He crumpled like an empty soda can into the seat marked ‘exit,’ with the Pacific Ocean stretched out far below the window as a bruised, black desert. He had only half paid attention to the safety notices on the instruction card jutting from the seat pocket in front of him. He figured that if anyone on this plane was depending on him to perform in a crisis, they were risking their lives for a non-starter.
In the empty seat next to him, he saw his father—a thin wisp of a man in Air Force dress blues. After thinking about it for a second, he knew that his father couldn’t wear his uniform on an international flight, since Dad always explained this fact every time they caught Delta Force on cable…
“Graham, my boy…” Dad leaned forward in his seat, resting his elbows on his knees. “Nelsons have always been fighters. Warrior-types. Look at me, at Pappy, your uncle Doug.”
Graham stared out the window, refusing to look at his father. When he closed his eyes, he saw the famous, celebrated photograph of his grandfather on the beaches of Inchon, his helmet looking askew and two sizes too big. He clutched a thick, powerful rifle, and the camera had caught him mid-stride, laterally crossing a dirt street with his head ducked low behind the points of his raised shoulders.
“This is about tradition, son! About being bigger than yourself and your little problems, boy, and doing something with your life for once!” When the plane hit some unexpected turbulence, Graham saw, reflected in the window, his father’s hand shoot out towards the back of the headrest but never actually connect.
Behind that, Graham saw Doug smiling at a camera from the opposite corner of a guard tower under the hot, Mekong sun. In his lap was a slim rifle he was rubbing with a dirty cloth—oiling it. As his father would read excerpts from Doug’s letters, Graham could see his uncle’s slim body buried to his armpits in swampy paddy water, the rifle above his head in a useless effort to keep it dry.
“Most of all, son…” His father’s eyebrows narrowed in the reflection. In this expression, Graham could see the news footage of Dad in the desert, and the way he would squint from the sun. On the tape, Dad had one hand over his eyebrows, while in the other he raised a pair of binoculars and looked out through them at jets taking off in the distance. The jets were held aloft by the afterburner kicking up a column of sand and smoke. “Most of all, I’d like to see you enlist to do right by me, and my brother and my father. I’d like to see you be a Nelson man, son—a fighter.”
When Graham finally pulled the stethoscope headphones from his ears, he couldn’t hear his father’s stiff arguments, but instead he heard the soft chirrups of the cabin around him—the clatter of fingers on keyboards, the mixture of snores that, when mixed together, sounded like surf sloshing on the shore.
After a second, the pilot’s voice broadcasted across the intercom. Sounding punchy, he announced that the flight had officially crossed the international dateline, and that you should be aware that today is now tomorrow, and we’ll have to turn this plane around to get to yesterday, so you should all adjust your watches accordingly. Enjoy the remainder of your flight.
He looked to the seat next to him. Dad dissipated, never really having been there in the first place, his gruff voice only echoing across the distance from yesterday—or the day before, he wasn’t sure anymore. It was a cacophony joined by professors reading aloud class syllabi; concerts in cheap bars by local bands nobody’s heard before; the blood thump in his ears of a headache pressing against the interior lining of his front temple; moans of his old desktop computer’s cooling fan as it chokes on dust, cat dander, marijuana…
And, of course Emily—always a sweet caress, a smell of jasmine and cucumbers, with hair that fell across her eyes—and the sound of her words trembling across her lips as she finally said she loved him.
And how, worse than ruining this semester of school and worse than whatever punishment his father might mete out for this, he knew that she would have woken up that morning—or the day before, he wasn’t sure any longer—and lay her hand softly into the dent in the pillow where his head had once been; he knew that she would have blurted out a sharp, lightning cry when she couldn’t find him, thinking somehow his disappearance was all her fault…
He slipped the headphones back into his ears and stared out the cabin window, which this time held a reflection that finally mirrored the empty seat beside him and, relaxing his eyes, he looked beyond to the glassy surface of the ocean far below.
They met in a biology class—a giant lecture hall that housed a raised auditorium packing in overheated, underdressed students in August, and underfed, frigid students in December.
