♣ Scroll 14
I took a deep breath ten times, facing the morning sun and held it as long as I could possibly hold it. Orchids appeared in front of my eyes, then my long-dead grandmother's face and then a voice spoke to me, "Don't forget to breathe out, my dear, it's important." I looked around but only saw a thin white dog, running frantically down the path behind me. I exhaled, and decided to run after the dog. I needed to figure out why I was always haunted by specters—or should I say—haunted by the same old ghost that seemed intent on taking many different forms. Today the white dog, tomorrow a bunch of purple orchids would be watching me from the dim corner of my room.
Yesterday I saw the noodle shop waitress spying through a crack in the kitchen door. Of course the dog was faster, and I slowed down, thinking it was foolish to run after a phantom. My tooth suddenly began to ache. I wondered what I could eat for lunch—maybe momos? But maybe I wouldn't have lunch today, since we were supposed to be on the road all day, searching for a 5-year-old who had been missing these past few days. She was playing alone in the dry rice-field, while older kids were at school and no one noticed that she had disappeared. I'm sure that she's alive, but we should have known better.
She is easily wrapped up in her imaginary beings and it finally got her into trouble. I'm now quite sure she's below the earth, in a secret chamber, having followed a mole, her dear friend. I should have listened more carefully to her talk about the persuasive power of rodents and sky-drawings of crows, but I simply dismissed it as childhood fantasy—now I know better. In my own childhood I have spent hours folding colored paper into small birds and animals. They were animated while I was playing with them and from time to time one of them would fly out through the kitchen window, or run across the floor and out the door.
This has continued into the present day, where you are expected to see things only with your physical eyes. Yesterday I thought I was watching some foreign letters appearing on the wall of my room although actually there was nothing on the wall but a small black spider with red legs. The next morning, on the way to the noodle shop, a small French man in red stockings came waltzing down the street. He made an abrupt halt before me and asked if I had ever seen him before and I replied "non." Suddenly he leapt into the air, spun around, and raced off with his bushy tail dangling from his butt.
I'm feeling pretty sure the 5-year-old girl is safe by now, protected by the fox, her guardian god, and the fact that she has not yet gone to school. Dogs and foxes have the power to foresee the future, but humans barely understand their languages, which we need to start learning at least at the age of five. Likewise, they will develop a dependency on music and the whirring of locust wings for guidance through life. As for me, I've decided to return to the forest to find the exit of a mole's tunnel, just in case the 5-year old would come out from it. Now I've realized the secret chamber is their underground school and hope to apply for admission, myself. It's never too late for the violin.
(Photo by James C Hopkins: Malaysia)
Posted, March 30, 2013
♠ Scroll 13
I had been in the cave for more than a week, watching the valley, waiting, eating the little bit of food that I had brought in my backpack. From that height I could watch the sun setting gloriously as if parting from me for good. I couldn't help but wish that it would rest there on the horizon every evening instead of disappearing into the dark. Because every night, once it was gone and the blackness came on, bizarre creatures that were invisible in daylight would appear. Some were woman-faced animals, others animal-faced women, on some occasions merrily laughing, on others sweetly soliciting me from the trees, waving willow branches and ribbons from the shadows as I watched in disbelief—my heart racing with fear and a strange desire to run to them.
It was on one such night, just days ago (although it seems forever) that I heard someone (or something) stalking behind me, which made me feel chilly. I looked back and could see only various shades of darkness hanging in the air. Then a movement, like a cloud passing the moon, and I found my own shadow was following me. I was scared because the moon was shining from behind, but there was no shadow in front of me—as though it had fled into the dark. I began to run for the moon but it fleeted away as if blown by a gale. The sky became utterly black as if covered by a thick blanket and the fingers of the tree branches slapped and scratched me as I ran. I'm not sure for how long I ran, or for how far, but suddenly I found myself huddled in the corner of the cave.
In fear I looked around but the place was empty without a shadow of the weird creatures who I imagined had been following. I lit a fire at the entrance of the cave, opened a small bottle of whiskey that I kept in a wooden box at the back of the cave, and just when I took a sip, a stream of light flooded into the cave and I was reminded of the thing I had been waiting for. A friend of mine had foretold of a night when people from the valley below would come into the mountains at night, collecting roots from a special bush that must be harvested only at night. As I watched from the cave, there was another light among the trees, and then an excited voice, "There! Dig them up!" I remembered my friend had told me about the effect of the roots that would work wonders on members of the opposite sex.
Apparently if the root is dried and ground to powder, then steeped in hot water under a full moon, it would be most effective. Add to the concoction a small dose of finely ground turquoise and pearl with a pinch of salt before drinking, and, with a sip, he or she would feel as if all of one's feeling towards members of the opposite sex were multiplied by 10,000. If one were attracted, one would feel attracted x 10,000, but if one were detested, one would be averted from the opposite-sex members x 10,000 times, which is a little exaggerated, I believe. But the other day I heard a funny story about the effect from a man who had sipped the concoction and woke up with his sweet dog in his arms.
