“They’re dead,” the fish said. I’m standing in a rice field next to Yuuki’s house. The rice has already been harvested. The stalks and chaff have been raked into a pile and are burning. It smells strange. Not like burning grass, something vaguely familiar though.
I scream. The sound of my shriek reverberates and expands like a shockwave. It’s not a pile of stalks and leaves, rather bodies, human bodies. I rush over and start stamping on the fire. There is the crunch of brittle burnt bones breaking. I grab a bucket and run for the river. I stumble on the steep bank. The flowers I planted there last fall are blooming. I crash headlong down into the water. I cut my hand on a rock as I catch myself. My knee feels funny as I stand and the black koi scatter.
“They’re dead, they’re all dead,” the fish tells me.
“Shut up! Shut up!” I snap back at him. I climb up the bank slipping and sloshing water as I go. I throw my water on the flames. They are already starting to dissipate naturally.
I scream again. I can hear it. A sound, coming from within the flames, it’s not so much a voice, it’s not so much words, and it’s not really sentences, but I can hear a murmur like countless indiscernible conversations calling out to me. Not crying in pain, but definitely with urgency. Drowning each other out individually, but together swelling up from the ash.
I rush back to the river. The white koi is waiting for me. “Don’t put out the fire,” he tells me.
“Shut up.” I tell him again, this time with set lips. My movements are mechanical. The clothes I’m wearing are now heavy with water. I lose my shoes in the mud. The fresh cut rice stalks cut my feet as I run back to the fire.
By the time I get the 6th bucket the fire is dead. I stand there looking at the smoking heap, I drop the bucket on the ground and it sloshes. Yuuki comes out of the house. She wrinkles her nose.
“I can’t smell anything,” I tell her.
“You never could. What happened?”
“They’re all dead,” I say in a detached voice, it sounds strangely even to me; the fishes words coming out of my mouth.
“You couldn’t save them, huh?” Yuuki holds my trembling hand. Her hand is cool and smooth and small, confident.
I turn to her. It’s not Yuuki. Well, it’s not my Yuuki, it’s not the Yuuki I went to college with, fell in love with and married. It’s Yuuki, but she’s twelve. She looks even more like her father at that age.
I walk back to the river and sink down on the bank. Yuuki begins tearing pieces off of a loaf of bread she’s been carrying in her other hand. The black koi come back cautiously. They slurp up the bread with great soggy sounding gulps. The white koi in contrast eats the smallest pieces as delicately as a court-trained princess. Yuuki giggles at how proper he is.
“I told you not to put out the fire.”
I look at him dead in the eyes. “Why Shogun?”
“Naturally because I started that fire.”
“Why would you do that?” I’m getting angry, I have a terrible temper.
“Careful,” Shogun swallows a piece of crust carefully. He pauses; he won’t speak with his mouth full. “Don’t get hot headed now,” he knows me well.
“Who were they?” I ask him.
“I think we both know that,” the fish admonishes me.
I put my hands to my face in horror.
Yuuki yells angrily at some of the black koi, “Stay back, this last piece is for Shogun!” She throws it into the water. Shogun circles it, the black koi watch as he downs it delicately.
“Why?” I ask him again once he’s done. Twelve-year-old Yuuki plops down next to me, she rests her hands against my shoulder.
“I did it for you.”
“Well, I had only your best interest in mind. It was for your own good.”
“Why the fuck are you here Shogun?” I growl. Yuuki looks up a little startled.
“Tsk tsk, temper temper,” the fish chides.
“Why?” My voice still simmers.
“I love bread.”
I plunge head long into the water reaching out for Shogun, but his body is slippery and in the water he is faster. My hands slide off his white scales and I lose my vision in a mess of water and foam. Sputtering I rise from the water only to see Shogun casually disappearing upstream humming to himself. Damn fish…
Yuuki looks disappointed that Shogun is gone. She stretches her arms out to me and says, “Piggy back!” I carry twelve year old Yuuki on my back. We go back to the fire. It’s still smoking. Yuuki taps my shoulder indicating she wants down. She goes to the fire and begins to rummage around.
I sit. My feet hurt from all the cuts, but it’s not so much a sensation of pain, but the memory of many pains.
Yuuki holds up a finger. It’s in perfect condition somehow.
“How?” I ask.
Yuuki shrugs, “You didn’t let the fire finish.”
