Sunday, December 30, 2018


Flickering Candles

Early morning, darkness beyond the panes of her window, the candles flickering, the scent of sandlewood. She rubbed her eyes, then reached a hand to the top her head, patted, frowned. "My glasses," she said. Fiddlesticks. Where ... And found them on the floor beside the leg of her chair. Elizabeth sighed, bent for them awkwardly, placed them deliberately behind her ears, gently on the bridge of her nose. She took up her pencil and wrote:

Ikkyu died in 1481. He was 88 years old. His death, ascribed to acute ague, came, like the death of so many Zen masters, while sitting in meditation at Daitokuji, his Kyoto temple. His death poem, written shortly before his life ebbed away, was in his own hand. The Daitokuji claims to have the original of this poem. It reads:

South of Mt. Sumeru
Who can match my Zen?
Even if Hsü-t'ang comes
He's not worth half a penny.

Elizabeth pulled her glasses to the end of her nose, scratched her forehead. A challenge, those words. They were not meant to be disrespectful, not boastful; but rather, I think, to be a goad to his followers. Zen was rife with slack monks who gave no thought to practicing what they preached. And Mori? Had she outlived Ikkyu? Or was she, too, already buried on her beach? Or, if still alive, would she have known of Ikkyu's death? From her manuscript, this:

He sat on the rickety verandah of the old shed, hands draped over knees, thumbs and middle fingers just touching. A small boy ran by, dust kicking up beneath his heels. A mother's shrill cry. In the distance, the mill's wheel turned and thumped, and song rose from the flooded fields as the farmers began to plant their rice.

I brought him his tea, but he simply shook his head. Plagued with dysentery these past few weeks, Ikkyu was now resolved. I knelt beside him. His kimono had opened at his wizened throat exposing a boney white chest. My small bundle sat just beside a narrow bench.

"Please go now," he said. His voice was quite strong. "Nothing done, everything complete." Then he was silent.

I bowed, took up my bundle and turned away. Drums beat from the field. Women hurried with their baskets of young shoots. I walked down the village street towards the high road to the coast. I saw Ikkyu no more.

Elizabeth removed her glasses, rubbed her eyes. All we are left with is speculation. Did Ikkyu die in this nameless village? Lake Biwa is thirty odd miles from Kyoto. Did he recover sufficiently to return to Daitokuji? Or have his followers created a little Zen tale? Many questions. No answers.
"We need a time frame here," Elizabeth said. It would be good to know when they parted, those two. Say, late spring through early summer for the rice and towards the end of the war. "And that helps us how?" she said aloud.
Was his death at Daitokuji just some revisionist history? And that death poem? Genuine? Most think so. Perplexing, the whole business. She absently wiped the lenses of her glasses on the hem of her robe. In the margin of the page she wrote: Note to self: Is some explication of the poem necessary? Should the reader know who Hsü-t'ang was? And 'ague.' A bit literary. Would 'fever' better serve? I'll ask Grace.
Her hand moved to the brown manila envelope. In Grace's looping hand, an address and her phone number. "Eureka," Elizabeth said softly. She took her glasses from her face slowly with both hands. The flickering candles blurred. Reluctant morning sky still in darkness.

Sunday, December 23, 2018


Conclusions, as I have already mentioned, are difficult. The reader tends to trip over loose ends like a child with shoes untied. All questions and conflicts in the story need to be resolved, either within a chapter or at the conclusion.

Resolution is a key element in most art forms. Music, specifically as composed in the western hemisphere, is built on tones that become chords that are ordered so that a progression demands resolution. The key of 'C', for example, in its simplest configuration, is comprised of the 'C' chord. the 'F' chord and the 'G' chord. Played on any instrument, the final 'G' chord begs to return to 'C'.

Not all resolution is so clear cut. Popular fiction and literary fiction might well use very different means to conclude a story. Popular fiction emphasizes plot foremost, then character and lastly theme. Dick Francis has sold millions of books. Commonly called page-turners, his plots are tight and his characters distinctive. Themes, besides horses and horse racing, tend to be subjects such as banking, flying, painting and the like. Easy to understand.

Samuel Beckett writes literary fiction (though he would have likely rejected the label). Presenting a theme is the primary objective. Characters and plot take a back seat. And abstraction is the order of the day. Angst and anti-heros, chaos, confusion, death, and a wry brand of humor are the subjects he presents. Beckett has won a Nobel prize for literature. He does not write page-turners.

If label this story I must, then stamp it with Literary Fiction.

