As a West­erner, I don’t share the Japan­ese belief, based in Bud­dhist leg­end, that the dead are allowed to leave the under­world to visit once a year, that they are guided back to their earthly homes by bon­fires and can­dles. And yet, this morn­ing I took extra care as I arranged the lit­tle bowls of dumplings and noo­dles on the but­su­dan, the fam­ily altar where the ances­tors are wor­shipped. I set sake and plum wine on the sec­ond shelf and arranged a mix­ture of chopped egg­plant, rice, and cucum­ber on a lotus leaf beside it. I played the pious host­ess prepar­ing the sym­bolic feast. Despite myself, I thought of my dead hus­band and mur­mured a brief prayer that, if there should be an after­life, it finds him well and happy.

butsudanI doubt it.

Hiroshi-​san was as stingy with a kind word or a smile as he was with the small allowance yen he doled out to me every week. He was a dour and miserly man in life. In death, why should he be different?

The fes­tiv­i­ties are already start­ing in the town park, where the Bon-​Odori, the tra­di­tional dances, will take place. A young man climbs the plat­form in the cen­ter of the dance space and begins pound­ing a taiko drum. I see fam­i­lies lug­ging cool­ers filled with beer, ice tea, and shaved ice – it is the hottest time of the year.

As I pass the torii gate that marks the entrance to the Shinto shrine up the hill, some chil­dren scam­per past me. One of them, a lit­tle girl with jet hair and huge black eyes, stops to gape at me, then hurls the one word I learned very quickly upon com­ing to Japan. “Gai­jin!” she shrieks and points at me. “Gai­jin, gaijin!”

For­eigner. A woman, appar­ently the girl’s mother, grabs the child’s hand and yanks her along, but the girl stares back at me over her shoul­der, tak­ing in my yel­low hair and green eyes as one would an exotic but­ter­fly pinned to a board. It has hap­pened so many times, you’d think I would get used to it, but I never do. I was mar­ried to Hiroshi-​san for five years, but still I am a stranger here. Still an object of curios­ity, my height and col­or­ing an invi­ta­tion to stare, my halt­ing attempts to speak the lan­guage ever a source of bewil­der­ment and amusement.

It wasn’t sup­posed to be like this.

When I came to Japan to marry Hiroshi-​san, shortly after meet­ing him at an art gallery in Chicago where I worked as a recep­tion­ist, I imag­ined an exotic, roman­tic life in a for­eign land. I envi­sioned tea cer­e­monies and Noh dra­mas, Zen gar­dens where red-​lipped kimono-​clad geisha per­formed clas­si­cal dance. What I got were bit­ter win­ters and steam­ing sum­mers, gangs of sullen teenagers with spiked hair and Ipods, sub­ways full of salary­men who leered first at me and then at their porno man­gas, and a lan­guage as incom­pre­hen­si­ble as the chat­ter­ing of crick­ets on a sum­mer morning.

And along with that, side by side with the kitschy and the pro­fane, an aston­ish­ing array of fes­ti­vals that link the human and the divine, all aimed at invok­ing the good will of the deities and ancestors.

Now Obon.

Already I can see fires burn­ing – can­dles flick­er­ing in win­dows and on porches, bon­fires tended by bare-​armed, sweaty men on open lawns and along the river­banks. Peo­ple stand in their open door­ways, silent recep­tion com­mit­tees for the spec­tral guests. Fire­works explode on every cor­ner, and squeal­ing, gig­gling chil­dren wave glow­ing pin­wheels in the dark­en­ing air.

The heat is sti­fling, suf­fo­cat­ing, full of smoke from the fires and the fire­works. Sweat pours down my face and pud­dles between my breasts. There is no heat in the world like the heat of a Japan­ese August. It clings to the skin like a hot, damp rag and pastes the hair to the scalp. In such a swel­ter, all move­ments seem to require extra effort. In this world sup­pos­edly aswarm with ghosts, it feels as though every­thing is under­wa­ter, that I wade along the path as much as walk.

