The middle-aged woman ate an early lunch in five minutes or so –
yesterday’s curry on leftover rice.
She had nothing else to do, and she was alone
so she might have fixed herself a gourmet meal
but she was not at all clever about things like that.
She felt good when others were there to eat what she cooked
even if they said it did not taste good.
How can you be excited about cooking for yourself, just to eat alone, in silence?
Today, as always, she finished her usual slapdash lunch
and poured herself a cup of tea.
Just a little attention always helped make green tea tasty.
Some ordinary tea leaves would do,
the sort people gave as a token of thanks for a funeral offering.
She slowly poured some hot water into a teapot, not too hot, just enough for her cup.
Experience would tell her how long to steep.
When a voice from heaven said, Ready!,
she would carefully pour tea to the very last drop from the teapot
into her pre-warmed cup. Tea was ready.
Today too she was sipping tea, which pleased her senses every time she made it.
She was proud that everyone who drank her tea felt relaxed or energetic
but truthfully, for quite a while now
she would tenderly wrap her hands around
the cup filled with the tea she had poured for herself and slouch over it.
To accompany her motion, for now, she would sigh –
utter a long deep sigh –
but she actually had no idea what her sigh meant.
Other than good health and skill in making tasty tea
she had no special talent to speak of.
Yet so far she had never felt the slightest dismay about her life.
In this blighted world where young people were committing one crime after another
her only daughter stayed out of trouble;
three years ago she passed the elementary teachers’ certification tests,
and was adamantly ambitious in her chosen vocation:
“To bring about changes in this wasted world
we have to start with early education.”
Her husband, by nature fastidious, was devoted to breeding goldfish, and self-content
so there wasn’t much the woman had to do for them.
As long as she kept up with social obligations at a so-so level, and
wasn’t too conspicuous in the neighborhood
she was home free.
To say life was boring or unfulfilling would surely incur the wrath of heaven.
She should certainly be grateful from the bottom of her heart
for the prospect of living an eventless life.
But, it was true and also troubling that
while she poured her tea and drank it as always
a sigh leaked out quietly from the core of her being.
The tastier the tea she poured,
the more clearly she felt something lurking inside her,
which a tasty cup of tea could not appease.
Her own long, deep sigh startled her;
something stirring in her heart made her tighten the fingers cradling her teacup.
So, when she looked in the teacup and saw a small tea-stem
floating upright near the bottom,
as the stem twirled and swayed, she felt uneasy
rather than lucky as one was supposed to feel.
Good-luck omen? No way!
The woman snarled into the cup, in spite of herself.
That very moment
the tip of the stem broke through the surface of the steaming tea, rising on its own.
As soon as the stem touched the air,
it grew into a large conical tower before her eyes.
It was rushing at her forehead with enormous energy!
The conical tower was three centimeters in diameter,
made of hard calcium, with joints like bamboo.
My goodness, it looks like a horn, she thought to herself.
Then appeared a lump of wavy golden hair, a bright red face beneath it,
then muscular shoulders covered by thick bright red skin, and a hairy chest, belly and hips – noisily splashing the waves of tea.
Now It’s entirety was before her.
The woman was flustered, but did not lose control of herself
maybe because she felt that the fantastic reality in front of her was
more trustworthy than any miserly omen of good luck in this world.
Truthfully she felt sort of acquiescent in her heart
at the same time as being dumbfounded.
With a grunt, It now stepped over the rim of her teacup
to present Itself one whole size larger than herself.
Its bright red face smiled at her while still profusely steaming.
Even if she ignored Its mouth, which stretched ear to ear, It appeared to really want to speak to her.
Somehow It was no stranger to her.
For her part, standing face to face with this bright red being,
she felt as if she had long been waiting for this day.
She even felt a quiet joy welling up inside her, to her utter surprise.
It stood strong in the middle of her living room, and looked straight at her eyes.
It was a square-shouldered Ogre.
Ogre said to her, in a voice unexpectedly gentle:
The world will come to an end in seventy days.
Ogre held out his rugged right hand to her.
Ogre’s move made her heart palpitate.
As if to say, Don’t worry, Ogre moved his left arm also to invite her
and began to hum a tune.
Clearly Ogre was inviting her to dance with him.
What? What are you doing?
The woman pretended not to understand what Ogre meant.
Of all things, to dance?
If she had to choose among all the scary things in this world,
dancing in front of people was the scariest.
Starting with childhood games, folk dances and Bon dances,
creative dances? oh so totally out of the question,
any form of dancing, watching or doing it, so hopelessly embarrassed her;
and she ran away from any chance that presented itself.
Now social dancing was in fashion, but she simply
could not understand why on earth anyone wanted such a hobby.
So, facing the invitation, how else could she have behaved
other than pleading innocence with earnest gaze, by saying,
Dancing? What is that?
But Ogre, beaming with open-hearted smiles, hummed even louder,
patiently waiting for her to take his hand.
