by Andrew Broadous
December 2018 (Featured in The Kolob Canyon Review, April 2019)
Aiya Uzuma leaned on a rail, watching tepid waves lap against her small yacht. Okinawa was only a white glimmer in her sight. She had expected her father to hand her a plane ticket from Shinjuku to the small village of Ogimi, but instead, the man sent her off in style, insisting that everything had to be done right. “Everything” meant getting Aiya’s Irezumi, or traditional Yakuza tattoos.
As the tiny island grew larger, Aiya scrolled mindlessly through her iPhone for galleries of women marked with thick ink designs from the neck down to the ankle. Her thoughts turned swiftly to her mother, some ruffled bedsheet of a woman who hadn’t stayed in Aiya’s life long enough for a falling tear. Aiya wondered what her mother’s tattoos looked like—if she had had any to begin with. This fleeting thought soon drifted to Aiya’s father, Saburo Uzuma. He was the head of their Yakuza clan and was the first of his brethren get his full-body ink, which resembled that of an ornate wetsuit. No machines. His tattoos were all done by a metal nomi brush containing bristles like fine needles scratching across the skin.
Aiya’s crew, four men dressed in starched grey suits, careened the sleek white vessel ashore. Aiya pocketed her phone and considered her father’s wishes. Saburo was sending his only daughter to the Ink Master, a mild-tempered Ogimi artist who had done the clansman’s markings long ago. Back when Saburo was twenty-five, he considered his illustrations a rite of passage into “The Life,” as he called it.
Aiya stepped out onto the dock and yawned. She was soon hit by a palpable humidity and the rays of dawn, turning her fair skin wet and sticky. She brushed away her violet-tipped bangs and retrieved her sunglasses from a small bag that dangled on her shoulder strap. She was clad in black skinny jeans and a red long-sleeve t-shirt with bamboo silhouettes that was cut off and frayed just above her navel. A soft brushing noise came from her wooden sandals with every step she took across lush, green grass sloping waywardly.
Villagers who didn’t know Aiya were all too eager to give smiles and waves of their old, wrinkly hands. All the girl could think about was some old man feeling up her body with an ink brush and possibly his own fingertips.
As she made her way up the trail, Aiya was greeted by at least thirty hikers and passers-by who looked like they had cheated death. They must’ve been at least ninety-five, and still they were jogging and beaming like schoolgirls.
A bald man in grey shorts and a white t-shirt came walking beside her. He had a water bottle in his hand and was grinning with his eyes and with the few teeth he still possessed.
“Tokyo or Kyoto?” the man said.
“What?” said Aiya.
“Are you from Tokyo or Kyoto? I’m guessing Tokyo.”
“What if I said I’m from here?”
The man’s smile went even wider, exposing an extra three teeth. “Then I’d know you were lying.”
Aiya eyed the man curiously. “I’m Aiya,” she said with a nod.
The man nodded back. “Nagamitsu. ‘Naga.’ What brings you to Ogimi?”
“I’m here to see a man called the Ink Master.”
“The Ink Master,” Naga said, tasting the words. “I’m a regular customer. So far, I have eight of his works. Beautiful painter.”
“Know where I can find him?”
Naga squinted at the light on the horizon. “I ran into him just as he was leaving yesterday.”
Aiya froze and tilted her shades.
“Said it was urgent business,” Naga said. He stepped over a patch of bright hibiscus, showing dappled, hairless skin stretched over his bony legs. He pointed a finger up the path. “His home and studio is just over this hill, if you care to see it. I do believe his apprentice is watching over things while he’s away.”
Aiya nodded somberly. Surely this wasn’t true, she thought. She didn’t come all this way just to see the man’s house and a few paintings strewn about. She decided to follow Naga along the trail.
The girl was amazed at the old man’s stamina. She thought for sure he would’ve keeled over before they had reached the top, but sure enough, there he was, right beside her. She was tempted to ask his age but ultimately decided against it.
“I can’t get over the natural beauty here,” Naga said as the two approached the bottom. “Not a day goes by when I don’t find myself in awe. Don’t you think so?”
Aiya merely muttered, “It’s nice.”