The Blind Geisha
III - 13

Dogs Run Madly

Dogs yapping down the beach. A calling man's voice. Fog. The gulls make dogs run madly cross the sand chasing elusive dreams, thought Elizabeth. Dogs madly chasing gulls and elusive ... "Literate this morning, I am". She rubbed the fingers of her hand around the window pane smearing the condensation. Or is it 'literary'? She heard Micki moving about downstairs. Whatever. Gumption, she thought. I lack gumption this morning. Need gulls to chase. Galling.
"Grace," she said. It's her, downstairs, moving about, not ...
"Good morning," the young woman called. "I have news."
"Good or bad?"
"A friend in Palo Alto has turned up another gem." Grace was smiling. She stood at the bottom of the stairs as Elizabeth made her way slowly down. Not as spry this morning, the young woman thought. "Shall we go to the parlor?"
"Did you spell that with a 'u', Gracie? You didn't, did you? Such a slacker you are. Self-discipline is the key to survival. Just ask any samurai you see." Elizabeth stopped and puffed and said, "Phew, I am pathetic this morning."
"Were you up early again?"
"Yes, yes. My demented brain is busier than our little yellow humming birds, flitting here and there."
The old woman tapped her forehead with the back of her hand. "Oh, fiddlesticks," she said.
"I'll get them," Grace said. "No worries. You come on down," and she extended a hand.
"Thank you, dear. I'll just get my coffee and meet you in the parlour. With or without that 'u'."
"The manila envelope on the table," Grace said from the top of the stairs, turning, looking down. "Your surprise."
Elizabeth regarded the plain brown, slightly rumpled package perched against a mug. She poured coffee. As she lifted her cup, pain broke her thumb's grip and the cup tilted away, sloshing coffee on to the counter top, the floor. Chin to chest, she gave a shake of her head, slumped against the edge of the sink. Groaned.
"Beth," came Grace's voice.
"What is it, Bessie?
Another shake of the head. "Nothing. Infirmities."
"I've got you."
Arm in arm, the two women moved slowly to the parlour.
They sat quietly. A gray morning. Distant gulls.
"Shall we have a look?" Grace said. Go ahead; you do the honors."
From the envelope, Elizabeth extracted a thin sheaf of 81/2 x 11 pages. They were crisp and white with a green post-it in the upper left corner. "The squid man?" Elizabeth said.
"My friend in Palo Alto was researching the Kuro Shio, the Japanese Current and how it produces eddies all along the coast of Japan. Put simply, little fish come with these eddies and the big fish follow, including the fishermen with their fishing boats. This," taking up the manuscript, "is a copy of a log from one of those boats. 15th century. Wood, scow-shaped, that distinctive junk rigging."
"Think delicate ribbed fan and blow it up big. Stick it on a post. Put the post on a boat. Junk."
Grace thumbed through the forty odd pages of the manuscript. Half-way through, she stopped and squared the small stack.
"She was scanning this document, this ship's log, and came across a heading that read, literally: Old Woman In Hut. Onna no koya. And, according to the coordinates, this was just down the coast a mile or so from where our little Mori grew up. She called; we talked."
"Antecedents, dear. Most important. Your friend called, yes? Not our little Mori."
Grace shook her head. "Pedantic. Whatever. The upshot is that while the woman in the log is unnamed, the dates seem right and it could be her. It should be."

             Position: 34º N, through Bungo Strait, then SSW
Date: 3rd day, Changing Clothes Month, 12th year Sengoku
Clear, wind NNW, swell 2 feet, filled hold with young squid

The old woman still living in hut. Found her there at the end of the season. Many squid this year with the big eddy sweeping them in onto the shelf. It is good not to have to sail deep water and contend with the black current.

And in the margin, after the date, another green post-it with '1479' written on it.
"This is the first reference in the log. The Sengoku period began in 1467 with the Onin War and ended in 1615. But clearly this fisherman had seen her before. It goes on," and Grace read from the highlighted script of the manuscript.

We left her to it. Warm, this winter, and dry. We give her squid. She gives us song. Dead eyes, but sweet voice.

"That was the clincher for me. 'Dead eyes' was the translation of shindame. A figurative phrase for 'blind'? I've sent a query to a man in Japan. We should hear in a couple of days. So there's location, date, age of the woman, her apparent blindness, and her singing. Like I said, if this wasn't Mori, it should be."
Elizabeth frowned. "Except for that 'old'," she said. "She was fifty something. Old?"
"A relative term."
"Oh really? Look at me. Look at you."
Grace smiled and shook her head. "Mori was somewhere in between. But a much different time." She leaned forward. "Might have been, then. Likely, I think. And several weeks later there was this," and Grace read:

Whaler's Cove. 14th year.
Ran from storm. Anchors out fore and aft. Careened her after. Barnacles again. Took ship's boat up coast looking for schools. Found woman down the beach. Dead. Buried her up above tide line. Rocked the mound. Burnt the hut.

"Took sick and died, she did," Elizabeth said. "Alone on her beach."
"The ague no doubt." Grace thumbed the pages.
"The same year as Ikkyu's death, yes?"
"The same."
"Coincidence or ..."
The two women sat quietly.
"Synchronicity," Elizabeth said. She frowned.
"Ah," said Grace.

Sunday, December 16, 2018


Four months ago I posted Chapter 11 of The Blind Geisha, the short novel that I was serializing on this web log. The last four chapters, the conclusion, obviously have not appeared. Conclusions are both difficult and important. Though I had the final chapters outlined with a few notes, I could not find the substance to add to this framework.

So I waited. That has always been an effective tactic for me. And, the words, or rather the ideas, began to arrive; and I had my conclusion. What follows is Chapter 12. The remaining three chapters will follow in subsequent weeks.