When I reach the wooden house, known as a minka, that I once shared with my hus­band, I see a pair of mens’ brown Gucci loafers out­side the door and know that Katsuro-​san, Hiroshi-san’s son, has come to honor his father and the other ances­tors. I leave my san­dals beside his shoes – only the dead wear shoes indoors – and put on a pair of slip­pers before I slide back the door and go inside.

Even in the smaller towns, a tra­di­tional house like this, with tatami mats on the floors and shoji screens divid­ing the rooms, with bed­ding that is rolled and stored in a cup­board dur­ing the day and unrolled at night, and a hearth for mak­ing fires in the win­ter, is a rar­ity. In the older minkas the roof is thatched, but ours is tile, the ends of the tiles dec­o­rated with images of deities thought to pro­vide pro­tec­tion. The but­su­dan, or spirit cab­i­net, with its intri­cately carved lotus leaves and sutras, occu­pies a grand alcove in the largest of the rooms. It is the first thing one sees upon enter­ing the house.

This but­su­dan, handed down through Hiroshi-san’s fam­ily through gen­er­a­tions, is a mas­sive, impos­ing cab­i­net made of cherry and cedar wood, hived with a mul­ti­tude of alcoves and cab­i­nets and cubi­cles in which to store the dishes, incense, can­dles, and writ­ing imple­ments which are part of the daily rit­u­als. A gold Bud­dha rests at the top, pre­sid­ing over the many shelves and a desk that folds out for copy­ing Bud­dhist texts.

I call out to Katsuro-​san, but appar­ently he doesn’t hear me over the rau­cous bab­ble of a game show blar­ing from the t.v. set in the back of the house. I find this annoy­ing, but not as much so as the fact that Katsuro-​san has lit the can­dles on the but­su­dan, then left them unat­tended, a dan­ger­ous prac­tice on a sul­try evening with a hot breeze com­ing through the windows.

But then, where money or pleasure’s not con­cerned, Katsuro-​san isn’t one for details.

After Hiroshi-​san died, Katsuro-​san spent less time griev­ing than he did vis­it­ing banks, explor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of land deeds, over­seas funds, secret stock port­fo­lios. In his younger days, as an importer of antiques and art, Hiroshi-​san had reput­edly amassed a for­tune, not all of it hon­estly made. Some of his asso­ciates were art smug­glers and forg­ers, a few were mem­bers of the feared yakuza, Japan­ese orga­nized crime. Then, after his first wife died, Hiroshi-​san appar­ently woke up to the brevity and fragility of life. He renounced his crim­i­nal con­nec­tions, left Tokyo for this small town in east­ern Kyushu, and became a fer­vent med­i­ta­tor and stu­dent of the sutras. After a few cups of sake, he often boasted of a for­tune hid­den away, but in real­ity, he lived a life of almost obses­sive fru­gal­ity, deem­ing even the most minor lux­ury a reck­less extravagance.

Katsuro-​san remains con­vinced a secret for­tune exists, if only it could be found, but so far, noth­ing has turned up. In Hiroshi-san’s will, I was left the house and a mea­ger stipend of cash, and Katsuro-​san, whose profli­gacy with money was a con­stant source of embar­rass­ment and out­rage to his father, got even less.

Not enough for either of us to live comfortably.

Cer­tainly not enough to leave Japan.

As I’m frown­ing at the can­dles on the but­su­dan, I notice some­thing else – Katsuro-​san has placed fresh flow­ers on the bot­tom shelf and, next to that, an exquis­ite porce­lain bowl filled with dark red liq­uid. I dip a fin­ger into it and touch it to my lips. In the over­heated room, cold trav­els up my spine like an unwel­come kiss.


I look up to see Katsuro-​san watch­ing me from the door­way. He’s taller than most Japan­ese, with regal cheek­bones and a thin mouth that always looks ready to leave teeth marks in some­thing. I walk across the room, and we bow to each other for­mally, me dip­ping a bit lower as is cus­tom­ary with women.

Good-​evening, Katsuro-​san.”

Good evening, Carolyn-​san.”

The small­est of smiles, like the flick of a whip, crosses Katsuro-san’s mouth. Then we are in each other’s arms, kiss­ing, grab­bing each other like starv­ing peo­ple find­ing food, his hands tan­gled in my hair, inside my blouse, my fin­gers work­ing at the but­ton of his trousers.

