Mischa encountered a samurai on his second day in Tokyo. When he stepped off the local commuter train at Tama that morning, none of the other disembarking passengers paid any heed to the life-sized wooden cutout propped up in a corner of the station. As everyone else walked straight for the exit, Mischa paused in front of the crudely drawn figure. One of the samurai’s stubby hands pawed the hilt of his sword, while the other hid behind his back—a pose that relieved the amateur artist of any need to paint it. Mischa adopted an identical posture in his own rather portly body. The plywood warrior delighted Mischa; everything about Japan delighted him.
A random thought popped into his mind: how short people were in the old days! The samurai’s top knot barely reached Mischa’s chin. A second random thought: the black-and-white memory of a 1959 vacation snapshot, nine-year-old Mischa poking his face through a hole in a cutout of Mount Rushmore to pose as Lincoln. His father, still wearing his seed corn cap, took the place of Jefferson; his mother had snapped the photo.
Fifty years later Mischa found himself playing tourist again. But it was a graying Mischa who had traveled to Japan—a Mischa with a divorce and two heart operations to his curriculum vitae, a Mischa who had devoted the previous year to nursing his father across the terminal stages of a vicious compound of Alzheimer’s and melanoma. He had arrived at Tama Station on this cold March morning to inspect the flat that in two days would become his home for the year. He carried in his pocket a small map with instructions on how to get from his hotel in Musashi-sakai to the apartment, two stops away on the Seibu-Tamagawa line.
Mischa bid sayonara to the wooden samurai. Outside the station gate he was delighted to discover a small open-air market, with a fruit stand, a vegetable shop, and a fish monger. Hewing to the handwritten map, he wended his way through a maze of narrow streets before locating the building. Fuchu Heights Terrace, the sign said in English. There was no elevator. He climbed an open-air staircase to the third floor, puffing with the effort, and unlocked the door to #302. A dim light greeted him: the beige curtains were all drawn shut against the morning sunlight. He remembered to remove his shoes in the entryway. In stocking-feet, he walked the length of the flat: it took nine seconds, roundtrip. A miniature dining table with two chairs in the front room, a twin bed, dresser, and metal desk in the back. Mischa could already glimpse comic stories he would tell back home in Iowa about the telephone-booth bathroom, about the door lintels that scraped his head. It was all delightful.
He locked up the apartment and retraced his route to the station. Waiting for the train, he again studied the wooden samurai, which he decided must have been a local classroom art project. The warrior’s name was emblazoned across his chest, three Chinese characters in thick black brushstrokes. Mischa had thrown himself into studying Japanese six months earlier, when the possibility of this visiting professor gig first arose. But of the thousands of characters used in the language, his aging brain had mastered only a few dozen. By a stroke of luck, one of these was the first character in the samurai’s name: Mischa knew it meant “nearby” or “close at hand.” He pulled out the small leatherbound notebook he kept in his jacket pocket and traced the three characters.
He needed to keep moving to hold off the jet lag. Instead of returning to his hotel, he took the Chuo Line train into the city center and visited Tokyo Tower. He walked from there to Zojoji Temple, where he admired the stately cedar planted in 1879 by Ulysses S. Grant. He hailed a taxi and showed the driver a scrap of paper on which the hotel desk clerk had written “Ochanomizu” in Japanese. According to his guidebook, Ochanomizu was full of music shops. Mischa needed to buy an electric cello; he’d left his acoustic Dunov back home. A new electric cello would allow him to practice through headphones without disturbing his neighbors here in Tokyo—an issue that never arose at his Iowa farmhouse.
Mischa had been playing cello since childhood. But this would be his first electric instrument.
The Japanese academic year began on April Fool’s Day: a delightful coincidence. At ten o’clock on the first morning of Mischa’s term as Visiting Professor at Musashino Women’s University, he sipped aromatic coffee in the office of Fujiwara-sensei, the man whose unexpected invitation had nudged into motion the chain of events that carried Mischa across the Pacific.
