Saturday, June 23, 2018


Steadily Falls The Rain

They sat at the kitchen table opposite each other, the room redolent with brewing tea and flickering candles. Books lay open, papers scattered in a haphazard fashion, an old mug bristling with sharp pencils, a pot simmering on the stove adding onion and garlic and peppers to the mix.
"Listen to this waka," Grace said. She held a book open with a flat hand, read: "'Flowers withering, colors fading: I spend these meaningless days in the world and steadily falls the rain'." She looked across the table at Elizabeth. "The poet is Ono no Komachi. She was, supposedly, the beauty of the Heian period. Angst from a 1000 years ago. Must have had an agile mind, as well. The woman was rather well known for her kakekotoba. Imagine that. Only eleven poems survive, all in the Kokinshu. That anthology is dated 905, and in its preface is the only biographical data we have of Ono no Komachi. One line states that she lived 'recently'. Pity we have so little"
"Umm. Poignant, your poem," Elizabeth said. "Her poem. A trope is it, that kakekotoba?"
"Yep." Grace thumbed a page. "Here: trope: a rhetorical device, da-dah da-dah ... using words figuratively. Metaphors, for example. Yes?"
"Department of Redundancy Department, my dear." Elizabeth tilted her head, smiled.
"Oops. Of course."
"I have done a trope or two, too."
"I blush," Grace said. "Prating to the professor."
"Pfui." Elizabeth sipped tea. "So, your kakekotoba ..."
"Well, a rather simple business, Dr Reece, in Japanese. That particular trope makes use of phonetic readings. Instead of kanji, one writes using hiragana. And, willy nilly you get multiple meanings."
"Similar to homophones in English, I believe," said Elizabeth. "'Through' and 'threw'."
"And 'two' and 'too'. Which you just ... I missed that. Pedantic, I am. Didactic to a fault. I'm sorry."
Elizabeth laughed. "Not to worry, child. Age will bring indifference. Go on with the dissertation."
"Pay attention now class," Grace said, and stuck her tongue out at Elizabeth. "Ecoutez. Ici. Have a look." On a blank notebook page, Grace wrote:

"That's matsu meaning 'pine tree'. This:

is matsu meaning 'to wait'. The same word, different characters, can also mean 'depend on', 'tip', 'posterity', or 'necessarily'. Probably others as well. So the poet uses hiragana, the phonetic syllabary to write:


The symbols for 'ma' and 'tsu'. And the meaning must be derived from context. You see?"
Elizabeth sipped tea, considered. "So you get," she said, "pine tree necessarily waiting on a hot tip for posterity."
Grace laughed, raised a mug and said, "All good for the poet."
Elizabeth's stomach gurgled quietly. "Oops, hello. The smell of your chili is making me hungry. Jalapenos?"
"Of course."
"Three bean?"
"Yes ma'am. No cumin." A shake of the head from Grace, a bleak look. "Without cumin it's hardly chili, but ..." They had argued the point for several months. The young woman ran a hand through her thick, dark hair. "Compromise. Not cumin."
"You're too kind, child," Elizabeth said. "I'll do the cornbread."
"Honey. No sugar."
"Of course. And the unsalted butter."
"I really can't tell the difference, can you?"
Elizabeth shook her head, "No," she said, "but sometimes it's best to stay between the lines." The woman reached for a book. "Hoover claims---well, I suppose it's Bokusai. Whomever. The claim is that Ikkyu was reading the Vimalakirti Sutra at age eleven." She moved a folder, set aside two paperback books, and took up a faded typed manuscript. "Listen. This is that sutra. Does it seem reasonable that an eleven year old boy would comprehend this?" She read:

This body is like earth that has no subjective being. This body is like fire, devoid of ego. This body is like wind that has no set life span. This body is like water, devoid of individuality. This body has no reality but makes these four elements its lodging.

