Excerpt Temple of the Dueling Heart

ACT ONE   

Citadel by the Sea

 

HELENE BENT over in agony, feeling asteroids explode in her abdomen. She heard a voice announcing an approaching train through the anguish in her womb.

            She wasn’t a woman bent over a bench in a country that boasted the safest track record in the world.

            She was draped over a divan in a jungle of Rousseau.

            Through the fog of her contact lenses she saw another woman standing at the edge of the platform, peering down into the tracks. The woman was poised to jump. Helene tried to stand up, but the pain in her stomach pulled her back down to the bench.

            The train drew closer, its lights shimmering in the rain.

            “Stop!” The thunder of its approach drowned out her voice.  She stood up and slowly made her way through the barricade of bodies to the platform, trying to ignore the spasms racking her abdomen. She touched the arm of the train conductor. He turned to her. Japanese flowed from his lips. She couldn’t reply, only point.

            His eyes followed her finger to the woman crouched down over the platform. He glanced at the freight train speeding towards the station, then ran to a pole and pushed a button. A yellow light flashed. The train screeched down the tracks, slowly rolling to a stop.

            Helene struggled over to where the woman stood with her head bent over the platform. A cloud of perfume enveloped her in a fragrant mist. Helene touched her arm. “Are you all right?”

            The woman lifted her brain and turned…

SLEEPLESS

                      SEROTONIN

     REUPTAKED

                        IMPOTENT.

            She readied alien blue bullets…

            Helene stepped back.

            Aimed. “You are who?”

            Helene stared. “I thought…maybe you needed some help.”

            And fired. “I do not ask for help.”

            “I'm so sorry, I thought that you were going to…”

            The train conductor walked to the woman and led her away.

            “Please, wait.” Helene pulled a white card out of her bag. “Call me, if you need anything.”

            The woman took the card and stared at it for a moment, then walked away.

            Helene turned around and walked into the late afternoon sunlight flooding the station. A glittering object on the platform caught her eye. She picked up a silver necklace. It was a pendant of a two-headed eagle.  She turned it over and stroked the deep crack running through its heart. She slipped it into her pocket and walked towards the area where the buses were lined up.

            She stared out the window as the bus snaked through the blur of concrete and rain. Gaseous neon illuminated a Chinese woman speaking on a cell phone with her legs sprawled out on the curb. Four-pronged cellular phone antennas pierced the sky like devils’ pitchforks. The bus turned off the main road, passing the history museum. Suddenly, brakes squealed through the steamy jungle along the sides of the road. Helene looked up, almost expecting to see a dead monkey.

            An elderly woman pushing a cart full of white Japanese radishes hobbled across the street.

            Helene rubbed her eyes again, irritated by her contact lenses. Another wave of pain exploded through her stomach.

            The bus drove into huge clouds, passing shops selling seafood and bait. The coastline came into view…waves tumbled over a sea wall…gulls dipped into the muddy green waters. Pregnant clouds hung in the horizon, silver in the light. Lightning crackled across the sky as she climbed out of the bus. She walked past a red and white tower soaring out of a rice paddy. A curtain of indigo fluttered in the entrance of a public bath.

            She noticed the frame of a house about two hundred meters away. Orange light glowed through shadows of workers on the second floor. She glanced at a cat sitting on a stone wall next to the construction site. She leaned down, stroked its gleaming black fur, and looked out to the sea. A grim building sat on a hill jutting out of the waters. She turned around and walked up to her doorstep. A white envelope peeked out of the mail slot in her door.  She stepped in, the odor of enclosure and humidity filling her nostrils. She yanked down the string of the fluorescent light in the living room, illuminating a low wooden table with photos of her and Sangria taken at the airport two weeks ago. She could still hear their conversation.

            “You'll be fine.One year in Japan and you're out of debt.”

            “I don't know if I like this house, it’s kind of creepy!”

            “Hey, think of it as antique. It was built in the Edo Period.”

            “Who lived here before?”

            “I think a woman and her daughter.”

            “I still don't like it.”

            “You like your debt better?”

            She looked up. A cockroach, shiny and huge, was crisscrossing its way across the wall.

            “Shit!”  She ran into the kitchen and took out a spray can of pesticide, then crept back into the room. The cockroach froze, and then quickly scurried up the ceiling. She aimed the spray can like a gun and fired, hissing it to death. She turned around, walked back into the kitchen, and washed her hands. She watched the rusty water flow out of the faucet.

            She walked back into the living room, sat on the couch, and opened the letter from her credit card company that had arrived in response to her late payments.

            Your interest rate has been raised to thirty percent.

            She tossed the paper down on the table, and then climbed the stairs to the second floor. She was about to walk into her bedroom when she noticed that the rice paper doors of the tatami room were slightly open. She stared at them. The room had been closed since Sangria left. She peered through the crack into the darkness, then closed the door and walked into her bedroom. She pulled down the string to the light, illuminating ten thousand dollars of camera equipment, all paid for by credit cards.

            She walked to the window and slid back the rice paper screen. She looked out through the bars of her verandah, feeling imprisoned by her debt. The only way out was to work hard for a year, and then leave. She turned around, walked to the closet, and slipped out of her gray silk shirt. An image of Claude’s face appeared behind the lens of his camera.

            “Put that shirt on, the gray one.”

            She turned around. “Sorry. Don't want to.”

            “Come on, just put it on.”

            “Sorry. Can't do.”

