Twice now, Jacob had nearly bought a new bicycle for his wife. Mieko was using his ancient Schwinn to cart around their two-year old boy, one he’d bought in the early Nineties, long before they’d met. Little Alex rode in a green plastic seat that slipped under the handle bars in front of Mieko, affording him a front view as they pedaled around Nirasaki, a town in the foothills of the Japanese Southern Alps. The week before, Jacob almost bought a new American Eagle mountain bike for $160, but he couldn’t follow through on the impulse. A week later, feeling more expansive, Jacob actually bought a model for over $200, only to find the baby seat didn’t fit that bike. Embarrassed, they canceled the purchase. The Japanese clerks smiled and bowed and returned their money.
Every morning before heading to work, Jacob would ride Alex around town or up into the hills to see the big Super Azuza express whiz past. Alex was addicted to trains. But lately his father had felt out of balance on the bike, making unsafe moves, almost turning into the path of a car once or twice. In these moments, Jacob imagined the hand of God on him, a father-deity warning him with these sudden traffic surprises that he was not yet, even at 64, adult enough to responsibly care for this, his first child. A man who has never protected a child is still one in his guts, the deity, and his own actions, seemed to say. On Tuesday, Jacob’s muddy front tire slipped suddenly, and he and Alex almost toppled into a rice paddy as they descended a long mountain road. Going too fast, like I’m fourteen, he thought. Aware of divine scrutiny, Jacob tried to be careful, but that week he felt like a bicycle dunce. So many little mistakes. Or maybe it was the effect of a horrific video he’d seen on the Internet. A crazy cop in Florida, his patrol car lights off, filmed by another policeman streaking past in the dark at 94 mph, then colliding – detonating – into the side of a car turning left. Its occupants were killed instantly. Jake had watched it too many times. It simmered somewhere in his unconscious.
Friday morning, Jacob and Alex bicycled toward Shichiri-gaiwa, the forested, thirty-mile long tongue of ancient lava that extends south from Mt. Yatsugatake in the north. The city center lies nearby, below the cliffs where Shichiri-gaiwa suddenly ends. High above, gazing across the valley as if looking from the prow of a ship, stands a great white statue of Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. Kannon’s gender is obscure, sometimes male but frequently represented as a woman. This may reflect Kannon’s identity as “One Who is Sensitive to the Sufferings of All Sentient Beings” seems to best fit the female character. She is, it is said, the Goddess who listens and hears the prayers of the world. The great Hokuto Kannon was clearly female.
Jacob was a man given to cynicism. “That’s Big Mama up there,” he explained to his uncomprehending two year-old. “She’s the goddess of the universe. First she stomps on you, then maybe she gives you a break. I don’t know why. You never know why.”
“Super Azuza,” Alex said.
“Sure thing,” said Jacob, dropping the bike into its lowest gear and turning up a little street that wound up the hill toward the train tracks. If he could get a little exercise each day, Jacob believed, his heart would serve him far enough into his eighties that Alex could get an untraumatized start in life and remember him clearly, even if they had to bid farewell far sooner than most fathers and sons.
Cars were seldom seen on this twisting, narrow road. Occasionally an old farmer chugged slowly up or down it on his tractor. It wound around two curves, then through a tiny tunnel under the tracks. “Blue Train!” shouted Alex, as the local roared above them at the mouth of the tunnel. The blue train was a bonus. The Super Azuza was required viewing. Now the path ran up a fairly steep incline close by the tracks to a curve that afforded a perfect view of passing trains. Straining a little – he had skipped a few days pedaling in the hills – Jacob focused on the road just in front of him, then looked up.
Around the curve came, no, screamed, a bicycle. A boy on it, just a few yards away. He wasn’t going to swerve. Jacob braced himself and yelled, “Shit!” grasping the handle bars tightly rather than throwing his arms around Alex, who sat, as it were, at the point of the spear.
The two bikes smashed violently together, hurling Jacob and Alex backwards and sideways into the retaining wall. The rider disappeared behind them. Somehow, Jacob landed with his arm cradling Alex, but of course the toddler began howling in fear and shock. Almost as quickly, zipping down his little jacket and checking him over, the father intuited the boy was unhurt – as apparently was he. In the next instant, the kamikaze boy returned, literally crawling up the road, in groveling prostration, as only Japanese can, grasping one arm in pain, moaning, “Gomenasai, gomenasai! Dai jobu desu ka? Dai jobu?” His bike lay in the road, farther down the hill.
“Yeah, I think we’re alright,” Jacob muttered in Japanese. What’s this? he thought, a cosmic cheap shot? Cold-cocking an old man and his baby son on a little mountain road? Days later, musing on the Japanese gift for miniaturization and the narrowness of their world, his scab of memory would fall away, and he would accept that what the speeding boy had encountered as he hugged the curve was a man riding his son up the wrong side of the road – this is why they had been thrown against that wall.
It took the two year-old another minute to stop bawling, look up and admonish the older kid, “Be careful!…be careful!” in his high, precious toddler-voice. The boy, 14, wore a military-style high school uniform (in his mind, a minute ago, he’d been a downhill skier). Jacob got up and brushed himself off, rested one trembling leg on the guard rail to check a pain in his ankle. They all stood there stunned for a time, except for Alex, who suddenly began shouting, “Super Azuza! Super Azuza!” as the train of his dreams appeared and thundered by. It looked like everyone had survived the crash, but when Jacob twisted his handlebars ninety degrees back to their proper position, he saw the front wheel was bent out of shape.