It is also said that the effects of the concoction last only a short time, so he didn't pay much attention to his dog, who seemed to have fallen in love with him. But the dog followed the man like a shadow wherever he went and barked at any other females, of any species, like a mad and jealous spouse. The man was visibly disturbed by this, and decided to find the antidote for the nostrum and came to the village at the foot of my cave. With the help of the villagers he gathered the ingredients for the antidote: small black beetles which live in rotted tree trunks, dusty mushrooms, powdered granite and the bark of a bitter tree I had never seen before. All of this they gathered into bags, and ground, which he percolated. I also took a sip, hoping to avert the weird female creatures following me in the dark.
(Photo by James C Hopkins: Mongolian cave)
Posted December 15, 2012
♦ Scroll 12
Dogs were sniffing at the garbage behind the pub where three men had been drinking since noon. One of the dogs whined, and began tugging at the pants of a man who just came out from the back door. He was carrying in his hand a flashlight, shining it back and forth as though he were searching for something. Seeming to find nothing, he went back inside and told the three men that he had found nobody outside. One of the men said that he certainly had heard a yell, turned his head back to the T.V., and took a sip from his beer. The dogs behind the pub found a plastic bag of discarded meat trimmings, and began fighting for bigger pieces. In the meanwhile a monk in a purple robe on T.V. suddenly started shouting, "I'll kill you, I'll kill you!" While I was distracted by the spectacle on the television, one of the dogs from the alley rushed through the back door, skidded around the billiards table, and started barking frantically at the TV screen.
"Get that dog out of here" shouted the bartender, and dogs on TV joined in barking. The dog from the alley dashed onto the TV and (I'm not making this up) leapt into the screen and disappeared. If life is indeed like a dream which is relived, then which is real, life or dream? The other day when I was in a jungle, submerged to my neck in a shallow but cooling stream, watched a school of tiny fish approach my bare white skin and begin swimming around and around, as if deciding what to do with me. I was one of the fish watching over me. I tried to catch at the fish but it slipped away, hovering again above my body. These days are like that—hovering curiously, hovering above myself, waiting for a bell to ring and wake me up. Then perhaps I'll become one with the fish, one with the dog who disappeared into the screen, perhaps one with myself. But, let's get back to the bar and the dead woman, with whom I had been together for some time, chasing fireflies, in my previous life or dream.
I wonder who killed her and why she had gone to that house in the first place. I suppose I'll never know, but one of the three drunkards told me that a purple-robed monk had brought her body in and left her on the table, saying she was at the back door. I suppose he might have known why she was in that 'house of optical illusion,' where only customers with special glasses were allowed to enter and no one was permitted to leave. The last time I had seen her, she was looking for someone in a lobby of an international airport. I surmised that she was leaving for good, but there was no way to be sure. The fact that she turned up dead a week later, not three streets away, is something I can't understand, even though I've heard of that "house" on the gaudy and up-to-date street. I never can imagine why she was lured to that sort of crowd—sleeping all day, moving about only at night—bleeding each other dry like spiritual vampires, with eyes shining only for each other, mouths like petals fallen to the earth in an unlit garden, and hands fit only for necks of glass.
True, I moved among them for awhile but realized that I was losing my sense of direction in a bizarre place where everything looked distorted, or doubled, or magnified, or dwarfed, where there was no landmark like a mountain or a river, but only artificial stars. What I really wanted was to break ground of a new territory of truth. I signaled to the bartender to bring me another beer, and as he turned to me he looked frightened. The dead woman had disappeared from the table behind me and in her place stood a stone white dog with bared teeth and eyes like black onyx. I blinked in disbelief, but the dog wagged her tail to me. Then, all of a sudden the three drunkards started singing out, "How much is the doggy on the table...?" as if it were a fluffy little poodle rather than a fierce guardian of hell. It was at that point that I understood everything that had happened over the past several weeks, and I knew that it would only be a matter of time before the truth would reveal like a meteor shower.
Last evening while I was staring at the huge orange-like sun the thought occurred that soon I would have to return to my own country. It had been years since I had dug that hole in the field at night, and now know that it was deep enough to throw in all my belongings unnecessary for my navigation home. Only I wish my homeland were unchanged despite the war. There were too many dogs out there fighting with each other for small pieces of meat for their lives. Outside of this bar, I mean, they had long forgotten how to get home as well and, like me, were always fighting for scraps of something. I walked out into the alley, where the homeless and dogs were living together. I wondered how they shared the place to sleep at night, and how the dogs had decided which humans to own. For us, it is never as simple as the dog family who have the sharp sense of smell and directions and the keen insight into human minds—in a word, not so gullible as humans. That's why I've decided to return, finally, to the first hole I dug in the earth behind my home—to return to that lack of something. Perhaps it is there—or perhaps it is not—there is only one way to find out.
(Photo by James C. Hopkins: Dawn in Kathmandu)
Posted October, 2012
♥ Scroll 11
I fell asleep immediately, rocked by the swaying of the train, and lulled by an old woman's cry, vending salad, cheese and vodka.
