Friday, 3 April 2015

To Bully A Wave

Have you ever tried to bully a wave? Punch it? Kick it? Hit it?Beat it to death wit a stick?


After old Jiko found my scars, she took me on an errand into town. On the way back, she wanted to stop and buy some rice balls and soft drinks and some chocolate treats. She had this idea that we could take the bus to the seaside and have a picnic there. I didn't particularly care, but she seemed to think it would be a big treat for me to eat store-bought food and play by the ocean, so I was like, whatever, you know, willing to go along because it's hard to disappoint someone who's a hundred and four years old.

Because of her cataracts, Jiko can't really walk very well, and she always carries a stick, but what she really likes is when you hold hands with her. I think holding her hand makes her feel more confident, and so I got into the habit of holding her hand when I was next to her, and to tell you the truth, I liked it. I liked the feeling of her thin little fingers in mine. I liked being the strong one, and keeping her tiny body close to me. It made me feel useful. When I wasn't there, she used her stick. I liked feeling more useful than a stick.

Before getting on the bus to the seaside, Jiko wanted to stop at the Family Mart in town to buy our picnic, but there happened to be a gang of yanki (a delinquent from the English Yankee; the popular image of yank is a tough juvenile delinquent with shaved eyebrows, wearing a long, brightly coloured garishly embroidered work coat called a tokko-fuku. The word tokko-fuku means "special attack uniform; these uniforms were issued to the Tokkotai, the Special Attack Force of kamikaze pilots during World War II) girls hanging out in the parking lot in front, so I lied and said I wasn't hungry. They were speed-tribe biker chicks, with bleached orange and yellow shaggy hair and baggy construction worker pants and big flapping lab coats that liked like the kind that doctors and scientists wear, only they weren't white. They were neon bright and graffitied all over with giant black kanji.

The girls were squatting on the pavement by the door, chewing gum and smoking. A couple of them were leaning on wooden swords, the kind you use for kendo, and, I was like, No way, Grandma, I'm really not hungry, but old Jiko had her heart set on making a picnic for me, so what could I do? I held her little hand real tight, and when we got near the girls, one of them spat and it landed at our feet, and then they started to say stuff. It was nothing I hadn't heard at school before, but it shocked me because of Jiko being so old, and how can you say rude stuff about manko (cunt, pussy) and chinchin (penis) to an old lady who is a nun? It took us forever to get past them because Jiko walks so slow and they were kind of blocking our way. They kept on shouting out and spitting and I could feel my heart racing and my face growing hot, even it old Jiko didn't bat an eyelid.

Finally we made it into the Family Mart. The whole time we were looking for rice balls and drinks and deciding whether to buy chocolate or sweet bean cakes for dessert, I kept looking through the window at the girls squatting outside the store. O knew that when we left they would say more stuff to us. Maybe they would throw things at us or trip us. Maybe they would follow us to the beach and get their boyfriends to rape us and beat us and throw our dead bodies into the ocean, or maybe they would just do the business themselves with their wooden swords. I'd gotten plenty of practice at school imagining this kind of thing happening to my own body so it didn't bother me that much, but the idea of someone hurting my old Jiko was brand new to my mind, and it made me feel like throwing up.

But old Jiko wasn't paying any attention. She was concentrating on selecting the flavours of our rice balls, and eventually she decided on sour plums, flavoured seaweed, and spicy cod roe. She wanted me to choose a chocolate treat, either Pocky or Melty Kisses or both, but how could I focus on something so unimportant? I had to protect us from our enemies outside the door, even if she was too old and blind to comprehend the danger we were in, and I was trying to calculate my chances of fighting off a dozen yanki bitches with serious sticks, when all I had was my pathetic little supapawa (superpower).

It took forever for Jiko to pay the cashier - you know how it is with old people and their coin purses - but I didn't mind, or offer to help. I was kind of hoping that maybe she would take all day, and by the time we'd finished, the gang would have gone, but no such luck. They were still there, squatting on the pavement, and the minute we walked out of the store, they kind of locked on to us, spitting and sizing us up. I tried to hurry Jiko past them, but you know old Jiko. She always takes her time.

The girls started calling out, and as we got closer their cries grew louder and more screechy, and a couple of the squatting ones got to their feet. I moved in front, but when we were even with them, suddenly old Jiko stopped. She turned to face them, peering as if she was noticing them for the first time, and then she tugged my hand and started shuffling in their direction.

