Sunday, September 11, 2022

Okinawa Lantern


Paper Lantern Alley in Okinawa, 2022, Watercolor on Paper, 40" x 60"

In 2019, I went on a family trip to Okinawa and Japan. The plan was to meet family on my grandma’s side while she can still travel. One of the cousins helped us get around and gave us a tour to see different things. Well, I’m not sure how exactly he’s related, I was just told cousin. He’s fairly distantly related, I think. Anyways, one of the more memorable things we saw was a family grave that was around 270 years old.

The grave was more like a mound or a big family tomb or shrine almost. The family grave is a tomb in the side of a hill with a stone wall and a port to open and put the bodies in. On the way up to the port is a small ceremonial space with places to burn incense. We visited and gave our respects to our ancestors. The cousin told us a little bit about the grave, how they would put the bodies in and stuff like that. He also told a story of a relative, from way back when, that was placed in the grave. When they put new bodies in, they place them in the back so there’s room in the front.

When they put the next body in after this one relative, they noticed that the body wasn’t where they left her. She was in the front, near the port… Can you imagine being in that position? You wake up, presumably from some sort of illness that made you appear dead, in total darkness. You may not know at first what’s going on or where you are or why. You’re probably not in the best condition- there was a reason they thought you were dead in the first place.

Okinawa is also fairly tropical. The cousin didn’t mention what time of year this happened but the weather was likely hot and humid. In a stone hole in the side of a hill in the middle of a tropic farm cannot be comfortable. And with that sort of climate, there are a lot of large, weird bugs. I’m sure there’s going to be some inside that tomb.

So you just woke up from some fevered dream into a small cramped tomb, in the hot humid dark, and you could very well be covered with strange insects that you can’t see. You don’t know what’s going on, where you are. You still feel sick and out of it. At first, you might just think you woke up in the middle of the night or something. Might just be sort of confused as to why the night is so much darker then usual. You brush off the giant centipedes and spiders crawling on you and sit up. You wonder why you were lying in the dirt. Then you try to stand up and hit your head on the low ceiling of the tomb.

Perhaps this is when you begin to think… No, they didn’t… am I… What happens now? Do you panic? Do you feel a deep, deep sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, worse than ever before? What do you do? What can you do? The family tomb is in the middle of a farm, in an area no one really goes to except to visit this tomb. And if they just put you in, then they’re probably not going to come back to visit again for a while. You can scream, but would anyone hear you? Even if there was someone outside visiting the tomb, would they hear or know where the screams are coming from? Would they just freak out and run away?

Panic. The anxiety hits hard and fast right in the chest. Your heart rate is so fast that your chest hurts, your heart is actually trying to escape. You want to escape; you need to escape. Your survival literally depends on you getting out. And with that thought, your predicament really hits you. You’re going to die here. You might very well die. And just the other day, or so it feels, you were enjoying the beach, enjoying the sun, playing in the water, not thinking about when you might die.

Now you’re facing death head on with no help. No one else here except the decayed bodies of your ancestors and a bunch of bugs. Total darkness and your thoughts, that’s all that’s left, all you’ll see of this world. But do you just give up? Of course not, you must try, what else can you do, just wait? The body, when found near the front of the grave, had bloody nail-less fingers, and there were scratch marks on the stone enclosure. So apparently, you didn’t give up, at first at least. You went mad trying to get out of there.

Is that all that happened inside the tomb though? Did you think about trying to kill yourself, just to end everything, and skip the wait? What would you do? Try smashing your head against the wall to give yourself a concussion? But that must hurt. How hard do you have to hit your head to kill yourself? When do you start trying to suicide your way out of the tomb? What a choice to have to make- kill yourself or wait to die.

If you don’t kill yourself, how long will you be trapped in there? Dehydration takes a few days, at least. How would you feel, knowing you’re going to die in a few days, and there’s probably nothing you can do? Maybe you’ll run out of oxygen first. That could take a day or so, right? The seal on the entrance is fairly tight. Stranded all alone in the dark, you can’t even tell how much time has gone by. How much time is left. Is this daytime or nighttime? Can you afford to go to sleep? Can you sleep knowing these are your last moments? Or is sleep all you could wish for at this point, to help pass the time quicker.

Or maybe, you just try to get out. Scratching at stone for hours on end, in a panic to try and save yourself. How long does it take, how long do you sit there, at the front of the tomb, desperately trying to claw your way through stone? You wear away the tips of your fingers and still keep going. You have to live don’t you?

And during all this time, what are you thinking? Memories of times you took life for granted? All the things you wanted to accomplish with your life? Wait, how old are you- the cousin never mentioned how old this relative was when put in the tomb. You were desperate to get out, there was something out there worth fighting for. A lover? Unfulfilled dreams? Your friends and family?

But they’re the ones who thought you were dead and put you here in the first place. Do you forgive them? Surely they didn’t do this on purpose. How could they know you were still alive? But still, they did this to you. And now you have to suffer, in the dark, alone. Try to get out, try to get out, try to get out, try to get out. You have to, there’s no choice. What else can you do?

This is your life’s work now. Scratch marks on the inside of a stone door to a family grave. This is the mark that you’ll leave on this world. Did you lead a good life? Did you live a life you’re proud of? Or do you feel like you deserve this? Is this what you get for how you treated them? Is this bachi for all the bad things you’ve ever done? All you have now is time to think about why or what, to dwell on the past and mourn your lost future. You keep scratching at the door, but you must know that isn’t going to break through stone.