When I woke up it was already noon, and the train had been stopped for several minutes. I grabbed my coat, for the cold and snow
outside, and dashed out of the car. I remembered that I had to call my friend at exactly noon but it was already a few minutes
past noon and there was no phone in sight. The train would wait only 20 minutes, so I rushed frantically in every direction,
looking for a telephone booth. Then I realized the train had been moving eastward for 5 days and my watch making steady time
regardless of the time difference, and importantly, that she was on the other side of the earth cutting bits of black paper into
triangles and pasting them onto the walls.
To disturb her at this time would be treason so, instead, I talked to a woman in a red dress. I had seen her get on the train at the starting station, carrying an old-fashioned hat box, and humming a song quietly as she ascended to the sleeper cars. Now I found myself next to her on the platform, and to my surprise, nobody was there except us. I tried to shoo off stray dogs that had gathered around us but they were interested in the hat box and clearly smelled something inside it. They circled the box, whining and yipping, until finally the woman lifted up the lid of the box. I expected a white smoke would rise, but instead saw that there was a small supply of food inside—various cheeses wrapped in cloth, a rough loaf of bread, dark chocolate in brown paper.
She broke off a piece of the cheese, and tossed it into the crowd of dogs, who jumped at it and swallowed it. She tossed another piece, and the same dog, the biggest one, took it in its teeth and ran off—jumping off the platform and disappearing around a building. I looked at her, with doglike eyes, because I was as hungry as the dogs. She beckoned me over and, with a slight accent which I determined to be perhaps Russian or Eastern European, asked me if I would like to share a bit of cheese and bread. Then her face turned white as that of someone who had just seen a ghost. I wondered what she was looking at behind my back and turned around, but there was only another dog, disappearing around the corner. I took a bite of the bread and cheese and just at that moment I heard a slow, rumbling sound, and my face went pale.
Our train was moving at a fair speed, leaving us behind on the platform and heading west. Taken completely by surprise we started running after the departing train, shouting, stop, stop. We ran frantically, and finally I grabbed at a handrail at the entrance of a car, pulled her to me and shoved her inside the car, but my hand at the handrail gave out before I could hop on the train, and I fell backwards, tumbling into the dust as the train gathered speed and then disappeared. I looked back at the crowd that had gathered at the end of the platform, and headed in the other direction—down the tracks—towards the building where a dog had disappeared. A pale moon was rising before me and there was a faint smell of diesel fuel hovering in the air. I thought of the woman in the red dress, now speeding down the tracks towards a western land we had departed from.
I decided to stay overnight and wait for the next train bound east, and walked towards town in the dark. I didn't know the town well, and the cobblestone streets seemed to lead nowhere. As I walked on, a rickshaw pulled up to me from behind and the driver rang the small silver bell on the handlebar three times. I jumped at the sound, and turned around to find a stranger waving at me on the rickshaw. I wondered who it was and why he seemed to be beckoning me so earnestly. "Yes?" I asked, looking over the stranger's clothes, which seemed to be glowing in the moonlight. I couldn't resist his invitation to sit beside him and soon found myself speeding recklessly through the dark streets. The stranger beside me did not speak at first, preferring to the comfort of silence. After a while I dared to ask him, "Where are we going?" He said, smiling, "I'm taking you home, my son."
(Photo by James C. Hopkins: Mongolia)
Posted August, 2012
♣ Scroll 10
You'd better see things while you can, my late teacher said at the last moment in the brand new cinema complex. This movie will not be
in town for long, and the ending changes every week, according to the mood of the projector operator and the weather outside.
The other night we were expecting a happy ending, but instead there were only dusty grey moths that fluttered from the screen
and out into the audience. Shocking for most people but I knew that something had been hatching behind the scenes. I knew at
the back of a kind face is a fanged grimace and even an innocent-looking girl betrays a cobweb of threat—this is an old story.
But what I didn't know was that the projectionist was my very own mother, recently returned from a cerebral disease.
She had an eye-operation as well to gain a better vision but everything looked double after removing the cataracts, and soon after they discovered the disease. Anything can happen, that's why I always doubt any kind of perfection. The other day when I was watching a full moon in a puddle of water, something strange happened to my mother. She was watching the full moon in the puddle at the very same time, and her own face reflected in the water suddenly disappeared. She looked up at the sky but the full moon was shining there as it always had. When she looked back to the puddle, the moon had disappeared, revealing a cleft in the ground. She stared vacantly at me as if I would know what to do. These opportunities don't appear very often, and when they do it means your inside world is projected onto the screen, or vice versa.
So I looked into the cleft, wondering for a moment if it would hurt—then she jumped in. And suddenly she was sitting in a movie theater, which I knew for some inexplicable reason, and followed her and sat beside her, dazzled by the sudden light. Then the theater became dark and on the screen was projected something like picture writing I had never seen before. There were footprints of a bird on the muddy bank of a river, which increased in number and looked like some kind of a written language. I thought if only I could see the bird I could decipher the footprints and my mother's disease would be healed. I fished my camera out of my shoulder bag, and began taking photos on the bank of the river, hoping to capture a split-second movement of the unseen bird, by any chance.
