Flash fiction, short stories, poetry …
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Katsumi

Hello there. This week, one of the stories that came together when writing something else. I thought I’d edit it up and pop it in the Café.

Please note that the name ‘Goro Nyudo Masamune’ came with several diacritical marks (macrons*) that refused to render in the site’s font. As a lover of unusual font furniture (it’s Café, after all) I’d love to have that name correct, but there you go. I’d also like to have my pay-as-you-go mobile topped up, but I need to have money in it to talk to the support staff to fix the problem with getting it topped up…   so you can’t have everything. Thanks Vodaphone.

On the plus side, I’ve adjusted the e-mail subscription functionality on the right-hand side of the site. This should now just send a summary of the first couple of lines of a post — more of an indicator that something new is up here, than an effort to send out the whole post in a horribly wide e-mail. A simple flag for something new was what I’d intended in the first place.   

Anyhoo, prepare, now, for some polite applause.    


* You know, ‘macron’ – like graves, circumflexes, that sort of thing. Rather than ‘macaroon’ – a small coconut cake – which would be most appropriate for a café. 

***

K

atsumi is weathering white rubber boots and is talking to Masahiro the Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry. A ladder has let the Minister down into this muddy trench, and let him down gently, because this project languishes. They both have white hardhats. Yellow ribbons dance on a chrome shovel in the Minister’s hands, with which he will single-handedly begin what has already been six months of site work.

Polite applause.

Masahiro quickly hands the shovel – at finger length – to his immaculate assistant in her immaculate charcoal suit. She gropes for his hand-wipes.

Polite applause.

Rising up around them is a maze of foundations for what will be the new Miyagi Prefectural Government Matsushima Building in Sendai, once all these rusted metal ties and concrete teeth are capped with a hundred floors of concrete, steel and aluminium; glass overlooking the delicate pines of the bay.

Rather stiffly, Katsumi explains how the work is slow but steady; the workers very much enjoy the presence of the Minister; and how all such enterprises for the glory of Japan are to the glory of all.

This is accepted with a sharp nod. Of course.

The Minster most likely thinks of Katsumi’s wife’s – Kiriko’s – squid bento, which is only minutes away, while Katsumi thinks of what is beneath his feet. Somewhere.

Five yards away, long ladders drop down into a particularly muddy shaft – the circular remains of a country well and – stone upon stone – this is the singular reason for Katsumi’s passion for this project.  And regrettably, the long surveys and delays.

Any who might approach this private excavation are shooed away, leaving Katsumi free to descend at the sun’s first touch on the blue-green hills, like liquid gold in water; ascending again each evening, with his scored trowel, when these self-same hills appear in the full-blooded, dusty ochre of a shrine offering.

Under the pretext of securing against subsidence over an underground spring – there are plans and plans of it – and his degree in geology from Tokyo, it’s Katsumi’s bamboo scaffolding that drops through the years and excavated silt: the leafless knuckles of the poles like lashed bone; the soft slime of the passageway covering everything; the lantern chain of cables and bulbs descending into ever decreasing circles, casting up the organic, sphincterish feel of it.

Three stories and the stones are still in descent.

Occasionally a litter of ancient bamboo, or stone, or organic matter – like plugs, blocking its throat – at other times false hollows that bring a rush of indigestion, but no sign of what may be a package wrapped by priests – bamboo, leather and oil.

Some days he imagines the sword will just be there as if floating on top – shining in the electric arcs and foul smelling mud – his breath huffing in the chill as he takes it, pinched between fingers; light scintillating along its mirrored edge. That’s for the child in him.

Other days he sees it as it must assuredly be: a rusted chunk of folded, folded metal, and a faint gleam of gold thread from the hilt – a hunk of corrosion reduced through time and decay to its pitted, meteoric origins once more.

Scrolls show a great star falling over the hills, and a curvilinear mirror blade formed from its core in the forge beneath: this is the Sword of the Heavenly Star.

“Goro Nyudo Masamune made me,” so those scrolls say.

It is Meibutsu – a noted sword.

Family, friends – his son – are not supportive of this quest, what little he’s shared. Their mood borders on disrespect, though they say nothing. Kiriko, especially. With the long hours, his wife thinks he is having an affair: ‘well, you know what he’s like around women’ (though he only found that out through a chain of neighbours).

If anything these relationships weather like the descent: in cold, tight-lipped humidity that gives little away but disapproval, as another platform arrives and is broached and more problems are packed back with poles; where the mud bulges and the stones begin to slide. Water seeps, the well seeks solace.

This morning, the tiny tink of trowel on metal revealed a small cast of a Shishi lion-dog resting in the mud, over bamboo browned and flaking like over-cooked chicken bone. Water lapped around its teeth as if it were laughing. It was iron and remarkably well preserved – gape-jawed, beard curled – and rendered in remarkable detail.

A frisson of excitement: perhaps the chill and litter have kept out the air and dulled the passage of time. Perhaps. And this number of platforms is a holy number (as all the numbers he has concocted before).

There is no way to appease such a guardian, so best to remove it. As the notably pert assistant to the minister rubs a finger, delicately, on the back of her neck, Katsumi waits impatiently for an end to the official functions. Then he can descend with a carton of pen and ink, and daub the circle of magic papers he has down there. The papers are plastered with the well’s own mucus to the curving walls – each blank, each awaiting his message.

The Minister takes the trench elevator, while Katsumi take his eye off the well – for a moment – to look up his assistant’s skirt as she climbs the entirely undignified ladder, boots bowed on every rung.

A flash of white.

That afternoon they find graves dug up and urns and ashes already gone – no one knew of those ancient burials. Katsumi is missing and there is a circle of collapsed ground.

Fierce winds lash Sendai for several weeks.

10 comments

1 Peter Newman { 09.12.12 at 10:30 am }

As ever, the descriptions here are vivid and beautiful. I particularly liked the ‘sphincterish feel’ to the tunnel.

In a way this feels like a flash to me and in a way it doesn’t. It is complete but we get so much of the man, his family and his world that it seems odd to leave so suddenly.

Anyway, good work. I’ll be back for the next one.

2 Steve Green { 09.12.12 at 10:52 am }

Beautifully written, hypnotic and compelling.
You have a wonderful talent for flickering away from the point, then back again… Popping in the unexpected by-line.

“That’s for the child in him.”
“While Katsumi takes his eyes off…..”

I think too, the gods may not be best pleased with the goings on.

3 John Wiswell { 09.14.12 at 5:16 am }

The descriptions are sometimes vivid, but better, they’re always indicative. There’s an inference I can’t help but make with the juxtaposition, for instance, of her talking to an important man and wearing white leather boots. This sort of implication by description is my favorite part of your style.

4 Brinda { 09.15.12 at 12:56 am }

You create a memorable character in this man who is hell bent on the pursuit of the nebulous ‘thing’, while his relationships crumble away. I cannot help drawing paralells with Murakami. Those white boots in the muddy trenches and the shovel held at finger length – very evocative. Here is some racuous hearty applause – from me.

5 Joan { 09.19.12 at 11:03 am }

I loved this – the idea of the old juxtaposed alongside the new – the new building to rise upwards, the old well with its secrets buried deep beneath.

Katsumi is something of an unknown, as far as character goes – he is more concerned with the ancient than the new – but then the grave goods have gone, and the gods are displeased. He’s like a character of ‘thief’, maybe, in computer games and fantasy works – which makes you re-examine moral systems.

Like it.

6 Stephen Hewitt { 09.22.12 at 10:56 am }

@Peter — thanks Peter. An interesting point you raise: how much to involve the reader in a background world created for Flash fiction. My instinct is always to try for something as concretely realised as possible, but that could be distracting in what is such a brief moment for the reader. I always try to focus on story (no time for anything else), and if I manage to reveal detail along the way — rather than a lump of indigestible description — all’s the good. I remember once reading a comic where the artist had oil painted every panel and it was so amazing in quality and detail, you wanted to pull off the speech balloons. It made a wonderful piece of art, but a terrible comic. A reminder, perhaps, that more isn’t necessarily more. St.

7 Stephen Hewitt { 09.22.12 at 11:04 am }

@Steve — thanks Steve. Flickering, I enjoy. Interesting to see that most of the comments seem to be talking about the same thing — the interleaving of detail — from different perspectives. The gods may, indeed, be somewhat ticked. St.

8 Stephen Hewitt { 09.22.12 at 11:13 am }

@John — I do try to layer a lot of things into a story, coming from that mantra of ‘show don’t tell’. Occasionally, I go too far and folks don’t catch some of the fundamental details of the story required for its understanding, or cause confusion — which is distracting — but if I get it just right, then it should hopefully be something rich and involving. I have plenty of fun in there. St.

9 Stephen Hewitt { 09.22.12 at 4:33 pm }

@Brinda — I thank you for that applause. If you really, really, must find a ‘thing’, wearing white wellies is the way to go. :) St

10 Stephen Hewitt { 09.22.12 at 4:40 pm }

@Joan — thanks, Joan. I like mixing things up in stories — particularly in that direction of how old things translate into the new. Katsumi has certainly gone too far in his desire for something he shouldn’t have. St.

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