“The Village Closest to Heaven” is the Day 24 entry of this 33-day marathon of Shigematsu Kiyoshi’s short stories which make up the Kaim collection, He Who Journeys Eternity.
It’s a tale remembered by an immortal warrior who cannot die no matter if it’s natural causes or through war. He has experienced death in all its forms and yet he always remains the only one untouched by Death and remain to wander the world as the eternal warrior. It’s during one such stop in a village that he sees a people who doesn’t see death as something to fight against but something they’ve accepted as part of their natural order of things.
It’s this acceptance that has made each and every person in this village to live their lives to the fullest each and every day for no one knows if tomorrow their time will come for them to go to “heaven”. It’s a way of living that many nowadays would consider as crazy. Too much do people think that they can fight death and their focus and life has been consumed at doing just that they fail to live a full life. It’s only in the end when their struggle to fight off the inevitable has failed do they finally realized how much of their life they’ve wasted.
There’s a moral to this tale and that’s to live life to the fullest. Enjoy life and do it with those you love and care about. Worrying about things we never really have control over is a waste of the finite time we have.
The Village Closest to Heaven
In this village ringed by jagged mountains, the women give birth to many children.
Five or six is not uncommon. Just the other day, the wife of the village headman gave birth to her tenth child.
“And why do you think that is?” the young fellow asks the traveller, looking down at the snow-blanketed village.
Kaim cocks his head in search of an answer.
Meanwhile, the young man takes something like a piece of crystal candy from a small leather pouch. He pops it into his mouth and says with a laugh, “Because they die right away.”
“Uh-huh. Hardly anybody grows up to be an adult. Most kids die after five or six short summers. Look at the village headman’s wife; she’s lost seven kids already.”
Whether from a genetic problem or a disease endemic to the area, the people of this village have always lived short lives, he says, from way, way back.
“Now that you mention it,” says Kaim, “I haven’t seen any old people here.”
“See what I mean? A few decades ago, I’m told, one person lived to be fifty, but people say that’s the oldest anyone ever got in the whole history of this village.
This is why we give birth to lots of kids – give birth to a lot and lose a lot.
If just one of them lives into adulthood, though, the family line is saved and the village history continues. You see my point?”
The young man is sixteen, as is his wife.
Their first child is due to be born any day now – literally today or tomorrow.
The young man crunches down on the candy in his mouth. “Let’s get going,” he says, and around his wrists he winds the ropes he uses to pull the sled. He hasn’t loaded the sled yet, but dragging it up the steep, snow-covered road is hard work. This, he says, is why the pay is so good.
Only a few days earlier, he lost his good friend and fellow worker, who had been three years his senior. When Kaim happened along, the young man asked him if he would help by pushing the sled from behind until they cleared the pass. Kaim agreed, and they became an instant team.
Kaim circles around to the back of the sled and asks,
“You don’t have any animals to pull the sled?”
“Afraid not,” says the young man. “I know it’s strange, but our horses and cattle and donkeys all die young. You can spend a lot of money at the town market buying an animal, and it’ll keel over before it’s done a lick of work. Finally, the best way is for us humans to plow the fields and pull the sleds ourselves.”
The arms with which the young man himself is pulling the sled are massive, and he forges through the road’s snowy cover with powerful steps.
His fellow worker was stronger still, he says. “He taught me how to pull the sled, how to set rabbit traps, how to build a fire… all the skills I need to live, with all the love he would give to a kid brother. Before I knew it, he was gone.”
People here always die suddenly, he says. “They can be perfectly healthy one minute and drop dead the next. No time for suffering. Just like that. No time to call a doctor. Even if a doctor comes, there’s nothing he can do.”
“Did your friend die that way?”
“Uh-huh. He was shoveling the snow that piled up overnight, clearing the road, when he dropped dead. By the time we ran over to help him, he was gone. That’s how it always is. Always. That’s how they die. Grown-ups, kids… everyone.”
“And you, too, then…”
“I guess so. Nobody knows when the moment is coming. It might be decades from now, or it could be tomorrow…”
After this cool pronouncement, the young man turns to look at Kaim and, pointing to his own chests, says with a smile, “Or maybe even now.”
The smile is genuine, without a hint of despair or bitterness toward the cruelty of his fate.
“Aren’t you afraid to die?” Kaim starts to ask him but stops himself. It’s a stupid question, he decides, and one that he is not qualified to ask.
Where could a man burdened with eternal life find appropriate words to speak to a man burdened with the threat of sudden death?
Kaim and the young man keep dragging the sled up the steep mountain path. Their destination is the lake beyond the pass. The young man’s job calls for him to cut ice from the surface of the frozen lake and transport it back to the village.
“We in the village call the like the ‘Spring of Life’.
If you trace the source of the water that bubbles out of the ground here and there in the village, you will always wind up at the Spring of Life.”
Kaim nods silently.
“The ice from the Spring of Life takes forever to melt. That’s why, look, you can even do this…”
Again the young man takes a piece of the crystal candy – or, rather, ice – from his leather pouch and puts it in his mouth.
“It gives you energy. It’s indispensable when doing hard work or for pregnant women or infants. Just put a piece in your mouth and it gives you instant strength.”
The young man offers a piece to Kaim, who nods again in silence.
“We’re really not supposed to give any to outsiders, but you’re special ’cause I’m putting you to work. If I give it to you, though, I want you to help me load the ice on the sled. I can handle it by myself on the way back.”
Kaim silently accepts the ice from the young man, who assures him, “It tastes good, too,” and watches him, smiling. Kaim averts his gaze somewhat and puts the piece in his mouth.
The ice should be nothing but frozen water, but it has a mild sweetness.
