[DC notes to self and others in brackets]
February 16, 1989 - CREEPIN' MUKADE!
There are eight plastic containers sitting on the flat stones where our gate would be if we had one. We don't because the bamboo gate that was there when we arrived was so dilapidated that I tore it out on our first day and took it over to the temple to be burned. Soon the nearby gasu sutando, gas station, will send someone here to fill those containers with kerosene. Each one is about twenty liters, like a five gallon gas can. Four of them are new blue. We bought those at the local home store. Four of them are dirty red. They're old and we got them on sodai gomi day. I had to tape up some of their screw-on lids because they were busted and I didn't want water to get in.
I remember the morning I brought the old containers over. Ishitaki-san was standing out front on the road talking to Seki-san, the giddy lady across the street. The two housewives watched me as I carried the four plastic containers into our garden. They were laughing at me half admiringly for getting something out of the trash.
"I don't think I would be seen doing such a thing as that," said Ishitaki in English. "People might say I was a beggar. I would have to sneak out to take them in the middle of the night when no one could see me." She translated it for Seki who laughed in a high giggle.
"We're shameless," I answered in Japanese. "We love to rescue perfectly usable things out of the trash. And now we'll have eight of them,"
"Why do you need eight?" asked Seki. "Four is enough. You can order more kerosene when you need it."
"That's more trouble for me and for the gas station," I answered. "Isn't it more convenient to get twice as much half as often?"
"But eight cans will cost twice as much as four," Seki countered. I looked at her puzzled.
"We Japanese prefer to buy things in smaller amounts more
often," said Ishitaki in explanation, now speaking in Japanese. She turned to her friend. "In America they buy everything in large quantities. They buy one whole side of beef at a time." Seki laughed and laughed. The housewives around here tend to go shopping, do their laundry and clean house every day. I was perturbed at being laughed at for wanting to buy six weeks worth of kerosene at a time and felt falsely accused of hoarding slabs of beef, but I knew I wasn't going to be able to set things straight with them. Whatever I said, Ishitaki would look at me smugly and Seki would just laugh at me more and say something to the effect of "Oh you silly Americans!"
The delivery man arrived with a tank of kerosene in the back of a pickup and I heard him as he began filling the containers. I went out and greeted him and he greeted me and said thanks for our many kindnesses and I said why it's the other way around and we agreed on what a nice day it was. He was young, strong, thin, and eager to do the best job he could. Best of all, he wore white gloves. I picked up two containers, took them around to the backside of the house and came for more. He got the fourth round before I could get to it and positioned them carefully. He handed me the bill apologizing. Just under six thousand yen, about forty-five dollars. Not bad for six weeks heating. I paid him thanking him and he thanked me energetically and I thanked him and we kept thanking each other until he'd driven off.
I stood in the sun on the driveway with my change and receipt in hand and watched an egret, wide wings closing and opening, zoom into and out of the mizo. The water in it was low - only an inch above the sludge. I looked for signs of life - only the algae. I peered into the bamboo grove. Nothing obvious. Keichitsu, which Mr. Shimizu from the MMC called "bug coming out day," is in early March - not yet. But there was a stink bug on the cold floor the other day in the sanzen waiting room. I remember flicking it away with my third finger and putting it right side up later in the empty room as I walked by on my way out. There was a cockroach in our place. It was dying due to the carpets of boric acid spread in those dark, hidden areas under cabinets and the refrigerator. I bowed to it and apologized, squashed it in a paper towel and put it in the trash saying, "Become a buddha."
Ah, approaching spring and birds and bugs. The ground will abound with the crawlers and the air will be alive again with flying insects. Up will go the screens. We will walk in the hills and stand in our garden and sit looking out from our tatami-floored living room. Look out through the open shoji on the new season, feeling its generous warmth and greeting its active little beings. I wish they were all as benign and beautiful as butterflies and dragonflies or as fascinating and admirable as the wasps and bees we defer to with respect, or as venerable as the spiders.
Oh, but I shudder to think of the mukade, the poisonous centipedes that appear on the walls and in the tub. Suzuki Hoitsu got bitten on the lip by one while he slept in Yaizu. He said it was extremely painful and his lip was badly swollen for four days. Morikawa from the MMC says that one morning when she woke up there was a giant mukade on the pillow next to her sleeping husband's face. One day when a tiny one crawled out from under our refrigerator, Ishitaki said smiling that where there's one baby there're ten.
I remember with a shiver of horror the last mukade of fall. Elin and I were sitting at the kitchen table studying. There was a little plop sound from the direction of a plastic bag a foot to my left. Upon investigation I discovered much to my dismay a mukade crawling on the bag. It must have fallen from the ceiling - it could have fallen on one of us.
The first few we encountered I caught and put outside. Elin noticed their tendency to come aggressively back toward us after being emptied from jars onto the ground. I can't stand to think about it. I hate to kill them but it's expected of you and I also don't want them to multiply in the immediate vicinity. So I put them in the tub and wash them down with scalding water and pity them and apologize and say, "Become a buddha!" just like they were cockroaches.
Glen, a student at Daianji, was sitting in the zendo with the regular group of twenty or so assorted men, women, monks and lay people. A mukade came down the board on the front edge of the tan, the raised platform that runs the length of each side of the room. These people are supposed to be sitting alertly with their eyes open. No one moved. I would have been on the ceiling. Glen saw it approach from the left and then he watched it turn right when it got to him. He let it crawl inside his robes. Is this the product of Zen training: a person who allows a poisonous centipede to get lost in his clothes? At the end of the period he went outside and shook it out but not before it had crawled up over his head and back down inside his robes. My life would have been over and he just shrugged.
Norman saw his first one while sitting zazen at Suienji. He didn't know what it was but he had time to study it. It was a light brown critter about four inches long with many little segments, a pair of legs for each segment and two black pincers in front. After the bell rang to end the period, he leaned over and in a whisper asked the monk next to him about it. The monk pulled him back so violently that they both fell off the raised tan. Then the monk got up and smashed it to a pulp with his sandal.
It seems almost everyone has a story. "George," the eleven year old student of mine who lives down the street got bitten next to his eye while he slept. In the summer I look under our covers and all over the walls in our bedroom before I go to sleep. To me it is the black cloud within the silver lining of living by the peaceful woods on crime-free streets with thoughtful neighbors.
Taizen had said, "Oh mukade aren't so bad, but they don't let go. Once they've clamped down on you, it's hard to get them off." It reminded me of "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" in which Humphrey Bogart claimed that if a gila monster bites, you can cut off its body but the head stays clamped on till sunrise.
I see mukade out of the corner of my eye as I sit alone and read. I fear them on the floor and ceiling as I type. The other day I opened the door to the study and pictured the floor crawling with them and I wondered am I going crazy? and I reached down and picked up a handful and held them up to take a good look and said no they are real. But then when I tried to shake them off I found no hand beneath but only squirming centipedes in the form of a hand becoming a body of centipedes becoming a mind of centipedes and I sat down on the spot and followed my breath and asked my psyche to protect me and all beings from the mukade, our least welcome neighbors.