Over Mount Fuji (8)

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April 9 —
Byron bent forward in his cramped seat to massage his legs. After more than ten hours on the Japan Airlines’ A380 flight, his muscles ached.

Across the aisle, Wulfstein turned toward him as the morning light glittered through the window. “How are you feeling?”

“My hip’s bothering me a bit, but I’m okay.”

“You should have that looked at in Tokyo. You groaned earlier.”

“The doctors said there’s no problem with my hip, but my ankle’s going to take a week or so to recover.” Byron struggled to stretch his legs.

“I’m worried your injury may prevent you from joining our expedition.”

“I’ve lived through Rockdale—now, I can face anything.”

Byron paced back and forth along the aisle, gritting his teeth against the throbbing discomfort. Each stabbing pain brought the shattering nightmare back to Rockdale and the many relatives that swarmed around his hospital bed.

Flowers, flowers and more flowers, it brought him unexpected comfort from those he’d never been close to. Carol had come first, followed by his cousins and their families, all surrounding him with red-rimmed eyes.

Much to his surprise, even Wulfstein had flown in and attended Simon’s funeral while Byron was hospitalized.

Byron’s thoughts returned to his surroundings when the pilot announced their arrived ahead of schedule at Tokyo’s NaritaInternationalAirport.

A jostling crowd waited at the arrival gate. Two young ladies in kimonos stood in front of a group of men, holding placards that read “Professor Wilhelm Wulfstein and Byron Lambert. Welcome to Japan.”

With deep facial lines, a man in a three-piece suit and about the same size as Wulfstein, stepped forward. “Welcome. I am Hiroshi Yoshino.” The Sensei bowed low, radiating an aura of calm assurance.

Under Japan’s system, the honorable title of a Sensei, came with immense responsibility. Already briefed that Professor Yoshino had been working under stress, Byron expected him to look troubled. But today the Sensei greeted them with a cheerful countenance.

Wulfstein returned the bow. “It must be at least seven years since we last met, Yoshino-san.”

“A long time,” Yoshino said, gesturing to another man stepping forward from behind him. “This is Mr Nishihara, a renowned oceanographer and a co-pilot of deep-sea submersibles.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Nishihara bowed.

japanese-garden

In his mid-forties, the oceanographer had a large, round face. His almond-shaped eyes beamed from behind his gold-rimmed spectacles that sat slightly askew on a lumpy nose. As he extended his plump hand with three-fingers, Wulfstein hesitated before shaking it. Byron had a creepy feeling, though he couldn’t place it. Nishihara murmured, but his smile remained broad as he rubbed his hand on his trousers.

The Sensei pointed to one of the girls. “This is my daughter Nobuko, and her friend Atsuko.”

Byron’s eyes fixed on the ladies—their cheerful smiles with rouged cheeks—neither of them looked more than twenty. But it was their kimonos that stunned him. Bright green obis wrapped their midriffs, tied by long sashes. Byron gazed at Nobuko’s gown, the embroidered dragon winding from the hem of the robe upward.

WULFSTEIN TURNED TO face Yoshino, feeling such welcoming was unnecessary. “I am honored and appreciate your coming all the way to meet us.”

“It’s my pleasure, Professor Wulfstein,” Yoshino said. “It’s a privilege to meet a genius.”

Feeling embarrassed, Wulfstein blushed.

“I have good news,” Yoshino continued. “We’ve nominated you to the RoyalSwedishAcademy of Sciences for the Crifford Prize.”

Wulfstein shook his head. Now, he realized Japan wasn’t a sanctuary for him; he would have to take his battleground to the edge of science. Yet, he hesitated. “You may waste your time nominating me for anything. I’m an outcast.”

“Great men are those who are eager to explore uncharted waters.” Yoshino retreated with another bow and ushered his guests toward two waiting cars.

Wulfstein stiffened, feeling he was heading into a slaughterhouse as the chauffeur directed him and Yoshino to sit in the back of his car and Nishihara in front. Byron and the rest were escorted to a second car.

Silence loomed for a minute as the cars sped off, but the Sensei turned anxious. When his cell phone rang, he spoke tête-à-tête in rapid fire Japanese.

“Any news on whether the Sinking Syndrome has worsened?” Wulfstein asked when Yoshino finished.

“No,” Yoshino said with a dejected look. “It’s just a call to inform me that Kaiiko and Ito Maru haven’t been found.”

