by Mikkel Aaland
In the early fall of 1982, the relative calm of the ’70s was over, and the Cold War was back in full swing. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and placed deadly SS-20 missiles on the border between the USSR and Western Europe. Under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan, the United States responded with new and more potent weapon delivery systems such as the Trident submarine, the B-1 bomber, and Peacekeeper missiles. Tens of thousands of nuclear missiles were ready to launch. All it would take would be a small spark to ignite the atomic flame that would destroy the world.
At a dinner party in San Francisco, the conversation turned from adventurous tales of the Orient to the apocalypse. After all, in those days, it was a dangerous world. Sometime during our frightful discussion, one of the dinner guests — Juan Li, whom I would come to know well — told us a remarkable story he had heard while traveling in Asia.
“Shinto is Japan’s indigenous religion,” he began.
Most of us nodded yes. I had heard that Shinto was similar to American Indian spirituality, focusing on nature and ancestors.
“Many years ago,” Juan continued, “shortly after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagaski, a Shinto priest had a horrific vision of the end of the world. His spirit was crushed. He became despondent.”
Juan paused for a moment, tugged on his scraggly moustache, and carefully watched our reaction with soft yet intense eyes before continuing.
“But then the priest had another vision, a vision of how to save the world. He was inspired.”
The priest was instructed by God to break an ancient Shinto relic — the Sword of Heaven — into 108 pieces and then encase each piece in stone. The stones — which now were considered kamis, or gods — would take on special powers and become capable of battling the evil that engulfed the world.
Juan explained that, a Shintoist, like the priest, believes that evil results when nature and one’s ancestors are not properly worshipped. Shintoists also believe that gods or spirits dwell inside inanimate objects. A stone, a sword, a jewel, a rainbow — anything that evokes or inspires awe or the divine — can possess power and become a kami. And like the ancient Greeks, the Shintoists have a pantheon of gods to whom they pray.
Followers of the priest, Juan told us, began to place the stones in a protective ring around the world. After each stone was placed, special ceremonies were held during which the priest and his followers left their physical bodies and joined the heavenly gods in the ensuing battle. But the battle was going slowly: at this time only a few of the 108 stone gods had been placed.
“Who told you all this?” someone asked.
“One of the teacher’s disciples, a young Japanese man named Kazz Tagami,” Juan replied.
Juan’s answer satisfied the questioner, but I still had doubts. Stone gods? Out-of-body travel? I liked Juan, and I wanted to believe him, but this was the stuff of fiction, not fact.
“How do you know the story is true?” I asked.
“Well, I just placed a god,” he answered matter-of-factly. “In Taiwan.”
With this revelation of his involvement, my curiosity increased. Could a Shinto priest really save the world? Could a Shinto priest save us from an unthinkable nuclear catastrophe?
Like most of the others in the room, I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s with the bomb and the Cold War as a constant backdrop. In addition, my father was a scientist at the Livermore Radiation Laboratory, which in the 1950s became the United States’ major nuclear weapons research facility. Because of the Lab, we knew our town was marked with giant X on Soviet strategic maps. My Livermore classmates and I accepted the idea of nuclear annihilation the same way that other generations accepted plagues, famine, and economic calamity. There was nothing we could do, and yet we had little confidence in the so-called nuclear priests — the politicians, scientists, and military leaders — who were in charge.
The idea that a lone man with magical powers in a far off land could affect this situation seemed far-fetched. Nonetheless, through the years of accumulated despair, a faint hope stirred in my heart. What if his powers were real?
As the evening ended and guests said their good-byes, something compelled me to give Juan my address and to offer my help, even though I really didn’t expect anything to come of it.
“A package arrived for you.” My father looked troubled. As the train slowly departed behind us, I shouldered my camera equipment and luggage to his car. “It caused a lot of confusion at customs: they wanted to hold it.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked wearily. After finishing magazine assignments in West Germany and Czechoslovakia, I was headed to the family home in southern Norway. My father had recently retired from his job in California and was spending part of the year in the house he was born in.
“News travels fast here,” he said in heavily accented English as he squeezed his large frame into the car. “People are already talking.”
As he put the key in the ignition, he wiped his head, thinly covered with strands of white hair.
“Here,” my father finally said, handing me the customs declaration. “What does this mean, ‘One Shinto God’?” I quickly took the packing label from his outstretched hand.
“Where is the package? Did they hold it?”
Starting the car, he turned to me and said, “They didn’t open it. It won’t get us in trouble, will it?”
