Medoruma Shun (Tr. By Kyle Ikeda)
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The story’s dilemma revolves around trying to remove a hermit crab that has entered the mouth of the unconscious Kôtarô, a local fisherman-farmer, without injuring him. As the days progress, no one is able to figure out how to safely remove the creature, let alone why it has entered Kôtarô’s body, that is until the village priestess encounters a spawning sea-turtle on the beach, triggering an epiphany and buried war memories from the Battle of Okinawa that took place over fifty years ago. Set in the remote countryside of Japan’s southernmost prefecture of Okinawa, where traditional religious and folk beliefs still have relevance to daily life, “Mabuigumi” depicts the slow but steady changes that accompany the promise of resort development and investment from mainland Japan.
Uta was sitting in the open veranda gazing at the brilliance of her dew-drenched garden grow brighter in the morning sun when the radio calisthenics music flowed in from the community center. She sneered a “humph” and, with a chunk of raw sugar in her mouth, sipped her tea. The tradition of the elderly starting the day with a cup of tea before moving around had been passed down for generations, but the Senior Citizens’ and the Children’s associations began holding morning calisthenics together in front of the community center in early April. They claimed the sessions were for things such as encouraging interaction between children and seniors or for an “Early to Bed, Early to Rise” campaign. A month after the sessions began, wearing exercise outfits that didn’t look right on them at all, members of the Senior Citizens Association were merrily making their way to calisthenics and urging Uta to join them. No matter how hard they tried, however, she curtly responded “Wa ne ikan” (I won’t go) and continued with her morning tea.
Initially, the music for radio calisthenics was played through a large loudspeaker on the roof of the community center, and Uta had stormed into the center office to complain about the excessive noise. However, Kawakami, the chubby, middle-aged president of the Children’s Association, who was wearing a baseball cap, just smiled and paid no attention to her. So, Uta went home, retrieved a reaping sickle from under the eaves of her house and returned to the community center. She then forced her way through the children in the public square doing calisthenics, and started to climb the telephone pole to cut the wire to the loudspeaker. In a panic, Kawakami quickly turned the speaker off; thereafter, the music played directly from a radio. Although the noise continued to disrupt the early morning peace, out of regard for the children Uta compromised and left the matter at that.
Only children showed up in the beginning, but about a week later, five or six older folks started coming. By the end of the second week, both children and seniors filled the empty lot. One of the former teachers who had gone around encouraging the elderly to participate was Ôshiro, a retired principal on the board of education. On the way home from calisthenics one day, he collapsed in front of his house and passed on to gusô, the afterlife. Chû no iu koto o kikan kara ya sa (That’s what happens when you don’t listen to people), Uta thought to herself as she stood at the edge of her garden, watching a line of cars crawl toward the crematorium down the narrow hamlet road.
She expected this to bring an end to calisthenics, and for a while there was a decline in attendance. It wasn’t long, however, before more people were coming than before and the sessions were thriving. She understood why her fellow seniors would want to be around young children like their grandchildren—like her, half of the elderly participants lived alone. Nevertheless, she continued her boycott.
The piano music for the radio calisthenics was just changing to the second set when Uta’s neighbor Fumi came rushing through the entrance in the stone fence surrounding Uta’s home. Going around an old pile of stones that was the hinpun—a barrier to keep out bad spirits—Fumi suddenly cried out “Big sister!” and grabbed Uta.
Surprised to see Fumi so close to tears, Uta replied, “Nû ya ga, ittai. Asa nâ kara?” (What in the world’s the matter, this early in the morning!?)
“Ane, nêsan. Onegai ya koto, yâ made kimi sôre.” (Big sister, please, I need you to come to my house.)
“Hâ mate mate, une, chan ippai ya nonde kara” (Okay, okay. Wait a minute, at least after a cup of tea), Uta replied, and began pouring.
Fumi grabbed Uta’s hand and forcefully dragged her down from the veranda.
“Ane, nû ya ga. Zôri mo kundeoran shiga.” (What’re you doing? I haven’t even put on my flipflops yet.)
