I met Shoko Murakami at Ghirardelli Chocolate Company’s store in Monterey, California, to do this interview. We exchanged pleasantries, I bought us chocolate sundaes, and we sat at a small table outside. She started the conversation.
Shoko: I hope you do not think your offer of ice cream was what brought me here.
CRF: No, but I thought I might as well invite you to someplace I knew you’d like.
Shoko: I would also enjoy the gelato in Italy and the weather is more pleasant there this time of year.
CRF: That’s easy for you. Pop, I’m in Italy. Pop, I’m at the North Pole. I’m not flying to Italy for a one-hour conversation!
Shoko: [smiles] How have you been? It has been a while since we last spoke.
CRF: My life is good. The family is healthy and happy. I’ve been taking a rest from writing and doing some things I’ve been neglecting for a while. It’s nice to get caught up.
Shoko: That is good to hear.
CRF: Let’s talk about you, and let’s start with Izumo. It was in a bad state the last time we spoke. How are things now?
Shoko: Izumo is well acquainted with death in battle, although so many casualties at once is rare. However, the many civilian deaths were hard to accept, for everyone. While it is not our duty to protect the civilians, we still bear the responsibility that our failure allowed so many innocent lives to be lost. So it has been a time of mourning, of rebuilding, and of acceptance.
CRF: Have the gods recovered?
Shoko: The lesser gods, those who lost many or all of their worshipers, have remained silent and may be that way forever. Only their followers can awaken them, so we shall see. The gods of Izumo are still strong. They were not silent because they became weak, as some declared. I believe their silence was a response to our own weakness. They abandoned us when we abandoned ourselves.
CRF: And have the Gatekeepers recovered?
Shoko: They are stronger now than ever before. Their resolve and honor are heightened. Also, Jason-san’s lessons of war were not discarded. All students now learn his special techniques.
CRF: So the Special Forces were disbanded?
Shoko: Yes, but I believe changes will be made to the structure of the Gatekeepers eventually. The new ideas were not all bad.
CRF: Can I assume you’re a Gatekeeper again?
Shoko: The Grand Elder [Shoko’s grandfather] persuaded me to return. Well, perhaps commanded is a better word! He told me I was being selfish, that I have much knowledge and it is my obligation to teach others. [Laughs] And I commanded Sakura to return too. She is stubborn but I … I was touched by her loyalty after my fall from grace.
CRF: Yes, I think she would do anything for you. Is she still your apprentice?
Shoko: I no longer have apprentices.
CRF: Why? What position are you in now? What’s your rank?
Shoko: My rank is … undefined. I teach, and I fight. That is all.
CRF: I think there must be more to it than that. You’ve traveled across to meet me and you’re wearing western clothing [jeans and a white t-shirt]. I’m thinking not just anyone can still do that.
Shoko: The Grand Elder softened his view on crossings. It is still necessary, as it always was throughout our history, but it is highly monitored now. I ask permission every time I cross. And yes, I do enjoy wearing these clothes once in a while, and I still like coming here. I have many good memories from here … even after all that happened.
CRF: Do you still blame yourself, even though no one else does?
Shoko: The blame is mine to carry if I so choose. Others cannot decide that for me. But I have moved forward. My devotion to the gods and my duty are the only things I think about now.
CRF: I can see you’ve changed. You’re more serious, even sad.
Shoko: Sad? [shakes her head] I just grew up. The way I acted ... I was too young and too cocky to lead others. I thought I was untouchable. Infallible. I have learned my lesson and that is all I wish to say about this matter.
CRF: Okay. Uh, let’s see here … Oh, have you ever gone back to San Francisco?
Shoko: I have a few times, but I have been careful. I do not know if Junya can still sense me, or even wants to.
CRF: Then why go?
Shoko: You know I am crazy about those cable cars!
Shoko: Probably forever. I mean, it is not like I can ride them all the time.
CRF: You know, I always wondered if you acted scared the first time you rode them with Junya, just to make him feel more … confident.