Grace nodded. "It does seem a bit much. The images would be familiar though. Burton Watson translation?"
Elizabeth nodded.
"Fire, wind, water. And you forget, I think, his environment." The young woman sat back, hands cupping the warm mug, legs crossed, sipped, and said. "As a child, growing up in Hong Kong, I attended a private school for the sons and daughters of wealthy parents. My parents were not wealthy, but my father was an influential government official and spiritual leader in the community. I had shown promise rather young, and so was admitted."
"I had no idea, Grace. Not Hawaii then?"
A faint smile. "That was a bit later. After my parents died."
The two women had worked together for a bit more than three years. Elizabeth had advertised for a writing assistant. Some knowledge of Japanese was required. A salary was offered. A mutual friend at the University of Oregon introduced an untenured instructor named Grace Yew to Elizabeth. The two women, young and old, shared intelligence and reticence, and a penchant for words and language.
"Hakka was my first language," Grace said. "And then English. Cantonese. Japanese in Hawaii."
"How curious," Elizabeth said. "One of my favorite writers is Amy Tan. She wrote a book in which hakka people figure prominently. Is she hakka, do you suppose."
Grace stood, walked to the sink, and set her cup down. Stirred the chili. The window above the sink looked out on the front yard, a cloistered patch of grass and wild flowers, laurel hedge thick and surrounding. "She has always said she was an American writer. I think, if she were hakka, she would say so. Very proud people, we hakka." She turned from the window, leaning against the counter. "Hubris our dominant trait."
Distant bird call filled a brief silence. From a bedroom, the quiet, repetitive tone of the young woman's cell phone.
I'm too proud to quit now. Micki's reply. Elizabeth remembered the bleak look on her friend's face, then closed her eyes and took a long breath. "I'm sorry about your parents," she said. "Do you need to get that?"
A shake of the head. "The oddest thing," Grace said. "I felt so very little. I remember so little. They flew off to Canton. And were gone." She came to the table, sat. "In Hawaii, I felt so very like a displaced person, and so became reclusive. My uncle's family were related by marriage to the Lee family, sugarcane. Became wealthy. I was considered a prodigy, went to the best schools. My aunt was an ethnographer. Taught at the University of Hawaii. Specialized in traditional Hawaiian culture. She it was who introduced me to surfing. I balked, though, at hula."
"My goodness, one would never guess. Surfing"
"Me and Waikiki. Just like all the other haoles."
"A term for all non-native Hawaiians. Mostly you fish bellies though, luahine."
The women laughed.
"I was smothered in their kindness and concern; but all I wanted to do was surf. I'd run away. They'd find me on North Shore. Surfing the Waiamea or hangin' at the shrimp trucks. Surfing was my salvation. Then, a millstone around my neck."
"I don't recall it mentioned on your résumé."
"A polyglot beach bum."
"And beautiful."
A shrug. "Eyes of the beholder," Grace said.
"Yes, well. Formidable then. Anyway you slice it, my dear. I'm so glad you're here."
She had met Jack in the park in Ala Moana. He was a small man, old; she was a tall, young woman. Both were of Hakka descent; but he had Japanese on his father's side. They cradled their boards under their arms and walked purposefully across the beach. His board was long and heavy, but he managed it with aplomb, his long usage making for ease. He walked with a slight limp, his right knee bearing the long scar of surgery.
Grace shorten her stride, switched her short board to her left side, and walked just a step behind her teacher.
Jack made a good living teaching surfing. He supplemented his income by wagering with haoles. No one could ride the Pipeline like Jack; but to look at the man, who would think he could produce such grace and elegance. He used the disparity between looks and reality to good effect. Sandbagging the puffed up white boys, he took them out, explained how the waves were brought up short on the shallow reef, how they formed the incredible tubes of water.
"You don't want to fall out dere, boys. Cut you up bad thing." Shaking his head, frowning, talking his stunted English, giving what was expected. And out they would paddle. Jack would pick a small breaker, ride it clumsily just short of a tube, then kick out. "You try, you fellas," he called out to his students. And so it would go. Jack upping the ante with each wave.
Then, "Bigger set comin' now," Jack told them. "Probably want to let 'em by."
"Ah, we can ride them."
"Naw, too big dees wave."
"You sit then; we're going for it."
"Bad bet, boy."
"My money talks, Jack. $10 says I tube this one."
"Well, I give you the line, kick out. You follow, go where you like. 'Kay?"
"Don't hurt yourself, dude." And they laughed.
And Jack paddled before the curling sea, stood as it broke, changed his line left with a deft push on his back foot, and accelerated down the face, the tube forming, Jack bending from the waist, walking to the nose, palms together as if in prayerful thanks for the wonder of waves, popping out as the tube snapped closed, quick shuffling suriashi back to kick out and down, paddling back out, a shaka shake of hand at the boys, hang loose, fellas, who sat and then shouted and pumped their fists.
"My style is like Jack's," Grace said. "Or was. It has been awhile. I was fifteen then." She went to the stove, stirring the chili with a wooden spoon, reflecting. "He couldn't bend that knee so well, so he was always more upright, very old school. Me too."
"1991," Elizabeth said
"I was being 'retired' by the regents of Leland Stanford Junior University."
"Really? That surprises me."
"Humph. I had published a story entitled 'Pruning'. One of my favorite characters: David Littlease. Through David I rather excoriated administrators. Someone took offense, as someone will. That led to ..." Elizabeth shrugged.
"Humph indeed," Grace said.
"And your Jack, he injured that knee how?" Elizabeth had no desire to dredge the past. Her past anyway.
"Well, as a young man, he worked on Lanai, harvesting pineapples. In 1953, a general strike was organized. Certainly the workers were exploited. Like everywhere else. Generally, all the strikes on the various islands were peaceful events. This one got a little rough. The company, Castle and Cooke brought in some strike breakers. They brought clubs. Jack and several others were badly beaten. His knee was the result."
"The haves and the have-nots. All of history is filled with that struggle."
"The impetus for Karl Marx."
"The French Revolution," Elizabeth said.
"Not to mention our own little story of Mori and Ikkyu. The have-nots take the brunt of all the world's brutality."
"So much cruelty. Why do you suppose that is?" Elizabeth said.
Grace gave her little shrug. "Can't know, I would say. Maybe too much nature, too little nurture." A tilt of head, considering. She stood and moved to the stove. Took up her wooden spoon and stirred the chili. Turning, she softly recited Ikkyu's poem:

