Dan Holden's Creative Writing
Anthony Okoyama has been my best friend since kindergarten, but lately he’s been acting weird.
I know, some people think nerdy kids who want to be scientists are weird to begin with, but he’s acting weird way beyond that.
Like something really big is about to happen.
I thought it was because we were going to see Captain America last weekend. Anthony loves superheroes and video games, just like me, that’s why we get along so well. And he’s good too – just give him a laptop or an X-Box and he’ll have New York City under his thumb in no time.
But this was different. I could tell by what he asked me as we were washing up in the movie theater bathroom.
“What do you think of witches and stuff?” he asked out of the blue.
“What do you mean?” I asked, shaking my hands dry.
“You know, witches and spells and supernatural stuff. Do you think they are real?”
I looked at him like he had changed brains with some random kid.
“Of course not, duh,” I said. “Do you?”
“I don’t know. I mean, no, of course not,” he said absently. “I mean, there are people who call themselves witches and they practice Wicca and all that, but it’s not like they have supernatural powers like Captain America or the X-Men or something…”
“Dude, are you okay?” I asked, “You’ve been acting really weird.”
Anthony looked at me and laughed loudly, his bright eyes sparkling.
“Yeah, I’m just joking. Just asking.” He slapped me on the shoulder on his way out.
“Whatever,” I said.
And then all this week he has been sort of prancing around, like he’s drinking his parents’ coffee or something. He goes to the library all the time, and he says he’s too busy to play on the X-Box. Excuse me? Too busy for the X-Box? Hello?
And now here it is, Halloween day, and he’s practically beside himself. He can barely keep it together at school.
“Dude, what is going on?” I asked at lunch.
“It’s probably nothing,” he said. “I’ll explain it to you later. I’m sorry if I’m acting all weird, I just found something that could be really cool. I’ll tell you later.”
Our school is the Ports of Los Angeles High School, a private charter school. It’s like maybe six years old or so, practically brand new. They say that before the school was built, they held classes on the beach at a Boy Scout camp not far from here. Everybody is pretty cool here, smart, with an interest in science, oceanography, and maritime studies.
Anthony is here mostly because his dad wants him to be to do better than him, or at least, that’s what Anthony says. I think he’s not very impressed by his dad any more. The guy is an ocularist now – he makes eyeballs for people who have lost theirs for whatever reason. I don’t know what made him decide to do that. Better than being a traveling salesman, I suppose.
Anthony’s family lives in one of the few remaining old Victorian houses in San Pedro. It looks kind of dingy really, not what you would expect him to be living in, but I guess that’s what you get when you are renting. They used to have their own place, a beautiful house overlooking the beach with big windows and a gardener. But the house went into foreclosure after Anthony’s dad lost his job at the shipyard and his mother’s business as a real estate broker tanked.
Now they have a plumber who has to come every week just to fix the pipes.
“Come on in,” said Anthony as we ran up the steps. “Mom’s not back from her cashier job yet. I don’t think Dad is here either.”
Anthony made a beeline for the kitchen, dropping off his backpack at the foot of the couch on the way. I followed suit. Anthony’s mom always had cool snacks for us.
We pulled a couple of bowls from the cabinet and started loading up with food.
“So, what was it you were going to tell me about?” I asked.
“Oh!” said Anthony, his eyes lighting up again, “Wait there, I’ll show you!”
And with that he flung his bowl on the counter, zipped across the room and shot up the stairs as fast as he could go. I think he went right past his room, all the way up to the attic.
He came back a minute later, not quite as excited. I think he was worried that I might not be as exuberant about his discovery as he was.
“This is kinda cool,” he said, “but it would be a lot cooler if it were for real.”
He pulled an old leather-trimmed valise out from behind him. It was a small one, just a bit larger than an attaché case. It had faded seaweed green sides with designs on it like you might see on an oriental rug. He put it on the kitchen table and opened it up.
Inside was a well-worn trumpet with an odd dent on one side.
“Is that it?” I asked, “a trumpet?”
“No,” he said quickly, “look.”
He pulled the trumpet out and set it aside. Then he dug into the bottom and pulled out a leather-encased board – a false bottom.
“Cool!” I said, genuinely pleased. “What’s under it?”
He looked at me carefully, like he wasn’t sure if I should know, or I would understand.
“There’s more to this than meets the eye,” he said ominously. “This isn’t the whole story.”
“Okay,” I said, “What is it?”
