Following Naki through the deserted paths of the village, snow crunching beneath your boots as it would seem you are the only ones out for a walk today, you look around at the village in wonder. Long icicles dangle from the edges of roof’s while railings set in front of worn porches creaks from the weight of the snow upon them.
You see a man leaning over in a chair; his hands atop a wooden stick long enough to serve as a cane, or as a bat. He has weathered skin and a wide-brimmed hat. One of his legs ends in a much larger stump of a foot that, unclothed, looks almost wooden from its appearance.
That’s when you realize you’re looking at a doll. You stop and reach into your bag for a camera, pulling it up to take a quick snapshot. Only you feel Naki’s icy grip on your wrist before you can take a picture. Looking at the old man, you wince at his unblinking eyes, sunk deep into his skill.
“They don’t like having their picture taken,” he said, nodding towards the doll. “That’s Soun. He died three years ago, out on his porch. Tsukimi made a doll to sit where he sat for the past sixty years, watching the main road of Nagoro as if nothing at all had changed.”
“Tsukimi sounds like a nice woman,” JC said with a soft smile.
Naki stares at you for a moment longer before slowly nodding. “Yeah. Yeah, you could say that.”
He lets go of your wrist and turns to walk back to the front of the group, fish still dangling from his pole that bobbed up and down as he marched deeper into the silent village. JC and Jessica were right behind him, chatting with him and asking him questions, keeping his attention away from what I would be doing. Staring back at Soun, I lined up my camera and snapped three quick shots, before turning to catch up to them.
I caught up with them as I heard Naki discussing the fact that Nagoro really had nothing going for it. “Unlike other towns, where you have stores or farms to sell food, you really just have a group of residents that do everything on their own. We grow our own food and stitch our own clothing from sheep we raise. Why, I doubt there’s anywhere as peaceful as our little village in all of Japan.”
“Sounds boring,” you mutter in English, causing Naki to clack woodenly as he spins, his beads spinning with him.
“Boring, eh?” He asks in perfect English, earning raised eyebrows from Jessica. “What’s so boring about leading a simple life without all those distractions? No television, no radio, no air pollution or traffic. Just pure mountain air and the chill of winter on your fingers and toes.”
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Jessica said, sticking to English. “How many people actually live here? I mean, other than you?”
“Oh, perhaps thirty or forty. We all stick to ourselves mostly though I do trade with one or two other residents.” Naki admitted, switching back to Japanese. He turned and clapped a hand on JC’s shoulder. “You seem like a polite young man, allowing me to speak without muttering in another language. Good for you!”
“Thank you?” JC said, somewhat confused while shooting us both dirty looks. “Were my friends being rude?”
“Just as all American’s are, that is,” Naki said dismissively, before climbing the snowcapped steps up onto a porch of warped wood and crackling ice. “Now come on in then, out of the cold. I’ll start a fire and we can get this hut of mine warm in no time.
You follow him as he merely pushes the door open, a fact that makes you raise an eyebrow; there are no doorknobs on his door. You take a quick peek over at the house to the side, and see a door with no doorknob.
You walk inside and immediately feel claustrophobic. The shack is barely six feet high, forcing you to crouch as you walk into the ten by ten room, a single door leading off to either a bathroom or a bedroom. A set of frosted over windows allows light to shine in from the front of the hut, though Naki is already loading logs into a black furnace, stoking the flames with an iron rod. He looks up and smiles, motioning to the center of the room, where a low table sits, large enough for four people to sit around, with well-used cushions sitting next to each end of the table.
Jessica sets her bags near the door, prompting you to follow suit, before moving to take a seat at the table. Naki moves to a corner of the house where a water pump sits above a sink. Hanging a tea kettle beneath the spout, he pumps a few times before clear water begins gushing out into the black kettle.
“I hope you all like Oolong Tea, because that’s what I have. I’m afraid I’m not used to guests…” Naki said, sounding slightly embarrassed for the first time.
“Anything warm would be perfect,” Jessica said, to which JC agrees. You merely remain quiet, settling into your lumpy pillow and trying to find a comfortable spot. Naki sets the kettle atop the black furnace, which doubles as a stove, before stepping over and plopping down in a rattling of wooden beads at his side of the table, heaving a sigh of relief.
“It is nice to get warm and dry again, isn’t it?” He said, already basking in the heat pouring off the stove.
“Yeah, I can’t imagine why you were dozing in that snow,” JC said, looking over at you with a grin before turning to Naki. The older man has a brief look of irritation flicker across his face before he reaches up to pull off his wide brimmed hat, revealing bald wrinkled skin save for a tuft of hair sitting at the back of his head. He sets the hat on the table and runs a hand over his head, playing with the tuft of hair, the double layering of knotted silken strands holding it together flexing as he moved the stiff bristles of his remaining hair.
“I wasn’t dozing, I was merely… standing watch.”
“Standing watch?” JC repeated as if the idea sounded odd to him.
“Tsukimi had heard that someone sent some mail out, traveled to the closest town and postmarked a letter to Tokyo University. She said we should expect visitors soon. And we didn’t want people wandering around our village blindly like some ronin bandits so…”
“So you sat near the entrance and stood watch?” You finish for him.
He nods. “I only had to wait four and half days.”
You went out there every day for five days and waited for us?” Jessica asked, sounding skeptical.
Naki looks surprised before he scratches his cheek. “Um, yes. I went out every day. When I wasn’t watching for you all, I fished.”
You look at the man with a blank stare, trying to figure him out. Something’s not right about him, but you can’t tell what. Maybe Nagoro needs some exploration after all?