The Apprentice by Lewis Libby

BOMB 57 Fall 1996
Issue 57 057  Fall 1996

Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing

The apprentice stood upon the roof of the inn and gazed into the emptiness about. He knew that before him there lay a mountain range, and to the west the sea, but he could see only the low gray sky and a field of gray snow broken in places by the tops of trees. These, too, were soon lost in the haze of lightly falling snow.

He walked the roof trying to judge the work ahead. Near the chimney, just below the ridge pole, an overhang reached nearly twice his height. There were places below where the snow walls had collapsed against the sides of the inn, and places where the tops of the snow walls had eroded, leaving long, open crevices along the eaves. On the drift side, snow had risen in spots several feet above the lower roof.

The tappers of lac and the pox-faced hunter appeared below him. They carried beech shovels and wore the wadded cotton headgear of the mountain people and one wore a straw vest and one striped leggings and they crossed by ladder to the roof without speaking.

The youth could feel the cold against his skin. He gripped the shovel for warmth.

They dug for nearly an hour. The tappers of lac worked well and after a while they talked as they dug. The hunter kept to himself. At times the youth would turn to see the hunter staring at him.

As he dug, the youth thought about the girl who had worn the cloak of yellow fur. He thought for a long time about how she had looked at him, her mouth slightly open, when he had rushed out into the storm. He tried to read some meaning there.

At one point, bending at the waist, he thought he heard the strings of an instrument from inside the inn. The day before he had seen the girl carrying the case for such an instrument, and so he put down the blade of his shovel and straightened and held his breath to listen. But, under its blanket of snowfall, no sounds from the inn could be heard. There was only the light hiss of the falling snow. Soon he doubted that he had heard anything at all.

When they finished the roof, the youth knew, he might see her. But when they finished the roof, he also knew, he would have to go with the pox-faced hunter to begin the search for the dead man.

One of the tappers of lac had stopped digging. “Someone’s coming,” the tapper said, leaning a forearm on his shovel handle for a moment. It seemed a studied poise.

In the near distance, just visible through the lightly falling snow, a group of men in straw cloaks could be seen climbing up the ridge toward the inn. Beyond, the sky and the earth lay close together, and there was no line between them.

“Villagers,” the youth said, pausing to count the number he would have to report to the master of the inn, “coming to dig.”

Another of the tappers of lac had stopped work and was watching the snow land on the roof just in front of him, his shovel held down across his thighs. “When snow falls on snow it disappears,” he said. “It’s the same with men.”

As the villagers neared the inn, several of them called out to the youth. Their voices had a muffled sound in the cold gray light and the falling snow. They blew on their hands or wiped at their noses with the backs of their gloves and some stomped in place and slapped their arms against themselves and some hawked and spat. Though they were not far away, they called to the roof as though across a great distance.

Two villagers known to the youth joined him on the roof in the snowpit he had dug. From his pit, the heads and shoulders of the tappers of lac, rising and bending, could be seen. The villagers exchanged glances when they realized that guests of the inn were digging.

“Lots of guests,” one of them said after a while. His face was hidden in a cloud of breath.

“The storm closed the coastal road,” the youth said, unwilling to help them out.

The two villagers exchanged another look.

The youth stopped digging, the blade of his shovel in the air. “The road’s not closed?”

One of the two villagers, a good-looking boy named Takashi, worked his way closer. “The river crossing was swept away,” he said, but then he lowered his voice, “but it wasn’t the storm.”

The other villager stood up as if to rub his hands and looked about at the strangers. The tappers and the pox-faced hunter were far enough away that they could not hear. Some of the villagers were already moving packs of snow off the roof. “There have been men in the village and in the forests,” the villager said. He, too, had lowered his voice. The youth could not remember the man’s name.

“I’ve heard.”

“Not just here. Before the crossing was closed we heard there were men in the village to the south, too.”

“And in the forest to the north,” Takashi said.

“We say the crossing was swept away, but the ropes were cut.”

“Before the storm,” Takashi said.

“We think they’re waiting for something.”

“Or looking for someone,” Takashi said.

“Maybe,” the youth said, trying to keep his voice casual, “they are looking for a thief,” for, indeed, some of the guests had thought the bearded man a thief on the night of the storm.

Takashi tilted his head to the side. “Why wouldn’t they tell us?”

The youth thought about what it might mean if the bearded man were not a thief, and if the river crossing had not been swept away, and if the men in the forests were somehow a part of what had happened the night before.

