From “The Stag ”
by Cynthia Reeves
They say that there are no such things as ghosts. I don't believe that anymore. Ghosts are everywhere. Sometimes I think the past is a ghost. I can tell you, for example, how I met Aiko—or how I remember meeting her.
I can say I'd wandered the streets of Tokyo during Obon, a time when all of Japan welcomed the dead with lighted paths of red paper lanterns, when it seemed the whole city swayed to music drifting from hidden loudspeakers, when incense burned in untended pots at the portals to Buddhist shrines and ruby-colored light pooled like stepping stones along the darkened streets.
I can say I walked in and out of puddles of light, sometimes alone down little-used alleys, sometimes carried along the main streets by crowds of people, until I came to a park where a wooden platform had been erected. Upon the platform was a troupe of professional dancers dressed in kimonos, geishas whose painted faces shone like moons replicating themselves in the dark. Only these dark-eyed moons moved through the night, and the crowds surrounding the platform moved with them. I didn't understand what I was watching but was intoxicated nonetheless by thousands moving as one.
I can say there was a group of young girls, their soft black hair swaying as they danced, their bodies outlined by white kimonos, as if they themselves were flowers, undulating lilies. I was a man, 22, alone, and so I watched. I stood apart from the crowd, leaning on a cane, favoring the leg that hadn't been burned. I was in uniform, but the uniform wasn't important. It was what I had to wear. I hadn't died. I wouldn't be maimed for life. I'd done nothing heroic. I'd recover.
I can say I became aware of a person just behind me, or rather just below me, his head at my elbow. Perhaps he was drawn to the same group of girls. They were in their way more beautiful than the geishas, more intoxicating in their simplicity and innocence. The man said something. I turned to tell him I didn't speak the language. He held a yellow silk scarf, frayed at the edges, and soiled. The scarf formed a pouch in his fist. At first, I couldn't guess what was inside and didn't care. My eyes were drawn instead to his wheeled cart. He had no legs; he wore the remnants of a military uniform. I turned away from him. He spoke again, this time more insistently, and opened his pouch to me. Inside were small coins, perhaps a dozen of them. I reached inside my pocket, fingered a couple of worthless coins, and tossed them into his pouch. He bowed to me, Arrigato, arrigato. I felt fraudulent. I'd given him a couple of pennies' worth merely to make him disappear. The night's incense didn't mask the odor coming from his clothing.
I can say it was then I heard her small voice in front of me. When I turned around, one of the young dancing girls stood before me. She said something in Japanese. I shook my head. She pointed behind me and repeated the words.
I said the few words of Japanese I could speak. "I don't understand."
"The ghost soldier," she said in her inflected English.
I told her it was only a beggar. She touched the sleeve of my uniform and said again, "Ghost soldier." I knew it was a rare gesture, a Japanese woman touching a stranger.
Yes, I said. I saw the soldier. And yet, when I turned around, he was gone. What was left was the music of coins and the odor that persisted in the night.
I could say, then, that I met Aiko on the day when the dead lived among us. But I didn't believe in ghosts. I didn't believe that restless souls needed guidance to the afterlife. I didn't even believe in God.
I did, however, believe in signs. Just as I turned back to Aiko, the first of the fireworks burst in a red and gold fountain over her head. We looked up together in silence. Her hand was still on my sleeve. We said nothing until the show was over. The detonations reverberated in our ears, slowly dissipating. She let go of my sleeve, bowed formally, and told me her name.
I said I was Charlie, but she couldn't pronounce it, the "r" and the "1" tripping on her tongue. She put her hand up to her mouth and laughed. Then her face became serious, and she said, "It is just . . . my father tells me the ghost soldiers do not exist. He says they are dead."
This was 1967. For more than 20 years, these men must have made their living, begging on street corners, shining shoes, whatever they could do to earn a little money. What her father meant was they should have died in the war.
"You are kind to give them money. They are difficult to look at."
I wanted to tell her that it wasn't kindness; sometimes it was easier to drop a coin in an outstretched hand than to outwait the beggar. Instead I simply nodded and smiled, and let the moment pass.
We spent the next several months together. I was recuperating at the Army Burn Center , undergoing physical therapy that would eventually allow me to regain full use of my leg. Aiko worked as a check-in clerk at the front desk of a Tokyo hotel. The rush and heat of August gave way to autumn. Life slowed; we walked through Tokyo 's parks, hidden amidst skyscrapers and the cacophony of traffic and people. We spent countless hours in Rukigien, pausing to rest on the stone benches, watching the flash of golden carp and the slow movement of turtles in the large central pond. She told me some day she'd have a garden like this.
"Not exactly like this," she said, laughing. "All one needs is water and stone, yin and yang, a few trees, a bridge."
She thought I'd leave her behind when I left Japan . And at first, I thought I would, too. The stronger I became, the longer our walks, the more imminent my departure. Following the paths around the central pond, she'd explain that the miniature landscapes were meant to reflect famous Japanese tanka. I'd listen to her recite poems, first in Japanese, and then her loose English translations. There are certain lines that come to mind when I'm falling asleep without her. Lines that meant little to me then now remind me of Aiko's voice or the particular way her black hair fell across her white cheek.
"If you miss me, come look for me at the gate where cedars stand," she said one afternoon at the entrance to the Togetsukyo Bridge ….
by Stephen C. Behrendt
The field beside us, lying south, is devastated:
sewer lines splay their crooked fresh veins across red earth
flattened by artifice of backhoe and bulldozer
where corn traded space with beans on undulating expanses
for decades in sun-warmed homesteaded fields.
The last remains of little sloping watercourses
lie in ruins, willows and scrub oaks snapped and shattered
by diesel-powered developers' engines, yellow and rusty,
their jagged shards pointing, accusing, at the sharp blue sky,
their cropped and drooping branches weeping withered leaves.
Now houses must go in, it seems, the animals retreat
as they always must, who lived here, fed and slept
among the crops, the hollows, passed at dusk along the ridgeline:
the wary deer with outspread ears, watchful, cautious;
coyotes passing in the dark, singing in the pasture.
Even the orioles will go now, the cottonwood reduced to rubble
where they hung their basket nests every year
and called like chimes at daybreak.
Each deer we see, like the fresh fawn my daughter spied at dawn,
may be the last on this land, this little shelter we hold against the tide
and will leave this summer, migrating eastward from the sprawl.
The animals will find other haunts, other shade,
will crop meagre neighborhood gardens, leave tracks and scat,
rattle in the dark the cans and boxes, the stacked refuse
that sustains in moonless, rainy summer darkness
their furtive, furry spirits along night's margins.
Jeremiah Ostriker, From “ Silk Road ” and “ Cochin ”