My mother was nodding off by my side in the projectionist booth when the birds finally showed up, and she never saw a single one. However, I was able to snap a few shots before sunrise. The moon was still in the sky like the afterimage of the sun when you close your eyes. I took the pictures and brought them back to town, where I might be able to examine them more in detail. Meanwhile, I wondered if we were living mainly in the afterimages of what had happened long before her accident. When I developed the photos, only the blurred edges of lucent feathers came out. Some kind of strong light must have caused halation and I sadly realized the most important is always invisible even if you inspect it closely.
I sat for some time in the kitchen staring at the photos, with a glass of wine in my hand, and thinking of a dancing shadow on the screen. I wondered if the shadow was projected by the projectionist or a real dancer was dancing behind the screen—a living film that evolves minute by minute, day by day, year by year. I wonder if the dancer is aware of her role, and if she looks out to the audience, of which she may not know the existence. What is connecting a shadow and what actually is happening is the space in which everything is born and where everything dies. On the last photo I found I had accidentally caught the shadow of a falcon which might have been flying out of sight. The blue sky is where she seemed to be headed, and the blue sky is where my mind puts her now. The sound that you hear is just the noise of a restless audience.
(Photo by James C. Hopkins: Mongolia)
♠ Scroll 9
It had been raining for hours, and it didn't look like it would be stopping anytime soon. I stood in the doorway of the theater, beneath my umbrella, and when I started walking home I noticed a man standing in the rain. His hair and coat were dripping wet as though he had been standing there for a long time as well. Our eyes met and he nodded as I passed, and said, "I was waiting for you, sir." I had no idea who he was, and sure didn't know him, so I kept walking. I heard footsteps hurrying behind me, and his voice again, saying, "I have brought you the thing you had asked me for." It was absurd because I had never asked the stranger for anything, yet there he was, holding a small black plastic bag. I looked from the bag to his face, and back to the bag, and knew what he was about.
Several years ago on a cold night on my way home from work, I saw a man lying on the roadside, seemingly drunk, and I gave him my coat and asked him if I could take him home. He looked up at me, and without hesitation said, "Yes, please, but to your home, sir." Next morning when I woke up, he had already gone, leaving a note that said, "Thank you very much for your kindness, I will go look for what you asked me to find while you were sleeping last night." All morning I had tried to think what it was that I might have said, but I couldn't remember except my dream in which I had wished to collect pieces of colored glass for the ceiling of my little shrine soon to be built in the woods behind the house. Certainly the man standing in the rain in front of me now was the one who had stayed overnight on the couch in my living room.
As soon as he handed me the plastic bag, the man disappeared in the rain like a splash into a puddle. I stared at the bag in my hand and made for home, in a puzzle. I was somehow alarmed when I emptied the contents on the kitchen table and discovered that it was indeed filled with tiny bits of colored glass, in every shape imaginable. The glass seemed to shine like a pirate's hoard on the table, glittering and breathing of the sea. I thought of faraway beaches where the man must have picked up these one by one, and of the original glass objects that might have been rolled by the waves into this kaleidoscope of colored jewels. I picked up one of the glass pieces—a blue colored one that was most brilliant.
It reflected the phosphorescent light from the ceiling, but also it shone as if from inside, casting a bluish light onto my palm. Shocked, I dropped the jewel of glass onto the floor, cracking it and in a twinkling it vanished like a splash of water. I was desperate to recover the lost pieces of blue glass but there was nothing left of it in sight. Outside the window I noticed a curious thing—the sky had gotten brighter above my house, and thunder cracked in the blue sky. I hurried out of the house and saw that above my house there was a break in the clouds and the sun was shining through, revealing a bright blue sky rising miles above. Around the neighborhood though, the rain came down, and tiny puddles appeared everywhere.
Suddenly, I wished to shoot an arrow through the break and to follow behind it, flashing through the hole in the clouds into the light above. The jewels on the table seemed to somehow have come from this invisible realm overhead, or perhaps from the depth of my mind? The feeling of ascending or descending always follows an equivalent orbit in the physical world, whether or not we perceive it. I went back into the house, took a handful of glass jewels from the table, walked outside and looked up at the sky where millions of stars were shining. I stared at the jewels in my hand and headed for the woods behind the house. The rain was coming down, and dripping from the leaves like tears, but soon the arching sky started sparkling anew with sparks. I dug a hole in the ground on which my shrine was to be built and buried the glittering glass jewels in it.
(Photo by James C. Hopkins: Ishigaki-jima Island, Okinawa)
♦ Scroll 8
From a restaurant on the riverbank while I was having dinner with my friend, I looked far on the water. A small boat was approaching, under sail, making its way back and forth across the river. There was something sad about its approach, and a feeling of expectancy. A young girl was waving at someone on the riverbank, and as I turned to see who it was, I spilled my glass of wine across the white tablecloth. A fine crack appeared in the wineglass as it hit the table, and the girl looked at me as if cued by the soundless crack. Somehow I lost my composure and had to get up and walk to the restroom. I ran cold water from the faucet, splashed it on my face, and looked in the mirror. A stranger was smiling at me, from over my shoulder, and a chill went up the back of my spine.
