Winter Buddha

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Linda J. Palmero

Nobuko shivered as the frigid, resinous air caught in her lungs. She pulled at her many-layered ceremonial kimono, unable to cover the spot on the back of her neck that had long ago gone numb. Pony bells jingled like jade chimes in the arctic air of the morning. Boreal winds dislodged icicles from their perches on the Manchurian conifers. Horses eyed the flying projectiles of crystalline water with due suspicion. Japanese soldiers of The Occupation pretended to be impervious to such things.

Nobuko felt another kind of numbness, in her brain, dream-like and surreal. Her mind felt like it was wrapped in the fibers of newly unraveled silkworm cocoons. She had never witnessed and execution before. Her father, an Officer of the Occupation, summoned her last night and informed her of his decision. He felt she was growing too close to the household slaves, especially the old Amah. He wanted her to understand that fear was necessary for the retention of power. The Imperial Japanese government was not going to relinquish power over Manchuria or any other part of China. To her father, these facts were divine mandates.

A frozen crust had formed on the path overnight. Her father and his lieutenants rode ahead of her, making a Swiss-cheese pattern in the frozen drifts. Three platoons of soldiers rode two-abreast behind her. Bayonets clanked and clamored on shouldered rifles as if trying to escape the leather straps holding them fast across their master’s backs.

Nobuko focused on the concert of staccato notes formed by the weapons and the horses. The words of the Buddhist chant Amah taught her echoed in her head. Ah-mi-to-fo, ahhhhh-me-e—to-o—fo, ah-mi-to-fo, ahhhh-me-e—to-o—fo. Amah knew she risked death in sharing these teachings with Nobuko, who did her best to keep these secret moments hidden from her father. Nobuko did not understand that this treason of the heart was forming the karma of her future.

The noon sun was at its zenith when the mounted entourage reached the outskirts of Plum Wine village. The microscopic village was perched between the teeth of two mountain crags. Nobuko was amazed to see she was now above the clouds. It looked as if she could ride right out onto them and disappear into the winter sun. Dread and powerlessness welling up in her heart made this seem a realistic possibility.

The smells of the forest gave way to the smells of a village full of people as the entourage approached the tiny mountain hamlet. Night soil, pigs, pickled vegetables, and frying meat contributed to the symphony of scent. Nobuko was surprised how prosperous the village looked after passing through the ruined outer walls. Ancient brick compounds surrounded a labyrinth of clean-swept inner courtyards. The last of the fall chrysanthemums stood shocked in their pots, capped with snow.

Twin lieutenants signaled the party to stop when it reached the village square. A new wooden platform stood in the center of the square. Nobuko’s father dismounted, followed by the rest of his party. He shot a look at Nobuko that told her to stay put, as if he did not plan to tarry long in this place.

Despite the smells, the village appeared as deserted as a cemetery at midnight. A lieutenant went forward and banged the butt of his rifle on the sagging wooden doors of a monastery. The gates creaked open like the lid of a casket, revealing a courtyard full of saffron-robed monks. Nobuko could se past he monastery gates, through the open doors of the meditation hall, into the face of the Buddha statue on the sanctuary altar. She looked into the eyes of the Amida Buddha, his hand gesturing her towards him, towards the Western Paradise. The horse shifted under her, breaking her concentration. She saw her father standing on the platform. She watched as the lieutenant led a tall Han monk towards him.

The truth of what was to happen dawned upon Nobuko. She realized her father was about to take the life of another being and she would have to watch. This was going to be like when her pet nightingale died of the cold, never to wake and sing her song again. She remembered Amah explaining to her, saying the Buddha does not make separations between human beings and animal beings. Remembering how sad she felt holding the corpse of her nightingale, Nobuko’s body began to be wracked with silent, suppressed sobs.

She looked again at the Buddha, praying for his help. The monk stood on the platform, staring into the eyes of Nobuko’s father. A soldier translated her father’s guttural screaming into perfect Mandarin.

“Do you swear allegiance to the Emperor of Japan, the living emanation of the Divine on this earth?”

“I cannot swear allegiance to one who does not exist,” said the monk.