As Uta scrambled to put her yellow rubber sandals on, Fumi grabbed her by the wrist and began walking down the street, kicking up the white sand that covered the road. Fumi’s house was less than twenty meters away, and they arrived before either could say a word. Fumi went through the front door and pulled Uta into the inner part of the house.
Sitting in front of the closed door to the back room were Kentarô and Tomoko who looked anxiously at Uta. Brother and sister, the two were in elementary school in the third and first grade and Uta loved them as if they were her own grandchildren. When she saw their faces, Uta became serious. Fumi let go of her wrist and slowly opened the door.
The fluorescent light was on and the sliding shutters were closed. In the middle of the four-and-a-half-mat room, snoring lightly with a terrycloth blanket on his abdomen, lay Kôtarô.
“Did he have a stroke?”
Fumi silently shook her head No. Uta sat down next to Kôtarô’s head, placed her hand on his forehead, and took his pulse. Both temperature and pulse were normal. Although there was a little sweat on his brow, the expression on his sleeping face was peaceful, and nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary.
“Nû ga, dâ no wassa ga?” (What is it? What’s wrong?)
Fumi sat silently, her eyes filling with tears, and Uta became annoyed.
As she looked at Kôtarô’s peacefully sleeping face, Uta silently cursed Fumi, thinking how helpless she was for someone in her forties with two children, especially considering how proud she was that her ancestors had been members of the Shuri privileged class. Kôtarô’s hair was thinning noticeably for someone who had only recently entered his fifties, yet the ruddy complexion of his face was health itself.
Just yesterday Kôtarô, a farmer-fisherman, had brought her some freshly caught gurukun and spoken with her for close to an hour. After Kôtarô lost his parents in the war, he had been raised by his grandmother, Kamadâ, and from the time he was a small child, Uta, who lived next door, had always treated him with affection. Uta had no children and her husband, Seiei, had disappeared during the war, so she had lived the years afterward alone and thought of Kôtarô as her own child. Kôtarô, sensing this, thought dearly of Uta as well and always returned her affection.
Rubbing his cheek as she looked him over, she thought to herself, Mata mabui no ochiteoru yasa ya. (He’s lost his mabui (spirit) again, hasn’t he.) Perhaps it was because he had lost both parents as an infant, but from the time he was a toddler throughout his childhood Kôtarô had often lost his mabui. He would become startled or overwhelmed with fright at the slightest thing and become listless. This would happen five or six times a year, whether it be after falling from a tree or nearly drowning in the ocean, and then either Kamadâ or Uta would perform a mabuigumi to return his spirit to his body. As might be expected, after he reached adulthood, it happened less frequently. But even so, every two or three years he would lose his mabui and Uta would be called.
“Matan mabui otoshiteoru gotoku aru mun na.” (It looks like Kôtarô’s lost his mabui again.)
So don’t make such a big fuss out of nothing, she thought to herself, looking down and shaking her head slightly as she addressed Fumi. Right when she was about to say “Ittai nû ya ga” (I wonder what caused it), she suddenly realized that something black was sticking out of Kôtarô’s nostrils. At first she thought it might be nose hair, but then it jerked back all of a sudden. Next it poked out about three centimeters from between his lips, moving in small choppy movements around the area of his cheek and jaw as if searching for something. While Uta was looking on in astonishment, two eyes the shape of matchstick heads thrust out of Kôtarô’s mouth and some teeth came into view. A purplish-gray claw wrenched open his mouth, and a large âman (land hermit crab) about the size of an adult’s fist popped out. Overcome by the sight, Uta forgot herself for a moment. Shaking, she reached for a nearby fly swatter and swung it with all her might. The âman moved like lightning. At the snap of the swatter, it had already dived into Kôtarô’s mouth. He stopped snoring, and she noticed a red mesh-net pattern on the skin around his nose and mouth.
“Big sister!” Fumi called out to her.
