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Aaron Paulson

In the Inaka

Rain poured from rice paper skies two valleys over, bruising the green hills purple and flattening the shag of sa-sa, bamboo grass, that was reclaiming derelict rice paddies. From a distance, from the empty socket of a window in one of the collapsing farmhouses, say, set back among the paddies, or through the sooty windshield of a bus abandoned by the side of the road, the white Toyota looked like a lifeboat pulling for shore in the glassy calm before a storm.

There were no other cars on the road. Hadn't been for miles.

"I think it's getting closer," said Sailor, watching out the rear window as he and Alison sped away from the gloom.

"Nonsense. The weather's trapped by those hills."

"'Nonsense.' How come no-one says 'nonsense' any more? You should teach it to your students."


"Anyway, I have to pee."

"You drink too much coffee."

"Or not enough."

"What is that supposed to mean?" said Alison, and pulled to the side of the road.

"Should have gone at that last rest stop," said Sailor, stepping into the waist high grass.

"That was no rest stop, that was a shrine. I doubt they would take kindly to you urinating where they worship their ancestors."

"So who worships their ancestors out here? All these farms have been abandoned, like a meteor or a bomb or something hit and wiped everyone out. It's really...really...."


"Hey, there's another word you could teach your students."

"Careful where you point that thing," Alison called. "Who knows what's in that bamboo."

Sailor, suddenly feeling vulnerable, peed faster. Ticks, he thought. Snakes. Spiders big as my fist. He'd seen all three in the bamboo and tall grasses that cropped up everywhere on this lush, green, volcanic island at the northern tip of Japan. Almost in Russia. He'd squeezed ticks out of Alison's back last summer, on a camping trip to a dead volcanic lake in the island's interior. Had run from a snake, long and white and poisonous looking, crawling out of a dry rice paddy on the edge of town. Fat, round spiders hung like Christmas ornaments from the eave of their cabin, spinning webs between the snow-shedding metal roof and the moth-gathering porch light. Black, articulated monsters hunted across the tatami mats in their bedroom as spring melt-off freed them from winter's hard sleep. Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! he sang to himself. Lions and tigers and...

"Hey!" he yelled to Alison, who was poking around in the back seat of their car, "was your boss serious when he said there were bears around here?"

"Bears don't scare me. People scare me."

"My fear eats your fear."

"Yes, but my fear cuts the paws off your fear and uses them for ashtrays."

"Okay. So can we agree that the world is a dangerous place?"

"So it would seem. Let's have lunch."


"And stop repeating everything I say. It's really bloody annoying."

"So it would seem."

Clouds smoked out of the low, green mountainsides. Rain moved like a living thing the next valley over. Engine off, Sailor heard water running deeper in the bamboo, where a line of white trees just started to bud green. Winter's acrid breeze blew down from the mountains, carrying the scent of snow and hardship at elevation, but down here the spring sun was warm and the last range of hills did seem to be holding back the weather.

"There's a path," Alison called, and disappeared.

Bamboo stalks dry as skeletons rattled as Sailor pushed his way through. Tapered leaves speared him in the ribs. The ground was still wet from the last rainfall, and Sailor slipped down what turned out to be a short, steep embankment. Alison was still out of sight, further along a gravel bar where the bamboo came right down to some fast flowing water. Melt-off and heavy rains had stirred the river over its banks. Now the water ran milky as his morning tea.

High water undercut the opposite bank, which opened into a clearing where blue and red and yellow insects whirred through sunbeams, and more bamboo. Butterflies. Dragonflies long as knives. From the river's edge, a trail ran back into the bamboo, and the spindly trees beyond.

A scene out of a movie, Sailor thought. That samurai one, where the woman gets kidnapped by bandits.

Back on Sailor's side of the river, pebbles turned smoothly under his feet. Something fluttered among the vines that crept across the gravel bar. A shirt, was Sailor's first thought. Some trash blown down here from the highway. The croaking of a large bird carried over the rushing water, the tumbling riverbed rocks.

Alison sat on a boulder jutting out of the embankment like a green wisdom tooth. She laid out homemade bread and peanut butter and cucumber sushi between them. Sailor balanced his knife on a bump in the rock, close to hand, the thin blade glittering in the sun. Alison used hers to make sandwiches.

"I don't suppose there's any meat in these sushis?"

"That's the problem with the world today," said Alison.

"Not enough meat?" said Sailor, chewing cucumber and rice.