Naga breathed in deeply, sucking in the Ogimi air through his narrow nostrils. “I love jogging. It’s good for the soul. Don’t be surprised if you hear my old bones creaking out here every morning and every night,” he said with a snicker.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Aiya.
The hill started to level out, and Aiya and Naga were ready to part ways. They shook hands, and Naga continued down the path.
“Wait,” Aiya said, and Naga turned back around. “How did you know I’m from Tokyo?”
“You weren’t smiling,” said Naga. “You’ll come to find that everybody smiles here in Ogimi.” Then he turned and trotted off.
Not far from the hill, Aiya crossed a wooden bridge over a small pond and made her way to a quaint house in a tangle of banyan trees. Wind chimes were tinkling at the front door. She knocked, and a few seconds later, the door slid open with a clack.
A young man appeared and greeted Aiya. The girl was expecting another geriatric man with a toothy grin, but this man looked maybe two or three years her senior. He donned a faded tan jacket and brown khakis and had jet-black hair that fell down the sides of his neck, hitting his shoulders. His face was narrow like a wolf’s; his eyes: glossy black and white marbles.
“I’m looking for the Ink Master,” Aiya said. “Probably old.”
The young man looked at Aiya blankly. His walnut-colored skin blanched.
The young man rubbed his temples.
“You’re Uzuma’s child?”
“That’s right,” Aiya said slowly, half expecting him to say something else. “I’m Aiya.”
The man choked out, “Kai” and shook the girl’s hand, then looked to the ground.
“Were you not expecting me?” said Aiya.
“My master said Uzuma’s child was coming. He failed to mention you were a female.”
Aiya sighed. “So, you’re the apprentice. Where is the master?”
“So I’ve heard. Do you live here, too?”
Kai shook his head. “I have a small house nearby.” He smiled coyly and showed his impatient guest inside.
The Ink Master’s home was just like every other thing Aiya would expect to find in Ogimi: old but well-kept. It smelled musty, and every surface was varnished wood. Several of the sliding paper shōji doors in the back were open, giving a view to a small pond. There were multi-colored ink bottles by the hundreds on shelves. Framed haiku poems done in calligraphy and Buddha paintings hung from the walls. Many of the other oil paintings featured old men and women clasping their hands in prayer.
“How long will this take?” Aiya said, dumping her bag on the floor.
“A while,” said the man.
Kai assembled twenty or so inks onto a wooden tray, along with a bottle of alcohol, rags, and nomi brushes of at least twelve different sizes. “It’s going to take at least a month,” he said. “It’s a long process.”
Aiya’s big eyes widened. “A month? My father never said anything about a month. That’s ridiculous. Who has the time for this?”
Kai held up his hands in protest. “You’ll only be here for two days, just to get a feel for it. When you’re ready, you’ll be back for the rest.”
“Lovely. Can’t you get this stuff done in a few hours?” said Aiya, looking around the house.
“Not if you want it done right.” Kai turned and grabbed several more bottles of ink. “Don’t worry, there’s a guest room. And after your time with these,” he said, holding up an ink bottle, “you won’t be disappointed. People from all over want to get their hands on my master’s work. And he taught me well. But—” Kai spun around.
Aiya had removed her shirt and was beginning to undo her bra. “What?” she said.
“I think— I think I’ll just start on your arms, if you don’t mind.”
Aiya shrugged and dressed herself. “No need to be coy.”
Kai faced her once again and gave a slight smile. “All right,” he said. He picked up the tray from a desk and started for a small room in the back of the house.
Aiya grabbed her bag and followed him inside.
The room had a small padded mat in the center of the floor, and paintings and foot-tall lanterns descended from hooks on all four walls. Kai lit the lanterns, and a sensuous amber light pulsated about the room.
“Don’t get any ideas,” Aiya muttered, settling on the mat.
Kai sat down next to her and concentrated on sterilizing the brushes. “I’m a professional.”
Aiya pulled up her sleeve. “What’s the design?”
“I was going to ask you.”
“I don’t care. Do something you’ve never done before.”
Kai thought for a moment and said, “Beautiful silk.”
“What?” said Aiya, craning her neck.
“That’s what your name means, right? Aiya? What if I did the waves and folds of silk? It’d be more fitting than dragon scales. And you don’t strike me as a flower bush kind of girl,” he added with a laugh.