Cold, hot, pain, pleasure, time to be ashamed.
Ears from the beginning are two pieces of skin
One, two, three, ah! three, two, one.
Nan-ch'uan with a flick of the wrist killed the cat.

She gave again her little shrug.

Sunday, June 17, 2018


Aural Moments, a brief aside

Leo Brouwer is a Cuban composer of international repute. In a conversational interview with Welsh composer Stephen Goss and classical guitarist John Williams, Brouwer touches on a key element in his music that he refers to as an 'aural moment.' The ear percieves a sound and an association is formed. His example was that of a man studying a piece of music and suddenly 'remembers' that he must call his lover.
The link between these aural moments or impressions and similar visual moments when viewing a painting seems compelling. Likewise, reading or hearing language evokes similar moments. And it is not the paragraph or sentence or even word that provides that moment; but rather it is the syllable or morpheme, the smallest bit of language, which reaches us and moves us.
Popular music often glosses over these elemental sounds with harmonies and melodic phrasing. Brouwer suggests that those behind mass media have money as their prime motivator. This seems equally true of the written word. Popular fiction such as the detective story or romance novel often simplifies the language much as journalism does. 'Literature' does not sell (and if it does, is not read).
Brouwer's contention is that the culture of a people is contained in these elemental moments. His pieces are larded with bits and pieces from all the various influences of Latin American music from African folk ritual to Catholicism. Literature does exactly the same. Shakespeare's language resonates with the cultural detritus from the long history of evolving and devolving European languages.
We live in a discontinuous world, says Brouwer. So difficult to discriminate between the beautiful and the ugly. Our brains are bombarded by 'shit', says Brouwer, and soon we are humming commercial jingles with great enjoyment. The antidote? Strive to keep that marvelous organism, our brain, always 'clean'. So says, Leo Brouwer.

I - 5

Death And Dust Motes, Seagull Squawk

Elizabeth wrote:

The fire from the Imperial palace blazed, and ash diffused and fell over the southern reach of the city. Ikkyu and Mori hurried down the grand boulevard jostled by crowds of scurrying people, acrid smoke stinging eyes, noise of men's screams and the clash of katana, Ikkyu resigned, taking Mori's arm, leading her as she lent him support, turning west before the shrine, the woman suddenly dismayed to hear in the tumult the floating, poignant notes from a shakuhachi, hurrying on, the couple wading the Kamo, corpses littering the shoreline, mud clinging to their geta, making for the low distant hills in the east.

They had thought to go to Daitoku temple to the north, but the fighting around the Imperial Palace and Nijo castle was too fierce. The fools were destroying the city, burning the palaces and temples, killing each other and for what? Their minds go no futher than the blades of their katana, Ikkyu thought. Vainglorious.

The woman took her glasses from her face, closed her eyes and sighed. So much she didn't know. Couldn't know. The 'pillow book'---if that is what it was---that Grace had discovered helped considerably. Yet the details of a life so long ago remained all too elusive. Wading the Kamo? Even possible? Tradesmen and daimyo, samurai and farmers, all who traveled the rural roads between the burgeoning cities were required to wade rivers. The local towns provided carriers and for a price you needn't get your hakama wet. But Kyoto during that 15th century war?
She chewed on the curved temple piece of her glasses, ruminating, the word bringing a smile and the vision of cows mooing and the green grass and the blue sky. A shake of her head, then Elizabeth slipped the glasses back on. A note for Grace. We'll find out more about Kyoto and the war. Fiction is fine; but one mustn't ask the reader to make herculean efforts to suspend their beliefs.
She had spent the morning on the beach. Someone had partied up by North Point, and their fire still smoldered. Wine bottles and beer cans, cigarette butts and pizza crusts, melon rinds littered the camp. A charred remnant of a wool blanket. And the trampled path through salal to the road. The gulls had drawn her there.
Glaucous gulls. Eat anything, they will. How aggressive they get. Over what? And that little fellow. Perched up on the log. Waiting. One legged, how odd. He sounds like a little terrier. That injury must teach patience. Not from around here, are you, young man. She took her phone from a pocket, fumbled with the settings and snapped an image.
"We'll put a name to you soon enough."
Names call, she thought. Bit of hocus-pocus. From what? Read it somewhere or other. Allusion a mystery. Micki's step-mother, she with her hennaed hair and the dog in a pouch hung from her neck. The dog yipped like the little bird. How Michelle loathed that woman. Lucille was her name, but everybody called her Lu.
"I had just met her. Sweet 16," Elizabeth said. "More hocus-pocus. Nothing sweet about it."
The one-legged bird squawked louder and hopped to the end of its log.
It was 1953, bird. The year Hank Williams died. We had that in common. New Year's day. And the boy with the guitar. He used to sing those odd lyrics to 'Whistle While You Work', Disney's bit of brainwash from 'Snow White'. He just strummed the strings. Didn't know any chords. Whistle while you work, Hitler was a jerk, Mussolini bit his weinie and now it doesn't work.
"Bit vulgar, that, bird." Must have been younger. We were at the bus stop. Third grade? Something like. The Japanese have a much healthier attitude towards nudity and sex and bodily functions. Why is that, do you suppose?
"I'll ask Grace."
Mori's education had began truly when she was taken to Kyoto after the fire. Her okiya was on Shijō Dori and just to the east and across the river was the Yasaka Shrine. Gion it was called in Mori's time. The little girl saw it every morning, walking to the tea house and back.

