Fiction: Facing the Wall
By Stewart Ansel
Each day, Toshio wakes at 6AM and enjoys his modest breakfast of rice, an egg, and nattō. After brushing his teeth, he leaves the house and rides his bicycle to the workshop. Upon arriving, he bows deeply to the kamidana at the entrance, nods to his co-workers who quietly nod back in acknowledgement, and he calmly gets to work.
Toshio is a Būshi, a craftsman who carves wooden Buddha statues for temples, shrines, and wealthy, private collectors. He is part of an unbroken tradition that dates back 1,400 years. His training requires him to create exact copies of sacred figures, their forms perfected by previous masters over generations.
Today, he is working on a life-sized Buddha statue, meticulously and skillfully using his assortment of blades to shave and shape the wood. His work requires intense focus, concentration, and a delicate touch.
As he slowly carves the folds in Buddha’s robes, his thoughts drift to his sensei, Handa Shintaro who took him on as an apprentice when he was just 15 years old. After a decade of sweeping the floors and sharpening blades, Toshio recalls the first time his master ever allowed him to work on his own statue:
“Keep your chisel steady—you mustn’t add any of your own flourishes,” says Handa sensei, “Pay attention to the example you have in front of you. Soon, you will memorize each chisel stroke required to make a precise replica of this figure.”
“But, sensei,” Toshio protests, “I can enhance the beauty of the piece if I add an extra fold in the robe right here, you see?”
“You mustn’t allow your ego to enter the work.” Handa instructs his apprentice sternly yet compassionately. “When you understand that skill is not what matters, you will overcome the most serious obstacle to mastering the process.”
“Yes, Handa sensei.” Toshio bows his head to show respect and thank his master for his teaching.
Next, Toshio experiences a sudden surge of grief as he recalls his master’s death. Toshio is outside his room with Handa’s family. Handa’s daughter tells Toshio that her father is calling for him. When he enters his sensei’s room, they talk briefly about the weather. The old man seems in good spirits. Toshio even imagines his master’s recovery and eventual return to the workshop, which plays like a movie in his head.
Alas, it is not meant to be.
Handa asks his longtime apprentice to extend him a sheet of paper, ink, and a brush that sit atop a nearby chair.
“Let me get this out of the way,” Handa mumbles.
“My jisei,” Handa says.
Tears suddenly well up in Toshio’s eyes, which he immediately wipes away with his sleeve. “Surely, sensei, your death poem can wait,” he manages to splutter.
“No,” says Handa as he dips his brush into the ink and makes a series of flowing strokes on the paper.
He passes the page to Toshio; it reads:
Frost on late spring day—
All I leave behind are wood chips
Which will be swept away.
Upon reading the final words of his master, Toshio weeps softly.
“Please leave me now,” Handa tells him.
It’s the last time he sees his master alive.
After the funeral, Toshio devotes himself even more fully to his carving. His chisel strokes are masterful, shaving paper-thin sections at a time, giving life to the Buddha’s skin. The result is such a smooth surface that it barely needs to be sanded. Toshio can read the grain of the wood effortlessly, the way you are now reading these lines.
Today, Toshio is working on the finishing touches on Buddha’s face, smoothing out the statue’s lowered eyelids and eyes which are cast downward. He is almost finished. It’s an exact copy of a Buddha first carved by a master Būshi in the 6th century, except that Toshio has enlarged it to human scale.
His co-workers are in awe as they admire the workmanship.
“It glows like no statue I’ve ever seen—this is truly your best work,” remarks his co-worker. After a period of admiring the statue in silence, he asks, “I was about to make some sencha, can I bring you some?”
Five minutes later, the co-worker returns to find that Toshio is gone. He shakes his head, presuming Toshio has left work early, something he rarely if ever does. That’s odd, the co-worker thinks to himself. He places the cup of tea and an orange on a small ledge near the Buddha, thinking Toshio might come back for it.
The next day, Toshio doesn’t show up for work. There is no answer at his home, and his mobile phone is found at the workshop, its battery fully drained.
Someone has finished the tea, and the orange is gone.
Toshio’s co-workers scurry about, unable to focus on their work, calling hospitals, wondering where Toshio might be.
As his co-workers fret about his whereabouts, Toshio gazes out unto the world through wooden eyes, watching the scene unfold, hearing the hollow echo of voices from outside reverberate as if he were in a dream state. He is somehow amused by the sensation. The thought of wanting to speak bubbles up in his mind, but words do not come out, and the idea disappears.
For the first time in his life, Toshio feels totally at ease and one with existence. A sustained sense of joy—a purity of spirit that he has never felt before—washes over him, flooding his consciousness.
Weeks pass, and Toshio continues to abide within the Buddha statue in silence. He feels complete.
He hears one of his co-workers murmur, “Still no word from Toshio! It’s not like him to just disappear—what could’ve happened to him? Maybe he went back to his hometown to visit his aunt?”
“He didn’t mention he was going anywhere—it’s not like him,” the other responds, puzzled.
Together, they move the Buddha statue aside, turning it to face the wall.
They bow in the direction of the Buddha, turn off the light, and exit the workshop.
Stewart Ansel, III was the Editor In Chief of Thorn Literary Magazine. He passed away from Stage 4 Pancreatic Cancer in December 2020. During his lifetime, he taught English in Japan. His passion about the culture there shines through this story he wrote shortly before his death. Our Assistant Editor, Courtenay S. Gray was his girlfriend.