            “Just put the fucking shirt on.”

            She walked to the closet, took out the shirt, slipped it on, and turned around, purple bruises raging underneath her arms. “Take your stupid shot now.”

            He lowered the camera. “You gotta quit bumping into things.”

            “Yeah. Like abusive men.”

            She turned on her laptop and downloaded her e-mails. She saw Sangria was online.

            Hey girl! Oh, are you ready for this? Guess who I saw last night? I’m not even sure if I should tell you…

            Who?

            He was drinking sake, for chrissakes. Who the hell drinks SAKE at a party?

            Helene stared at the words on the screen.

            After a few glasses he said he was gonna sail his yacht to Japan.

            What yacht? Claude doesn't have a yacht.

            Claude? Who's talking about Claude?

            Well, who did you see then? Her heart pounded as she waited for the words to appear.       

            Thunder boomed through the room.

            Error in connection. Reloading, please wait…

            She walked to the window. Touching the emerald cross around her neck she looked out to the night waves, to ropes curled like long intestines on a black tiled roof.

Beep!

            She turned around and stared at the screen.

            Westin!

She sat down at the computer and typed. You saw Westin? How is he?

            Still in love. Will someone tell me what is wrong with him? Rich, good looking, and loves you to death.

            Helene typed a smiley face.

            Helene, forget about Claude.

            She slowly typed in the words…I can't.

            Oh yeah? Well, have you looked at your arms lately? 

            He apologized for that, he swore-

            Hey, if you wanna waste your life pining after some asshole don't let me stop you. Bye.

            Hang on! Do you know where I can get something for menstrual pain? My endometriosis is-

            Lightning crackled. Her screen went blank. When she rebooted the computer and signed on again, Sangria was gone.

            She took her summer kimono out from the closet and went downstairs to take a shower. She picked up the metal shower attachment to wash away the blood streaming down her thighs.  She didn’t look at the stainless steel tub to the right of her.

            She had enjoyed taking baths when she was in elementary school.  She loved sitting inside the hot water churning with bubbles and plastic goldfish. Afterwards she would step out in a robe with a towel wrapped around her head like a tiny turban. Her mother’s voice came to her.

            “Ever since you started junior high school you don't take baths anymore. How come you stopped?”

            “Because I like taking showers.”

            “Maybe it's got something to do with your period.”

            “Are you going to the drugstore to pick up your medication?”

            “Yeah, why?”

            “Can you please buy me a roll of film?”

            “Jerry said you can buy it cheaper at-”

            “Never mind. I'll get it myself.”

            From twenty she began having torturous periods that left her sleepless and taking painkillers and sleeping pills. She stared down at the crimson water flowing on the tile like a river meandering between plastic bottles of shampoo.

            After her shower she went downstairs and took out a container of green tea ice cream from the refrigerator. She stared at the Chinese characters on the side, wondering how many calories it contained. One bowl won’t hurt.

            She went into her room and knelt by her bed, feeling her knees dig into the tatami mat. She clasped her hands together and prayed, as she had done since she was a little girl. A picture of Jesus hung between a gold fan and her framed Associate of Arts degree. Before she got into bed she removed the cross from her neck and placed it next to the two-headed eagle necklace on the computer table next to her bed.  She took out her bible and opened a worn, highlighted passage from the Lord’s Prayer.

            And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

            She lay down and stared at the ceiling for a few minutes. Then she got out of bed, rebooted the computer, and sent an e-mail message to Claude. She went downstairs and ate the rest of the ice cream. Her last thought before sleep was that temptation had won.

            She woke up early the next morning and pulled back the rice paper screen. Shiny black tiles on the roof curled like waves under the sun. She looked down at the street. The black cat was sleeping, its fur gleaming in the morning light.

            She took the bus into the city. She sat across from another foreign man reading an English newspaper. Black headlines screamed at her. Sixteen-year-old boy dies in elevator accident. She glanced out of the window at the international center and made a mental note to go there. She got off the bus, her abdomen cramping. She walked into the school at 9:05 am, five minutes late. All eyes remained glued to their computers. She quickly walked to her desk and set her bag down, disturbed by the cold reception. She heard footsteps approaching the desk and turned around.

 

Galaxies

“AH, HELENE-SAN, ohayo gozaimasu.” Mr. Sumitomo’s eyes quickly flicked to the perspiring flesh around her cleavage, then up to her face.

             She stood up a few inches taller, towering over his toupee, and stared down at him. Spit flew out of his mouth when he spoke. A monkey in a gray suit.

            “Excuse my poor English. From now on I will explain you this office.”

            She followed him past his desk, glancing down at the disposable lighters, pens, and manga sticking out of an open drawer. Her eyes flicked to an illustration of a woman, naked and chained to a wall.

            He turned around. “This is kitchen, so you can help yourself to take coffee or tea. The cups are disposable.” He walked down a hallway into a smaller room.

            “This is the copy machine room. I will explain how to use. This is brand new one. This machine make one hundred pieces of copy a minute.”

            She stood a few inches away from him and stared down at the display panel.

            He took out an electric dictionary from his pocket and punched in some characters. “We call this a ‘high end electric device.’ His eyes flicked to the display, then to her cleavage. “And also it can enlarge four hundred percent.”

            Helene’s face reddened. “Can you tell me where the rest room is?”

            She walked upstairs as the elevator was broken, disgusted by Mr. Sumitomo’s groping eyes. A boy with orange-yellow hair slouched at a small table, smoking a cigarette. She stared at him for a moment, and then walked into the classroom. She set her books on the podium. “Good morning.”