Step, step, step, said the okaa-san. Clumsy child, listen how your heels slap the ground. Slide your foot, skim the ground. Small steps make much grace. Suriashi. They slowly moved up the narrow street with all the bustle of early morning around them, the clumsy, bumptious girls urging customers into the tea shop, the old fellow with the stained hands mixing his dyes and singing nonsense songs as he worked, the solemn rice merchant with his curt nods and hissing salutations. Ahead in the distance was the Gion Shrine with its imposing red lacquered walls, the upturned, sweeping lines of its roof, the green trees.

Look behind now. Ten steps and look behind. The older woman sighed. No no, child, she said. You crane around like a fishmonger looking for the rude little urchins with the quick hands. Slowly, turning first the foot, slowly, then ... like so. Turn now. Better. That way the river. The Kamo? Mori asked.
Hai. Right you are. And that way? The Shirakawa? The little river with the white sand? Good. Now we walk. Suriashi. Step, step, step.

A carpenter, wielding his wooden mallet, grunted with each blow. Whack. Whomp. Whack. Mori wrinkled her nose, covered her ears, turned away. The noise of the city oppressed her. Tears welled. The okaa-san placed a hand on her shoulder. Make a small rice ball, you see, like so. And the woman mimicked wadding a handful of cooked rice into a ball. Not too big now. Then, plop the little ball into your hungry mouth. Chew chew chew. Swallow. All gone. Wakarimasu ka. Understand? Yes? And just then the burly carpenter shouted out, oide onna, oide. Okaa-san put her hands over Mori's ears. Walk on, child. Walk on. Step, step, step.

The helicopter, flying low enough so that even Elizabeth with her dim vision could make out the orange striping on the white machine, rounded the point, and clattered south. The patch of black meant the side door was open. A search on?
"My God, they are noisy beasts."
Three more gulls circled overhead, fluttered wings and landed. They walked like roosters on the prowl, Elizabeth thought. So proud. Step, step, step. She shook her head.
Suriashi. Footwork. Over and over. When Michelle first started with dance it was baby steps. Her words. Baby steps. She practiced in the hallway of their house. Down and back. Down and back. The girl's got the loose screw, Lucille said, twirling a finger at her temple.
But her mother's opinion mattered not at all to Micki. Down and back. Baby steps. Again and again. Obsessive. Like a boxer without the bloody nose, she said. It's all about footwork. Her diary ended with so much doubt. Typical for a teen-age girl. Atypical for Micki. She had come to doubt her ability. She had decided on Oregon State, and a career as a teacher. For the last entry in the diary, she had written:

dance requires not just faith in yourself, but also some talent. I lack the talent. I think I lack the talent. Everyone wants to play for the Yankees, but ... compromise, compromise, compromise

And wrote no more.

She had left behind two cardboard boxes and a crate of books when she had gone off to New York. Left them with Lucille. Ten days after her death, Lucille had called.
"You want 'em you can have 'em. Cluttering the closet," the woman had said.
Clutter. There would be no memorial service. No closure. I took the boxes and the crate. Clothes and text books. And a few items I kept. Reality sends us in search of explication, analogy. The substantive argues for reality. Professor Sherwood. She had put the oddments of her friend's life in a shoebox; had made an inventory. Her diary, unlocked, without the key. A tea caddy---where had that come from? There was a story attached to the little dish, but she couldn't remember. Mallarmé's book. The picture they'd taken of themselves in the backyard of the beach house, embracing, silly grins, BFF on the back and how quickly forever fades, those two in the picture now no more, Micki to dust returned and she become just this tattered sack of bones and flesh but resolved, assured, her pound of flesh duly paid, and life, O fractious life, and death certainly a continuum, dust motes in the whirlwind, neither one nor the other any better than an eyelids flutter ...
A small silken pouch contained the gold band on a fine strand of linked gold chain that she had given her friend on her departure to New York.
Elizabeth pushed herself to her feet to a chorus of bird squawk. She reached inside her blouse and took the ring between thumb and forefinger. Held it to the light. The one-legged bird squawked and hiphopped down its log towards the woman. The gulls strutted away picking at bits of kelp and broken shells. She sighed, Shook her head.
"Micki," she said.

