The Dance of Ash and Fire by Shelly Peer
Today was my grandfather’s performance, and I wanted nothing more than to escape from my friends before they realized it.
“Should we go to that new tea shop, the one in Abenobashi?” Tsuki asked as we exited the school’s front gates.
Mako adjusted the straps of her backpack. “Let’s do it,” she said, looking at me for final confirmation.
I tugged at a lock of hair. “Actually, I have somewhere I need to be.” Please don’t ask where.
“Where?” the two echoed.
“Well . . .” I glanced away from their expectant faces.
The cherry blossoms were in full bloom now that March was at its close. Occasionally, a pastel petal would slip from a blossom and drift into our path, dotting the cobbled sidewalk like pink snow. I pretended to admire this scene, while my mind worked furiously to think up a way to salvage the situation. I didn’t want to lie to my best friends, but I didn’t want to tell them the truth. As it turned out, I didn’t have to do either.
Tsuki’s almond eyes grew round, and she shot an arm out, gripping Mako’s shoulder, who walked in the middle. “What day is it?” she asked.
Mako answered when I hesitated. “Friday?”
“No, what’s the date.”
I worried at my lip, hoping Mako would get her days mixed up or that Tsuki had a different reason for asking.
“Oh, March 29th.”
Tsuki clapped her hands together. “Of course! Haruka, it’s your grandfather’s monthly performance, isn’t it?”
I tried for a smile, but my heart dropped in dismay. “It is,” I said. Would they ask to go? Of course they would.
“Wow, you know we’ve always wanted to see one,” Mako said. “Can’t we go this time?”
My cheeks warmed at the thought of them seeing that. It was just too much. They couldn’t. They would wish they hadn’t once it was over, and they’d look at me weirdly every day after.
“I’m sorry, my mother wants it to just be family. We’re going out for dinner when it’s over.” It was a lame excuse.
Thankfully, their faces fell in submission, though Tsuki said, “But we’ve heard such good things; that he’s very talented.”
“Yeah,” Mako whined, “and despite knowing each other since forever, we’ve still never seen him perform.”
I kicked at a petal brushing across my sneaker. “I wasn’t even allowed to see him until a few years ago.” And now I have no choice but to go.
“But why is that? You won’t even tell us what kind of performance he does. All we’ve gathered from others is that it’s some kind of dance,” Tsuki said.
“It’s all quite mysterious,” Mako added with a grin. “You love keeping us in suspense.”
We had come to the end of the street, where it dead-ended into a left and right fork. Usually all three of us turned right, for our houses were in the same neighborhood, but today my mom waited for me on the other side of the street. We would walk left together, in the direction of the local theatre.
“Hi, Mrs. Reiko!” Mako yelled. My mother was on the phone, but she smiled and waved in response.
I looked both ways and crossed the street towards her, anxious to get away.
“Next month, Haruka!” Tsuki called.
“Yeah, you better take us next time,” Mako agreed.
I fell into step with Mother, who began walking as soon as I’d reached her. I looked back at my friends, growing smaller. My shoulders dipped in relief.
“Did your friends not want to join us?” Mother asked, after ending her call. She wore her semi-formal clothes, a blouse over a long skirt. I’d worn a nicer-than-usual dress, knowing I’d be going straight to the theatre after school. My ebony hair was stark against the fabric, a soft pink and yellow for spring.
“I didn’t ask,” I said.
“Why not?” she asked, her eyebrows high.
My fingers were playing with my hair again, rolling and twisting it around. “They wouldn’t like it.”
She gave me a long look. I avoided her gaze until the silence had stretched to uncomfortable lengths. When I finally met her eyes, they were narrowed in suspicion.
“Haruka Reiko,” she started. I winced at the scolding tone. “Don’t tell me you’re ashamed of your grandfather.”
“But you don’t want your friends to see him perform?”
“It’s just . . .” I struggled for the right words. “The dancing is so . . .” I couldn’t complete the sentence without proving my mother’s argument. A sigh of defeat escaped me.
My mother matched my sigh. She didn’t sound angry anymore. “You don’t understand.”
“Understand what?” We were approaching the theatre now, I could see it a bit further down. A small crowd had gathered, mostly elder men and women. There were never many families that attended and even fewer children. My grandfather’s dancing could be seen as . . . unsightly.
“Why he dances,” Mother said. “Do you know where Butoh comes from?”
Butoh, the name of my grandfather’s dance. The word made me shiver. I knew next to nothing about it, except that it creeped me out. I knew if my friends sat through it, they would be creeped out, too.
When I shook my head in answer to my mother’s question, she stopped and faced me. We were only a few paces from the theatre’s entrance. The performance would be starting soon. The line had dwindled, and only a few stragglers remained to buy their tickets, which cost as much money as it took to print them. My grandfather would have preferred the tickets to be free, but the theatre asked for a share of profit for providing the venue.
The expression my mother wore now surprised me—it was serious, grave even.
“You remember Grandfather’s stories of the war, and how it ended?”
“Of course,” I said. My family had lived in Nagasaki for generations. I could not forget those stories of raining ash and fire, the devastation wrought on my family, my grandfather. He was one of so few who had survived the bombing.
“Grandfather and others like him dance to remember that time, as well as to heal from it. Think about this during the performance. You will understand.” She walked inside the theatre, handing both our tickets to the doorman.
