Picking Bones from Ash: A Novelby Marie Mutsuki Mockett
Ghosts lurk in the bamboo forest outside the tiny northern Japanese town where Satomi lives with her elusive mother, Atsuko. A preternaturally gifted pianist, Satomi wrestles with inner demons. Her fall from grace is echoed in the life of her daughter, Rumi, who unleashes a ghost she must chase from foggy San Francisco to a Buddhist temple atop Japan's icy Mount
Ghosts lurk in the bamboo forest outside the tiny northern Japanese town where Satomi lives with her elusive mother, Atsuko. A preternaturally gifted pianist, Satomi wrestles with inner demons. Her fall from grace is echoed in the life of her daughter, Rumi, who unleashes a ghost she must chase from foggy San Francisco to a Buddhist temple atop Japan's icy Mount Doom. In sharp, lush prose, Picking Bones from Ash - by Marie Mutsuki Mockett - examines the power and limitations of female talent in our globalized world.
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Picking Bones from Ash
By Marie Mutsuki Mockett
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2009 Marie Mutsuki Mockett
All rights reserved.
A Change in the Weather
Satomi Kuma-ume, Japan, 1954
My mother always told me that there is only one way a woman can be truly safe in this world. And that is to be fiercely, inarguably, and masterfully talented.
This is different than being intelligent or even educated. The latter, she insisted, could get a girl into trouble, convincing her that she has the same power as men. Certainly the biggest mistake a woman could make was to rely on her beauty. Such a woman is destined to grow old and ugly very quickly because she is so much more disappointed by what she sees in the mirror than someone who is busy. "But when you are talented," she whispered to me late at night as we lay in our futons, "you are special. You will have troubles, but they won't be any of the ordinary ones."
In the beginning, we thought my talent was going to be music. Mother had an old out-of-tune piano that she kept in our small second-floor apartment and that I practiced on as a child. "It's such an ordinary piano," my mother lamented to the other ladies in town. "Nothing like the fine koto or shamisen I used to play. It's unfortunate because Satomi has talent. I know better than anyone else that talent must be developed when one is very young." My mother ran an izakaya, or pub, downstairs from our apartment, which meant that she was home most afternoons when I returned from school. It also restricted her social interactions with other women to the buying of vegetables or clothing from the shops during the day; she had no time for lunchtime get-togethers. In the evening, after I'd eaten my dinner and become consumed by homework, she was serving drinks to tipsy men and entertaining them with her wit.
"What," murmured the other women of the town, "does she mean when she says she knows that talent must be nurtured when one is young?"
"Witches," someone muttered, "must start training when they are young. Perhaps Satomi's mother is a witch."
"Witches are blind," another woman scoffed. "Satomi's mother can see."
"Well, she must be a geisha then," someone else said. "She became pregnant with her lover's child. He wouldn't leave his wife. And here we are with Satomi and her mother living in our town. Remember? They just showed up one day after the war ended."
"Satomi's mother is very beautiful."
"She isn't that beautiful."
After a moment, one of them added, "But her daughter is very talented."
Having decided that my mother was no less than a retired geisha, the other women gave her as wide a berth as possible, and kept an ear out for any gossip that involved the interaction of their husbands with a woman who had doubtless been trained since she was very small in the art of engaging a man in meaningful conversation.
I heard about all of this from Tomoko, who was my best friend until middle school. Tomoko often looked for ways to cheer me up because she knew how much it bothered me not to know my father's name. There were other children without mothers or fathers, and even some orphans who lived with their grandparents, but at least these children all knew who their parents had been. I only knew my mother. This ignorance hinted at a willful dismissal of social niceties in my personal history, and this past negligence was often enough reason for me not to be asked to parties or to be invited to walk home from school with the other girls. "But everyone thinks you are talented," Tomoko comforted me.
"I'd rather be pretty."
"I think you're pretty," said Tomoko of the little nose, slim hands and legs, and small round mouth. "In the long run, I suspect that being talented is going to matter more than being pretty."
My mother was not some geisha. But because we lived far north of sophisticated Tokyo or Kyoto, it was easy for her to maintain the illusion that she had once been connected to the old Japanese tradition of hospitality and art. This trick protected us for a long time. Women were nervous around her, and men saw her as some sort of ideal they should strive to impress and protect. The women knew how the men felt and it bothered them, but because there was never any definitive gossip linking my mother to one particular man, they mostly left her alone.
My mother was very particular and had a strong aesthetic sense that could at times be intimidating. Given a choice between two kinds of tea bowls — a gaudy and greenish Kutani teacup or a wabi-sabi style Shino — she would always choose the latter and couldn't understand anyone who would choose the former. She was rigorous in training me to see these differences too, every so often pulling out her small collection, amassed during and immediately after the war years, for our tutorials. I was allowed to touch the plates and bowls, except for one light-green-colored pot in the shape of a melon. "That one," she said to me, "is Korean. Maybe you can play with it when you are older."