Sud­denly he pushes me away. “No, we can’t. Not at Obon. It’s disrespectful.”

Such things have sel­dom con­cerned Katsuro-​san before. His very wan­ton­ness has always been the great­est source of his appeal.

With the spell of our reunion bro­ken, my irri­ta­tion returns quickly. “Why did you light the can­dles if you were going to watch t.v.? And what the hell was the idea of putting this on the altar?”

I show him the bowl of thick, red liquid.

He shrugs. “Red bean soup. So what?”

I haven’t pre­pared red bean soup since Hiroshi-​san died. Did you think it was clever to offer it for Obon?”

I didn’t put it there.”

Then how – ?”

Maybe one of the rel­a­tives or neigh­bors stopped by while you were out.”

He takes the small dish, lifts it to his mouth, and drains it. “There. All gone. What is it, Carolyn-​san? Are you afraid of bean soup now? It wasn’t bean soup that killed my father. He choked to death on mochi. It was an acci­dent. You know that.”

Do I? Is he test­ing me? I try to read his expres­sion, but inscrutable is not an adjec­tive applied to the Japan­ese for nothing.

It’s Obon,” he con­tin­ues, “and you feel guilty, so your mind is play­ing tricks. It’s under­stand­able. But what hap­pened between us didn’t really begin until after father died. It isn’t like we were sneak­ing off to Love Hotels behind his back.”

No, we sneak off to Love Hotels now – in Beppu, a larger city up the coast. It would not look good before the neigh­bors if Katsuro-​san spent too much time here, and the three Meiji broth­ers, who live across the street and raise silk­worms, are ever at their win­dows. So Katsuro-​san comes and goes with utmost dis­cre­tion, often liv­ing in a tiny apart­ment he keeps in an adja­cent town.

Blow out the can­dles before you go to bed,” I tell him sourly as I leave the room.

Fine,” he says. “And by the way, I didn’t light them.”

We sleep in sep­a­rate rooms that night, or try to sleep at least. The fire­works explode till well past mid­night, the teiko drums pound like pun­ish­ing blows. I’m wet all over, furi­ous at Katsuro-​san yet, at the same time, long­ing to pull him against me, inside me.

He lied about the can­dles and the red bean soup – or did he? Was it intended as a joke? If so, it was a cruel one.

No, it wasn’t red bean soup that killed Hiroshi-​san, but the sticky rice cakes, called mochi, that were in the bean soup. It’s a tra­di­tional New Year’s dish, mochi and red bean soup, eaten for good luck. Iron­i­cally, it some­times brings death rather than good for­tune. When baked, the mochi becomes extremely sticky and almost impos­si­ble to chew. Every year, sev­eral elderly peo­ple suf­fo­cate when the mochi they are eat­ing gets stuck in their wind­pipes, but every year those seek­ing good luck ignore the danger.

At two a.m., unable to sleep, I get up from the futon. My inten­tion is to go to Katsuro-san’s room, crawl into his futon, and make him for­get the ances­tors. Then I real­ize he must have had the same idea, because he’s stand­ing in the door­way, hold­ing a can­dle, watch­ing me.

Except it isn’t Katsuro-​san.

Hiroshi-​san regards me with a stricken stare. The can­dle flame illu­mi­nates the shift­ing shad­ows from which his face emerges. His mouth gapes and he gasps for air. His voice is the painful sound of a dull knife scrap­ing bone. “Hell,” he rasps, “I am in hell.”

Then he lifts the can­dle to his lips and drinks the flame. The fire blazes behind his eyes, giv­ing his wiz­ened face a fierce, demonic coun­te­nance. He reaches out for me. I scream, and he is gone.

