Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The family shrine

I rode my bicycle up the hill in a low gear, hauling my life in the attached carrier behind me. The journey was all the more arduous through the carpet of leaves, a crimson and bright yellow blur that obscured the road's cracking concrete and lined the entire way into Sengokuhara. Rain began to fall as I hit a small flat, and I stripped off my shirt and pushed on, enjoying the cool drops on my back and the slight autumn breeze that shook the trees and brought even more leaves to the ground.

By the time I crested the final rise and came into town my lungs burned and head swam. I walked my bike the first few blocks past rusted tour buses and cars abandoned this same season ten years before, when the leaves fell, people came to watch, and the world ended. Abandoned storefronts lined with shattered windows were long picked-over, and I didn't even bother stopping to wade through overturned shelves in the rotting carcass of what once was.

About a mile into town I crossed a bride over a small creek, only to stop short when I reached the other side. Behind me, leaves spread wildly and swirled in the wind. Ahead, they formed orderly piles along the road's edge. Not far ahead, a frail, hunched woman holding a long push-broom beckoned to me.

"Did you do all this?" I asked.

"It wasn't so hard," she said in slow, halting English. "Little bit every day. Keeps up the strength."

She held out her and I took it. Her skin was thin like paper, but the strength of her grip startled me as she squeezed my hand. I squeezed back.

"Come with me," she said, letting go of my hand. "You must be tired."

I pulled my shirt back on and we walked along the road. Decaying houses collapsing under trees and seasons of neglect rose high into the hills to our left. Opposite, streets still covered with leaves led the way to massive temples of stone that gave way to rolling hills that led to the base of Mt. Fuji.

"Stopped at the bridge, but I still have a ways to go to get to the cemetery and my family's shrine," she said.

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