Saturday, June 9, 2018


The Japanese term waka refers to a type of poem that has its origins in classical Japanese literature. A waka and its collateral forms consist of at least three phrases the first of which has five characters and the second two with seven characters each. The longer forms simply vary the phrase pattern and then uses repeated patterns to lengthen the poem.. The most common form of waka is known as tanka. It has five phrases of 5-7-5-7-7 characters. Commonly, the first three phrases pose a problem, and the last two phrases resolve the problem.

Novels often are plotted, roughly speaking, on an existing framework. The scheme of Joyce's Ulysses, obviously, alludes to the Greek classic of the wandering Aeneas; and Joyce's character 'wanders' through equivalent adventures. Lewis Carroll, in Through The Looking-Glass, used a chess problem to structure his plot.

The Blind Geisha uses the waka format for structure. Three parts of five sections each allude to the classic poem format. Problems presented in the first three sections of each part are resolved in the final two sections (each of these begins with '... Elizabeth wrote ...')

The novel is published sequentially beginning with the post of May 21, 2018.


Elizabeth wrote:

The short prose introduction that Ikkyu added to his poem Pai-chang's hoe poses more problems then it solves. He addresses Mori, in most translations, as my blind attendant, Mori; but the characters he uses offer many opportunities for variation. Literally, the characters from the first line translate as 'blind', 'woman', her name 'Mori', 'samurai' or 'one who serves', 'feelings', 'love' and a marker that indicates that a person is the subject of the phrase or sentence. There is one other character that we have had difficulty with. Grace suspects we have selected the wrong radical. The image of the ideograph is smeared and unclear. We have an inkling, but would like to be sure.

The first consideration is this: If Mori is professing her love for him, surely their relationship is beyond that bland naming. "Mori, my blind friend' or 'my blind companion' might be more appropriate. Ikkyu was never one to stand on ceremony.

If the dating of the poem places the composition during the calamity of the Ōnin War, then much is explained. Kyoto was the battlefield for that conflict. The city was devastated. Those who could flee, did so. Ikkyu and Mori were, for a time, in Takigi; but the war found them there and they fled to Sumiyoshi.

And what of her refusal to eat. She has attempted and failed at suicide once before (or so says Ikkyu). They are short of both money and food. The war rages on (The Ōnin War---need more on this); and all the horrors and deprivations of such a conflict do not spare this odd couple. Is this why she refuses to eat? What food they have, she wants Ikkyu to eat. Does she feel that she has become a burden? There are characters for pain and grief, for anxiety, for bitterness. Suicide, in 15th century Japan, did not bear the onus or reprobation that our culture brings to that act. More honorable than not. So Mori's attempt must be seen as noble and selfless. Ikkyu certainly must have viewed it as such. Were they on the run?

Another consideration is this: Seppuku, or ritual suicide, had already become the accepted means of discharging the debt incurred by one's misdeeds or failures. Jigai, Japanese for suicide, is made up of two characters: 自害. (Need more on this business. Another bit of research for Grace.)

Elizabeth removed her glasses, rubbed her eyes. And where was the nobility and selflessness of Michelle's death? Sordid, it seems, more desperate than otherwise. Or so I thought at the time.
"Still think so. A waste, such a waste."
Something you might should want. Such nonsense.
Elizabeth pushed herself away from the desk and stood. Another early morning, candlelight and quiet. She didn't particularly care for the scent of vanilla that the candle in her old brass lantern gave off. Exuded. That's the word. Had Grace given her that one? Somebody. She turned and walked the length of the room; peered out the window that looked onto the carport and beyond, the tiled roof of her neighbor's summer home. Rather large people. Name forgotten. No doubt I'll dredge it up later.
She turned and walked back to her desk. Twenty steps. Mincing? Was that the word? Hercule Poirot's walk. With his little gray cells. Not one to mince words. Or onions. She made a note on her post-it pad to check with Mr Skeat on 'mince.' Have some mincemeat pie for lunch.
The incessant chirping, almost yapping, like a small dog, of her Douglas squirrels brought her to the window. There they were, circling the trunk of the pine. So territorial. Must be males. They both shared the small wooded corner of her property. The adjacent lot had a few cedars, but mostly a sizable wood of stunted scrub pine, specie's name actually appropriate: pinus contorta.
Elizabeth snubbed out the taper in the dancing frog, puffed twice at her lantern. She would take a walk before lunchtime. Grace this afternoon.
"We need to finish that translation," she said. And that errant kanji. Must be somewhere. Must be.