Shoko: I was honestly scared of them! The hills are so steep. What if it crashed? And jumping on and off seemed risky. As for Junya, his confidence is his own issue, but that day he was quite self-assured. He was even kind of cool, the way he spotted the men following us.
CRF: Do you know what he’s been doing since you left him?
Shoko: I assume he has continued his life. He has school and his Grandfather’s business to think of. And with Bartholomew gone…
CRF: For now at least.
Shoko: Make no mistake, Bartholomew is dead. I killed him myself.
CRF: With Junya’s help. You were in bad shape before he intervened and knocked Bartholomew back.
Shoko: Perhaps, but we both know Junya would have never killed Bartholomew. Not even for me. He is weak that way.
CRF: Do you miss him?
Shoko: I think of only the gods now.
CRF: You didn’t answer my question, Shoko.
Shoko: What difference does it make? All of that is in the past.
CRF: True, but love isn’t … Don’t look at me like that. You two were really close.
Shoko: Perhaps love is like this ice cream. It was wonderful but now it is gone.
CRF: But I bet you’ll be thinking about it later.
Shoko: You are annoying me now and I am leaving. Thank you for … whatever this stuff was you bought me. I have already forgotten what it was.
Edward Thompson, James’ (Junya’s) grandfather and CEO of The Thompson Group, is a busy man. Getting in to see him is close to impossible but Lin, his assistant and fiancé, is my bud. She intervened and I was granted ten minutes with him. Unfortunately, she didn’t stop his bodyguards subjecting me to a thorough pat-down. I mean, why would I do anything to hurt him. It’s not like I plan to kill him off in the next book or anything…
I waited in his spacious office for about fifteen minutes, staring at the spectacular view of San Francisco, until the door burst open and in he came. He motioned me to the sofa and sat across from me in a leather chair that seemed molded to his body. The first thing he did was glance at his watch.
CRF: Thanks for taking the time to see me. You’re looking well.
Edward: Lin’s taking my health too damn seriously! She made William [Edward’s long-serving butler] change my diet and ordered my bodyguards to make me walk to appointments if it’s less than a five minute drive!
CRF: Who’s the boss again?
Edward: [Laughs] I’m starting to wonder. But honestly, I do feel better.
CRF: We don’t have much time so let’s get started. Our readers want to know what really happened in the Mojave Desert all those years ago. About the gold, how you got across to the Other Side and how you met Tomi?
Edward: [looks surprised] wow, you just jump right in, don’t you?”
Edward: I don’t… I’m not sure it really happened.
CRF: You told Lin and James part of the story already and come on, you named your yacht Tomi for cryin’ out loud. Why don’t you just tell us the real story? You have nothing to lose.
Edward: Well, maybe I will…
43 Years ago, Mojave Desert, California. (Excerpt from an early rough draft of The Gatekeeper's Son)
The young man, whose name was Edward, steered the truck to the side of the desert road and stopped, then picked up his father’s map. It was damn hot and he killed the engine to keep the old truck from overheating. His friend from college, who lent him the truck for this expedition, had warned him about that.
The dirt road curved through the dry rocky terrain near the western edge of the Mojave Desert. On either side of the road, standing among the small cacti and sage brush, were piles huge smooth sand-colored boulders, their placement random and so out-of-place in the flat barren desert. Further to the east, salt flats shimmered in the heat and beyond that–really far away–the outline of a jagged range of mountains showed against the sky.
It was close to eleven o’clock and he needed to be on his way soon. He knew he shouldn’t be out there in the middle of the day, but according to his map, he was close. He had to keep looking.
This trip to the desert wasn’t his idea and it wasn’t a holiday. It was promise he’d made to a dying man and he doubted it would end well. Most of his college friends had already started jobs at the banks or investment houses, getting on with their lives, but he decided to do this first. He wanted to get it over with.
