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July 2013, vol 9, no 2

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Suzanne Marshall

Return to Fukushima

With light pack and heavy heart, I set out on the eve of Obon, Festival of the Dead, to return to the burial place of my ancestors. A secret path through dark woods, beyond checkpoints and roads, leads me into a forbidden land shaken by earthquake and wave, poisoned by man's hand. The moon, hazy and full in the August sky, serves as my lantern. Pines whisper above me as I journey along the meandering path. At the forest edge, I rest on my staff and gaze down to the hollow below. No lights flicker in my village, only the moon through branches above.

moonshadows of pine
compass needles in the night
point my return home

I feel my way down a familiar path to the village, and, by moonlight, unlock the metal shutters guarding my tatami shop. Unused for months, the shutters rattle and crash, shatter the stillness as I push them above my head. I unlace my boots, feel cool stones as I step into the shop. Slipping off my gauze mask, I drink in the sweet smell of omote rushes. Reed mats wait, stacked along walls, one unfinished on the sewing table. Brushing past wood shavings, cobwebs, and dust, I climb the stairs to my room. My futon welcomes me into a sleep twisted with ghosts. At first light, I wake to soft stirrings on the floor.

cockroaches skitter
across the tatami mat
this year's Oban dance

The streets of my village are cracked, motor bikes and cars abandoned by the side. Shops crouch, untended, doors hanging from frames, debris littering the yards. An old Akita waits on a porch for people who do not return. Bony cats fade in and out of shadows. I pass the convenience store cluttered with newspapers and headlines of terror, the restaurant with plastic models of lunchtime specials covered by dust and dead flies. No Oban celebration this year, no smell of grilled eel, no drum beats or wooden clappers.

a fanfare of feathers
swaggers down the deserted street
one stray rooster

The day grows oppressive as I walk into the countryside. The incessant chirr of cicadas rises and falls, sizzling in the summer air. Sunflowers line the road, planted by priests to absorb the poison in our soil. Beyond, fields lie withered and unkempt. Yellowing weeds tangle with hedge flowers gone wild. I stop beside a farmhouse, persimmons rotting on the drive, release my mask, soaked with hot breath and sweat, and choke on the stench surrounding me. In their pens, carcasses of cattle lie side by side.

crows bob sleek black heads
haggle over decayed flesh
maggots feed in silence

I hurry past the farmland, through waves of pampas grass, soft and gleaming, and climb into the hills, up stone steps, cracked and covered with ivy. Sunlight slants low through bamboo as crickets begin their evening song. The air is thick and misty in this sacred place. Stone graves, embellished with blossoms of lichen and moss, crowd together in shadow. I pull weeds, brush away dry leaves, fill a bowl with fresh water from my canteen, and lay an offering of apple seeds and bell-flowers. As the sun fades in a red smear behind distant mountains, I light a stick of incense. Overcome with weariness, I weep for my ancestors. I weep too for the living held captive in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts.

fireflies flicker
paper lanterns floating down
the river of the dead