Sunday, May 27, 2018


With the second chapter the novelist begins to introduce new characters and develop those initially introduced. The plot is set on its course. Plot and character development is akin to theme development in music. A composition opens and either remains a basic pattern of theme with its distinctive melody or lyric plus a chorus or refrain; or the piece begins to develop its complexity with variations on the theme, new themes that may or may not be related to the opening theme, or a change of tempo is introduced to allow the listener to collect their thoughts or to provide the listener with a bridge to the next theme development. The simpler composition is most commonly that of popular music including folk and rock and various other genres. The more complex construction is usually found in classical music.

Novels come in all shades of complexity. Detective fiction, for example, is usually fairly simple in its conception much like the popular song. A work of literature such as Dickens' novel Bleak House is a good deal more complex with interwoven themes and subplots that enrich the plot and take its many characters hither and yon and back again. The simpler forms are often referred to as page-turners; the complex work requires a bit more concentration.

The Blind Geisha
I - 2

A Dawning, Black Tea, Pungent Bitter Tears

Elizabeth came awake in the darkness. Disoriented, she pulled her quilt to her chin, blinking eyes, dry cough. Upstairs, she thought. Still upstairs. Slowly turning her head, she saw the large, luminous numbers on the clock face. 3:09. The old trundle bed groaned as she turned to her side. She had dreamt of Micki. The inexplicable death of her friend haunted her. Tears welled in her eyes. She turned the quilt and blanket and sheet back across the bed and swung her legs to the floor, feet feeling for slippers, hands on thighs, shoulders slumped.
So irrational, these emotions. A shake of head. Friends since high school. Co-valedictorians. How proud we were. Then traveled together. They had worked at Portland State together, Michelle teaching French and Elizabeth in English. Nontenured, underpaid, they had shared an apartment on the hillside south of the campus with a fine view of Interstate 5. Then I took that position at San Francisco State, and she had gone to New York. To dance. Follow your heart, she had said. And four years later she died, a suicide.
And I went to Stanford.
Standing, she took her glasses from the nightstand and walked slowly, shuffling her feet, to her small desk and sat. Silly thing, the desk. An escritoire. Much too fancy. It did fit the space. Just under the sloping roof, the window just to her right with the horizon and brilliant light.
She would work. She would not sleep. Sleep was through with her for this night. Perhaps later. She lit the slender taper in its brass holder, a dancing frog with arm extended holding a candle. She smiled to see it. Mementos. Evoking emotion after all the years.
Mori was a dancer. No. Not quite right. She was, of course, but geishas were so much more. Most people think of geishas---no, no: geisha. Will I never learn? No plurals in Japanese. No plurals. And no gender. Like old people. A shake of head, hand swiping a comma of lank hair over her ear. People think of them as merely courtesans, prostitutes with wealthy clients. Like most generalizations, not quite right. No. And did they even exist in the 15th century?
She turned to her book stand and opened her reference book, her well thumbed copy of Nelson's character dictionary. The kanji for geisha was comprised of two characters: a woman and a branch or some sort of support. Curious. Elizabeth took a 3 x 5 card and a wedge tipped pen and drew the jukugo, the four compounds that translated geisha:

芸者 (check this) geisha
玄人 expert, professional, geisha, prostitute
女郎 girl
内芸者 geisha

She smiled to think of her own translation: a woman who bolsters male egos. And that business of the obi. Where had she found that? Geisha always tie their obi in the small of their back, and they need help to do this properly. Once tied, the obi stays tied. The prostitutes who aped the geisha tied their sashes in front. Their obi, obviously, are tied and untied many times during the course of their working day. Poor dears.
Mori was a geisha. Supposedly. We only have that scoundrel Ikkyu's word for it. The woman does not exist except in the man's poetry, and one ink drawing of the two of them. A better rendering would be helpful. Mori remains a plump, shadowy figure. Would her obi be tied in front or back?
Grace tells me this business of the obi only applies to modern times. In the past, everyone, men and women, tied their obi in front. Changing fashion in the 18th century caused the shifting obi. A clue, perhaps, for a detective story. Who was that fellow? Inspector something or other. The Wages of Zen. Otani, that was the man. Inspector Otani. File a missing person report. Looking for a blind geisha. Last seen in the 15th century. Wearing drab, worn kimono. Mori her name. Just Mori.
And why blind? How blind? Curiouser and curiouser. She chewed on the temple piece of her glasses, watching the flicker of the candle. Read from the stained brown pages of the old manuscript:

