I looked up, my fingers still moving automatically, my breathing deep and controlled. I looked right into the bright eye of a fire-flower dragon. Time stopped, but my heart continued to beat. I stopped playing for a moment in surprise, and I saw fireworks. I played my flute, and again I looked into the bright eye of the dragon. The dragon’s scales moved so fast, the air broke into colorful bursts that tricked human eyes into seeing fireworks, luminous ever-changing flashes of color in the twilight sky.
My father, Akio Shou, sighed with pleasure. “The fireworks must be part of the Kyoto Fire Festival that starts tomorrow. Funny, I never heard of fireworks here.”
I continued to play, looking at the dragon, who had risen from the rocks on the mountainside. My parents and I had been praying to Buddha and our ancestor, Isamu Hayato, for guidance on whether or not to leave Kyoto and move to America to join my father’s brother. I wanted to stay here in the land of my ancestors, with all my friends, but my father’s company wanted him to go to Boston. I asked them to go without me. We had hiked up the mountainside, a journey taking all day. We followed in the footsteps of my ancestor who had been a marathon monk hundreds of years before. He had run over fifty miles a day on these steep, rocky paths for almost one thousand days. Perhaps he had paused briefly at the same sacred spots to worship.
My family believed our ancestor, Isamu Hayato, reached enlightenment on the slopes of the sacred mountain, Mount Hiei. He had dedicated himself to serving Buddha. For seven years, he had trained and purified, defied death and traveled far enough over the mountains to have circled the globe. Near the end, he died in his sleep, smiling gently with his hands on his prayer beads, the toll on his body too much. Although, like others, he did not complete his thousand-day pilgrimage, many believe his spirit still guides other monks striving to reach enlightenment. In the previous 400 years, only 46 monks attained enlightenment by surviving the harrowing thousand-day pilgrimage.
“Yoshi,” my father said. “You can play your flute here in the garden. Your mother and I are returning to the monk’s quarters to rest. Our old bones can’t climb mountains like marathon monks without rest.” He gently took my mother’s arm, and they returned to Shimyouin Temple, where the priest, Yasu Hikaru, and his wife, Honoka, had allowed us to stay for the night. In the past, marathon monks in training had stayed there in the temple, deep in the remote mountains north of Kyoto, but the number of monks grew smaller each year. The priest and his wife were very kind and gentle to pilgrims.
After his parents left, the dragon drew nearer, her claws clicking on stone. My eyes grew wider, drinking in the painfully bright lights of the dragon’s scales. The dragon paused by a stone lantern near a waterfall where the last rays of the sun penetrated.
“Who are you that you see me?” The dragon’s words were carried on her sweet breath, smelling of wood fire and cherry blossoms. As the breath warmed my skin, I lowered my flute, delighted to still be able to see the dragon.
“I am Yoshi Shou. My ancestor was a marathon monk here. Are you a Hanabi?” Hanabi was our word for fire-flower dragon, a myth passed down in ancient stories.
“I am Hotaru Hanabi. I am so old I sleep the years away like moments, and I wake only once in ten thousand years.” The dragon’s speech was slow, sounding as the music from the flute had sounded, high and sad. “I remember the earth here raining fire from deep below the sea. My kind was born in the early fires. Now we grow sleepy like the earth as our fire diminishes. Your music is the music of my kind, and my heart lifts to hear it here on the sacred mountain.”
“We are praying for guidance from Isamu Hayato, my many-times uncle.”
“I have felt the passing feet of the monks like a wind across my hot skin. The secrets of stillness come to them in their ceaseless running. They deprive themselves, and they gain truer knowledge than plenty can give.”
“My parents want to go to America. But I want to stay here, where I was born.” Yoshi loved his beautiful city of Kyoto, surrounded by mountains and bisected by the glorious Kamo river.