I held back, whispering, "Dame do yo, Obaachama! Iko yo!" (no that's not good Grandma, let's go) but she didn't listen. She went up and stood right in front of them and gave them a long look, which is how she looks at everything. Long and steady, probably on account of the time it takes for an image to form through the milky lenses of her cataracts. The girls, in their neon-coloured pants and blue and orange and red mechanical coats with the big black kanji, must just have been a confusion of lines and bright colours to her eyes.

No one said anything. The girls were jutting out their chins and hips and shifting restlessly from side to side. Finally, I guess old Jiko understood what she was looking at. She dropped my hand and I held my breath. And then she bowed.

I couldn't believe it. It wasn't a little bow, either. It was a deep bow. The girls were, like, what the fuck? One of them, a fat girl squatting in front, kind of nodded back - not quite a bow, not completely respectful, but not a punch in the face either. But then the tall one in the middle, who was clearly the girl boss, reached over and gave the fat one a swift punch in the head.

"Nameten no ka!" she snarled. "Chutohampa nan do yo. Chanto ojigi mo dekinei no ka?" (Are you messing with me? That's half-assed. Can't you even bow properly?)

She smacked the fat girl once more, and then she stood up straight, put her palms together and bowed deeply from the waist. The rest of her crew jumped up and did the same. Jiko bowed to them again, and nudged me, so I bowed, too, but I did it half-assed, so she made me do it again, which made things even because now it was like old Jiko was the girl boss of our gang, and I was the fat screwup who couldn't bow properly. I didn't think this was so funny, but the gang bangers thought it was hilarious, and Jiko smiled, too, and then she took my hand and we walked on. When the bus came, Jiko sat by the window and looked back out at the parking lot.

"I wonder what omatsuri (festival) it is today?" she said.


"Yes," she said. "Those pretty young people, dressed up in their matsuri clothes. They look so gay. I wonder what the occasion is. Muji remembers these things for me..."

"It's not a matsuri! Those were gang bangers, Granny. Biker chicks. Yanki girls."

"They were girls?"

"Bad girls. Juvenile delinquents They were saying stuff. I thought they were going to beat us up."

"Oh no," Jiko said, shaking her head. "They were all dressed so nicely. Such cheerful colours."


"Have you ever bullied a wave?" Jiko asked me at the beach.

We had eaten rice balls and chocolate and were hanging out. Jiko was sitting on a small wooden bench and I was lying on the sand at her feet. The sun was beating down. Jiko had tied a damp white hand towel around her bald head and seemed as cool as cucumber in her grey pyjamas. I was hot and sweaty and feeling restless, but I hadn't brought a bathing suit and didn't really want to go for a swim. But that's not what she was asking.

"Bullied a wave?" I repeated. "No. Of course not."

"Try it. Go to the water and wait for the biggest wave and give it a punch. Give it a good kick. Hit it with a stick. Go on. I will watch." She handed me her walking stick.

There was no one around, except for a couple of surfers way down the beach. I took old Jiko's stick in my hand and walked and then ran to the edge of the ocean, waving it above my head like a kendo sword. The waves were big, breaking on the beach, and I ran into the first one that came at me, yelling kiayeeeee! like a samurai going into battle. I smacked the wave with the stick, cutting through it, but the water kept coming. I ran back up the beach and escaped, but the next one knocked me over. I got to my feet and attacked again and again, and each time the water crashed down on top of me, grinding me against the rocks and covering me with foam and sand. I didn't mind. The sharp cold felt good, and the violence of the waves felt powerful and real, and the bitterness of salt in my nose tasted harshly delicious.

Over and over, I ran at the sea, beating it until I was so tired I could barely stand. And then the next time I fell down, I just lay there and let the waves wash over me, and I wondered what would happen if I stopped trying to get back up. Just let my body go. Would I be washed out to sea? The sharks would eat my limbs and organs. Little fish would feed on my fingertips. My beautiful white bones would fall to the bottom of the ocean, where anemones would grow upon them like flowers. Pearls would rest in my eye sockets. I stood up and walked back to where old Jiko was sitting. She took the small towel from her head and handed it to me.

"Maketa," I said, throwing myself down in the sand. "I lost. The ocean won."

She smiled. "Was it a good feeling?"

"Mm," I said.

"That's good," she said. "Have another rice ball?"

(A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki)

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