I had not seen him enter the restroom behind me, and stepping up to me, he whispered into my ear, "What a surprise to meet you again!" I had no idea who he was, and immediately backed against the sink in astonishment. His eyes were a strange dark-purple color, and his hands had no finger nails, which reminded me of an old Japanese myth. He must have been expelled from a society because he had the look of one who lives on the outside now. I didn't reply to his greeting, but he seemed to instantly know I recognized him. I remembered seeing the same kind of smile in the eyes of a holy man who once had lived in the village beside a river in my childhood. "What do you want from me" I asked, with caution.
I sensed I was being entangled in a plot from which I might never emerge. "Only your time" the man said, soothingly. "You have stolen it, I know, which you must return to the original owner," he added as if this were somehow possible. "Who is the original owner" I whispered, as he was going out of the restroom. He turned and said, "It's hard to tell, but you may know when you face the river." I passed by the row of tables, heading for the boat that had reached this side of the river. The young girl invited me to get on board the boat that had pulled up to the dock while I was away. I hesitated a moment, but jumped onboard, careful to not upset the balance of the boat. There were already several people in the boat, and I squeezed in beside a woman in a white summer dress, with a scarf over her head.
The man without fingernails stood on the shore and seemed as if looking far beyond our boat. The woman in white spoke to me, "Did we meet each other at the summer solstice party?" "No," I replied, "but I did see you in my childhood, perhaps when I dove into the river. I thought you were drowning but you were only sleeping." "Ah yes," she said, "you were the one who brought me around. Actually I had been absorbed in looking at living things underwater—fish swiftly passing over pebbles, light slanting through branches, the taste of time passing." "When you awakened me I thought you were singing," she said, "but you were calling a name I had never heard of in this life." "Yes," I said, "I was calling you by your secret name—the one you will hear as you pass from this life into another just like crossing the threshold of an unfamiliar house."
While I was enthralled by the conversation with the woman in a white dress, the boat moved smoothly upstream, past the ruins of a small stone house. Suddenly I had the feeling that the man with no fingernails was close by and I looked around, but couldn't find him. Instead I felt as if I were wrapped in an enormous white scarf and that there was no oxygen left in the air along the river. When I came to I found myself standing in the ruins of the stone house. The woman with a scarf was gone and so was my fear of the past. The time that I had lost was remembered in the ruins. I felt fresh air flowing up from the river, turned and again saw a boat approaching from the opposite shore. I lifted my arm to wave to the small boat with my smooth, white and nail-less hand.
(Photo by Yoko Danno: the Chao Priya River, Bangkok)
♥ Scroll 7
A black scooter sped out of the doorway and, in an instant, disappeared into the cars along the Via Vitale. It was matter of seconds before I realized he had tossed a parcel into my arms. I stood there, bewildered, looking after the speck of shadow and knowing that I was in trouble again. I walked on for another block, then stopped and for the first time looked at the parcel wrapped in orange paper. I had no idea who that guy was except something told me that I had seen him before. I ripped the first layer of orange paper from the package, and saw another wrapping like an egg-shell. I hesitated to tear it open, because something warned me that I shouldn't, and sought for a place to hide it among the cluster of small shops, alleyways, and pastry makers that lined the river. The sun was just lighting the storefronts, and the sweet aroma of baked pastry was floating in the air. I opened the lid of a trash can and put the parcel in it, wondering if I could get it back later, but feeling relieved to be rid of it at the same time. Perhaps some things should forever remain a mystery, like the guy on the black scooter. Yet curiosity is my sore spot and I knew that eventually it would get the best of me. I tried to remember anything about the scooter, sleek and shiny like a rhinoceros beetle. Once when I was in a scorched desert in Arizona I watched an army of ants consume a wounded rhino beetle—eating it alive, and leaving only a glossy husk in the sand. The scooter wavered in my mind like a mirage, rising again and again from the ashes of my thoughts while I was hurrying to catch the 8:20 train. I was to meet with my friend who was returning from a holiday in the mountains, and who had said that he had urgent news for me. On arriving at the train platform, however, I found that the train had already left. Hopelessly I tried to call him on my mobile phone—no answer. This day had already become a series of missed connections and non-occurrences, and moreover, I found I had thrown away my purse together with the parcel. I cursed the guy on the black scooter but knew there was nothing I could do. I walked to the exit, and looked up and down the street, trying to find the black scooter, in vain. Without money, I walked back along the street, now crowded with people on their way to work, feeling disconnected with the rest of the world and its inhabitants. A shadowy grey dog, who seemed to hover off the sidewalk, came running towards me. He was the first thing in the past few weeks that showed any sign of knowing me in the slightest. He circled me once, and then trotted a short distance and turned his head as if to say, "Follow me." I had no particular place to go, so I went after him and soon found myself back in the same alleyway, at the edge of the river, where I had dropped the parcel earlier in the day. I looked around for the parcel and opened some lids of the trash cans. All the garbage had been already removed and there was no sign of the parcel or the purse except, behind the last can on the street, the shadow dog nosed at something silver. I picked it up and recognized it immediately—the bracelet that had been lost while I was playing with a stray dog in a yard the other day. I recognized suddenly the shadow dog was only the memory of yesterday's dog, and I opened my eyes—the bracelet still around my wrist, shining in the morning sun. The sound of a motor scooter fading down the street outside as my husband headed for work, suddenly I realized I was looking down on the street. I left the window for the kitchen table and resumed eating the soft-boiled egg in the orange-colored eggcup.