The monk was forced to kneel on the platform and with one swift stroke of his katana Nobuko’s father severed the head of the monk. Her eyes fixed on the empty gaze of the monk’s severed head. The monk’s body took several seconds to fall over, his life-blood pumping from the neck of his body in crimson arcs. She remembered the words of he Amah, and used them to buoy herself up. She imagined she could see the Amida Buddha come and scoop up the corpse of the dead monk, carrying him away in his arms, bound for the Western Paradise. This was the day, at nine years of age, Nobuko found her faith.

She breathed deeply, as if preparing to dive into a bottomless pool. Instead, she dove into the mud and filth beneath her pony’s hooves. Her father, still high on the opiate of his power, failed to notice his daughter’s coup. This moment of addiction gave her enough time to round a corner and disappear from sight before a shocked lieutenant bolted to give chase. Her eyes and nose burned with the foul mud forced into them by her fall; squeezing into the narrow opening of a granary, she hid in the cramped, earthen space. A rat peered at her through myopic eyes and ignoring her presence, resumed his meal of rice maggots. An excruciating weight pounded in Nobuko’s head as she fell asleep with the smell of rat urine in her nostrils.

While Nobuko slept, a punitive chaos raged. Out of fear of the soldiers, and respect for the monks, families of the village had closed off their compounds and hidden as best they could. Soldiers were sent in twos and threes to rout the villagers from their compounds. Families were made to watch as one by one, friends and relatives were eviscerated by bayonet. Each time a person was killed, Nobuko’s father demanded to know where his daughter was. Each time the villagers were powerless to answer.

Nobuko’s father had not felt such humiliation since he was relieved of his naval command in favor of a younger, more powerful, and socially well connected officer than he. When he was posted to Manchuria, he vowed to extract as much suffering from those under his control as he felt the day he was relieved of his command. Until today he had been thoroughly able to do so.

The afternoon sun spoke of fear. The only fear Nobuko’s father knew was that of being caught on the road after dark by remnant bands of General Chang-Tso Lin’s guerrilla army. He consulted with his lieutenants and decided to leave.

The smell of blood was on the air, like when old cook slaughtered a pig for the larder. Overnight, the winter dampness crept into the granary, causing Nobuko’s clothing to hang about her in limp, soggy folds. She noticed her own stink, and could never remember being so cold and filthy and alone. The sound of village dogs fighting over something pierced the air, and was cut off by the approach of huge, flapping wings. She crept out of the granary and peered around the corner. She was overcome by the sight in the square. Nine bodies lay cold and bloodless, strewn like rice straw about the square, one for each year of her life.

Nobuko squatted in the shadows of an alleyway behind the granary, unable to move. The gates of the monastery creaked open and eight saffron-robed monks emerged carrying lit incense sticks and chanting prayers for the dead.

The monks bound the sleeves of their robes out of the way with strips of cloth, and begun their grim duty. In a painstaking, deliberate manner, the monks collected every scrap of wood from the surrounding village. One by one, remaining villagers joined the monks in chanting, laboring over the pyre and the careful arrangement of their loved one’s remains. Sandalwood chips, hoarded over the years in the monastery treasure room, were spread over the human remains. The now-senior monk handed a torch to the father of a slain child. The father, feeling his own kind of disembowelment, ignited the funerary flames.

Nobuko scurried like a crab in her fetid garments. She made her way, alleyway to alleyway, stopping at the side entrance of the monastery. Dogs, cheated of their morning repast, growled and eyed the child warily. Sensing she was no danger, the dogs resumed their incessant clawing at the gate. Unable to understand why no food was thrown out to them, the dogs scratched in a concerted effort until the old mahogany gate gave way to their toil.

Nobuko seized her chance and scurried in behind the dogs. She made her way through a labyrinth on corridors. Reaching the sanctuary of the meditation hall, she paused before the statue of the Amida Buddha. Starving, she took some rice balls and a single tangerine from the offering piles on the altar. She did this with trepidation as Amah had taught her that these offerings were for hungry ghosts. The hungry ghosts were poor, disjointed souls who having died a violent or unjust death, wandered about in search of food and justice.