Aiya pondered the idea while eying two paintings of praying women. “I like it.”
There was a bump in an adjacent room, then the sound of tiny footsteps. A little girl with dark pigtails pranced into the room. She rolled on the ground and shot up, arms outstretched.
Aiya turned around fast and cut her shoulder on Kai’s brush. She winced.
Kai retrieved a dry rag and gave it to her. The girl pressed it against her skin. Red lines began to soak through the cloth.
The girl stopped, mid-pirouette, and looked fearfully at Aiya.
The frightened look on the little girl’s face made Aiya feel a strong, sudden urge to apologize. And for what, she didn’t know.
“Kimiko,” Kai said, getting to his feet. He scooped the girl up and said, “Let’s get back to bed. It’s too early. Go back to sleep, and when you wake up, you can dance as much as you want.” He dashed to another room with Kimiko in his arms and returned after subduing the girl’s early morning vigor. It took half an hour.
“Sorry about that,” he said, assuming his position on the mat.
“Daughter?” Aiya said.
Kai nodded. “She’s quite the little dancer. It’s a lot of energy to deal with.” He grabbed his brush and glanced at the rag still pressed to Aiya’s shoulder. He gave another bashful laugh. “I guess we’ll start on the other arm.”
As a five-year-old girl, Aiya would frequently walk hand-in-hand with her father down the streets of Shinjuku. Saburo, gaze fixed sternly ahead, always wore a silver suit and tie. His frosty hairline thinned in the front and gradually thickened, like the evening tide, and his taut, pale skin reflected a life in the shade.
On one solemn afternoon, the city air quenched with drizzle, Aiya and her father entered a small antique shop. They passed through a vestibule and, once inside the store, were immediately greeted by the shopkeeper, some mid-forties, hardworking man with a wide smile.
Aiya looked all around in wonder. The collection of artifacts cluttered every crevice of the shop. There were derelict fragments of samurai armor and katana blades, Buddha statues sculpted from jade, and kimonos of all colors and patterns on racks.
Saburo unsheathed a tantō blade while Aiya gazed upon something shimmering at the shopkeeper’s front desk. She marched closer and was met with a thousand scents that wafted from incense sticks burning. She plugged her nose and pointed at the object that had won her admiration: a polished silver bell tied with a blue ribbon, dangling from a hook.
The shopkeeper smiled at the young girl and pointed at the bell.
The shopkeeper shook his head. “I’m sorry, little one, but this one’s not for sale.”
Saburo glanced over at his daughter and replaced the tantō on the shelf. He approached the shopkeeper’s desk and patted his daughter’s head. He stooped down to meet her in the eye.
“Find something you like?”
Aiya pointed once again at the silver bell.
The shopkeeper closed his eyes and shook his head. “I’m terribly sorry, sir, but this item is not for sale. It’s a family heirloom, you see, a good-luck charm for my business. May I interest you in this?” He removed a noh theater mask from the back wall: the face of a red-skinned, hideous ogre.
Aiya recoiled from the sight of it.
Saburo cleared his throat. Before he spoke, he turned to his daughter and whispered in her ear, telling her to wait in the vestibule for two minutes.
She nodded and sauntered off.
Through the glass door, Aiya saw her father pick up the silver bell with two delicate fingers. He leaned in closer to the table and retrieved out of his jacket something silver of his own. The length of the steel flipped out in an instant.
The shopkeeper’s smile vanished.
Saburo whispered something while holding up both pieces of shiny metal.
The man before him bowed deeply and nodded emphatically.
Saburo turned and motioned for Aiya to come back inside. When she returned to the front desk, the shopkeeper wiped his forehead, and with a shaky hand, placed the silver bell in a paper sack. He forced a smile and said, “Thank you for your purchase,” his voice faltering. “Come back again soon.”
Saburo merely nodded and led his daughter out.
Aiya looked up at her father, a man of average stature, yet to her he seemed like a towering giant, an impossible wall. She suddenly felt a pang of fear, watching him push open the glass doors with a forceful grace. The young girl wanted to be alone. She wanted to slip through the crowd, past the gaze of her father, which darted between passers-by on the sidewalk.
She wanted to get away.