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Fire and the mountain men by T.Church

© T.Church

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A short story.

**- stand for italics/ internal thoughts.






Ten o'clock in the morning when I arrived in Japan. I kept thinking about mum's concern for her sister as I followed the rattle of wheeled suitcases and trolleys to the exit at Narita airport. My first time away from home - this should be fun but what would Aunt Claire and Uncle Richard be like for the next few weeks? That could be tricky, but it didn't really matter as I'd always wanted to go to Far Eastern. This was my chance. Suddenlt my attention was diverted when I heard my name.
"Hi Karen!"
I looked up and saw a familiar figure frantically waving at me. My aunt's tall figure towered over the oriental other by-standers.
"I'm glad you managed to arrive on this day of the week. It's my days off."
"It was lucky for me too,"I said."I found a cheap flight. My boss -"
I could tell her mind was elsewhere when she glanced down at her open-toed sandals. "Your Uncle Richard couldn't make it today. He's busy. He would've loved to be here."
I doubted that. I remembered when he'd come with her to the UK. He'd ignored everyone, especially me. But that was ten years ago. I was a child then and as they didn't have children of their own, they probably didn't see the point of talking to a child. It might be difference now that I was in my twenties. After all, he was on his own territory now, so it was bound to be better, but I had my doubts.
"It's good to be here," I said in a strained tone. *Anything could happen.*

From the car, I saw a large Japanese castle towering over concrete buildings with a running river down below. I noticed trees starting to bud. My aunt looked at me.
"It's a shame you're not here to enjoy the Cherry Blossom season."

"What's that?"

"It's a special time in Japan. People choose a day between the end of March and April to enjoy the cheery blossom. They might have picknicks or simply walk under the trees."

"What a pity but I'm sure I'd see other things." Already I found it odd to see old and new nestling side by side. But I remembered that this was no doubt as a result of the heavy bombing Tokyo had endured during the second World War.

After a short journey the car stopped at an indistinct concrete block of flats. How could people know which flat to go to? I'd not noticed any street markings anywhere.
I carried my rucksack and followed my aunt. Once in their flat, everything was not as I'd expected. Their residence 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 of them, 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. I thought Mum was worried that her sister and her husband were struggling as previously Aunt Claire had told her that they found everything was so expensive in Japan.

Mid-morning the next day, the front door clicked open. My uncle called out. I heard my aunts hurried shuffles as she raced out of the kitchen to greet him. It surprised me that he'd come back from work so early in the day. Maybe he'd asked to take time off to be with me, his niece.*Rubbish* That couldn't be the reason. It bothered me as I couldn't understand their muffled words. Neither of them showed signs of anything unusual when they appeared in the sitting room and just kept smiling at me.

After the meal, I sat back in one of their armchairs and fixed my eyes on a golden screen. Aunt Claire had said, on her solo visit to England, that Uncle Richard had chosen this particular screen for a specific reason. Now in front of it, I analyzed it. What did the design of cranes flying towards the sun past a figure of Buddha under a tree mean to him? To me, it was just beautiful to look at. 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 training before we see them in action and their great Champion Konofuji. In a few days, Konofuji is taking part in a major tournament here in Tokyo."
*What an odd suggestion. It's not quite a girl's scene* But then again he might have thought that I'd be interested as he knew I was keen on sports. I remained silent. He started to fidget with the top button of his shirt then stopped. "I can't come with you this time. Your aunt will take you.”
Why was he being so nice to me now? Had my aunt said something to him? I'd hoped for more feminine forms of entertainment like seeing a tea ceremony, but perhaps that might come later. Was he acting the role of the caring uncle? Probably he was just being civil with me as I was their guest for the next two weeks. Were there going to be anymore surprises? But my aunt's voice drew me back.

“What a good plan darling." Aunt Claire then added,"When we go there, I'll be able to see how agile Konofuji is." She grabbed my hand and looked at me. "He's the champion you kn-"

"I know." I cut in. "Your husband just said."

Her eyes narrowed then after a few seconds they softened and she laughed nervously. "Of course he did. Well, we don't know how long Konofuji will stay as champion. Anyway, we'll see him preparing for that competition.” After brushing a few strands of her red hair away from her green eyes, she said, "I'll take you, Karen."
She kept passing a hand through her hair, and then glanced at her husband again. It occured to me that it must be hard for a couple to know what to do with a teenager if they were childless.
But his mind was elsewhere. Realising he was being watched, he turned. “This Konofuji... It'll be rewarding watching him take part in this important Sumo contest."
What did he mean by 'rewarding'? My aunt had never said he was interested in that sport. This was a facet of Japanese culture I'd not expected to see.
My uncle paced the room, and then stood in front of me. “At the moment, Konofuji is in the lead position-" He stopped and stared at me. I could 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 then added, "I'll try to get tickets.”