Just as Kaim expected.
He spits it out when the young man is not looking.
Poison. I know that taste, thinks Kaim.
The village people are used to this taste, so they think nothing of it. Without a doubt, though, there is poison in the ice.
The long flow of time smoothes over the wounds inflicted by history. The permanently snow-capped peaks make people forget the existence of the wide world on the other side.
The young man calls this lake the Spring of Life, but those who lived far beyond the mountains, at the source of the river that feeds the lake, used to know it as the Pit of Death.
Long, long ago – several hundred years ago – the entire area around the river’s source was polluted with the poisonous metallic outflow from a mine.
The river was filled with dead fish floating belly-up, and the poisonous gas that rose like a mist from the ground killed both the earthbound animals and the birds in the sky.
The forests withered, and the lively town that had grown up with the development of the mine became a deserted ruin.
Nature took many years to recover, but the forests eventually turned green again, which attracted small animals and eventually the larger animals that hunted them.
People, however, never came back, and there was no one left to hand down the story of the tragedy that occurred at the river’s source deep in the mountains.
The only one who knows everything that happened is Kaim, the man who has lived a thousand years.
The young man stands by the frozen lake and takes a nice, satisfying stretch.
“You know,” he says to the traveller, “I sometimes think this village might be the closest one to Heaven in the whole world. Perhaps it’s because we are too close to Heaven that we’re all summoned by the gods early on. Don’t you think that might be true?”
Kaim says nothing in response to this.
Over many years, this lake has accumulated the metallic poison that flowed into it from upstream. And over many years the poison that infiltrated the soil has mingled with the ground water, bubbling up in the spring water with which the villagers slake their thirst.
No one knows the exact chemical makeup of the poison, but at least it does not cause the villagers to suffer until, at the last moment of their lives, the accumulated poison suddenly takes its toll. This may be its one fortunate aspect. On the other hand, this might simply make the misfortune it brings all the more conspicuous.
“Still,” the young man says as he saws off a piece of ice by the shore,
“I do hope that the children my wife and I have will be able to live longer lives – say, if we have five, at least one of them will live long enough to grow up and have kids. That way, for me, it would be like finding some meaning in having been born into this world. It was the same for my father and mother, and my grandparents. They all had lots of kids and mourned the loss of lots of kids but managed to raise one or two to adulthood before they died. That’s what gives our life meaning.”
He wipes the sweat from his brow and puts another piece of ice candy in his mouth.
If I were to tell him everything I know, thinks Kaim, if I were to tell him everything that had been buried in the darkness of history, and if he were to tell the other villagers, the tragedy might not have to be repeated.
The young man says, “When a baby is born here, they ring the village bell. Also when someone dies. The same for both; birth and death are like two sides of the same coin. So there’s no sadness when someone dies. Everybody sees them off with a smile and a wish; ‘You go ahead of us to Heaven and save a good spot there for us.’ Do you understand that sentiment?”
“I do,” says Kaim. “I do.”
“That’s how we’ve always done it; welcoming lots of new lives to the village and sending lots of lives off to Heaven. I’ve never been much of a student, so I don’t know exactly how to put this, but I kind of think maybe ‘the village closest to Heaven’ is a place where life and death are right next door to each other.”
The young man gives Kaim an embarrassed smile at the sound of his own words.
“Maybe it’s because I’m about to have a kid of my own that I’m starting to think about these complicated things.”
“No, that’s fine, I see exactly what you mean,” Kaim says.
The moment the words leave his mouth,
a bell sounds from the foot of the hill -
several long, slow rings.
“That’s it!” exclaims the young man. “My child has been born!”
He dips his head and says again, as if savoring the sound of his own words, “My child!”
While the bell is rung likewise for births and deaths, the young man says, the sound in each case is subtly different. When a young villager learns to tell the two apart, he or she is considered to be an adult.
“I hope this one lives a long time…” the young man says, choking with the flood of emotions that show on his face, but then he goes on as if to negate his own hopes for the future;
“Either way, whether it lives a long time or not, my child has now been born into this world. That’s all that matters. I’m so happy, so happy…”
Eyes full of tears, he turns a beatific smile on Kaim.
Still smiling, he collapses where he stands.
Kaim lays the young man’s corpse on the sled and returns to the village.
As the young man said, the villagers accept his death with the same smiles they had for the birth of his baby.
Death is not a time for sorrow. It simply marks whether one has been called to Heaven earlier or later.
The young man’s wife takes an ice candy from the leather pouch he has left behind and places it gently into the baby’s mouth.
“I want you to grow up to be strong and healthy,” she says.
“Daddy is saving a wonderful place for you up in Heaven. But go there slowly, slowly… and until you go to Heaven, I want you to grow up here in the village till you’re nice and big.”
Her words have the gentle tone of a lullaby.
Kaim says nothing. If he is to stand unflinchingly for what is right, his silence may be a crime. But, burdened with eternal life, Kaim knows how suspect the “right” can be. Throughout history, people have fought and wounded and killed each other in the name of what they declared to be “right”. By comparison, the look on the dead young man’s face is tranquility itself.
The “village closest to Heaven” is filled with happiness indeed.
The baby starts to cry, its loud wailing like a celebration of the beginning of it’s own life, however short that life is likely to be.
Kaim leaves the village with a smile on his face.
The village bell begins to peal, reverberating with utter clarity through the distant mountains as if to bestow a blessing on the young man who lived life to the fullest with neither resentment nor regret.
And when this too-long life of mine draws to a close,
I’d like to be sent off with the sounds of bells like this if possible.
Because he knows that day will never come, Kaim walks on, never stopping, never looking back.
His long journey is far from over.