I'd passed his study that morning, he'd been looking for something, rifling through papers on his desk, opening and closing drawers, and finally stopping when he'd found a sheet of paper under a lighter. I didn't know he smoked? I'd not seen an ashtrays in their flat. Why the lighter? Also, my aunt always closed the door behind her whenever the phone rang.

I recoile as he approached my armchair. “Karen...Do you play golf?”
“No. I'll give it a go though. I won’t be any good at it.”
“I’m not a great player. My handicap is quite modest. I do a lot of business on the golf course." I was tempted to switch off but I let him carry on. Why was he speaking so fast? Most of the details were beyond me. "Actually, the golf course is the only place where there is open air," he said. "Life at the office can be claustrophobic. The Yamuni have a great golf course, but no one else can play on it.”
"I've heard of them. That's one of the gangster groups most feared in Japan."
"That's right, they have a special code."
"I know. It's really gruesome. If a member of this group doesn't follow the gangs' rules, he has to cut off his own little finger to show his loyalty. As far as I know, they only use Japanese people. No foreigners."
Uncle Richard cleared his throat again, but said nothing.Why had he mentioned this group's golf course?
This could explain my relations' odd behaviour earlier on. What was going on?

Aunt Claire was a few years younger than Uncle Richard. His thin rimmed glasses made him look like a schoolteacher so perhaps it was his air of authority which had attracted her. Or was it his dark, brown hair, now greying at the sides and the unmistakable twinkle in his blue eyes which had appealed to her? Perhaps there was more to him than I knew. I'd always thought of him as a shy, but awkward man. Now he had adopted a more aggressive manner.


A cloudburst took us by surprise when my aunt and I stepped out of the block of flats, and dashed to the waiting car. The torrential downpour sounded like hammers pounding the tarmac. As we drove on, I saw the hurrying crowds- like a swarm of insects - sheltering from the rain in various alcoves. I felt guilty sitting comfortable inside the car. But at least it was warm rain. Other passers-by took refuge under the eaves of office buildings; a few squeezed themselves into shop premises. Some opened their umbrellas and braved the driving showers. Youngsters laughed, as they elbowed each other trying to leap clear of the puddles. Our driver skilfully carved his way through the traffic.
The heavy rain reduced to a drizzle when we arrived at the sumo stable. Stepping out, I noticed a puddle reflecting a single cloud in the sky. The smell of damp earth was fresh in the air. I glanced around. Bright red Kanji characters painted on a board hung above the black wooden gate. I caught sight of a small half-open door squeaking in the gentle wind. It revealed a minute garden. A stone path lead to the main building with its slanted roof and turned up corners.
A barefoot attendant greeted us. Dressed in a dyed-blue cotton top and tight trousers, his little finger in his right hand was missing. *He must have been a member of the Yamuni at one time, but there are no visible tattoo marks on his thin body.* My aunt nudge me. We both saw him frowning at us as he looked down at our feet.
“We’re meant to take off our shoes.”
How strange. She'd been living in Japan for some time now. Had she forgotten this convention? I put it down to her usual forgetfulness.
Once satisfied, the man pointed to a notebook on a wooden ledge, and urged us to sign our names. He then guided us to a plain, wood-panelled room. The dry, musty smell of sawdust was different and certainly unexpected. A cool breeze coming from the air-cooling system was welcome. What a change after the humidity outside. Aunt Claire pointed at the mats.
“We have to sit on those. They're called tatami” she whispered hastening to sit down on one of them when we both saw the attendant glaring at her. She wasn’t making that much noise and there were no other visitors? That wasn't fair as earlier on, he'd been talking with enthusiasm, to someone on his mobile phone. He kept tut-tutting at us. Why should my aunt care or be so nervous?
I muffled a gasp when the wrestlers came in. These men were larger than I had ever imagined. These huge elephantine men all over six feet tall with bulging bellies, large thighs and huge buttocks, moved about nimbly on the soft floor. I held back a giggle. All had breasts like women. Tying their black hair in a pony-tail, and fix it with what looked like a pin or tied in a bow must have taken ages. Those who had managed it made them look like Minnie Mouse. I touched my aunt’s arm.
“Ssshhh...Just watch...” she whispered gritting her teeth.” I’ll explain everything later.”
The wrestlers started running in a circle, stamping, and pounding the floor with their bare feet raising a cloud of dust. After doing several exercises, the mammoth-like hoard stopped and every man raised one leg then brought it down hard on the ground and then did the same with the other. AOW! That must have hurt* I turned to Claire, but she didn't want to talk.
No great heaving sounds or groaning. Then the men sat down, spread their legs wide, bent their heads between them, and touched the ground with their chests and forehead. One junior wrestler couldn’t quite do it. An assistant forced him. I heard the young trainee whimper. This was the only sound. “I know I couldn’t do that myself,” but she just continued looking straight ahead.
The bell rang. It was over.