I had no reason to believe that the package contained anything dangerous or illegal, but how could I be sure? My response was tinged with more than a little false confidence.
“Of course, it won’t get us in trouble.”
“Good,” he said. “It was heavy so I left it at home.”
We drove in silence for a while. The single-lane road, eight kilometers long, wound through forests of evergreens toward the town of Ulefoss and the family house. Occasionally the forests were broken by freshly harvested fields and the traditional red farmsteads of Telemark.
The road widened as we entered the outskirts of town. On our left, a wide river paralleled the road, and except for a family of wild swans, the river was undisturbed. Across the river was dense forest.
Between the road and the river were widely spaced homes. Each plot of land has a name. We passed Odden, which means “Rock Jutting Out into the Water”; Deilevja, “Dividing Inlet”; and Baerland, “Berry Land.” Finally we came to Aaland, “Land by the Water,” a piece of land near a small creek and a river. Like many other rural Norwegians, my grandfather had taken his surname from the name of the land where he was born. My father, born on the same land, also chose the name Aaland.
We crossed the creek and slipped through a narrow opening between my grandfather’s store — where he had made and sold furniture — and the house. As the wheels of the car hit the gravel, they sprayed tiny pebbles into the small courtyard behind the house.
My father turned off the engine and sighed. He stared across the river for a minute to the forest on the far side.
“How’re you enjoying retirement?” I asked, my eyes following his to the forest.
“You mean ‘forced retirement,'” he grunted. His accent was less pronounced as his thoughts abruptly shifted back to America. “Kristian Aaland. Successful scientist. Fired. I feel so useless. This wouldn’t have happened here in Norway. Thirty years of service. Here they have laws. Here they show respect.”
“You saw it coming,” I said gently. “The Lab gave you plenty of signs.”
His downward slide had begun ten years earlier, after I left home for college. The Lab had moved to replace older employees like my father with younger, lower-paid scientists. But after nearly twenty years as an electrical engineer, my father’s grip on his only security in America was so tight that he dug his heels in deep and resisted. Ten years later, he was finally forced out, bitter and disillusioned.
Dad turned to me and spoke sharply. “And you? Flying here and there. Living month-to-month. No wife, no kids. How can you understand what I did?”
He saw the pained look on my face. We had argued about this too many times before. I was 30 years old and between girlfriends. I’d published two books, and managed to make a decent living for ten years selling photographs and articles to magazines in the United States and Europe. I knew he was proud of my survival in a difficult profession, but I also knew that he thought of me as his idealistic oldest child, one who didn’t show enough concern for money and other earthly things. Of course, I thought he showed too much concern for those same material things.
“I don’t know what you are waiting for, son,” he said.
There was a long silence.
“Have you heard from mom?” I finally asked, groping for some neutral ground. Mom was in Livermore, teaching emotionally handicapped children in the public schools system. She was born in Wisconsin and grew up in the U.S., and although she loved Norway, she only accompanied my father to his homeland occasionally, during summer breaks.
“She called this morning. Everything is fine.”
A small fishing boat glided swiftly downstream.
“This sure isn’t Livermore!” I exclaimed, marveling as I always did at the difference between my ancestral home and the tightly placed, nearly identical suburban houses of my California hometown.
“No, it’s not Livermore,” he said, suddenly impatient with our conversation.
“My restless father,” I thought, as he reached for the car door. He rarely sat still for anything or anyone. I glanced to my left and noticed without much surprise that he had begun rebuilding Grandfather’s workshop, a barnlike structure near the water, full of tools and machinery used to make furniture. He’d also started remodeling my Grandfather’s furniture store, an adjacent structure that ran long and narrow from the river to the road.
He hadn’t changed. In Livermore, he had altered our tract home into something so unique that townspeople would drive out of their way to see it. The garage was turned into a workshop; the kitchen, the living room, and dining room were remodeled; and a towering three-story addition, crowned with a sauna, was added in the backyard. Tired of us kids damaging the trees, my father had also made a metal tree by welding together large iron pipes of different widths. Metal roots kept the towering structure from falling, even when my two younger brothers and I and six neighborhood pals hung from it.
And then there was the bomb shelter. He built it in 1962, shortly after the Berlin Wall was erected, the same year as the Cuban missile crisis, and the year we thought the world would end. He’d wanted to build one before, but when President Kennedy publicly suggested that private bomb shelters were good for the country, it became much easier for my father to get the required permits and financing. My father bought half of a Southern Pacific boxcar from a railroad junkyard, disassembled it, and transported it to our front yard. For the next six months, night after night, he welded it together. When he was finished, he hired a crane and an operator to tear up our front lawn and dig a hole 30 feet deep. He then had the same crane lift the assembled boxcar and drop it into the hole. Finally, the whole thing was entombed in concrete.
