Archive for June, 2008

Sometimes the Heart of a Turtle

June 20, 2008

Hi all,

I was able to get the old Japanese copy of Sometimes the Heart of a Turtle by Kenzaburō Ōe.  This short story was later expanded into a novel after winning several awards, similar to the famous Daniel Keyes short story Flowers for Algernon.   The Karate Kid was based on this later novelization.  This is one of the few examples in contemporary literature of a Japanese author writing magical realism.  Enjoy!

Sometimes the Heart of a Turtle

by Kenzaburō Ōe

The apartments were clean and well-maintained but still obviously old and obviously cheap. Daniel had to carry the moving boxes up a long stairway to the room on the top floor. He walked up with a heavy box in his arms and kicked the door of a wooden gate. It slammed back into the face of another young man.

Daniel dropped the box. “I am so sorry?  Are you well?”

Blood poured from a jagged gash in the young man’s forehead. It poured down his face and onto his shirt, which was of grey flannel. It poured down, pooling on the floor. It poured down. And the young man stood there, staring into him, his eyes gray and piercing, like those of an angry, ancient turtle.

“I am Grayson,” he said.

“I am Daniel,” replied the Daniel.

“Was that Karate with which you foot-struck the fence?”

“Yes. I know a little.”

“You know nothing!” said Grayson, yet still without emotion, still without checking his wound.

*

Daniel finished moving the boxes to the apartment. He stood on his balcony, looking out over his new home state. His mother was inside. She’d dragged him here, to California, to take a new, better paying job. He cursed her, even as he blessed the sun that spread its golden emissions over the trees, the earth that clutched their putrid roots rotting, with a fine gradualism, into sandy shorelines that clutched the putrid turtle-haven known as the California Sea.

“Yes, the sea,” he murmured, his eyes crossing. “I must reach the sea.”

*

He strode the dilapidated California streets towards the groaning sea. Dirty tarps were tied to buildings and hung over fruit markets; rain drops drummed on rusted tin roofs and broken glass covered dirt roads. Plastic candy wrappers collected on every stream’s edge and a man lay with an empty bottle on every pathway.

In passing he stole a soccer-ball from a little girl. He practiced bouncing it on his knees to the rhythm of her sobs as he reached the beach.

*

Daniel met up with a group of young people who had also been drawn to the sea. They committed the acts of youth and practiced the festive rituals of Californian culture, the boom-boxes booming, booming, and the music and oh the games. Theirs was a time of celebration, free from the rot of leprosy, from boils, from tumors.

And then he saw her. Her boom-box boomed; her hair caught in the warm tidal breeze: golden hair, like the sun after a baseball game, flowing around her face, a face with skin so white and so pasty, like a flour tortilla, that he approached without thinking.

“Care to dance?”

She laughed and tossed her hair, he smirked and tossed his own. And then her smile melted, her eyes welling up, and he turned to see what had so frightened her.

A slender young man with blonde hair and a red leather jacket stood smiling at him. “Johnny,” whispered the crowd.


Johnny began smashing boom-boxes. The music pierced him. The manufactured sentimentality of pop-music spoke to his heart and shamed him, for his tears did not fall with the raindrops of Chopin or the moonlight of Beethoven. The pureness of classical music did not affect him, could not, for he was only emotionally affected by true linguistic content. This failure of his intellect could not be discovered by his enemies. Most of all, it could not be discovered by his friends.

He habitually used a simple foot stomp to smash boom-boxes. But what was this? A svelte young man with jet black hair and protruding lips stood in front of the final boom-box. Could the young man be a warrior?

It did not matter. Johnny’s style, Goshido-Ryu, was unbeatable. Whereas most Japanese martial arts were derived from Chinese styles, Goshido-Ryu was passed down through the Mongolian general Subutai, who had initially developed it from the techniques of Mongolian wrestling and sword fighting. Tactics such as the feigned retreat were common. Subutai himself, in his old age, grew weak and obese and had to be carried around in a wooden cart. Only black belts in Goshido-Ryu understood why.

“Care to dance?” said Johnny, coincidentally.

Daniel’s eyes crossed. He attacked with the same Karate kick he’d used on the gate-door. Johnny retreated. Daniel knew no other technique, so he pursued on one leg, kicking with the other. Johnny retreated. Once Daniel had been led a mile from his friends, Johnny whistled and several Mongolians, who were his acquaintances, arose from the sea and pummeled Daniel with tiny, shriveled fists that smelled of milk.

*

Daniel walked up the stairs to his room again, his eyes blackened. A light was on in another apartment. Someone was still awake. Daniel knocked on the door. An old Easterner opened the door. He was not Mongolian.

“I am Daniel,” said Daniel.

“I am Miyagi,” said the Easterner.

*

After telling Miyagi of his encounter with Johnny, the Easterner agreed to teach Daniel the only style that had been able to defeat Goshido-Ryu in the underground Kumites of Montreal.

Kajido.

Never had there been a similar style. Developed in Okinawa by farmers’ wives, it was preserved in secrecy by hiding its most lethal techniques in stylized housework movements. The name, literally, translated to “the way of housework.” Kajido.