Fujiwara’s letter arrived with perspicuous timing. Mischa’s father had just entered the grim final spiral of his illness. Moreover, at Mayo College a posse of assistant professors had burst into open rebellion, demanding a revised curriculum that emphasized relevance and seemed to center on the lowest forms of culture: animated cartoons, gangsta rap, eating disorders. It was only Mischa’s second year at Mayo—he’d resigned tenure at Southwest Tennessee State to move back home to look after his father—and he hesitated to entangle himself in internecine disputes. But he was also a lover of good novels and poetry and almost involuntarily found himself enlisted into the conservative opposition, the aging full professors who took to calling themselves the “White Guard.”
Mischa felt wary among his own faction. His co-conspirators were all, like him, nearing retirement. Yet the others seemed more polished and urbane. They drank wine, not whiskey. Around them Mischa felt rumpled and sweaty, ever the awkward farmboy. They were genuine scholars, too; Mischa hadn’t published a serious piece in years, and he suspected they sneered at the book reviews of contemporary fiction he wrote for several Midwest newspapers. Moreover, for all their rallying around the battle flag of Literature, his colleagues seemed to have little use for living writers. When they drafted their counter-manifesto for the Board of Regents, insisting that Mayo adopt a Great Books curriculum, Mischa suggested four contemporary titles for the list. His proposal floated away unnoticed, a humble bit of cottonwood fluff in the summer breeze.
Fujiwara-sensei’s invitation arrived just as Mischa began to sense that, whatever the outcome of the curriculum wars, he would end up on the losing side. It was a wistful realization; his heart wasn’t in this battle. For more than a year, he’d spent every evening in the nursing home, trying to satisfy the dying widower’s incoherent demands. With his father’s end now mercifully in sight, Mischa had no stomach for faculty meetings spent bickering over graduation requirements. Mischa’s current desires were much simpler: he wanted to eat, drink, fuck, laugh, waltz, ice skate, play cello, smell strong coffee. He wanted to throw his arms out to hug the world and see if it might still hug him back. A year in Japan sounded, in a word, delightful.
And so on the morning of April Fool’s Day Mischa sat in Fujiwara’s office. Hardcovers and paperbacks lined the shelves in the room, each meticulously wrapped in a clear vinyl protector. They included titles Mischa remembered from his grad school days in Minneapolis: I.A. Richards, F.R. Leavis, William Empson. Fujiwara specialized in British Romantic poetry. But in his letter he praised Mischa’s scholarship—he had somehow dug up the old articles on Carl Sandburg, Stephen Crane, Walt Whitman.
Fujiwara seemed the most decent, cultured human on the planet. In a photograph hanging behind his desk, Fujiwara stood with several other men, all clad in somber black kimonos. That morning in his office he wore a tailored charcoal suit with a royal-blue silk necktie. His distinguished gray hair was combed impeccably, and he wore utterly unfashionable—and therefore somehow utterly elegant—steel-rimmed eyeglasses. Mischa admired the delicate touch with which Fujiwara measured out spoonfuls of coffee beans into a hand-cranked grinder. He brewed one cup at a time, gracefully decanting water from a tea kettle into the paper filter, letting it seep down into a glossy china cup that sat on a proper saucer.
“You will find our Japanese students quite shy and reluctant to speak or even to think,” he told Mischa. Fujiwara’s English preserved traces of the two years he’d spent at Oxford in the 1970s. “They are our lost generation, raised without any feel for literature. They grew up on video games and cell phones, with parents who read only comic books.”
“They sound like my students in Iowa,” Mischa said.
“No! It is much worse here. In America, you have standards.” Fujiwara’s eyes glinted, and Mischa understood there was no margin for joking here. “We even have professors at this institution who prefer to teach television commercials and comic books. You must help me hold the line. You must give our students real literature. That is why you are here.”
Mischa liked Fujiwara—the man radiated sheer decency. But this summons to battle was identical to the one that had sent Mischa fleeing Cedar Rapids, a deserter from the culture wars. Time to venture boldly forth and change the subject. Mischa pulled out his notebook and pointed to the three Chinese characters he copied down at the train station.