            Thirty-eight pairs of eyes stared back at her. Like flies in a forest. A few pairs of eyes were snickering at something behind her.

            She turned around to see the boy with orange-yellow hair still smoking. She walked to the door. “Please put out that cigarette and come inside.”

            He dragged on his cigarette, and then snuffed it out in an ashtray. He slouched past her into the back of the room.

            She walked back to the podium and opened her teaching manual. “Please turn to page five and repeat after me. ‘Hello, this is Amy, my new friend.”

            “Sex friend!”

            Helene looked up. “Please practice exercise B in pairs.”

            “B cups.”

             As the class howled she thought of going downstairs and quitting right there, but the massive pile of debt blocked her way.

            An hour later she plodded down the steps to the bathroom, her abdomen cramped with pain. She sat on the electric toilet for a few minutes, and then stood up to flush. There was no lever.  She pressed several buttons but nothing worked. The bell rang for the next class. She quickly closed the toilet seat and walked to the sink to wash her hands. She glanced in the mirror to see her eyes blazing from the smoke and dirty lenses.

            She finished her classes at 5:00 pm. A soft rain fell as she walked to the bus stop. She passed a small gallery. Displayed in front was an image of a galaxy. She wanted to get home, but the image compelled her to stop.  Thunder boomed as she walked inside the building and into the elevator. As she pushed the button for the third floor she felt a drop of moisture hit her cheek. She looked up. Water was dripping from the ceiling. The elevator stopped. She looked up to see a man step inside. She looked at the two buttons with kanji written on them, wondering which one meant “close.” She saw his forearm reach out to push the button. The doors closed. She glanced up at him.

            The florescent light glinted off the gold frames of his glasses before the elevator went black. It took her a few seconds to realize the elevator had stopped.

            “Now there are elevator problem here in Japan,” he said.

            The headlines from the bus came back to her in the darkness. She heard his breathing. She moved against the wall away from him. Another drop of water fell on her cheek. “So, what do we do now?”

            “I will try emergency phone.”

            She heard him move.

            “It’s broken. May I borrow your cellular phone?”

            “Who would you call?”

            “My friend. He live close by.”

            She watched as he punched numbers into the phone, his profile lit up from the display. His chin was a solid mountain, his lips a winter coastline. “Has this ever happened to you before?”

            “This is first trouble I met in the elevator, but I saw movie like this before. In that movie a man killed people in elevator. He is the man repairing elevators. He has known how to stop the elevator. The name of the movie is Last Floor.

            Was he going to kill her? Her heart was pounding so loudly, surely he could hear it. What if he called one of his friends to assist in the murder? Is this how she would end her life of twenty-eight years? In an elevator in Japan? “Don't think I've seen that one.”

            “The ending is quite strange. He-”

             “Speaking of movies, I guess animation is really popular here, isn't it? My boss reads comics too. I saw one on his desk.”

            “I don’t like animation, but I like movies very much.”

          “How about American anime and cartoons? You know, Dumbo, Winnie the Poo?” Keep it light. “Mary Poppins?”

            “I don’t like the animation for children. Back to the movie, in the end the murderer was killed by his scarf, which is locked in the door of the elevator.”

            She was about to scream for help when the elevator shuddered. The lights came on. 

            “What a relief, we are saved,” said the man.

            “Thank God.”

            He held the button as she stepped into the gallery. She walked into the center of the universe. Gorgeous panels of galaxies and images of the sun surrounded her. Chinese characters were written next to each glass panel. The man’s reflection appeared in the glass, as she gazed at a gaseous nebula.

            “This board says the Milky Way and Andromeda star will crash three billion years later. This board also explain the relation of electric wave and universe. We always get electric wave from the universe. We also get electronic wave from cell phone and TV and also radio.”

            A wave of pain exploded through her. She bent over and clutched her stomach.

            He looked at her with concern. “Are you OK? What happened?”

            She nodded. “I just have some cramps.”

            “Oh. Do you want to sit down?”

            She looked around. “There's nowhere to sit.”

            “There is a coffee shop about twenty minute walk from here.”

            “Thanks, I'm good. I just need to rest for a moment.”

            “Where are you from?”

            “California.”

            “Your eyes remind me of the gold mountain of California.  Your eyes look like gold paku.”

            “Do you know where I can find a shop that sells contact lens solution from the US?”

            “I think there is the shop that sells American product in this city.” He stared at her. “I think your eyes are like kinpaku.”

            “What's that?”

            “Gold leaf. I'd like to take you to that coffee shop with gold leaf.”

            “Sorry, I need to get home.” She walked towards the stairway. “I don't think I'll take the elevator this time.”

            When she reached the first floor she found him standing there, waiting.

            She walked outside and towards the crosswalk. The signal changed. She turned around. “I'm sorry, I have to run.” She was walking across the street when a car suddenly swerved, splashing water and grease onto her clothes.

            He pulled her back to the curb. “Are you all right?”

            Helene looked down at her Argent burnout V neck tee. “There goes another $200.00 blouse.”

            “How come you are such in rush?”

            “Why do you ask so many questions? Oh sorry, I should thank you.”

            They walked across the street. Helene turned to him. “Could you tell me where the store is that sells the contact lens solution?”

            “First I go back to research, and I call you later.”

            “Thank you.” Helene was about to get on the bus when he stopped her.

