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.

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