“You will soar high above Kyoto. You will travel far, but you will return a wiser man. You must move with your life to find the teachings of stillness. Fear of change cannot teach you the things you need to learn. You must heed your destiny.” Hotaru’s sweet voice sounded like a young girl’s, fragrant with mysteries to a boy like Yoshi. “Climb on my back, and you will learn not to fear.”
Yoshi climbed on the back of Hotaru, tucking his flute into his belt. He held tight to the ridge along her spine. The trees looked small and distant when the fire-flower dragon rose into the air on her great wings. The top of the temple flashed past.
The dragon’s warm skin kept Yoshi from growing too cold. He could see the white robes and straw hat of a marathon monk, seeming to run slowly, yet his stride devoured the ground. Curls of light flashed around Yoshi as the dragon’s wings beat the air. Other temples and beautiful statues appeared before Yoshi’s astonished eyes. He forgot to think of himself at all and existed in the moment. Eventually, the lush green mountainside grew closer, the sky much darker now. Then Hotaru landed again in the garden, light as a feather, not even disturbing the ferns. Yoshi’s spirits floated high with the memory of the flight.
“Yoshi, remember. Though your feet be among the ferns, you can do great things.” Hotaru’s light voice chided him. “You can fly on the back of a fire-flower dragon and see a marathon monk on his pilgrimage. Live each day as if it is your entire life. Do not fear tomorrow, it is another world. Now play the flute for me again, and let me listen to the sounds of my kind as I sleep.” Hotaru Hanabi settled back down onto the rocks. Yoshi played again on his bamboo flute. Hotaru’s breathing slowed, her skin cooled and returned to the color of the stone. She closed her bright eyes. Soon, despite the magic of his flute, Yoshi could no longer see her.
He returned to the temple and joined his parents for dinner. They ate mango rice balls and young greens slowly, and with gratitude for food here in this remote place. The silence between his parents and him was deeper than the sea.
“I will go to America, Dad.” His father looked up at him, his eyebrows raised. His mother caught her breath. “I know I said I didn’t want to go, but I expect I can learn things there I can’t learn here. And we should stay together.”
His mother started to cry. “Oh, Yoshi,” his father sighed in relief, puttin an arm around his mother. “Akemi,” his father said to his mother. “You see, I told you that Isamu Hayato would know what to do.” Had the marathon monk sent the fire-flower dragon? Yoshi never thought to ask.
“Yoshi, I have always dreamed of going to America.” his mother sniffed. “I want to see more of the world. Of course, we will come back here one day.” She wiped her tears away, and smiled a watery smile, chin still shaking a little. “You make me so proud; you are so brave.”
The next day, the hike down seemed much shorter than the hike up had been. His father paused to give thanks at each holy place they passed. They bowed to receive the blessing of the marathon monk on his long travels. His grace made their feet light.
That night, five fires glowed on the mountainsides around Kyoto, turning the sky red. For the first time, the Fire Festival display was anti-climactic after the spectacular show of the fire-flower dragon.
Forever after, Yoshi’s parents always mentioned the fireworks they had seen near Shimyouin Temple that had overshadowed the next day’s Fire Festival. Yoshi remembered Hotaru Hanabi, the Fire-flower dragon, but he never said a word. He did soar high, and he did become a wiser man.
Mango Rice Balls
Dice 1-2 ripe peeled mango(s) and chill, discarding the pit and skin. Cook 1 cup sticky brown rice. While rice is still warm, form into a ball around a piece of mango. Place on a plate or eat immediately. Alternatively, cook sushi rice and form the rice into small rectangles, with the mango laid on top with a sprig of mint. Can chill until ready to serve. Delicious with a salad of young greens.
Copyright 2013 Brenda Davis Harsham
Notes on Japanese Names:
Yoshi (meaning good luck)
Akio (bright hero)
Shou (fly, soar)
Isamu (courage, bravery)
Akemi (bright and beautiful)
Honoka (harmony flower)
Hanabi (fire-flower also used for fireworks)