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Spring 1999, Volume 16.3



Dirk van Nouhuys 

photo of Dirk Van Nouhuys.The Butcher, the Gambler, and the Charcoal Burner

Dirk van Nouhuys received his B.A. in creative writing from Stanford University and a M.A. in contemporary literature from Columbia University. He has published widely in periodicals. "The Butcher, the Gambler, and the Charcoal Burner" is an excerpt from a novel in progress in which the hero goes on to find community, adventure, and love in medieval Lithuania.


He woke in the prison hospital hand cuffed to the bed frame. Someone from the Adjutant's office came and told him that he would be sent to Japan, and from there probably dishonorably discharged home. He warned him that his record in the States would work against him. He said that the guard who had put his hand in his cell would receive a series of reconstructive surgeries.

So the American killers would not have him. They did not accept his rage. It was not their own. It was not disciplined enough, not directable enough. They would direct it at gooks, un-Americans, but his was directed at everyone, anyone, someone unknown. There was in his rage a quality of a vast cloud-mountain-bodied thunderstorm rolling over a wooded plain. The clouds, chaotic, broiling hulks fragmented by pennants of evening sky, which sloshed highlights on the sides of the hills, of trees, themselves the texture of mountains, green golden highlights from the blue-orange sky, while the lightening strokes illuminated and obliterated the world with white moments.

In the shadows he thought of Japan. In Japan they disciplined killers; there were Jujitsu, Ninja, Aikido.

The military transport that bore him to Japan was more like a warehouse than a commercial passenger plane; it rung like a church on the ground and shuddered through the air. Much of the space was filled with crates and equipment strapped in place and the passengers were shelved on a bench against the windowless, metal walls. Besides three shackled prisoners like himself and their two guards, it carried a mixed group of men from all the services. Once inside the plane the guards left them handcuffed but otherwise free to mix with the other passengers while they played cards. A Navy non-com seated himself next to Stretch. He was a lean man in his middle thirties with a slight paunch, brown hair, a thin mustache and an alert, sly expression, who carried himself with a straight back, but with wiriness rather than real military stiffness. An athlete himself, Stretch noticed how people held themselves. The non-com asked Stretch how he came to be wearing iron bracelets. Stretch was feeling better since he was out of solitary: he was proud of maiming the MP, of surviving their beatings, of taking the Marines' training and giving them back nothing. Stretch told him how he joined the Marines because the alternative was a sentence for assault with a deadly weapon. "The deadly weapon was the handcuffs they'd laid on me," he concluded.

The non-com had been stationed in Japan for many years was involved in martial arts. He told Stretch that the Japanese were far ahead of the Marines in violent disciplines. He questioned Stretch about his legal situation back in the States and impressed on him that he might end up going to jail for a long time. The non-com suggested that Stretch could learn new skills and profit as a person from such training. Stretch doubted he would be in Japan long or at liberty. The non-com took Stretch's name and serial number and said he might be able to arrange something. Stretch did not believe him, but the possibility gave him something to hope for.

In practice Stretch's court martial proceeded slowly, and after a week he was taken from the brig and merely confined to barracks.

A couple of days later the non-com from the plane surprised Stretch by appearing with a pass for him. He said he knew a master teacher who could help him if he would. A bored teenager lying in a grassy field sustained by all the flowering of nature. He took them by train to Kyoto. The non-com explained he wanted them to walk from the train station to the practice hall of the master teacher, it was only a few miles. He said he feared the master would not like Stretch's mood and he felt the walking would improve it, perhaps even make it a little bit more Japanese. Stretch, aching for exercise, was glad enough. Without making the comparison himself, Stretch now trusted this man as he had trusted no one since he had learned to mistrust his father. The walk was a little like a walk through history. They emerged from the station into a crowded, futuristic down town with towering glass or black and white buildings, which made him feel diminished, like a stick figure in an architectural model, not even born yet but someone's conception. They pressed on to an old district of irregular streets and shifty, wooden buildings knocked about like broken packing crates, which reminded him of the broken machinery in back yards of his home, a declining town in California's central valley.