Back in the car I said to Aunt Claire, “It’s extraordinary how supple and nimble these wrestlers are in spite of their size.”
“There’s a reason for that”, she explained. “They have to be like a mountain- large and steady. When a man becomes a Sumo they acquire a new-’
Hoping she wouldn't minde my interupting her, I cut in, "Why are they all look so big?"
She stared out of the car window then turned back to me.
“That’s because they have to be at least five feet eight inches tall and weigh a minimum of 165 pounds. He’s given a high protein diet to get like that. I'm sure you've heard about the famous Konishiki." I nodded."He weighs 560 pounds and is over six feet eight inches tall,” she continued.
I was appalled. I imagined how dangerous it would be if, for some reason, a wrestler that size fell on me. Luckily, at the stable visit, we had been on a raised platform whilst watching them training. But I just had to ask her, “And what about air travel? How many seats would a creature that size need? Another thing is, how could he squeeze into the toilet’s cubicle?”
Ignoring my questions, she continued,“The object of the game is to unsettle the opponent, both physically and mentally. They squat and stare at each other, like two fighting cockerels. Then,....”
I let her carry on but I wasn't sure I'd retain everything. Obviously she’d forgotten about what I'd just asked or perhaps she didn’t know the answer. It didn't really matter. Even if I'd only heard half of what she said, I was glad she'd explained the basic rules the sport. She'd made it sound exciting. The ones I'd watched on TV back in England were fun to watch. Would the tournament be as entertaining?


At the big stadium, the intense noise of the excited spectators made me eager to watch the contest. The wooden roof over the arena was similar to the one I’d seen at a Shinto shrines. Colourful decorations dangled from its four corners.
Uncle Richard took out his binoculars from its case and scanned the stalls of spectators, first moving to the left then to the right. Why was he doing that? Why was he taking short breaths? Visibly relaxed, he turned to me.
“Karen. D' you know what those tassels hanging over there are for?"
Why was he behaving so normally with me now? I pointed in their direction.
He nodded.
"Yes, that's right. They're to represent the four seasons and the arena is a sacred spot."
I knew that they both were keen on anything about Japan. I imagined them having long discussions, exchanging views on its culture. But they were both up to something. Now I was here, I wasn't going to let it pass. As with my aunt, I wondered whether I'd retain everything he told me? It didn’t matter. I’d consult books or refer to the Internet later when back in England.
From the balcony where we sat, I looked down and watched the crowd. They were joking, laughing, and drinking sake, or eating spicy, fermented food. The pungent smell of soya sauce reached us. The onlookers were sitting in separate compartments, like bees in a set of honeycombs.
Still masking my disquiet about him, I said,

“I’m glad you bought these seats for us up here. It looks uncomfortable down there. Is it because they couldn't afford the places up here?”
This time, my aunt answered. "Not at all. Those seats are the most expensive ones as they're closer to the action. In any case our Western legs aren’t used to squatting for hours.”
All around me, I noticed some Japanese ladies cooling themselves with electric fans. Others flapped their fans in the traditional manner. Noticing them too, Aunt Claire turned to me.
“Oh no! I should have brought mine. It’s silly. I’ve got two of them back at the flat. Sorry, I forgot,” she said, but that didn't surprise me.
Despite feeling the sweat trickling down my back, I grinned.
“It’s all right.”
But then she whispered sternly,
“It’s important for us to watch this match," and put a finger to her lips.
The bell rang. The humming died down. The entrance procession ceremony started. The ten, tall, and large wrestlers, all like important dignitaries walked in towards the arena. At first it looked as if all were dressed the same, with their hair neatly tied back and wearing a heavily embroidered silk apron. Just before the start of the competition, a priest-like referee dressed in a long golden robe, scattered powder over the arena. I leaned towards my aunt, forgetting her previous warning,
"What's that for?"
But there was no answer. At a signal, the two wrestlers crouched in front of each other, and was surprised to find my uncle saying something. I had to lean in front of Aunt Claire to hear what he was saying in a quiet voice.
“The salt is to purify the ring. In the past, wrestling was meant to please the gods, believing it might bring a good harvest. Nowadays it’s mostly for entertainment.”
Why was he saying ‘mostly’ ? I didn’t dare ask anything else as I saw him and my aunt, like many of the other spectators, transfixed by the match.
Looking through my binoculars, I saw these huge wrestlers lunging at each other. But in spite of the lavish ceremony, and my relations' explanations earlier on, I found the event dull. It wasn't at all as I had imagined. At least in boxing there was plenty of rapid action. But here, watching the wild spectators shouting and gesticulating was far more entertaining. That made up for it. But Uncle Richard frowned when he saw that I looked uninterested in the fight. The two tiny, Japanese ladies perhaps in their nineties, both in the traditional kimono, shouting as enthusiatically as those down below kept my attention. At last I'd seen those robes. But what happened to Japanese reserve?
I leaned over.
“Aunt Claire...I doubt old, English women would ever turn up or even do that kind of thing at matches in England!” I giggled.
“You might be surprised...”
After an hour or so, I stifled a yawn and kept looking at my watch, making sure neither my aunt or my uncle would notice. It's only when I heard the endless claps of the crowd that I realized the match had finished. When most of the spectators had left, my relations remained seated without saying a word to each other. Eventually they got up. I followed them. With his head hung low and with hunched shoulders, my uncle shuffled behind my aunt. No words were exchanged.

Months later when I was back in England, my mother told me that my aunt and uncle had been arrested. They'd been suspected of starting a fire in a Sumo stable in Tokyo. My mother was clueless, but I already knew why they might be involved in. That Ligfter in the drawer. Maybe the Yamuni had something to do with it, but for that I needed firm proof. There clearly was more to my relatives and to Sumo wrestling than I had ever imagined.
My mother paced up and down the kitchen, picking up a spoon or a fork and tossing it back in the sink. What could be done. I saw her downcast eyes as she prepared tea for me in the kitchen. Maybe I shod go back to put her mind at rest and help them, but how?

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