When Aiko, who had been at the monastery ever since he was abandoned there as an infant, began to record the day upon which the cracks first appeared in the ice, he did it on a long scroll, using blue-black ink and a worn brush that he had received from his calligraphy teacher. The Europeans would count the year as 1443, and the cold, and, as a result, the ice, came early that year to Lake Suwara, high in the Japanese mountains where Aiko and his brother monks meditated, observed, gardened, and ate rice. Aiko was always one for patterns, for records, for stories of what had happened long ago. And so this love child, whose mother could not give him his own history, began a tradition of recording the ice that would make history.
Of course, there was a religious reason for Aiko’s efforts. The monks needed to know when the ice would form and the cracks would appear so that they could prepare the proper rituals. It was the monks’ job to make the ceremony to mark when the God, Takeminakata, who lost the first sumo match in the history of the world and fled to Lake Suwa, would, each winter, walk across the frozen lake to see his wife and make shards and cracks that signified both the beauty and the desolation of winter.
Because the cold came early that year, in 1443, so did the cough. Most of the monks caught it, shivering in their thin robes, huddled around their small fires, and drinking their lukewarm tea. Aiko was older than most and the cough caught him earlier and stayed with him longer. By spring, when the cherry blossoms began to appear, Aiko had gone to join his ancestors.
His young pupil, Isamu, came across the scroll among Aiko’s things and kept it, along with Aiko’s brush and ink block. And, that year, when the God walked over the ice to see his wife, Isamu added his observation next to Aiko’s and dated it, showing that the cracks had appeared a few weeks later on the lake. Those few weeks were important; they, along with an early spring, allowed the monks, in 1444, to stay healthy and meant that their wealthy patrons had more rice, and tea, and duck eggs to give. Only old Sino died that winter and he had been crippled and ill for many years since he had slipped and broken his hip high up upon the mountain passes.
And so they came, winter and spring, winter and spring, winter and spring, over, and over, and over at the monastery on Lake Suwa. The monks honored the kami, taught the people, grew the rice, and recorded, every year, when the cracks appeared on the frozen lake. Some years, the cold and the ice came a few weeks early and, some years, the cold and the ice came later. And the coughs and the deaths came and halted with them, but every year the monks could prepare the rituals.
In 1544, Hoshi, whose name meant “Star,” used the ancient brush to record the coming of the ice. Hoshi used the last bit of Aiko’s scroll and he went to the trouble of preparing a new scroll just for the purpose of recording the next cracks in the ice. There were stories, but the monks ignored them, that barbarians, The Naban, had come to Nippon. They sailed in large ships, had eyes like demons, and offered odd things for trade. But they had nothing to do with whether rice was planted, blankets were woven, prayers were said. And, so, Hoshi and his students wrote nothing of them, but wrote, each year, the date upon which the ice was cracked. Important things are important.
Keiji was still using that scroll when, in 1644, he made a new brush and a new ink block and noted that the cracks in the ice came very late, so late that the monks had begun to worry that the God Takeminakata might not visit his wife, at all, that year. In the end, Minoi, a farmer who was grateful that the monks had prayed for him to have a successful harvest, had brought a boar, and some rabbits, and many ducks to the monastery and the monks, supplied with good broth from all the animals, had lived out the winter, which starting late had also ended late, with cracks on the ice that showed, all shining shards in the late-winter sun, that the god had gone stomping across the ice in the early morning cold to visit his wife. Minoi had told the monks that the emperor had declared the Sakoku — the Seclusion Edicts — to keep the demon-eyed Europeans away. But that had nothing to do with the fish in the lake, the deer upon the mountain, the mushrooms growing in the shade of the temple pines and, so, the monks did not record that when they noted the cracks in the lake ice.
By 1744, it fell to Sachin, whose name meant “fortunately born,” but who, like Aiko had been left at the lake-side monastery as an infant, to record that the cracks appeared upon the ice on the day when there was an equal amount of dark and light. Sachin drew a tiny goose, flying over a field of dried-out rice stalks, next to the date that he recored upon Hoshi’s scroll. Sachin had always had an artistic bent.
Tanjiro, whose name (second son) explained why he had been given to the monastery, woke up one morning in November of 1844, wrapped his blanket around his shoulders, and walked to the lake to watch the sun come up. There was steam coming off the snow, upon the ice, upon the lake, but Tanjiro could see the cracks beneath the snow. He went back to the library, pulled down the ancient scroll, warmed the ink beneath his own armpit, and recorded the date.
For years and years, while the white Catholic devils spread their evil across the land, while the Portuguese and English admirals came and went, and left, and came back, while the farmers planted the rice and the hunters hunted the deer, the monks meditated, and watched, and recorded and, no matter whether the cold and the coughs came early or late, the monks wrote down when the cracks appeared upon the ice.
In 1845, Rumiko, moving slowly beneath his robes, his old joints sore from the cold, made a new scroll and noted that the lake had frozen later than it ever had. His student made him tea from roasted rice and green leaves, stoked his fire, and chaffed his feet. But Rumiko caught the lake-dwellers’ cough and was gone before the snows had melted.
In 1944, the lake never froze. The monks looked at each other in fear, shook their heads, and assured the mountain-dwellers that the god would come back next year to visit his wife, made more eager for the wait. The next year, the monsters began to come over the mountains, or, to be more explicit, the mothers holding monsters. Everyone said that the white devils had made the world explode. But the monks just offered bandages soaked in herbs, rice, tea, and a way to meditate. They trained the monsters to watch the ice.
By 1966, it was clear to the monks, although no one else cared, that something was going on. Later and later the god came to walk across the ice and, as often as not, he simply didn’t come. The lake didn’t freeze and it was clear, from 500 years of one monk after another making brush marks on scrolls, that the god came later, if at all, to walk across the frozen lake and see his wife.
It was Seijun, the first woman the monks had admitted to the monastery, who had a telephone installed in 1999, and it was Miko, an odd person of no known sex, who had insisted upon one computer with the internet in 2010. And it was over the internet that the Europeans and the Americans sent their message in 2014: “We hear you have records of the ice. We must come see you.” The monks drank tea, talked about the ice, sat in silence, and then allowed the strangers to come.
There was frost on the mountain when the foreigners arrived, their helicopter appearing out of the morning mist. They brought tea, an iPhone, solar panels, and a new strain of rice seedlings that could survive the warmer climate. Aiko, a young man of 22, was the first off the helicopter. “I’m an historian,” he said. “We’re so glad to be able to read your scrolls. The entire planet has been changing, but only you have been recording it.”
“Greetings,” Isamu said. “I will take you to our scrolls. Aiko began a long time ago to write down when the God walked across the ice.” Isamu began to cough.
Meanwhile, across the globe, in Finland . . . .
Picture found here.