The Blind Geisha
III - 12


"What do you make of this?" Grace asked and pushed a thin sheaf of papers across the slatted, weathered table top to Elizabeth. She tapped her index finger on a poem that was rendered in both the original Japanese and its English translation. "Is this the archetypal Ikkyu? Was he reporting fact or spinning fantasy?"
Elizabeth smiled. "That is the question, now isn't it." She took up the pages, lowered her glasses from her forehead, and read.
"And the difference between eroticism and just sex?" Grace asked.
A shrug. "Perhaps it's simply explicitness. Pornography is initially erotic, but wears out its welcome rather quickly."
They had placed a small, rectangular cedar slat table in the middle of the back yard, and sat there now with their papers stacked and weighted with flat gray stones against a sea breeze that found the chinks in the surrounding hedges, the shrubs, the bushes and trees. The sun, now at summer height, flooded the backyard with warmth and light.
Elizabeth placed a hand on the sheaf of papers and, leading with her fingers, read slowly aloud:

Ten days in this temple and my mind is reeling.
Between my legs the red thread stretches and stretches.
If you come some other day and ask for me,
Better look in a fish stall, a sake shop, or a brothel.

"Your translation, isn't it?"
'"Yes, but leaning heavily on the work of Sonja Arntzen."
Elizabeth tapped her fingers on the weathered table top. "Bit bold, for an old man. Don't you think?"
"He wasn't shy," Grace said. "That's certain."
"He was in his seventies when he took up with Mori. She was forty something. Their vibrant sex life does seem a bit much."
Grace nodded. "Was he stretching a point, taking a bit of poetic license? Do you think?"
"Just how big was that fish?" Elizabeth leaned against the back of the chair, hands flat now on the wide wooden arms. "One can't know, of course, from this remove."
"Have you read Maya Angelou?" Grace asked. She slipped her sunglasses up onto her forehead. "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings is what most people have read."
"Some," Elizabeth said. She came to the university when I was there."
Nodding, Grace said, "A quote from her goes: 'I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.' She was talking about painful experiences, emotional trauma. But I think it works both ways. Enjoyable emotions will be long remembered, too."
"And celebrated, yes? In poems. Perhaps enhanced. Is that what are friend Ikkyu did? Is his reputation based on bits of fantasy?"
Grace eased herself to the front of the chair, stood. "Quite possible," she said. "Most likely."
Chipmunks darted around the cedar tree chirping stridently. Up they went, out a limb then both jumped nimbly to the fir tree, into the maple and away through the laurel hedge.
Laughing, Grace said, "Sex again."
"Mating, those two."
"Birds do it, bees do it ... ," and both women joined for the chorus of 'Let's Fall In Love'.
Laughing together, they gathered up their papers.
"It does raise a point," Grace said. "Take stews for example."
"Yes ma'am. Stews."
"Stews," Elizabeth said.
"Wikipedia lists over 150 different 'stews' complete with a picture, description, and country of origin. Everything from your common Mulligan stew, to that delectable cowboy dish called sonofabitch stew. Whatever was on hand was thrown into the pot and then spiced up with bits of offal from a calf ... "
"Oh my.'
"My personal favorite, from some Chinese gourmand, is Buddha Jumps Over The Wall."
"Nothing from Japan?"
"There is. Something called Nikujaga. But I don't think this is anything Ikkyu and Mori would have eaten. Meat, potatoes, and onions in soy sauce. A little too 20th century. Post war even."
Elizabeth pushed herself up with a grunt. "And this somehow relates to ..."
"Sex," Grace said.
"Sex?" Elizabeth said, raising eyebrows.
"Ubiquitous and infinitely varied."
Arms entwined, the pair laughed again together and walked slowly to the kitchen door.
"I'll put the kettle on," Elizabeth said. She moved to the stove, shifted the pot to a back burner, then put a finger to her nose and turned to Grace. "Come to think," she said, "there's not much about food, now is there. Nothing in the poetry. Little in her travel journal."
"Rice and vegetables, millet maybe. Not particularly prose worthy."
Turning on the burner, Elizabeth centered the pot. "Always wondered how people could get pudgy being so poor."

The three salesmen scooped handfuls of steaming rice from the pot and wadded them into balls, juggling them from palm to palm. A flat table-sized stone marked this stopping place along the trail through the lowering wooded hills. Just beyond, a fork in the path took travelers down to Kyoto, smoldering in the distant flats, or left along the ridge crest towards the distant sea.

"Help yourself," the chubby cheeked one said to Mori. "Dig in." She sat off by herself mending the hem of her kimono. "You not going with us anymore then?" The skinny fellow asked. He was from the north, his accent clipped and coarse. "Bandits in these hills," the third salesman said. "All those samurai out of work with their lords and masters dead." The trio laughed and winked at one another. "They doing terrible tricks on women, the bandits," added chubby cheeks. And the men laughed louder and elbowed one another. "Safer to go with us."

Mori looked up from her work. Smiled. Needle and thread went back in her bundle. She stood and fixed her straw hat on her head. "As the priests say," she said, "All worldly pursuits have but one unavoidable and inevitable end, and that is suffering. Bandits are to be expected." She gave a nod and turned away from the men. She would follow the narrow track through the trees, seeing the deeper shadows to either side, the pale grays deepening to black, smelling the sweet, flowery scent of the cryptomerias, the gentle rustle of a breeze through the trees.

Behind her, the silence of the men burst into laughter.