“Ah, yes. Kondo Isami. A great samurai from this area. In the 1860s, during the last years of the shogun, he led the Shinsengumi. It was a last-ditch effort to preserve the old order. I suppose they were what we today would call a death squad, roaming the streets of Kyoto, cutting down advocates of reform. In the end they were defeated, but they became legendary for their sincerity.”
Fujiwara-sensei picked up an old-fashioned Mont Blanc fountain pen from his desk. On the notepad, just above Mischa’s childish scrawl, he sketched in the correct forms for the three characters, his handwriting a work of art, with each figure resting in perfect equipoise. A small gesture of correction: with no fuss, Fujiwara had demonstrated the proper form, and Mischa knew that he should follow.
After coffee, Fujiwara guided Mischa to the campus personnel office to sign paperwork. In the corridor, another professor strode up to them and extended his hand.
“You must be Professor Kossorfsky. I am really delighted to meet you,” the man said, and he seemed to mean it: his face beamed. “My name is Oda. Nobuhiko Oda.” The man spoke American-inflected English, genus California. He was clad from head to foot in black, and there was not a hair on his head save for the eyebrows and a Clark Gable moustache. “I saw your review of Cold Mountain in the Chicago Tribune. I thought you captured it perfectly. Really, really terrific stuff!”
Oda seemed a lively fellow. Mischa promised to visit his office later. Fujiwara, however, preserved a frosty silence throughout the encounter, refusing even to return Oda’s initial greeting. Mischa had been negotiating the emotional trench lines of campus life long enough to read this silence: here were two professors embroiled in bloody civil war.
A week into spring semester, Mischa figured out that he could walk home to the apartment from campus. According to the bilingual map he received at Fuchu City Hall, Fuchu Heights Terrace was only three kilometers from his office, and his heart surgeon had, after all, ordered him to do plenty of walking.
He set out one warm afternoon, armed with the municipal map. Halfway home, a little out of breath, he paused before a tiny garden, an overgrown triangle wedged into an intersection formed by three oddly angled streets. One corner of the garden incorporated a miniature Shinto shrine: Mischa recognized the white paper zigzags that hung from the eaves, marking off sacred space. In another corner stood a historical marker written in Japanese. It included a photograph of a samurai—the same one, Mischa suspected, that he had encountered at Tama Station. He pulled out his notebook and compared the crude characters he had jotted down, as well as Fujiwara’s elegant blue-ink script, with those on the plaque. It was the same man: Kondo Isami. The samurai’s black-and-white face looked grim—like those old photos of Sitting Bull.
How was this spot linked to Kondo? Mischa copied down the title phrase from the plaque and resumed his stroll. He stopped in at the neighborhood Seven Eleven to pick up a boxed bento lunch, as he had done every night since moving into the apartment. The young clerks knew him by sight, knew that he would make hapless efforts to chatter in Japanese, and they smiled when they saw him coming. The bento were cheap, healthy, and tasty—even if Mischa couldn’t always identify the vegetables and sea creatures they contained. Even if they sometimes included glutinous mysteries that he had a hard time classifying as either vegetable or fish.
At the apartment he chopsticked his way through dinner. His lack of grace with the plain wooden utensils kept him amused. He used his fingers to retrieve bits of food he inadvertently catapulted across the table. After eating he turned on his laptop and linked to a Japanese-English dictionary. With some difficulty, he typed in the legend from the historical marker and worked out a translation: “Birthplace of Kondo Isami, leader of the Shinsengumi.” First random thought: I live on hallowed ground. Second random thought: might Kondo have crossed paths with General Grant when the ex-president traveled to Japan and planted that cedar?
Mischa plugged in his new electric cello. He rather liked the instrument, though it had cost nearly twice as much as expected. He poured himself a glass of Nikka Black Label whiskey: his reward for the virtuous act of walking home. He took a sip, pulled the headphones over his ears, and launched into Hindemith’s Sonata for Solo Cello, a piece he had been trying to master for a decade. He bowed straight through without pausing to correct mistakes—stopping only to fortify himself with sips of bourbon each time he turned pages in the score. Even in his cloddish performance, the cello music piping into his ears filled him with a sense of well-being and warmth. His windows were open, and outside the cherry blossoms were coming into bloom. Delightful.