We sort through the mess. There’s no telling how many people are here. I’m covered in the ashes quickly enough. I laugh a little, because of the irony of who I am and who I know they were. Yuuki rolls her eyes. There is more than just a finger preserved in the ashes. I pull pieces out one at a time. An ear, a leg, a toe, an eye, some hair, teeth, an entire shoulder, genitals; we lay them out in the empty harvested field like we’re paleontologists unearthing a new species of ancient man. In a sense we are.
Finally we’ve gone through everything. There are two separate piles now; a big one of charred indistinguishable remains and a much smaller one of perfect little preserved body pieces. I don’t know what to do now. I stare in horror at my small pile of pieces.
“We should put him back together.” Yuuki tells me. She’s crouched down on the balls of her feet, her knees together.
I nod, but then start to cry. I sit down next to my pile and cry. My tears pick up the ash off my cheeks and I cry big black tears. Yuuki comes over to me.
“What’s wrong?” Twelve-year-old Yuuki holds my face in her tiny hands.
“I don’t know how to put it back together.”
“Yes you do,” she reassures me.
I shake my head. I can’t do it on my own. I look at these pieces and I don’t see anything except pieces. How can you put something in pieces back together again? “Yuuki, I’m afraid. I’m afraid because I don’t know how. And even if I did, I’m afraid of what it will be.”
Yuuki looks at me and says, “You know you don’t have be afraid. I’m not afraid of what it will be anymore than I’m afraid of who you are.”
I cover my face with my hands.
Twelve-year-old Yuuki kisses my hands, “I understand. If you wish it, I will do it for you.”
If you wish it, that seems like weird way of saying something.
I nod. “Please.”
I wander back to the river. Shogun is back. He doesn’t look interested in speaking with me anymore.
“Why did you burn them?” I ask him.
“You’ve read Melville right?”
“Yes of course, Typee, The Confidence Man, Whitejacket, Moby Dick.”
Shogun laughs. “Ahab and his white whale.”
“Why did you burn them?” I ask him.
“It’s funny because he got a white whale and you got a white fish.”
I try a different tactic. “Why can you speak?”
“Ahhh.” Shogun swims sideways. “Who’s saying I can?”
“You’re not real are you?”
“I am real, very real, more real than you are here.”
I frown now not sure what to ask.
Shogun continues after some silence. “If you must know I didn’t burn them all by myself.”
“Who helped you?”
“Why you did.”
“What?” My voice is very small.
“You did, Yuuki did, all of Korea did, a family in Idaho, that tree on the west bank, the US government, the cavemen. Even ‘they’ helped me.”
“Why would ‘they’ help you?”
“Because,” Shogun starts, stops. He laughs, “You know better than I do. You really are a tricky bastard.”
I stiffen. “More like a man without a homeland. A child left behind.”
Shogun moves his body in a manner that can best equated to the fish’s version of a shrug. “You keep mentioning that to people eventually someone might pity you. Is that what you want? Pity?”
“No.” I tell him. “You know what I want.”
The fish thinks in silence for a bit. “You know, if you pursue this then you might find something. You might not.”
“But I will tell you this, you have the answer right here.”
Shogun swims away.
With my white fish gone I look into the water. I stare at my reflection for a time. I do that. Some people mistake it for vanity, when people look at themselves in mirrors. But in my case I’m not looking at myself when I look at my reflection. I’m looking for someone else. Actually I’m looking for many people. I don’t know the exact number, I know that it is at least two, but aside from that it’s the same as the bodies burnt in the fire.
Yuuki taps me on the shoulder. “I’m done, do you want to see?”
I shake my head. “I’m sorry I made you do that again.”
“Will you forgive me when I say you might have to do it again someday?”
“As long as you wish it.”
As long as you wish it…it is a funny way to put it.
I smile, “Thank you.”
“Do you need to see him?”
I shake my head and look down at my reflection. “No, I don’t need to.”
“Instead, let’s go down to 7-Eleven and get some ice cream.”
“Yeay!” Twelve-year-old Yuuki lifts one small fist into the air.
I’m no longer twenty something year old Matt. I’m ten-year-old Matt now, again, finally once more. You know I always wished it were this way ever since I turned eleven. Now Yuuki is no longer twelve though. She’s again twenty five year old Yuuki.
“Then,” I continue in my child’s voice that never falters, “we can grow old.”
Eventually, everything turns to ash and smiles.