You must be exhausted, take a break, have some rest. No! If you do, you’re dead. You can’t stop, you can’t give up. Give up what? Scratching at stone. What’s that supposed to do? There is nothing you can do. No hope. Everyone else is out there, living, eating, mourning you, yes, but living. All you can do is wait around to die, in this hole in the side of a hill.

But still, you’re so exhausted. You haven’t had any food or water for so long. And the air is getting harder to breathe. You feel so weak. This must be it; you’re going to die soon. Here it comes. You’re really going to die. And then what? Fear creeps up your spine and through the brain stem. You’re shaking all over and crying uncontrollably. There is nothing you can do. And still, you don’t know how much longer it’s going to take. In a way, you want to get it all over with, just end this already. But you still want to live too.

The exhaustion gets to be too much. You slump over by the stone. Almost habitually, you continue to scratch at the wall, but with much less energy. Your mind is starting to feel all weird, almost …giddy? Weird thoughts start to float in and out of nowhere, seemingly of their own accord. Like a voice that’s speaking to you rather than your own thoughts. This is it. They’ll find your body eventually. They’ll be horrified.

Yes, yes, let them see what they’ve done to you. Let them imagine the suffering they caused. A voice says in your head.

But they didn’t do it on purpose, they didn’t know any better. Another voice speaks up, somewhat in your control, speaking on your behalf.

Maybe so, but they still get to be out there, living their best lives, having fun, and all that without you in their way. They get to go on in the world and continue their families. Your life is cut short with no direct descendants to care, no special meaningful contribution to the world, no riches for your family to enjoy.

Yes, but still, they didn’t purposely do this to me…

And they get to live their full lives, free and open, while you rot in here, spending your final moments trapped and alone. They did this to you!

And what can I do about it, I can’t get out of here! You scream back, almost out loud.

Nothing really, that’s the worst part of it all. You can’t take any revenge on them. They are safe from anything you try to do.

So then why are you torturing me more with all this nonsense.

To feed that hate, to make you angry. To give you more energy in these final moments to make yourself that much more of a bloody spectacle for when they find you. To haunt them in their nightmares for the rest of their lives, knowing they drove you to this.

What’s the point in that?

To make them hurt too, to make them suffer for what they’ve done.

That doesn’t help me. That doesn’t change anything. I’m still going to die here.

Yes, true, but you get to die knowing you left them something good to remember you by.

That’s pointless. Besides, they’ll be sad to find me here by the opening anyways. Why add to that pain?

Why not? They owe for what they’ve done!

There’s no changing what they’ve done, and I’ll be long gone by then. I don’t care what they think or if they suffer. And they’re still family. They still gave me so much in the past.

Did they though? All the thankless work and chores you had to do, everything they expected from you! Then they throw you in the grave without a second thought as to whether you’re actually alive.

No, it’s not like that!

Are you sure? You don’t sound sure. Are you saying that just because you think that’s the right thing to say?

No, they’re my family. There was a lot they helped me with even if they did expect a lot from me. Even so, I could never repay them for everything the gave me: guidance, a home, food, character, memories, support… They don’t deserve to be haunted by me just for accidentally putting me here.

You’re wrong! Lies! And you’re lying to yourself! Sure, they gave you a place to live and food to eat, but not necessarily for your sake. They also got someone to clean the house, someone who they could rely on in their old age, someone to provide them grandchildren to continue their family and keep feeding their self-image. What they did was not completely selfless. And you don’t owe them, or anyone else, anything.

No, I don’t want to live like that. Even in these final moments, trapped here. I don’t want to hate them so. I will not give up on life and them so easily. I’m not going to destroy myself just because everything is scary or because they put me in a bad position. I will take what I have and keep fighting.

You still don’t sound sure but go ahead and keep trying. You’ll make yourself into a spectacle, nonetheless. You will haunt them and be a story passed down. You will strike fear in them, not just for your sake, but because they know this might just happen to them too. If you really want to prevent this, you should give up completely and crawl back over there. Die where they left you, so they don’t know any better.

Well, yeah, but…

See, you’re going to let your will to live take over and haunt them for generations to come. You want this, at least you’ll be remembered for something, one way or another. You say you want to give back to your family for all they’ve done for you, but is that really true? You could’ve done so much more while you had the chance. But here you are, selfishly crying and hopelessly trying to escape through a stone wall. You will destroy them. They will find you and be crushed by the thought of what they did to you, and they will have to live with that for the rest of their lives. Hey, even future generations will feel guilty because they participate in the culture that created the custom that caused such a terrible demise.

No, that’s not the point! Why should future generations feel shame for something they had no hand in doing? I don’t want to haunt them like that!

Oh, but your intent doesn’t matter.

I will not give up; I will keep fighting to live. I will live. This is not the end; I will make it back to my family!

Yes, keep telling yourself that! I feed off the suffering, I don’t care who’s, keep on talking, keep on scratching. And your attitude doesn’t matter, their consciouses will still haunt them anyways. Keep trying-

The voices keep talking, going back and forth. The argument doesn’t end. Should you keep trying, should you give up and hide? Is this going to haunt your family? Do you want retribution, even if only subconsciously? No, don’t listen, let them keep arguing. You’ll get out of here, right? Keep scratching at the wall, just a little bit more…

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