Graham sat in the back, left-hand corner seat of the hall, his best strategy for slipping out after the roll sheet was passed his way if the lecture grew lame or if he felt the hangover drag him down into sleep. Two rows up and four seats in from the aisle, Emily would sling her backpack off her shoulders, pull her hair back into a loose pony tail, and, with a smile bubbling up for her friends, sit with them. This was a normal day.
One Thursday, she walked down the two rows in front of Graham, and when she turned to her friends, he saw their heads shake, and one raised a pair of palms upward to the ceiling. Emily shrugged and turned to look at the rest of the lecture hall—to find an open seat.
Graham stood up. Gestured to the seat next to his.
She saw his movement and it caught her eye, so she ducked her head while she smiled and walked up the aisle towards his seat. He let her in the row and watched as she slung her backpack off her shoulders and sat, one hand already running through her hair, gathering it into a bundle.
He sat next to her, the ratty composition notebook and tooth-indented plastic pen his only accoutrements. He continued with his doodle until she offered her hand and he took it, pleasantly.
Graham even remembered the lecture from that day—about artificial selection, and how man inadvertently influenced the gene pool of other species. The professor played some video tape with this Sagan guy who talked all about it, and though he kept trying to catch Emily’s eyes and give her a quick smile, she was intent on following the presentation, and so he followed her gaze and tried to pay attention, too.
He had felt uncomfortable ever since he left the States with such a large wad of bills in his left pocket. The teller had given him a funny look the day before—or the day before that—when he asked for the cash advance on Dad’s credit card and, skeptical, made him press his thumbprint onto a copy of the receipt. For security reasons, she said.
“I’m trusting you with this thing, son,” The card had jutted from between Dad’s thumb and forefinger. “It’s for emergency uses only and has a thousand dollar limit. I get the bill, so don’t think I won’t know when and if you use it. It’s fine if you need to, just let me know.”
Graham had nodded politely and took the card, tucking it into his wallet behind his own bank card. The time he and the guys had driven to Nags Head for that Silversun Pickups concert, he had slipped the credit card into his sock at the ankle just in case they needed it. One time they were short grocery money, so he had restocked the fridge full of beer and pizza rolls, sending Dad a check the next week from all of them and explaining the usage then.
Landing at the Narita airport, he exchanged half of this cash to yen and hired a taxi for the forty mile drive east towards Tokyo. He was mostly quiet in the cab ride, and the driver kept a consistently grim silence, too. Graham’s elementary skill with the language was enough to embarrass them both.
Taking Japanese at a high school outside of DC didn’t lend itself for much authenticity and Graham—though he had a natural fondness for the culture—could never quite wrap his head around a language that wasn’t his own, let alone one that, for better or worse, worked quite differently from English.
Tokyo was a shimmering sequin of a city, especially at night, glowing with the false reflection of day under halogen and neon. He had divined enough from the Lonely Planet guide to pick out which JR lines would take him to Shimonoseki. So he sat patiently on the railway platform, listening to the ghostly echoes of trains shooting through faraway tunnels and waiting for the foreign syllabic barrage that would cue his night train.
On the phone, he paced past the kitchen sink littered with beer cans. Some were half full and fermenting, giving off a thick, mildewed-bread smell, while some were rinsed out, sitting top down in the drain. With his cell phone pressed this hard against his head, Graham felt pain as the outline of his ear against his skull.
“Dad…Dad, look, I told you I was doing better this semester, what more do you want from me?” He sighed. Ran a hand through his hair. “No, look, Dad we’re just friends, all ri…Just—okay? Because she helps me with Bio, and I help her with Engli…Look, I told you I would do better, and I’m doing better, all right? I just need some help with bills is…”
Dad’s voice was spectral on the phone, a hollow echo of every other time he badgered Graham. There was almost a script, these days—almost a certainty of what he would say, and how it would piss Graham off, and what Graham would say in return. Even their conversations were on autopilot, even the details gauzy, dreamlike — twisted, funhouse mirror distortions of the way Graham wanted to remember the conversations.
