"Do it! Do it! Do it!"
"Take him down!"
"Thrash 'im, Nakanishi!"
That's me, Ryu "Thrash 'im" Nakanishi, and that's what I usually do. My wrestling opponent didn't look like he'd be easy to thrash this time. He looked like a great big bull that matched me glare for glare across the ring. He was as big as me, and not all of it was fat. We bent down, face to face, fists close to the clay, where a tap with both hands meant the match would start.
Tap. We both charged and hit each other with a loud, meaty smack. After a flurry of slaps, I got hold of his mawashi and tried to use the belt to haul him up and over, even as he was grabbing for mine. He was too strong, and wouldn't go over. He probably thought the same thing about me, because he was digging his feet into the clay, trying to shove me toward the edge of the ring. All the kids crowded around the ring howled as we thrashed around.
The match ended when I suddenly stepped back and to the side; with the expected resistance suddenly gone, the other kid fell forward onto his face. That's what wrestling's all about--timing and strategy, not only brute strength.
My opponent, who was from Sendai #4 Junior High School on the mainland, got to his feet and bowed. He wasn't happy about the whole thing, but he kept it pretty much off his face. Likewise I didn't gloat--it wasn't sporting to do that. Coach looked as sour as always, but he was nodding in approval, and all the other kids from my school were going nuts. We claimed the regional trophy for the second year in a row.
After the ceremony, I went off to the showers, surrounded by the other wrestlers, who were all yelling and slapping each other on the back. It was freezing cold in the changing room--always was this time of year--and the water took a long while to heat up, but I was still burning up from the match and didn't mind.
Despite all the celebrating, I wasn't feeling too great. This marked the end of the season for us. Since it was getting on to spring, work on the fishing boats would be picking up, and there went all our after school activities. All the kids worked with their families, hauling the day's catch from spring to late fall, and I was no exception. The routine never changed, year after year after year.
Like always, I'd run every day to keep up my endurance, and pump weights to keep my strength up, but I'd miss the wrestling. I loved competing; testing my strength against the other guys. I loved winning. I was growing my hair long enough for a chonmage, hoping that someone from the big city would discover me and take me away to his sumo stable. Even Coach thought I had a chance, but even then I knew I was just dreaming. I was the son of the biggest fisherman in the northern islands, and I had to inherit the family business. But I didn't really want to be a fisherman. It was cold, back-breaking work, and worst of all, it never changed. The most exciting thing you could expect was a bad storm, or to run up on some rocks, and that wasn't worth the trouble.
I got dressed, and we all went off to the victory dinner Coach had arranged it in the village restaurant--a rare treat for all of us. The tables were laid out with plates of sushi and lemon fried chicken, and great big pots of fish and vegetables bubbled over gas burners set in the middle of each table. We whooped and sang and told jokes and ate ourselves stupid. Coach took one of his rare opportunities to drink a couple of bottles of beer.
The party ended well after dark. When everybody finally got up to leave, Coach came up and slapped me on the shoulder. "Next time," he said, but his voice was sad. "I will get someone up here to watch you in action."
"Yessir," I answered. He said that to me every match, but nothing ever happened. It was just a ritual we did.
The ferry took us to our villages, traveling from island to island on its last scheduled run of the day. My little island was about two kilometers all the way around, and had one little village and my family's business. All the boats were in port, already prepped for the next day's fishing. I got off the ferry and walked up the pier toward home.
Home was a four-room wooden house with a tile roof, right behind the fishing boss's office. Along with the business, it belonged to my grandparents, then went to us after they died. Toochan slept in one room, and me and Seiji shared the other. Kaachan--
What's that? Oh. Sorry, you probably don't know who or what I'm talking about. Most of the people who come up from the cities think people from my hometown talk funny, like our mouths are full of rocks. Up in the northern islands, I guess things are so relaxed that our way of talking might sound weird to outsiders. Besides, sometimes our words just fit better, y'know? Anyway, Toochan is my father and Kaachan is my mother. Only Kaachan... well, that's another story I'll have to save for another time. Seiji--my little brother--was only two or so when she left, and I don't think he remembers her very well. Between school and the business, we didn't have time to take care of the house much, so Baachan, the little old lady who lived next door, would do the cooking and cleaning and nag at us just like a grandmother.
