Fiction

Icing and salt

AFTER THE INITIAL impact, Eiji's feet slide backwards, carving tracks through the salted clay until his toes grip the straw bales at the edge of the ring. Everything stops, as if he has thrown out an anchor. His skin is wet with sweat. Cameras flash at the edge of his vision, and the air shudders with the cheers of ten thousand people.

The two wrestlers pause. Their bellies jam against each other and their chests heave. Fat undulates across the muscles in their backs and thighs. Their cauliflower ears are mashed together. The sweet stink of his opponent's perfumed hair fills Eiji's nostrils. He cannot see very much, just flashes of colour. He concentrates on the position of his hands. One grips his opponent's belt behind the man's kidney but the other is flailing in space, trying to grab hold of something.

Four seconds have elapsed since the bout began. Eiji has only a few moments left to decide whether to throw the fight.

 

EIJI'S EYES ARE closed behind an eye mask. He cannot see the dawn light seeping round the edge of the curtains but he can guess the time from the faint clatter of the first trains rattling toward Ryogoku Station, three blocks south. The stable master doesn't require him to be up for another two hours but he can't get back to sleep. He lies on his futon, limbs flung out in a star shape, belly rising and falling, bare feet poking from an enormous lilac futon comforter. His fingertips idly trace the bumps in the tatami mats.

Strapped up with white tape, his shoulder is sore where it struck the floor of the National Stadium at the end of yesterday's bout, but he is unconcerned; he is still young enough that injuries heal quickly. The slow-motion replay confirmed that his opponent struck the floor a fraction of a second before him; the backward pivot throw – utchari – is a crowd-pleaser, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat, and spectacular to watch. That he nearly lost doesn't matter: he posted his eighth win of the fifteen-day event, and that is what is important. He is guaranteed promotion at the next tournament in Osaka, even if he loses today. His career has just taken a huge step forward. But he still can't sleep.

Eiji gives up and rips the eye mask off with a sigh, farting loudly. Hauling himself up, he kicks off the comforter. He barks through the closed door of his room at the apprentice appointed by the stable master to be his personal servant.

'Oi! Tea!'

Startled, the kid cries out apologetically and his footsteps go thudding down the corridor.

Since his promotion last year to the maku-uchi division, Eiji has joined the top five per cent of professional sumo wrestlers and now has his own room a world away from the desperation of the trainees' communal dormitory. The distant clink of crockery downstairs in the kitchen tells him the junior wrestlers are awake and preparing the meal that all in the stable will consume after morning training. Other new recruits will be training by now, having risen in the freezing pre-dawn to steal a few minutes in the practice ring before scurrying out to buy cabbage and onions and tofu for the chanko pot.

Eiji sits cross-legged on the tatami, staring at the list of scheduled bouts for the final day of the tournament. He has never wrestled the man he will meet today but, although Eiji is less experienced, he knows he can take him.

His adversary must agree; he has offered Eiji money to take a dive.

The opponent is ten years Eiji's senior, and his body will not hold up much longer. The older wrestler has been moving up and down the ranks of the maku-uchi division for years without winning consistently enough to crack the ceiling to champion status. Small, muscular and quick, he can outmanoeuvre many of the slower, fatter wrestlers but he lacks the bulk to resist the best wrestlers, who are both large and fast.

Eiji examines his opponent's record for the tournament so far: seven wins and seven losses. If the man loses today he will be demoted for the next tournament, and if he drops out of maku-uchi to the juryo division below, his salary and status will plummet. Now thirty, he has been competing in the maku-uchi division for a decade and Eiji knows a return to the junior ranks would be humiliating for a man his age. His longevity has made him popular among sumo fans – more so than Eiji – and if he falls to juryo he's likely to have no option but to retire and save face.

Eiji lies back down on top of his crumpled comforter, arms crossed behind his head, and stares at the ceiling.

The moral implications of the offer do not bother him and he doesn't give a damn about his opponent's career. But there are other practicalities to consider. He worries about how he will be treated by the man's fans, other wrestlers and the media if he terminates the veteran's career this afternoon. Eiji has already done enough to win promotion for the next tournament. To beat him when the older wrestler needs only one more victory to avoid demotion may be seen as somehow...uncharitable. To be branded an upstart might cost him the likeability factor he'll need to get invited to appear on television variety shows. But an accusation of cheating could end his career. What puzzles him most is the suspicion that many of his supporters, even the stable master, seem content for him to lose today.