The sun now low, just above the horizon, gulls turning, looping on the sea breeze. Elizabeth stood in the middle of the yard listening to the heave of swell meeting shore. She wrapped her sweater tighter around her and folded her arms across her chest. Wood smoke, rather ... what was the word? Acerbic? A bit biting in the nostrils. What could that fellow be burning up on his hillside? Clearing a place for his fancy new house. A blight, no doubt. Grace was dismayed to see all the trees cleared. She had made their rice with spicy broccoli and a bit a red sweet pepper. Tomorrow she would be gone. Her man was in Eureka, the worse for wear apparently, and she was going down to lick his wounds.
Elizabeth frowned.
"Well, that phrase sounds wrong, now doesn't it," she said. After a defeat, one might lick one's ... sounds a bit salacious the way I ... Doesn't know how long she'll be gone. Not too long. "Men," she said. Little boys with their toys.
A pall of smoke swirled off the hillside then eddied across the highway caught in the southerly sea breeze.

Monday, August 6, 2018


Brown Brackish Water

She tossed the sheet and blanket back across the bed, swung her legs off the mattress, put her feet on the floor. Rain seemed to hammer at the roof, wind chimes sounding their dings and tings and thumps and knocks, the hum and whistle of gusts under the eaves. Sitting round shouldered on the edge of the mattress, hunched up, hands on knees, she closed her eyes against the dizziness, felt the sharp sudden pain from her thumb joint. She clasped her hands and massaged the round ball of her thumb.
Blowing a gale. And what's that for wind speed? Admiral fellow, did the chart for wind speed and sea state. A real frog strangler. Gully washer. "What time is it?" she said. The luminescent numbers of the clock on her nightstand were a blur. "Put your eyes on, old woman." Slippers. Robe.
Mori wearing her ragged old bamboo hat walking the woods in the rain. Soaked to the skin. Was she fifty? Just a child. Fairly old though for the 15th century. And blind. Off on her own. Returning to Shiomachi. Waiting for the tide. "How did she manage?"
Elizabeth sat listening to the rain and the chimes. Standing, she tottered on bare feet across the room to her desk. Lit a sandlewood pillar candle, short and squat. Lowered herself into her chair. Sighed. A block of cedar weighted the Mori manuscript. Her feet cold. Poor circulation to the extremities these days. So where are my ...
"I should read the end again. The style is off putting." A bad translation? Too literal Grace had said. The Japanese had a good deal more fluidity. "My Japanese is not quite up to snuff. Get a sense of what she means, though. Ah, well. "It is what it is." Mekura no Geisha no Monogatari. Tales of a Blind Geisha. Travel diary, more like. She shuffled paper, found her place, and read:

We met after the accident. The other singers and I were in the little temple on the hillside. We heard a loud crack, a thump and distinct groan. Ikkyu san had been raking the path down the hillside below the temple. The poor man was felled by a falling limb, and was badly bruised. Perhaps a bone in his back was cracked. We bathed him. One of the ladies applied her moxa treatment to his shoulder. He was all skin and bones. A small man, we carried him to his room on a shutter, the Abbot chattering like a frightened bird as he shuffled alongside.

When the other ladies left to return to Kyoto, I stayed on. He was not helpless, but more nearly hapless. He talked in his sleep. Mumbled. Was embarrassed by his nakedness in the bath. Better when he started writing again. The way he would squat down and peer closely at his stone as he mixed his ink. His brushes were rather worn. But how deftly he wielded them. Strong bold characters. His strength returned, his confidence. That square, stern face with a grin waiting behind a glare ...

We would travel to Kyoto soon, he said. If the soldiers would allow it. We would be companions apparently. A given in Ikkyu's mind. In two days, he said, the rain will stop. When the fog moves through the valley from the lake, we will follow the fog down the river. And so we did.

They had walked the road this morning, Bess and Grace, following the little creek through the swale of drifted sand to sit in a hollow in the lee of driftwood and flotsam, the detritus washed ashore by the ineluctable tides. Fog hung off-shore, not effected by the wind streaming around the distant headland. Gulls and terns looped the eddies, squawking.
"You read Micki's story then?" Elizabeth had asked. She wore a sunbleached, wide brimmed straw hat that tied loosely beneath her chin.
"I did. Fairly well written. Short, and the ending comes a bit abruptly, but good enough, all in all. Was it autobiography? Was she a photographer, too?"
Ebb tide. Elizabeth watched the efforts of the waves as they swirled up the beach. "Her mother was. Or pretended to be. She wasn't. I think it was merely subterfuge. She had a dance instructor who gave her the vapors. Him, I think."
The vapors, thought Grace, really? "But the nudity was her theme, wasn't it? Weston did many nudes."
"Yes. Ostensibly the nudity." Elizabeth raised her index finger and wagged it at Grace. "But there is abuse lurking behind it all, Grace. Mustn't miss that bit. And sex. Sex and violence. Always that."
Grace nodded her understanding. "And is sexuality inherent in the nudity or not?"
"That is the question. She was, or pretended to be, rather uninhibited."
"If a pretense, nudity is difficult to bring off. There is always a stiffness."
Elizabeth patted Grace's knee. "No pretense with you, child. You walk about here naked as a jaybird like it's your natural state. Quite lovely. Not the least bit awkward."
"But Micki?"
"All for show I'm afraid."
"And the story?"
"An attempt to reconcile the conflict? Or should we say 'conflicts'?"
They sat and watched pipers and killdeers play the loops of tide, feeding.
"Bernard says that when planing a piece of wood, the plane will jump and chatter when pushing against the grain. People are like that, he thinks. Probably most people."
Elizabeth smiled. "Bernar-d said that? Not just another pretty face then?"
"Sailor's face. Ruddy and weathered."
"And he weathered his storm, did he?"
Grace squinted against the sunlight looking out to sea. "They are still afloat, yes. A bit battered. There's a Coast Guard station near Eureka. Making for there."
Further up the beach, near the point, a group of children filed noisily onto the beach.
"I do hope he's all right," Elizabeth said, patting the young woman's arm.

