Motionlessly, the spider waited. As always, she was patient and vigilant, but her outward serenity belied an inner tension, the instinctive tension of the watcher, the hunter. If her mind could have conceived of time in human terms, it may have told her that the time was four in the morning. As it was, the spider knew that the prevailing darkness indicated that it was not yet time for her to retire and rest. So she waited. Having earlier stretched strands of web between a horizontal plane and a vertical one, she was content. And so she watched, as her kind had done since time immemorial. Of course, concepts such as vertical, horizontal, up and down meant little to her but she did have a very keen appreciation of two far more fundamental states of reality, light and dark.
Then, all of a sudden, all that had been comfortable darkness was made light, rude revealing light, which her innate sense told her simply should not be the case. A far less instinctive mind might have thought that the world had gone mad, for how could such a preposterous state of affairs come to pass? But the spider’s mind simply registered the fact, as it had always done and caused her inner tension to increase slightly. Shortly thereafter, to make matters far worse, some vast indistinct object was looming within her field of vision and approaching. Already the thing had produced appendages that bore down upon her. These were not elegant limbs either, but great, lumbering, uncouth absurdities. Her mind then formed one overwhelming idea: danger. Prudently she retreated into that cylindrical space that was her cloister and settled down to sleep. Another dark time would come and with it - safety.
Yukio rubbed his eyes and yawned then squinted again at the clock. His first impression was confirmed: four am. He had three hours. Walking over to his desk, he reached up and took a box down from the second shelf. In the process his fingers broke several strands of cobweb. He didn’t see the strands but the familiar tickling sensation;
a feeling that used to make him shiver as a boy, caused him to put the box down and wipe his hand on his pyjama shirt. Opening one of the desk drawers, he took out a pair of nail clippers, sat down and proceeded to cut his fingernails. He had been growing them for three months, ever since he had volunteered for this unit, just before his last visit home. They were clean, he reflected and it would feel good to have short nails again. As he trimmed each nail, he carefully placed the little crescent shaped cuttings into one corner of the box. Momentarily he though,
“They’re like new moons, hm, there might be a verse or two there.”
But other thoughts quickly intervened; ousting all poetic sentiments and causing him to concentrate on the mundane job of cutting. Once he had finished and there were ten little white crescents in the box, he began rummaging through the desk’s remaining two drawers and at length, found a pair of scissors. These were rather blunt but they would have to do. He then realized that he had no mirror.
“Well”, he thought, “I’m probably going to make myself look silly but no matter.”
He cut five substantial locks of hair and placed then in another corner of the box. The thought then came to him to mix the hair and clippings together, but no, this looked tidier. He next ran his hands through the hair remaining and brushed a few stray hairs from his shoulders. He closed the box and went to his bedside table. There, was a sealed envelope that he picked up and brought back to the desk. He reached for a fountain pen, sat down and after a moment’s thought, inscribed the envelope, to my dear father and mother.
Placing the letter on top of the box, he glanced at the clock, 4:20, plenty of time. He now put on his uniform, made the bed, tidied the desk, swept the floor, folded his pyjamas and placed them in a small suitcase which he set down on the floor next to the desk where his parents were likely to find it. Looking around for something else to do, his eye fell upon the calendar on the wall above the bed. Striding over, he tore a day off, crumpled the piece of paper up and tossed it into a wastepaper basket beneath the desk. With nothing else to be done, Yukio opened the door and was about to switch the light off when he glanced back at the calendar. Something seized him, a momentary urge. He ran up to the calendar, pulled it down, tore it up and tossed the pieces into the wastepaper basket. A moment later, with a gleeful smile he snapped the light off and strode out of the door. If anyone had heard his hurried footsteps passing by, they might have been forgiven for thinking that he was running late. But no, parade was at six o’clock, take off at seven.
The rest of that day passed in silence and in the room nothing moved until, in the darkness that eventually came, the spider awoke and cautiously ventured forth from her hole in the wall. She reached a familiar place and deftly attached a strand of silk to it. She then walked forward with silk exuding from behind her, expecting to soon find a surface to climb. Instead she found herself walking on and on, meeting nothing to anchor the strand to. Something here had changed and soon her brain told her that this forward progress was, for the purposes or web construction, useless. So she closed her spinnerets with a reflex and returned to the familiar place near where her lair was located. She again attached a strand and then started to climb. Yes, her instincts told her, this is correct.