            “By the way, what’s your name?”

            “Helene.”

            “I’m Mikari. Miss Helene-”

            “Capri. Nice to meet you. And thanks for…saving my life.” She got on the bus and sat down. She looked out the window and saw Mikari dripping in the rain, staring up at her.

            As soon as she got home she rushed upstairs and turned on the computer, her heart pounding as messages fell into her inbox. Nothing from Claude. Perhaps he had called. She rushed downstairs to the blinking green light on her answering machine. Five messages. She pressed the play button. It took a few seconds to realize the voice filling the room was not Claude’s.

            “As for the solution of contact lenses, I have information. Shall we go for Indian cuisine restaurant if you’re available?”

            She played the next four messages. Three hang-ups, and another message from Mirage modeling agency, asking her to come in tomorrow.

            She walked into the kitchen and opened the freezer. She stared at the carton of marble fudge ice cream. She kept staring at it, stung by Claude’s icy lack of response. Just one bite wouldn’t hurt. But she ended up finishing the entire carton, feeling her stress melt away.

            When she reached the top of the steps she saw the door to the tatami room slightly open. She stared at it for a moment. Hadn’t she closed it the other day?  She walked back into her room and signed online again. Before she knew it she was entering her credit card number for eight new ringspun v-neck T-shirts, white smoke and Nero black, at $52.99 a piece. The smell of tobacco at the school had left her craving for a cigarette. Four hundred and fifty dollars later she went downstairs and turned on the TV. A program about the Vietnam War flashed onto the screen. She suddenly felt the urge to call her grandmother.

            “Hello?”

            “Hi Grandma.”

            “Hi, how you doing honey?”

            “Is everything OK?”

            “Honey, it's hard for me to hear you.”

            “Is everything OK?”

            “It's raining here, and they say it never rains in southern California. It's so dark and cloudy. I can't even walk to the grocery store to get something for my stomach.”

            “Now what's wrong with your stomach?”

            “You tell me. I got such bad pains since yesterday, I don't wanna go to the doctor, he'll charge me an arm and a leg. Jerry said I keep supporting the Jews. Listen Helene, I’m glad yous called, something happened.”

            Helene clutched the receiver.

            “It’s Jerry, he had an accident.”

            “An accident?”

            “Yeah, he slipped in the bathtub last week, smashed his head. He's in a coma. Your mother's a wreck; she's in the hospital all day all night. I told your mother to put a bar in the bathtub for that man, put some mats on the bottom of that tub, one of these days he's gonna fall and break his neck with that leg.”

            “I can't believe he's in a coma.”

            “Why don't you give your mother a call?”

            Helene glanced at the clock. “I guess it's about 7:00 am over there?”

            “Yeah, your mother's in the hospital now but maybe later. He got a private room. His VA benefits are paying for that. Oh, you should see him, he looks like an angel sleeping in heaven, yous know how noisy he always was, complaining about this and that. The doctor said he don’t have much of a chance to come out of this coma. I talked to Father Fitzgerald about him the other day, he’s Irish, what a beautiful priest, just like in the movie, he tells me ‘you’re looking good,’ I said, ‘Do you want a dime or a quarter?’ Anyway, so how you going honey?”

            “Jerry's been in a coma for a week and mom didn’t tell me?”

            “I'm sure she thought of you, honey, she's been in the hospital every day, all day all night. Jerry’s daughter’s been there too, oooooh she treats him like a prince, talking to him every day, combing his hair, I tell you she’s something else.”

            “The lawyer?”

            “Yeah, she’s on her cell phone twenty-four hours a day, talking to her clients. She just bought herself a brand new condo.”

            “Good for her.”

            “Listen, I know that yous don't get along too well, you and Jerry, but I hope you can say a prayer for him. That's all we can count on now, you know?”

             “Yeah. Well, thanks for letting me know, Grandma. I gotta go.”

            “Where you calling from, honey, your apartment?”

            “No grandma, I’m calling from Japan. I’m in Japan now.”

            “You’re in Japan? Oh my God I thought you was at your apartment. When did you go to Japan?”

            “A month ago. Remember, you came to see me off at the airport?”

            “Oooh, this must be costing you an arm and a leg, we gotta hang up.”

            Helene stared at the receiver, letting her fingers rest on the phone for a few seconds, wondering whether to call her mother, and then decided against it. She glanced at the image on the TV. A Vietnamese girl was running from a cloud of Agent Orange.

            She went upstairs to her room and got undressed, distressed by the odor of smoke in her clothes. She dreaded going back to that school again, but the sight of over $5,000 dollars in new clothes sitting in her closet, most of them still with tags on, smacked her back to reality. She turned on the air conditioner to cool the humid room and knelt down on the tatami mat. She clasped her hands to say a prayer for Jerry and felt a cloud of anger rise in her heart. She was crawling into bed when her phone rang. She ran downstairs. “Hello?”

            “This is Mikari.”

            She closed her eyes in the darkness. “Hi.”

            “By the way, I found a place you can buy solution in the downtown. Do you want me to take you there?”

            “It's kind of late to be calling isn't it?'”

            “Sorry. There's a good Indian restaurant nearby by the shop. How about tomorrow we meet there?”

            “I think tomorrow is busy for me, I-”

            “What about next day?”

             She paused in the darkness. “How did you get my number?”

            “You gave to me.”

            “No, I didn't.”

            “You gave me cell phone.”

