"The lives of these crabs would disappear the moment I dumped the hot water over them. Their lives depended on me."

Fear & Delectation

The children opened the sliding door, and flew into the restaurant. “Wa-a-a-a.” Kaya exclaimed, but as I entered the restaurant, she quickly covered her mouth with her hands. I stepped into the building - my skin, so long under the glaring sun, shrunk like a sea anemone. It was cool inside. Three enormous water tanks, one on the right and two on the left, stood guarding the front hall. The fish tanks made the restaurant seem cooler than it actually was. The floor was covered with large black stones, wet and shiny. The whole front scene of the restaurant created the impression of a place under water. Kaya’s eyes were following fish in a tank. “Kaya, let’s go over there. There are more fish in the pond.” Her cousin grabbed Kaya’s arm, and pulled her towards the rail on the far right side of the restaurant. They ran to the pond. I followed. A stream of water was gushing from a big wooden barrel placed near the right corner of the ceiling. Large stones were neatly arranged under the barrel and around the pond. The pond extended all the way to the back of the building. In the water, horse mackerel were swimming. Many of them were gathering in the center, but some looked as though they were enjoying their ramblings to the cascade. Unlike the corner of the pond where water was gushing, the center of the pond looked very calm.

“How many people do you have?”

“Five adults and five children. We prefer a Japanese style room.”

“This way please.” The children and I joined the larger group who followed the waitress. We walked through the long hallway and came to the last room on the left.

“Looks like a private room,” my sister said as she took her shoes off.

“It’s already past lunch time. Let’s eat and relax,” her husband replied.

The children took their shoes off. They ran to the rail to see more fish under the deck. They chatted and giggled till lunch was served.

By the time everyone was seated, the table had already been decorated with colorful dishes. Each person had an individual tray. On each tray different kinds of food were precisely choreographed. The black lacquer frames of the trays set off the art of the Japanese meal. I ordered diced horse mackerel, a type of Sashimi. Often times, the meat comes decorated with seaweed. The one in front of me was a whole fish: the diced meat was laid on the skeleton, with the fish placed on red, purple and green seaweed. This setting was beautiful within the frame of the white glazed dish.

The portion of each plate was small. However, the entire artwork of the food had already satiated part of my appetite. I picked up chopsticks to appease what remained of my hunger. I poured soy sauce in a little plate next to the main dish. For a second, I thought the mouth of the fish moved. Even though visceral organs had been removed, and the body was carefully pared away from the spine, the head of the fish, which remained untouched, appeared very much alive. This simple fact that the fish had been sliced on the cutting board not long ago, yet appeared to be alive, appalled me. It is such an ordinary way to prepare raw fish at a Japanese restaurant, but looking at the eye of this helpless fish, I started sinking into forgotten memories lost in childhood…

When I was small, there was a well in our front yard. It was near the kitchen facing north. A square concrete lid covered the well, but it was not so heavy that a ten-year-old girl couldn’t move it. Once this well was for a water pump in our old kitchen. I often pumped water with my aunt in that kitchen. Back then, there were four families living with us. Over fifteen years had passed since the end of World War II. Things did not go smoothly because of the loss of my father’s parents and his oldest brother, who was heir to the house. The last family moved out from my father’s property when I was seven. The kitchen was demolished, leaving a wider space in the front yard. The pump was removed and the hole was covered up. We had water from the city. We no longer needed the well.

The well had a strange power over me. It evoked memories of the families who had stayed with us. I thought about the many times I would stand by and watch my aunt pump water from the well. In my mind, I created a single image, and from this picture, the memories of the old kitchen would tumble out. I liked to think about the times I shared with them. I was too young to remember much from that time; but by standing near the well, I could sense the past. I missed those who had lived with us, but I did not feel lonely because these memories brought back a sense of not being alone.

One day, I had an urge to look into the well. I pushed the concrete cover to the side and looked down into the narrow opening. There was nothing, not even my reflection on the water. It was just a black hole. I picked up a rock and dropped it in the well. A sound came back a full two seconds later. I wanted to hear the sound of the water splashing almost simultaneously with the dropping of the rock. I tried several times, but the sound always came back after a few anxious breathes. The well was very deep. I was frightened. The well no longer was a reservoir of innocent memories.

I came back to the well even though I felt much fear. I continued to daydream near the well. On occasion, thoughts of the deep well would intrude and pull on me. I did not want to recall the earlier experiment. An unseen force nudged me to think about the dark hole. It was as though a little devil came to devour my sweet memories. I froze near the well - pinned down by a gigantic invisible stake.

Non-predictability is fearful for a ten-year-old girl. To me, the world had to be visible. I had no notion of an invisible world. I trembled at the idea of the deep invisible void in the well. If I had seen a reflection of myself, I would have felt much better. The space would have been touched by the reflections of the visible world creating perceptual limits. My anxiety would cease if things had happened as expected. I didn’t see what I had expected to see – water inside the well. I was obsessed with the idea of a dark uncertainty.