Edward had heard about the gold hidden in the Mojave all his life. As his father moved from one dead end job to the next, there was always the story of the damn gold. His father would sit under the bare bulb of the kitchen light at the end of an exhausting week, drunk as usual, and tell Edward about how someday he would go and get it. It was always someday. He even had a map, hidden away, drawn by a Navaho man whose life he’d saved on Guam during the Pacific war.
Edward wondered why his father never went and made the mistake of asking one night. His father had become angry and yelled all the reasons why he couldn’t go: How could he leave his job? He had a family to feed. And how would he get to the desert? He had a hundred reasons and Edward learned not to ask questions regarding dreams.
But why hadn’t he even gone? The gold, if it was even there, would have solved all his father’s problems. Edward eventually decided that the dream of the gold, if it even existed at all, was the only thing his father had to keep him going, day after grueling day. Edward figured his father was probably afraid of what he would do if he couldn’t find the gold. That’s the problem with following your dreams.
What will you do if your dream doesn’t come true? Then what?
His father never found out. But Edward wasn’t going to waste his life dreaming. Edward was a doer, perhaps because of his father. To Edward, the feeling of your dream not coming true would be a sharp, instant pain that would probably fade quickly. But the pain of not following your dream was like a cancer that slowly eats away at you, leaving you in constant, dull pain until it steals every possible joy from your life, just as it had done with his father. So he took the map his father gave him before he died and here he was, in the Mojave.
The man at the service station in the town of Joshua Tree had given him directions: turn right at the cross road, left at that highway, follow this dirt road. But as Edward stared at his map, he had the feeling he made a wrong turn… somewhere. The man had also warned him to avoid the desert during the day. Early morning and late afternoon were the best times to travel in the desert, he had advised, while eyeing the city boy doubtfully.
“Well,” Edward said aloud. “I better go back the way I came.” He turned the ignition key but nothing happened. Feeling slightly panicky, he tried again. The old engine wouldn’t even turn over.
“Oh, jeez, come on,” he pleaded as he tried again. There was no response from the engine. Could the battery be dead? He got out of the truck and into the direct sunlight. The heat hit him and when he touched the hood of the truck, he let out a yelp. Wrapping his hands in his shirttail, he yanked the hood open and then stood staring in, not having the first clue what he should do, or even look for.
“Yup,” he said. “There’s an engine in there alright.” He’d hoped to see something obvious or even better, a flashing red light saying ‘fix this’. He laughed. How pathetic. Four years of college and he was stuck in the desert with a machine he had no idea how to fix.
He went back to the cab and took a sip from his canteen. The water was warm and not at all refreshing. He tried to start the truck
He sat thinking for a moment. The road he was on had left the main highway about five miles back. It had curved in a half circle around this rocky ridge, so if he cut cross country, Edward surmised he’d have to walk less than three miles back to the highway. That wasn’t far and he had seen several cars traveling the highway this morning so he wasn’t worried about being stranded; he just had to get there. He hadn’t planned to walk in the desert, but why not? It would be interesting.
Edward put on his hat and grabbed his canteen. Giving it a shake, it felt almost full. He had more water in the truck, five gallons to be exact, but there was no way he could carry that. Besides, he didn’t have that far to go. His hiking boots were in good shape so he’d have no problem covering the short distance to the highway. He figured it would take less than an hour.
Leaving the truck with the hood up, he crossed the road and walked through the boulders, keeping his eyes on the ground. He didn’t want to surprise a rattlesnake. The sun was almost directly above him and it was hot, definitely over one hundred degrees.
He walked at a leisurely pace for half an hour, weaving between the boulders and small bushes. Eventually he removed his shirt, leaving his sleeveless t-shirt on. He was actually surprised at how good he felt. Even though the heat was intense, he felt fine. He wasn’t sweating or even thirsty, and he briefly considered tossing away his canteen. It was heavy and he’d be at the highway soon.