Finally he led them (two hunters were meticulously scanning for signs of game or threat in an unfamiliar forest) to a hill-side district that looked like a post card from old Japan; back from cobbled streets stood wooden or wood and matting walls with large gates capped with heavy cross beams that curled up at each end. Stretch, who had done a little carpentry, wondered how they had been cut to curve. The overcast light of threatening rain clouds brought out the greens and browns. The non-com turned him toward one of these gates with a heron in raised relief, and they entered a peaceful, austere garden. They crunched along a path of small, gray stones seemingly each identical to another up to wooden door, a piece of wood working beyond the dreams of Stretch's limited craft. For a moment it seemed more real than real, and he diminished, as he had been diminished by the office buildings, a bodily feeling as if he were less real than real, but he remembered he had a purpose here and recovered himself. The non-com knocked and an unseen person let them in. They came into a small entrance hall sunk below the level of surrounding, sliding doors. Open cupboards to one side held many pairs of shoes. Stretch imitated the non-com in removing his and setting them among the waiting gear. The non-com stepped up and slid open a panel, which revealed a spacious, light room. The light came from semi-transparent screens on two sides and a similar, screened sky light. The floor was thick straw mats. A dozen or so men of all ages sat cross-legged with their backs to him, wearing robes a little like a nun's habit. A striking old man in the same outfit faced them and faced Stretch. The old one raised his eyes to and gestured with the back of his hand to Stretch and his companion, a signal Stretch felt as rejection, but chose not to acknowledge as at the same time it consumed his attention. Stretch said what he had learned meant "Can I come in?" The old man said in English, "No." Stretch doubled his fists before his chest and hunched his shoulders forward in a protective and angry gesture. The non-com spoke with the old man in Japanese Then he said to Stretch, "The master teacher says he cannot help you now."

"Why?" Stretched asked. They spoke more in Japanese again.

"The master teacher says you are not ready," the non-com said.

Stretch stood still in the doorway; he could break the non-com like a straw man; it would be almost too easy. The old man gestured with the back of his wrist, again. There was nothing in his gesture or face that gave Stretch anything, no time, no space, no being; Stretch was a seed in the winter wind. He turned. The door closed behind him. He picked up his shoes and walked out the gate. Outside the gate he put on his shoes and noticed the non-com had not departed with him.

He did not want to return to the barracks, to America, not so much out of fear of punishment, as because he wanted first to undo his dismissal by the master teacher; he did not think he could do that by going anywhere. He wanted to be lost. He was carrying his duffel bag with all his things and money. He walked until he came to a tram line. He got on and let the conductor pick a fare out of his hand. No one looked at him; he, a six-foot four American in uniform, was apparently invisible. He rode until he came back to the railway station. He walked to a track and got on a train. He felt he understood why the old man had rejected him. Since football, since he had learned that other people would esteem him if he punished his opponents, he had lived the value of his rage. He had always been aflame with the value of his rage, the core of colorless gas at the heart was his self. But the doubt was always there, it was the jet, the source of the flame, and in the flick of the old man's wrist, in his totally unyielding face Stretch regarded the doubt for the first time since he had been in high school. He let the train carry him to the end of the line.

When Stretch got off the train he found a small modern terminal surrounded by agricultural fields. The four or five remaining passengers got off, each unlocked a bicycle from a wrack, and they took their own ways. One was a young man with six empty crates. He bundled them on a rope sling across his shoulders, climbed on an old black bike, and set off looking like a moving beehive. A one-lane, paved road continued the direction of the train tracks. Because he was afraid if he hung around the station someone would turn him in, Stretch took the road. To his left and ahead about five miles distant were hills, behind them mountains, to his left and right rolled grain fields and beyond them on one side the edge of a lake glimmered.