When their eyes met, Fumi put her face to the floor and wept bitterly. Uta let her cry for about five minutes and then asked her what had happened.
Kôtarô was rather fond of liquor and playing the sanshin, and after warming up with a few drinks during supper, he would frequently go down to the seashore by himself and play his sanshinsinging Okinawan folk songs. Because he was the utasâ for the Eisâ Bon Festival and the village dance that took place once every four years, many of the villagers looked forward to hearing his sweet voice floating into their hamlet through the mokumaô grove.
He had gone down to the shore to sing the night before as well, and when she heard the music stop, sometime after ten o’clock, Fumi went out to the beach to get him. As usual he had fallen into a comfortable inebriated slumber, and she ended up placing her slender husband—who weighed only half the typical man—on her back and carrying him home. She had put him to bed in the back room, which they used as a bedroom, and, although she had slept next to him, it wasn’t until the following morning that she realized something was wrong. When she woke up, she casually looked over at him and saw a black mass resting on his mouth. Still half asleep, she couldn’t quite make out what it was, even though sunlight was coming through the slits in the sliding shutters. She sat up, rubbed the sleep from her eyes, and took a good look. Two tiny eyes, the shape of matchstick heads, met her gaze. For a moment, she froze, and then she leaped backward. With her bottom still on the floor, she kept backing away. Clinging to a pillar, she rose to her feet and pulled open the shutters. Exposed to a shaft of sparkling light glittering with dust, the âman disappeared into Kôtarô’s mouth. But before long, it appeared again, waving its feelers.
“Aiê nâ! Dêji natteoru mon!” (Aaaahh! This is terrible!)
Fumi gingerly reached out for the light cord, which was hanging directly over her husband, and pulled. The âman held its two pincers over its head as if to block the light, and looked at her. Afraid it might run loose, she quietly moved along the wall to the door and left the room. That was when she ran to Uta’s house.
While Uta was listening to Fumi struggle through tears to tell the story, she watched the âman, its feelers in constant motion, extend its claw to Kôtarô’s lower jaw. The creature before her eyes seemed to be some kind of hermit crab, but it was two or three times larger than normal. The âman that drag their swirling African and Turban shells through adan thickets and fields near the seashore were, at their largest, about the size of a child’s fist, and their thick claws just strong enough to snap a pair of disposable chopsticks. Surely, she reasoned, with a body this large, it must have had a hard time finding a big enough shell. Even so, to force itself into a person’s mouth seemed rather brazen.
“Hassa, e, ufuchu no fûji mo nai. Nâ, nakan ke. Warabi mo iru noni, iyâ ga shikkarisan nê, châ su ga.” (Come now, you’re an adult. Don’t cry. You’ve got two kids, you have to be strong.)
She took a flannel handkerchief out of her pocket and handed it to Fumi.
“Kôtarô wa mabui o ochiteoru mun. Yakoto, jibun no karada o mamoru koto mo kanawande âman ni hairareteoru sa.Yashiga, shiwasuna. Mabui no mudurinê, âman mo sugu ni deteikiyoru. Wan ga sugu ni mabuigumi surukoto yo. Shibashi matteore.” (Thing is, Kôtarô’s lost his mabui. Since he can’t protect himself, that âman was able to climb into his mouth. Don’t worry, though. When his mabui returns to his body, the âman will leave right away. It won’t be long before I put his mabui back, so just hang in there.)
As she said this, she began to remove Kôtarô’s T-shirt. Fumi, keeping one eye on the âman as it scurried hastily back into Kôtarô’s mouth, nervously helped her.
The mabuigumi ritual that had long been passed down in the village wasn’t very complicated. First, the person performing the mabuigumi goes to the place where the mabui fell out, taking a piece of clothing worn at the time of the detachment. After offering prayers and placing three small stones in the clothing, the person brings the bundle back home, offers another prayer, and puts the afflicted party’s clothing back on. Then, the “lost” mabui would return to its original body, and the exhausted and dazed person regain his vitality.