Nobuko squinted her eyes closed in her best show of sincerity, and humbly begged the Buddha to forgive her for stealing from the wretched, hungry ghosts. Deep, clanging noises resonated from the temple bell. Fearing reprisals, she crawled into the dark, close, cobwebby space under the main altar. She lived like a mouse under the altar for the next two moons.

One moonless night, when all was silent, Nobuko made her way to the rough latrine used by the monks. She was careful never to soil her place under the altar and sometimes had to wait endless hours to relieve herself. Leaving the latrine, still dazed, her eyes full of sleep, she ran head-first into what seemed to be a dark, unmoving pole. If she had been more alert, she would have noticed the pole was far too resilient to be made of wood. In fact, the pole was the senior abbot.

“What is this stinking ball of manure doing leaving the latrine?” asked the abbot in a low voice. “You are not a child of this village, from where do you come?” demanded the abbot, shaking the reeking ball of rags by its collar.

“I am a hungry ghost, you had better let me go!” screeched Nobuko, in the most convincing voice she could muster, while hanging a foot off the ground.

The abbot laughed loud enough to wake the monastery before dropping Nobuko roughly on the ground. He turned to speak to a monk standing beside him.

“Empty Eyes, take this piece of refuse to the bath house and wash it. If there is anything human left, clothe it and bring it to me in my oratory.”

Empty Eyes was the oldest monk in the monastery. As a child, he lost his vision to a parasitic infection. He wore a rag tied around his eyes to shield the rest of the world from the globular scar tissue dangling from each socket. Blindness was no hindrance to the old monk who had long since learned to make his way around the monastery grounds as much by smell as by feel. He reached out and took the stunned child’s hand. Cowed, Nobuko followed the monk in silence.

The abbot suspected the child’s sex and identity when he saw the rotten shreds of kimono silk hanging from her slight frame. Not wanting to cause a scandal, he chose the blind monk to bathe the female child. What in Buddha’s name would he do with her? Surely, karma was at work here. The abbot realized this might be a test for all of them. He had to be flawless in his response to the issue of the child’s appearance.

Word reached the village only yesterday, of the demise of the Japanese officer who had been the instrument of their sorrow. Warlord Chang-Tso Lin’s remnant army had shadowed the soldiers since the afternoon of the carnage. One night when everyone in the Japanese compound was drunk with sake, the General extracted revenge on behalf of the villagers. Pots of pitch were poured, one by one, around the perimeter of the compound. Silent specters entered the compound and doused the ammunition depot with coal-oil. Most of the slaves were able to escape when the word was given. Warlord Chang’s general gave the command and his best Mongolian archers shot flaming arrows into the heart of the glistening pools of pitch. Few screams were heard coming from the compound.

At the age of thirteen Nobuko took the precepts and shaved her head. Many years passed and the Cultural Revolution came into being. Mao vowed to cleanse the land of China. People began to live in fear. One of the villagers, terrorized by Nobuko’s father all those years ago, gave her away. At first the soldiers were disbelieving when the old village woman made her way to the garrison to tell her strange tale. The captain of the garrison recalled vague stories of the events before World War II, when the Japanese occupied China. He reasoned that true or not, this story would be an excellent cautionary tale to discourage rebellion among the country people.

Nobuko was captured and locked in a cell near the temple. She was beaten and starved. Her refusal to deny the Buddha in favor of Mao infuriated her captors. She knew in her bones, any morning could be her last. She savored the incense wafting through her window from the meditation hall across the alley.

On the morning of the first new moon of the year, Nobuko was dragged from her cell. She was not even given time to straighten her legs from the meditation posture. She was tied to a rough post erected in the middle of the platform constructed by her father, thirty years ago.

Bullets were scarce during the Cultural Revolution. The order was given for Nobuko to be executed by bayonet. Before she lost consciousness she observed crimson arcs of her own blood streaming into the February morning air.

“I live in Arizona with my husband, cat, and other dear people. I am an R.N. and working on a Creative Writing degree.” This is Linda’s (Authorrose[at] second publication at Toasted Cheese. Her flash story, “Transformation“, was published in Issue 2:4.

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