He swiped the touchscreen on the phone angrily, cutting Dad off mid-sentence. He slowly stepped into the doorway back to the living room.
“You okay?” Emily sat on the front of the couch cushion, her knees pressed closely together, and her palms resting flat beside and outside them.
Graham wiped his face vigorously with both hands. He let his fingertips pull at the edges of his bottom eyelids and dragged them away from his eyes, so his face was horrible and distended like a Halloween mask. “We have any pot left?”
Emily shook her head. “I put it away.”
He sighed. Wiped dried spittle from the corners of his mouth.
She stood and crossed over to the kitchen doorway and, with her palms placed gently on his cheeks, pulled his gaze up from the floor. She leaned in and their lips brushed, and, sharply, he breathed in her perfume which smelled of flowers and of the earth.
Her tongue was cool against his, an electric eel slipping its way past his teeth. He let his face get drawn towards her, and then he slipped an arm around her waist, pressed his body against hers, and let himself sink into the chill of her mint kiss and the vaporous cloud of her.
That night, they made love for the first time. Afterwards he lay awake, staring at the ceiling fan as its whirring blade turned the streetlight into a strobe light cast across the ceiling. The air moved cool across his body as he let his fingers dimly haunt her spine between her shoulder blades while she slept. He did so, and she murmured softly in her sleep — a strange, nighttime English that was definitely not words but, instead, was the mere reflection of them. He let his fingers lightly rest against the small of her back feeling, the entire time, a bolus of shaved steak and stomach acid burn at the center of his ribcage, caught fast against those bars like a lie.
He felt a little silly on the night train as he leaned his head against the cool glass of the window and read selections from Koizumi’s Kwaidan.
The Heike samurai, he read, held firm against the Genji samurai but lacked the numbers of their opposition. They had been backed against the Kanmon Channel, a slim body of water that separated the shepherd’s-crook-question-mark island of Honshu from Kyushu, the period at its bottom. Here on the shore stood Antoku, the Heike Emperor at a mere seven years old, with Lady Nii, his grandmother, next to their samurai army, all of them saying a reverential prayer to the Amida Buddha against the setting sun. Then, all walk proudly, an entire column facing straight ahead, never wavering, keeping their motions timed with each other as they slowly and progressively drown themselves in the Kanmon waters.
He stopped before he got to the good bits.
As the sun began to slowly reach out its tender fingers, with tired eyes he watched the Japanese countryside flutter past as streaks of brilliant green and turquoise in a blurred, overexposed photograph.
He wished his mother were here with him, sitting beside him as whole and fully formed as the sleeping Korean tourists with the camcorder that was slowly recording four hours worth of their shoes. She would have loved to see Fuji framed by the outline of the train window, and the rigid, regular power poles connected by the electric lines of a treble staff without notes.
When he was seven, they were waiting near the luggage cart in Philadelphia after his father’s four-year post in West Germany. He sat on his carry-on bag stuffed full of He-Man toys and comic books—which he saw indistinct photo-negatives of earlier that day, when they had passed through the x-ray machine in the terminal. Mom held the plastic handle to a rollaway luggage bag and sat on the floor beside him.
A young boy of about eleven stood near them, the parents nearby but distracted, feverishly looking at a map. He, too, was coming back from Germany, he told them. “I can’t wait for cartoons,” he offered, “Like Daffy and Bugs. I haven’t seen those in forever.”
“You’re too young to remember those.” Mom elbowed me in the ribs with a smile that curled one corner of her mouth into her cheek. “What I can’t wait for…is a Slurpee. An ice cold banana Slurpee from Seven-Eleven.”
Graham remembered looking at his mother, his eyebrows narrowed over the bridge of his nose. A Slurpee? The eyebrows raised the question in that ghostly way that sons talk wordlessly with their mothers.
She just smiled, tousled his hair. “I think I see your father. Let’s get him over here.”