A week passed and one evening the door to the room opened. In stepped two old people who immediately glanced around, as people do, with a mixture of apprehension and curiosity.
“ Is that his case?” asked the old man, squinting into the gloom. The old woman meanwhile was searching for the light switch, found it and replied,
“Yes, don’t you remember, we gave it to him about a year ago?”
“Is this all he had?”
“Probably, but look around. See if you can recognize any thing else.” Just then a tall young officer appeared at the door and cleared his throat.
“Mr and Mrs Miamoto?”
The old couple turned and bowed.
“ I am major Saito. I was your son’s commanding officer. I have been instructed by the base commander to return his personal effects to you.”
“Thank you major, sir.” said the old man humbly.
“Not at all. Your son died bravely in the service of the emperor. You have just cause to be very proud of him.”
All three were silent then until the old woman said,
“We must apologize for being late. We had no idea where he was stationed these last three months. It was difficult for us to get away earlier.”
“It is nothing to be concerned about madam. But you must understand the need for secrecy in times of war. Indeed I must urge you both most strongly to tell no one where this base is or about anything that you may have seen or heard here. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, certainly major, you can count on my wife and I.”
“Good, thank you.”
The young officer then noticed the letter and the box. He strode briskly over to the desk, picked them up, and handed the letter to the old man and the box to the old woman whose slight hesitation in accepting it caused him to raise an eyebrow.
“ I believe these are for you,” he added unnecessarily. Then his cheeks began to redden with embarrassment as he saw that the old man was hastily tearing the envelope open. To make matters worse, he now proceeded to read aloud from the piece of paper within,
“If man were never to fade away like the dews of Adashino, never to vanish like the smoke over Toribeyama, but lingered on forever in the world, how things would lose their power to move us.”
There was a silence then until, with a sad smile, the old man said,
“Ah yes, these are lines from the Essays in Idleness. It was a favorite book of his. Are you familiar with the classics major?”
“Yes indeed,” he replied unconvincingly, “the Essays are a favorite of mine also.”
The old man looked the major in the eye for the first time then, causing him to turn abruptly,
“Er, I believe your son was a very intelligent boy as well as a good pilot. He used to lecture his comrades on poetry, music and theatre.” A smile then crossed the old woman’s face as she said,
“Oh, yes Yukio is….I mean, he was going to become a scholar, he was always writing and has many books at home.”
“Yes, well, I must attend to my duties. Have you made arrangements for accommodation in the area? If not, I can recommend a good guesthouse.”
“No major, thank you. We will be returning home on the late train,” said the old man.
“Have you come far?”
“From Nagasaki,” replied the old woman.
“Very well. The guard at the top of the corridor will let you out. Goodnight.”
They bowed to him and with a nod he was gone, leaving them in silence.
“Does he say anything else husband?” The old man nodded,
“It’s one of his own poems, listen:
Racked by winter storms,
Two old pines upon a crag
Sway and creak with strain.
Do they know that high above
A divine wind always blows?"
As the old man read the poem again silently the old woman opened the box slightly to peek within. She was not surprised by its contents yet still they made her shudder. Suddenly her husband said,
“We’ll scatter the ash from that pier he always used to fish from, number nine.”
Her grip on the box tightened,
“Yes, he would have liked that.” The old woman then quietly began to cry and the old man embraced her.
“Come on, let’s leave this place. The train goes in two hours.”
“Yes, yes, I’m sorry. Don’t forget the suitcase.”
With that, she took the letter from him and the old man picked up the case. They turned the light off and quietly walked back the way that they had come.
In the darkness and the silence, the cobweb spider awoke once more.
Adashino and Toribeyama are cemeteries in Kyoto. Adashino contains the word adashi, meaning impermanent. Evaporating dew is a common Buddhist metaphor for transience. Smoke over Toribeyama suggests cremation. The quote comes from section seven of The Essays in Idleness by Yoshida Kenko (c.1283-1352), in Donald Keene’s translation (1967). ‘Divine wind’ in Japanese is, of course, kamikaze Yukio’s poem is a waka the classic formal Japanese poetic form: thirty-one syllables arranged in five lines of five, seven, five, seven and seven. Because Buddhists believe that in order for a human soul to be more easily reborn the old body has to be ritually cremated Kamikaze pilots left their relatives nail clippings and hair in order for them to have something to cremate in lieu of a body.