Takashi drew nearer and dropped his voice. “Did you hear they found a dead man?”

The youth shook his head.

“At the edge of the village. Early this morning.”

In his mind’s eye the youth saw the bearded man splayed out in the snow.

“Who was it?”

The boy Takashi shrugged.

“Didn’t they find anything on him?” the youth asked.

Bent over to shovel, Takashi looked up at the youth as if he were crazy. “I don’t know. Ice.”

The youth tried to picture the dead body of the bearded man.

It was true, the youth knew, that the bearded man had probably killed the hunter Itoh, but he had not been a thief. He had not taken the dead hunter’s wallet. And while he had fled the inn inexplicably, he had also inexplicably spared the youth’s life. He had even tried to warn the youth of something.

Odd, the youth thought, that he felt a vague remorse at the death of this man, and not of the hunter Itoh who had risked the storm with him. Indeed, he could not remember the dead hunter’s face. He was not even sure he had ever seen it clearly. And yet he could remember the feel of the hunter’s body as he warmed his frozen fingers in its armpits in the dark of the storm.

The youth looked across toward the pox-faced hunter. After a time he realized that he and the villagers had fallen into a silence.

The youth and the villagers bent and rose with the rhythm of their digging. From time to time they looked about. The sky was gray, the ridge was gray, a light gray snow still fell like a curtain around them. They could not see far. They could not see where the snow came from as it fell at them out of the sky. They could not see the trees down the ridge that faded into the mist. In a while they had dug so deeply that they could not see out of their pit at all.

 

When the youth reentered the inn, the transport agent Wakabayashi was sitting at the edge of the steps in the gloom of the entryway, rubbing his toes through his socks. He could hear the voices of guests in the main room.

Pulling off his cloak, the youth listened for a voice that might belong to the girl who had worn the cloak of yellow fur, but he heard none. The dwarfed creature, snoring, was huddled in the corner.

“Any news from the village?” Wakabayashi said.

“They found a man dead this morning.”

“I’m not surprised,” Wakabayashi said, pulling the collar of his garment closer around his neck.

The youth hesitated, “It’s too bad I couldn’t catch him.”

“Who?”

“The man who came in out of the storm and ran back out again.”

“Oh, do you think it’s him?”

“Don’t you?”

Wakabayashi shrugged. “I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it. Why couldn’t it be that hunter who ran out after him?”

The youth looked away. “Of course, it could be him, too.”

“Anyway, you did what you could, didn’t you?” Wakabayashi said, and he stood and walked back in toward the fire.

The youth, following, wondered suddenly why the man had been in the entryway at all.

A dozen guests sat in the main room by the edge of the firepit. Their heads were bent low and they held things to the light. When the youth drew near he saw that they held near their faces cards of lacquered paper and that other cards lay scattered about their feet and others still passed among them hand to hand. On the cards were painted pictures of naked women bathing and lovers engaged in odd, exotic practices and on some were monkeys with erections and on one a demon and a maid. The top card, facing outward, bore a half-dressed courtesan and a warrior, reversed upon each other, garments hitched to their waists, with swollen, oversized organs and impossibly reddened flesh, and behind her back the courtesan held a dagger and there were scratchings on the card that bore urgent words. The wayfarers about the pit examined the cards with thick and blackened fingers. They craned their necks toward the performer Juji and stole glances at the images he had tossed casually before him and at those that passed and those that were to come.

“I’ll tell you a tale,” Juji said. He stuck his head forward and gleamed at the wayfarers with a tight smile. He said the tale was true and had happened nearby and was worth a bit of sake, and when someone poured he began.

He told the tale of a merchant who took his house to ruin. The merchant had a daughter of some beauty, and some said he abused the child. The daughter grew headstrong, and nothing could be done with her. She scorned the merchant and her mother alike and she would not weave crepe or attend to the duties she was set.

Juji looked about at the others and he looked at the apprentice and the snow diggers who stood over the fire and reached their hands out for its warmth. He laughed at the taunts of those who said the tale was not worth the sake, and, holding up his hand, he continued.

He said that boys from the village took the merchant’s daughter places, and word spread that she had many lovers. There were odd tales of her sexual prowess, and they said she had coupled with dogs and men and several of the boys at once. Then to their village came a young samurai, who spotted the girl as all did, and she folded him into her. He took her away to a village near his home. She began to refuse him. She took other lovers in the village, which enraged him, but he would not be done with her. He was distracted when he was not with her, and when he was. When she refused him he would beat her for the humiliation he felt, but he could not break the tie. At last she grew with child, which she said was the samurai’s, and she refused to give it up.