He reached in again and pulled out a strange porcelain creature. It had a head kind of like a lion, with horns and long vampire-like teeth, but it had a rotund body that was half human and half bear, with big paws instead of hands and feet.
“Okay that’s cool,” I said, somewhat disappointed that he held a piece of porcelain in such high regard.
“Like I said,” he reminded me, “there’s more to the story,”
“Like what?” I asked. “Is it worth a lot of money? Is it stolen?”
“I really don’t know how much it is worth, but my grandpa has always told me that there is something very special about this.”
“Like what?” I asked again, feeling like a broken record.
“Well you kind of have to understand Japanese mythology,” he said.
“This is an Oni, or an ogre,” he explained. “There are many statues like this in Japan and even here. But this one is special, because today, after dark, it comes to life.”
“Get out!” I said, incredulous that he would even think to fall for such a crazy story.
“No, it’s true!” he countered. “This Oni statue is a Tsukumogami. It has powers, and it will come to life exactly 100 years after it was made, which is today! My grandfather told me, many years ago, that it would come to life today, and I think it will!”
I looked at him like he just dropped in from another planet.
“Are you out of your mind?” I asked.
“No,” he said emphatically.
“It’s a statue,” I said, rapping the porcelain with my fingernails. “This isn’t any more likely to wake up and walk around than my toilet is.”
“You shouldn’t talk like that,” said Anthony.
“You’re a fine one to say,” I shot back.
“Whatever,” he said, obviously hurt. I’m going to take it out tonight, somewhere safe, and see what happens.
“Why tonight?” I asked.
“A Tsukumogami wakes after sundown, I guess because the light would hurt there eyes after so long,” he said, looking out beyond the window, at nothing in particular.
“What does it do when in wakes up?” I asked. “Have you thought about that?”
“Good question,” he said. “Grandpa said most of the time they don’t do anything. They just smile or maybe play a prank on you. But if they have been treated badly they can band together and form an angry mob,” he said laughing. When he saw my look of concern he added, “but this is the only Tsukumogami that we have,” he said. “And we have taken great care of him. My grandfather said he used to display him all the time.”
“Why did he stop?” I asked.
“You know,” said Anthony, “I don’t know. Maybe I will ask my Dad when he gets home. Why don’t you stay for dinner and you can find out?”
“Ok, sure!” I said, eager to get to the bottom of this mystery.
We sat on the couch and flipped on the X-Box for a few games while we waited for Anthony’s dad. Business was slow so we weren’t surprised that we didn’t have to wait long.
“Hello, boys,” said Mr. Okayama, passing behind us on his way to the kitchen, briefcase in hand. I wondered what might be in the briefcase, but said nothing. “How was school today?”
“Good,” we both replied.
“Did you get your homework done, Anthony?” asked his Dad. In truth, he really didn’t want to know because Anthony’s studies were already well ahead of his father’s. Anthony’s dad had been a dockworker, which gave him a good income, but he never graduated high school.
“Yeah Dad, don’t worry,” said Anthony, “it’s all done.”
We both looked at each other. Lie. Oh well.
“Hey Dad,” called Anthony, still blasting away at enemy soldiers, “why don’t we ever show that Tsukumogami in the display case any more?”
There was a long silence. We could hear Anthony’s Dad approaching.
“What was that?” He asked, munching on something.
“You know, grandpa’s Tsukumogami statue, the ogre. Why don’t we have it in the display case.”
Anthony’s dad was watching the X-Box screen with obvious pride. “Because your mother doesn’t want it in there,” he said matter-of-factly. “I don’t even know where it is anymore.”
“I found it,” said Anthony. “in the attic. In a bag. And if I remember right, grandpa said it turns 100 today,”
Anthony’s Dad looked at Anthony and then at me, as if to gauge if we understood the importance of that statement.
“I see,” he said. “So what do you plan to do with it?”
“I dunno,” he answered, finishing off another defender. “I kinda want to see what will happen.”
“Well,” said his Dad, “you kinda need to get your homework done first.”
“It IS done,” Anthony protested. Mr. Okayama looked at me for confirmation, but I couldn’t lie. I just shook my shoulders ever so slightly.
“Let’s see what your mother says,” answered Mr. Okayama.
Mrs. Okayama came in not long after with a store-bought Japanese meal. They did that a lot.
“Dinner’s on, boys,” she called, soon after arriving. We both scampered to the kitchen table.