A neap tide, gulls and whimbrels, plovers and the oddly named killdeers all feeding across the wide apron of sand. Kelp strands littered the far end of the beach, and just beyond were the tide pools where Elizabeth spent so many afternoons poking with her stick.
Poking the little gray cells, she thought, considering a rather large anemone. "Fat little fellow, you are," said the woman. The tentacles are living organisms. How did they work that out? Nematocysts. Like a barbed arrow, piercing and poisonous. Just a polyp, a sac that eats.
She was squatting on her haunches; as Grace walked down the beach towards her the young woman called out and waved the envelope that she held in her hand.
"A problem solved," Grace said.
"Oh good," said with a grunt as Elizabeth pushed herself to her feet.
"That kanji we couldn't translate?" Grace said.
"Just as we thought. 'Very' covers it, but it seems to me that something a bit more intense is needed."
"Then just use 'intense'." And Elizabeth quoted the line: "Mori, my blind friend, has such intense feelings of love ..."
Grace nodded. "That will do nicely." They entwined arms walking the hard sand at water's edge. "The radical is number 99, amai, with a meaning of 'sweet' or ''slightly sugared'. The compound we were looking for is Jin, meaning 'exceedingly' or 'severe' or 'intense'. Some others."
"Ah." Said softly. Elizabeth shuffled along, stopped, sighed.
"Are you all right, Bess?"
"Just the whirlies, dear."
She disliked this feeling of dizziness. Happens all too often these days, she thought. Vertigo. Turning in Latin. Turning ... "Just getting old. Stood up too quick," she said. And afflicted. Benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. Ever since my bad ear.
"Shall we sit?"
"No no. It passes." She nodded down the beach. "We'll walk to the creek."
A small stream ran off the hillside, cut the low dunes, and fanned across the beach to the sea. A path followed the creeks meander through the dunes and brought the walker back to the gravel road that led to several houses built along the bluff. The loop from beach to road to home was just short of two miles and Elizabeth managed it daily.
She said, "Have you noticed, the smell of the tides, how distinct they are?"
"You have the nose, Beth. I'm immune."
"Had a fellow down visiting me. Fisherman, he was, biologist. Started in on sulfate-reducing bacteria, critters feeding on sulfur ... no, not 'fur', 'fates' ... sulfates. Said that was what caused that funky tang like rotten eggs. Decomposers at work. How he did go on."
"And not so much when the tides in. Yes?"
"That's right. Sweeter then. Amai, desu ne."
Grace laughed.
"The eyes fail, the nose compensates," Elizabeth said. "Though the vastness of the horizon is clear enough, bright enough, to stun my reason." She stopped and turned to the sea. "The sea-glim. Nothing there, nothing not there. Not an original thought, that. Some poem. Forgotten. Most people miss that empty enormity. They watch waves or gulls. The more observant might see a boat or ship, passing. The prescient few might be found by the whale's misty spout. Or earth's elegant arc. How odd that the most profound is hidden by such simplicity." She patted the young woman's hand. "I'm sorry, dear. I ramble. Saying nothing. Just a maudlin old woman today. What's our latitude and longitude here? Do you know? We need a little science for ballast."
"44º north, 124º west." Grace smiled.
"Now why in the world would you know that?"
"You forget Bernard."
A vacant look, a dawning. "The sailor," Elizabeth said. "And Tahiti?"
"17º south, 149º west."
"You miss that fellow, don't you?"
Grace shrugged. "He was good company."
They stood quietly as the swish of wave, a bit of white foam, began to run up the beach and surround them.
"If one could truly see," said Elizabeth, "there he'd be on his little boat out riding the big ocean."
"If one could truly see."
"And Ikkyu. Him, too. Wandering the streets, Mori in tow."
"With her shamisen."
"Yes, she must have had one. Was there ever a mention?"
"We'll look again. Perhaps when they were in Sumiyoshi. He was down with dysentery again. Then there was something about earning some money begging on the Taika Bridge; but perhaps it wasn't begging at all. Perhaps it was entertaining. We'll check the kanji."
"We shall. But enough. Let's be home. Crackers and cheese, I think, and some of that Beaujolais you brought down."
"No work this afternoon?"
"Oh, we'll find something to do. Still need a timeline for Iccky. Maybe do that? Or make up a life for our friend, Mori."
"Fiction truer than life."
"Often think life is a fiction."
Hand in hand now, the two women angled across the dry soft sand, trudging to the creekside path that led to the road. Head down, Elizabeth's breathing became labored.
"Ah," she said.
"Rest?" asked Grace, slowing.
"No, no. No matter."
Robin song; in the distance, a barking dog raised the shrill cry of a small child.