Stunned, Wulfstein felt sorry for those who didn’t return from the research submersible and its mother ship.

“They disappeared while tracking along on the seabed yesterday,” Yoshino added.

“What were their last bearings?”

“28º North and 136º East; that’s about 600 miles southeast of Kyushu.”

Wulfstein tensed. Just before taking off from the Los Angeles airport, EQ-Lun had recorded the blo-o-op sound making a U-turn to the north. That was where the disappearance occurred. The mystery had deepened, now widening his challenge.

The cars stopped and he alighted in front of a villa. Capped with a roof that curved upward at both ends, it exuded an ancient charm. A rush of excitement filled his heart—this villa, surrounded by cherry trees, would be his home and Byron’s for the duration of their stay.

“Magnificent!” Wulfstein said to Yoshino.

“The villa’s name is Sakura. It means cherry blossom.”

Wulfstein bowed. “You’re honoring me with such a splendid accommodation.”

They proceeded along the sandy sidewalk; large stones conveyed a weighty feeling, and low-lying plants provided a balance, making the garden serene and peaceful. Further away, maple trees radiated rich hues of russet, gold, yellow and carmine along the path. A yukimi-gata lantern, framed by a Japanese cypress and a camellia bush, enhanced the ambiance.

With Yoshino leading, Wulfstein followed behind. When they emerged between two columns of the villa, an immense sea of pebbles appeared before them. To the north, large bold irregular rocks stood as sentinels, breaking the garden’s spaciousness.

With such tranquility, Wulfstein sensed something alive in the wavy stretch of raked sand and smaller strange-looking rocks and stones. “Is this a Zen garden?”

“This is a Seki TeiGarden,” Yoshino said. “The wavy field represents the ocean.”

Enthralled, he visualized a waterless Pacific.

Yoshino said, “Our art historian Yoshinaga stressed that such a garden represents the most profound essence of the ocean—by not having any water.”

Wulfstein studied the landscape, contemplating Japan’s unique philosophy. He turned to the right and marveled at the sculptured groupings of rocks and stones. “And what does that symbolize?”

“The tall cluster of rocks represents power and authority,” Yoshino said, gesturing. “It depicts a dragon. And the low-lying stones portray helpless men with their sinking ships in battle against the sea monster.”

Wulfstein nodded, pleased he could see that nature, manipulated as art, appeared more awesome than he could imagine. Soon, his eyes just fixed on the mighty palatial formation, reminiscing himself of his troubling nightmare—inside the sea dungeon of the King of the Deep—the towering rock and stone bastions, juxtaposed against waves of pebbles, resembled an impenetrable fortification for a mythical world of power, secrets, and mystery.

“Our art comes from ancient myths,” Yoshino said, pointing. “Isolated rocks are used to symbolize warriors and deities.”

Startled from his reverie, he rubbed his eyes and said, “You’re not only practicing the art of gardening, you’re practicing philosophy to its limits.”

Yoshino smiled and led the visitors to a white sandy path.

After a short walk into a miniature nature reserve, they reached the edge of a cliff, and Wulfstein realized that Sakura sat on high ground. The land on the south side continued rising. The bluff provided a glittering view of the vast Pacific under the late afternoon sun.

Turning to the southwest, he gazed at lavender-red clouds. On the horizon, mauve-tinted snow covered the slopes of Mount Fuji against a setting sky, cloaking the ethereal scene with the unnatural clarity of a giant tapestry.

When the entourage moved ahead, Wulfstein stood behind and inhaled, marveling at the subtle shifts of hue. The sacred volcano seemed to defy gravity and floated free in mid-heaven, causing his nerves to tingle. He relaxed, comforted by the boundless beauty of it all—the play of light, shade, and illusion of indigo.

Focusing inward, he closed his eyes. Images of his long-forgotten dream flooded back, colliding with the shimmering peak of the volcano that spun through his field of vision, feeling as if he were riding on a beast over Fujisan. He pressed two fingers against his eyes and the reflection of the sacred mountain came rushing back, so bright and powerful that, for a long moment, he couldn’t tell whether his sensations were real or imagined.

When he opened them for another look, he shook his head. Suspended between heaven and earth, the perfect pyramid rose against a variety of pinkish-orange, so luminescent that it seemed to pulse within his mind, prompting him to whisper, “Fujisan, Fujisan. Are you real or an illusion?”

