In 18th-century Britain, wealthy aristocrats would pass the time and show off to their friends by surrounding their palatial country estates with contemplative architectural monuments. One such structure was the hermitage… …complete with an actual hermit living in it. Narrated by real-life historians Colin Fanning and Gordon Campbell, The Hermit is a comical take on one of More Info »
The second-born son in his family, Shōji showed artistic propensities from an early age, the first element binding him to his inevitable path. He would occasionally scratch figures or patterns into the earthen floor inside their shack in the evenings by firelight. This etching, Father did not particularly mind too much, though it certainly did not thrill him. At least the boy is learning some dexterity with his hands, a good attribute for a woodcutter’s son. It was another inclination that young Shōji exhibited which infuriated him.
In the morning, after the embers of the hearth had cooled down, Shōji would occasionally fish out twigs of charcoal and doodle on ‘discarded’ scraps of wood, the backside of pelts, or even the walls themselves — any semi-flat surface he could reach or get his hands on. Naturally, the charcoal was dirty and left residue in more places than Shōji’s intent, but that is not what incensed Father. There was something deeper, some sort os instinctual repulsion that stemmed from a source beyond his understanding. In fact, if one were to have asked him, as Mother once did, why it so upset him he would be at a loss for words and all the more enraged because of it. That would have forced him to resort to the only other means of communication with which he was anywhere close to proficient, his fists.
Father and Brother were typically gone the majority of the daylight hours, cutting and gathering wood to be picked up by the village cart on its weekly trek into the city. Mother made the most of the light as well, either tending the modest garden beside their shack or venturing into the forest to gather nuts and berries, bracken, mushrooms, or herbs; the only ways she had at her disposal to contribute to the household. While she naturally brought Shōji along as an infant, once he had the wherewithal to look after himself she would simply leave him at home to fend for himself until whomever made it home first. It was while they — Father and Brother specifically — were away that Shōji’s artistic drive was able to assert itself fully.
Mother loved his drawings and, despite Father’s abhorrence, she allowed him to use the outside wall of the shack, facing the garden and her as she worked it, as a repository for the effects of his compulsion. Since the two of them were the only ones to see the outer face of the shack during daylight hours, she figured it was a better outlet than inside, where Father would certainly find the scrawling and become enraged.
As if counting the syllables of a poem, Father and Brother would return home just as the last arc of sun would sink beneath the wooded valley peaks to the west, blanketing Shōji’s ‘mural’ in a cloak of well-timed darkness. It was for this reason that Father never really noticed what he had been doing to the outside of their shanty for some time. They would return at this time without exception, for years; that is, until there was an exception.
It looked almost like a rendering of the Pure Land or some other mandala a pilgrim might venture out to gaze and meditate upon in a far away temple. In fact, that is exactly what the defacements called into Father’s mind when, after years of ignorance, he returned early enough to catch the outside of the shack illuminated by the setting sun of a long summer’s day. Shōji! Shōji! Where is that rat?! Father stomped about the exterior of their domicile in a fit of rage. He had injured himself chopping wood in the forest. Brother had to help him hobble back to the shack. The pain and embarrassment, combined with the loss of a full day’s income, had already poised his temperament. Adding to this the sight of his greatest irritant resulted in a highly volatile and dangerous disposition.
Shōji was inside, hiding behind some planks of wood as Father approached the entrance. Mother threw herself before him, begging mercy upon their youngest, and he beat her until she collapsed before him silent, though breathing. They kept a fire burning just outside the shack, both to smoke fungi, vegetables, fruits, and meats when they had it, and to dispose of the vast amounts and sizes of scrap wood that inevitably accumulated by Father’s trade. Using his bare hands, Father began a frantic attempt to burn the place down, flinging glowing embers onto the walls and thatching. But nothing seemed to catch. Perhaps the fact that its walls were already inundated with vast amounts of charcoal is what prevented the shack’s ignition. Whatever the case, it held out long enough for Brother to return with half of the village men to subdue and restrain Father before he could do worse, and they took him back with them. Father did not return.
The next day, one of the village elders came and talked alone with Mother. Days passed. Some of the villagers stopped by the hut occasionally with food and to offer any support they could spare. During this time Shōji grew as close to Brother as he had ever been and learned that he shared Father’s opinion of him and his inclinations, though maybe not quite to the same extreme. He also felt contempt toward Shōji, holding him responsible for Father’s disappearance.
Father returned after three weeks and he was a changed man. He never raised his hand, nor voice, again and no longer seemed to talk quite as much as he had before. He never discussed where he had gone for those three weeks.
Father began trying to include Shōji in his and Brother’s daily routine, but he was more of a liability in the forest than a help. Shōji made attempts to strip and prepare the trunks for transport, but he really was not all that good at those tasks either. They did eventually find that his artistic talent transferred to wood as well; and for some reason this, like the floor etching, did not seem to bother Father in the same way the charcoal drawings did. In fact, he encouraged the woodwork in an attempt to deter the drawing, and let him tinker with some of his finer tools as well as others borrowed from neighbors.
Shōji began making small carvings from scrap-wood: animals, warriors of legend, and women that strongly resembled Mother. They would occasionally trade these with traveling merchants for something relatively useful. But Shōji was by no means pulling his weight in the household and things were very tight. They were only going to get worse, for they soon realized a third child was on the way.
One morning just before sunrise, a few months after Sister was born, the village cart pulled up to their shanty to load up the previous week’s haul. This morning Father and the driver spoke more than usual. In fact, they had been doing so quite a bit recently, especially on the days that they had cherry wood to load onto the cart for some reason. Father asked him something about certain arrangements being made and the driver seemed to indicate the affirmative. Once they had finished loading up the cart, Father turned to Shōji and instructed him to get in as well. He told Shōji that they simply could not bear to support him there with a new mouth to feed. You’ll be going to stay in the city with the man who buys the cherry wood. You’ll be much happier there anyway. Brother stood by Father’s side and Mother stood in their shack’s doorway, suckling the infant. They all gradually shrank behind him as the cart bumped and plodded down the path, then turned and brought the woods between them as it snaked down the long valley road toward the distant city.
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