(Photo by Yoko Danno: Firenze, Italy)
♣ Scroll 6
I once kept a cricket in a bamboo cage at the foot of my bed. From that vantage point, the cricket was audience to everything that occurred in my large but rather plain bed—including silent whispers uttered in dreams. In addition to sitting awake and watching me dream, soon the cricket began to appear in my dreams. At the edge of my sleep he sometimes chirped like a singing bell. At first he only fluttered at the edges of the dream, like a spiked shadow in a black and raspy whisper. But since last week he has impatiently rubbed his wings together in an effort to sing. This morning I found one of his antennas nearly broken, as the sun came creeping across the bedroom floor. There is danger in art, as it bursts its way. Castles and cages are on fire when the pen is laid down, but truth is always revealed through destruction. You will finally learn your chairs and desk, your silver and china, your silks and diamonds, they didn't exist at all. That I am here is a projection of your own mind, and that very mind itself will never be found—no matter how carefully you search. What to do then, when everything is dispersed in a flash of dazzling light—what will you turn to, when you are blinded? Do you hear a cricket, or feel a breeze, or taste snow, or smell seawater, or see hallucinations when you are nakedly awake, or must you be clothed in sleep? From the cricket beside the bed there are never answers, only chirps and a stir of the air. On and off there is a stark silence, and I can see most clearly at those times. At those times, I often rise from the bed and walk through the dark house and out into the yard, where millions of fireflies dance wildly in response to one another's glimmer. When I scatter them as I walk through the moon-lit yard, I can smell the fresh odor they emit and see clearly the contours of the cricket among tangled leaves of grass beside my feet. On nights like this I walk into a dream I dreamed a thousand times. I look for a familiar landscape where I used to live, but it is usually not to be found. No matter—I will create my own world with each step, and with each stroke of the pen. Whatever I see in an unfamiliar land, my hand tries to draw it with whatever touch it has remembered from eggshells, mercury, talc. In America there are no longer elephants, but an ordinary dinner plate is larger than the size of a man's head—if you can understand that, then you will understand the mind of a monkey. Don't be surprised if monkeys perspire on their noses, but that happens, run. Mathematics seems to solve everything, but once you begin to believe that no calculation defines the boundary between a dream and a garden, run without looking back. If you look back you will understand why it had to happen. There was no way for the cricket to know what he was about until it was too late. In a second I had the shoe in my hand, and before he could make a sound, I brought it down on his head with the sound of a huge thumping foot. But the cricket had a very narrow escape into the grass that had been sprayed abundantly with insecticide where, for all I know, he is still lying. If you see the cricket, touch his antennae. If you don't feel the vibration of a musical instrument, then you must look for the song elsewhere. As for me, I've already packed my bags and am leaving for a land yet to be explored. The morning sunlight streaming into my room lit my face and I blinked with my newest eyes. They are not a color that I am familiar with, but slowly, I always become accustomed.
(Photo by Yoko Danno: Kozan-ji temple, Kyoto)
♠ Scroll 5
As always, I ordered a glass of Bordeaux, a small pot of black tea, and a slice of anything chocolate. It was still too early for the pageant to start. The sun was still far above the horizon, and yet I could sense the day winding down as the afternoon descent began. A car passed by with the radio on, and the song took me back to the highest plateau of the world. Suddenly my chair began to wobble and I wished I had something to hold on to besides memory. When you've heard too much music, only the sound of waves can still surge over you. Before my eyes the wine disappeared, and the glass refilled itself. How these things happen is still a mystery, but here I am on the stage.
I don't know why I am among these actors and actresses with masks of ordinary citizens. A waiter passes by, a businessman, a thin teenage girl—but they all are gods and demons in disguise, I know. In fact they are testing me for a new role in a new play, but one that hasn't been written yet. Another car goes by, and then another, until finally only a distant barking of dogs is monitored on the back screen. I am obliged to speak my lines unknown to me, but that too is becoming easier. The thing that I can't get out of my head these days is a stray dog I find lying at my doorway every night when I come home. I try to turn her away, giving her some food, but every morning when I wake up she is lying by the door.
There is something comforting in that, but I am wondering what she really wants to get from me. I know she is also disguised with a mask, and that she barks when she sees blue cars—but other than that we don't know each other well. Tomorrow I will bring her a gift, and perhaps she will leave her post. The trouble is I don't know what kind of gift she likes most, or if she can read the book I'm thinking of buying her. Once you teach an animal to stand on her own, you never know what she will be up to. But one thing is clear - she can easily smell intruders without learning from detective stories, and protecting my home is her only concern. I have never had a companion who is so persistent.