Sunday, June 3, 2018


Novels, whether short or long, simple or complex, derive from the same source: the mind of the novelist. Though results will vary, only two paths are open to the writer: magic or muscle. Often the initial impetus for a story comes willy-nilly, out of the air, and this is attributed to the 'muses', a creative force posited by classic Greek thinkers and firmly rooted in Greek mythology.

Composers, and other creative artists, experience the same magic. A melody line seemingly comes from nothing, and then becomes the grain of sand around which the pearl of song is created. Writers are occasionally fortunate enough to have the words tumble out onto the page as though the story were writing itself.

More often, once a beginning is made, it becomes necessary to plant oneself in a chair and work through all the problems that arise until a satisfactory conclusion is reached. Muscle suggests the difficult work this entails. If thinking were easy, everyone would do it.

I - 3

The Distinct Hiss Of Distant Surf

Elizabeth cleaned her glasses with a rub on the hem of her gray cotton robe. She adjusted the angle of the blue composition book and wrote:

In order to draw Mori with any accuracy at all, it is necessary to sketch Ikkyu.

He was born into the stifling milieu that was Kyoto court life of the late 14th century. He was the son of a lady-in-waiting at the imperial palace of Emperor Gokomatsu, who chose from time to time to 'show her favor'. His mother was a concubine, literally a woman who lives with a married man but who has distinctly lower status.

This last sentence troubled her. 'Concubine' was sufficient, she thought, and drew a thin, straight line through the 'literally' descriptive. We have not yet discovered the poor woman's name, she thought. Certainly there must be records, but ... The empress accused Ikkyu's mother of sympathy for a competing political faction, certainly just a pretext to act on her jealousy; and had the poor woman banned from Kyoto. Ikkyu, son of an emperor and a woman of a samurai family, was born in a commoner's house on New Year's Day, 1394.

The stony path that the young man followed was common enough for those distant centuries. Raised in Ankokuji, a village near Kyoto, at age five he was 'given' to a Zen temple in the city. Known as an imperial son, he was a potential threat to the powers that be. His foster mother, presciently, chose to make him an acolyte. This also removed a hungry mouth from her table. And so began the boy's classical education.

Five years old. True, he would be doing menial tasks initially. Sweeping, carrying water, carrying wood. Even so, sutras are difficult enough for me to understand, but a boy of say nine or ten? She stretched her arms out horizontally, a turn forward, a turn backward---keeping up the pretense, she thought---and pushed herself up with her hands on the edge of her desk, peering out the dormer window.
The horizon was sharp and gently bending in the mid-morning light. Stellar jays, swooping over the roof of the house and down past the eaves, set up a raucous cry. Wanting breakfast, she thought. "I am sharp-set myself," she said aloud. "Curious phrase." Good Anglo-Saxon collocation. Scearp. However it's pronounced. A derivative from 'scrape'? Or vice-versa. Some think ... some think evil this way comes. Bess shook her head. A movie line that? That Bradbury story. Not quite ... "I'll think about it," she said.
Thinking a curious thing. Do we think, or are we thought?
"Most don't bother," she said. Pity.
Gulls mewling along the shoreline. Rising tide with waves breaking on the rocky shoal far off shore. Composition for a painting. Paint by number thing with a lurid sunset. In the foreground the stony path leading through the shrubbery to the rabbit hole.
Micki and she had set each of the pavers. The path had come first, then the shrubbery, the salal, huckleberry, rhododendrons and sword ferns all grown riotously giving privacy from the beach. Micki and she had done the planting, too. The old couple who had built the cottage during the depression---how had they managed that?---preferred open vistas to the west. She and Micki had other ideas. They had scribbled a haphazard design. And the boy from Guadalajara---how names flit and fly---who had taken my 311 class three or four times, came to visit and stayed to do the lifting and toting.
"So very long ago."
Javier. That was his name. Like the Cuban Micki called Jappy. The choreographer, a left-handed man whom I thought sinister indeed. But she was so smitten. The perfect word. Grievously stricken yet so very much in love.
Her choreographer, this Jappy, it was he who had found her. Wrapped in a blanket, sitting on the floor against her narrow trundle bed already stiff and cold. She had left a note, he said. The note was written on a plain sheet of copy paper, the writing---her elegant hand, a calligrapher---centered, the note placed precisely on her little book of Mallarmé poems. Set just below the title. Poesies. No date, no salutation, no closing, no signature. Just her poem:

gathering firewood & flowers as
crows scatter and the raucous jays cry;
ashes tossed to wind & sea,
walking the stone path to nowhere

Which Javier read to her over the phone. Like a laundry list. "Something you might should want," he had said. That curious phrase. Stumbling over his verbs. He would send it to me. "Must certainly meant for you." Must certainly. "Got her mother's address? Need to send the things."
Must certainly. But yes. Meant for me, Elizabeth thought. Obviously meant for me. Jappy had not sounded the least bit grieved. Standing at her desk, squinting against the coming glare, the forenoon nearly spent, the afternoon inexorable.
Micki's favorite poem from Poesies was 'The Windows'. Mallarmé's poem:

Je me mire et me vois ange! et je meurs, et j'aime
—Que la vitre soit l'art, soit la mysticité—
A renaître, portant mon rêve en diadème,
Au ciel antérieur où fleurit la Beauté.