The child was born sickly, and after many months did not recover. None in the village could help. But there was one near the coast known for his medicines, and the woman resolved to go there. The young samurai refused, fearing she would not return. But she begged him, she opened her robes partway and told him she would love him as she once had and no other, if only he would take her and her baby girl right away. Now he refused her. He did not believe her. But she knew him, she watched his eyes gleam as she drew her hand slowly down inside her robe to her thighs and then brought her scent to him. She let him get the taste so strong he could think of nothing else and then she promised him that everything he wanted would be his that night, willingly, if they started right away.

Now Juji looked at the faces around him in the fireglow and finished the last of his sake. He saw that they were his for a while, and he motioned for another vial, and someone placed coins to pay upon the mat. The girl who had worn the yellow fur had returned during the tale to sit behind Juji and point her feet toward the fire, and the apprentice stole a look at her and her face half-cast in shadow.

Juji slowly took another sip of sake before he resumed, holding out his hand. Even though it was winter and the skies gray and the wind picking up, the young samurai and the girl clutching her baby set out to cross the first pass. But soon the wind blew strongly and the young samurai said they must turn back. The girl mocked him and said that they could get to a hut that she knew. Soon a storm raged, and they bent horizontally to the wind. Snow swirled from around them into funnels hundreds of feet in the air. Their hats were torn from their heads and their winter capes flapped about them. The woman’s hair blew wildly around her and into her eyes and she could see nothing but snow. Snow blew down their collars and up their sleeves and inside their clothes. They fell to the ground, hands and feet so cold they could barely bend. They called out as loudly as they could but none could hear and they could barely hear each other. Soon they curled up, each alone, not able to find the other, teeth chattering. Every slight movement made them colder. Their eyes grew dim, their hearing faint, they lied to themselves that the wind would soon stop and that they would soon be rescued. The snow swallowed them.

The next day a group of men passed just where the couple lay buried in the snow. They saw only a field of unbroken snow, but suddenly they heard below them the sound of the snow wailing. They looked around and when they could see nothing they fled, but as the cry grew more distant their courage returned and they crept slowly back. Again they heard the cry from within the snow. They were afraid of the spirits of the place. But they began to dig.

Soon they came upon long black strands of hair suspended in the snow like shoots of a plant reaching for the surface. They found a woman’s head, and they could see the sightless eyes and frozen face. The woman’s mouth was half-open and caked with snow. Frozen hair stuck to her forehead and cheeks, and while the edge of a collar was visible, snow was so packed around the neck that they could not be sure a body was attached. Now there was a crying sound, that seemed to the men standing in the snow around the floating head, to come from the black, motionless throat. That was how they discovered the baby, still alive, swaddled in clothes and tucked in against the mother’s breast beneath her clothing.

Now the guests around Juji grew derisive for several did not believe a baby could live so long beneath the snow and others claimed to have heard a similar story but with different particulars. Some who knew the tale swore that the baby girl had been replaced by a fox, for it was known in those regions that a fox could take the form of man or woman or animal and so do harm for greed or lust to those they crossed. Juji shook his head vigorously side to side and spoke to them rudely that the story was not yet done and they had best know the ending if they were to sleep that night in the inn.

Now the guests looked sharply at the apprentice for some explanation, but he did not know what to say, and Juji bore on.

A search party from town was sent for and they poked the stave through the snow but they never found the young samurai. His parents and brothers spat on the mother’s body and abused it until they were restrained by others. They denied the baby girl was of their blood and gave her roughly to a dirt-poor woman in the town. But as the child grew, the samurai’s brothers had her brought to their rooms at night, and they would mistreat her. The young girl-child had the mother’s beauty and soon the men in the samurai family began to handle her differently and carried her naked against them in the recesses of the house.

Then the young samurai’s mother had the child sold to a brothel, where she swept the floors and oiled the women and watched the secret ways. At age ten the madam put the child in a cage with a bear trained to couple with young girls so the girls would be frigid and not fall in love with their patrons. They fed her through the bars and aroused the bear with a stick when it seemed to lose interest. Groups of men paid to watch. Like other girls who have been trained this way, she learned to handle many men in a single night and her skin turned a milky white.

