Kawa yowls mantras from outside the screen door, and Akiko weaves in these meows bestowed upon her by the Eternal Now, kan-ze-on, na-mu-butsu, and intones the chants that she has recited every morning before dawn for more than thirty years, yo-butsu-u-in, yo-butsu-u-en, with deep concentration rooted in practice, bup-po-so-en, jo-raku-ga-jo, strict discipline, cho-nen-kan-ze-on, bon-nen-kan-ze-on, and an energy redolent more of a brash girl than a septuagenarian, nen-nen-ju-shin-ki, nen-nen-fu-ri-shin.
The Hawaiian sunrise reveals in fits and starts an exuberant explosion of verdure, and the crickets and frogs who have been gossiping all night cede to the birds, who will not rest their throats until the sun sets. Akiko loves this silence full of melodies that makes her home, and for a few stolen moments before the day begins, she pauses to savor it.
For a couple of days now, a niggling concern has been creeping to join her even in the meditation room — she is only human. A truce must be negotiated in the war of the shi-shi before it tears apart the big house, that ramshackle dwelling sufficient for a family of nine when the Hakalau sugar plantation was still active, but apparently too small for these four coddled oafs.
To the stoicism of Buddhist philosophy, Akiko adds the finely-honed patience of someone who has been managing her business and hosting querulous haoles on her property for three decades. She started back in the early nineties, when an acquaintance asked for accommodation in exchange for a few bucks, and Akiko slept on the floor to give him her own futon and a delicious breakfast and reinvested that money in another futon and leveraged that into a bed and then fixed up the plantation house and then built the cabins in the back garden and is now tackling remodeling the whole village. That little empire in the middle of the jungle that she is so proud of is now under assault from a dude who has been prolonging his stay in the house for months because “it’s not safe to look for an apartment with all this shit going on” and who refuses to make the effort to project his piss at the correct angle or at the very least clean the shi-shi that puddles obscenely in front of the toilet. On top of that, the girlfriend of that overgrown lolo has circled the wagons with him. Yesterday, the couple suddenly appeared with a clipboard with a dozen tightly-ruled sheets of paper and mutely presented it to Akiko. In confusion, Akiko glanced down at the pages, which it quickly became apparent contained a painstaking accounting of their housemates’ most lurid crimes: “12/21/2020, 8:37 AM – Knife with traces of raspberry jam discovered in sink, unwashed; “12/21/2020, 2:46 PM – Three anomalous crumbs, likely whole-wheat, detected on southeast countertop. Heightened ant activity.” Flipping impatiently, “12/26/2020, 3:04 PM – Left-side toilet paper roll contained only 1.5 remaining sheets, further search revealed no backup roll queued up on toilet tank,” etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. “Intriguing,” Akiko murmured to herself, one of her repertoire of factotum responses, but perused no more of the densely-inked pages, because one’s time on this plane is short and because, to tell the truth, this lout’s handwriting left a lot to be desired and was not worthy of any additional scrutiny. If she had set eyes on this crooked scrawl before renting the room to them, Buddha knows she would not be here now suffering through this.
This unhinged list was the last straw in a year full of tribulations, a counter-barrage after the girls had left a note gently counseling him not to pee outside the toilet, leaving the 45-year-old sputtering with incredulous indignation at the sheer manifest injustice of it all before retorting that his mother taught him very well to take care of his business correctly. He’d grown up in a house with his mother and four sisters, so do you really think he could have survived ’til now otherwise? Why pin the blame on just him for bad aim, the girlfriend interjected, ignoring the inconvenient fact that the rest of the house relieved themselves sitting down. In fact, he’d even called his mother to report the persecution and vile accusations, and she’d merely cracked up laughing, which proved that the real culprit must be faulty toilet design. Since the urine is no likelier to be his than anyone else’s, he refuses to clean the floor, not with his bad back, so the rich bouquet of piss permeating the entire first story has forced the girls, barely twenty years old, to submit to phallic mandate, regularly scrubbing the moist, fragrant tiles.
Akiko, who thrives under the rigidity of routine, has suffered through enough changes already this year: first she had to stop taking in guests entirely for a few months — if only her fixed expenses had paused as well — then she’d started receiving people on the sly, for long stays only, strictly enforcing quarantines and instructing each newcomer to use a rickety, rusting ladder instead of the path visible from the road to avoid the prying eyes of suspicious neighbors who prowl the town with engraved frowns. After only three decades here, to some she is still suspect, an outsider from Oahu bringing in a parade of strangers with outlandish customs.