As he recalled his recurring dream, a silent voice grew louder and more vivid, taking him back to a pivotal moment in his childhood: If you search for me, you’ll find me. He froze, realizing how it’d inspired his unquenchable curiosity in the quest for what it all meant—the clouds, the waves, the rocks. But when a spindrift of snow brushed his cheeks, he shivered.

Wulfstein plodded ahead to rejoin the entourage. Soon rows of Yoshino and Kwansan cherry trees came into sights, washing away his troubling dreams with their tender display of white and pink blossoms.

BYRON SMILED AS Nobuko plucked two twigs from the cherry trees, strolled over and handed him one. Beautiful indeed, he thought as a warm tingling sensation pierced through him.

“Yoshino blossoms—” Nobuko said.

“Yoshino?” Byron asked, surprised.

“Yes, this species of cherry tree honors our family name.”

Byron inhaled its sweet delicate scent.

“A person without moods is as unnatural as a world without seasons,” Atsuko said. “Cherry blossoms teach us that suffering is part of nature.”

“We cherish flowers more than evergreens,” Nobuko added, “precisely because they do not last.”

The bewitching clarity of Nobuko’s eyes and purity in her voice awoke a feeling within him which had long been dormant, now warming up. “Very poetic,” he said.

“Your eyes are blue,” Atsuko said. “They’re like the countless tears of an ocean.”

“And your hairs are brown, Byron,” Nobuko added, giggling between words, “ . . . like the decaying leaves of an old tree.”

A sudden gale blew over the bluff. A hundred birds fluttered from nearby and took to the air. The blossoms scattered like snowflakes while some floated into the sky in waves. Dark clouds covered the sky. Lost in the ebb and flow of the waves, the blossoms and birds disappeared into the horizon, and then nothing troubled the evening air.

“Look!” Nobuko pointed toward the southern coastline. All eyes turned skyward and watched a formation in the making.

Byron writhed at the fighter planes in formation; why a flower shape? It looked like the Air Force in battle, yet its peaceful flower-shaped formation belied its warlike nature. Each circle was overlapped by another. Sixteen circles. Sixteen petals? A total of eighteen circles, including two in the middle. It must be a monstrous task to create such a display.

Nishihara squinted. “These must be our entire Super Hornets based at Yokota Air Base.”

“A chrysanthemum!” Atsuko cried as a thunderous roar filled the air.

The planes headed north and the noise receded. But Byron’s heart still pounded, believing it was a nonsensical way to boost self-confidence.

The planes disappeared and silence returned. Soon, accompanied by bloated clouds moving with gathering speed, strong winds started blowing, bending trees. Minutes later, the sky released several flashes of lightning. An eerie grayness spread, staining the sky black. Crackles of thunder echoed and reverberated. In the next instant, torrential rain fell, drenching everyone as they scrambled back to Sakura.

After handing out towels, Yoshino showed his guests around the villa. More conversation followed before they bade farewell.

Silence returned.

For the evening, Byron sat on an armchair in his room, lost in thought. His first encounter with a strange culture had been both exciting and condescending, yet he remained nervous on the doorstep of a mystifying nation.

As darkness fell, he switched on the lights. A picture hung on the wall, depicting fishermen with spindly limbs fishing from rocky crags off a rough seacoast.

He turned. A stack of Lifestyle magazines in English in a corner bookshelf caught his attention. He took one out to browse, then another. A familiar face—Nobuko—on the cover. He flipped a page and read the lead article. She was a graduate in fine arts and accomplished in the art of writing haiku.

Leaving the willow covered bank, she strolls through the flowers. Her approach startles the birds in the trees and around the court as her shadow falls across the veranda.

Now vexed, her fairy sleeves flutter, giving off a heady fragrance of musk and orchid. With each rustle of her lotus garment, her jade pendants jingle.

She slips in and out of the flowers, now radiant, and floats upon the lake as if on wings.

Her flawless complexion is as pure and smooth as ice. Magnificent, her costume is of splendid design. Sweet of face, rare of fragrance, she ascends like a phoenix in flight.

Byron’s heart jumped as he read. He’d stayed away from women since Cindy, but this striking lady had his pulse racing. Those fairy sleeves, those cheeky gestures—like a phoenix in flight.

With a surge of adrenalin, he paced around the room, ruffling his hair. Finally, he cut the page out, and pasted it on the wall in front of his desk. And what are those decaying leaves?

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