The hypnotizing music was “Fantaisie-impromptu” by Chopin.
She knew it because her daughter had played it in a recital.
Even so, she couldn’t be so trusting
but while she was so guarded, she really understood:
there was probably some significance in the strong resistance she felt
to the extent that she wished to die rather than to dance.
If she missed this opportunity, she would never dance until she died.
Incidentally, her distaste for dancing was about dancing in front of other people.
Was Ogre a person anyway?
Wasn’t it a grown person’s duty to be prepared to speak
a word or two on the experience of throwing yourself into something extreme?
Oh, no, not me! Just the thought embarrasses me to death.
Fidgeting, feeling pressured by her awkward inaction, the woman squeezed an idea
out of her desperation: she’d trip over something that wasn’t there,
and Oh my, Oh my, she’d fall, in one swoop, into Ogre’s arms.
What a haphazard idea that was!
But, why was it that the moment she took Ogre’s hands
“Fantaisie-impromptu”, so far being hummed,
began to twirl inside her ears as a superb piano piece played with unworldly skill?
The woman had no recollection whatsoever of the moment
her reasons were completely uprooted and cleared away.
When she regained her senses, she was no longer her familiar self.
A dream-like figure, she had no idea who,
was dancing a nameless dance in step with Ogre’s fantastic lead.
This is what freedom must look like if it took a visible form.
Ogre moved as if he was totally familiar with her physical make-up
to direct her spine and joints in various ways, drawing out agile moves
like imbuing life into Bunraku puppet.
Though her muscles encountered those moves for the very first time
their initial hesitancy glided into fresh excitement in answer to her will.
She let her newly awakened self channel her mind’s energy in the ways it desired.
Her entire figure was covered with a continuous seamless skin
like an exquisite water surface
where the smallest of ripples stirred by a finger tip
would be transmitted to each and every corner.
In a corner of her dreamy mind she asked herself,
Will I be dancing when I die some day?
How long did it last?
Oblivious of the twilight that had descended
the woman was squatting in the middle of her living room
like a tin can zapped by lightning, empty and hollow.
Thus one day, out of the blue, the truth of her life
came to fruition.
Next day the woman resolutely went shopping,
bought the cheapest everyday green tea, as much as three thousand grams of it
and stored it in a tin labeled “Ogre Inside.”
Then she poured herself tea day in and day out.
When she was alone at home, after her family had gone out
she would get out that special treasure of hers
and pour tea into her teacup, patiently, over and over again,
until she saw a single tea-stem floating upright in the teacup.
When just one tea-stem floated upright in the teacup,
only then, Ogre appeared.
Since she used cheap everyday green tea leaves after all,
tea-stems always floated in her teacup
but often enough some were lying down, not floating upright,
or two or three stems floated at once.
Given her personality, she could not bear the thought of throwing away
the tea she poured just because a good tea-stem was not there,
so the tea she poured went all into her belly
so much so that her lower belly got water-logged and made a splashing noise
causing her to frequent the bathroom, which was surely a bother.
Again and again Ogre appeared from single upright tea-stems.
Each time the woman’s joy was fresh,
and she danced with Ogre to her heart’s content.
Ogre knew every possible kind of music, ranging from Ryoichi Hattori’s Westernized pop to the national anthem of Bhutan, enough to fill the data capacity of an internet karaoke server.
As he hummed one tune after another,
the tune was transformed into fully orchestrated music inside her ears.
Her body discovered yet-unseen movements as varied as music.
This discovery brought on a sensation of recollection.
The new movements of her hands and feet felt so familiar,
as if something held inside was urging to be released
from a profoundly deep place, around her core,
that she felt like saying to them, Welcome home.
Ogre looked deeply pleased with the remarkable changes she demonstrated each time.
Ogre’s face might have been flushed with joy,
but there was no way of telling for sure since his face was red to start with.
Now she could hardly believe
the person who had hated to dance was even part of herself.
She learned the joy of dancing in secret to such an extent that her days were fulfilled
and some remarkable changes also came upon her.
Because she drank plenty of green tea every day
her bowel movement was regulated; her metabolism greatly improved;
her skin grew supple and glowing;
above all, physical exercises made her posture upright;
she would find herself happily humming Bhutan’s National Anthem.
Quite naturally her family got curious about Mother’s or Wife’s rejuvenation
and pried for details,
but if she told them that a tea-stem was Ogre,
who would pay any further attention to what she’d say following that?
All she could do was to point at a plastic bucket full of used tea leaves
and laugh it off, saying, “It’s all thanks to my green tea diet!”
One night after many such days went by
her daughter said over supper, I have a favor to ask of you.
Her daughter’s round dancing eyes looked into hers, maybe malicious or maybe not.
The woman’s apprehension was right on target.
Her daughter said to her, chasing her evasive eyes to lock them in a gaze,
Please dance in front of the children.
