Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The laughing men

I followed the woman until the road beneath our feet split into grooves wide enough to have your feet slip into them and touch the sandy dirt between the chunks, and then farther still until the cracked pavement gave way to a path of small pebbles, each roughly the same size, each polished and shining like a star. Clouds held back the moon, and the only light came from a wind-up electric lantern the woman wore about her neck that swung like a pendulum as she moved.

We approached a series of gates that marked the entryway to Sengokuhara Shrine on the town's western border. Painted various strengths of riotous candy apple red that refused to dull through weather and time, the wooden gates reflected the lantern's light like mirrors. Each time we went under a new one, I'd look up and and feel like an ant sneaking under a loose staple. They were remnants from a different time, placed by the spirits of our ancestors to remind us not to forget that faith held the world together long before us and would continue to do so long after our deaths.

The woman stopped at a small fountain at the edge of the shrine where she used a metal ladle to wash her hands and then mine with near-freezing water. Once clean, I tucked my hands into my coat pockets and followed onward along a dirt path lined with mossy rock and covered by a slick carpet of leaves of every conceivable color. Despite her age, she moved at speed because, even with only a weak yellow light as her guide, the trail's bends, divots, and steps were burned into her mind through years of repeated travel. I tried to follow her close, but fell behind as she sprung along the path and dipped beneath a distant rise. Blinking, I found myself in darkness and came to a standstill.

I took out my flashlight and switched it on only to lurch backward as the beam fell on a laughing man down on the ground. I spun around and there was another, eyes closed in hilarity, mouth and teeth wide in an irrevocable grin. They were statutes of course, buddhas paid for by the town's erstwhile residents over as many generations as the town used to exist. That didn't alleviate my surprise or the feeling that the men were somehow amused with my situation. I arced the flashlight across the hill that rose out of the path and saw dozens more ascending to the tree line hundreds of feet away, all waiting for me to notice them so they could laugh at a lost little man far from home, all wearing the faces of dead men and women who had not lived to see how the world changed.

Hearing movement up the train, I turned the flashlight and found the woman standing next to me. The lantern in her hands made a whirring sound as she wound it up until it flickered back to life.

"You must come now," she said. "The cemetery is this way."

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