Edward stopped to look back. He couldn’t see the truck anymore and there was nothing else to see, just sand, sparse vegetation and boulders, as far as he could see in any direction. Where was the highway? He should be able to see cars, or at least the line of telephone poles. He stopped and sat on a small rock and mopped his face with his bandana to get the grit off. Looking at it, he felt a dull sort of amusement to see the bandana was dry. He wasn’t even sweating. Well, that was good. As usual, people had exaggerated about how bad the desert was.
He was feeling quite tired though and he suddenly had a very strong desire to have a nap. Didn’t the Mexicans have naps in the heat of the day? He couldn’t remember what they called it. It sounded something like semester, he though, then let out a giggle. No, he needed to find the highway. Then he could have a cold drink and that nap. He considered drinking some water from his canteen but decided to save it for later, in case he needed it. Besides, he wasn’t thirsty.
When he stood up, his head spun. Fog suddenly settled over his brain and he staggered a bit as he tried to decide which direction to go.
Then he wondered why he even cared because walking in the desert was nice, not like the cold and fog of San Francisco and he was happy that he had decided to see the desert because it was so unusual out here and not really that hot… He noticed he was kicking stones and little cactuses had become stuck to his socks as he stumbled along. He looked at his feet in confusion. What is wrong with them, he wondered as his eyes began to blur.
Three steps late he dropped to his knees. That’s strange, he thought. Perhaps he should rest, just for a few minutes and then he would find the highway. He was sure it was close by now.
He sank down onto the sand and lay there, without the strength to move. The distant ragged mountains looked cool and he wondered if it was nice there, living on a blue mountain. The last thing he saw as he lay looking into the blinding glare was a shape coming towards him and then a shadow blocked out the sun.
The Old One broke the rules when he took Edward across to the Other Side through a Gateway hidden among the rocks, but then, the old Indian didn’t much worry about rules. He took Edward to his small adobe hut and hydrated him as best he could until he was well enough to move. It was then that the Gatekeepers came.
First there was a shimmering, like heat waves distorting the air. Then figures began to materialize, three women down on one knee, their left palms pressed against the ground. They were beautiful, powerful, and their eyes shone with confidence. Their long black hair was tied in a single ponytail and topped with a wide woven hat, peaked like a low roof. All were dressed in flowing green robes, the color of the underside of a leaf, the hems reaching just above the ground. Sleek muscular arms and legs showed through slits in the material. One woman was about Edward’s age, maybe a bit younger, but the other two were young teenagers. Each carried a katana, the curved Japanese sword.
They moved toward Edward.
As the eldest one drew her katana, the old Indian stopped her, then spoke of destiny and showed her Edward’s map. The Gatekeeper, whose name was Tomi, decided not to remove Edward’s head as she often did with intruders.
Tomi took an active role in helping Edward recover. She stayed with him for three days, and through the cool nights, until he regained his strength. At first, he couldn’t believe Tomi or what she told him but he soon realized that the geography there was the same as where he’d walked just days before, except the vegetation and climate was completely different. Warm, but not hot, and the air moist, perfect for the banana, date and palm trees that grew there. Then he believed her as she explained about her world.
“I could stay here forever,” Edward told her one evening as they stood near a moonlit lake, which he knew was a salt flat in his world.
“And I wish you could,” she replied, their fingers already laced together. “But this cannot last forever.”
And it didn’t.
When Edward had fully recovered, it was decided that Tomi would return him to his world. He said his goodbyes to the Old One, thanking him yet again, and then the two set off to find the place where his truck would be parked on the Other Side. As they got closer, Edward knew it was the right place yet he had trouble imagining how this fertile land could ever become a desert. He let out a laugh and Tomi turned to him, a questioning look on her face.
“What is it?” she asked him, smiling too.
“That tree is growing right where my truck is parked,” he replied, pointing. He looked back at her and his smile faded as he thought about what else would not be in his world.
Tomi returned his gaze and then closed her eyes. After a moment, she let her breath out slowly. “We can proceed,” she said. “All is as it should be.” She looked up at him. “Ready?”
“I doubt it.”