The next day mem­bers of Hiroshi-san’s extended fam­ily come to visit and pay their respects before the but­su­dan. I tend the can­dles and the incense, make sure the food is ample and the sake flows, as aun­ties and uncles and cousins make their oblig­a­tory appear­ance, bow­ing deeply before they begin their prayers, engag­ing Katsuro-​san in end­less con­ver­sa­tion of which I am made no part. Hiroshi-san’s fam­ily, espe­cially Katsuro-​san, resent the fact that in all these years, I’ve been unable to learn any­thing beyond the sim­plest Japan­ese. They do not appre­ci­ate how dif­fi­cult their lan­guage is, how unnat­ural the con­struc­tion of their sen­tences, as though they set out to build a house but did it upside down, the roof being laid down first, fol­lowed by the sto­ries in reverse order, then the floor and finally, the base­ment. They don’t under­stand that read­ing the char­ac­ters, the katakana, hirogana, and kanji, is like try­ing to fol­low a back­wards road map drawn by a blind man and held up to a mirror.

What did you talk about?” I ask Katsuro-​san when the last one finally slips on their shoes and takes their leave.

He gives me the small, sar­donic grin of a man who takes for granted his own supe­ri­or­ity in all mat­ters. “If you’d only study your Japan­ese, you wouldn’t have to ask.”

Ignor­ing the barb, I press on. “Last night,” I begin ten­ta­tively, “I dreamed I saw Hiroshi-​san. He was eat­ing fire. He said he was in hell.”

A dream, that’s all,” replies Katsuro-​san. “Remem­ber the tra­di­tion I told you about, of how

Obon began? You were think­ing of it, that’s all.”

The leg­end goes that one of Buddha’s fore­most dis­ci­ples learned his mother had been reborn in hell and couldn’t eat, because any­thing she brought to her mouth would turn to fire. To save her, he was advised to offer food to the monks fol­low­ing their mid-​August retreat. The mother was saved, and thus Obon began.

I nod, but remain uncon­vinced. I may be just a gai­jin, but I know what I saw. “We should have left here before Obon. This house is worth a lit­tle money, and you have some savings.”

The mus­cles of Katsuro-san’s jaw clench like a fist. “Not until I find where father put the money he always bragged about.”

He makes a karate-​chopping motion with his hand for empha­sis. I know we’ll talk no more about it.

While Katsuro-​san goes to make the oblig­a­tory Obon visit to the ceme­tery, I put fresh flow­ers on the but­su­dan and light more incense and can­dles. The cup of sake on the top shelf looks appeal­ing. To hell with thirsty ances­tors – I gulp it down.

A quiver ascends my spine as the strong drink slides down my throat. I feel a wave of dizzi­ness and reach a hand out for the cush­ion to steady myself. In this sti­fling room, where despite the breeze, the heat has gath­ered and inten­si­fied through­out the day, the pil­low is as cold as if it had just come from a freezer.

I watch as the pale smoke from the incense and the can­dles trails upward and inter­twines, grey yin and dark blue yang, a mat­ing of dis­parate ener­gies. Hiroshi-san’s con­torted face stares out from within the smoke like a face peer­ing in through smudged glass. He’s smoke him­self at first and then he isn’t, now shreds of flesh, now thread-​thin curls smoke. The can­dle flame licks through his phan­tom flesh like a sec­ond, sear­ing tongue.

I blink and flinch away, con­vinced that I’m hal­lu­ci­nat­ing, but when I dare to look again, the appari­tion is still there. He shud­ders, undu­lat­ing like an image reflected in a pool of water where some­one has tossed a stone.

My wife…forever.” I can feel that scraping-​bone voice as it rat­tles its way up my spine. “Mine.”

What do you want, Hiroshi-​san?”

My wife…your duty to the dead.”

Duty to the dead? What does that mean? Where I come from, in Amer­ica, we do not ven­er­ate the ances­tors. They are the fore­shad­ow­ing of what we, too, shall be – we do not want to look. We bury them and then move on, to other cities, other states, some­times to other coun­tries. The past dies and it is gone. Erased from time. Forgotten.

Not here, though. Not in Japan and cer­tainly not at Obon.

The liv­ing here are ever cap­tive to the dead.

Hiroshi-san’s grey, evanes­cent hands wave toward the butsudan.

Clean it,” he groans. “Honor the butsudan…you honor me. You free me from this hell.”

Hiroshi-​san – “

He opens his gap­ing, flame-​filled mouth: “Wife…do…what I say.”

In the over­heated room, a deep chill descends. Sud­denly I am shiv­er­ing vio­lently, and the small meal I had for break­fast lurches toward my throat.