Miyagi had another student. It was Grayson. His strange, sociopathic personality and his immunity to pain both repulsed and excited Daniel.

“How can I too follow the path of Grayson?” he asked Miyagi one day, while practicing the technique of ‘Make bed’, ‘Unmake Bed’.

“Meet me near the koi pond,” responded the kindly Asian.

*

They met in the forest. To get there, Daniel climbed foothills between dead trees and his footsteps crunched in brown grass; he drank from a dying mountain stream that tasted of newly-printed books. The stream climbed winding as its water fell, flowing from volcanic mountains whose peaks were hidden in the glare of the sun. Daniel left the bank to climb the final foothill.

Panting, he arrived to a clearing that was surrounded only by a ring of Bonsai trees. His heart pounded. He did not know what lay ahead.

Miyagi sat cross-legged in the center of the ring, drunk and meditating, a guitar in his lap. Suddenly, he arose.

“You must face your greatest desire. If you speak within the ring, if you say one word, you will never unlock the final secret of Kajido.”

Daniel approached the middle of the ring and Miyagi retreated. The guitar was there, waiting for him. He picked it up and sat cross-legged. It began to rain. It began to storm.

Daniel played a mournful, wordless song that he wrote when his father was killed by Maltese gangsters. Suddenly, the golden hair girl appeared at the eastern side of the ring, her outline blurred by the storm.

Daniel saw that she was alone and knew she might wish to speak. He looked down at the ground and pretended not to see her; he began to play the song he heard at night when he dreamt of her.

When he looked up she stood looking back at him, a bench length before him, alone and still in the rain. Wet tendrils of golden hair stuck to her forehead and water drops poured down her pale face and fell from her chin and fingertips. Her eyes, shining black and deep like lakes in moonlight, stared into his without wonder. He continued playing and she began to move, slowly, and began to dance, and began to sing an ancient song in the dead tongue of ancient warriors.

Her voice carried the notes of the howl of the wind on mountain tops. His chords held the tremble of thunder through valleys. And when her song ended she simply danced in the rain to his lonely street music; and when the chords finally died she slowly stopped, once again standing before him and waiting.

Daniel nearly spoke, caught himself, and blushed and fumbled with his guitar.
He looked away from her burning eyes. He looked down and stared at the ground and played a silly children’s tune. When he finally dared look up her bright outline was already fading and indistinct, like the final notes of a song.

Daniel wept. Miyagi returned to his side. “Now you know,” he said, “what it is to have the heart of the turtle. You must be soft, as the turtle’s face is soft, but you must be hard, as the turtle’s arms are.”

*

From there Daniel’s training took a new turn. Miyagi regularly beat him and Grayson with a wooden cane. His body became as soft and pliable as the skin of a turtle’s face, and under frequent rubdowns his muscles turned elegant.

One day, on the wooden bridge that crossed the koi pond, Grayson and Daniel were practicing an intermediate Kajido kata – ‘wash dish, dry dish’. The sun was high in the sky and the wind blew fiercely, casting ripples over the heads of the orange koi that swam lazily between aquatic plants. Miyagi approached.

“You are now ready,” said Miyagi, “to learn the final technique of Kajido.” Daniel bowed. Miyagi walked to the far end of the bridge and picked up a broom. He returned and handed it to Daniel.

“Sweep left, sweep right,” he said, demonstrating with graceful but powerful sweeping motions, the muscles in his brown arms taut, the rough, calloused hands gripping with surprising elegance. He handed the broom to Daniel.

“Sweep left, sweep right.” Daniel executed the technique. Miyagi bowed slightly, turned, and left, Grayson still angrily sneering at Daniel. Grayson continued his dish kata, and Daniel his broom kata.

“Sweep left, sweep right.”

“Wash dish, dry dish.”

It seemed only a matter of time before their competition would turn deadly. After several hours, however, as the sun waned, casting its luminescent orange hues across the pond, tumbleweed and autumn leaves carried through the air by the strong summer wind , Miyagi returned.

He gave a headband to Daniel. It was embroided with the seven sacred housework techniques, each inscribed in beautiful hand-drawn pictograms.

“You are ready to face Johnny. Put this on.”

Daniel tied it around his head. He grinned, caught himself, and bowed. Miyagi bowed back and left. Daniel, in his exhilaration, held the broom high overhead, triumphantly, its bristles vibrating majestically against the twilight heavens. He held it overhead, his arm trembling, fingers white against its worn, brown wood, and screamed a guttural, primordial utterance that sent all nearby wildlife fleeing, that resonated across the pond and brought tears to Grayson’s eyes; for its notes were pure, like a lover’s sigh, as the mother’s milk, or the newborn’s touch, or the widow’s thighs. It was the cry, sometimes, of the heart of a turtle.

*

The day of the tournament arrived. Daniel and Johnny fought through several irrelevant matches while music played. They were to meet in the finals. It was decided by a council of elders that the finals must occur in a neutral location – Tome Village in San Fernando Valley’s Okinawatown.