Micki's Story

The clutter of the studio made her uneasy. She wished to straighten and dust. The books and folders were all in disarray. Photographs. An old pizza box. He had forbidden her to touch anything. This wasn’t her place, he said. It was his. Leave things be.
He had pushed books and papers aside to open the slender volume of black and white photographs. Simple it was; yet elegant. Just as the photographs were. Dancers. All nudes, or mostly so. Not erotica. Curves and shadows.
They don’t say anything,” she said.
Listen harder.”
O cute. There’s no context here. Just pictures.”
Photographs. Context all inclusive.”
What? Like paintings?”
Abstracts, smear of paint and an onion skin. That sort of thing?”
They don’t say anything either. The nudes like the morgue on TV. They make me shiver.”
Look at this one.”
They looked. The silence grew slowly palpable. She fidgeted at the buttons of her blouse. Her frazzled auburn hair framed a pale face, green eyes. An image of some too thin young girl surreptitiously picking at her wedged leotard made him smile. He shifted his weight away from her. His hands found the pockets of his coat.
Is it erotic? Do you think? Men see things different,” she said.
She over bit her bottom lip and tilted her head towards him. Her hand touched his arm.
She’s a little thin. Do I look like that? What do you think? Is she sexy?”
Umm. If you want it to be.”
That’s no answer.”
Well, it’s not about sex. Not in the conventional sense.”
Everything’s about sex. Or money. So nudes sell. Western makes money. That it?”
No what?”
It’s not about money.”
I give up. So then what is it about?”
Who’s on first.”
Nope. He’s on second.”
Who’s on second?”
Nope. Who’s on first.”
Well, who is?”
He was laughing then and shaking his head. She turned to face him, and slapped him open handed on the shoulder.
Aren’t we the superior one.”
Come on," he said, "let’s get started. You've got kinks in your number to work out."
She frowned and slumped.
He slapped her on the buttocks. "Move it Tumblelina."
She cursed. Closed her eyes and moved to the center of the room.
It was raining again, streams of water slithering through the window grime.

Elizabeth dozed at her desk with her head cradled on her folded arms. She had elbowed her glasses to the floor. On the bookshelf across the end wall, the flame of the scented candled flickered. The hard rain had passed and drizzle now eddied about the house with the wind lessening, becoming flukey, undecided. As her lower back tightened, the sharp sciatic pain would soon waken her. She slept on fitfully, dreaming of a flooded, mud covered town with listless souls wandering through abandoned buildings kneedeep in brown, brackish water.

Sunday, July 22, 2018


Nothing Done, All Resolved

Elizabeth wrote:

Ikkyu's enlightenment came after several years of study with Kaso in his small, rather decrepit temple on the shore of Lake Biwa. As usual, he had awakened just before dawn, the sun a thin orange disk above the distant smudge of hills. He had carried water and gathered kindling, then stripped to his loin cloth and walked purposefully across the pebbly foreshore to the lake. Out he rowed in the little cedar skiff, drifting, watching the sky lighten, just breathing, counting his heart beats, hearing the plunk and splash of the oar blade working, the thin creak of the bronze oarlocks turning on their shaft. He thought of Kaso's admonition: Leave your dreams in the fire pit, sonny, the old man had said. And had cackled and shooed the boy away.

This morning, with the sky just beginning to blue, with the gentle lap of water on wood, the sudden caroak of a crow startled Ikkyu. And all at once he knew, vividly aware of what lay among the ashes of the pit.

Returning to Kaso, he told the old monk what had happened, grinning, dripping, for he had fallen from the boat in his haste to reach his teacher. Kaso said: "So, you have become an arhat. Not yet a master, no. Not yet. Continue. Continue. Go dry yourself." And Ikkyu had replied: "If I am just an arhat, then I am content to be an arhat." Kaso considered him for one long moment. "In that case," the old man said, "you really are a master. I can teach you nothing." He snorted. Nothing done, he said, all resolved. Now go, you're puddling my floor."

