The Sea

(This is a small excerpt from THE TATTOOED ASSASSIN — an Akiko crime novel in progress.)

It’s late afternoon when the ferry docks on the little island. Akiko crosses the wobbling gangplank. Then she’s standing on the volcanic soil of Kamijima. Gulls are skreeking. The cold breeze smells and tastes of salt. She doesn’t look around for the taxi. She’s already laced up her hiking boots while still on the ferry. She starts to walk. It feels good to be away from a city. There’s no car traffic on the narrow dirt road between low houses and shops — nothing but a few rattling bicycles. Soon she’s walking through thick green bamboo forest. The road turns steeply uphill. Sweating, she climbs, carrying the luggage bag slung over one shoulder. The sunlight is hot and blinding. She stops in the shadow of a big pine to drink water from a plastic bottle. Carefully, she screws the cap back on and sticks it into her bag. It’s a long walk up the mountain, colder and steeper with each step. Finally she’s there — at the base of the mossy winding steps to the temple. She can see the soaring wing-like eaves, the dull red lacquer of the walls and pillars dappled with sunlight, through black branching pine foliage. Home.

She climbs the steps slowly, her eyes shut.
At the top step, she opens her eyes.
There. The temple. The smooth black pillars. The green-tiled roof.

Takagi steps out onto the porch. He’s bearded. In blue jeans and a torn t shirt. He’s holding a wooden sword lightly. He stops and turns his head toward Akiko. His blind eyes look at her. His nostrils widen. He begins to tremble. He sits down on the smooth boards, like a marionette suddenly cut from its strings. Lays the sword flat.
Akiko strides forward in flowing steps. She lifts the bag from her shoulder. Sets it down on the thick pine needles.

Molly, he says.
Jiro.
Ah, Molly.
She goes to him. He takes her head in his hands. Kisses her brows, her cheeks, her lips. Smells her sunwarmed hair.
You’re here. Alive.
Hai.
I wondered.
Akiko smiles. He’s still kissing her. She shuts her eyes. His lips are dry and soft and the kisses cool and delicate.
Nothing kills me, she whispers.
I know that. I love you.
I love you, Jiro.
He’s shaking again, as if seized by panic. She helps him to stand, lifting him up by the elbows.

The sun is low. Almost drowned in the Sea of Japan. Cicadas buzz-buzz. It’s cold here in the shadows. Autumn. The great change of seasons that rebukes all vain human conceit and ambition. One finally feels it — the light is weak, the cicadas near-silent. Pine needles are falling. The small red squirrels jump in the thick foliage, their tails twitching. The few maples are a blaze of crimson. The oak leaves are edged with yellow.

She helps Takagi inside. Goes back out for her bag. When she comes in again carrying the bag, he’s lit a kerosene lantern. He replaces the soot-smudged glass chimney and turns down the flame. She sets down her luggage and kneels in seiza. It’s musty inside the temple. Takagi hasn’t bathed in a while — she can smell the layers of dried sweat under his clothes. The odor is not unpleasant. His beard is thick and his blind eyes, when she glimpses them under the sagging lids, look wild. It’s as if he’d aged a century. Then she realizes, no, he’s still youthful. His arms and shoulders are powerful — she doesn’t recall him being this muscled. He’s clearly been working out with the bokken every single day. She touches it with her fingertips. It’s stained dark at the handle by the oil and sweat from Takagi’s hands.