Hills behind hills rose before mountains ahead in blues and purples piling up, muting the distance but towering. He walked as if by following this road laid down by people as foreign to him as ants he would arrive at some beginning. Although the country looked flat, it actually swelled and fell gently, so that prominent objects, distant houses, carts, or other people on the road rose and fell from view as they approached. He trod on, the hills in the distance slowly turning duller as the light changed. At a certain point the paved road curved left and an unpaved road, emphasized by ruts, ran ahead. He saw distant objects as stage flats; everything was either horizontal or vertical, and the near things, the things he saw at his feet, were the litter of a stage the morning after the play, bits of chalk dust, nails, and fallen shards of light, of dark; he saw the grain fields themselves as a painted lake from which something dreadful might emerge.

A low rise exposed a village. Small houses, some no more than hutches, strung along the road at irregular intervals and angles, some roofs thatched and others tiled. A two-story building with a tile roof and lowering eaves stood by the road and another off to one side at the edge of the fields, a distance of a couple of blocks. When he passed the two-story building he noticed the words "Super Market" crudely painted in English. Browns dominated; the people went scattered among the houses, dressed in irregular brown clothing or some in coats of Levi blue. He paced through the village. No one challenged him, but he sensed looks and heard suppressed laughter. He thought if he saw someone laughing he would confront them. Would they stand together? He imagined himself smashing small figures in brown, the edge of his hand sinking into the stomach of a small man, but somehow he knew that would not help him with the master teacher.

Past most of the buildings, a ravine cut the town and a bridge carried the road on. As he progressed toward the ravine, a piercing scent sang in the air. He identified it as the smell of meat packing, which he remembered from his childhood. The ravine was about 200 feet wide and maybe twenty to thirty feet deep; the bridge that spanned it was built like the scaffolding that embraces a large building under construction. He paused to look into the ravine. Cattle and pigs were penned where it narrowed to his left. Far to his right, the land fell to meet it and the small stream at its center sprawled and disappeared into the earth. Several small buildings surrounded a large ramshackle building. The people were occupied there too; their clothes more ragged and various. Children moved around them quick and cringing. The stink came from the largest building, and from the tanning shed and pits, below the animal pen beside the stream. These were the garbage, the shits. They survived; he would survive.

In another hour he was in hills; they were not gentle, but thrust up steeply, as rocks standing in a pool.

He climbed by switchbacks where he found his footing beside deep cart ruts. The air grew chill. Once he began to climb he saw no one. He was in a wood of small, straight oaks about a foot trim at the trunk and 20 feet high, second growth. They made a wall of brown and green and gray like granite greatly magnified. He would have to make someone give him food and shelter for the night, he had only a couple of days rations in his duffel bag. Gray clouds were sliding across the sky now. They made him want to go on, a sort of assault against the probability of help. He began to smell wood smoke. When he came around a switchback he saw about two hundred yards ahead a clearing on the uphill side of the road where smoke rose from small buildings, its scent brightening the air. The motion of rock-like fluid under great pressure bursting from a fissure making an onslaught surface at once scratch-hard and in violent motion. Smoke rose from the chimneys of four low buildings scattered at unrehearsed angles in the clearing at the side of the road. They were mud-walled, brown-black rectangles among green-gray litter of leaves and bark. A cart rested on the road below the small buildings, its traces lying in the ruts. A man appeared carrying an arm load of darkness. As Stretch continued on his way, the man carried the arm load of darkness and dumpt it in the cart. He turned and reŽntered the nearest low building, which was about five feet wide and five feet high and eight feet long. Bright fires burned at the door of each of the other buildings. They were kilns. The man emerged with what must be charcoal. Stretch continued walking toward him. The man dumped the charcoal in the cart and began to stack it carefully. He was alone, bare-chested, shiny with sweat in the crisp air. Stretch could force him to give him food. As he approached, the man turned from the cart and spoke in Japanese. He was a short man, or bent rather, of middle age, wearing a sort of wool skirt from the waist down. Stretch said the phrase he had learned meant he did not speak Japanese and pointed to his mouth and stomach. The charcoal burner made the dry combination of a grunt and a cough that implies some kind of recognition in Japanese. Stretch kept walking toward him. The charcoal burner coughed again and made an arching gesture toward the kiln. He meant Stretch should carry charcoal with him. His gesture was brusque, peremptory. A wiry, intelligent, gnarled stump. Stretch went to the door of the kiln. He could not fit through it. The charcoal burner saw this, came over and pushed Stretch to make him move aside. Not very many people had pushed Stretch since he was 15, but now he was too far gone and yielded. The charcoal burner went into the kiln and handed out a heap of charcoal.