To women she would say things like: "Did you see the kimono display in Kyoya's? Why would anyone with such cheap-looking kimonos even pretend to have a relationship to Kyoto?" Or, "Really, didn't you know that those bright meisen kimonos are considered unsophisticated now? It's a good idea to just cut them up and turn them into futon covers. I can show you how if you don't know."
With men she affected an alert, almost childlike expression, wide eyes taking in everything they said as though it was all, right down to the most inane reenactment of a day at work, the most interesting information she had ever heard. At the same time she kept her lips pursed in a little closed-mouth smile to make it clear that while she was good at listening, she would not disclose their secrets. When things became heated, as they did when a man was momentarily convinced that he should leave his wife for her, she knew how to deflect this kind of ardor with a lighthearted remark that would spare the man any embarrassment the next day when he was sober. "Nobata-san has done much better with his wife than he would ever do with me," she would smile, with no small hint of regret in her eyes. In the hazy morning that followed a night of drinking, the men remembered her as a beautiful if tragic figure who knew her place and thus was deserving of patronage the following evening for yet another round of shochu to drink.
The izakaya was small, with perhaps enough room for eight people at the counter and ten more in the back. The wall behind the counter was stocked with a supply of liquor and glasses. There was also a small refrigerator, stuffed with vegetables, meat, and the frozen ingredients my mother needed to cook her specialties. She was a wizard at utilizing every single spare corner of that refrigerator. Even now, when I pack a suitcase, I feel ashamed that I am not similarly gifted.
Although she only had four small gas burners and a fish grill, my mother managed all the orders for beer, sake, oden, and tempura. Alone, she kept the place clean and tastefully decorated following a rustic theme befitting our mountain town, Kuma-ume. Here and there were muted patchwork wall hangings refashioned from our drab wartime clothes, dried flower arrangements, and mismatched glasses and blue-and-white teacups she'd rescued from various trash cans. It is a style that is very popular now but seemed elegantly eccentric at the time. It was a feminine enough place that men always bowed when they entered and wiped up any beer that they spilled, but not so oppressively frilly that they were afraid to get drunk and talk politics until the early morning.
I never did learn where she developed her sense of taste, because she never told me where she was born. Instead, she filled my head with stories about the moon princess who as a baby was discovered stuffed inside a fat bamboo stalk by a poor bamboo cutter. The baby grew up to be a beautiful and accomplished young lady who was ultimately reclaimed by the kingdom of the moon.
"One day the kingdom of the moon will come for you, and I will be rewarded for having cared for you all these years."
"If I'm your daughter, you must be a princess too," I said.
"That has to remain a secret." She sighed deeply. "You see, I resolved a long time ago not to be a princess, but to teach everything I ever learned at the palace to my daughter, so she could go and reclaim her rightful place."
It was a lovely fiction for a child to believe. Sometimes I ran around in the forests near our home looking for a stalk of bamboo large enough for a baby. I'd already seen how certain stalks could hold enough water to support a bouquet of lilies, and how the fattest trunks could reverberate like the rain when they were tapped with chopsticks.
We children were told that the woods were filled with oni, or demons, and that many of these monsters liked to kidnap and devour children. Some oni specialized in preying upon little boys. Some preferred girls. Many were indiscriminate. Every now and then a child who had once gone to school with a playful smile upon her face simply disappeared, dragged off, it was said, by the demons in the woods, and then we were all advised to avoid the woods for a good few weeks.
Although I wasn't immune to the potential terrors of the woods, I thought of nature as being my friend and believed that it would always protect me. I had names for the sparrows who ate osenbei crumbs from my window. In early spring, when the yabutsubaki wild camellias bloomed, I made necklaces from their flowers and little whistles with their dark brown seeds. When the other children chased me home from school, I could hide in the tall weeds while they ran past. In our hungriest days, my mother and I caught crickets and minnows by the river for dinner.
And then one day, when I was around ten years old, I carried a long stick into the forest and imagined myself to be a female ninja. I had recently learned from my mother's customer Mr. Nobata that the women in Japan were as capable of mastering those dark arts as the men. I had decided to approach the heart of the forest and find the fat stalk of bamboo from which I had been born. Perhaps there might be an altar there to mark the spot, or maybe the moon goddess's father would be waiting for me with a bag of treats. I was often hungry in those days, and I dreamed up elaborate scenarios in which the prize at the end would be plentiful food.
I ventured deeper into the woods than ever. Even the barking dogs and roaring trucks, the noises of the town that carried the farthest, grew dim. Soon all I heard was the playful rustle of bamboo leaves toying with each other. I thought I must be the first and only person to feel the breath of nature like this on her neck.
It was difficult terrain, for the bamboo stalks leaned against each other, inadvertently forming little huts that I had to break apart. I became aware of how much sound I created. A small deer picking her way delicately across a patch of fallen leaves could move more quietly, despite having four legs. Birds fluttered in between branches and I marveled at the reflexes that allowed them to dart so skillfully. I resolved to be noiseless. Ninja, it was said, could move through the woods without detection.