The shelter was finished in October, just in time for the Cuban crisis. At first the entire family — my parents, my two brothers, and I — slept there, but after a few weeks, when the crisis subsided, everyone else returned upstairs to the house. I remained, and the bomb shelter became my bedroom until I left home for college, eight years later.
“You want to see the package, the Shinto object?” my father asked, peering back at me through the open car window. “Go to your room, unpack, and I’ll bring it to you.”
In the tiny guest room, I stacked my luggage in a corner. I noticed my father’s high school graduation picture hung on the wall. In the picture, he looks just like me: slender with long, straight, blond hair, and a high forehead. He gazes out from behind the round eyeglasses that were popular in the 30s and 40s.
Through the open window, I heard him closing a door, then shuffling across the gravel toward the house. “He’ll want answers,” I thought. “What am I going to tell him?” Then I remembered the letter.
It had arrived two weeks earlier, while I was photographing Germans in a bar for a magazine article. It was sent to me care of my friend Wolfgang and was written in clear, legible handwriting — but in an English so awkward that I had to read everything twice. Now, I pulled it out of my suitcase to refresh my memory.
“I am a friend of Juan Li,” it began.
“He gave the letter that you have a interest to put god. I know that everything prepares by God, even in each our meeting. I am very glad that God bless you by your interest in this putting. The story of the putting is very long, I will explain you someday….”
The writer ended his letter by asking whether he should send the god to West Germany or to Norway. It was simply signed “Kazz.”
I had written back, acknowledging receipt, saying that the “god” should be sent to Norway.
As my father entered the room, I put the letter away, still not sure what to say.
The “god” was in his hands. It was packaged in cardboard, which was covered with Japanese symbols. As I reached for it I noticed that it cost 6,000 yen — more than $30 — to send by airmail. I tore the cardboard away. Inside, a bricklike object was wrapped in white cloth imprinted with more symbols. There was a letter, but I folded it and put it down next to me.
“Well?” My father stepped back into the doorway. I lifted the god up and down. It weighed as much as a small barbell. What part of the curious story would he believe? I’d never even heard him use the word “God” before. I placed the god on the floor.
What did Juan tell me about the project? I took a deep breath, struggling to remember details.
“Be patient,” I told my father. “I know this will all sound strange to you.”
He leaned heavily against the door, clearly not patient at all. I spoke quickly, first describing the dinner party, then the Shinto priest’s doomsday vision, then his “instructions from God,” and finally the priest’s act of breaking the Sword of Heaven into 108 pieces and encasing the pieces in stone. I told my father the little I knew about Shinto, and when I was finished I picked up the god.
“And that is a piece of the sword?” my father asked.
“Go on,” my father said.
“That’s all, at least all I can remember.”
“But who sent you the package?”
“A man named Kazz. I don’t know much about him either. He is a friend of Juan, the guy at the dinner party who told the story and got me involved.”
“And what do you know about Juan?” my father asked.
“Not much,” I confessed. “He travels a lot. He’s very knowledgeable about the Orient. I think he sells antiques for a living. But I’m not really sure. I just met him.”
“So we have a story you heard from someone you briefly met, who heard it from someone else?”
“Yes,” I said, a bit sheepishly.
My father was silent. Then he asked, “And this priest. Who is he? He went to all this trouble because of a nightmare?”
Now it was my turn to be silent.
“And this group, the followers of the teacher, who are they?”
“I don’t know. I just thought it was a great story. I didn’t know it would come to this,” I said, pointing to the god.
My father’s face was impassive. His look reminded me of when I was fifteen years old, trying to explain American football to him, which I played but he never watched. I trailed off; he nodded and left without a word. Leave it alone, I thought, it’s too late. His world has always been one of logic and rational thought, not of spirits or gods or football.
I picked up the heavy object, lay back down on the bed and found the letter that had come with it. It was brief, just like the previous one. It said that I should not take the god into the bathroom because that was considered “unclean,” and that I should place it where I wanted, but preferably in water, the source of life. Again, the letter was signed simply “Kazz.”
The god sat in my bedroom for a week while I helped my father repair the leaky workshop roof and prepare the house for winter. We worked together in the strained, compromised fashion of fathers and sons. I found fault with the way that he did things, and he found fault with all that I did.