"Too many meat eaters."

"Hey, I still eat meat, you know, when you're not around."

"My point exactly."

Sailor used his knife to make a sandwich. Alison used hers to quarter a spring apple.

"These mountains aren't as high as the ones back home, but they sure are beautiful. So small and perfect. Like those bonsai trees they make. Or the box lunches my students bring to school."

"Pert as a school girl's tits," said Sailor, admiring the firm slopes, the nipple summits.

"You shouldn't say things like that," said Alison. "You probably shouldn't think it. Anyway, you know I don't like it."

"I'm only joking. You're too sensitive."

"I'm going to stretch my legs."

Sailor stretched out on the rock. From higher up, from a branch in a birch tree, say, or on the current of warm air rising from the asphalt, Sailor looked like a lizard basking on that rock, like a piece of roadkill flattened and dried by the side of the highway.

A pack of gray-black clouds loped down the nearer foothills.

I'm bleeding, thought Sailor, scratching fresh bites on his face as he woke up. Where's Alison?

"It's as if she doesn't even have a head," said Alison, crouching over what Sailor thought at first was a bird, wounded and fluttering on the riverbank, among the tangle of weeds and slimy gravel at the high-water mark. Alison put her hand on the glossy, rustling page of the magazine, and held down the loose corner for Sailor to see. The woman was arched, spread-eagle on a futon, small breasts pulled taut, ribcage exposed as she tilted her pelvis towards the camera. An ad for a penis enlarger took the place on the page where her face should have been.

"Faces don't sell magazines, I guess" said Sailor.

There were others. The woman on the front of the first magazine still had baby fat in her cheeks. Her school uniform was hitched up just a little too high, as if the camera had caught her doing something naughty.

She looks, thought Alison, like one of my students.

Sailor picked up a magazine. Inside was coarse newsprint, the kind they used in the comic books Sailor had read as a kid.

"Don't you love," said Sailor, "how they read the wrong way around in this country?"

The women on the covers of the other magazines looked older. Their faces were harder. More angular. Faces like the ones Alison had seen in the back alleys of Shinjuku, Tokyo's red light district, their first night in-country. The faces of girls who don't pay attention in class, Alison had thought then. The girls who don't pay attention in class. Who spend too much time on make up and clothes and boys.

The covers were still slick and glossy, like the ones Sailor had glanced over in roadside convenience stores.

"They're in some kind of order," said Sailor. "These bottom ones are different."

What at first appeared to be a random pile of magazines now looked like a carefully arranged spread, meant to reveal only a small part of each cover.

"C'mon," said Sailor, looking at his watch. "It's late. Let's get going."

"These magazines are new. They can't have been out here very long."

"They're probably some kid's," said Sailor, "who doesn't want his mother to know he whacks off."

"Like they're on display, or something."

"It's just a bad joke. School boys. To shock their friends. You know what boys are like."

"But we haven't passed any houses for miles. No schools. No towns. Nothing."

"We should go. We're late already."

"Why are they laid out like this?"

"I'll get our stuff."

"It's like, they're here to make us stop. To look at them. To pay attention. But why would anyone want to make us stop here? What does it mean?"

Sailor looked off, into the deep shade of the bamboo grass. "If we hurry, we can still get to the coast by dinner. They'll be waiting. And you hate to drive at night."

"I just don't understand," said Alison, back in the car, driving into the darkening mountains. "Why would anyone leave those women out there like that?"

"They're only magazines. Everyone reads them."

"Maybe we should call the police, or something."

"And tell them what? We don't even speak the language."

Sailor watched in the rear-view mirror, but there were no other cars in this spot of nothingness between two ranges of low, mist-covered mountains. No towns or farms or houses, just scrubby pines planted in the logged-over forest, and everywhere dark, impenetrable bamboo grass. He took Alison's hand as they passed through the mountains, out to the narrow strip of coast and the city where their friends, other newcomers, waited, leaving the women on the pages to be peeled back, exposed, by the spring wind.

"Those girls should have studied harder," Alison said over drinks that night.

©2002 by Aaron Paulson

Aaron Paulson recently left rural Hokkaido for the bright lights of Tokyo, where he teaches literature and mathematics, and writes freelance articles and stories for online and print journals. Recent travelogues and stories have appeared in Kyoto Journal and the Blue Moon Review. See more of his work at his Web site and in previous issues of Slow Trains.

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