“That'll be great!” but I remained baffled by this offer. Perhaps I was misjudging him. I turned my attention to other matters. It amused me thinking about these huge monster-like men wrestling with each other. Aunt Claire’s voice snapped me out of my dreaming.
“We'll have to start early in the morning, Karen.”
“Ok, fine, but why?”
My aunt took in a deep breath. “Because they stop at about ten thirty in the morning to have breakfast. Before that time, they'd been doing their strenuous exercising for two and a half hours and -"
"What! They start that early!" I interruted.
She grinned. "After that, they all have a nap.”
It intrigued me. Had it been me, I would have refused to do any hockey practice at that time. I cast my mind back to those school days and remembered that it was optional. After all, I hadn’t been paid to play.

Now in Japan, I had the chance to broaden my horizons. But I remembered my mother's incessant words, * Don't pester your Aunt Claire’ * hounding me to the gates at the airport. That annoyed me but I guessed she felt she had to say something to me. Certainly I'd been a help to her when I stayed behind after my father's unexpected death. But she had to be reasonable. I wasn't a little child anymore.
I looked at my aunt.“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 look after me. My studies were mostly on Japanese culture rather than on its language but I can manage. I could easily wander around Tokyo by myself. She doesn't want me to be a nuisance.“
My aunt was silent then let out a small laugh. “My sister’s daft! It’s great to see you again. How many years has it been?”
"Ten."
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."
I knew that, but how much would I get to see in a fortnight?
“What Rosie doesn’t know is... I only work three days a week now.”
Typical. She'd forgotten to tell Mum about that. Judging by the size and grandeur of the flat that must be the case, but what kind of promotion had Uncle Richard been given? I wondered why had she not said anything. I couldn't understand it, as she and Mum were close, and more so now that my father had passed away. Were my aunt and uncle hiding something?
Claire tapped me on the shoulder.
“Why don’t we go tomorrow- Friday?” she said. “Not much goes on in my department that day. Most of my colleagues will have their minds fixed on the weekend by then. I’ll probably be able to get away early too." She turned to her husband."Richard darling, what about doing something special either on Saturday or on Sunday?”
Unsure how my uncle's would react to this, I smiled at him but I was not surprised by his reaction.
“Oh no! I thought watching Sumo wrestlers training would be enough. I don’t feel like doing anything special this week-end. I just wanted to relax.” He stopped short when he saw Claire scowling 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.”
That sounded great but I knew things were not right. Every time I'd passed his study that morning, I'd noticed him looking for something by 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 and there were no ashtrays in their flat. Why was he looking for that? Also, my aunt always closed the door behind her whenever the phone rang.
I recoiled when he approached my armchair. Before sitting down, he said, “Karen...Do you play golf?”
“No. I'll give it a go though, but 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 transactions on the golf course. Quite often we discuss strategies and come up with plans." I was tempted to switch off but I let him carried on. Why was he talking in such a hurried manner? Most of the details were beyond me but it was only polite to feign interest. "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. I know this is one of the gangster groups most feared in Japan."
"That's right, they have a special code."
"I know, "I interrupted. "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. Foreigners are excluded."
Uncle Richard cleared his throat again, but said nothing. Why had he mentioned this group's golf course all of a sudden?
This confirmed what I had thought at first about my relations' odd behaviour earlier on. I really wondered how the next few days would be like.

I knew that 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. They were 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 whilst 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. As I stepped out, I noticed a puddle reflecting a single cloud in the sky. I breathed in the fresh smell of damp earth. 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. I could see a stone path leading to the main building with its slanted roof and turned up corners.
My attention was diverted when a barefoot attendant greeted us. Dressed in a dyed-blue cotton top and tight trousers, I noticed he lacked his little finger in his right hand. That means he must have been a member of the Yamuni at one time, or maybe he still was, but I couldn't see any visible tattoo marks on his thin body. Anyway, there was no time to look more closely as my aunt nudge me. We both saw him frowning at us as he looked down at our feet.
Aunt Claire said quickly, “We’re meant to take off our shoes.”
How strange. She'd been living in Japan for some time now, so why 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 of the outside. Aunt Claire pointed at the mats.
“We have to sit on those. They're called tatami” she whispered, but hastened to sit down on one of them when we both saw the attendant glaring at her. Why? She wasn’t making that much noise and there were no other visitors? That wasn't fair especially as earlier on, I'd seen him talking with enthusiasm, to someone on his mobile phone. To top it all, 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 so much 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 soil covered floor. I held back a giggle when I saw that all of them had breasts like women. I was sure that it would have taken many ages for to tie their black hair in a pony-tail, and fix it with what looked like a pin or tied in a bow. Those who had managed it made them look like Minnie Mouse. Eager to share my amusing observation, I touched my aunt’s arm.
“Ssshhh...Just watch...” she whispered quickly 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 for several seconds, 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 I could tell she didn't want to talk.
I expected to hear great heaving sounds or groaning, but there were none. 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. Leaning towards my aunt, I said softly, “I know I couldn’t do that myself,” but she didn't answer and 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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