... from earliest times, walking the beach hand-in-hand with my mother remembered only as a middle aged woman, already blind ... looking from the corner of her eye, the furrows of a frown etched in her brown face ... Kurumi was her name. The haze from the whalers fire pots down the coast blowing out to sea. The old woman could smell the tang, a heavy, almost musty odor, as those rough fellows rendered the blubber all those miles away; I smelled only the sea wrack and salt and wisps of smoke from cooking fires. They made perfumes, it was said, from the huge beasts ... Early morning. Black tea, pungent and bitter.

Grace did not care for the manuscript's title: Mekura no Geisha no Monogatari. Tales of a Blind Geisha. She thought it a bit grand for the simple story it told. And the hand that wrote the kanji for that title seemed different than the hand that wrote the story. "This manuscript of ours is rather short and larded with casualisms and colloquialisms," she had said. "Title is rather grand."
"So what do you think?" Elizabeth had asked. "What was it Bashō called his travel journals? Kikō, was it?"
"Something like that. Kikou, maybe. Same difference. Usually translates as 'traveler's journal'. But did Ikkyu write this for her? Was she literate? Did she dictate the story to him? Or was she just a story teller?" Grace had smiled and shrugged her shoulders.
Elizabeth sighed and carefully slipped on her glasses.
So much to do.

She had dozed. The sound of the car on gravel had woke her. There came the heavy clunk of a car door closing, then footsteps on the gravel path. It would be Grace. She knew that walk. The kitchen door open and closed, bells chiming; and Grace called out, "Bess?"
"Upstairs, dear."
At the foot of the stairs, Grace said, "I've some groceries. I'll just get things put away and be up."
"No hurry."
"Did I wake you?"
"No no. Up early again. Just dozing. Just ..."

Elizabeth sat in her rocker. How often she spent her afternoons in the comfortable chair, gazing at the sea, or the distant line of the horizon. Was the chair a replica of Jefferson's rocker? She didn't know. It was called a Jefferson style mission rocker, but ... the leather cover on its cushion had been replaced with faux leather which pleased her. The oak was often cleaned and polished; but showed its wear and tear. Older than she was, this chair. By fifty years or more. She smiled to think of it.
"Ikkyu might well have tagged it with monogatari," Grace said. "Don't you think? He was impudent enough."
"That could be it. Or someone else who thought to make it a bit grander, more valuable. A 20th century gambit."
Grace stood, stretched, and moved to the window. She gently pulled the curtains aside. Crows in the the branches of the pine. Beyond, the now hushed sweep of wave at ebb tide. Shiomachi, she thought. 'Awaiting the tide.'

... early morning, shouts, confusion, a woman's scream ... I was still just a child. A man poked his head into our hut, the salt maker, he yelled at my mother, grabbed her arm; but she broke free, gathered me in her arms. Fire swept quickly through our little village. Smoke blowing up the hillside, the temple bell in the distant village clanging, clanging ... wood and paper now ashes, couples shifting the cooling debris, the whalers still sitting on the beach, too late ... I sat on the hard sand with wavelets tickling my feet building castles, patting the coarse wet sand ... I ate a pickle ... my mother was dead ...

