Seven Knots

     Seven knots for the souls of the living. Five for those of the dead.
     The knots are tied into strands of raw, light-brown linen. They are distributed to the guests who tie the strands around their necks, forming a rough necklace that must be worn for three days after the dead are put in the tomb.
     It is a kind of democratic necklace, as I see it, making sure the living are stronger than the dead who are trying to pull another living soul down into the dead man’s wake. Sanae’s mother made the necklaces the night before, in the small and very traditional village of Miara on the island of Ishigaki, at the southern end of the Japanese archipelago.
     The houses are large but modest, made with wood on the inside and thick concrete on the outside, to hold against the typhoons that blow across the island every year. The village is next to the ocean and markers are set on the streets leading down the coral beach, measuring the feet above sea level and the corresponding danger from a tsunami.
     In the backyard of their home is a fiberglass boat with an outboard motor, sitting on a trailer. It has not been taken out to sea for a long time. The father had been a very good fisherman and a master of the Okinawan three-stringed instrument called the shamisen.
     Inside their home is a traditional interior of tightly-woven reed mats on a wood floor and no furniture other than a low table. Guests sit cross-legged, the old and the western get a low, cushioned stool that requires less dexterity in the knees. Two walls are completely open to the outside during celebrations and ceremonies.
     I came for the first prayer service after her father’s death — we just missed him — and now for the seventh and final service. The ceremonies are performed by a Shinto priest in front of a kind of altar.
     The low table, used normally for meals and entertaining visitors, forms the base of a big display of somber decorations, including artificial flowers. At its apex is a photo of the father in traditional Japanese garb. A rectangular, clay pot holds sand in which incense sticks must burn constantly during the seven weeks.
     It is there that each guest comes to place an envelope with a contribution, kneel, light a stick of incense and make a silent prayer.
     Considered a member of the family, I am seated cross-legged within a couple feet of the monk, a tall, angular character who, head clean-shaven, strides into the room with a black, canvas briefcase. As does every person who comes in, he bows to the women who are on the south or left hand side as you walk in and then to the men who are on the right or north side.
      Everyone is clad entirely in black from head to toe, shirts, pants, shoes, and sometimes hats. The last bow is reserved for the only son, who is among the men but slightly apart and closest to the altar.
     The monk — the ‘obo-san’ — sits cross-legged, and pulls out of his bag a small metal bowl, a smaller bell and a hollow wooden instrument in the shape of a fat fish.
     He then pulls out a neatly folded, brown robe that he sets on his left shoulder and pulls across his back as the pleats unfold, until the robe is neatly spread across his back. He carefully folds the the end of the deep sleeve on his wrist, and shakes his arm to make sure the sleeve falls correctly. Last, he pulls out a saffron rope and ties a precise and ornate knot across his chest.
     He is ready.
     The monk starts chanting in deep, non-stop, rhythm in an old language that no one present understands. The chanting is interspersed with strikes on the metal bowl that make a deep and lingering sound, like a gong, followed by quick and repeated strikes on the smaller bell to produce a lighter, tinkling note, bringing to mind a sprite or benevolent spirit.
     Intermittently, the obo-san hits the fat fish with a small beater, emitting a woody tok-tok-tok.
     All together, it is kind of musical composition that combines rhythmic, deep chanting with sounds that evoke the spirits, warnings and incantations that will help guide the dead man’s soul across three rivers where evil wraiths will try to pull him down.
     At the end is a final note from the voice, a long hum that fades slowly, slowly down to nothing. The monk returns the instruments to his bag and turns, bows to the women and then the men, and food is served. It comes on lacquer trays, the monk served first and right away. There are small bowls of soup, vegetables, cucumber and radish.
     The monk makes friendly, social conversation with the son, and accepts on a black, laquer tray a large, white envelope with a bold inscription in black brush strokes, containing payment for the ceremony, somewhere around $400.
     After the first dishes are consumed, the monk is given a clear, plastic container with red, tuna sashimi, that, with a light aside, he stashes in his briefcase. He does the same with the cookies. He stands, bows again, and on the way out, leans his tall frame towards a group of women, all in black, clustered in a corner.
     To their slightly nervous but amused laughter, he urges them to come the next day to a tournament of “groundu goruhu,” or ground-golf, which he has entered. Ground golf is something like croquet, played with big, wooden balls, and is a big deal on the island.
     And with that, the tall monk sweeps out of the room.

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