Tomi knelt on the damp earth, adjusted her katana on her waist and motioned for him to kneel beside her. She held out her left hand and he took it, enjoying its softness and warmth, for probably the last time.
Tomi turned to him as if she wanted to say something. He felt her grip tighten and she squeezed her lips together, forming a frown. She stared at him without speaking.
“Tomi…” he began.
But she turned her head away and closed her eyes, shutting him out. Then she slapped her right hand against the earth. Edward’s eyes were open when it started so he saw the world around him distort and blur. His head spun and he squeezed his eyes shut as his body came apart, but there was no pain––there wasn’t anything within the void.
A moment later, everything stopped. He still held Tomi’s hand but the earth under his knees was hard and hot.
Tomi stood and helped him up. He squinted against the glare and saw his truck, parked exactly as he’d left it, the hood still up.
“Nobody has found it yet,” he said as he tried to orient himself to the sudden change in environment. “I guess no one’s looking for me.” But a passerby should’ve noticed the abandoned truck. It had been sitting there for several days. He mentioned that to Tomi.
“You have not been gone that long,” she replied while looking around at the desert with wide eyes. “It was just a moment ago that you fell onto the sand.”
Edward started to question how that was possible but thought better of it. Considering where he had been for the last week, he believed anything was possible now.
“It is so barren here,” she said, still looking at the desert. “How can anyone live here, or survive here?”
“Well, thank god the Old One did. I’d be dead otherwise.”
She turned to face him. She was still holding his hand and he sure didn’t want to let go. “The Old One tells us that you are a part of our Legend, and that you will someday play an important role, but he does not know what that role is.”
She nodded. “You are a good man, with a good soul. I feel that Edward. If you remain that way, your true destiny shall be revealed.”
Edward stared into her brown eyes and felt a lump growing in his throat. “What is my destiny?” he asked her. He wanted to ask if she was a part of it.
“The Old One only told me that if you believe in yourself, then anything you want will be yours. Listen to your heart and your every dream will come true.”
“What if I dreamed of you?”
She lowered her eyes and a sad look came to her face. “You can dream of me,” she said. “But you only have access to what is in this world and I cannot be a part of your world. I have my duty and my own destiny”
She released his hand and moved away.
“There is one other thing,” she said, her tone more formal now. “You came here to follow your father’s dream of finding gold. Do you believe it is here?”
“I think maybe I’ve already found it.”
“Gold reveals itself in many forms. It is not always literal,” she said, smiling mischievously. “But in this case…” Edward waited, looking at her with hopeful eyes. “The Old Ones have a cave near here and inside is a very old Gateway. That is how the Old One came to us the first time, and how he crossed after he found you. The cave is no more than a small opening among the rocks. Watch out for the snake. It stands guard and bites all those that come too close. And believe me, blessed are those who turn away, for to enter the cave without permission is to open the gates of hell.”
Edward held his breath, waiting.
“But you Edward, you should look inside the cave. The snake will permit it. The Old One said there is not much gold there but enough for you started. The rest is up to you.”
Edward looked around. He only saw rocks, no cave opening.
“Listen for the snake’s rattle. The gold is within ten paces of here so do not wander further.” She stared at him for a long moment. “And Edward, drink lots of water,” she finally said, her voice sounding soft again, with a touch of sadness. “I worry about you. It is very hot here.”
“I will Tomi, thank you… for everything”
She knelt on the dirt road and looked up at him. A single tear slid down her cheek. “Check something called the ‘battery cable’. The Old One says it has come loose, whatever that means.”
He nodded, trying to form a reply. He knew what he wanted to say but...
“Sayonara Edward.” Then she slapped her hand on the road and a moment later, nothing remained to show she was ever there other than a small spinning cloud of dust.
He stood there for a long time, ignoring the intense heat, staring as the dust drifted away. Then he walked to the truck and took a long drink from the jug, filling himself with water. He reattached the loose cable to the battery post and walked towards the rocks, listening for the sound of the rattlesnake.