I stood where I was a moment longer, pondering her words. They didn’t make much sense. Why would Grandfather want to remember that day and the days that followed? And how would dancing the way he does heal him from that? With an internal shrug, I followed my mother into the theatre.
The cool dark interior always felt like a cave, except for the large white curtain dividing the stage and the wooden stadium seats lining the floor like rows of silent soldiers. The crowd was quiet, and I felt the same tension-filled fog that always accompanied my grandfather’s performances. It snaked between the feet and hung low over the heads of the Japanese people.
Father sat in the front row, saving our seats. Mother was just settling into hers. I greeted Father before taking the seat to his right.
The spotlight, yellow-white, flashed onto the middle of the stage. The curtain parted, and an audible intake of breath swept through the crowd of onlookers, one of anticipation. For me, it was more in an effort to brace myself.
A figure stood alone on the stage. It was Grandfather, ashen gray and naked but for a paper-thin loincloth. This was only the first reason I didn’t want my friends to come. Did they really want the image of my near-naked grandfather ghosting through their minds? I certainly didn’t.
I remembered my mother’s words and tried to push these thoughts away, focusing instead on the performance.
Grandfather and others like him dance to remember that time, as well as to heal from it.
The blackness of his eyes and mouth were the only contrasting color and stood out like sunken pits where only demons lurked. His body was bent unnaturally—like a crawling spider, his legs and arms were extended out and down, his head cocked sideways as though addressing the audience. Creeping from the corners of the room came soft music, like the distant rumbling of a storm, pierced through by the shriek of the shakuhachi flute.
And then Grandfather began to dance.
I leaned forward, mimicking the rest of the audience.
His barren arms, the skin thin and muscles atrophied in his old age, lifted above him as though exalting the heavens—or cursing them. His stick-like fingers curled and uncurled and curled again. The nails dug and clawed into the floor as though it was made of crumbling ash and debris, not the worn wood paneling of a stage. Meanwhile his torso—just as gaunt and not unlike a corpse beneath the heavy coating of smoky paste—twisted and buckled and bent to the slow, creeping music that seemed to follow rather than lead the dance, like a shadow.
The sight of Butoh was far from pretty. I watched the performance, wanting to close my eyes and turn away but unable to do so. And if I did turn away, I always turned back.
The worst of it was the expression that mutilated the face of my grandfather. Terror, horror, suffering—these emotions were displayed vividly, a kind of residual rust set deep within the lines carved into that weary face.
I used to think Grandfather was an impressive actor, but recalling again my mother’s words, I realized this was not an act. How could I not see it before? This was his pain, laid out raw and honest for the audience to see. Pain he had held deep for decades, since Nagasaki’s darkest day. Did it really help him to heal, by diving straight into the murky depths of this memory and the suffering it brought forth? Or maybe it was more than just re-living it. His dancing seemed to speak. It reminded the audience of what happened, maybe so we would never forget, and so those who were affected knew they were not alone. The power and grace of Grandfather’s movements spoke also of perseverance. We have risen from the ashes of disaster. We are stronger now because of it.
When the music had lulled and then climaxed into a final desperate blow of the shakuhachi, Grandfather’s body once again froze in its state of uncanny positioning. Immediately, the audience filled the hall with a cacophony of praise. There were tears wetting cheeks. The applause was weighed down with a respect that echoed similar pain to that which had leaked from Grandfather’s every pore as he’d danced. Many of the elderly beamed proudly.
Perhaps dancing to and seeing this dance performed could heal. It was a devastating outlet.
The lights dimmed and the curtain fell. There was a long pause, and the applause melted into deafening silence. Then the lights flicked on; the performance was over. The audience pulled themselves up from their seats.
My family returned to the warm pavement and blue sky outside the theatre. The bright sun hung low. It seemed like a different world from the one my grandfather had revealed on stage.
We waited patiently for Grandfather to transform back into the elderly family man—the one who wore real clothes over unpainted olive skin. He had not been my grandfather during that performance. Not really.
He had been something more.
“Grandfather did well, didn’t he?” Father said.
“Yes, very well. Don’t you think, Haruka?” Mother’s look was pointed. The message was clear: do you understand now?
“Yes,” I said, answering both questions.
Grandfather came out from the theatre twenty minutes later. He was my regular grandfather again, sporting a pleasant smile with laugh lines crinkling at the corner of his half-moon eyes. I embraced him when he joined us, squeezing more tightly than usual.
After congratulating him, we started back the way we’d come. It was only a fifteen-minute walk to our house. My parents and grandfather talked about the news and weather and other adult things. I remained quiet, thinking about Grandfather’s performance. It felt like I’d watched it for the first time. My heart ached, and a lump formed at the back of my throat.
We found Tsuki and Mako as we entered our neighborhood.
“Hello, Haruka’s family,” Mako called.
They were heading to Book Off. The new volume of a manga the three of us were following had just come in, Tsuki told me, and she’d get me a copy.
“Thanks,” I said, and we parted ways again. A moment later, however, I stopped and spun around on my heels. “Hey! Tsuki, Mako!” They turned back.
“Next month,” I promised. “I want you to come with me. I want you to see it.”
They grinned and each gave me a thumbs-up. Satisfied, I rejoined my family. Mother was smiling at me. She took my hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.