The darkness of the well was frightful, but the idea of falling into that darkness made me tremble. It could happen in a second; in a blink of an eye. The possibility that life could end instantly haunted me. I feared the vertical velocity of the fall from light. I wanted to stand near the well. Yet, I was persistently troubled with the idea of falling into this vortex to Hades. I refused to imagine the fall. An active curiosity towards death and the idea that such death could happen quickly – apprehensions far beyond my cognitive understanding - rekindled in me a morbid desire to face this dark hole that had so deeply furrowed into my waking dreams. These feelings were nested in emotions unknown and powerful. Rational thought could not quiet the strange urges that took me to the brink. This battle between fear and curiosity created a sense of awesome power: I could make myself fall if I so wished. Whether I could finish my life at this very moment was my choice to make - an existentialist ten-year-old child giddy with power and charged with dread. I feared myself. When I stood by the well, I became conscious about my sweet past. Yet, fragile gentle feelings were soon swept away by an icy breath of terror. I froze by the well with ineffable physical sensations. At first, it was a sensation of uncontrollable trembling. After visiting the well several times, this sense of terror became subdued - finding a place to stay and lie dormant within me.

My visits to the well became more infrequent when my parents decided to construct a pond on the well sight. The pond lay in a shape of an “L” from north to east. It circled around a tree my parents had planted when I was born. My father built a beautiful cascade on the east side of the pond. It was four feet high, and constructed with volcanic rocks my parents collected from the foothills of Mt. Fuji. The rocks were black. When they became wet with the splash of the running water from the waterfall, the pitch black color quietly glowed with the glaze of water. A section of the black rocks and the ground around the tree were covered with dark green ivy. The impetuous colors of the ivy and the deep metallic sheen of the rocks formed a pallet of emotional quietude. Time slowed in the metered sound of running water. The quiet surface of the pool was very comforting. I often stood near the pond and looked at the running water and enjoyed the aura of tranquility.

Standing from the south, the pond was a soothing place. The north side, on the contrary, was a troubled place. The well was there. I was hoping the sight would be destroyed by the construction of the pond. Alas, it didn’t happen. There was a ditch, two feet by two feet, near the well. A small inlet bridged the pond and the ditch for the pond water to fall into the ditch. The ditch next to this pond was a junction to the sewer line that led to the main sewer out to the street. My father, who is tidy in his nature, regularly cleaned this line connected to the main sewer. He made a long rod linked by three or four sections of sliced bamboo, and slid that rod into a pipe from the ditch next to the pond. By wiggling and pushing the rod little by little, he forced the bamboo to go into the pipe. After the rod went in so far, he moved the bamboo back and forth to clean the inside of the pipe. He continued these motions until the rod reached the end of the pipe. Rotten organic sludge inside of the pipe dropped into the ditch.

I grew up with the ethics of cleanliness. This was the religion of our house. Most of our basic daily tasks were based on the secular activities of cleaning. This religion does not accept decay or filth. Growing up in a farming community made me confront this contradiction between cleanliness and the natural order of decay. Watching the process of recycling organic material for farming kept me close to the forbidden world of death and decomposition. Ideally, I did not want to see anything destroy the sense of cleanliness. I hated the ditch when filled with rot and stench. Besides, the ditch and the well were facing north.

The north end of the pond felt ominous. I might have unconsciously thought it was not a good spot because it was facing north. Direction is very important in Japanese culture. North is associated with bad omens. This is because the north side does not receive light, and the world of the dead is believed to be a place where one does not have light – a place that is very moist and surrounded by rot. My mother was always conscious about directions. We were forbidden to sleep with out heads facing north, for this was only allowed for a dead person. Whenever I helped her with hanging laundry on the line, she always mentioned not to hang the clothing facing north. The structure of the house was also based on the four directions. The lavatory and bathroom faced north, the kitchen faced southeast, and the main front door facing south. Unlike the north, south was associated with cleanliness and light. Ascribing symbolic power to the four directions was such a part of our lives that I simply attached my emotions to these learned habits of thought.

One late spring afternoon, I came to the pond to check if gold fish were stuck in the narrow space of the inlet. We sometimes lost very small fish. They somehow made it through the gulf even though the area was elevated and shallow.

I didn’t see any gold fish, but I did see small fresh-water crabs. I loathed crabs, especially these ugly little critters that lived in the sewers. I quickly went inside of the house and came back with a broom. I chased the crabs into the sewer ditch. I had a chill in my back. I could not stand the way the crabs looked. I didn’t know exactly what bothered me about crabs, but I hated creatures with many legs. I often saw spiders on the walls in summer - huge ones. I chased them out of the house with a broomstick as soon as I saw them. I could have smashed them, but spiders are believed to curse people if they are killed, so I tried not to kill them.

I stood by the inlet. The crabs did not come back soon, but after awhile they did come back. I didn’t want them in my sight. As long as I kept chasing them into the ditch, they would eventually come back. I would become very ill at ease to see the way the crabs glued themselves to the small volcanic rocks in the inlet, with the bright sun reflected on their greenish grey shells. If the colors of their shells had been more subdued, maybe I could have borne their ugliness. Their shells were glazed with water, and this only heightened their garish colors. This bothered me to the point that I experienced a spasmodic convulsion in my stomach.

