Zen

Karl is telling his daughter how all the Japanese Police wear white gloves, and that when they dragged him off a man in the neon glitz of a Tokyo street, he just saw hands floating without bodies.

“I was arrested by mime artists. They put me in a cell with one window and four reed mats. Morning, noon and night I ate the same rice and soup with strips of shiny green seaweed bobbing on top. Once a day, the guards unlocked the door and marched me outside to walk with the other inmates.”

He turns to his daughter, buckled up tight in the child seat. He loves her that much you can imagine him kidnapping her like this if he does lose custody.

Or if something should happen to her mother.

“Round and round in a circle,” he says smiling. “Like a carousel, honey.”

The others spoke to him in Japanese, and this somehow surprised him, even though he was in Japan. He tells her he knew how to say hello, please and thank you, but has forgotten now. “Anyway,” he glances at her in the rear view mirror. “We’re in America now.”

He wants to tell her more about the tattooed yakuza. Not the irony of being discharged from the Marines for violent conduct. Or what will happen to her mother if she runs away with his only daughter.

“Tattooed from neck to toes,” he gestures. “A walking work of art.” He slows and steers around an icy corner with one hand so he can show her where the neck and toes are.

“The yakuza was the only one who spoke English,” he says, turning to his daughter and nodding after the words. “Even the guards were afraid of him.”

“Horseys,” she says, awake for a few seconds to exclaim the animal before dropping back to sleep. Karl picks up a rag to wipe the fogged windows. They pass a car nose down in the ditch. Through the snow with his daughter to see some horses in a paddock.

“The quiet was killin me, I’d only been in there a day and I was goin nuts. All the yakuza guy could do was show me his tattoos, pointing and saying ‘This koi. This sword. This dragon.’ Gets a bit tedious after a while. Anyway, he’s my one form of entertainment, and I’m trying to tell him how boring it is sitting in the cell twiddling my thumbs when he just smiles, pulls off his shirt and shows me this tattoo of a samurai sitting by a river with his legs crossed and eyes closed.”

Karl slows again. The flashing beacon of the snowplough is the only colour in a pure white landscape. He manoeuvres down through the gears then steadily accelerates, veering beyond the blade and its breaking wave of ice.

“He’s pointing at his arm saying, ‘He you. He you.’ And I’m really not getting him now, he’s all frustrated with his English, and the whole thing is messing up when the guards come rushing over. There’s a stand off with this warden and the yakuza guy. This scrawny kid, shrivelled up in a uniform too big, blowing his whistle in the face of tattoo man who’s just standing there bare chested, eye balling this guard like he could cut him from the scene at any moment.”

His daughter sleeps. The empty road is a line of the world erased. Neither of them is in the car. Karl stands in the courtyard of a Japanese prison, his daughter dreams of a white horse with a rippling mane, galloping through meadows and glittering streams.

“A load of other guards come out and we’re all pushed back to our boxes. Except yakuza man, who just walks to his cell like he’s taking a stroll in the park. Trouble is, once the fun is over and I’m home sweet home, it seems quieter and more cut off than ever. All I can do is push-ups and sleep. I have this one dream where I wake with a key in my hand and go and unlock the door, thinking the brightness spilling through the cracks is sunlight and freedom. When I heave it open, all I see is stars and the Earth getting smaller.”

He looks down on a town from the elevated road. Leafless trees and chimney smoke. The houses somehow huddled closer against the cold.

“I was terrified. Usually you wake and it’s just a dream, but that box could’ve been lost in space. I punched the crap out of that door until I split my knuckles. The guards opened the hatch, shouting. I didn’t care. I wanted them swinging those truncheons for something to do.”

Karl checks his watch and pulls over. He takes a plastic bottle of juice from a bag by his feet and twists around to the back seat. She asks if the horseys are here yet. He watches her grab the bottle with two hands, gulping as though it’s her first or last ever drink. Her eyes are his, pale blue with electric brightness. The glossy black hair is from her mother, a woman still delicately beautiful in hate, he has to admit that much.

“Next morning, after the door punching and all that fuss with yakuza man, extra guards stand about in the exercise yard. So when he appears, I’m a kind of reluctant to start up a conversation. He looks at my knuckles and says, ‘You crazy, no good here.’ He makes this action like his head is a bomb going off, then just walks me into the middle of the yard.”

Karl puts the empty bottle back in the day bag his wife prepared that morning. She is staying with a friend two hours drive away, and seems to save anger throughout the week to unleash on Saturdays at the man who brought her to America then deserted her.

The starter motor turns over then stalls. Karl waits a moment, looks to the brilliant fields. He twists the key again. This time the station wagon hums. He pulls away checking the mirrors and explaining how yakuza man introduced himself as Makoto, then sat on the ground and gestured for Karl to do the same.

“There we were, sitting face to face, the other prisoners and guards either walking around us or just watching. I thought it might be a start to a fight, some ceremony before a bout between the gangster and the foreigner.”

