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Aki turned back to face me, taking her cloth from my hands.
“Thank you,” she said, and without breaking the movement of her body, she placed her rinse bucket at her feet, dropped her cloth into it, and turned on the faucet allowing the water to fill and spill over its curled lips, freeing the cloth of its dirt and foam. Wiping a clearing in the fog on the mirror in front of her with the heel of her hand, she continued, “So that was the first sunrise on earth. You see, it was the sound of God’s heartbeat that called light into the world. And that’s why the drums are so important.”
“Isn’t that the cave by the sea?” I asked.
“Of course, and there’s a shrine there now to mark the spot. Have you been there?”
Ei-san pulled herself out of the soaking tub, her skin glowing a soft red. “Tell her about the drought,” she told Aki. “Angel-san will like the drought story.”
“Yoosh.” Aki pressed her hands hard into the top of her knees, groaning as she teetered to standing. “Come on, Angel-san,” she muttered. “I’ll tell you about the drought while we soak.”
Our bodies vanished beneath the green sea kelp water, heads settled as independent buoys marking territories as if for night fishermen. I took in the bitter, salty aroma through my moist nostrils as I listened to Aki’s soothing, mesmerizing voice.
………. [drought story not included here] ……….
“You’re going to the festival on Saturday aren’t you?” Aki called to me as I gathered my belongings.
“Sure,” I said.
“The drums will be there, you know.”
I smiled, knowingly. Of course the drums would be there.
“Wait!” she called, as I slid open the door to the dressing room. I turned to look at her.
“Why don’t you come with me tonight to the drummers’ rehearsal? Come to my house at 7 and my son will drive us to the mountain where they are practicing.”
………. [scene at Aki’s house not included here] ……….
We finally arrived at our destination, a gold-roofed shrine placed oddly at the end of a stone footpath on a flat clearing amid radish fields. There was a bare earthen space to one side of the footpath where a small group of people were preparing for the commencement of the evening. Men were lighting torches from the miniature fire contained in a metal barrel; women were laying out blankets and setting out the sake and square bamboo drinking cups, plastic boxes of home-made pickles, chopsticks, and bagged snacks from the convenience store at the edge of town.
We parked at the side of the road and walked up to join them.
Aki took over as set-up boss and the other women conceded gracefully, as if part of a choreography designed by the temple spirit. Jitsu and I sat on the corner of the blanket closest to the front and began nibbling on pickles. There were soft brown and bright yellow daikon pickles, short strips of cucumber pickles covered in a barley and miso paste, pea-sized crunchy white pickled onions, chewy pickled carrots, and even pickled cloves of garlic. The sour salty taste was surprisingly delicious. And the sting of warm sake washing it down caused a pleasant sensation in my head.
Kenichi moved with ease into his role as leader of the men as they finished arranging the drums. A line of barrel drums on large bamboo tripods varying in size from two feet in diameter to nearly four feet in diameter was broken by a wide space, behind which stood the master drum, a magnificent instrument propped on its side so that the skin of the drum faced the small audience. Its base was less than a foot high, yet Kenichi’s head came only to just below its center. Its very presence was powerful and drew me like a magnet into the ancient stories Aki had told earlier. It is alive, she had said. I began to understand.
Soon it appeared the preparatory rituals were complete. Even Aki had settled herself on an embroidered bum cushion she had brought from home.
The bare-chested men performed their deep lunges and big arm circles. They took slow, deliberate breaths, exhaling with short, staccato growls. They cracked their knuckles and knees and they slapped each other on the backs. Then, at Kenichi’s signal, they gripped drumsticks the length of a forearm and some as big around as two inches in diameter. This then seemed to cue everyone into silence. Pickle munching ceased, chatter stopped abruptly, and the only movement was in the bodies of the drummers as they took their places behind their drums, moving as swiftly and quietly as ancestor Ninjas.
Not a breath could be heard. Excited by the anticipation, afraid of making a sound, my own inhalation was long, slow, controlled. I took in more air, then even more, fearful that my exhalation would ripple the space and disturb the intensity of the transformation that was taking over our little mountain gathering. Just when I thought I might float, Kenichi, strong, muscular back toward us, slowly raised his arms as if casting a net of trance-dust over us. Then he let out a cry – long, strong, and enduring; it resonated off the tightly bound skin of the master drum before him. Without fading in intensity, his cry suddenly came to an abrupt stop and the pounding began. Pounding! Pounding that shook the earth. Kenichi sprang up into the air through the balls of his feet, landing in a deep squat. The muscles in his back worked like machinery – bulging out, down, and up, controlling the penetrating rumble of the rhythmic ensemble. The men over the barrel drums did the same. Faces contorted with concentration, the sweat began to form on their brows and cast a glow over their bare, bronze, images.
I was pulled toward the sounds – sucked into them. The drums were calling and I had no choice but to follow, be taken, and enter. The deep, deafening vibrations of the huge instruments took over all my senses. I could feel them between my ears, in the crevices of my belly, pounding in my chest, and thundering along my spine. Close as I was, it wasn’t close enough; I wanted to be inside them. I was aware of nothing but the drums and the all-encompassing darkness of the night. The monstrous sounds went down inside me, down beyond all flesh and bone, and moved my entire being with profound greatness. Timelessness. Pounding! The drums possessed me. They took me away to an emptiness that somehow seemed comfortable and familiar.
It's alive, she had said.