The Mountains and the Sea
By: Ezra Baptist
Kaori woke. She was on the floor, a mat beneath her, a blanket above. Her mind was cloudy so she laid there for awhile. Daylight waxed through the window, pouring over the floor and gradually covering the small, spare room in an early morning glow.
When the brightness reached her eyes, she sat up. Slowly, she raised her hands above her head and the muscles in her back began to work themselves loose. She pulled her legs up to her torso so they touched her chest and sprang up from the hard wooden floor all in one fluid motion. Kaori landed on her feet, though she noticed that it was harder to do then it had been a few years prior.
After gathering her bedding, Kaori crossed the room and slid into the hallway. She walked down the hall she once shared with a dozen other women, her feet silent as a spirit. The unadorned, off-white walls of her home of twenty-years now seemed sad these last few summers. Drab. Cold. Kaori rounded the corner into the washroom. A basin of water was already there and she lit a fire beneath it. She grabbed a bar of soap and got to work.
She did this every morning, scrubbing the bedding for at least a couple minutes to keep it immaculate. Kaori loved washing. Loved the rhythm. Loved the feeling of clean silk running through her figures. She had owned this set of bedding for almost all her life and had repaired it more times than she could recall. Seasons changed, nature died and was reborn anew, people left her, but the blankets of silk and satin remained with her. The one thing she kept from her life from before she left Japan.
Kaori had grown up in Nara Prefecture with her father and her older brothers. She had a mother once too but could recall little of their time together. Her early years were filled with memories of naught but joy. Fishing with her brothers. Chasing deer through the forests and meadows. Planting seeds in the garden and watching them grow day-by-day. But being the only girl in the household and without a mother, Kaori slowly became the woman of the house. The cook and cleaner. She didn’t mind the cleaning so much sometimes she even enjoyed it. But the cooking was exhausting. She began to resent her brothers. All three of her brothers were older afterall. It seemed unfair that she was the one keeping the house fed and tidy all by herself. And her father… he was as wild as the sea, calm and peaceful one hour and a raging typhoon the next. Once Kaori had not cooked dinner in time for his return from work and he had beat her. But when she had picked herself off the floor and cooked noodles for him he had kissed her forehead gently. She recoiled, though he didn’t seem to mind. Her brothers were all out that night so the two of them ate in silence. Only when they were almost done and Kaori was itching to leave did her father finally speak.
“I know that I put a lot on your shoulders, but you will be stronger for it. You are stronger. I’m proud of you for that. You will make a good wife someday, for somebody.
Kaori’s stomach filled with fire when he said that and she glared at him so intensely that he seemed to melt like snow in summer.
“No, Father, I will not be a good wife. I won’t be a wife. Never. I will live in a shack out in the mountains, all alone except the trees and the deer,” she spat the words out like bile.
Her father’s face fell. His eyes grew distant. It was like he was looking for something behind her, or maybe deep within her.
“Then I will let you live up in the mountains, but I will feel sad.” He said. And as he said it, he began to cry. He made no sound, but the tears flowed from his eyes so fast and thick they began to pool in his empty bowl. Koari had never seen him cry before.
“Why are you crying?” she asked. But she never got an answer.
Cool, wet air kissed her skin when she slid open the rice paper door, her bedding tucked under her arm. She padded out onto the porch, silent as ever and carefully she hung up all the silks up to dry, taking in the day. Sunlight streamed through the trees, filling the green forest with gold. Birds sang their morning songs, insects buzzed as they rushed from perch to perch, and deeper in the forest she saw the silhouettes of a doe and her faun picking through the garden. When she was done with the sheets, Kaori took her place in the middle of the large porch, where the light shone directly this time of day. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and let it out slowly, wiggling her toes to loosen them, hands at her hips. She took another breath and reached toward the sky, going all the way to the tips of her toes. Then she pitched her torso forward, collapsing in on herself, thighs to her chest, hands to her feet. The stretch was easy now, it had been for years, but she counted still when she held it. One, two, three… sixteen, seventeen, eighteen…
Kaori had left Japan the day she turned eighteen. Her father had worn a long, grief weary face that day and didn’t look at her a single time on their drive to the airport. It was almost as if she were already dead. A ghost haunting him with regret. He didn’t even get out of the car when he parked the car. The second she had pulled her small suitcase, he pulled away from the curb so abruptly that he almost collided with oncoming traffic. Kaori noticed that the woman in the car he almost hit had to swerve to avoid him, skidding onto the sidewalk nearly hitting a group of teenagers waiting to be picked up. The flight to Korea had seemed rather mundane after all that. When she got off the plane with a single bag of everything she owned and heading towards her new life in the mountains, she had never felt so free.
Kaori rose from her final stretching position, took one last deep breath and leapt from the porch, down to the forest floor. She made her way to the lookout tree and began to climb it. The tree was an aged pine that had lost all of its branches close to the ground, so Kaori had to shimmy up trunk. Warm sap stuck to hands, face and clothes as she scaled the pine, covering her in its clean, cool smell. When she reached the climbable branches she darted up them, lithe as a squirrel and soon enough Kaori was beyond the forest canopy. Kaori swung up onto the last branch that she was confident could hold her weight and straddled it with her thighs. She sat back against the tree trunk and looked out on world stretched before her. Despite how many times she had made the climb, views beauty never folded.
Acres upon acres of wilderness stretched out below her. Ancient trees, beautiful annuals, bubbling brooks, and stillwater pools. Water smoothed rocks and wind battered ridges. The mountains; They were the crowning jewel. One stood to the North, the other to the South. They were two green giants of stone that rubbed shoulders with her own mountain. From the three mountains sprang a dozen streams and springs that all gathered into one and joined with the Nakdong and ran all the way to the sea. She could see all of this and no one was in sight. She was alone. She was free. The wind picked up suddenly, battering and buffeting her, whipping over her bare scalp. The wind felt almost like it was trying to pluck her from her branch easily as if Kaori were a leaf and let she float away into the heavens. Not yet, Kaori thought. Slowly she moved out of her position and started to make her way down. As she descended, she wondered if her brothers even remembered her, and her father. She didn’t know how she would feel if she knew either way. After all, she had left for a reason.