There is a quiet knock at the door. He grunts once in reply and slides the match list out of sight, beneath the futon. He sits up and gazes at nothing as his valet enters and places a cup of steaming tea on a small wooden platter. Eyes on the floor, the boy withdraws. Eiji ignores him.

Eiji thinks of his home in Tottori City, just west of the sand dunes that stretch along the northern shore of the Sea of Japan. He is not homesick; he thinks of home to remind himself how much better off he is here, how far he has come. Tottori is the stick he beats himself with. He doesn't visit home much these days, but each time he returns he finds Tottori has bled out a little more. Each time, heavy steel shutters are drawn down over more of the shops that line the main street. Each time, Sanyo has announced another downsizing of its local factory; much of its production has moved to China, where costs are lower. His old schoolmates – those that haven't already left for better prospects in Osaka, two hours to the south – like to be seen with him in the local bars, but after he leaves for Tokyo he knows they turn the channel to the baseball or soccer. They would sooner listen to their iPods and play video games than watch sumo, which to them is as irrelevant as the imperial family. Sumo isn't cool anymore, hasn't been since Chiyonofuji retired, when Eiji was not yet two.

Eiji lifts the hot tea to his lips and sips before placing it carefully back on the platter. Elsewhere in the building, other wrestlers are stirring. A toilet flushes at the end of the corridor and a door slams.

For the first time in years, perhaps for the first time ever, Eiji wonders what his father would think. His father is a farmer who grows nashi pear, sometimes some watermelon too. He adores sumo, is addicted to the national sport for all the ritual and pomp that adorns it, the icing on a magnificent cake. During tournaments, his mother switches the television to NHK in the early evening even before his father returns home, wizened and smelling of fertiliser, so he can hear the broadcast from the front door as he wipes the mud from his boots.

Eiji preferred basketball to sumo at junior high but didn't excel at anything and had no aspirations. By the time he was fifteen he stood five feet nine and weighed eighty kilograms. When a recruiting agent from a Tokyo stable insisted he could be good at something, it was a novel concept. The decision was easy. Sumo wrestlers on television looked dignified and noble, and he knew some of them got to marry singers and actresses. And in the end, sumo just looked better than the prospect of life in Tottori. His father was ecstatic, like a giddy fan drunk on shochu.

Months later, his father's gap-toothed grin flashed into his mind as he sat on the earth, sweat streaming down his face, his legs spread wide. Older wrestlers pushed down on his back until his chest touched the earth and the tendons along the back of his legs erupted in flame. The iced cake Eiji's father so admired was made with salt.

 

JUST AFTER SUNRISE the training room has the air of a jail cell: dirt floor, windowless walls, dim light. The straw bales of the practice ring embedded in the floor in the centre of the room are old and discoloured. Four sets of rusted dumbbells lie against the wall, and a timber pillar juts from the floor in the corner like a torture chamber prop.

Eiji arrives at the practice ring before any of the other senior wrestlers have descended from their rooms. During tournaments the morning training session is light; the stable master prefers the wrestlers take it easy and nap before their bouts in the late afternoon. After two-dozen leg lifts, Eiji spends a few minutes whipping the backs of four junior wrestlers with a bamboo cane as they take turns shoving each other around the ring. He bellows at them to thank him for toughening them up, and they comply in muffled grunts. He hits them again. Their coarse black belts are filthy from rolling on the dirt floor, and their sweaty chests and shoulders are coated with dirt. Their straggly hair hangs loose, not yet long enough to tie up into a topknot. Some are barely fifteen. They are still pristine and undamaged, features blurred and indistinct like soft clay figurines yet to be sculpted. Bellies have not filled out and hardened. Noses are not yet broken, and there is hardly a dislocated shoulder among them.

Eiji doesn't recognise himself in them, although he was one of them barely four years ago. He has shed his skin, metamorphosed, and his memory has thinned out, fading like a quilt washed too many times. He now inflicts as much torture upon the youngsters as he received, because he is expected to. The memories of his apprenticeship are as faded as the cigarette burns the stable master left on his thighs.

Eiji started winning when he managed to disconnect from the pain and go somewhere else in his head. There was nothing spiritual about it. When the stable master struck him over the head with a beer bottle, he chose to feel nothing, just to get through the training session without puking. The following day he was unaware of the welts the stable master had raised on his back when he pushed an older, senior wrestler out of the ring twice in successive practice bouts. When he did it a third time the air tasted different; the universe had shifted a little. He felt he was sliding to a dimension in which indifference to pain and humiliation lit the path to a better place. Within eighteen months he had taken the juryo division championship and advanced to the maku-uchi division.

