Maki stood casually in the doorway of her home, watching the distant crows peck and fight noisily at the garbage mound in the far field. In mid-flight, they seemed like black swirling gnats on the expansive azure sky. She enjoyed the otherwise quiet time before everyone else awoke, guarding it jealously and wrapping herself in a comforting cloak of stillness that would cling to her throughout the remainder of the day.
She knew Grandmother was awake, eyes staring up into the still darkened roof space above her. From the doorway where she stood, Maki could almost make out the shape of the old woman’s sparse form, lying in the cot on the raised sleeping platform. She knew too, that her bony hands would be clutching and grasping ceaselessly at the worn threadbare blanket that provided her a comforting link to her past. These days the old woman preferred lying down, it seemed it was less effort. Sometimes, though, she would crank her old frame out of the cot, and creak about wearily; cussing and swearing, harmlessly bumping into the world about her.
Turning her attention away from the inside of the house, she heard the sword smith at his fire. Creaking foot bellows pumped by his adoring acolytes and, eventually, she saw thin wisps of smoke break out of the smoke stack, uncurling like newborn dragons released into the morning sky. Soon the tap-tap-clang of metal against metal on anvil would fill the air, providing a background to the day at the base amongst other sounds. The master was a predictable man and a slave to a steady routine that, ironically, had made him the creative and productive powerhouse of the village. All accomplished with an unassuming and silent modesty. Watching him at work was like watching minimalist theatre. Each step controlled and calculated, deriving maximum results from minimum effort. A philosophy in motion. Letting the metal work and shape itself, he became the tool, the metal working him, forming the spirit within as much as the metal without.
Looking to the middle-distance beyond the smithy and, it seemed, in front of the bevy of clamorous crows, she saw another form bending over harvesting grain. It was still early and yet she knew that he had probably been up since before sunrise. It had been a good year, sun and rain aplenty. Seeing him reminded her of their brief tryst 3 years back. He had been strong and serious, yet gentle inside. Somehow though, it hadn’t worked out between them; maybe too much in common. Time had passed and these days he chose to keep himself apart. In a way it was better because his distance, self-imposed though it was, had had a simplifying effect. She had agreed at the separation at the time and hadn’t insisted, even for the child’s sake. But, still…
On the horizon, she noticed a plume of black acrid-looking smoke curling into the still morning air; possibly someone’s house. She could imagine the panic and the commotion, but she had no friends or relations over that way, so there was nothing really to worry about. There was no sense in complicating life. Turning her back and stepping into motion, she took the brush broom from its hook on the outside of the house, and started sweeping the packed earthen floor. Regular right to left, step back; right to left, step back; right to left, step back; turning, left to right, sweep, stoop and gather. The previous day’s straw had a slight dampness to it, but it still burnt well in the fire. Crackling, popping and spitting occasionally. She took fresh straw from the bale in the corner and scattered it generously on the floor. It was dry and smelled of the summer sun. Steam rose from the cast iron pot on the hearth in the centre of the room. The rice porridge was nearly ready and just needed seasoning with some dried seaweed, fish-flakes, salt and a dash of fresh curd.
She removed the pot from the fire and placed it on the wooden bench to cool and reminded herself to move it back slightly as either the old woman or the child, might bump it off the edge, and over themselves. The child was now two and a half-years old and would soon receive her name. Maki was looking forward to the rituals and the celebrations afterwards, not because it had any spiritual significance or meaning to her, nobody really cared about that any more, but simply because it would be a welcome break from the routine humdrum of daily life, and it was also a way to more closely knit family and friends together. Even though most children these days survived easily into their teens, it was a reminder of when it was common to lose one in three children to a disease of one sort or another. The first naming was an important milestone, and that the child was by that stage strong enough to meet the challenges that life offered.
She thought about possible names. Certainly the child was headstrong, stubborn and willful, but there were also softer qualities there that provided a balance. A name that reflected the child’s nature would be ideal. Nothing too unusual though. She’d have to give it more thought. In the meantime there was the more pressing problem of paying for the Naming ceremony. Maki didn’t like the priests and thought they were charlatans and leeches, living off traditions and the fears of the community. Was there a choice though? Could she just name the child herself and be done with it? Grandmother would never approve, and nor would the members of the village council. Still none of them had offered to help her pay for the ceremony. Maybe it was time to get the father involved after all. It could also lead to a drawing closer, but she didn’t hold her hopes that high.
There must be another way.