They had to perish! It was simple. The crabs had to go out of my sight permanently. I did not want to smash them. The inlet was bumpy, and it would be hard to kill them with a single hit. Although I wanted to perish them, I did not want them to suffer. Since those days at the open well, I had thought about death in many ways. I could not bear thinking the physical pain of death. I did not want the crabs suffering as they died. I had to think of a way to kill then instantly. The idea of pouring boiling water came to me. I went inside to boil water for this purpose.

When I came back with boiling water, the crabs were still in the tiny gulf. I glowered with abomination at the unwanted creatures. Their legs were ugly. The lives of these crabs would disappear the moment I dumped the hot water over them. Their lives depended on me. With one single vicious action, they would cease to exist. To not carry out the deed, they would continue to live. The thought of the power to take the lives of these creatures engendered a sense of the vicissitudes of life. For me, they happened to be abominable creatures. They would perish for this reason only. I chose to create death. I was waiting for this moment to come out. This fear of the power to kill that so fascinated me a few years earlier as I stood before the open well now took physical release. I glanced at the crabs. They were clinging to the black volcanic rocks. I poured boiling water over them. The legs instantly fell off from their bodies, and the gray green shell turned somber red. The body parts scattered like flower petals. This transformation of the crabs amazed me. The body and legs floated slowly making an eddy in the corner of the pond. The small whirlpool was pushed by the force of the water and disappeared into the ditch. I was fascinated by this new massacre game. I experimented with this game several times more. The tension of my abhorrence for the crabs exploded in the vicious act of pouring hot water on them. As I watched the transformation, I felt strange feelings shoot up from my abdomen to both the front and back of my chest. My back became very tense as I poured hot water over the crabs. Then as watching the crabs change into a slurry of pretty red colors, I felt a strange release in me. I had a visual delectation in this action, as if transforming into something I was longing for. All these complex phenomena happened in the passing of a single breath, but echoed in my psyche for many years to come.

The eye of the fish on the plate quivered ever so slightly as though it could see us.

“Mom, look at the fish. It is still alive!” Kaya said. Before she finished her words, I felt the pains of the dying fish in front of me. It was so strong that I thought I would vomit.

Something moved deep inside me. It crept from the abdomen then slowly crawled up. It squeezed my heart - a dull, deep pain. My body recalled this sensation. My shadowed companion that lay dormant so long came back from the well.

The child could not consciously react to this embodiment of mortality. She instinctively responded to her fascination with death through emotional release and violence. Now as an adult the past floods forward and catches her off guard. The child could not see the horror of her acts for they were rituals beyond empathy and mature thought. The adult has struggled with life and now has experienced and processed the pain of her struggles. She sees others as more than extensions of herself, and empathy dissolves the vicious temptations to give in to the visceral delights of cruelty. The young girl is callow not from deliberation, but from a strong sense of all things being an artifice of the self.

“Yah, it is very fresh. They’ve just diced the meat,” my brother-in-law said.

“Do they kill the fish in that pond?” Emi worriedly asked her father.

“Those are for display. They have fish for cooking in the kitchen tank.” Emi seemed to be relieved by the idea that the fish we had seen were not going to be killed.

Fresh seafood is a delicacy of Japanese cuisine. Some restaurants prepare living fish in front of their customers. The preparation of dishes is part of the art. I felt there wasn’t much difference between the fascination I had as a child in watching the crabs boil and the way we sat transfixed as the chef deftly sliced the live fish as part of our dining experience.

Facing the inevitability of death the adult finds a way to moderate the powerful feelings that take hold in proximity to death. Is it subconscious affirmation to feel life by watching others die? Experiences take root in children as vivid physical sensations. Adults carry the past through both body and mind. Pain and fears are either buried in the subconscious or take release in forms of mind-full self-expression and social connectivity. Those who do not find release are caught up in the tension of mind and body, and some may never reach the maturity of adulthood. The emotions forged in childhood are buried in the sinews of the body and cannot be fully resolved by rational thought. The child is ill equipped to resolve pains and fears that threaten their self centered world, but in time learn to share and experience joy in community activities and self-contemplation. We reflect in physical stature, mannerisms, and speech the attainment of this maturity.

As a self-absorbed child, I played with death to assuage deep feelings I could not understand. The wider sense of life grows stronger in the mature understanding of our own mortality. The bridge between the living and the dead is so brief and the moment so fickle. The fish on my plate would still be swimming if not chosen by the chef just a few minutes ago. Now it sits staring at me, this soulful eye of a single fish. I see the shadow of myself in the eye of a single fish - and the shadows of everyone’s fate in the eye of a single fish.

“Auntie, your sashimi looks good! Can I have a bite?”

“You can have it all!”

Fear and Delectation © Ikuyo Conant, 2007