*

There they stood on an elevated tower in the castle of King Shohashi, surrounded by water and karatekas and cheering Okinawan friends. There they stood, one before the other, looking past the castle walls, out over the great plain of San Fernando Valley. They stood on the carved, putrid rocks in their kimonos, a referee between them. It was storming again. It was a typhoon.

Grayson suddenly screamed, from the base of the tower, “It was I who should have drunk from this cup! I am the holder of the heart of the turtle!” Several thousand Mongolians were with him.

San Fernando Valley was now flooded to the knee. The storm clouds massed and fire and lightning began to fall from the sky.

Beings of conflicting vapors and breath fell in flames to the valley. They struck the water and it shivered but did not part. They immersed themselves in elements, the vapors pouring through stone and earth and water that coalesced into burning sculptures. They rose slowly from the churning sea, holding swords that glowed, twinkling like starlight. They were the souls of the Mongol Army.

The point karate fighters charged to protect the tower and a great wave followed with them. They met the fallen warriors in a war of flesh and fire. As the sea rose the souls released sinewy wings that spread like cobwebs in a thousand strands of stone, slowly undulating in the pouring rain, catching the wind so their stone-sculpted feet could walk the surface of the sea.

The karatekas swung their fists and shattered stone, and the Mongols’ flaming swords burned flesh and charred bone. The karatekas screamed and sang as they fell and took the Mongols with them. Never had they struggled so gloriously.

*

With Grayson and his Mongol army decapitated by ridge-hands, the referee signaled the commencement of the match. The rain poured over them, the sky dark, and Daniel knew from the look in Johnny’s beautiful eyes that it would be to the death. He leapt forward suddenly, his shoulder crashing into Johnny’s chest, and they both fell and rolled across the top of the tower towards the edge.

Johnny regained his feet with preternatural dexterity, his elfish agility apparent from the look of his pointy white face. As Daniel arose Johnny’s ridge-hand fell towards him, passing so near to his head that it lopped of his ear.

“One point, Johnny!” cried the ref, signaling the score-keeper with his hand.

They circled again, blood pouring from the wound in the side of Daniel’s head, mixing with the rain that fell upon them. Daniel remembered it all, every movement, every feint, practiced and honed to precision by the preserved techniques of Kajido, the isomorphism finally decoded. The crashing waters, still rising around them, drowning this postdiluvian Earth, were a part of him, recalling the sacred Kajido technique, ‘wash clean’, washing away the wickedness of San Fernando Valley.

Daniel, in his state of mastery, leapt forward with Kajido techniques time and time again, but they were guarded masterfully by Johnny’s Goshido-Ryu, the Mongol grappling techniques impervious to the deadliness of housework.

Then Daniel, inspired by something deep within him, began attacking in combination, blocking a strike with ‘wax on’ and following up with the double arm ‘make bed’ strike. Johnny countered easily each time with straight punches and Mongolian twisting throws. Johnny was untouched, his pretty blonde hair wet and stylish in the rain, but Daniel’s face was pouring blood from a dozen wounds and his nubile body was bruised from the throws.

He was growing desperate. Johnny began throwing smashing Mongolian elbow combinations, the last of which broke Daniel’s collarbone.

“One point, Johnny!” cried the ref.

Daniel was exhausted and beaten, and began contemplating his death. Suddenly, a voice called up to him from the waters below them.

“Daniel, sweep the leg!”

It was Miyagi, in a boat, struggling to keep from capsizing in the waters. Daniel understood. The final technique of Kajido. The most deadly of techniques ever preserved in housework.

Johnny rushed forward yet again, his elbows swinging. Daniel blocked with ‘Sand the Deck’ and his arms then suddenly took the broom position, sweeping in an arc low and in front of him, shattering both of Johnny’s knees.

“One point, Daniel!” yelled the ref.

Johnny collapsed, kneeling before Daniel, who delivered a powerful ‘Make the Bed’ strike to the back of his head, fracturing the skull.

“One point, Daniel!”

The score was tied. Johnny lay quivering face down on the stone, and Daniel cautiously approached, looking for an opening. This point was critical. He executed a “Cut the Meat” strike to the back of Johnny’s neck, decapitating him.

“Winner, Daniel!” cried the ref. But there was no one left to congratulate him. Miyagi’s boat had capsized. Somewhere in those roaring depths, that ancient sea, a kindly old Easterner lay dead, and yet still the waves rolled and the rain fell as it had in eons past.

Daniel, tired of the ref, swept his leg and pushed him off the tower. He kicked Johnny’s head and body into the waters. And, looking out over the valley, he realized that the blonde girl lay somewhere, with Miyagi and Grayson, beneath the indifferent sea.

*

Now Daniel sat alone halfway up the tower and looked out over an endless sea. His dreams had drowned and his eyes were clear. He put the guitar on his lap and played their song with no emotion. He remembered her golden hair. As he played the music it echoed off the tower and over the waters. The echo gave its form to the falling rain before him. Daniel smiled at the shimmering girl who danced slowly with the song. His smile fell as he realized, still playing, that there was nothing really there but falling rain.