He and Emily had developed into a ‘thing,’ a state that Graham had worked hard at avoiding, but there it was, and so he dealt. People started referring to them as boyfriend-girlfriend, and when they tried to talk about it, instead they locked eyes and shrugged with their eyebrows and accepted everybody else’s assessment.
Graham would lay across the couch with his head in her lap while she ran her fingers through his sprawling, greasy black hair, and he would blow smoke rings that, when caught in the blue cast from the television, would filter light through its wispy, cotton strands. They would lay awake and naked in his bed in the mornings before class, fighting the urge to stay in bed all day and fuck and never leave but for cigarettes and coffee.
For his birthday, she bought him some Murakami novels and he taught her how to line-read poetry for scansion, and for Halloween, they both dressed under the same bedsheet and went as a Shitty, Two-Headed Ghost.
Later, at the Halloween party, this Shitty, Two-Headed Ghost would lose a head, and its four eyes would disappear. Hidden, Graham and Emily fumbled and loved each other underneath the sheet, while sitting in the corner of the couch next to Drunk, Passed Out Guy and his friend, Vomit Larry.
Stumbling home, the sheet a soaking mess between them, Emily held Graham upright with his arm across her shoulders. She encouraged him to walk whenever he fell down onto his butt like a baby landing on its diaper. He waved her off when he thought he was going to vomit, and then he held his head over the gutter with one hand clutching the edge of the curb, the other crooked and forming a buttress with his elbow. By the time they made it to his house, he was sober enough to light her cigarette for her and they sat on his front stoop, the sheet left in the front yard, a ball of alcohol and dried sputum.
Later, she undressed him and climbed into bed behind him, and they slept.
The next morning, they both lay awake, not moving or doing anything, and she whispered an “I love you” to the back of his neck. And he heard her, and his body would have jolted into a run if not for the hangover and her lying behind him, her arm tight over his abdomen, their bodies still and naked and curled into one another like quotation marks.
Shimonoseki is a fishing city that lives on the tip of the main island of Honshu just short of the Kanmon Channel. Large, rolling hills jut from the water, dotted a brilliant green and reinforced by buildings along the channel’s shoreline. It’s a small, thriving city that controls the area’s shipping and fishing industries.
Graham cared little to nothing about this, though. As he rode the train in from the surrounding hills, all he cared about was the Akama Jinja Shrine.
There, he learned more about the Heike’s losing battle, and their sacrifice in the Kanmon. He learned about how the surviving female decedents of the clan perform a festival every year in April to commemorate the battle, conducting a re-enactment in the waters of the Kanmon, dressing in all-black and walking in a timed procession with each other to the shrine.
Most importantly, though, he learned what he had come here to learn—indeed, what he already knew, but was afraid would evaporate like steam above a stove.
The Heike crab is a particular strain of crab native to the Shimonoseki region. Its small carapace is a hard shell that takes on the appearance of a stylized mask, looking like the battle-ready sneers worn by the samurai as they charged to fight. These crabs—small, delicate, six-legged creatures—are thrown back into the sea by the fishermen, because local lore has it that they hold the spirits of the drowned Heike samurai trapped inside their rust- colored shells.
But Graham wanted to see them. To know that these crabs were real.
In the weeks preceding his trip to Japan, Graham was ephemeral, hard to find. He skipped most of the classes he had—particularly those he shared with Emily. His parents called his house numerous times, and when he actually was there, gestural cues from Graham helped his roommates cover for him, to come up with some thin, evaporating story.
For his part, Graham made his plans silently, and with a zealot’s eye for perfection. He grabbed a copy of the video they had watched in bio class, dubbed it, and watched it in his bedroom over and over again, hearing the legend of these samurai who would sacrifice themselves and these fisherman who were inadvertently influencing nature against its better merits.
Finally, after visiting the bank and getting the cash advance, he called his father and told him that, come the spring, he was considering — considering — enlisting in the National Guard. He said it seemed an able compromise, and something he could do for the sake of the family.
After that, he called Emily and she came over. Her eyes were red with hurt, and he offered up plenty of lame excuses and kissed her tears, feeling the warmth of his lips wipe them away as if they had never fallen in the first place.