            She thought in the darkness. “Was my number in the phone?”

            “Yeah. On screen.”

            She fell silent.

            “So how about tomorrow? Is it OK?”

            She didn't want to go but he had saved her life, and she needed the damn solution. “OK.”

            “See you tomorrow.”

            She crawled back into bed. She was fast asleep when she suddenly woke up with a jolt, as if some force had pulled her out of her sleep. A light was shining into her room. She slowly got out of bed and walked to the door. The light in the tatami room had been turned on. She glanced at the clock. 1:59 am. 

 

A Glass of Capri

THE NEXT DAY she arrived at the Mirage modeling agency, sneezing down the stone steps to the first floor that had been set up for bridal show rehearsals.

           A woman strode up to her, tense in black denim, her eyes shadowed under violet tinted glasses. “You’re so late. Everyone has been waiting for you!”

            Helene sneezed. “I’m sorry. I woke up a bit late this morning. I have a cold.”

            The woman pointed a finger to the back of the room. “Could you stand over there with the other people?”

            Helene walked to the back, and then turned around.

            A man shrouded in black robes walked up to the front. He solemnly turned to the top of the stairs and opened his mouth to speak. “We will now proceed with the wedding vows.”

            Helene glanced at the “bride and groom” standing at the top of the stairs. As she watched the bride’s train dragging over the stone steps she drifted back to the day at her mother’s house…her stepfather’s voice came roaring back to her.

            “What the hell did she say?”

            “Helene, speak up louder please, you know Jerry has a hearing problem.”

            “I said that Claude and I got engaged.”

            “You crazy? You marry that guy and you’re not part of this family anymore!”

           “Helene, we’re not racist or anything but we seen what happens with mixed marriages; sometimes the babies don’t turn out right. They turn into albinos and things.”

            “I don’t want to hear this.”

            “I’m warning you, I didn’t work my ass off to get out of the Nam and leave my money to some white pussy loving nigger, you hear?”

            That day she went to Claude’s house, sobbing and knocking on his door. She was walking down the hallway to his bedroom…he was lifting his head from between long limbs…

            “Helene, I thought you were-”

            She lifted her head to the priest.

            “For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and the two shall be one flesh. Matthew 19:6.”

            The girl standing next to her gave her a bag of pink cloth petals. “Throw these,” she said, pointing to the couple walking down the aisle.

            Helene mechanically tossed them into the aisle. When she glanced up at the priest she found him watching her. She blushed and looked away.

            They finished at 3:45 pm. Helene was walking upstairs when she heard footsteps behind her.

            “Kirei desu, ne?”

            Helene turned around and stared into blue planets swirling in white space.

            “I said you were pretty.”

            “I can understand a little Japanese. I've just never seen a priest speak it before.”

            “Oh. How long have you been in Japan?”

            “It seems like ages, but it's only been a few weeks. I was actually wondering if there was a Catholic church in the city. I guess you'd know?”

            “I think there's one near the park in the center of the city.”

            “I heard it's very beautiful.”

            “It's about a five minute walk from here. I can show you myself. There's a teahouse in the middle of the park that has great macha.”

            “What's that?”

            “Come and see for yourself.”

            She shrugged. “OK.”

            “Give me a few minutes to change.”

            Helene watched as he went into the dressing room and emerged five minutes later in jeans and a T-shirt that clung to his chest muscles. She felt her heartbeat quicken. He didn't feel like a priest anymore…they walked up the stairs and out of the building. The air was moist from the rainfall.

            “By the way, what should I call you?”

            He turned to her, smiling. “What would you like to call me?”

            “I have no idea.”

            “How about Adam?”

            “Father Adam?”

            He shook his head as they entered the gate. A plum tree soared into the clearing sky.

            Helene stopped to pluck a plum. A snake suddenly dropped down in front of her, slithering in the sun. She screamed and jumped back.

            “Don't be afraid of that. It has no poison. It will not be bite.” An elderly Japanese woman wearing white gloves and a wide brimmed pink hat pointed to a pond where some ducks were swimming. “The mother has some babies now. Last week the snake ate three. There were five duck babies last week, but now only three left because the snake ate two duck babies.”

            Helen watched as the snake slowly wrapped itself around a branch.

            Adam turned to Helene. “Adam, Eve, and now a snake. We must be in the garden of Eden.”

            Helene’s cell phone rang. “Hello?”

            “It's Mikari.”

            “Oh. Hi.”

            “What time is for the restaurant?”

            “We said 7 o’ clock, right?”

            “Yeah, at 7. Where are you?”

            “Why do you ask?”

            “I don’t have any special reason.”

            “I'm at the park with a friend.”

            “Who is your friend? Another teacher from your school?”

            “No.” Helene glanced at the elderly woman taking a picture of Adam standing by the tree. “He's a priest.”

            “A priest? What kind of priest? A Buddhist priest?”

            “No, a Catholic priest. Anyway, he's waiting so I have to go. See you later.”

            Adam walked up to her. “She wants to show us something.”

            They followed her to a statue, bronze and forbidding in the twilight.

            “This statue only smiles at night,” said the woman.

            “Why?” asked Adam.

            “He doesn’t smile in the daytime because there is a wife beside him, but at night he can meet his lover.” She turned to Helene. “Anyway, where are you from?”

            “California.”

            “Oh.” Her face fell.

            “What’s wrong?”

            “The daughter of my friend went there to do homestay and was die in the accident by car.”

            “Oh. Sorry to hear that.”