The food was in opened boxes at the center of the table. Sushi, rice, orange chicken, steamed vegetables, and more. I grabbed a pair of chopsticks like everyone else and started in taking the food from the boxes to my plate.
Anthony was grabbing for an especially good looking piece of sushi so, for fun, I tried to grab it with my sticks.
“Oh! You shouldn’t do that!” said Mrs. Okayama with theatrical shock.
“Why?” I laughed, “So he can have it?” Everyone smiled.
“No,” Anthony said, coming to his mother’s aide. “In Japan, it is not good for two people to hold the same item at the same time with their chop sticks, unless they are picking the bones of dead relatives off the cremation table and putting them into an urn.”
I looked around, horrified at my mistake. Anthony laughed and smacked me on the back. “Don’t worry,” he said, “you are not Nihonjin, you couldn’t know.”
I smiled weakly, which made everyone laugh again.
“Hey mom,” said Anthony, “speaking of Nijon custom, how come you never want grandpa’s Tsukumogami statue displayed in the curio cabinet anymore?
Mrs. Okayama raised her head as if she had heard a ghost. She sat like that for a minute, which almost made me think she was listening for it again.
“It’s been through a very hard time,” she said, lowering her head to eat again. “I’d prefer not to put it out anymore.”
“But it turns 100 today,” said Anthony. “Grandpa always said it would turn 100 today.”
“Just leave it alone,” said Anthony’s mom dismissively.
“Ok,” said Anthony, smiling to me sideways.
It was nearly dark when dinner was over so we excused ourselves, wrapped the Tsukumogami in a towel, stuffed it in Anthony’s backpack and took off.
We weren’t sure where we were going to go so we just turned on to South Grand avenue and kept going. I should have remembered where that would lead us. To the Harbor View Memorial Park … a cemetery.
Harbor View Memorial is a really small cemetery. It’s flat, has only a few trees, and it’s surrounded by apartment complexes. It really doesn’t have a view of the bay at all. People say it’s the oldest cemetery in San Pedro, but that’s silly because they town was established in the 1640s by the Spanish, and Harbor View Memorial has only been around since like the 1860s. Still, there are a lot of old plots on this little piece of land. Most of them date from the late 1800s to the 1950s.
“This is great,” said Anthony.
“Are you kidding me?” I asked incredulously, “This is creepy! And on Halloween even! Can’t we go someplace else?”
“I thought you didn’t believe in the Tsukumogami,” said Anthony, smiling.
“Yeah, but – ” I started to protest, but I knew it would be in vain, so I shut up.
“Where should we go?” he asked, walking briskly into the park.
“Here is as good a place as any,” I said, pointing toward an old, twisting Eucaplyptus tree. “It’s nearly dark now.”
Anthony swung the backpack off his shoulder and unwrapped the Tsukumogami from the bath towel. Then he set it down gently at the base of the tree. We both backed off a couple of steps and then just stood there, looking at it.
“Are we supposed to say something?” I asked.
“I don’t think so,” said Anthony. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, we can go trick or treating I suppose.”
For some reason, we didn’t dare take our eyes off the little blue guy. But we did finally crouch down to a sitting position.
“How do you know this is 100 years old?” I asked, mostly just to break the silence. Anthony seemed eager to respond.
“Grandpa said the Tsukumogami was made in the likeness of Yukai from many centuries ago…”
“You said it was an ogre. What is a Yukai?” I asked.
“Yes, the Oni here is an ogre. An ogre is a form of Yukai, or supernatural being.”
“Supernatural being?” I repeated, my voice rising in my throat. “You mean like, super powers?”
“Umm, yeah, I suppose so,” said Anthony, suddenly realizing the importance of what he was saying. “All Tsukumogami are forms of Yukai. Most Tsukumogami are common items like old shoes, mirrors, swords, teacups and stuff. They become shape shifters on their 100th birthday, growing arms and legs, or eyes or teeth. But the Oni are ogres.”
We both looked at the ogre statue again. And as we did so, it seemed to shake.
“Did you see that?” I said, sitting up. Anthony was sitting up, too.
“Yeah,” he said, “it moved.”
“What should we do?”
“Just watch it, I guess,” I said. “What do we do if it turns bad?”
“There’s not much you can do,” said Anthony. “Its not like it’s under a spell or anything. It just is.”
I glanced at Anthony. He seemed brimming with excitement, and that made me more excited, too.
The ogre shook again, although I couldn’t tell if it was the ogre or the ground that moved. There was an audible rumble underneath us that made my heart jump three beats.
