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.