An extract from “Escarpment”
Awamori is the potent firewater of Okinawa. Distilled from rice, it is between sixty and eighty percent proof. Some brands pack a punch of 120 percent. The liquor figures prominently in the pages of my novel “Escarpment”.
A particular horrendous brand of Awamori is called “Habushu”. The Habu is a Japanese pit viper, related to the rattlesnake. A bite from it results in nausea, hypertension, vomiting; occasionally, death. A bottle of Habushu contains one of these big, fat creatures curled up inside it. It is drunk for its reputed aphrodisiac properties. The Habu can engage in coitus for up to twenty-six hours without flagging.
Dave, the narrator of “Escarpment”, buys a bottle of Habushu as a souvenir – for its curiosity value; being too old himself to expect any rejuvenation of his virility.
The extract follows.
We rolled and rattled eastwards, into one tunnel and out of that into another. At Kamigori, we transferred to the Chizu Line. The train that took us into the mountains was musty-smelling, a relic of a former age. The few passengers on it looked as ancient as the train.
It chugged between peaks that towered leathery-brown above the deep green all around us. It went into tunnels and came out of them into narrow valleys filled with chessboard-patterns of rice fields and small clusters of houses. Once in a while, it stopped at tiny, lonely platforms, empty of waiting passengers.
The odyssey was deadening.
Our legs got cramped and our shoulders became stiff. The sun had come up on us in Okinawa. Now it went down deep in the mountains of Okayama. Soon, outside the tunnels was as dark as inside them. The lighting in the old train flickered dimly. It got cold. We had nothing left to talk about and nothing outside the windows to look at.
My bag was on the floor between us. Once in a while, one of our feet nudged against it.
“What’s that keeps clinking around?”
I took the bottle of habu Awamori out to show him.
“That snake is as thick as a vacuum cleaner hose. How did they get it inside the bottle?”
The habu kept uncurling and curling, being forever disturbed in its rest by the swaying of the train and the bouncing of the bottle as we passed it between us.
“They fight the habu against mongooses,” I told him. “It’s a tourist attraction in Okinawa.”
“Which one usually wins?”
“The snake, I think.”
“How big is a mongoose?”
“I don’t know.”
“Isn’t a mongoose Australian?”
“I don’t know, Matt.”
“Isn’t it a kind of a little kangaroo?”
“It might be.”
“They must be one tough breed of snake. You buy the bottle for a souvenir?”
“For anyone special?”
“For myself. But open it if you want.”
“You don’t mind?”
The smell that was released when he twisted the cap off was like a field full of dead animals. He took a slug, gagged on it and shuddered, and handed me the bottle. Imagine rotten herring, basked in paraffin, if you can. That was what it tasted like
But we got used to it after two or three swigs.
The liquor warmed us and insinuated itself into our brains. We found things to talk about and to smile and laugh at. We grew happy and content. The minutes that had weighed so heavily suddenly began to fly by. We forgot time. And when we approached the end of our journey, we were reluctant for it to end.
We had managed to get ourselves pretty bloody drunk.
By then, we were the only passengers left aboard. I had been checking our progress periodically on the route map printed above the doors. We were not too far from our destination. I strained to catch the conductor’s latest announcement and staggered down the aisle one last time to reconfirm with the map.
The train went into a tunnel, plunging us into darkness. The brakes hissed. It came out of the tunnel and shuddered to a halt at a platform. The doors opened.
The map told me the station we wanted – Awakura Hot Spring – was the one after this. I turned to return to our seat, but Matt wasn’t there. He was standing on the platform, holding the bottle and my bag.
“Not this one,” I shouted. “Get back on.”
He didn’t move.
“This is not it. Get back on the bloody train.”
He still didn’t move. I jumped off before the doors closed. If I had had the bottle in my hands, I would have battered him to death with it, and no court in the world would have convicted me.
The train chugged away and was swallowed up by another tunnel.
“Why did you get off?”
“I don’t remember getting off. I’m just standing here.”
The station was unmanned. There was a rusty tin on a wooden turnstile for disembarking passengers to throw their tickets into. The platforms were lit by fluorescent tubes that were covered in cobwebs. The single wooden bench was eaten away by age. To our right and left were mountains. Across the tracks was another mountain.
We sat down on the bench, shaking with the cold. Our knees rattled and our teeth chattered. The wind howled around us. The stars glittered above without any beauty. How long before another train came out of the mountain? What do we do if no train came out of the mountain?
“You want some more of this?”
I didn’t. He put the bottle down under the bench, out of the wind, and the snake settled and curled up to sleep again.
They say Awamori has hallucinatory properties, like mescal. There might be some truth in that, because soon the wind became an eerie chorus of disembodied voices.
Female voices, bickering female voices.
Matt turned his head to look over the rusty railing that ran behind us, in the direction from which the strange sounds seemed to emanate.
“Isn’t that Keiko?”
The Awamori had destroyed all recollections of my past life.
At the far side of the deserted, weed-covered roundabout facing the station, under the muted hazy glow of a single street lamp, she huddled in the cold with my daughter. We heard a car engine approaching through the mountains, and then the headlights of a taxi burst out of the darkness.