Then Makoto took off his shirt and closed his eyes. His painted skin gleamed in the shaft of sun that fell in the centre of the yard. The scales of koi flashed gold, the forked tongue of a fantastic dragon blood red.

He sat cross-legged as Karl watched his lungs expand with air, the way his whole body relaxed with each exhale of breath. Then he opened his eyes and pointed to the tattoo over his heart, the samurai on the rock by the river. He pointed to the walls enclosing the courtyard and said, “Prison.” He pointed to his own head and said, “Free.”

Karl followed him through the breathing exercises, mirrored his stretches and twists, allowing Makoto to correct his form, straightening a bent knee or wobbling elbow. He felt spaces open up inside his body, a sensation of unfolding. Cells bloomed with oxygen. Blood rushed his veins. He lost all awareness of the hardness of the ground and circling audience. A man suspended by air. Only when the whistle blew to end the exercise did he know again the reality of the walls and guards.

“I tell you, I walked right into the tattoo with the samurai. I sat down on that same rock, dipped my hand in the stream and let my fingers dangle in the current. I swear I felt a breeze on my face and heard the leaves rustle in the trees.”

He turns from the highway to a road walled by ploughed snow.

“Horseys! Horseys!” His daughter knows the graded speed of the journey rather than the landscape, understands that the changing gears bring them closer to the paddock.

The wheels spin as the station wagon climbs the driveway. They fishtail toward the edge. Karl grips the wheel tighter at the thought of calling his wife to say that they will be late because they had to wait for a tractor to pull a stupid car and a stupid husband out of a ditch. She would ask why was he out in the frozen wilderness with a little girl barely three years old? Did he not even notice she had a runny nose?

He wonders if she truly understands what he is capable of doing, what he has done?

The snow squeaks beneath the wheels when he pulls up by the stables. Apart from the galloping, excited horses, splashing through the drifts like a morning in the surf, they are alone.

He ties the woolly hat in a double bow under her chin. She wants to leap into the white, and the moment her coat is buttoned and boots are on she runs and falls face first, turning back to her father on the brink of tears. He scoops her up with one hand, a bag of carrots and corncobs in the other. At the fence she stands on the top rail, leaning into his arms. Then the horses come, flaring steam from nostrils, stomping the frozen ground.

He shows her how to feed them. How to bend the thumb back and hold firm. When he puts her down to pick up the bag, she walks under the fence with a carrot in her hand. She holds it up boldly like a statue in a harbour. He is about to jump in the paddock and save her, when a horse with a long shaggy mane trots over and lowers his head. He has look to his face like a father to a child with a picked up stone that needs to be praised. And she has no fear, laughing when he nuzzles in her hair and licks at her cheek.

But she is still too young to ride, he thinks. Too young to understand divorce.

And when there are no more carrots or frozen corn, they climb the hill and sledge. Karl lies down and points himself head first. She clambers onto his back and screams with joy at the speeding ride to the bottom. On squeals of “Again! Again!” he dutifully pulls the sledge back to the top. She sits erect on the seat like a tiny Queen. He looks behind, sees his beautiful girl dangling her hand in the loose snow.

“You know I was telling you about the prison, honey? The man with the tattoos? When I got back to the cell, it wasn’t a box any more. If I got angry and wanted to pound someone, I just slowed down my heart and closed my eyes, went back to the river with the samurai. I could even go to the beach again with Mom and Dad, pick up shells with Uncle Tony, play football in the park. But, can you guess where I spent most time?”

He turns again. She knows he is talking to her, but will only remember the horses and the snow, the thrilling ride.

“Here. These never ending fields. The horses and the sky.”

They are at the top of the hill. Sun gleams through the clouds.

“It even looks like heaven today”

They repeat the climb and slide until dusk. The snow glows in the fading light, and as they trudge back to the car he realises how late he will be in getting her home. How his wife will threaten him with a call to the Sheriff and a court order. Two plane tickets back to Japan.

The horses lean over the fence and watch him take off her hat and boots. He bangs the snow from the soles, shakes her coat and gives her the drink bottle. She is quiet now, and holds it to her mouth and sips. He closes the door and walks to the trunk.

Before he lifts up the sledge and knocks off the snow, he peels back the carpet covering and opens the tool compartment. He picks up the rifle he loaded that morning and feels the weight in his hands. He knows the action inside out, has taken it apart a thousand times. He pictures the cap exploding in the chamber, the launch of lead along the barrel.

He looks to her tipping up the empty bottle, twisting around in the seat to find her father.

Then he ejects the magazine. He puts the bullets then the rifle then the sledge into the trunk and locks it shut. It is snowing again. And before he drives home in silence, meets his wife on the porch steps with their daughter sleeping in his arms, he climbs onto the roof of the car and sits with his legs crossed, feeling the sky brush against his face.

 ***

Zen won the inaugural New Writing Ventures prize for fiction, as reported by the Guardian.