Stories of this north-country training for prostitutes were apparently well-known among the guests, who made impatient motions for Juji to continue. The youth, now squatting by the fire, stole a look at the girl who had worn the cloak of yellow fur, but she hugged her knees and barely seemed to listen to the tale.

“Then,” Juji said, “they trained the young whore in all of the finest ways to pleasure men. They gave her wooden penises and taught her how to handle them. They taught her how to sing out in the night and move to finish off her customers more quickly.”

This, too, seemed common knowledge among those sitting about Juji, but as he moved his awkward body and made panting noises they elbowed each other and showed yellowed teeth or toothless gaps as they laughed.

“They taught her how to draw pubic hair on her mound,” Juji laughed, “because she was still too young to have any of her own.” A fat woman on the far side of the fire laughed out until tears streamed down her face and her sides rocked. She reached into her clothes while she was laughing and pulled sharply and made a little cry and her mouth opened and then, laughing harder, she pulled her hand out with pubic hairs stuck between her swollen fingers and flung them at the men around the fire. “No ink here,” she gasped, laughing, “No ink, no ink,” and the laughing men beside her made grasping motions above the fire as if to catch the pubic hair she had thrown. Some clung unnoticed in her moist palm.

“And then,” Juji said, laughing and shouting over the others’ laughter, “when she was 12 and ready they gave her to me for her first night, because I had done this for them before.”

The laughing men stopped laughing in a series of diminishing gasps and leaned forward intently with glinting eyes to hear the secrets of a man used for the first-night training, by a house that could afford a bear.

“Is there feeling?” a buck-toothed man asked, “At least on the first night, even after a bear?”

Juji glanced at the man and continued. “First they brought her out for me to examine and then they told me of the girl’s story and asked me if I was still ready to take her into the first night of her new life. I scoffed at their story, but later when they brought her to my room her skin was so white and cold as I undressed her, and her eyes were as still as a practiced round-heeled, hot-springs whore. But inside,” Juji said, leaning forward and slapping his thighs, “inside she was as hot as this fire and there wasn’t a trick she didn’t know. I bought her contract on the spot!”

Now he and the guests exploded in laughter, looking into the fire and then looking at each other, and when they caught each others’ eyes, laughing louder again.

“Was there feeling?” the buck-toothed man shouted again, laughing too.

Juji laughed so hard that he couldn’t get his words out clearly, although he tried several times. The man asked Juji to repeat what he was saying, but the harder Juji tried the more difficulty he had speaking.

“Was there feeling?” the man asked again.

Juji wiped at the tears of laughter rolling down his face while a man on one side tried to steady him. At last Juji blurted out, “Ask her,” and was torn by laughter again.

Some guests sat back a little and others stretched forward to hear. Juji looked up at them and when he realized they had not understood, rippled one more time with laughter. Then he stopped, drew heavy breaths, and his voice grew deep within him. “Ask her,” he said and he reached behind him and grabbed the girl who had worn the cloak of yellow fur by the hair and the back of the neck and yanked her forward to the fire. The girl pulled back quickly from Juji’s touch slapping at the air and then, looking once defiantly around, clasped her arms with her hands and sat back.

Now the guests all turned to her as if a spirit had suddenly appeared among them.

“This is her,” Juji said. “Ask her. Ask her.”

There was silence, and then the buck-toothed man snorted. “Well, was there feeling?” Then he made an odd nervous laugh, and Juji told the girl to answer.

The girl stared fixedly into the fire.

“Well?”

The girl had not raised her eyes. The wayfarers were silent, waiting. “Yes,” she said quietly, so quietly the youth could barely hear.

Laughter burst from the throats of the guests so that mucus ran from their noses and spit formed in the corners of their mouths. Their features strained and distorted with their laughter and they slapped each other’s arms and beat their hands against the floor and wiped at their faces. But soon, even as they laughed, the wayfarers looked at the girl from the corners of their eyes with a keen scrutiny and they looked at her parts and at the hair on her. Juji watched their faces narrowly even as he smacked his thighs and opened his mouth wide with more laughter and poked at the others to spur their laughter on, and the girl looked at none of them, but at the fire only.

Lewis Libby is a graduate of Yale University and Columbia University School of Law. He first visited Japan in 1969 and has since made numerous official trips there while holding positions at the US Department of State and Defense. He currently practices law and lives with his family in the Washington DC area. The Apprentice is his first novel, just out from Graywolf.

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Issue 57 057  Fall 1996