The disappointment in her eyes was palpable, and when they began to kiss and fumble in the dark, he didn’t know if it was better to be the man he knew she wanted, or if he should just disappear like fog rolling away.
In the morning, he still didn’t know what to do, and as he lay next to her and curled wisps of her hair behind her ear, he felt the swift fist of guilt behind his belly button. When he didn’t know what else to do, he left Murakami’s Sputnik Sweetheart lying on the bedside table—an apology of sorts—then locked the front door behind him and left for the airport.
At night, the lights from the bridge connecting Honshu and Kyushu illuminated the channel and surrounding shorelines with a vague, yellow haze. It wasn’t much but, between that and the attendant moonlight, Graham could stumble along the sand, his feet leaving the memory of imprints while his rubber, novelty sandals dangling from his fingertips.
He roamed the beaches, leaning down every few feet and inspecting the sand for any sign of these crabs they talked about—any skittering or slight motion would cause him to freeze, stock still, as if a ghost were walking on his grave.
He finally sat down and stared off at the leaves of the trees on the far side of the channel, waving at him a soft, silent beckoning. It was probably morning now, back in the states—the credit card company likely calling Dad right now, reporting the charges to his card. Dad will probably report it stolen, and he would unwittingly sever Graham’s lifeline home. Left with a few thousand yen in his pocket and the remaining two hundred bucks, there would be no realistic way for him to make it home without a phone call, a sob story, and his father’s cross-continental reprimands. He could almost hear the long smoky sighs, the sounds of defeat, in the colonel’s voice. When his parents reclaimed him, his performance in school wouldn’t even be an issue. They would trump him. Force him to enlist.
In retrospect, he quickly realized he didn’t deserve Emily. Didn’t deserve her kindness, her love. A salty mist of a tear tingled in his nose as he imagined her laying her hand softly into the dent in the pillow where his head had once been. Over the soft susurrus of the waves lapping against the beach before him, he heard her blurted, sharp, lightning cry.
Quiet, behind all of that, he heard a splashing.
He looked across the channel, off in the distance, but the light was indistinct. His eyes darted the shoreline, hoping he wasn’t breaking some Nippon law, hoping his phone call home wouldn’t be from the inside of a jail cell.
He saw nothing.
Still, a splashing.
When he finally caught the source, he couldn’t tell if the histamine mist from his tears was clouding his vision or not. What he saw were slight, shimmering shapes out in the middle of the water.
But ships traveled through here during the daytime, right? He had seen that. And the water must have been deep, right? Really deep.
No. He saw the impossible shapes of men, standing knee deep in water, their backs to him, walking out towards the opposite shore.
With each step, the water rose—to their waists, their abdomens, to their slumped, defeated shoulders. An entire column of men facing straight ahead, never wavering, keeping their motions timed with each other—their necks, their chins…
Graham stood. With every ounce of strength left in his body, he stumbled forward to where the water crept up and darkened the sand. He wanted to yell out a warning to these men—these floating foreheads in the channel before him.
A few steps closer, he could swear he saw the indistinct outline of armor—jutting out and broken in places, but unmistakably armor—forming around these men.
The men of the Heike.
He heard a crack beneath his foot—felt the sharp, salt sting of something shoot into his instep. When he moved his foot, leaving a bloody dropleted trail falling on the sand below him, he saw that he had stepped on a small, delicate, six-legged crab. A small spike of the carapace had broken off—right where the jawline of the samurai met the chin—and had driven itself into the arch of his foot.
And there in the dim lights from the bridge across the Kanmon Channel, Graham, to the best of his ability, dug out this shard of natural armor from the bloodied bottom of his foot, and he said a silent, sacrilegious Nembutsu—to honor the Amida Buddha the best that he could, to honor the Heike and their brave but useless sacrifice to a greater…something.
But most of all, he offered up his humble, broken Japanese to honor artificial selection, and the way that man can sometimes affect the natural state of an animal just by giving up on it and letting it be.