Uta removed Kôtarô’s pale blue T-shirt, which reeked of sweat and was stained with fish blood and soil, carefully folded it, put it under her arm, and stood up. She confirmed with Fumi where Kôtarô had been sleeping on the beach and left the back room. Sitting by the entrance, hugging their knees to their chests, were Kentarô and Tomoko. Giving them a reassuring smile, Uta patted the two on the head, and urged Fumi to quickly make their breakfast and send them off to school.
Uta went straight home after leaving Fumi’s house. In her kitchen she gathered up the items for use as an offering —sake, rice, and a tray—and bundled them up in a square cloth. She boiled some more water, made a pot of tea, and placed some as an offering on the family Buddhist altar. She then lit and placed incense on the altar, put her hands together in prayer, and drank two cups of tea. After feeding the chickens and the goat, she grabbed her cloth-wrapped bundle and left the house.
The narrow road between the fukugi trees and the stone fence was covered with white sand and led to a grove of mokumaô that extended out for about a hundred meters along the seashore acting as tidewater control. An ocean so blue that it looked as if it had just been born that morning filled the spaces between the tree trunks. When Uta reached the grove full of noisily chirring cicadas, she turned towards the sea, brought her hands together, and came out from under the shade of the trees. She proceeded on foot over the dazzling white sand and came to an adan thicket just beyond the end of the mokumaô grove. In front of the thicket stood a lone hamasûki, its graceful branches like those of an old pine tree. Its leaves, which were shaped like rabbit ears and felt like velvet, swayed in the wind. The shade of the hamasûki was just the right place for an afternoon nap, and Kôtarô frequently played his sanshin there.
Uta approached the tree and noticed a solitary man sitting in its shade, wearing a pale blue T-shirt. As she stared at his profile she thought, “Moshi ya!” (It just might be him!) When she got closer, she saw that indeed it was Kôtarô’s mabui. She sat down next to it, let out a deep breath, and let the breeze blow in through her collar.
Though the ritual was called mabuigumi, for the most part it was nothing more than a few words of reassurance to ease someone’s anxiety. In most cases, it was spoken as a charm to restore a child’s vigor after he was startled or tired out. Every once in a while, however, someone really did lose or become detached from their mabui. This time, she suspected, was probably a genuine detachment, considering that an âman had entered Kôtarô’s body. Nevertheless, she was nervous. It had been a while since she had last seen a mabui, and besides, this one belonged to Kôtarô.
Kôtarô’s mabui was gazing at the ocean with a blank expression. His face was suntanned from working out at sea and in the field, and his close-trimmed hair and stubby beard were streaked with gray. His head was resting on his knees, which he had drawn to his chest, while his arms hugged his legs. Unlike the unending smile Kôtarô typically wore or his usually pleasant demeanor, his mabui somehow looked sad.
She looked toward the ocean and gazed at it for a while with Kôtarô. She didn’t see anything unusual, however, just the dazzling white of scattering sunlight glistening on the sea.
“Ane, Kôtarô. Fumi mo Kentarô mo Tomoko mo shiwashiteoru yo. Hêku, yâ ni mudoran na.” (Hey, Kôtarô, Fumi, Kentarô, and Tomoko are all worried, I tell you. Hurry up and come home already.)
Though she called out to Kôtarô this way, he didn’t respond. She spread out the square cloth she had prepared, put a small helping of rice on the tray, and filled the sake cup with awamori. With a hundred-yen lighter, she lit some sticks of incense, planted them in the sand, and sat up straight. Bringing her hands together and staring intently at Kôtarô’s profile, she intoned a prayer in a faint, murmuring voice.
Medoruma Shun (Tr. By Kyle Ikeda) is a novelist and essayist from Okinawa, Japan. His prize-winning story Droplets is available in English translation in Southern Exposure: Japanese Literature from Okinawa.
This story is included in issue #40: Animals. Copyright © 2007 by Fiction International. Authors of individual works retain copyright, with the restriction that subsequent publication of any text be accompanied by notice of prior publication in Fiction International. Please contact the editor for reprinting information.
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