He hasn’t rolled up the bedding. It’s still disarranged from the morning. He tries to straighten it, feeling his way along the edges. Akiko, who has meanwhile unlaced and pulled off her hiking boots and wool socks, laughs, stands, and strips off her dark sweater and the t shirt under it in one movement. She drops these things on the floor, unsnaps her blue jeans and steps out of them. She goes to Takagi in her thin panties, kneels by him, and places his hands on her breasts. He begins, again, to shake as if with cold. She kisses his face, his hair. The kisses are like flames. Takagi groans. He sits on the bedding. Akiko bends forward, her hair covering his face. She unsnaps his blue jeans and wrenches down the zipper and takes him out hard and pulsating and she whimpers a little from her own desire as she kisses it and licks the swelling crown. Takagi moans. He lies back. Akiko’s head goes up and down. He feels her tongue playing with him, her warm saliva dripping on his balls. Then she takes him out of her mouth and goes lower. One by one, she sucks on and softly bites his testicles while holding his cock like a sword. Takagi feels the sensations begin to surge. Wait, he says. Stop. She stops biting him. Silence. He can hear her breathing. Also his own. They’re both breathing deeply as if in a sword match. Come up here, he murmurs. He hears the cotton rasp as Akiko tears off her panties. Throws them away. Then she climbs up his body, kissing hard and open-mouthed as she goes. She strips away his t shirt. He raises both arms over his head as she yanks it from him. His skin is silk-smooth, warm and sunbrowned. She straddles Takagi and inserts him in the searing heat and moisture underneath her bristling soft pubic hair. Takagi sobs. It’s so good. Ah, he says, beautiful Molly. She strokes his face with her long fingers as he holds her elbows. They’re a little rough, as always, from her constant practice with the wooden sword. She begins rocking. He’s trying to form an image of exactly what she must look like now. Above, below and around him is only darkness. His mind blazes, but there are no colors. Akiko is gasping. She shudders in her orgasm and he feels a surge of heat and thick wetness on his cock and balls. He’s cradled inside her, in the searing womb. He cries out — his semen shoots up into the all engulfing darkness.

The sea. Glittering. Infinite.

Night. Akiko opens a barrel of sake. It gurgles pleasantly into the earthenware jar. She sets down the full sake jar and takes out the cups, which she cleans out with splashes of water followed by a few wipes with a faded blue-striped dish towel — one of the ones she brought with her three years ago when she arrived on the island. She returns to bed with the jar and cups on a bamboo tray. The kerosene lamp throws her shadow — the intimate nudity of her shadow — hugely on the whitewashed wall. She picks up one cup and hands it to Takagi, who smiles and bows. He’s seated crosslegged, naked, on the futon. He holds out the cup. She fills it with a snap of the wrist, not spilling a drop. She fills hers next and sets down the sake jar. They drink. The sake is cold and subtly sweet. It’s refreshing, after the heat of the day and the almost painful joy of their lovemaking. Was it joy? Or pain?

Takagi took her three times. Akiko climaxed twice. Harshly and completely, both times. She almost came the third time but held back to fully appreciate the beauty of Takagi’s climax. As he mounted toward it, he fucked her more and more slowly — delicately, even. She shut her eyes to feel him shoot inside her — a flare of heat. He gasped and choked and his body went rigid. She held him around the ribs, tightly, and also embraced his legs with hers, crushing him into her, her bare feet stroking his white buttocks. Life is empty. A dead flower in the surf. An owl’s strange, insistent hoots in the dark pine forest of the mountain on Kamijima. She smiles as she drinks, her lips smiling on the rim of the cup — she sees that he’s erect again.

(For more like this, see 10th & Crime.)

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Along the road he found a blind girl. Four years old, maybe, smoke-blackened in a tattered and dirty blue dress, standing under a stunted oak.

He coaxed the little girl to come with him. She walked by his side, stumbling a little, clinging to the smoke-and-grease stained sleeve of his coat.

Sometimes over the next few days he carried her — fording streams, for example, or hiking up steep stretches of the mountain roads. He put her on his shoulders, and she clung with both fists to his hair.

He didn’t know what to call the blind girl as she didn’t speak. Mute, too?

Finally, he gave her a name: Helen.

*

He’d come up from the wide river valley, walking the back roads past the weed-overgrown and empty farms. Most of the farmhouses were burnt out shells, and those that were not burnt out he skirted anyhow.

He was going high up into the mountains. Maybe as far as the high desert country. His idea was to find a cave to camp in and wait out the next few years, which would undoubtedly be chaotic.