Satori, Elizabeth thought. Such a curious business. And arhat: one who has overcome ego, or one who is worthy or one who is perfected. All depends on whom you ask. So how does a master differ?
She had seen Segovia play. A master. Flawless. She had also watched a good deal of Julian Bream performing on videos. Another master? Or perhaps just an arhat? How easily the terms---or certainly master--- carry over into any art or sport or what-have-you.
See had seen Nureyev dance. And loved the old films of Fred Astaire. Preferred Astaire to Gene Kelly. And writers. Joyce, for example. Certainly masterful; but a master? Or teachers. Her mentor, John Sherwood. Certainly a master. And Grace's Jack. "He seems a master, certainly." But masterful?
"And I do have a master's degree," she said. And a Phd. She shook her head. So much paper, she thought. So much pedantry and dogmatism. "To what purpose?"
Elizabeth stood up from her desk, and walked the length of the room to the far window. A landscaper had arrived and was grooming the neighbor's yard. How odd. A warm morning in bright sunshine. Tide at the flood from the sound of it. And where are my ravens today? She turned and walked back to her desk.
Perhaps some sand in my toes to clear my head. The woman cupped a hand behind her frog candle and puffed out the flame. Just the one this morning. Grace always going on about my candles. And these stairs. She gripped the hand rail.
"I'm not that decrepit," she said. Not yet anyway. Not yet.
"Bess," Grace called. "Bess?"
Well, that's a bit frantic. "What is it, dear? I'm coming"
Standing two steps down, Elizabeth heard the clatter of a pot in the sink.
"My tea," she said, and bumped her forehead with her hand.
Grace still stood at the sink running water on her hand when Elizabeth shuffled her way quickly down the hall and into the kitchen. The young woman leaned her hip against the counter, back to the room, shoulders hunched. Two bags of groceries stood on the table, a knit purse spilling its contents across the floor.
"Shimatta," said Elizabeth.
"Is the pot ... "
"And ... "
"I've burned my hand." Grace turned her head. "I was angry and just grabbed." She lowered her head. "Bess, how ... Oh, never mind."
"I'm sorry."
"It is a bit disconcerting."
Grace turned the tap, dried her hand, went to Elizabeth and gave her a hug. "Let me put these things away. We'll take a walk."
The stone path led them through the salal and kinnikinnick to the first of the low swales of sand. A narrow strip of wind blown white sand led off north and south with the darker, firmer, sea packed sand just now appearing, left behind as the tide began its ebb. A wind scurried down from the north ruffling the feathers of a lone gull marching back and forth near a tide pool.
"Which way?" Grace said.
"You pays your money and takes your chances," Elizabeth said. Twain used that line in Huckleberry Finn. But it's British, not American in origin. Does it matter? You pays your monkey, she thought, a wistful, thin smile, a shake of head, and said aloud, "and he do his dances."
"Who do?"
"Micki's line."
"You've left me at the dock, dear." Just her thinking out ...
"'With rue my heart is laden, for golden friends I had ...'", quoted Elizabeth. Past tense. Had. Iambic pentameter. Da dah da dah da dah. Have to read it out loud to get the gist ... 'With roux my stew is thickened,' and Micki's laughter trilled like robin song.
"Damn these ghosts and goblins." Take your walk, old woman. Get on with it.
Taking the older woman's arm, Grace said, "Let's just walk, Bess. No worries."
"Fiddlesticks," Elizabeth said.
They plodded across the soft sand. North or south? East or west? It matters not a twit which direction I go. North or south, up or down. You do the hokey pokey and ... I have the world entire to myself on this fine morning, a good morning. A good morning to shuffle off. I am of an age that teeters on the thin wire of mortality. No matter. I'll live 'till I die and not a moment longer.
Walk, woman. "Do you know the hokey pokey," she said.
"Not off the top, Bessie."
She watched the wind-lifted sand now scouring the beach, just ankle high. Like emotions abrading one's sensibility.
Leave it alone, Bess.
All these years, and the salt still stings.
Leave her be.
Yes. Well, the sensible thing to do is to take a northward heading. Come back with the wind.
Phooey. Why not strip my shirt open and fly south. Strip my britches, too. I could wander about aimlessly, could wander about naked as a jaybird, if I chose, mindless, insensible.
But prudence. Responsibility.
Yes. So fine. I'll keep my clothes on. And beat up the wind. Was that the phrase? We are so nautical these days. Grace and her Bernar-d. Just how she manages her nudity with such aplomb is a wonder.
Standing in the parlour with her morning tea, Elizabeth had watched Grace as the young woman wandered the back yard, nude. Elegant was the word, Elizabeth thought, that best described this lovely creature's form. Not classical, no. Those women tended towards the dumpy; but perhaps that's unjust. We live in an age where skinny is celebrated, but fat proliferates. She's a good deal leaner and, well, svelte. That silly word. Slyphlike a bit clumsy, but descriptive. The faint dimples just below her iliac crest adding a whimsical touch. The dimples of venus they're called. Curious.
Grace held clippers in her right hand and was trimming the two rows of raspberries. The robins had wreaked havoc with the vines that morning, eating the berries, breaking the tender limbs in their frenzy. Juncos twittered about through the shrubbery.
"The gluttons," Elizabeth said. Her small breasts and the silly line about eggs that she had forgotten as quickly as she had heard it. A joke of some sort was it? Pear shaped anyway. Her boyish hips. Not a good sign for maternity. Want those hip bones wide for child bearing. "Probably a myth, that." She sipped her tea. And that slight bend of the spine. Scoliosis is it?
And, as Grace had turned, she had scratched at a thigh, and then at the edge of the rise of her mons pubis. Another mound celebrating Venus. That goddess again. Just a mass of fatty tissue. Pubic hair all neatly trimmed. Some women get waxed, I'm told. However that works. Walks like a red Indian, one foot in front of the other.
As Grace stopped, shielding her eyes with a hand to follow gulls on the wing, she turned to the window, saw Elizabeth, smiled, and gave a parade wave with a lopsided grin.
Elizabeth raised her cup in salute. One would think that nudity would bring vulnerability; but this tall wahine exudes confidence. A satori of sorts, this comfortable movement of hers. She is without ego, certainly that is what allows such self-possession. And that seems a contradiction. To be without egocentricity; but, at the same time, be self-possessed. Like slack water it is. Between the tides there is that calm. And between the horns of life's dilemmas there is always a solution lying waiting to manifest itself. The middle path. No problem insoluble; only intellect, imagination without the wherewithall.
Elizabeth and Grace walked north against the scouring breeze, the wind just strong enough to lift the fine particles of sand and create the illusion of floating. Gulls came whirling overhead. Waves washed overlapping arcs of white foamed water up the beach and then receded.
This is best, she thought. I'll head into this little tempest and have it at my back when homeward bound. She lifted her chin and closed her eyes, caught the tang of salt and sand and sea wrack. The sun warmed her back, the earth spinning it higher and higher, the brightening sky.
They came to the logs encircling a small fire pit. The debris of imbeciles now gone, gathered by those more caring.
"Leave your dreams in the ashes," she said softly.
Mori had left the man who had taken her in without so much as a by-your-leave. Had left him dying in that shabby village. So she said. Or someone said for her. A bit of a quandary, that.
"It needs explaining," Elizabeth said.
"Your antecedent seems to be ambiguous, Professor."
"Mori. She left Ikkyu to die."
Grace, nodding, took up a driftwood stick, stirred the ashes of the firepit, spreading them, mixing sand.
"Perhaps," she said, "she simply left him to his death."