He had the boy call his mother on his cell phone and was told the woman was going to come – in fact, she was already on her way. Fifteen minutes later, she pulled up in a van in front of the convenience store at the bottom of the hill. She was solicitous, if restrained, and Jacob managed to ask her in Japanese to meet him the next day at the local bicycle shop to pay for a new wheel. Then he wobbled home with Alex and drove off to work.
Saturday morning, Jacob drove to the spot where he remembered the bicycle shop, but it had disappeared. His wife Mieko was reluctant to involve herself with strangers and balked at helping him deal with the boy’s mother on the phone. Jacob began to boil. His right buttock was sore. He had decided the accident was a result of his sarcastic comments at the foot of Kannon’s hillside, compounded by psychic imprintings of the Internet cop car accident. As a child, his Christian Science father had pounded Mary Baker Eddy’s words into him: “Stand porter at the door of thought, allowing only such thoughts as you wish evidenced in bodily results.” A close corallary: if you say a local god stomps on people, she’ll stomp on you. But how tiresome, Jacob thought, his dad’s religious textbook was, and anyway, what kind of nut would deny the reality of the shit that this world is composed of? He knew the answer. Buddha. Gotama used to do it all the time, emptying his mind under a tree.
Jacob had been in Japan, the land of forbearance, for 17 years, but he still had not mastered his spirit. Mieko finally agreed to call the mother, but then it got worse. Now the father was going to come too. He leaned against the fence that bordered his little rented house, staring down at the creek that bubbled by. These Japanese, they don’t trust foreigners. The guy probably wants to inspect the wheel. And you can’t get mad, even a little, over here. An angry man is considered a child. Stoicism is coin of the realm.
I can’t do it, he complained to both Buddha and Mrs. Eddy. “I can’t be so fucking peaceful all the time.” He turned and shouted to Mieko. “Did the guy apologize for his son yet?” She glared back at him. The conversation seemed endless. Damn sticklers for detail, he fumed. Everything is difficult with them. Mieko finally hung up and snapped,
“Why can’t you control yourself? There is a way to do things here.”
Whatever, Jacob thought. His knee hurt too. He got back in the car and drove around until he found another bicycle shop. The man looked the wheel over and said he’d fix it for 7,000 yen. Then he came home and got Alex, and the two of them walked to the local park to pick up fallen sticks in the early winter afternoon. Above them, in the west, rose the peaks of the Southern Alps, sprinkled with new snow. The grass was covered with tawny leaves fallen from the cherry trees. The air was crisp and clean.
His cell phone rang. “They’re coming to the park now,” Mieko explained. “Stay there.” In another few minutes, Jacob saw the van and waved to the couple. He turned to pick up Alex and in doing it slammed the top of his head hard into an overhanging cherry tree branch. A final, angry rap on the head from Kannon. He knew this instantly.
When the couple drove into his driveway, the husband got out first, a thin, older man who looked at him mutely, apology in his eyes. He bent down to say a kind word to Alex and make sure the boy was okay, then opened the back door of his van and pulled out a clean blue-green mountain bike. “We’re not using it,” he explained. “Please take it. It was a gift from someone.” Jacob and Mieko looked distressed and made the required expressions of refusal, then agreed to accept the bicycle. Then the boy’s mother pulled out a 10,000 yen bill for the repair of the other bike. “Too much!” Jacob mumbled, but the couple was insistent. Finally came a little pink package, enclosing a mini-backpack for Alex.
“Is your son alright?” Jacob managed to ask the man.
“Yes, we took him to the hospital to be checked. Thank you, he’s alright.” They were ready to leave now, waiting only for a signal of permission from Jacob and Mieko. In America, Jacob might have invited them in, but Japanese conventions had long ago muted his American hospitality. Haltingly, the couple got back in their van and drove away.
Mieko was watching Alex toy with his new backpack. “Well, now we have two bikes. It’s funny. We almost bought a new bike a few days ago.” she said.
“Yeah, that’s strange,” Jacob answered. “Maybe if we had, this wouldn’t have happened.”
“Maybe it’s some kind of message.”
“So what’s the message?” Jacob couldn’t tell if it was a lesson on bicycle safety or patience, on not watching accidents or on not being cheap. One thing he knew: he would watch what he said about Kannon in the future. Speaking truth to power, he reflected in some incorrigible part of his soul, can get your ass kicked.
“Foolish man,” the thought then came. “Kannon, Goddess Of Mercy, heard you speak of her as you wandered in your mortal darkness. She touched you with great power but did not harm you. You have been given, at the doorway to old age, a beautiful wife and an angelic child. The raucous, dirty streets of Tokyo are behind you, you are enfolded in green hills, you watch these mountains turn green, then gold, then snowy white. Your job is secure, you can care for your family, and they love you. Imagine! This was Kannon Bodhisattva, who can lead us to Enlightenment! And She threw in a mountain bike for good measure. Such a deal!”
Jacob looked over at the new bike. “Honey,” asked quietly, “Could we get one of those child seats that mount behind the rider?”