Mischa’s Thursday afternoon American modernism class was reading As I Lay Dying. His provisional appraisal of his Japanese students, one month into the visiting professorship: they beamed with eagerness, but as scholars of American literature they were hopeless. Faulkner’s gothic sentences escaped their grasp, like Mischa trying to eat tofu with chopsticks. Before the semester began, he planned to lecture on symbolism, on the kaleidoscoping of viewpoints, on the cultural contexts of Faulkner’s modernism. The first day of the term, however, he collided with an iron truth: he would need to devote his classroom time to dragging the students sentence-by-sentence across the pages of the novel. Each week he watched their eyes glaze over with boredom, but there was no way around it. It wasn’t only Addie Bundren who lay dying before her kinfolk; Mischa was dying here, too, and his death was going to be reenacted every Thursday afternoon until spring term ended.
Halfway through his fifth class meeting Mischa could bear it no longer. He paused mid-lecture. “Any questions? Or comments?” he asked blindly.
Ten seconds of abysmal silence. But then, slowly, thankfully, a hand rose in the back. Mischa couldn’t remember the student’s name; she had never spoken up before. Mischa nodded at her.
She spoke in surprisingly natural English. “Professor, is it true that Faulkner worked in Hollywood? Oda-sensei says that Faulkner wrote for the movies.”
Oda: Fujiwara’s mortal enemy. Mischa had learned that when Oda and Fujiwara passed in the hallway, neither acknowledged the other’s presence, like ghosts occupying different spectral dimensions. Oda was a Cultural Studies maven, the genuine article—trained at Berkeley by no less than Judith Butler. He taught classes on cinema, globalization, and digital remediation. He seemed friendly enough and always had a word of chit-chat when Mischa encountered him. Unlike Fujiwara, Oda enjoyed enormous popularity among students.
“Yes,” Mischa responded. “Like many American writers in the 1930s, Faulkner spent time in Hollywood. He was well paid—and miserable. When they cleaned out his desk after he quit, they found a dozen empty whiskey bottles and a notebook. On the pages of that notebook, he had written the same sentence over and over, hundreds of times: ‘Boy meets girl. Boy meets girl. Boy meets girl….’”
Silence for several seconds—then a tittering of laughter broke out across the room, like a soft summer rain. They understood the joke! It was the first evidence of life Mischa had seen all day.
Another hand shot up. This particular hand was attached to the body of Hiromi Kato, an alarmingly sexy junior who always sat in the second row, her casual appearance meticulously groomed: ripped-out holes in her jeans calculated for maximum impact, her tinted brown hair tossed into precisely the same flirtatious mounds each week. She prided herself on her English. The first day of class she stayed after to inform Mischa that she spent the previous summer attending an ESL program at UCLA. She made a point of asking a single question each week.
“Professor, could we watch a movie that Faulkner wrote?” she asked, flashing doe-like eyes at him. “It would help us understand him.”
A surge of energy swept through the room. Maybe, Mischa pondered. Maybe they could watch something Faulkner worked on. To Have and To Have Not? But no. No, no, no. Showing a movie in literature class would betray Fujiwara. Mischa did the only honorable thing: he lied.
“Thank you for that suggestion. But none of Faulkner’s films are available today.” The room wilted. Hiromi Kato’s eyes drifted up to the ceiling, a look of boredom spreading across her silken face. No! And so, hardly pausing to assess the consequences, Mischa strode forward into another, bigger lie. He enjoyed inventing absurd yarns, seeing how far he could push them: once, at Southwest Tennessee State, he convinced a freshman comp class that he’d been a 1960s pop idol in Denmark. “The truth is, after Faulkner died his family sued the movie studios, claiming the films damaged his reputation. The judge ordered all copies withdrawn from circulation. They were locked away in an underground vault in the Sierra Madre Mountains. There they remain to this day, under twenty-four hour armed guard.”