He carried a rucksack with some small camping pots and pans and canned goods and other things in it and two canteens of drinking water and an old bolt-action Lee-Enfield rifle slung over his right shoulder. His knife was in a sheath at the back of his belt. A small box clinking in the left hand side pocket of his leather coat held the cartridges for the rifle. It was hot and sweaty work to walk all that way carrying all he owned.

At the University he’d taught philosophy. But he hadn’t brought along any books but for a thick pocket diary bound in leather with a pencil stuck in the loop. When the pencil ran out he’d have nothing to write with, so he filled the diary’s thin pages each night by fire-light slowly and sparingly.

*

It was only a few days after he’d picked up the girl that he turned a bend and saw three people sitting in the dust by the roadside cooking something on a fire. Too late to turn back or go around. He walked forward, raising his right hand.

One of the three — a teenaged girl, under the layers of dirt, he thought — got up and dashed into the woods. The two others, both men with thick beards in tattered and stained clothing, stood up slowly, one holding a stick.

He saw what they were cooking over the fire — it was a dog. Grease dripped and spat as the flames licked it. The smoke was pungent. He began to salivate despite himself, yet he was also nauseated. He wasn’t going to eat dog.

Evening, he said. The men didn’t reply. The one holding the stick grinned. The other came forward a few steps.

He could hear the girl moving in the brush, cracking twigs. It was near dark. Already, the owls were hooting.

She wasn’t going off, as he’d first thought, but moving around to flank him.

And when she dashed into the woods, hadn’t she been holding something?

His scalp went cold.

A bow, maybe.

And didn’t she have something lashed to her back? Arrows?

He stopped in the road, and swung the blind girl down to stand beside him.

Let me see that rifle there, the man who’d come forward said. His voice sounded wheezy, like an unused instrument.

He replied: No.

His ears were prickling. The girl in the brush had stopped moving. Right now she would be fitting an arrow onto the bowstring. His stomach turned to ice. He forced a smile.

This is all I’ve got, he said. I can’t hand it over to you.

The man said through his beard: Oh yes? We’ll see about that.

He shrugged the rifle from his shoulder and walked toward the man holding it out as if to put it meekly into his hands, but in the last few steps he broke into a run and, bringing up the butt, smashed the man’s chin. The bearded man grunted and fell in the dust.

He kept running and knocked away a blow from the other man’s stick with the barrel and stepped around him and, grappling in panicked silence, managed to get the barrel under his chin and drew the writhing body against him tightly, the shoulderblades pressing to his chest and top of the man’s head under his chin, and shouted: You, in the brush, come out or I’ll kill him.

After a few seconds, the teenaged girl stepped out, wide-eyed and cruel-looking. She was holding the bow drawn back. The arrow wasn’t pointed at him but at Helen, standing still in the road.

Let go, she said, or I’ll shoot this one.

He called out: No. Shoot her with that arrow and I’ll kill him then you too. Put it down.

She lowered the bow and dropped the arrow at her feet then dropped the bow next to it with a clatter.

The man he was holding to him had stopped grappling and was now just gurgling a little. He took away the rifle barrel and stepped back and the bearded man fell on his side, kicking and wheezing and trying to crawl.

He pointed the rifle sight at the teenaged girl and said: Back away.

She did.

He went forward and holding the rifle at ready one-handed bent and picked up the arrow.

Toss over the others, he said.

She took the other arrows — she had four — out of her homemade quiver and tossed them rattling onto the asphalt. He bent and picked those up, too. He stuck them into his belt.

Helen, he said. Come on, now. Helen stumbled forward and he took her hand and backed away. The teenaged girl was standing still, her arms hanging.

After he’d backed off ten paces or so he slung the rifle and swept up Helen and put her on his shoulders and walked off double-time. Up the road to the next bend and around it in the almost-dark, moonless tonight, starry and vast and ringing with those deep eerie owl-hoots.