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.

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