The class perked up again. Yes! “A few brave collectors defied the judge’s order. If you’re lucky, you can see an illegal pirate screening. I’ve managed to see three so far.” Hiromi Kato was gazing at him again. “Six or seven years ago, I was watching one at an underground cinema in Chicago when the police raided the joint. I escaped by climbing out a back window.”
Maybe he could get a copy of something on DVD. Surely he could explain matters to Fujiwara. “Would you really like to see one?” he asked, dropping his voice a notch to affect a conspiratorial tone. The classroom exploded with affirmation. “Okay, I’ll try to pull some strings. But you must keep this secret. If it gets out that I’m showing a Faulkner movie, I might get deported from Japan. I’d have to return my Ph.D. to the University of Minnesota. It’d be a very serious matter.”
Mischa fought hard to keep from grinning at his own drollery.
Mischa floated along on a stream of empyrean satisfaction as he walked home that evening. He recalled with pleasure the whopper he’d concocted. Of course, half the class was mystified by everything he said, as usual, but the other half seemed to get a little kick out of it. Literature was supposed to be joyful, and today he managed to blow a few soap bubbles of joy into his classroom. He walked past Kondo Isami’s birthplace and nodded a friendly greeting to the glum face in the photograph. He stopped in at the Seven-Eleven to pick up supper.
Back on campus, however, trouble was abrew. Within minutes of the end of Mischa’s class, the news spread through the faculty and student body like flame seeking oxygen: the visiting professor from America would screen a banned film in his class. Fujiwara received three e-mails transmitting the rumor; his fingers nervously tugged at the cap of a fountain pen as he read them. Was Kossorfsky mad? Fujiwara listened to Handel’s “Water Music” in a vain attempt to calm his agitated soul. He stayed on late in his office that night, repeatedly standing up from his desk to pace the room, only to return to the chair.
Oda, on the other hand, was deluged with seventeen text messages on his smartphone as he walked to his yoga class off campus. He toyed with his moustache as he read them. He’d had his doubts at first, given that the man was sponsored by that dinosaur Fujiwara, but Oda now rather liked this American. After yoga he returned to his small campus apartment. He spent his evening downloading illegal copies of every film listed under Faulkner’s name in the IMDB database.
Back home in Fuchu Heights Terrace, Mischa finished his bento (grilled salmon) and poured his nightly tumbler of bourbon. He sat down at his laptop. “Kondo Isami,” he Googled, Yahooed, and Binged. With each sweep across the Internet, he uncovered more webpages devoted to Kondo, the Shinsengumi, and the death throes of the shogunate. The blurry painted face Mischa had first encountered at Tama Station drew into sharper focus, as the wooden cutout acquired flesh, muscles, and bones. Kondo, it turned out, wasn’t even born into the warrior caste: he was the son of lowly peasants. In the lawless 1860s, with the feudal order crumbling, Kondo’s skill as a swordsman earned him honorary promotion to samurai status, and eventually he turned up in Kyoto with the Shinsengumi. The group’s ferocity became legend, as it hunted down advocates for reform and killed off even its own members when they failed to live up to the warrior’s code.
Kondo met his end during one of the last battles for the shogun’s cause. Taken prisoner, he was denied the privilege of committing seppuku because his enemies refused to acknowledge him a true samurai. They executed the son of a peasant as a common criminal, exposing his severed head for the crows to pick at on a riverbank in Kyoto. But Kondo quickly transformed into a martyr. Even the new Meiji government, the victorious rebels who had taken his head, came around to celebrating his memory.
First random thought: forget Tom Cruise—here was the real last samurai. Second random thought: sometimes being a farm kid really sucks.
Tap tap. Almost as soon as he entered his campus office the next morning, a brisk knocking startled Mischa. He opened the door to find Oda, a conspiratorial grin mirroring the arc of his moustache.
“Good morning, Mischa. Isn’t it a beautiful day?”
Ten minutes later, another knock, softer. It was Fujiwara, his forehead moistened with sweat.
“Good morning,” Mischa beamed, trying to project a sense of calm.