I fetch water, pol­ish, and clean­ing rags and set to work. The but­su­dan already gleams, but now I clean it more thor­oughly, run­ning the clean­ing rag up into every nook and hidey­hole, explor­ing the junc­tures where the boards are fit­ted together, remov­ing the tini­est speck of dust from the creases of the Buddha’s robe.

The but­su­dan has a roof on top, in the man­ner of a Bud­dhist tem­ple. Gold paint out­lines the ornate fil­i­grees and arabesques that, gen­er­a­tions ago, some unknown crafts­man carved into the hand­some wood. I pol­ish and dust the outer shelves, then reach inside to get at the very back.

I can’t see the char­ac­ters carved into the wooden panel on the inner seam of the butsudan’s roof, but I feel them there and trace them with my fin­gers. At first I think it’s just more dec­o­ra­tion, but the loca­tion is in a place where no one would ever see it, unless, like me, they made a pret­zel of their spine to get at it with a dus­trag. There are two char­ac­ters carved into the wood and, below that, a thin ridge where two boards meet unevenly. I fetch a mir­ror and hold a can­dle in an attempt to see the char­ac­ters, but they are too far back, too tiny. I fetch a paper and a pen­cil with thick, soft lead and, lean­ing so far back I feel like a con­tor­tion­ist, I make a rub­bing of the characters.

Katsuro-​san is just return­ing from the ceme­tery. Although I want to run to him at once to ask the mean­ing of what I’ve found, I real­ize there is some­thing else I must do first. Besides, I am afraid to know the truth, afraid of what I may learn.

Later that evening, when I hand him the rub­bing, he frowns and stud­ies it.

What’s this?”

It was carved under the roof of the but­su­dan. What does it mean?”

He shakes his head as though pro­foundly sad­dened by my West­ern igno­rance. “If you only would learn Japan­ese, you could read these yourself.”

Are you going to tell me what it means or not?”

It’s noth­ing,” he says. “Just the sig­na­ture of the artist who carved the but­su­dan, that’s all.”

But in such an odd place?”

That’s all it is. Really, Carolyn-​san, what did you expect?”

What did I expect indeed? The dis­ap­point­ment and hurt takes my breath away, as though I’ve been kicked in the chest. Despite his sar­casm and sub­tle dis­dain for me as his father’s gai­jin wife, I wanted Katsuro-​san since the first time I saw him, since the first time his hand acci­den­tally brushed my hip as we passed in a hall­way, the first time he held my gaze a moment longer than is proper. With Hiroshi-​san dead, I’ve dreamed of leav­ing here with him and start­ing a new life far from Japan, far from a lan­guage I can’t under­stand and the end­less ven­er­a­tion of cen­turies’ worth of ancestors.

For a moment I am silent, absorb­ing what Katsuro-​san has said, lis­ten­ing to the dis­tant throb­bing of the drums. I smile as warmly as I can and take his hand. “The Bon Odori is starting.

We should take part.”

He looks bemused. “I thought you didn’t like these for­eign dances.”

At least we’ll be out­side in the fresh air. Change into your yukata. Come on.”

While Katsuro-​san is chang­ing, I put more food upon the altar, remove the wilted flow­ers, and light fresh can­dles and incense, as Hiroshi-​san has told me to do. I feel cer­tain that his ghost observes me and is pleased, that in some way I can­not under­stand, it is my des­tiny to honor his spirit in this fashion.

On any other night, the sight of Hiroshi-san’s son and myself walk­ing together might raise eye­brows, but at Obon it is only fit­ting that fam­i­lies reunite, both the liv­ing and the dead. At any rate, we are soon lost in the streams of peo­ple head­ing toward the Bud­dhist tem­ple beside the river. The priest has climbed up into the bell­tower and begun to strike the bell, the old­est in the Pre­fec­ture of Fukuoka. We walk past bon­fires ablaze and chil­dren hold­ing folded pieces of col­ored paper, play­ing a game that involves using paper spoons to try to scoop gold­fish from a tub before the paper gets wet and rips. In the sticky heat of evening, almost every­one has changed into brightly col­ored yukatas with bold geo­met­ric designs.

