The steam cooker sits on the table. Everyone in the family is admiring it, except for Martin and grandfather. Martin is tinkering with a mutant Aibo. Grandfather . . . he’s just stubborn!
“Filthy bamboo,” grandfather says. “We should have destroyed it all when we had the chance.”
Jane looks up. “We had the chance to destroy bamboo, grandfather?”
“When I was just a young boy,” says grandfather. “They were at war: pandas and men. Fierce was the battle. Men had guns and brains. Pandas had spots.”
“I’d think that guns and brains would win. Like tanks against cavalry.”
“It depends,” grandfather says. “If you pit a shoddy tank against the finest cavalry of the Mongols, the tank will lose! It was like that, with the war of pandas and men. The pandas’ spots were the pinnacle of millennia of evolution. Guns were still new, and men were stuck with inferior human brains.”
Martin glances up halfway. “Thank God we have portable alien space brains now.”
“In the end,” grandfather says, caressing his Sony Lobeman, “we defeated them, and drove them back. But the namby-pamby environmentalist goons refused to let us kill them all. So the pandas survived. The bamboo survived. Everybody got to live.”
“That’s too bad,” Jane says. She pats grandfather reassuringly on the knee. “We’ll burn it all someday! You’ll see!”
“You don’t even know why we’d want to destroy it,” grandfather says, grumpily. “You’re just humoring an old man.”
“Supporting!” Jane clarifies. She mimes the word appearing in the air and underlines it with her hand.
“It’s because of its second stage,” grandfather says. “Everything has a second stage, you know. People become old people, or gods. Caterpillars become old caterpillars, or butterflies. Governments become despotisms.”
“I’m going to become a civil engineer,” Jane says. “And Martin’s going to be my assistant!”
“Am not,” Martin says. He underlines the word ‘not’ with his hand.
“He’s embarrassed about being a secretary,” Jane confides.
“I’m going to be the forge that remakes the world,” Martin says. “Also, I kind of want to work for Sony.”
“They don’t want mutant War Aibos,” Jane says.
“I just need to demonstrate that there’s a market,” Martin suaves.
Grandfather sulks. “If you’re going to ignore me,” he says, “I’m not going to tell you about the second stage of bamboo.”
“After dinner?” Martin proposes. “We should have one delicious steamed meal before you ruin our innocence forever!”
“That’s a good point,” grandfather agrees. “What are we eating?”
“Rice,” mother says. “There’s rice, which we will steam, and pickled vegetables.”
“Why is everything we eat pickled?” Martin asks.
“We’re peasants,” mother says. “We can’t afford anything that isn’t pickled.”
“We could get the vegetables,” Martin proposes, “and not pickle them.”
“You’re naive, boy,” grandfather says. “Pickled vegetables, pickled meat, pickled oranges, pickled milk—if you don’t want pickled food, you need to pay protection to the pickling ninja.”
Martin raises an eyebrow.
“When they ship supplies to the outlying villages,” grandfather explains, “they can’t afford to put many guards on the caravans. So most goods, when they reach us, have been hit—at least once—by the pickling ninja. They come out of nowhere, or so it seems. The caravaneer looks up. There are pickling ninja all around. Then they strike!”
Grandfather looks down. He kicks at the table leg. “Stupid pickling ninja.”
“Why do they pickle our food?”
“To stay in practice,” grandfather says. “Pickling is the highest ninja art, also called ‘ninjutsu’. If you pickle a person, they’ll die within the day. If you pickle an army, they can’t stand against you! Pickling prickly plants provides their perfect poisons, and pickling stars creates the deadly ninja shuriken. Some say the ninja even pickle themselves, with their special pickling pressure points allowing them to survive the process—and endure, immortal, through the ages. That’s why ninjas carry so many pickles—what use is a cucumber to these immortal savants and terrors?”
“I want to be a pickling ninja!” Jane declares.
Martin looks at her.
“I could lead them back to the light,” she says. “I could be a legendary pickling ninja leader to make them an instrument of justice. We’d be Pickle Ninja Team Gatchaman! And we’d fly!”
“Pickles can’t fly,” Martin notes.
Jane opens her mouth.
“Not even pickled ducks.”
Jane closes her mouth. She hesitates. Finally, she says, “Well, maybe we’d more, you know, like, glide, really.”
“I won’t have any of my grandchildren becoming ninja!” declares grandfather. “We’re an honorable samurai family. Besides, they don’t recruit girls.”
Jane frowns. Martin brightens. “Maybe,” Martin says, “I . . .”
“Or boys!” grandfather snaps.
Jane smirks at Martin. Martin scowls. He tinkers furiously with his Aibo.
“Wait,” Jane says, after a moment. “Then who do they recruit?”
Grandfather sighs. “I’m not supposed to bring it up until after dinner,” he says.
“Oh,” Jane says. She looks at the bamboo with new respect.
“The tragedy of bamboo is this,” grandfather says. “Sometimes, bamboo loves a panda, and the panda, bamboo. But they can never consummate that love.”
“Consummate?” Jane asks.
Martin looks up. “Hoochie-coochie,” he explains, in a world-weary fashion.
“Because the path to their happiness is barred,” grandfather says, “they are empty. And that emptiness makes them cold. And in the cold, the bamboo cracks like a shell, and rings like a bell, and ninja are born from that emptiness.”
“Wow,” Jane says.
“They hunger,” grandfather says. “They hunger to pickle things, from the moment they are born.”
There’s a long silence.
“Stupid ninja,” grandfather sulks.