Kurumi. That translated to 'walnut'. Grace drew the kanji:


Complicated for such a simple thing. Old and moon and tree and ... what? Omen? Sign? Did Mori's mother simply look like a walnut and so acquired the name? A nickname? Or given? It is a woman's name. Grace found many "Kurumis" listed in her Japanese names dictionary. Different kanji than walnut, but ... A given name become a nickname?
So many questions. Too few answers. She should just fictionalize the whole business and be done with it. The manuscript had arrived two months ago. Well traveled, the package had gone to Stanford first, then back to her colleague at Tohoku in Sendai. Emails went back and forth and hither and yon, as emails will; but the sheaf of yellowed paper had finally arrived. A photocopy of a handwritten copy? Ikkyu's hand? They agreed that the title was spurious. They disagreed on the translation of what seemed to be the original heading. Grace thought Slack Water was more literal and faithful to the intent of the story. Elizabeth thought a more impressionistic rendering better served Mori's brief autobiography: Awaiting the Tide. And this title also provided the connotation of waiting for opportunity to knock. Middle aged, now nearly blind herself, was Ikkyu her 'opportunity'?

...sweeping the stone path, an old man---the niwashi, the gardener? a curt nod, as I looked away to see him, he looked again to see me ... a glare? no, not severe; stern, face set, but something mischievous played about his mouth : a cat stalking a thrush through the azaleas ...

In the corner of the window, a spider's web. Unusual, thought Grace. Bess cleaned this room herself, did not want Mrs Alston to bother as all too often books and papers and cups littered every surface. Too high? Just missed it? Grace reached up easily, intending to sweep the web away with her hand; stopped herself, reached above the window and ran a finger along the top of the casing.
"What are you doing, Grace?" Elizabeth looked amused.
"You saved the web."
"I did."
Lithe. And lissome, thought the older woman. A good head taller than I am. Such a beautiful child. Cooped up here with me. "Have you done anything more with those kanji for 'geisha'?" she asked.
"I have. Several pages. Nothing definitive. Fairly certain 'geisha' as a title didn't become common until 1550 or so. Shirabyōshi, usually translated as 'white rhythm', had been in use for centuries as a name for the women who dressed in white and performed street dances. Geisha developed from that beginning. The kanji reflect different views of these women; and they were no doubt all those things and more. Certainly a kept woman; but how she was kept makes all the difference. And by whom."

I had come to Shuon'an to conduct a tea ceremony for the abbot. Two sisters of the trade and I came from Nara by the old road. The temple was beautifully restored by a priest named Ikkyu, iconoclastic fellow who by reputation enjoyed his wine and his women. He was shorter than I imagined, and we giggled behind our fans to see him sweeping the stones so earnestly ...

"And how is your 'whom', dear? Will he be coming down this weekend?"
A shake of the head, her lopsided smile, the left side of her mouth arcing up, silly grin, self-effacing, somewhat rueful. "Has a delivery," she said.
"Yes. Oh."
"Where to this time?"
Grace looked to the window. "Tahiti," she said.
"That Bernard," Elizabeth said, pronouncing the 'd'.
A glance from Grace.
"I said it wrong, didn't I." Elizabeth tapped the side of her head with her knuckles.
"It's nothing," Grace said.
"No no, you get that blank look on your face when you're ... not angry, but ... but frustrated. The animation leaves your eyes. Is it the pupils contracting? I don't know. You stand more erect. A hundred little things.
Grace smiled. "Well ... "
"I am sorry."
"You never once misspoke when he was here."
"Yes, I know. Bernard. French. No 'd'. Dementia creeping in. Soon be blithering. Ship me off to Nova Scotia."
"Oh pooh."
"Well, perversity then."
"You didn't care for him, did you. Not really."
Elizabeth turned her head to the window. Caught just so, the brightness through the glass took on depth; contrasted with the shadows on the walls, she imagined a tunnel of light, infinite and alluring. Her fancy was that wisdom awaited at the far end.
"I was disappointed for you," Elizabeth said. "He is always here and gone, away for months at a time, leaving you ... I thought ... I think you deserve better."
Grace put a hand on Elizabeth's shoulder. "Bernard with a 'd'," she said.
"Bernard with a 'd'."
Grace stood over the older woman, sunlight beginning to fill the room.
"So irrational, our emotions," Elizabeth said.
"Aren't they just," Grace said. She patted the shoulder of her friend.

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