Monday, July 16, 2018


The Mist Is My Roof

Elizabeth wrote:

Ikkyu was eighteen when he became a disciple of a reclusive monk in a small Kyoto temple. Two years later, this mentor died and Ikkyu became a wandering monk disconsolate and prone to suicide.

At twenty-two, he tried to become a student of a master named Kaso who had a reputation as the sternest teacher in Japan. Kaso refused to see the young man. Ikkyu resolved to "take the mist as his roof and the reeds as his bed" until Kaso relented.

Ikkyu's determination was rewarded. As if ordained, the stern master and the ascetic young monk were perfectly matched. They passed a decade together in Kaso's rather rustic temple on the shore of Lake Biwa. His dedication to his master was unconditional. Kaso, become an old, frail little man, was often sick; and it was Ikkyu who cleaned the vomit and excrement.

With a soft gust of breeze, the curtains fluttered and the candle flame did its little dance casting delicate shadows on the sloping ceiling of the room. She lifted her glasses to the crown of her head and rubbed her eyes with her fingertips. From a mug---PSC Vikings, the decal nearly worn away with use---she took a yellow #2 and wrote a note to herself in the margin of the manuscript page.

This brief timeline of Ikkyu's youth does not jibe with the conventional portrait of the poet as an adult. Media, both modern animé and traditional woodblock prints, portray him as a rowdy rascal who spent more time in wine shops and brothels than he ever did in temples. His early reading of the Vimalakirti sutra and his subsequent training seem to give the lie to such a notion. Who was Ikkyu? Vimalakirti reincarnate?

She looked up from her desk, leaned back and gazed out the window. The man was proving to be all too illusive. And dear Mori all the more so. From downstairs she heard the soft chime of Grace's cell phone and the murmur of her voice. The tide was slack just now. The gulls raucous. Along the low white crest of rolling waves a small pod of brown pelicans stroked their way south. The gawky creatures were her particular favorites.
Standing, leaning over her desk, she peered south along the shoreline, and watched as they emerged from behind the cedars. Elegant from this distance, she thought. Looking for lunch? Or just out for a stroll?
"Or without an agenda," she said. Being a bird. Hmmm
She sat, and reread what she had written. On a notepad she wrote:

The question remains: was Ikkyu a reprobate and, if so, how does one reconcile that fact with his early training, his satori?