“Wow!” said Anthony, standing. I got up too. But as I got up, the ogre rose too, suddenly expanding in every direction until it was as tall as us but perhaps three times as big. The sound around us was deafening, but we couldn’t have heard ourselves screaming if we wanted to.
Still, we didn’t dare move.
Suddenly, the ogre opened his eyes. They were a pale yellow in his glowing blue skin, making them curiously familiar, like characters I had seen in the movies.
Anthony bowed and said something in Japanese.
The ogre closed his eyes and bowed his head ever so slightly, then opened them and looked at me. I bowed too, and said, “welcome, sir,” in English. I looked at Anthony and shrugged my shoulders as if wondering if that was a really stupid thing to do.
“What now?” I whispered, my knees shaking.
“I don’t know!” whispered Anthony.
The the ogre spoke, his voice deep and low, but with a curiously dumb accent that bordered on humorous.
“What is he saying?” I asked, looking sideways to Anthony, who was nodding his understanding.
“He’s asking what place this is,” said Anthony, with a look of sheer joy on his face. “He knows it is not Japan.”
Anthony responded for a minute in Japanese. The ogre watched Anthony with an emotionless gaze, his eyelids half lowered. He was sitting on one side, with a hand supporting himself, the other massive hand resting on a raised knee. He waved his finger at me and said something to Anthony again. Anthony motioned toward me and answered.
“He was asking who you are, what language you are speaking.” said Anthony, with obvious giddiness in his voice. He asked if this is near San Francisco, he knows of San Francisco!”
“Wow!” I said, as if I was watching a robot come to life.
The ogre looked around slowly, still in his sitting position. He sniffed the air and looked up at the trees. Then he spoke again.
“This is a place of death, he says.”
I suddenly realized the ogre might take great offense to his surroundings. I felt a pang of fear.
The ogre began to rise, slowly, still speaking.
“He says there are almost no Nihonjin here,” said Anthony. “Nihonjin means Japanese.”
The ogre pointed off to a dark corner of the cemetery and grunted.
“Over there,” said Anthony, as if I needed translation.
We walked behind the ogre, who shuffled along with an almost apelike gate, perhaps due to his long period of inactivity. He stopped a couple of times, resting the knuckles of one hand against the ground like a walking stick.
Finally he reached a small black burial stone, barely visible in the grass. He brushed the undergrowth aside. Anthony peered closer to read it.
“Oh my god,” he said.
“What?” I asked.
“That’s my family name. There is a husband and wife and a baby buried here. No date though.” He looked up at the Tsukumogami questioningly.
The Tsukumogami was just staring at the gravestone, moving his jaw around as if chewing gum. Then he turned and moved off, beyond the gravesite, into the darkness for a few steps. He stopped and stared into the distance, his shoulders raising as if he were trying to take in more smells.
He mumbled something into the distance.
“Amazing!” said Anthony.
“What?” I asked.
“He says there used to be many more Nihonjin here, thousands, and he is right!”
I looked at Anthony quizzically. “There were?”
“Yes,” he said quickly, “Down there, beyond him, on Terminal Island. Before the second World War thousands of Japanese fisherman and their families lived there. In fact they were on the island for decades, they had their own schools and everything. But they were rounded up right after Pearl Harbor and all their buildings were destroyed and their land taken from them.”
“But why?” I asked.
“Because they were Japanese. And because Terminal Island is right at the entrance to the port. Even back then it was the busiest port on the West Coast. Lots of military vessels. And of course Fort MacArthur was right on the other side. It was the FBI that moved them out. The Japanese on Terminal Island were the first Japanese in America to be relocated. My grandfather -”
Suddenly the ogre became agitated. His body shook and he began jumping up and down, ever so slightly, but with enough impact that we could feel the earth move from where we were standing. His grunt was primordial, disturbed, pained.
He turned suddenly and shuffled toward us. I thought he meant to crush us, but just as he got to the gravesight, he raised his massive fists and slammed them into the ground on either side of the gravestone.
The force lifted our feet off the ground and, to our amazement and horror, lifted the ground in front of the stone as well. The ogre dug his fingers into the ground and lifted it, like a lid, exposing a small box. He lifted it up gently, carefully rubbing the remaining dirt from it.
The ogre waived his hand at Anthony and said something.
“Stay right there!” said Anthony, “I will be right back!”
Before I could say anything, he was gone, running into the darkness. The ogre seemed completely uninterested in my presence, still cleaning the box.