I was seen! The thought made her feel faint.
A painful regret gushed out from the bottom of her heart.
She was sorry that she did not draw the curtain facing the hallway.
It pained her that her secret was exposed.
She needed to explain all of this and that.
Tsunamis of emotions engulfed her. She didn’t know what to do.
My daughter, knowing that this is my secret, is saying this,
taking advantage of my vulnerability; isn’t this harassment?
The woman pleaded for mercy, but her daughter unduly persisted,
coaxing and threatening her, and finally launched into a speech:
All children, the pillars of the future of our country, must be exposed to
the absolute state of untamed creativity and original art
free of tradition and formality.
Slowly the woman understood that her daughter was not joking,
but the loftiness of the term, art, again made her feel faint.
She said she’d answer after she talked it over.
Her daughter asked sincerely, with whom?
The woman suddenly realized then that no one but herself could see Ogre.
Her daughter only saw the woman dancing alone!
This in itself was so very embarrassing,
but Ogre, the strange being, a single sight of whom would make anyone stupefied,
was not visible even to her family?
What an absolutely exquisite way of the world this is!
Impressed from the bottom of her heart,
the woman felt all would go well, and the words slipped out of her mouth:
There was half a month to the day of performance.
The very next day the woman was already regretting her impetuous consent from the bottom of her heart.
Feeling joy in dancing was one thing, but showing it to others was quite another for her.
You just tell me to dance, but how can an amateur, a fake dancer like me,
do it on a stage where many eyes and curiosities are focused?
Not having enough courage to disappear, the woman simply felt rueful
before her daughter’s irresponsibly spurring earnest gaze.
Ogre would surely be annoyed at this inconceivable proposition, so
the woman could not bring herself to make tea, and time flew away.
Finally the performance was only a day away.
That afternoon, Ogre resolutely presented himself, looking fervid.
Ogre smiled and said that he grabbed the opportunity to come
when a tea-stem stood in the tea a woman made three houses down the road.
Totally emaciated and at a loss, the woman managed to tell Ogre what transpired.
Ogre quietly said,
Anyone who can make tasty tea is a fine dancer.
Ogre sprang up to his feet, and joyfully took the woman’s hand.
He started to sing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” in baritone.
The woman was bewildered,
but her ears were soon flooded with the ten-thousand-member chorus.
She took her first step following Ogre’s lead, and at that moment
she recalled what Ogre had told her the very first time they met:
The world will come to an end in seventy days.
Ogre always looked straight into her eyes.
The woman made up her mind in peace.
In the elementary school gym, three hundred children were gathered.
The woman and Ogre peered out from the wing of the stage at the audience seats
they were filled with screeching noises
like millions of synthetic cloths being ripped.
She was frightfully calm.
You may find this a little difficult to understand,
but be good and watch her because the wonderful thing you are going to see will surely be treasured in your hearts, said the principal to the children.
Her daughter proudly introduced the woman who looked like a different person today.
Then the light came on in the middle of the stage.
The children quietened down, then, came a few seconds of breathless silence.
As if to cut open the silence, Beethoven inside the woman’s ears
gave the first downbeat to the ten-thousand-member chorus.
The woman did not miss a beat.
Firmly holding hands with invisible Ogre
the woman in white threw her petite self into the middle of the stage.
The children’s six hundred eyes, as if sucked in, poured onto her movements.
A nameless dance
by the woman who was not famous or anything.
Following Ogre’s lead,
as her physical will dictated
with the joy of just dancing in that place.
The chorus of “Ode to Joy” the children could not hear
drove the woman and Ogre with force.
The energy of Ogre who was invisible to the children released her into sparkles.
No longer able to distinguish herself from Ogre
the woman was a simple dancing heart now.
The simple dancing heart grew and grew endlessly,
brimmed over the gym, exploded repeatedly,
splashed into minute sparks of light
that reached, as if seeping in, every corner of the walls, every gaze,
and deep into every retinal cell.
That instant the children saw on stage
a bright red Ogre emitting light from its lithe body – the woman had vanished.
Ogre was the woman’s truth.
The woman herself was Ogre.
The children did not avert their eyes.
Even if they wanted to, they could not look away
because this truly unworldly sight was so vivid
assaulting their eyes in this world.
That instant the ground roared and the gymnasium swayed;
its massive reinforced concrete roof slowly collapsed, like in a slow motion picture,
on top of the children and the woman that was Ogre.
The children expired
before they knew what was to come
with their eyes sparkling, filled with rapturous excitement.
At the moment of their deaths, none of their souls went astray –
the woman’s role was to ensure that.
The world will end in seventy days.
Today was exactly the seventieth day from the day when they first met.
Today was the end of the world, where all shapes were gone in an instant.
Poet's Note: It is commonly believed in Japan that when a tea-stem floats upright in a cup of green tea, it is an omen of good luck. Stems seldom appear in high-quality teas.