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?"
"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?"
"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."
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.