When it grew too dark to work, the charcoal burner put on a loose, wool jacket, and led him to a small stream where they washed their hands and arms in chilly water. Then the charcoal burner tried to communicate something to him, then looked puzzled and floundering. Then he lead him a little up the hill to a small house or hut walled with thatch. Stretch had to huddle through the low, narrow door. Stretch began to shiver. The space was about 12 by 12 feet. He sat against the wall and shivered while the charcoal burner started a fire in a pit on the floor. First he got some matches off a small shelf, piled up some twigs, and, then larger sticks and then charcoal. In the ceiling above the fire place blackened plaster walled a vent hole in the midst of surrounding thatch and boughs. When the fire was going, the charcoal burner suspended a pot on a frame of three iron bars.

The charcoal burner busied himself and after three quarters of an hour or so he passed Stretch a bowl of rice that smelled faintly of fish, was the consistency of porridge, and displayed fragments that might include vegetables. After that he busied himself neatening the hut, went out once to tend, Stretch assumed, the fires at the doors of kilns, and returned. Stretch fell asleep. Once in the night heard the charcoal burner leave, perhaps to tend the fires at the kiln doors.

In the morning the charcoal burner woke him when he returned from the kiln fires. He offered him rice porridge, this time without the smell of fish, and some kind of pickled something. He then gestured for him to come out. In California he would not have let this wooden monkey boss him; he would have threatened him, punched him out if it came to that, and slept on, but Stretch was AWOL now, a six foot-four American in a nation cold to strangers, who did not want to leave.

Stretch imagined loading the wagon again, but the man padded up from beside his dwelling carrying a curved object about three feel long with a handle and extension covered with woven straw like a sock and a hatchet. He led Stretch up the hill, picked out a tree about one and one a half feet thick, drew the straw cover off a saw blade, and began sawing the trunk in some odd way. After a few strokes he passed the saw to Stretch, handle first. Stench understood that he was to earn his keep by cutting wood. He took the saw, a curved blade about three feet long on a curved handle, like a pruning saw, and drew it toward him through the cut. The saw caught and staggered in the crease. The charcoal burner uttered repeated barking noises half way between the Japanese cough and a guffaw. Stretch rose and turned towards him. He regarded the top of his head; perhaps he carried half Stretch's weight, perhaps less. The charcoal burner raised his hand. He took the saw out of the cut and stroked a tatter dangling from his coat to show its keenness. Then he turned back to the tree and pushed the saw through. Wood shreds scattered from his stroke. He pushed several more strokes, turning his whole arched back over the stroke. Then he rose with a gesture that meant voila, and signed for Stretch to try again. Stretch took the curved handle and pushed the blade through the cut. It sliced smoothly. The charcoal burner grunted. Then he touched Stretch on the shoulder and gestured with hacking motions to show that he wanted the branches cut into lengths of about half a meter. Stretch nodded. The charcoal burner did not respond to the nod but stood watching for a while, then lay the hatchet and a small file on the ground and turned away. A trembling moment of redemption.

Stretch sliced away at the tree, letting branches fall where they might so they scattered in disarray around the trunk as if he had shattered the tree with his fist from above. After a while the charcoal burner returned with two, four-foot lengths of nylon rope. Stretch tensed himself lest the little man try to bind him, but he demonstrated how to assemble the faggots into a bundle, bind them with the rope around the perimeter, bind another, and hoist the two bundles on his back. He gestured for Stretch to carry the bundle to the kilns, which he did and then returned to carry back the rest of the faggots.

