You are on the train to Otsu Station from Tokyo with Teruko. It's your last week in Japan. After five weeks at the Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, your wounds are healed. Three days from this moment, you will be on a plane from Atsugi back to Vietnam. You know that. It should distract you, but you are in love, smiling, watching some children who are sitting across the aisle with their young mother. From their seats by the window, they are watching the land roll by in measures of parcels of farm fields and the rolling chaos of hills covered in trees.
Teruko sits across from you and through the window beside her, watches the morning fall away behind the measure of her eyes. You remember how you were balanced as lovers on the long arc of the night before. This morning, you watch her in silence. You only want to memorize her face, every snapshot blink of her beautiful eyes, every sudden movement of her sweet, warm, wondering eyes. Her silence is a prelude to the remembrance you will have of this moment some thirty years later.
Across the aisle, the mother says, "Mida," pointing to something in the distance. You look back over to see. Her young children follow the direction of her finger. "Mida," she says again and points to something you cannot see. You wonder about the word, “mida.” You know a word in Spanish, "mira," pronounced the same way, “mee'-da.” It means, “look,” and that's why you looked back. It fits the mother's gesture, but this is not Spain.
"What does 'mida' mean?” You quietly ask Teruko, "What ..."
Before you can finish, she says, "Amitabha," as if you should already know. Because you are so completely overwhelmed with love for her, you ask no more, but study her lips instead, and the tiny wrinkles at the corner of her mouth, the scars of her persistent smile.
Only years later, when you read the story of the Pure Land in a book, you will finally learn that Mida is another name for the bodhisattva Amitabha. When you do, this moment will come back to you in a flash, a poor man's satori. You will remember this day on the train and Teruko's response to your question. You will assume, then, that the train had passed one of those beautiful shrines you can see all over Japan, the ones that suddenly, unexpectedly appear like pearls in oysters, gems in the middle of nothing in nowhere. It will all immediately make sense to you in the future, the word that you heard, “Mida,” and the reality of something you never actually saw and did not really understand.
You will remember, then, how all the world was peaceful in that moment, golden with the glow of morning as the train sped on to Otsu Station. You will remember Teruko's passive calm. You will thereafter imagine how, even back then, long before you ever understood, that you actually looked forward, somehow, to the Pure Land, without knowing the words, without really knowing it existed. You will imagine that you always knew where the Pure Land could be found, that you found it, that you dwell in the Pure Land.
You will be wrong.
Three days after the morning of the train, when the plane ascends from Atsugi airfield, a nervous soldier sitting in the aisle seat beside you has seen and understood the ribbons on your chest. He knows you must know something and wants to ask you about Vietnam. Trying to find some way to start a conversation, he recalls something he read in a book. He mentions it to you in some anecdotal way, makes a long story of it.
"When you leave Japan," he finally says, "if you should happen to see Mount Fuji, if it's not hidden from sight, or covered in mist, they say you will return. If not, you won't."
You think about Teruko, immediately turn, and through the window, you search.
All rights reserved.
Appeared in New Sun Rising: Stories for Japan, a charity anthology.
You can buy it here: