The section below was written about 6 years ago, during an early attempt to turn the comic concept into prose. This was back when the story of Tsurizao and Seijun WAS the story; now it’s a memory in the larger story.
His first memory is the rod.
Bourne on the father’s back through a stillness of trees. Crouched beside a stream on hand and knee. The boy’s fingers enliven soft silt, burrowing under a bank of wet pebbles and clay. Nearby the father unearths stalks of bamboo and tests them for strength. He lets the boy pluck off the leaves. The stripped rod will bring fish. Fish are wet because they come from the water. Slippery is the nature of the spirit of the fish.
The mother plays a game. She throws a cloth over the boy’s face, and his body stiffens in the dark. He does not think the world has vanished, but that he has vanished from the world. His inner light is not yet bright enough to compel him and only when she pulls the cloth away does he remember he is a boy. He sees her smile and makes a mirror of it.
The father teaches him the way of the fish. This is how you bend the rod. This is how you wind the silk. The false fly is made from the scales of the fish. The barb clings to the silk, hidden between scales.
The father tells him that a fly is attracted to water and light. The fly is born from the water and is bound for the sun, caught on the air between past and future. At midday the swarms ascend, summoned by the overpowering noon, but in the evening they long to return to the water and are drawn back to the river that spawned them. The darkness of the water. The stillness of the shroud. The rare fly who reaches the sun will become one of the midnight stars. His mother tells him that when a fish eats a fly, the fly must return to water, but the fly that avoids the fish might still be eaten by a bird and will become the bird. The fish who is eaten by a man will become the man.
His mother makes a face. His father makes a face. His mother slits the belly of the fish and removes the intestines. The boy touches his tummy, trying to feel his own.
He is given his first knife and his mother sings the transaction. She tells him every new thing is sung into being. The knife cuts him because he is not careful. His blood is more red than the fish’s blood. His mother sings to the cut and in time it begins to heal. A tooth is lost, but it grows back bigger and stronger. If that tooth is lost it will not grow back, his mother says. His father says striking the head of the fish against a rock will stop the life of the fish. Moments after sunset is the best time to stop a life. Then the spirit can immediately follow the dying light into the other world. If you kill a fish in the morning, its ghost will linger above the water and warn the other fish that someone is hunting them.
Tengu is the mountain goblin, his mother says. If you see him on the road he may pretend to look like a man. Your eyes cannot recognize him in the dim light. If you call out and he does not answer then it is Tengu and he is hunting you, and you must run home to me at once.
When he is older, his father takes the boy to the village to learn how to use the nets. His father does not use a net. The men laugh at his method. They have never seen anyone fish with a rod and a string. But they like him. They are amazed that he can catch fish this way.
But you cannot catch very many, they say.
I can catch enough, his father says.
His mother tells him about the gods. Amaterasu is the queen of the sun. Her brother Susanoo is the king of the storm. Susanoo cannot be tamed, and Amaterasu mourns for him. Once she hid in a cave and did not come out for many days. Then the other gods conspired and told her that they had found the most beautiful thing in the world. When she peeked out from the cave they held up a mirror. Amaterasu was enchanted by her own beauty and returned to shine upon the world. The Emperor is the son of her son.
Does the Emperor catch fish? asks the boy.
No, his mother says. The fish give themselves to him.
Sometimes warriors march through the village. His mother hates them. She bows low as they pass and scribbles cursed symbols in the sand at their feet. Warriors killed her family with swords. If she had not gone to live with the boy’s father they would have killed her too. Never be a warrior, Tsurizao, she says, and makes him promise.
What will I be? He asks.
You will be a fisherman, she says. Your father has learned a new way to fish. You, too, will fish this way, and teach others to fish this way.
The Father shows him how to hold the rod. Fists together, elbows up. Grip between the thumb and first finger. The other fingers must remain gentle as if holding a bird. Move the rod back and forth until the fly finds motion in the air. The fly will follow the rod. Sway with your elbows and wrists. You must be as fluid as the river. Sway until the fly begins to move on its own. Then you will know the fly has borrowed some of your spirit and the fish will think it is a living fly and try to eat it. Cast toward the sky, not toward the water. Cast as if you were releasing the fly to the sun. Your movement gives life to the fly, and it will make its own way to the water. Otherwise the fish will know that you are controlling the fly and it will not bite.