One morning I went to chop wood, wondering why he insisted on so much wood, and found that my ax was covered with frost. Every day the sky grew grayer and colder. Then, one morning at breakfast a week after I arrived, it began to snow. The long, dark Nordic winter had arrived. As my father watched the flakes stick briefly to the kitchen window, he said, “Time to go back to California.”
After his matter-of-fact proclamation, he went back to reading the morning paper. I saw the headline and reached across the table and pulled the paper from him. The story was about massive peace demonstrations in West Germany, with 100,000 people in Bonn marching against the proliferation of tactical nuclear weapons. I figured my friend Wolfgang was there.
“A neighbor asked about the Shinto object,” my father said suddenly. “The guy at the post office must have talked. I told her your story. What are you going to do with it?”
I dropped the paper.
We had ignored the topic since his initial grilling, and I figured that he had dismissed the entire thing as another wild fantasy of an idealistic son.
I told him I was thinking of taking the god back with me to West Germany.
“Use your head,” he said. “What about customs?”
Of course, he was right. As I passed through foreign customs, “God” in a heavy cardboard box might look a bit suspicious. I could show the inspectors that the parcel was not full of drugs or explosives, but I’d still have to spend time explaining what would surely sound like a crazy story.
“What do you think, Dad? What should I do?”
“You know the lake where your great aunt owns a cabin? It’s surrounded by a national forest, and fed by an underground spring. Since Shinto worships nature, put it there.”
He pushed away from the table, stood up, pulled his wool cap over his ears, and with a determined stride headed to the door, leaving me surprised that he had shown some interest in my story after all.
A few days later I hiked with my father out from the small town up to the lake. The snow had been replaced by a light drizzle that made the green pine needles glisten like jewels. Our steps released pungent odors of moss and dried grass. A few birds dove for cover as we passed.
I stopped while he yanked on a tangle of vines growing in the path. Tossing them to one side, he moved on. I waited a moment.
“Dad,” I said, catching up with him, “There’s more to the story. I didn’t tell you everything.”
“When Juan Li told me the story, he mentioned some odd things. In Taiwan, just as he was placing a god in a lake, a furious storm stopped, as if by magic. He told me he saw a photograph of a god with a strange glow surrounding the case. This may not be as simple as tossing a stone in the lake….”
“Son….” my father interrupted.
“Not that I believe it….” I fell behind him again.
We came to a narrow path that led to my great aunt’s small wooden cabin. The rustic structure was perched on a huge slab of granite jutting deep into the middle of the lake. My father checked to see that the windows, boarded up for the winter, were secure. As he did, the sun broke through the clouds. The granite under his feet sparkled.
I walked to the edge of the granite where it abruptly dropped six feet into the lake. Motionless water perfectly reflected the surrounding trees. I unwrapped the white cloth from the stone. My father insisted on taking a photograph of me and the stone god. I protested, but only briefly.
I pulled back my arm, then heaved the stone god high in the air, over the granite, past the shore, and into the lake. It made a splash no different than a common stone; concentric waves of water rushed toward shore. The water that shot up in the air seemed to explode like fireworks. As each ring came toward me, the mirror image of the trees was disturbed, making the water look like an Impressionist painting.
I took pictures until the first wave hit the shore, thinking that Kazz and his group would appreciate this record of the placing of their god.
When my father asked me what I would do next, I really didn’t know what he meant.
“After Germany, you mean?” I asked.
“No, I mean with the Shinto thing.”
“That was it,” I said. “They only sent one. I’m finished. Maybe I’ll write a story about it.”
On the way back into town my father’s step seemed lighter. He was more talkative.
“Those Vikings, your ancestors,” he said, “they also believed spirits dwelled in nature. They were connected to the earth. They also respected the elders and tradition….” His voice trailed off. We passed through the rest of the forest in a comfortable silence.
That evening a group of curious boys gathered on our porch. Somehow the story that the Shinto god had been placed in the lake had spread rapidly through the town. I hadn’t told anyone; it must have been my father. They asked questions: Where exactly had we thrown the object? Were we sure it was stone and not gold? I told them what I knew about the Shinto priest’s vision and his struggle for peace. The young Norwegians listened intently.
As they left, I followed them to the road and heard them talking with great excitement. A few were already making plans to dive for the object come summer when one of them, the smallest, protested. “But just think,” he said, “if war comes we’ll all be protected. We must leave it.”
I went back to tell my father what they had said, but he was already asleep.