So Stretch passed the winter. He cut for the charcoal burner from dawn till dusk, in rain and snow. He had to cut thirty five or forty bundles a short winter day; he also gathered boughs to lay between the logs, gathered wood to feed the fires at their mouths, ate rice porridge at his hearth, slept in the corner grateful for the fire as the winter went on. The burner did not suggest Stretch fire the kilns even at night. The charcoal burner seemed to monitor the color and scent of the smoke and would add wood, or stoke the fire, or let a fire burn lower, or even partially smother it with green branches.

The old man worked four kilns because it took three days to fire the wood and he could thus cycle through one each day. The kilns were built of earth that was almost clay; the walls were nine or ten inches thick and the roof, which must have some support built into the clay, perhaps five inches. Stretch was most of the time away, but came to help unload the kiln at the end of the day. He could do all the work but could not enter the kilns because of his size. As well as the logs destined to be charred, there were smaller branches, cut and collected in past years, and piles of dry horse dung to feed the fires, and green branches that the charcoal burner lay between the logs in the kiln.

In early afternoon each day a younger man appeared with a horse-drawn cart; he left the cart for Stretch to fill with new charcoal and returned in late afternoon to drive it away. To judge by their stances the younger man worked for the charcoal burner. One day a week the charcoal burner took the cart away and returned in the evening while the younger man stayed and watched the fires.

Stretch came walking down the mountain side with his four sap-heavy bundles of green oak in rain, trampling in mud time, then with snow fall erasing his foot steps and erasing the outlines of rubble and supplies. When winter declined and loosened its grip on the water that netted the rocky mountain sides, and loosened the mulch between the stones, it was heavy going. His boots were giving out. Though the charcoal burner fed and housed him, the deal included nothing else.

In the evenings by the fire the charcoal burner taught Stretch a few words; the words for rope, kettle, rice, file, and such objects, and taught him the words he used to command him: get the rope, fetch, carry, the words for faggot and bough, and the cardinal directions from the kilns, but did not teach him words with which he could identify his own things, his own thoughts, feelings, hopes. Once or twice Stretch tried to teach him the English words for things in his duffel, his precious pea jacket, his canteen, but the charcoal burner was not interested.

Later, in the Spring when the mountain sides were sparkling with water during sun breaks and the thick green new leaves were oozing out of the branches like toothpaste, the charcoal burner began to let the kilns go out. When he signed to Stretch to desist fetching wood and set him to cutting and piling fire boughs, Stretch felt dim and useless. When he loaded the last cart, the charcoal burner instructed Stretch to walk behind the cart. They returned by the road that Stretch had come. When they reached the bridge over the stinking ravine, he stopped the cart and gestured for Stretch to follow him down the steep path. They sought out a man butchering a beef hanging in the open. He was a short, harry, muscular man in his middle forties or so, Stretch guessed, dressed in a bloody apron, his hair bound in a pony tail and spiky with blood. They had a conversation in rapid Japanese. The butcher spoke unusually loudly for a Japanese and with round, emphatic gestures. Stretch could not follow very well, but thought the charcoal burner was suggesting he take Stretch on as a laborer. The butcher came over and felt Stretch's upper arm and thigh muscles with loud exclamations. The charcoal burner nodded to them, turned his back, and set off toward the level of the road. The butcher reached up and clapped Stretch on the shoulder and lead him to a shed. There he seemed to object to Stretch's clothes; he indicated he should take them off, and began to poke around in a pile of old clothing, but could not find anything that would fit him. By this time feminine giggling showed that women were peeking thought the crack. Stretch felt awkward and shamed by the invisible women; if he could have them in his hands he could show them something. The butcher indicated that Stretch should stay there. He stayed in the semi-darkness for some time. Evening fell early in the ravine. A middle-aged woman dressed in the blood-spattered garments they all wore, a rough cloak, like a poncho over the top of her body, and a pair of shapeless pants of the same material tied with cords at the waist and the knees, with a round face and full, round body language entered. She carried a very jury-rigged version of the same outfit that roughly fit him along with a pair of straw sandals, gestured that he should put them on, and stayed to watch. Then she drew him to another building where thin strips of beef were roasting over a central fire and he was fed with a group of other workers. He practiced his few words of Japanese in greeting, and was taken to a building like a small barn, where they slept on straw mats. The butcher pointed to an empty spot on the ground and handed him some old straw mats. Stretch was grateful for his duffel and felt it was a contact with his previous life to lay his head on.