The boy tries to move his arms the way he sees the father move his arms, but the tip of the rod splashes into the water.
You will learn.
A fish bites the father’s fly, and the father hands the rod to the boy. Lead it to the shore. Keep the line tight. Keep control. Lead it slowly into your hand.
This is the first fish the boy has taken from the water. The Father tells him to strike the fish against the rock and release its spirit. The boy does not want to and he cries. His skin tingles and his belly feels hollow and hungry. He remembers a time when he fell and hit his own head on the ground and how much it hurt. The boy thought he would die it hurt so much. The Father scolds the boy but the boy cannot do what his father wants him to do. He cries and throws the fish back into the stream. The ripples from the splash bind this moment to the shore and the Father watches the fish wiggle and vanish.
He smiles. You will learn.
Her first memory is the rod.
The big man comes at her and she is not afraid. The pain is something she was always used to. He means to kill her this time, she thinks, but she does not know how she knows. His robe is loose. He smells sweet like fruit about to turn. The rod flails, striking her at random. She makes a game of silent guesses about where the next blow will land. When her guess is right it seems to hurt less. Sometimes he stops and a blankness falls over his eyes and he drops the rod. Then he sits for hours without moving. Sometimes it is the woman that stops him. She is the girl’s savior, saving the girl for herself.
The girl plays in the sun. She builds huts of mud and smashes them with rocks. The woman prepares food, and throws the scraps at the girl. Eat it, she says. She becomes a screaming thing. Eat it! When the girl finally takes a bite the woman runs to her, falls on her knees, and pulls the bad thing out of her mouth and hugs her and cries.
The little girl can tell when the storm is coming. She feels it and hides. The storm breaks across the back of the woman, or the great man, or both. When he does not attack her, she attacks him. They mean to kill each other, she thinks, but she does not know why. She has never eaten fish. She eats millet and sometimes an onion.
Love is shrieks and tears. Hate is fists and the rod. Sometimes love is worse than hate. He holds a metal thing that he stabs into the wall. Sometimes he pushes it into his skin. He is powerful who can turn stone into water. She learns how to do this with rocks from the ground. She learns that it is not the stone that turns to water, but herself. She does it every day until it no longer causes pain. She smells the blood. Tastes the blood.
Tengu is the mountain goblin, the woman says. If you see him on the road he will eat you. If he catches you he will eat you. If you do not do what I say, he will eat you.
The girl grows older. She lies alone in the dark. She does not sleep anymore. In the darkness she gathers all her senses, holding them close to her skin, and dreams that she is a fox or a rabbit: sometimes killing, sometimes killed. She dreams she is Tengu and that she is eating the woman. The woman turns to water in her mouth. She never eats the man. The man eats her even though she is Tengu.
He has been gone many days. The woman says he will never come back, but he does. When he comes back he is not a body anymore. He is only a voice. He is the sound of wood cracking, pottery shattering. He is the voice of the woman. He is invisible and he is inside her, throwing her around the room. She cannot scream him out. The woman puts the metal into her arms, her breasts, her face. More blood than the girl has ever seen.
In the morning the woman’s body is cold. It will not move unless the girl pushes it and makes it move. There is no part of the hut that is not smeared with blood.
In time the little girl must eat. She can no longer recognize the woman on the floor. The girl is a fox and the woman is a rabbit. She must eat.
The great man comes again at night. This time he is in his own body. He is startled by what he sees. He stares at the fox with a look she has never seen before. He raises a large stone above the fox’s head. But the fox is still hungry.
Monks find the girl in the woods, thin, savage, too weak to struggle. She stops chewing on her fingers and eats the rice they give her. They put her in a wooden cage and take her out of the forest for the first time in her life. The smell of the sea calms her, and she no longer tries to break out of the cage. The ocean is a shroud across the deep. The sight of it is enough to keep her still for hours. Watching through the bamboo rods the wild white waves. Watching.
She is six years old.