Tomorrow I will set out on a long journey, and she may know better how to read when I return. In the meantime, I'm wondering how much it costs for the rescue of a stray woman trapped in a swamp. Some say it may destroy my songs yet to be born, but if I don't save her she will haunt me for the rest of my already-haunted life. Some things sink and some things rise, but the thing that matters is to know the bottom line. All creation has two aspects, smiling and angry, like the moon that we see and the one that we don't see. The trick is to know what we see is also what we don't see. Ghosts are real and the real doesn't exist, say some people. As for me, both are true as long as there's a breeze blowing through the trees.
Coming back to the half-emptied glass of Bordeaux was like rising back to the surface of the ocean. Cars were still passing like waves on the beach, the sun had ripened in the sky, and the pedestrians got flurried by a honk. Someone was shouting but I couldn't understand what they were saying -- I was alone on the stage in a foreign land. The best thing about being a stranger is I can recognize birds' songs and crickets' chirps much better than I do when I am surrounded by my mother tongue. I can even see the faces behind masks that everyone wears. But what if everyone is without his or her persona? We would never know what to say, how to act on the stage or even when the show was over. This show will be over when the eyes of the sky blink.
(Photo by James C. Hopkins: St. Gallen, Switzerland
♦ Scroll 4
In a drawer of my wardrobe is another world—I was looking for a jar of paste to hold this one together, but so much for that idea now. I pressed a button and a DVD popped out. That was not what I had rummaged for, but I knew it would do in a pinch. Music filled the dusty room like a shoal of tropical fish. Outside a winter storm was razing and the windows were covered in frost. Inside I relaxed into an overstuffed leather couch and listened to the music rising and falling resonated with howling of dogs in the distance.
The wind whooped and the rain banged the roof, but I felt safe until the music stopped. Then I had the distinct feeling that I was being watched by something. I knew it had followed me on my way home last night, and had been sleeping in the garden all night, because in my dream I was walking along the deck of an ocean liner bound for the South Pacific, when suddenly a flock of bright red birds circled overhead and then plunged into the sea like falling stones. It is the red color that is important, because red is the color of a lotus in my plastic bucket, the color of dawn.
The lotus I bought yesterday in an open-air market is now blooming in the corner of my living room which is painted eggshell white. From the couch I can see all that needs to be seen—what else do I want to see besides dreams? I'm wondering where the bright red birds have gone in the sea outside, but it doesn't really matter that much. When I need them they'll be back - until then, I will open my window at night and watch the moon waxing and waning. She delivers to me all the essential news, and more. Without a drop of water, she is able to turn the invisible visible.
I can see, in the moonlight, a pair of shoes in the front yard. Curiously, I am not concerned, because I see them there often but in the morning they are always gone. I am more concerned about the color of the water in my bathtub which has turned a clear and shocking Caribbean turquoise, and is filled with tiny silver fish. Stepping through worlds is becoming easier, and more real. I can even feel the warm wind caressing my cheeks and hear the crunch of sand. Where is that DVD, and why have I lost my desire for electronic music?
But I miss you already, my dear. Keep the red lotus—by the time you find this notebook in the drawer I will have gone with the bright red birds. I have waited for the world to turn round for too long, and now I understand the inexorable pull of migration. It begins at the tips of the wings, and spreads along the nape of my neck to the head. And moreover, I need to free myself from the eyes that I feel are watching me nightly from the back of the garden. If you want to find me, point your forefinger to the sky. If you feel only the rush of the wind, then you will have found me.
(Photo by James C Hopkins: Buddha's eyes, Bodanath Temple, Nepal)
♥ Scroll 3
Sometimes it is better not to leave the house at all. Yesterday it rained until suddenly a clap of thunder cleared the sky. Then afterwards it poured down again from a completely clear sky. This is the kind of weather we can expect, now that all the leaves are falling. Today I saw a white flower turn into red as the dusk deepened and night came upstairs from the damp cellar with another bottle in her hand. My hair is falling out, even before turning grey, and my hands are shaking uncontrollably.
The woman said out of the clear blue, "show me your hand and I will show you the future." I held out my palm, and she read it carefully. "Your future depends entirely on whether or not you can refrain from drinking red wine." Then she added, smiling, "Don't be afraid of leaving before the party is over." This makes sense to me, since I needed to walk my dog before dinner. I felt relieved, and the woman was gone before I knew it. But the dog seemed determined to make a daily beat around the charnel ground.
The full moon was above the house by the time I returned. I reached the door just as a car pulled in and a woman in dark glasses got out. In no time I stepped into the house and closed the door behind me. There is nothing that frightens me more these days than black nail polish and purple lipstick. There was an urgent knock on the door, which I ignored, and loosened the dog's collar. Sometimes animals are better at sensing disguised visitors. Especially when your own senses can't be trusted any longer.
But what I was saying about fortune tellers and make-up has nothing to do with my true colors. What I really want to say is that I wear night and day with equal abandon, and that the lies of flowers have no say in my wardrobe at all. If you pour wine and expect calamity, then the worst that will happen is a horde of dead cockroaches. Flowers will sometimes change color for no reason because that's what they do. People, on the other hand, turn pale because they are made to by natural or manmade disaster.