When Anthony returned he had two thin branches in his hands. He put the branches together and then broke them both, right at the midpoint. He handed one set to the ogre and kept the other for himself.
Then the ogre squatted down. We followed suit. He carefully opened the box, breaking decades-old seals and nails in the process.
Inside were three brass urns, carefully fitted in a white felt lining.
The ogre placed the box on the ground and opened the largest urn. Holding the branches like chopsticks, he reached into the urn and produced a small white bone. He held it out toward Anthony, who took the bone in his chopsticks and then laid the bone gently in the overturned box top.
Then the ogre did the same with the other two urns, taking one bone out and giving it to Anthony to place in the box.
When that was done, the ogre closed his eyes and mumbled to himself.
“He’s praying to the Buddha,” said Anthony, a measure of pride in his voice.
With his eyes still closed, the ogre then reached into each of the urns and took a pinch of fine grey powder out, spreading it lightly on top of each bone.
As he chanted, the powder began to swirl around the bone, like a miniature storm, gently pushing each bone in a slow circle. The powder seemed to expand and each of the three little dust storms grew, until they were taller than us.
Then just as quickly, they subsided. As the dust fell, we were shocked to see three people standing inside – a man, a woman, and a baby. The man was very young, only a few years older than Anthony and me. The girl was probably our age, she could have been a classmate. The baby was very small, and sat in mid-air as if it were in an invisible car seat.
The ogre spoke.
“He says to tell them what happened here,” said Anthony, and then, turning to the three figures, he was about to speak when the ogre silenced him with a waive of the hand.
“Oh,” said Anthony, blushing. “He wants them to tell us.”
Without opening his eyes or moving in any other way save his lips, the young man began to speak in Japanese. Anthony translated for me.
“He says there was a great fishing fleet below us, on the island, and there were many families. They worked hard, they built schools, they had their own shops and meeting places. He says there were leaders who wanted to form a union, but some of them were suspected of being communist, so they were driven away. He said when when the war broke out, this was the first place the government came to remove the Japanese and resettle them. He said he and his wife had a little shop in San Pedro and they did not wish to leave. They didn’t consider themselves part of the fishing community. So they lived quietly on Nob Hill. But someone didn’t like them living there and had them killed in a car accident. They were buried here, together, with no dates so no one of our time would ever know for sure where they came from.”
“But they have the same name as you -” I said.
The ogre spoke again.
Anthony looked at me with moist eyes.
“The ogre says this is my great grandfather and his wife. The girl is my grandfather’s little sister. My grandfather was not in the car, they were going to get him from school. That is how the Tsukumogami came to be in his possession.”
Her looked at the Tsukumogami. “That is why I am – we both are – here today.”
Anthony was clearly moved. Looking at his dead relatives, so young and so hopeless, he began to cry openly. But they could not hear him and they could not see him.
The ogre stood up and moved toward the three. He said something to Anthony, who responded in sobs, his head lowered, tears gently falling into the grass.
The ogre waved his hand at all three of the figures and they fell apart into a million particles of dust, dropping silently, slowly to the ground.
“What is he going to do now?” I asked.
Without looking up, Anthony shook his head and whispered, “I don’t know.”
The ogre picked up the chopsticks and put the bone pieces back into their respective urns, then closed the box lid on all three and placed the urns back into the earth. As he closed the earth back over the box, he let his hands fall into the hole briefly, closing his eyes, swaying slightly.
Then he pulled his fingers out and straightened up, taking in a deep breath as he did so.
He looked straight at Anthony and began speaking again, in his deep, measured voice. Anthony translated for me.
“What happened here is sad,” he said, “but many Nihonjin survived, their families now prosper, including yours – mine. In our homeland, many others did not. Bombs and firestorms killed hundreds of thousands. In many cities, there was nothing left. No homes, no people, no Tsukumogamis.”
He straightened up, and speaking louder, carried on:
“The fractured pieces will wake up in another few decades, millons of them. They will become Yukai. And they will not be happy.”
Anthony looked at me with sadness in his eyes and seriousness in his tone.
“You will not want to be alive when this happens.”
I looked at the Tsukumogami, who never so much as glanced my way.
There was nothing I could possibly say.
Anthony stood, eyes closed, his body wracked with sobs.
The Tsukumogami slowly sat down, shrunk to the size he had been for a hundred years, and solidified into a porcelain statue.
The cemetery was again a ghost town.
If he was right, in another few decades, all of this would be a ghost town.