“I hope you are well,” Fujiwara began. Even in moments of panic, Fujiwara’s spoken English preserved its Oxford dignity. “Now, I’ve just heard from Professor Oda that you plan to show your students a movie—an underground, illegal movie. Oda seems delighted, but I assured him that you would do no such thing. Oda might lower standards to curry favor. But not I. And certainly not you.”
Mischa began to espy the atmospheric instability his little joke had triggered. Oda had spoken to Fujiwara! Powerful forces were in motion, pushing in directions that boggled the mind. Without intending to, Mischa had somehow opened fire on Fort Sumter. He now stood in a field of open combat, and it was not at all delightful.
“Oh, that,” Mischa began. He would explain himself using not just words but body language, too, summoning the repertoire of calming gestures he learned during his father’s illness. He reached out to touch Fujiwara’s arm. “I was just, uhm, playing around, trying to enliven the classroom. I thought I might show one of the films Faulkner worked on. Nothing illegal or underground—I was just trying to catch their attention.”
But Fujiwara looked more flustered. “Then it’s true,” he moaned. “You’re going to show movies in your class. Our students need to read, Professor Kossorfsky, they need li-ter-a-ture.”
It was a make-or-break showdown, the moral equivalent of Gettysburg. Rebellion or loyalty: make your choice. Mischa looked into Fujiwara’s eyes. The mild professor had transformed into a fierce samurai, the last man defending the final bridge of Civilization. Fine. Mischa didn’t need to show a film. No big deal.
Delicious May sunshine filled the air as Mischa walked into his classroom the following Thursday. Four dozen faces greeted him with an eagerness he had not seen since the first week of class.
He began his announcement. “I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding. I joked last week about showing movies, but of course this is a class in literature, not film. We will continue our regular practice of reading through Faulkner together.”
The room deflated into a lifeless silence. “Please take out your copies of As I Lay Dying and turn to page 72,” Mischa continued. “Miss Ito, please begin reading at the second paragraph.”
Ito, the burly captain of the college judo club, lumbered through the sentences, as if each word was a bale of hay that she needed to heft up into a barn loft. She reminded Mischa of Iowans he grew up with, farm kids yawning through the school day after their pre-dawn chores.
When Mischa had tortured Ito-san sufficiently, he asked Hiromi Kato to read. Hiromi had squeezed herself today into a spectacularly revealing outfit: short shorts with fishnet stockings, a sleeveless blouse. But even she couldn’t pretend enthusiasm for the text. “My mother is a fish,” she droned, resenting each word.
Mischa was no fool. He could see his fate. He would spend the rest of the semester dragging the corpse of his reluctant class across Faulkner’s landscape of defeat. It was hopeless. Somtimes, though, you had to make a stand—even if it was Fujiwara’s stand that you made, even if you found the politics behind it as opaque as a coffin lid.
On his way home that afternoon Mischa paused to catch his breath in front of a neighborhood temple. He decided to take a break from his walk and explore the compound, which contained what looked to be a delightful garden. Just inside the stone gate he encountered a historical marker on which Mischa again recognized the characters: Kondo Isami.
A path leading around the main worship hall brought him to a graveyard in back. A single plot stood fenced off from the others, its importance signaled by another historical plaque. On the gravestone were carved those same three characters: Kondo Isami. The final resting place. But wait: wasn’t Kondo executed down in Kyoto, his head impaled on a bamboo spike? Had someone hauled the headless body back to Edo, back to this temple just down the road from his birthplace? His ashes, perhaps? Or was this only a cenotaph?
Mischa admired the graceful, twining calligraphy carved into the monument. So unlike the plain block letters chiseled into his parents’ gravestone back in Iowa. His father picked out that granite slab a decade earlier, when his mother died—no flourishes, just names, dates, and an Orthodox cross. The stone stood half-blank in the cemetery for years, but now both sides were filled in. Nothing stood out about that grave marker or the couple whose lives and deaths it indexed. After Mischa was gone, their memory would fade away in anonymity, like a cornfield in winter.