The house smelled of kerosene from the big heater in the center of the main room. Toochan was sprawled on the tatami floor, bundled up in a thick, padded housecoat, watching a game show on TV. He's a big, stocky man, with short, solid legs--I get my build from him. He was about forty two, and his black hair was thinning into a barcode on top and his little Chaplin-style mustache was getting grey hairs in it. He usually wears a pair of black-rimmed Coke bottle glasses that make him look like an old comic book character (though we've never told him that). When I slid the door open, he shut the TV off and sat up. "Heard your school won, Ryu," he said.
"Yessir, we sure did," I answered.
"Heard you clinched the victory."
"Naah." I scratched behind my back, playing bashful, but he wasn't fooled. He nodded and laughed as I told him all about it; proud of his kid, the champion of the ring.
"Well, better get to bed," he said when I finished. "Got a busy day tomorrow."
Tomorrow was Saturday, and there was no school. At four in the morning I'd be going out on the boats with him and the other fishermen. Just like always.
Spring gave way to summer, and the sun baked us brown and the salt wind made our bare skin feel like leather. I hauled nets by day and lifted weights at night and practiced charging a stuffed dummy we'd set up in the yard. Once in a while, me and the guys would get together to shoot fireworks or play football on the one stretch of beach that wasn't covered with rocks. Day after day it was the same, just like last year and the year before that. Only before, it hadn't depressed me so much. Now, in the mornings, I'd look in the mirror and think: Can I keep just treading water like this for the rest of my life? Just paddling and paddling to stay in one place, even though I've got the strength to swim somewhere? But where should I go? There's no shore in sight.
Then we got visitors.
Visitors are special here. Tourists stick to the main islands, so the only ones we usually see are seafood brokers and businessmen, or the really desperate soul out to "get away from it all." This time our guests were neither--they were scientists from Utoland City. What could people from one of the world's largest, coolest cities possibly be looking for in a nowhere like this place? They were scientists, and wanted to study something. What did we have to study?
Naturally, everybody in the village showed up to check the newcomers out and satisfy their curiosity. We rolled out the red carpet, and the scientists all got to stay in people's houses--there are no hotels on the island. The leader of the group stayed in our house. His name was Dr. Kozaburou Nambu, and from the way everybody treated him, he was a real big shot. I was surprised--he looked pretty young to be a professor. I'd always expected professors to be shriveled up and gray and weird from all that research they do. He was tall and good looking; had the longish hair and sideburns that were in style these days. He was very polite, but he had the kind of attitude you normally see in people who're used to giving orders and having them followed. He spoke in that exact, careful way that people talk on the TV news. Come to think of it, hadn't he been on TV in the past? Wow--not only did we get visitors, but one of them was probably famous!
According to this Dr. Nambu, he and the other scientists were there to investigate "seismic activity"--stuff to do with earthquakes. The first two days they spent on the island, drilling holes in the ground and checking things with a bunch of weird-looking instruments. I offered to help them carry their gear, for the change of pace, and to satisfy my own curiosity.
The night of the second day, at the dinner table over Baachan's best cooking, the professor announced that he'd like to borrow a boat and do some tests on the ocean floor in the shallow areas to the east of us, and did Toochan know of anyone that was really familiar with the area...?
I saw my chance and jumped at it so fast that I nearly knocked the table over. "I'm your man," I said. "Me'n the guys have done a lot of scuba diving out by that area, and I know it inside and out--all the currents, all the landmarks, all the types of fish and sea life you could find there..."
"Ryu," my father growled at me. "The professor was probably thinking of someone older--"
"Oh sure, I'm only thirteen, but I can also pilot the large boat better'n most of our guys. You said so yourself! And I do know the area, and you have enough guys to handle the haul tomorrow. And at the very least, I can haul equipment for these scientists. I bet I can hold just as intelligent a conversation as any of the fishermen."
Toochan didn't change expression, but his cheeks turned pink. I didn't know if he would smile--he knew I was right--or whap me for being a smartass.
The professor came to my rescue before I could find out. "If you have no objection to taking him away from his work...." We'd shared some small talk about the sea life in the area, and I liked the way he listened and thought over everything, instead of blowing off what I said like all the older guys usually did. Maybe I'd made some impression on him.
Toochan thought for a minute, then sighed. "Truth be told, I'd trust Ryu with the party boat first before anyone else. Just as long as he doesn't cause you any trouble with that swelled head of his." I got the evil eye along with that, and smiled sheepishly.
"Now as far as the compensation..." The two of them started talking money for fuel and renting the boat. I ate and listened until I thought I would explode. When I couldn't stand it anymore, I went outside and ran the two blocks or so to the beach where we usually play football. There, under the stars, I started jumping around in a victory dance. Tomorrow, I was gonna have an adventure! YEAH!