The whole situation had discombobulated her to such an extent in the first few weeks that there were days when she didn’t hear her alarm that rang at 4:44 every morning for meditation, and her one unflagging companion in this ancestral practice had to come to her room to wake her up by tenderly twisting her big toe. Thanks to him, she’d been able to cling to routine left tottering by the pandemic.
But one deprivation stings her more than anything else: having to cancel the mochi festival that she has been celebrating on her property for more than two decades, in recent years attracting more than six hundred people from the Big Island and from the whole archipelago, a fixture of more recent guidebooks. How she would like to gather with her whole spiritual ohana at 5 AM to crush the rice for the cakes, prepare floral decorations, chat with the fortunetellers and the breadfruit and poke vendors who never fail to appear, listen to the elders recount fading tales of the plantation, seize the microphone and hold forth on whatever subject crosses her mind to a laughing, appreciative audience, in her element, on her day, at her estate, shaking to the beat of Japanese drums, all while raising money for the cemeteries, the school, the village, her legacy. Unofficially, Akiko is the mayor of Wailea. No, no: the queen of Wailea.
She misses the wonderful year-end festival, but accepts the change stoically, releasing her melancholy to focus instead on osoji, the Japanese tradition of cleaning thoroughly in the final days of December in order to receive each new year with the emotional purity it deserves. It will start in the garden. She has already switched out her meditation kimono for everyday attire — loose, worn clothing, a scarf around her head with a yellow flower attached, long hair gathered in a bun with a straw hat perched on top of everything. She grasps the chainsaw firmly to rip apart the palm tree toppled by last night’s powerful gusts, now blocking one of the dirt paths. Akiko knows that she is six feet tall and 200 pounds of pure muscle, and she is astonished each time to see the tiny, thin woman that the mirror invents.
The queen of Wailea hasn’t set foot in a doctor’s office in 27 years —why would she need to, with a vegetarian diet and monthly acupuncture and massage? — and she not only draws on her strength to take care of her house, but also, as a born leader, she organizes efforts to clean the town’s temple annually and to go every month to hack through the jungle and restore the overgrown Buddhist cemeteries hidden in every corner of the island. She is especially grateful for the last meeting of the year, which coincides with the tradition of osoji, and which, being outdoors, buffeted by the cleansing Hawaiian winds, she has been able to maintain despite the coronavirus.
Surrounded by roosters and hens promenading in the shade of the palm trees, Akiko hefts the shattered trunk into her wheelbarrow, telling herself she will ask the plumber to come around this very afternoon so she can stop thinking once and for all about that puffed-up pissant who should be old enough by now to have learned to make shi-shi.
Her favorite guests are, without a doubt, divorced women in the assuredness of middle age, like the two currently staying in the part of the property where Akiko lives. These women emerge unbowed from atrocious marriages and are filled with an inordinate strength. They know how to change their own diapers, without whining incessantly that their bedroom door won’t stay closed, that the internet is slow, that their housemate is hogging the fridge. Independent and unstoppable, Akiko is reflected in them, and they share energy: there is no woman stronger than one who does not depend on a man. If she only rented rooms to divorced women, she could live the Zen existence of her true inner being and, of course, she wouldn’t have to worry about what proportion of shi-shi ended up in the toilet.
She rings the bells in gratitude and warm aloha for the Wailea ancestors and to summon the ever-growing herd of cats, conditioned to know this clanging is synonymous with bowls of fresh food. Kawa, that immense gray mound whose meows seem infused with plaintive longing, always gets there first, his majestic stomach a bottomless pit. She tells herself that she has forsworn travel in order to care for these creatures, but in reality it is because her soul is tied to the branches of the avocado tree that towers over the back garden, waking her up every morning with the ringing caress of its colossal two-pound fruits on her brass roof.
A couple of nights ago, however, she alone had continued sleeping unfazed when the goddess Pele, after an unaccustomed respite of two years, had roared into alertness, spewing plumes of lava 400 feet into the air, vaporizing an entire lake in a fraction of a second, and rattling every window in Wailea, 40 miles away. Akiko maintains the customs of her Japanese ancestors because of her respect for the blood that runs through her veins, but she is also a third generation Hawaiian who knows all too well the Kīlauea volcano’s cravings for fire, so she doesn’t even blink an eye.