            “How long have you been in Japan?”

            “Only a few weeks.”

            “You cannot speak Japanese?”

            “No. I mean yes.”

            They walked to a waterfall flowing into a pond. “They also say there is a face in the water if you look closely,” said the woman.

            Helene peered into the waterfall. “I can’t really see anything.”

            “You don’t see face?” 

            “No.”

            The woman pointed with a white gloved hand. “There is nose, and here is eyes.”

            Helene stared at the water flowing into the rippling pond…it reflected the agitation in her mind from Mikari’s phone call.

            They strolled up to a dry rock garden. The woman peered at a wooden sign in front of the garden. “This is famous garden called kare sansui  in Japanese. No water is used in this garden. It symbolizes many things. Some people say that the big rock symbolizes mother tiger, and the small two rocks symbolize tiger children. The sand symbolizes river.”

            Helene stared at the white pebbles. “Could it represent the ocean?”

            “Yes of course, it is only one meaning of this garden. Some people have that kind of image by seeing this garden, but some has other image. Everybody has their own images. Sometimes the sand can be seen as the ocean, and the trees can be seen as the sky. You can understand according to your feeling. It’s very psychological. The reality is a rock garden, but it has some illusion according to the person.”

            Helene read the English on the sign:

            This rock garden was created during the Muromachi Period. Hidden in the garden is a pattern that can only be perceived by the unconscious. This subliminal image is apparent only to the subconscious. This rock garden is famous for its calming effect. The sizes of the rocks change with perspective, resulting in a play of reality and illusion. 

            Helene stared at the thousands of white pebbles.

            Adam turned to the woman. “Where did you study English?”

            “I studied almost all by myself, through some radio English programs and some portable MD players, but recently I can use some devices through computers.”

            He grinned. “Nice gloves.”

            “Thank you. We Japanese are very sensitive to sunshines. Have you ever seen some women having parasol? You westerners don’t have parasol because you likes sunlights. You want to get sunburn, but we Japanese don’t like it.” She glanced at his arms. “You are so nice and burned.”

            “I surfed in Hawaii.”

            They came upon another plum tree. “The plums looks so delicious,” said Helene.

            “But I’m afraid no one can pick anything from here. It’s treasure of nation. We have to keep the beauty of this park. I’m really sorry,” said the woman.

            Adam nodded. “Right, well, we’re just going to have some macha before the teahouse closes.” He bowed. “Arigato gozaimashita.”

            The woman bowed back. “I enjoyed my time with you.”

            Adam nodded to the tree. “She’s gone now, so you can eat the fruit.”

            “But she said not to.”

            “She doesn’t run the park.” He plucked off a plum and placed it in her palm.

            She bit into it. “It’s sour.”

            “The macha will balance the taste.”

            The teahouse stood over a pond. They sat at a table, low over tatami mats. A woman wrapped in a kimono brought two cups of macha and set them on the table.

            Helene sipped her tea. “It’s hot.”

            Adam smiled. “Nekojita.”

            “What does that mean?”

            “Your tongue is sensitive to heat. Actually, you’re supposed to turn the bowl around three times before you drink. Like this.” He turned the bowl three times to the right before lifting it to his mouth.

             “Thanks for the lesson on Japanese culture. And by the way, maybe I’m being too bold in saying this to a priest, but I noticed a mistake when you were quoting from the bible.”

             Adam wiped the bowl and carefully set it down on the table. “A mistake?”

            “That quotation is from Ephesians, not Matthew.”

            “I don't make mistakes when I'm quoting from the bible.”

            “Well, sorry, but you did this time. It was Ephesians 5:31, not Matthew 19:6.”

            Adam set his cup down on the table. “It was Matthew 19:6.”

            “I’ve been studying the bible since I was a child. I know it was Ephesians 5:31.”

            “So have I, yeah? In Hawaii, when I was stuck in a foster home. Maybe you heard something in Japanese and misunderstood.”

            “Yes, I know how perfect your Japanese is.”

            “I have a master's degree in theology.”

            Helene put her cup down on the table. “Are you looking down on me?”

            “Just trying to set the record straight.”

            “I’ve never studied theology, but I think I know something about the teachings of God. I study the bible every night.” Helene stared out the window at the shadows setting over the stone lanterns in the pond. Her stomach felt strange. She placed her hand on her abdomen.

            “Are you OK?”

            She stood up, ran to the toilet, and retched into the white enamel.

            When she came back Adam was standing, his brows furrowed in concern. She thought how his eyes and shirt were the same color, silvery blue. She knelt on the tatami  mat before the table. “Something's wrong with my stomach. I think it was that plum.”

            “This rainy season does it.”

             She glanced at her watch. “Well, I've got to get going.”

            Adam smiled. “Dinner date?”

            Helene took out her wallet. “Dinner, but not really a date.”

            Adam walked to the register and paid for his tea. Helene followed him. He turned around and smiled. “I guessed you were a feminist who didn't like to be patronized by men.”

            Helene sighed inwardly. I guess priests can be stingy as well.

            They walked outside the teahouse and passed the statue. Adam pointed to his face. “He's smiling.” He turned to Helene. “I guess his lover has arrived.”

            Helene blushed and walked towards the exit.

            Adam pointed down the street. “The Catholic church is right there. They have services in English as well.”

            “So tell me, when did you become a priest, before or after you went to college?”

            “After college. See you later.”