The dogs are still barking, and someone is knocking on the door again and again. I can keep ignoring the inevitable for as long as the clothing moths are unhatched. In due time I must open the door and get out of here, but for now I'll stay put. Sometimes persistence is just an excuse for boredom, and right now the weather is stable. Yesterday I came across a woman in a red sari, pinned with a rusted safety-pin. Why should I worry about sleep when all I really want is to be awakened to total abandon? I will sprinkle salt on my doorstep, tomorrow!
(Photo by James C Hopkins: Rajasthani festival)
♣ Scroll 2
Dogs are barking in unison with the sound of a train thumping down the tracks. It is well past midnight,
the time that even plants and trees are gone to sleep. Like a sparkling eye, a flashlight is piercing
through the dark woods between the tracks and the river—searching back and forth and back again.
The searching stops and the light clicks off, and a sound of something jumping into the water.
A warm wind brushing past my face reminds me to breathe. I stay frozen in place for what seems like an hour, then start walking staggeringly towards the sound. My blood begins to circulate and a strange scene comes into view—a black dog with its hind legs in the river and front legs on the bank is tearing at a piece of meat. It takes a moment to realize that the meat is a human hand painted red.
The full moon reveals broken young trees trampled by an enormous animal, or something of the sort, all the way to the river bank. There is a small splash downstream, and I turn quickly to see what's going on. A young woman, her face and hands painted red, with red flowers in her hair, is washing off the blood from the neck of a water buffalo standing, mostly submerged, in the river. From where I am I can hear the woman singing, singing softly to herself—the song of allaying the anger of demons.
Her soft voice permeates the woods like moonlight, but the song itself is chilling. I stop in my tracks again, careful not to move a muscle, lest she senses me and starts searching for me. In fear of male, female, human, animal, dead, and not-yet dead there is nowhere to turn to. With certainty, the dog steps from the river, hand in mouth, and starts barking again forgetting the hand. Accidentally I must have killed my chance of getting away unnoticed.
The dog has sensed me and the flashlight is turned on. I give up my cover and start to run through the trees, heading back for the road. Running in the woods at night is like wading through a thick black fog. I feel like a child again—feet pounding, jumping, swerving, crashing through the brush. The dog is tearing behind me, gaining ground, and the young woman behind it. I give up fleeing and face her—she says apologetically, "They were going to kill my buffalo as a sacrifice—now, if you don't mind, I give them you instead."
(Photo by James C Hopkins: Sumatra)
♠ Scroll 1
After all the lights have been turned off I watch shafts of moonlight shooting in through the blinds.
The bare room starts to reverberate with film-noir certainty. Tonight the moving is finished.
All the pictures and photos have been removed from the walls and all the drawers and closets emptied,
and only the laptop on the table remains to remind me of what I had formerly considered important.
No more ordering the world, and no more maps and calculations. Only some strawberries are left in the empty refrigerator, and tomorrow waiting in a car across the street.
When will I ever learn why I must keep on moving? The road ahead seems like the only real thing. The rearview mirror scrolls out like a dream behind me, and a long train of cars is closing in like a persistent malady. Looking for a bypath is like looking for a cure. The next time I take this road I hope to see again the deer's family I glimpsed in the bush by the roadside. The mother and her fawn disappeared into the woods as the car approached—I could see only their white tails bounding through the trees, long after the other shapes had merged. Without nature the road ahead is a fleeting mirage.
The moment the car reaches the bridge the moon appears behind the pine trees. Is there ever a moment when, upon meeting the moon, white cranes take wing one by one and fly across her luminous face? I wish I could forget the possibility of forgiveness—it would make distance and asphalt and night easier than watching the edges of wings. Where is it that I hid my yearning—in the backseat there is only a dog-eared atlas of the USA and an expensive bottle of wine. It is easy to get lost when you have a wrong map. Especially after midnight when the road is in complete darkness and the cats are out hunting. Their eyes shine like alarms set off.
I hear a siren wailing in the distance and ignore it—disaster comes and goes and has nothing to do with this world. When I was young even a pimple on my face was a disaster. Let alone this. Call it calm after the storm, but the combination of tires and lives turning on the road at night is like a flight from ever-chasing hunters. No sanctuary ahead unless you count the all-night diners. But even there is only pie and stale beer. When will I ever be able to sit in an outdoor cafe again, spreading thick butter on crunchy baguette, in the middle of the afternoon? These images only drive me to blissful distraction.
I can't get off the highway now if I wanted to. I drive until I know my destination. I have a plenty of time, and even space, and as long as there is a radio station I will keep moving towards the desert heat. In heat there is a castle wavering, towers flickering, loopholes blinking in the walls. And I can hear the guard dogs barking already. Soon there will be only animal instinct and cunning left anyway, when the engine stops and the machine comes to a halt. The moon shines over the dune of clouds as if waiting for me to arrive. I flick on the turning signal, slow down, and look around. She is chasing me as ever.
(Photo by James C. Hopkins: Moon over Siberia)