The plumber, a stolid, laconic Hawaiian, arrives at the agreed-upon time because he knows that Akiko values punctuality. He unhurriedly examines the toilet in silence for a few minutes, then finally asks, “So, what is it that you want me to do?” Akiko heads to the kitchen and beckons to the girls. “Honey, honey,” she calls explosively, “it’s time for a shi-shi convention,” taking it as a matter of course that these two coronavirus refugees from California will understand this Hawaiian term of Japanese origin without further elaboration. Somewhat bemused, they follow her, but the import becomes clear as they are led into the bathroom and spot the plumber. “Apparently there is some kind of problem with the toilet, but I don’t understand it too well. Can you kids explain it to the plumber?” They would love to say straight out that, well, the problem is pretty simple — we’ve got a guy here who seems to regard a bathroom as a personal challenge to piss over the largest possible surface area, but politeness grabs their tongues and stymies them. Fortunately, the ever-attentive couple emerges self-importantly from their bedroom at that moment, and the girls are able to refer the inquiry to them. They clarify that the toilet is either badly designed or damaged, so whenever anyone uses it, the pee ricochets and manages to splash between the bowl and the seat, wetting the floor. Fortunately, they have managed to lay their hands on a second-hand toilet of more appropriate design which they have been conveniently storing outside the back door. The plumber need merely swap in this wonderful new toilet and every issue will be solved.
Akiko, with her usual boundless energy, springs into action to verify this unfortunate artifact of physics. She fills up a glass of water and decants it into the bowl to simulate an ordinary male shi-shi. As there doesn’t seem to be any perceptible splash to the fallible human eye, she drops to the floor and pats every square inch with her hands in search of fresh puddling, to the amazement of all present and the contained retching of the girls, who know all about the daily rain of shi-shi that falls in these parts. She invites the plumber to check the floor with his own hands, in case his greater expertise in the field will allow finer-tuned detection, but the man begs off politely.
The tenants begin to discuss the conundrum of the dry floor in a civilized manner, but little by little voices rise and accusations start to fly. The micturating martyr defends his honor vigorously, and remarks start to get personal. The plumber shifts his weight awkwardly in the background. Akiko suddenly gives two authoritative slaps and the group instantly falls silent. “Let me think for twenty seconds; twenty” she orders with her index finger pointed and immediately the woman enters into a state almost of trance, unconscious of the ten eyes trained on her. The idea comes to her at once, as in a revelation. It is brilliant. Yes, yes, of course: brilliant. How could it not have occurred to her before? Why on Earth were they fooling around with glasses and water? Soon the mystery will be solved, and she will be able to spend time on matters that are truly worthwhile, like petting Kawa.
“Honey,” she says to the titanic tinkler — she knows the name, age, and profession of every guest with precision, but she always reverts to this universal form of address,”Honey,” she repeats, “Here’s what we’re gonna do. Can you just quickly do a little shi-shi in front of the plumber? Then he can see exactly where things go wrong, and he’ll be able to fix it.” Akiko pronounces this with the rigor and conviction with which she guides her meditations; and only amazement paralyzes the girls’ laughter, while the girlfriend and the plumber don’t know how to react, and merely turn expectantly to await the the response of the ungainly urinater. He totally freezes for a few endless seconds, the tortured inner workings of his thoughts playing out on his face, before, finally, he mumbles in that slightly-addled baritone that drones for hours each day to an apparently enthralled audience, rumbling through the walls of the house: “Oh, hell no, hell no, I’m not going to do that”. Akiko cannot fathom this refusal, so convinced is she of the faultless logic of her solution.
As the eyes continue to bore into him, the lavatory lawbreaker nervously fills the silence, tripping over himself to give explanations. Sure, he has to go to the bathroom three or four times every night, and sometimes he feels a little pee trickling down his legs in the dark, but that doesn’t mean it gets on the floor and hell no, he’s not going to clean it, the same thing happens to everyone. And of course he can’t pee sitting down because that’s undignified, and it would be completely unfair to single him out and make him go to the outside bathroom, plus it’s impossible because he might step on slugs.
As he rambles idiotically on, the words blur into a senseless hum in the background of Akiko’s thoughts. She jerks herself from her musing to abruptly stem the chaotic, splashing stream of words with a “mahalo, honey” and appears in another place, because it is time to light the candles and incense in the shrines she has scattered around the property and to ring the bells for the cats to feast once more.
After the evening yoga session, her ideas on dealing with the situation finally crystallize completely. If she were to think purely in economic terms, after almost a year of operating losses, perhaps the wisest thing would be to keep tenants no matter how boorish, but Akiko grounds herself in the plane of the immaterial: she is breathing, so she is blessed. And, since she requires nothing else, she sends off an e-mail to the couple announcing that for next month, they will have to find accommodations with a toilet more suited to their needs. On December 31st, osoji is at last complete: Akiko has finally fully cleansed her house and is ready to welcome in the new year.