            Helene watched his figure disappear into the twilight. She glanced at her watch. 6:25. She had another half hour to wait before meeting Mikari. She walked to the church and saw a sign in English that explained the schedule for confessions. People were filing down the aisle to receive Holy Communion from the two priests standing at the altar, shrouded in brown Franciscan robes. She thought of her own first communion at age eight, as she stared at the head veil of an elderly Japanese woman walking towards the altar.

            She was walking up the aisle in a silk white communion dress, a sequined veil cascading down her back. Tears streamed down her cheeks, her right hand clutched a rosary. The priest holding the holy sacrament was waiting for her at the end of the aisle. She was opening her mouth to take the body of Christ…

            She heard screeching brakes outside. She ran to the door of the church.  A car parked before the crosswalk had nearly hit two elementary school girls in blue uniforms crossing the street.

            She stared at the damaged car and heard her father’s voice, saw the blood running down his forehead.

            I’m sorry about this baby.

            Daddy! Wake up!

            She walked back to the pews and sat down. She stared up at the altar. A wooden cross with a white silk cloth draped around the front. Six white candles in iron candleholders.  Twilight filtered through the stained glass scene depicting the birth of Jesus. A star twinkled in the powder blue sky. Adam’s muscular frame appeared in her mind. She realized she was attracted to him.

           The church darkened as thunder boomed through the aisles. Was it a warning from God to stay away from him? She knelt, feeling the wood underneath her knees, the wetness in her womb. She lifted her head to Jesus and prayed. “Please cleanse me of this desire with the sweet rain of your compassion. Amen.”

            She glanced at the clock on the wall. 7:05 pm. She quickly left the church and walked down the street. She paused before a window with a dummy wearing a black wig with blue eyes, then turned down a small street. Mikari was standing under a neon sign of Chinese characters.

            “Where have you been? Please, you don't be late next time.” He turned and walked into the store.

            Helene followed him. “Do you know where the contact lens solution is?”

            “You ask the register person.”

            She turned around and strode up to the cash register. “Um, excuse me, the contact lens solution wa, doko?”

            He stared at her blankly.

            She pointed to her eyes. “Contact lens solution? You know, for the eyes?”  She turned to Mikari. “Can you please ask him?”

            Mikari walked up to the register. “Here is Japan. You should study Japanese.”

            “Maybe he should study English.” She walked down the aisle, found the items, and turned around. Mikari was standing directly in front of her.

            “Um, I also need something for once a month pains.”

            “That you ask.”

            “I can't speak Japanese. Remember?”

            Mikari walked to the register. He turned around. “Aisle three.”

            Helene found the pain medication, and then walked to the register. She was taking her wallet out when Mikari pushed her hand away.

            “That's my treat.”

            “No, you don't have to.”

            He paid for the items and picked up the bag. “Let's go.”

            They walked down the street until they arrived at a restaurant with a statue near the entrance. A demon stood on a dog, carrying a noose, trident, drum, and skull in his four hands. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Mikari bow and press his palms together.

            He held the door open for her as she walked into the aroma of roasted tandoori chicken. The restaurant was packed. The waiter rushed them to a table under the air conditioner and rushed off again.

            Helene sat down. “Great, right under the air conditioner.”

            “Your voice is a little bit strange.”

           She placed a napkin on her lap. “That's because of my cold. I left the air conditioner on all night.” She sneezed. “In California we never used air conditioning.”

            “I know. I lived there too.”

            “Whereabouts?”

            “I studied graphic design at a school in north California.”

            “Is that what you do now?”

            “I work in the advertising company.”

            The waiter walked up to their table.

            “Can I order for you?” asked Mikari.

            “I'll do it myself.” Helene pointed to a picture of potato curry. “And a green salad please.”

            The waiter stared down at her.

            “In Japan when you’d like to take salad, you should say green sarada in Japanese, right? Otherwise, the waiter can’t understand what you say,” Mikari said.

            Helene sighed. “I can really order for myself.”

            “You don’t like tandoori chicken?”

            “No. I HATE chicken. Excuse me, can you turn down the air conditioner?”

            “They can’t turn off the aircon because these people will feel hot.”

            “Am I supposed to sit and freeze?”

            “American insist on their opinion, but in Japan you should bear the patience to insist on your opinion.”

            “Fine, let's move to another table.”

          Mikari looked around. “It's full.” He took off the jacket from the back of his chair and handed it to her. “Here.”

            “Thank you. So tell me, why did you bow to the statue outside?”

            “I am Hindish.”

            Their food arrived. Mikari placed his hands together.

            “You’re Hindu? When did you convert?”

            “When I was in California I was interested in Hindi when I worked in Indian restaurant washing dishes. I was very poor student at that time. The owner of the restaurant served me dishes free. He introduced me to his friend who was Hindi. He worked in computer company in Silicon Valley. That man taught me India. Hindu has highest level than other religions. Especially if compared with Christianity, Hindu is more higher.”

            “You don't think Christianity is advanced?”

            “Hinduism is superior to Christianity. It's a low religion.”

            Helene heard her voice rising. “Well, what does Hinduism say about how the universe was created?”

            “It is very cosmic thinking way in Hindu. Hindis believe universe born from Om. Hinduism came from scientific.”

            “Scientific what?”

            He smiled. “Scientific fiction. Christianity doesn't say about science. It's more…story. You think Christianity is superior than Hinduism? Why? I don't understand Christianity.”

            “Don't you believe in God, that he's everywhere in the universe?”

