HIKOTARO SAT ON THE BEACH, clutching his knees close, and gazed out at the sea. A long, narrow strip of white stretched far away on the gravelly beach, right at the water's edge-the line of shells washed up whenever the surf grew rough.
The early autumn sky was serene, without a cloud. The smell of the sea wafted toward him on the faint breeze. To the left Awaji Island was visible, to the right Shodo Island and two large ships in a row sailing from west to east. Behind them a smaller boat slowly plowed its way through the water.
After his mother died, Hikotaro stopped attending the local temple school and spent most of his time like this, staring out at the sea. Even when it rained, this is where he could be found. What he saw before him was not the sea, though, but his mother's pale, beautiful face. It was hard for him, at thirteen, to believe that she was gone.
He was born August 2 in the third year of Tempo (1837) in the village of Komiya in the province of Harima, on the shores of the Sea of Harima in the Inland Sea. His father died when Hikotaro was still an infant, and he had no memories of him. He and his mother lived alone after that, but several years later his mother, an attractive woman, remarried a man named Kichizaemon from the nearby village of Hamada in Honjo Village. Kichizaemon's wife had died, and he'd been living with his son. Kichizaemon was the captain on a large ship that plied the waters between Hyogo and Edo, and more often than not he was away from home.
Hikotaro felt uneasy at his mother's remarrying, but it turned out his fears were groundless. His stepfather loved him as if Hikotaro were his own child, and was always sure to bring home presents from Edo that were bound to please the boy. His stepbrother too, Unomatsu, was happy to have a younger brother and always looked out for him.
Unomatsu was a happy-go-lucky sort of person and often went out to have fun with friends and didn't come home until late. Worried about his son's future, Kichizaemon had Unomatsu apprenticed to his uncle when he turned sixteen; the uncle was captain of a large vessel that sailed between Osaka and Edo. Unomatsu enjoyed being a sailor, learned his trade quickly, and in three years rose to the rank of second officer.
Whenever Hikotaro's stepfather and stepbrother came back from a voyage, they brought with them the smell of the sea, and after days spent in the brilliant sun and glare of the water, their faces were sleek and tan.
When Unomatsu returned from a voyage, he would regale Hikotaro and his mother with tales of what he'd seen and done, and would go to the neighbors, too, to recount his adventures. Most of the villagers had never set foot in the outside world and were spellbound by his tales. Secretly jealous of his stepbrother, Hikotaro dreamed of becoming a sailor. His stepfather and stepbrother were so manly, he thought, always taking on the sea, traveling to faraway places and meeting fascinating people. And the pay was certainly part of the attraction.
In the spring of his tenth year, Hikotaro told his mother that he wanted to be a sailor.
"Don't be stupid," his mother said.
To rise from common deckhand to captain takes years of grueling training, she told him, and when it storms at sea, life belowdecks is a living hell-the sea shows no mercy when it comes to swallowing up human life. Every time his stepfather and stepbrother left, she prayed they would return safely. "Two people is more than enough for me to worry about," she said, frowning.
"I'd like you to work in a shipping agency in Hyogo," she said. "That's why you have to go to the temple school and learn to read and write and calculate with an abacus."
Thinking that her explanation made sense, Hikotaro applied himself more than ever to his studies at school.
Three years passed, and in the beginning of March Hikotaro's cousin on his mother's side pulled into harbor in his small ship and stopped by the house. He was on his way to Marugame with nine passengers from Edo who were going to visit the Kompira Shrine in Shikoku.
"I'll take you with me," his cousin said.
"My mother won't allow it," Hikotaro replied. "She hates ships." But his cousin promised he would take Hikotaro to the Kompira Shrine and nowhere else. Finally his mother relented and Hikotaro went on board.
When the ship began to pull away, he could barely contain his excitement, for it was the first time he'd ever left his village. They passed right by Shodo Island, the one he could always see from the beach, wended their way among numerous other islands, and arrived at the harbor at Marugame. Hikotaro and his cousin saw the Kompira Shrine, then went to Miyajima, where they visited the famous Itsukushima Shrine.
On the return voyage they dropped off the passengers at Muronotsu, then returned to Hamada. Hikotaro's mother hugged him tight and told him she'd never let him go again.
Later that same day she collapsed. Hikotaro had gone to the neighbors to tell them all about his trip to the Kompira Shrine and Itsukushima Shrine, when a man from the neighborhood ran in and said his mother had taken ill. Hikotaro had just been talking with her and couldn't believe it. He raced home.
His mother was in a coma when he arrived. The doctor was already there and said she'd had a stroke; he'd prepared some medicine, but she had already lost consciousness. Her joy at Hikotaro's return had been too great a strain, and she'd burst a blood vessel. Hikotaro ran to the local shrine to pray, but four days later, on the eighteenth of May, his mother died.
Hikotaro's stepfather and stepbrother were out at sea, so it was left to him, at the age of thirteen, with help from his maternal grandmother, to make the preparations to lay his mother to rest. Following tradition, they laid her body in a large washtub filled with water whose temperature was adjusted by adding hot water (instead of normal bathwater, which started out hot and was adjusted by having cold water added), and as they bathed the corpse for burial, Hikotaro was racked with sobs.
They bound his mother's knees with rope so she was in a sitting position, and placed her in an upright coffin, which was then lowered outside from the veranda. Holding an incense burner, Hikotaro joined the funeral procession.
The procession headed down a path through the cotton fields, where the flowers were just beginning to blossom, to the communal graveyard. The coffin was lowered into the hole that had been dug, dirt was filled in and a large stone placed on top. Hikotaro knelt at the grave and wept loudly.
That night, he joined his relatives as, torches in hand, they went back to the graveyard. This, too, was part of tradition, done to make sure that the deceased had not come back to life and was not tapping on the inside of the coffin. But the grave was silent.
His grandmother and the others sobbed, saying over and over how very sad it was, their hands clasped together in prayer. Hikotaro couldn't say a thing.
Half a month later his stepfather came home. Returning by ship from Edo to Hyogo, he'd received the letter informing him of his wife's death. Kichizaemon was beside himself with grief. He dressed in mourning for the hundred-day period and spent his time shut in his house, lamenting.
Ten days had passed now since the mourning period ended, and Hikotaro's relatives gathered for a meal. His stepbrother had also returned home. Hikotaro couldn't stand being at home now that his mother was gone, and day after day he went to the beach to gaze out at the sea. Sometimes he would make his way down the path through the cotton fields, now covered with white flowers, to the graveyard, where he would kneel for a long while beside his mother's grave.
In the sea to the east the sails of a