Her voice become so strangely soft, reciting aloud, the sea gone to sibilance, the flood spent.
"Spent," the woman said. Toilworn, that fine archaic word. And how abrasive this life can be. Building our castles in the sand, like dreams, not lasting a tide. Yeats' great line: The blood dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.
Turning to the book shelves, she scanned the volumes; pulled out the little book entitled Poésies; found the poem and read Micki's translation, penciled in the margin. She read:

I look at myself and see me as a messenger of the gods---
that either art or mysticism is the window to the soul---
born again, wearing my dream like a coronal
to a bygone heaven where beauty does flourish

Micki had lived in a worn and wasted building on West 67th Street just off Central Park. An enclave of artists managing to eke out a living, a life on the cheap. A month and a day before her friend's death, Elizabeth had gotten a hand written letter. Micki had dreamed of Carcassone and Robert. The little yellow Renault deux chevaux with the dented fenders. They couldn't possibly have squeezed six bodies into that car. Her memory playing tricks. Sixty years ago. Traveling that night from Pamplona, fed up with drunks and dirt, bound for Greece and the simplicity of sun and wine dark seas. Robert and two boys from Pau; Micki and I. Five then. Robert standing up through the open sun roof, vomiting over the back, the chorus of groans, the sudden turn the wrong way down a one way street, the walls of the old city, narrow alleys, and one of the French boys whose name Elizabeth had forgotten yelled, Estoopa, estoopa, estoopa.
They had stopped.
Freenglisch, announced the boy, laughing, you comprestand mon nude languish?
At the time.
Elizabeth remembered. And she and Micki had talked from Genoa to Rome about novels to be written and dances to be performed. They nursed the battered little car to Rome, abandoned finally early one morning on a narrow side street near the Villa Medici. Hugs and partings. Robert off with ... whomever, the French boys.
Too long ago.
She and Micki had wandered down the Via Veneto in the darkness of that morning, lugging their packs, expecting the PMs to hassle them, the city's infamous polizia municipale. Finally found the train station. Argued. Micki had gone off to get tickets for a night train to Brindisi. I sat with the packs. She seemed to be gone a long while. Anxiety and anger mixed with my fatigue.
"Where have you been?" I snapped at her.
Startled, she shook her head. "There are no trains to Brindisi," she said.
"Well, there aren't." Becoming angry herself. "The dialect is wicked. I said Brindisi. They said no possible or something like. Back and forth. Two of them, wagging their fingers, rolling their eyes."
"So you don't speak Italian."
"I told you. I speak Piedmontese. My Mother was from Piedmont. The farther south you go the less you understand." Micki folded herself down to the floor, slumped. She began to softly weep.
And I had gone off in a huff to solve the conundrum.
'No possible' became 'Napoli'. There was a train to Napoli---Naples---that then connected to Bari and a bus ride would take us to Brindisi. And a boat for Greece. They had a map. Drew the route. All too complicated.
"Naples is a sewer," Micki had said.
We passed the night in silence. In the morning, we took a train for Paris. Sitting in a rattling coach uncomfortable on the hard bench seats, Micki handed me a small package wrapped precisely in newsprint. A piece of string tied in a neat bow. "Happy Birthday," she said.
And her eyes, welling again with tears, became a crystalline, brilliant blue.
The dancing frog. A candle.
A year, a month, and three days before her death, I visited her in Greenwich Village. Some conference at Columbia, my travel and expenses paid for by the university. Micki shared a small apartment on MacDougall Street. Another woman and the choreographer from Cuba. Emaciated, sick, injured: so she seemed to me. Micki denied any problems at all. Said she was fine. They got a few parts in the big Broadway shows. Some little theatre work. Mostly street dancing. Very exciting. Had enough money. No problem. Ate ravenously at lunch. Slipped off with a black man. Left me sitting and wondering. Came back with eyes dancing. She had a small corner of the bedroom to herself. A few books. Clothes.
"Come home with me, " I said.
She shook her head. Cried.
"I never saw her again," Elizabeth said out loud. "How fucking melodramatic. I never saw her again."
The mewling gulls. She raised a hand to the glass pane, placed it flat with fingers spread. Heard the distinct hiss of distant surf.