How unlike the glorious afterlife of his new neighbor, Mr. Kondo Isami! What intrigued Mischa most about the samurai wasn’t the ironic twist everyone mentioned, that Kondo fought on the losing side of the civil war but still ended up a hero—just as had, Mischa reflected, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. What interested him, rather, was that someone not even born into the samurai class would give his life defending it. Kondo kept up the fight to preserve the shogun long after the cause was lost, long after most of the real samurai had drifted over to the enemy side.
Mischa resumed walking home. He contemplated his day—Oda’s jolly greeting, Fujiwara’s desperation, the crestfallen faces of his students. Still ten months to go in Japan. But Mischa would go down with the ship, smile on his face, just another casualty in Fujiwara’s rear-guard defense of culture. Why not?
He stopped in at the Seven Eleven. For a change of pace, he bought two shrink-wrapped triangles of egg-salad sandwiches. His heart surgeon need never know. When Mischa was a boy, his mother’s egg salad recipe was a celebrated local delicacy. At church picnics and PTA potlucks, her sandwiches were always the first to disappear. Back in the apartment, Mischa ate the store-bought sandwiches, made with the whitest of white bread, the crusts neatly trimmed away. Bland, yet perfectly edible. He peeled the bread open and sprinkled on a few drops of soy sauce. Better—but still no match for his mother’s recipe. If only he had some paprika and dill relish.
After dinner Mischa plugged in his cello and cupped the headphones over his ears. For a change of pace, he played “Dixie.” His mind wandered. First random thought: the irony of history. A native Iowan, he always considered himself a Lincoln man. But in Japan he found himself taking up the loser’s banner, the cause of self-deluded romantics trying to hold back the tide of history. Second random thought: I wish I was in the land of cotton, old times there are not forgotten. After a dozen verses of “Dixie,” he switched to “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and enjoyed the dirge enormously. Probably his pleasure had something to do with the egg salad digesting in his stomach and the whiskey he was sipping.
He set down the cello bow and lifted his glass. “To Mr. Kondo Isami,” he saluted the room and then added, “From one farm kid to another.” He felt another twinge of delight—melancholic, yes, but indisputably real. Ghosts swirled around Mischa in the cramped Tokyo apartment, but the Union had been preserved. And he knew with certainty that he was again really living. Tomorrow, he would visit the fish monger and vegetable stand in front of Tama Station. It was time to start learning how to cook Japanese-style.
Michael K. Bourdaghs was born and raised in Minnesota, but now lives in Chicago. In between, he has called Sendai, Ithaca, Los Angeles, and Tokyo home. His fiction has previously appeared in a number of literary journals including Avery Anthology, Hawai’i Pacific Review and Colere, among others. He is also a scholar and translator of Japanese literature.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: Bill Holm, the great Minnesotan poet who died in 2009, was a family friend. His adventures as a visiting professor in China, chronicled in his book Coming Home Crazy, were one source for this story. Another was the idle daydreams I used to have when I was a visiting professor in Tokyo from 2005 to 2007 and walked past the historical marker at the birthplace of Kondo Isami everyday on my way to and from campus.
Q: Besides Prime Number, what are some of your favorite literary magazines?
A: I like magazines that publish fiction and poetry together with serious literary criticism and scholarship—Raritan comes to mind.
Q: What’s your writing process?
A: I’m a very slow writer. I mull over pieces for years, working on them intensely for a few weeks, then letting them lie dormant for a few months before coming back to them, again and again. The first draft of “This Hallowed Ground” was written six or seven years ago. Another story, “In My Room (Ganz Allein),” which just came out in Eunoia Review, took more than twenty years. In part this is because my day job keeps me busy, but I think it’s also the way my mind works—slow, plodding, but persistent.
Q: What living writer to you admire most and why?
A: The first response to your question that came to mind was, are there any dead writers? As long as they’re still being read, they’re alive. But right now, I’d pick Charles Baxter. I fell in love with his debut novel, First Light, when it was first published and I’ve stuck with him ever since. It doesn’t hurt that he gave me some kind words of encouragement when he visited a creative writing class I took as an undergraduate at Macalester College back in the early 1980s.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: A piece about a fraught mother-daughter relation that’s either the first chapter to a novel or a short story with an unusually large back-story.