Thus Stretch came to work for the butcher and tanner. He was given the heavy jobs, hauling carcasses, stirring vats of hides, heaving the hot stinking wads from vat to vat and moving barrels of acid and mother liquor. The food was better; there was tasty beef and sometimes fresh vegetables, but he never really got used to the smell. The butcher was a loud, kidding man who pressed him to talk about America and so his Japanese gradually improved as he tried to tell about his own life. They asked him for anecdotes; they did not ask his plans.

The four or sometimes five men who worked for the butcher and slept in the barn-like one-room dorm were friendly with Stretch. He supposed anyone who worked in the gully must be an outcast like himself. The main diversion of the workers was gambling. Mostly they played a dice game like craps, but there was a man from the town above who came down to the ravine once a week who had a deck of Western cards and sometimes they played 21. None of the men had much money; the gambler gave them credit and kept a chit in a little book with thick binding that hung from his waste. The gambler was a wiry, tough, middle-aged man, who wore cheap Western style pants and a white shirt, but straw sandals. Somehow he reminded Stretch of the non-com who had taken him to the marshal arts master. The little finger was missing from each of his hands. "Sometimes when I get tricky, I out smart myself," he said in explanation. The first time he came down, the men were excited and grinning because they had an American and they figured he would win at 21. They put a little money together and staked Stretch. In fact Stretch came out ahead and generated much good feeling.

As the evenings grew warm the gambler would take off his shirt and reveal a pistol in a strap holster. Stretch had been told no pistols were privately owned in Japan. A tattoo covered his back so it was more blue than brown. It showed a naked man lying on his back fucking with a plump woman astride him who had the head of a tiger. When he flexed his shoulders it seemed as if their figures moved, and the gesture never failed to raise a laugh. Sometimes he brought along an unfresh whore or two and the men would take turns with her in another shack. The first time he went with her, she made Stretch first stand in the candle light so she could check him out.

Sometimes the gambler would stay over night and Stretch began to think he was protection for the butcher, or for the beef, which was a valuable commodity and was stored in the only really solid building in the gully. When he did so he would sleep with his head on the pistol. No one ever mentioned it; among the men it was invisible as he had been invisible when the journeyed from the marshal arts studio to this town.

The numbness that had embraced Stretch at the charcoal burner's was reforming into a painful grip of entrapment. He did not think he could remain the rest of his life working in the ravine. He wanted to break out, but the way out led through the master teacher's acceptance, and he did not know what would elicit it. He felt he had fucked up in some way he did not understand. He desperately did not know what there was in himself that would carry him on.

Work began at dawn and one morning Stretch walked into the sturdy building where the beef hung. There was a mat by the door where the gambler sometimes slept when he stayed over. His account book was there and his pistol. Stretch picked it up. Without thinking much, with an almost angry gesture he put it to a point a little below his navel and pulled the trigger. It clicked without firing. He looked down on it, shucked open the cartridge panel and saw it was loaded. The gambler silently appeared in front of him and held out his hand. Stretch quietly put the gun in his palm. The gambler coughed and turned away, dismissing him, but Stretch took it as a sign that the world accepted him. This was the readiness the old man had spoken of. He walked to the dorm, took off his butcher-tanner clothes, dressed himself from his duffel, climbed to the village, walked to the station, and took a train for Kyoto.

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