Fire­works explode. Dogs howl and yap. The beat­ing of the taiko drums is fran­tic, pounding.

Katsuro-​san and I push our way into the dance, where dozens of peo­ple are already whirling madly, four con­cen­tric cir­cles revolv­ing one around the other, the bril­liantly col­ored yukatas blow­ing and bil­low­ing like a giant kalei­do­scope being twirled.

The Bon Odori dances vary from town to town, but all depict some local theme or story. Hand ges­tures mime activ­i­ties like dig­ging or cut­ting rice, or the gen­tle flow­ing of rivers. As more peo­ple join in, the cir­cle expands, then dou­bles back on itself like a snake eat­ing its own tail, the dancers mov­ing around a cen­tral plat­form fes­tooned with crepe paper. The air is dense and musky with sweat and incense and the smoke from the bon­fires. Long past the point of exhaus­tion, we still keep up the hyp­notic, trance-​inducing pace. The ghosts returned for Obon cel­e­brate among us – their spec­tral bod­ies pulse in rhythm with the drum­ming. They are with us, the land of the dead super­im­posed over the land of the liv­ing, caught up in an end­less unseen mat­ing dance of sweaty mor­tal flesh and the wraith ves­tiges of the departed.

The faster and harder we dance, the more clearly I can see them. Like a shim­mer­ing mist, they mass along the road between the bon­fires, avid for the mem­ory of a time when they were as we are now, pos­sessed of mor­tal flesh and human lust and joy and greed.

Their hunger, like our own, is vast and insatiable.

It is the hunger of the dead for what they have lost, the hunger of the liv­ing for one more taste of what they will inevitably lose. I can feel my own death – whether it comes tonight or thirty years from now – like teeth upon my throat.

Come with me,” I call to Katsuro-​san, and when he turns to me, I see the same wild hunger in his face, the greed for life and more life. It is the first time in so long that we have looked into each other’s eyes and really seen each other.

We pull free of the whirling mob, fight our way through the outer cir­cles of the dancers. A stone bridge leads across a deep pond filled with koi to a tem­ple ded­i­cated to the scholar and cal­lig­ra­pher, Ten­jin. We cross the bridge and duck under­neath where the shad­ows are deep and no light pen­e­trates. Katsuro-​san sits with his back against the stone arch, opens his yukata and guides me down on top of him. Above us, the drums are pound­ing, the dancers feet stomp­ing out the beat, voices raised in song. The urgent sounds Katsuro-​san and I are mak­ing go unheard.

It’s after mid­night as we walk back through the tem­ple com­plex to the house, our sweat– soaked yukatas cling­ing to our bod­ies. My hair is plas­tered to my faces in a damp cap, Fire­works still explode inter­mit­tently and ashes drift in the air from the fires. In the deep dark­ness, where no one can see us, Katsuro-​san slides his arm around my waist and kisses me as silent tears stream down my face.

In his embrace, I start to have a change of heart. I decide to tell him that I know the truth about the writ­ing inside the but­su­dan. In the heat and pas­sion of our cou­pling, I have – for a moment – the wild hope that there still might be a future for us, that under­neath our lies and pre­tenses, we could still make a life together. I think of the riches Hiroshi-​san claimed to have stashed away and the life of ease and pros­per­ity Katsuro-​san and I could enjoy if we could find them.

Katsuro-​san, I have to tell you some­thing,” I begin.

But as we round the cor­ner and head back to the house, there is a ter­ri­ble and ungodly sight. For a moment, I imag­ine that the Meiji broth­ers across the street have lit a bon­fire, although their yard is even tinier than ours and to do so would put the entire block in dan­ger. Katsuro-​san cries out in anguish and breaks into a run.

I wail like a mad­woman, “Wait, don’t go inside! There’s noth­ing there!”

He doesn’t hear or, if he does, my words mean noth­ing to him.

Still plead­ing with him to stop, I run behind him, but Katsuro-​san is already at the door. He heaves it open and plunges inside. Through the thick smoke, I get a glimpse of flam­ing shoji screens. It occurs to me if any ghosts are still adrift this Oban, they will be lost no longer. Our blaz­ing minka is a gigan­tic mile­stone of flame and fury.