'You know,' said the stable master, 'I never actually thought you'd make it this far.' He was almost sheepish.

'I know,' said Eiji.

A former yokozuna, the stable master has lost little weight since his retirement twenty years before, and what muscle he once carried has dissolved into fat. He is deflating slowly, as if through a tiny leak somewhere on his body. His tightly curled perm makes him look like a gangster; all he needs are the mirrored sunglasses and white shoes. He tells a visiting television crew that physical punishment of young wrestlers is part of tradition, and necessary to instill spirit. One day the stable master crammed a handful of sand into Eiji's mouth, called him a lazy sonofabitch, and walloped his calf muscles with a baseball bat until Eiji could not walk and had to be dragged to the dormitory. He lay on his futon waiting, wondering if he would know when spirit had been instilled.

 

AT EIGHT, GAO appears in the practice room and the trainees scurry from the room like cubs that fear being eaten by an older member of the pride. Misery seems to drip from their naked backs, their pain lingering in the air like mist.

Gao is from Mongolia. His full name is longer but neither Eiji nor anyone else in the stable can pronounce it. At twenty-one, he is a year older than Eiji but entered the stable at the same time and reached maku-uchithree months before him. Eiji likes him because he has worked harder than most of the Japanese recruits, tolerated more abuse and doesn't complain as much. He has a robotic determination that Eiji admires. Like Eiji, Gao cannot afford to fail at sumo. There is nothing to go home to.

Three years earlier, Gao had been baffled when one of their fellow trainees, a Japanese kid, had buckled under the humiliation of the daily bullying and deserted the stable. They had woken before dawn to find his futon rolled up and his belongings gone.

'Why would he want to leave?' he asked Eiji, perplexed.

Eiji shrugged. 'The training, this lifestyle.' He gestured around vaguely with his hand. 'Couldn't take it, I guess.'

Gao shook his head slowly and turned his black eyes on Eiji. 'It's pretty good here. He should try spending a little time in my village in Mongolia.'

Eiji looks up at Gao, remembering how spindly he had seemed when he first arrived at the stable. Nearly two metres tall and now weighing more than a hundred and eighty kilograms, he reminds Eiji of the colossal statue of a guardian deity he once saw at the gate of a Buddhist temple, scowling down at mortal visitors with fists clenched. His smooth white belly hangs out over his belt but is rock-hard to the touch. Gao spends hours in the weights room after the wrestlers' post-lunch nap.

'One day I call my friends in Mongolia,' he says, 'tell them all to come here and be sumo wrestlers, then we take over the place.' His face is impassive for a moment, his eyes hooded, then he barks out a huge laugh. His eyes seem to disappear between his eyebrows and cheeks, and Eiji can see the back of his throat, pink.

'So how much has he offered you?' Gao's voice drops a notch but is not quite a whisper. Gao does nothing quietly.

Eiji frowns and glances around at the door. They are alone. He briefly considers feigning ignorance, but Gao's black eyes are boring into him. Eiji drops his gaze and mutters a reply.

'Hmm.' Gao smiles again and tilts his head to one side, as if mildly surprised. 'Sounds about the going rate. It's no insult, at least. He's taking you seriously.'

Eiji wonders if he should be pleased.

'What if somebody finds out?' Eiji asks.

Gao seems astonished. 'You've got to make it look convincing, haven't you? Then nobody will say anything.'

'But people will know,' Eiji says.

'They'll suspect. They always do. But they still won't say anything if you do it right. It's important to pretend. Everybody has too much to lose. Besides' – Gao shrugs – 'it can't hurt to have somebody owe you one, in case you're in a tight spot yourself one day.'

Eiji stares at the Mongolian's back as Gao lumbers away.

 

UNDER THE LIGHTS at the National Stadium, Eiji's adversary has both hands on Eiji's belt, but can't push him backwards any further while the younger wrestler's toes remain jammed against the straw bales at the edge of the ring. The kimono-clad referee hovers around the pair, egging them on, his shrill voice cutting through the storm of noise from the crowd. The red and white tassels on his fan swing back and forth, and his black gauze hat bobs in the air like a tethered bird. The two men remain locked together, immobile. Each second drags out, longer than the last. Eiji senses his opponent is waiting for him.

Eiji's eyes focus for a moment and, over the shoulder of his opponent, he can make out the portraits of past yokozuna, most of them long dead, hanging high on the far wall above the highest row of spectators. They glare contemptuously down at him, bellies thrust forward, shoulders pinned back. Eiji shuts his eyes and decides this will hurt less than other things he has had to go through.

He is going to have to make this look good.

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