"Two questions, then," she said. And they beg a third: how does an enlightened man behave? How one behaves seems to me the central issue of anyone's life. Too many folks just swept along by circumstance, flotsam on the tide. Too few people act with intention. "And constancy." Easy to be chaste for an afternoon.
Elizabeth sighed. Gazed again out her window, pencil tapping desktop. She turned her head to the soft footsteps coming up the stairwell. Grace appeared and slowly sat, perched on the top step. Her face was angular and pale.
"What is it, dear?"
The young woman was slow to answer. Then, "I'm sorry to bother you, Bess."
"Not at all. I'm at a bit of an impasse anyway."
A slight shake of the young woman's head. "There's been some weather. Bernard's off the grid."
"That was the phone call?"
"Ummm." Grace ran a hand through her hair. "Too soon to worry, but ..."
The heavy surf that had raised warnings on the Oregon coast was the residual swell of a storm in the Pacific. How odd, Elizabeth thought, we so rarely think beyond our own little nests. A butterfly in China ...
"A bit unusual," Grace said, "to have weather like that this time of year. They were running south under bare poles ... " She gathered her hair, turning it to gather loose strands, and brought the long tail over her shoulder. "Weather funneling down from the northwest. Waves kept building."
"But they're all right?"
Grace shrugged. "Not enough to know." She looked away, then down, entwining her fingers, rubbing the the base of her hands together. "A friend of Bernard's ... a ship reported sighting a sailboat in distress, but could do nothing with the sea state. Breaking waves 8 - 10 meters. The Coast Guard passed along what information they had. Serendipity."
Grace nodded. "Bernard's boat."
"And little more. The ship gave a position, but ... "
"Were they in distress, could they tell? Or just thought as much."
"A quick look from a fast moving horse." A bit of a smile. "No EPIRB signal, so ... "
"Ah. Sailor talk. Emergency position-indicating radio beacon. Bullet proof little devices that transmit a boat's position." She shrugged again. "For what that's worth. 500 miles off the coast. Pinpoint. Precise. And meaningless. Too far from anywhere."
The two women sat quietly. Distant gulls mewed faintly above the slow roll and wash of the retreating tide. A sharp whistling bird call brought their eyes to the window.
"He's back," Elizabeth said. She looked at Grace with raised eyebrows, turned her hands palm up. "Well?" she said.
"The red breasted sapsucker?" Grace said.
They listened. The call repeated, then came as a series of staccato whistles with each seemingly a duplicate of the one before.
"Sapsucker it is," Elizabeth said. "Staking his territory. Saying hello. My guess anyway."
"Sharp black bill, brownish, white rump and about the size of a healthy robin."
Elizabeth smiled. "You're learning." She gathered her loose papers and put them into their folder, turned it on its back and slipped it into the corner of her desk. "He's a competent fellow, your Bernard. He'll be all right."
Grace stood, nodded and turned down the stairs. "A little pasta tonight?" she said.
"Suits me. The rigatoni? With the Romano?"
"We just have the pecorino. You thought it was a little too sharp, too salty. Yes?"
"Sheep's milk, that one is, if I'm not mistaken." She pushed herself up with a grunt. "No matter, my dear. The taste buds are getting as bad as the eyes. Need a bit of zest to perk them up. Pesto and pecorino should do the trick."
Grace started down the stairs as sirens wailed suddenly, loudly from the highway. Moving through the room, Elizabeth caught the reflection of the red and blue lights and the crunch of gravel, an ambulance turning in at the Harvey's house.
"It's next door," Elizabeth said. "Go see, Grace." The Harvey's, that was the name. Was he a doctor of some kind?
Grace went to see; but stood at the end of the driveway reluctant to intrude. They rarely saw these people, hardly knew them. As she moved around the hedge, a gurney was eased through the narrow front door. Mr Harvey stood aside rubbing his clipped hair with the palm of his hand. He leaned over and spoke to his wife as she passed.
"She's diabetic," he said to the EMT pushing the gurney. "Has a stent, three years ago. Is ... is... I'll follow you in." He started for the house, stopped, pulled keys from his pocket, and turned to the car. Seeing Grace, he gave a curt wave and walked to meet her.
"Miss Yew," he said. "Immense favor to ask." He took her by the arm. "Check the house for me, would you. I'm so rattled ... Hide-a-key in the flower pot." He moved quickly to his car, slid ponderously behind the wheel. "We're digging our graves with our teeth, we are," he said. "I'll call ... I'll ... take care of the place, would you. We were just dancing ... we were... Jesus."
A frown clouded Grace's face. What was that all about? "Grace?" called Elizabeth, faintly. Frightened, that voice? She looked up to see the woman leaning out the window. Walked towards the road as ambulance and car drove off; and, as she turned around the hedge, said, "All in hand, Bess."
"What's happening then, Grace?" Elizabeth said.
"Mrs Harvey collapsed. Don't know why. Mr Harvey asked me to check the house. All a bit odd." She gave a wave. "Be right back," she said.
The neighboring house was a small, one-story ranch painted gray. Rather drab. The yard was moss and weed, patches of grass and some creeping Charlie. The front door stood ajar. Grace pushed it open and walked through.
Inside was nothing like outside. A large central room with adjacent kitchen held a leather sofa and two leather chairs with ottomans. An ebony coffee table with carved end pieces and what appeared to be abalone inlays fronted the sofa. The table was pushed back against the sofa, and a small rug had been rolled against the table. The furniture sat on a gleaming hardwood floor.
Mr Harvey's cell phone sat on the curved island that separated the two spaces. A bottle of red wine stood open with crackers and cheese beside it. Salami. Two small plates. A cabinet door was opened and phone numbers and a conversion chart had been neatly pinned inside. The kitchen floor was tiled and the counter top was granite. Black appliances and a large free standing cast iron stove.
"Oh my," Grace said.
Floor to ceiling windows faced the sea. A brass telescope sat poised beside an armchair and table with books neatly stacked beside a brass lamp. More books lined the shelving of the far wall. Bedrooms and bathrooms were likely at either end of the house. She scanned titles. Novels and non-fiction. Books of the sea. Records occupied a bottom shelf with tapes and CDs slotted above them. An expensive looking turntable circled a record round and round and made its audible, persistent complaint, the record long over.
Grace lifted the arm, switched it off. Glen Miller. They had been dancing.
The house smelled of lemon polish and sandalwood candles. Other than a light in the master bedroom, nothing else seemed amiss. She returned the cheese to a well stocked refrigerator. Corked the wine. She left his phone where she had found it.
Returning down their driveway, Grace saw Elizabeth appear in the open Dutch doorway.
"Things are rarely as they seem," she said.
"I'll put the kettle on," Elizabeth said.