Suddenly I was overcome with cold, as though the woods had been invaded by fog. But the air was still clear, and high above the sun was shining. I began to feel an icy pressure upon my neck, and when I reached up to touch the space behind my head, I felt clammy tendrils intertwine with my fingers. I recoiled and, reluctantly, the cold let go of my hand, then gripped my wrist. The hand was attached to an even larger mass and I could feel its bulk using me as an anchor as it tugged its body through the trees. No sword of bamboo could protect me now.
I'd climbed a good way up the hill into the woods and it would take me some time, not to mention a great deal of noise, to retreat back to civilization. So I did the only sensible thing to do in these circumstances. I shook myself free of the moisture and crouched down low behind a particularly thick patch of bamboo. Cold air sailed overhead. My heart and brain frantically signaled each other. Be afraid, said one. I'm panicking, said the other. Give this body as much blood and adrenaline as she can stand, said the one. I'm pumping as fast as I can, came the reply.
There I sat, muscles taut, instincts at the ready, when in front of me, perhaps just ten meters away, I saw a figure. As it came closer, I realized that it was an old woman with a woven basket strapped to her back. She was tiny, even smaller than my mother, with coarse hair pinned to her head in a small knot. She wore faded bluish-gray clothing, the kind of thing worn by rice paddy workers, and her feet were bound by fat swathes of cloth that looked impossible to remove. I wondered if she slept with her shoes on.
She pulled what looked like a fat knife from the inside of her garment. The air inside my lungs screamed for release. I tensed, poised to flee. But then she did the oddest thing. She bent down and cleared a patch of bamboo leaves with her free hand. She sniffed at the dirt, like the deer I had seen perhaps not fifteen minutes before. With a deft movement, she cut at the earth, and when she stood up a moment later, I saw that she was holding a fat bamboo shoot. The knife was actually a spade. I smelled an aromatic scent and saw a few more triangular shoots, with their leafy, golden-brown covering, sticking out of her woven basket.
The old woman knelt back down and brushed leaves off the ground. The ground yielded a few more shoots. She stood, and adjusted the straps on her back, for the basket hung more heavily now. She took one tentative step, then another, and, bracing herself, continued on through the forest. I watched her until she rounded a clump of bamboo, and then she and the cold air were gone.
I forgot all about my quest to find the life-generating bamboo grove at the heart of the forest. Now food took precedence. Bamboo has a shallow but elaborate network of roots that cling to each other fiercely, like lovers. My mother had often told me how, during an earthquake, she'd once taken shelter in a grove. "The ground opened up and swallowed five men running through a rice paddy. But the roots I was standing on held firm," she said.
I examined the ground where the bamboo shoot lady had stood. She'd covered the disturbed earth with fallen leaves so there was little evidence that she'd passed through. No trace at all, in fact, save for the lingering scent of bamboo in the air. I pawed at the earth and uncovered a few smaller shoots she'd left behind. Perhaps she'd intended to return when they had grown larger, but I wasn't about to give her the chance.
I squatted most inelegantly to the ground and began to dig, to hack, to claw at the shoots, an effort that would have been much easier had I had a spade. Instead, I had to improvise with small rocks and with my fingers. At last the shoot was free. I repeated the process a few times until my pockets were stuffed, and then I flew down the hillside like a foreign aircraft descending on the town below, not at all concerned with who might hear me coming. I had the image of my mother's face before me; she would be beaming when I bombed her with bamboo shoots.
She was pleased. Very pleased. First she immersed the shoots in water with a little rice bran. This she cooked till the shoots were tender. Then she turned off the heat and left the pot overnight. The next day I helped her peel. How exciting it was to see the beautiful, blond flesh of bamboo appear. "When you care for something," she said to me, "it becomes beautiful. You see?"
She made three dishes. She cooked the bottom part of the shoots with chicken meat and served this to her customers at the izakaya. With the tips, the most delicate part of the shoots, she made a sunomono salad, with seaweed and miso. The middle part of the bamboo shoots she added to our daily rice pot, sprinkling in some ginkgo nuts I'd harvested the previous fall.
"I've gone to look for shoots at the edge of the woods," she said. "But everyone else gets there before I do. It's all this work I do. It doesn't leave me much free time."
"You have to go deep into the woods," I said. "Very deep."
She gave me a strange look. "What were you doing there? Who did you go with?"
"I went alone!" I protested. "I was looking for the bamboo where the moon princess was born."
She smiled then, and I could almost hear her thinking to herself that I was still just a little girl after all. "You must be careful. There are many strange people in the woods. Not to mention onis."
"I saw an old woman. She was carrying a basket on her back and picking shoots." I described how the woman had been dressed.
Excerpted from Picking Bones from Ash by Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Copyright © 2009 Marie Mutsuki Mockett. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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Meet the Author
Marie Mutsuki Mockett was born to a Japanese mother and an American father. Her Japanese family owns and runs a Buddhist temple that has, among other things, performed exorcisms. This is her first novel.
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I was captivated right from the start by the world Mutsuki Mockett created, the characters, their situation, the culture. She cris-crosses generations and continents as she unfolds the story of two extraordinarily talented women, one who grew up in Japan without a father and the other who grew up in America without a mother. I didn't want to put it down and was sad to finish.