April 17th 2014
Wooden Knees takes a Walk
The clacking branches of the leafless trees beat out the kind of tune that the old man the local kids called Wooden Knees might have made if, before he followed his father inevitably into rice farming, he had decided to take up tap-dancing instead. As it was, Masanori Kobayashi paused, put his hands on the accursed parts of his body and looked up at the grey sky with something like trepidation.
It was a little late in the year, but he knew a stand of red pine deep in the woods where he’d been claiming the sparse crop of matsutake mushrooms as his own since he was barely more than a sapling himself. None of the other farmers knew its location, but the fungi he could sell for as much as twenty thousand yen apiece came late in the year because of the orientation of the hill. No one ever thought to search this deep into the autumn, when snow was lying on the ground just over the hill, but while he despised the taste of the nasty, musty little things himself, the profits from his secret crop would keep old Wooden Knees drunk for the rest of the winter.
But the weather was turning. It was December sixth, as the calendar read, but closer to New Year by the look of the sky, almost groaning above him as it ached to dump its load of accumulated moisture down upon his head. Masanori glanced upslope towards the last crest before he reached his secret spot, wondering whether it might be better to cut his losses and run. Getting caught out here in heavy snow didn’t bear thinking about.
For a few minutes he stood in contemplation, glancing upslope for a while, then looking back the way he had come, through a skeletal glade of leafless trees, the brown curls of their shed skin heaping up on either side of the trail he had made with his heavy boots and heavier bag. He could be home and stretched out under his heated table in a couple of hours, a glass of sake in front of him and some quiz show playing on the television. But if he soldiered on for just another hour there could be a basket of money sitting inside the front door.
In the end it came down to simple economics. This was almost certainly his last foraging trip of the year. A good crop now and he could rest easy for the winter. His mouth curled up in a thin, wrinkly sneer as he considered the other uses for the money.
‘A reward,’ he muttered, in that reedy whine that ended conversations quickly. ‘A little reward for my efforts.’
He’d make this one count, put in an extra half an hour to really go over the ground, then splash out on one of the younger girls who hung around at the end of the shopping arcade late on Saturday nights. The younger ones wouldn’t touch an old bag of bones like him unless he could pay way over the going rate, but even the prettiest girls had their price, and perhaps if he took a trip to the pharmacy beforehand he could get something that would make him able to do a little more than just leer as they took their clothes on and off. Yes, he thought, it’s time for old Wooden Knees to do some proper knocking.
Feeling a little bulb of arousal bouncing around down in his pants, he slung his bag back over his shoulder and started up towards the rise.
His legs started to shake and his knees to knock together long before he reached the crest of the hill, but huffing and puffing like a old steam locomotive he finally made it, leaning against a tall sapling to catch his breath. The stand of pine was just ahead, and hopefully with it several dozen litres of sake and a couple of lustful nights reliving his youth.
He started off again, stumping through the trees towards a large boulder poking out of the ground on his left that marked the edge of the red pines. Just beyond it, also benefiting from the prolonged warmth of the hillside’s westward-facing orientation, was a thicket of bamboo. It stretched around the area of pine, a natural barricade, making this the only way in.
Spotting a small hump in the undergrowth at the foot of the nearest pine, Masanori grunted in satisfaction, dropped his bag down on the rock and got down on his knees to brush away the pine needles and humus beneath.
The flat head of a matsutake mushroom peered up at him. ‘Huh,’ old Wooden Knees muttered. ‘A hand job and a litre of sake to wash it down with. Good start.’
As he cupped a hand underneath it to work it out of the ground, something moved in the undergrowth to his left. He caught a little blur of movement out of the corner of his eye.
Masanori froze. A bear, maybe? It was rare that Japanese brown bears attacked hikers unless they were suckling young, but breeding season came in the spring and the summer had been plentiful, so unless it had some kind of disease…
Behind him came the crunch of a footfall, lighter than a bear but too heavy for a deer. Masanori let out a long, slow breath. Could someone have followed him? He cursed under his breath. ‘If that’s one of you, you fuckers, after my crop…’
A sudden zipping sound, like a jacket being undone in a hurry, came from just beyond his shoulder. His head jerked around, his vision blurring as his old eyes took a moment to catch up, then something heavy and black was swinging towards him out of a background of bare forest. Like wings it seemed to open out to fill his whole world, and then something was closing over his head, drawing in around his neck. Masanori scrabbled at his face and tried to roll backwards, but strong hands on his back shoved him forward, his knees knocking together with that familiar wooden clump.
He pushed his hands down on the cool, grainy turf and started to rise.
Something heavy struck the back of his head and his senses switched off like the last electric bulb in a dark hallway.