She looked around her small living room and scanned for things that she could sell. She used everything. The few ornaments she had were too valuable for her to get rid of. They probably weren’t of any significance to anyone else, they just helped her to remember times and people. That after all was the treasure of life. She looked at her gathering kit and decided that she’d try the forests for mushrooms. They’d be very scarce this time of year, but she may be in luck if she went early enough on a damp morning. Had it been the right season, she could have cut and gathered bamboo shoots to steam. She’d marinade them a little, steam them and then sell them at the market. But that was just an idle thought. She would think of something. All in all, she had about 5 months before she would have to pay for the ceremony. The priests were at least patient about payment; as long as it came before the actual day. Whatever happened, she’d look into inviting a few of the other women along and make a pleasant time of it. It was hard work in the forests, but friends always lightened the load. She was looking forward to it already and decided to ask Kimiko at the market later on that day.
There. The child was awake.
Her daughter tumbled out of her cot and came running to her. So full of energy and life, driven by a curiosity that often got her into trouble with her elders, but also endeared her to them. Maki remembered the time just recently when the child had found a sudden interest in making little pottery items from cow dung. She had been quietly absorbed in the artistic rendering of her dung pots behind the stables that housed the neighbor’s animals, totally unaware that her absence was causing some commotion and worry among the adults. She could have wondered off, again, and fallen into a well, or into the river, as children are prone to do. Grandmother had eventually found her behind the stables adding water to her dung mix. The child had succeeded in almost covering herself with excrement and needed a thorough wash before she was admitted to the company of adults. She was very proud of her creation though and gave it to her mum in a very serious manner that mimicked the adult gift giving ceremony. That had been priceless!
Maki looked at the child’s gift to her – a miniature dung pot – and held it in her hands before placing it carefully back on the window sill. It was one of those items that meant absolutely nothing to anyone else, and yet it managed to contain all those precious memories in itself. How were we to remember those golden moments in our lives without these prompts, she thought. Life was just too long to rely on the workings of memory alone, there had to be keys to unlock those experiences and bring them back to mind. Maki was keenly aware of that fact and often made a conscious effort in these quiet mornings, to review the histories of the objects contained in her growing collection.
Not now though.
She caught the child in her arms and breathed in her warmth and life. What joy this child brings! She never thought that it could be possible to feel such a connection, such a bond. At times she became anxious at a possible loss, but she soon drove those thoughts out of her mind. There was absolutely no use in becoming overprotective of children. They were here to learn to live after all. Keeping them from experience, whether that was good or bad, was not a role that Maki thought was hers. She involved as many people as possible in the child’s life and ensured that she lived as fully as possible.
“Mama, I’m hungry..”
“So, what’s new? Do you want to eat a horsie for breakfast?”
“Yes, a big fat juicy horsie!”
The child giggled and squirmed. Was it possible to hold still? She always seemed to be in motion. The energy was constant. Only when the child slept was there a possibility of peace for her body. Even then though, as she slept, she would dream. Maki had watched her. The child’s eyes would move behind her closed lids as if they were following phantoms. There was another world inside of the child to which she had no access, she could only imagine what her child dreamt of.
Maki and child walked giggling to the kitchen area. She put her down and rummaged around for a bowl, spoon and ladle. Then dipped the ladle into the cooling porridge and scooped two spoonfuls into the bowl. She loved the raw feeling of the earthenware in her hands. It had been made especially for her and she had sat watching its form appear on command from the potter’s fingertips as the wet clay turned on the wheel. She had seen the pot swirl into life before her disbelieving eyes. How could something so beautiful and practical rise out from within a ball of wet clay? She had marveled at her friend’s skill and rejoiced, when after the firing, the bowl came forth in its glory.
“There you are my child. Take the bowl in both hands and go and sit next to grandma.”
“I don’t wannoo..”
“I thought you said you were hungry?”
“I don’t wannoo sit by granma..”
“Oh, really…. mmmm? Well, then sit where you want”
She took the bowl in both hands, waited as Maki placed the spoon in the porridge, and then walked over and sat next to the smiling old lady.
Grandma had been watching intently all the while and gave the child a playful tickle under her chin as she came and sat next to her on her sleeping mat. The old lady was frail in frame, but her mind was usually sharp and alert. There were times though, Maki noticed, when she drifted off into what seemed another world. Her mother existed more and more in another space and time. Sadly, it made her think that the old lady’s death was drawing closer by the day. Perhaps the only thing that kept her going these days was the life of the young child in her care. Maki wished that her grandmother would live to see the child through the first naming ceremony in a few months time. She knew as a certainty that the old woman would not survive to see the seventh year of the child and that filled her heart with sadness.
“What were we to do though?” thought Maki. “Do we stop life because of the pain? Do we cease to love because we know that we lose those whom we love?”
She knew the answers already.