            “I don't. I never see God.”

            “So you don't believe in God because you've never seen him?”

            “Right.  Have you seen?”

            “I don't need to see him to believe that he exists.” She picked up her fork. “Anyway, enough religious talk for one day.”

            Mikari speared his fork into the salad. “Did you talking about religious stuff today?”

            “I guess you could say that.”

            “Did you talk about in the park?”

            “Yes.”

            “With your man friend?”

            “He's not really a friend, more like…” She stopped in mid-sentence, staring at Mikari. His eyes had narrowed; his right hand clutched his fork. She thought of the demon in front of the restaurant.

            “A priest?”

            “Yeah. I work part-time at a modeling agency and they need models for the bridal shows. Sometimes they call him in to help with the weddings at hotels.”

            “That was real marriage ceremony?”

            “I wanna say it was a marriage ceremony, but basically it was a show.”

            “How did you know that priest is real or not?”

            Helene put down her fork. “He was wearing black robes today and reading from the bible. What else would I think?” She looked up. Mikari's eyes burned into her. “Is something wrong?”

            “Here in Japan sometime they use the fake priest for weddings. Just for show.”

            “Really?”

            “Yeah. Are you Catholic?”

            “Yes, very much. Why?”

            “Nothing.” He pushed his plate away.

            Helene stared at him. “Does that bother you?”

            He motioned for the waiter to come over.

            “We're leaving so soon?”

            “Tonight there is display of Japanese traditional budo costume in history museum near from here. Today is last day. I have two tickets. Shall we go?” He stood up and walked to the register.

            Helene took out her wallet.

            He waved it away. “It’s my treat. Yesterday was my pay day.”

            The summer moon brightened their path as they walked along the river. Lights blazed in the history museum. Helene paused on the steps. “I should really get home. I need to work tomorrow morning.”

            Mikari turned around. “I wanna show you something. We don’t need to spend time a lot, so let’s go.”

            They walked into a room with a figure dressed in samurai armor with a white beard bristling on his chin. Mikari walked over to a sword inside a glass case. “My grandfather had this kind of sword, from World War II. He gave to me small one. It's made by Kagehira, famous sword maker of the Edo Period.”

            “That's what you wanted to show me?”

            Mikari walked over to a display of various ninja warriors wearing black ninja costumes. “That’s cool.” He turned to her. “Christianity is not popular anymore.”

            “Why do you say that?”

            “Because Hinduism is much more powerful. And I don't like Adam and Eve story.”

            “What do you mean?”

            “It's kinshi shokan. Kindership, right? Adam and Eve has a baby, but their baby's baby also has a baby with each other. That's kinshi shokan. It's dangerous.”

            Helene walked into another room dedicated to World War II veterans. As she stared at a photo of the Tokyo air raids, she saw Mikari reflected in the glass. “I guess you must have mixed feelings, being half American and all.”

            “This is too complicated. How about drink coffee?”

            “That's it? Too complicated?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Did your grandfather die in the war?”

            “How about drink coffee?”

            Helene glanced at her watch. “Sorry, I need to make the last bus.”

            “What happened? You got angry because of my idea of Christianity?”

            “What can I say? I'm a strong Christian, and you’re a Hindu. Apples and bananas.” She walked outside. By the time they reached the bus stop it was pouring.

            Mikari paused in front of the waiting bus. “My grandfather was dead. He was killed by American army.”

            “Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.” Thunder boomed behind her as she stepped into the bus. She stared at his figure standing in the rain and felt bad for him.

            She got home at 10:00 pm. The answering machine was silent. She walked upstairs to her room and glanced at the tatami room. The door was closed, as she had left it the other night. She turned on the computer and downloaded her e-mails, her heart pounding. When they appeared in her inbox she quickly scanned them for Claude’s name. Nothing. Only one message from Sangria.

            Hi Helene,

            How's the house of horrors? Listen, I want to thank you again for taking over the rent and my job at the school as well. I hope you enjoy your time there. A year will fly by like that and you'll soon be debt-free! Oh, I don’t want to scare you off from subletting the house but I guess I should tell you- oh shit. The phone.

            Helene stared at the screen. Scare her off? What the hell was she talking about?  She checked for messages again. Nothing. She went downstairs and ate half a container of green tea ice cream and paced back and forth in the kitchen. Stay calm, relaxed, the door was closed tonight. There's nothing in that room. And the lightning must have whacked the electricity, that’s why the light went on. She put the empty container in the sink and paced more, craving a cigarette. She stopped. No. She absolutely could not start smoking again, no matter how stressful things got.

            She went back upstairs and signed online. She bought a heather gray French terry jersey dress for $156.00. She checked for messages again, saw there were none, then wrote a message to Sangria telling her about the tatami room door. She went downstairs and took the other half container of ice cream upstairs with her. She sat down at the computer. A new message stared at her from the inbox. She was about to click on it when lightning crackled across the sky. Her computer went black. She stood up, staring at the screen as it rebooted.

            Hi I'm back. About thetatami room. You sleep with the windows open right? It's probably the wind blowing the door open. Relax. I know how stress gets to you. Enjoy your time there. Sleep tight and don't let the cockroaches bite! That Mikari guy sounds strange. Even if he did save your life, heads up!

            My friend Kyoko may call or e-mail, she said something about wanting to take you to a spa near the sea.

            OK, deep breath…the landlord told me that someone who lived in the house before had been murdered.

 

 

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