Two fire­men haul­ing a hose yell at me in Japan­ese and shoul­der me aside. I glimpse Katsuro-san’s writhing sil­hou­ette for just an instant before a burn­ing beam cuts short his screams. I don’t see Katsuro-​san again, but I see his father. Hiroshi-san’s phan­tom form takes shape amid the smoke and cin­ders. Soot frames his smile and ashes cling to him like scales. A look of venge­ful sat­is­fac­tion con­torts his face. In a grim and ter­ri­fy­ing way, he looks well pleased.

Unlike Katsuro-​san, the but­su­dan, along with most of the house, sur­vived the blaze. Our ever vig­i­lant neigh­bors, the Meiji broth­ers, had seen the flames and called for help. Then they rushed into the house to save the one thing that any Japan­ese would know is val­ued above all else. The but­su­dan sat safely on the lawn where the Meiji men had car­ried it while Katsuro-​san was search­ing for it in vain amid the smoke and flames.

For noth­ing.

Like his father, Katsuro-​san under­es­ti­mated me. It’s true I failed to learn much Japan­ese and my attempts to speak are still piti­fully inept. But I can use a kanji dic­tio­nary well enough to know that he was lying when he told me the words carved into the but­su­dan were the craftsman’s sig­na­ture. What I found were the char­ac­ters for ‘dis­cov­ery’ and ‘pros­per­ity’ and in the hid­den com­part­ment behind them was a key that I removed before I ever tested Katsuro-san’s loy­alty by ask­ing him their mean­ing. The key was inside an enve­lope and, on it, in both Japan­ese and Eng­lish, were instructions.

On the last day of Obon, while Katsuro-san’s body is being held await­ing a final burn­ing in the cre­ma­to­rium, I take the key to the Bud­dhist tem­ple and wait while an offi­cious young monk scur­ries to find the priest.

The priest is a portly, broad-​faced man with a bald dome and a belly that would do credit to Gau­tama him­self. When he learns that I am Hiroshi-san’s widow, his smile expands like the wings of a pink bird unfold­ing and he bows ever more deeply.

Yes, yes,” he says, beck­on­ing me.

He leads me to his office at the back of the tem­ple and presents me with a carved, lac­quered box. “Hiroshi-​san was a gen­er­ous and pious man,” he says. “Over the years, he gave a for­tune to the tem­ple, but he never wanted any­one to know. Merit comes from anony­mous giv­ing, he used to say. Hiroshi-​san entrusted this to me. He told me you would come for it one day. He said he would make sure you learned of it.”

At last, I think, this is what it all was for.

But when I open up the box, there is only this: a small porce­lain bowl. In it, a tiny ball of mochi.

And I remem­ber New Year’s Day, when I pre­pared the mochi in the sweet bean soup, cook­ing it til it was soft and rub­bery. Katsuro-​san had left the house. I came to Hiroshi-​san while he was nap­ping, his mouth open, snor­ing. Almost lov­ingly, like a mother bird feed­ing its young, I popped a thick piece of mochi into his mouth. His next snore sucked it down. When his eyes opened in sur­prise and fear, I clamped my hands across his mouth. The mochi plugged his wind­pipe. That New Year’s Day, he was among four other elderly Japan­ese men who died eat­ing mochi for good luck.

A tragedy, all too pre­ventable, the news­pa­pers pre­dictably pointed out.

It is the last night of Obon when I walk down to the river to watch the final cer­e­mony. Can­dles are being lit and set in lit­tle paper boats to float down­stream from the river to the sea, guid­ing the depart­ing spir­its back to the land of the dead.

As I watch the parade of lights stretch­ing out to the hori­zon, I know that I will remain here in Japan, that I will tend the but­su­dan, put out the offer­ings of rice and pour the sake and plum wine, that I am the keeper of the ances­tors, guardian of the ghosts of my dead hus­band and dead lover.

You are still my wife, Hiroshi-​san said.

I know that he is right. One day the can­dles in their lit­tle boats will mark the way for me. One day my spirit will fol­low them, trav­el­ing to my own des­tiny in the land of the dead.

And when Obon comes around, I will return with all the other ghosts, to remem­ber what I’ve lost.

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