“Am I free, then?” she said, tears in her voice, as she watched the pigeons fly off.
Yasunari Kawabata, The Sound of the Mountain (山の音), translated by Edward G. Seidensticker
“Am I free, then?” she said, tears in her voice, as she watched the pigeons fly off.
Yasunari Kawabata, The Sound of the Mountain (山の音), translated by Edward G. Seidensticker
Nauseated, she turned to look out of the window. Directly across the narrow road, on the dusty sidewalk in front of a small house, was a young boy. He was kneeling before a bamboo breakfast tray which was propped open on the ground. Using the tray as a stage, he was fumbling with a marionette, manipulating it clumsily from multitudinous strings which hung from a complicated control mechanism held amateurishly in his left hand. A sparrow descended momentarily and investigated the ground near the boy before flying off again, disappointed.
The marionette was finely designed, though restrained. Its head bore no markings of a face and its clothing was that of a harlequin; a colorful, incongruous patchwork that appeared to have been combined into a single piece loosely flowing from ankle to wrist, with a bright white collar from which the blankness of the head extended. The visible extremities revealed the puppet to have been constructed of a blond, unstained wood of some sort. It was thin, nimble, its facelessness emanating something of a sadness.
It seemed to be the hope of the boy for the marionette to appear dancing, the boy’s head bobbing to some unheard rhythm which was neglecting to travel through to his toy. Instead, the marionette stumbled upon its makeshift stage as if drunken, its limbs uncoordinated to the degree of seeming to have rebelled completely, each with its own intention apart from any other. The concentration upon the boy’s face was endearing, it tinged with a subtle hint of frustration, a countenance which softened the humor of an otherwise pathetic display. She felt unhappy with herself for having noted absurdity in the scenario on the other side of the window, a displeasure which resulted in an even deeper feeling of charmed solicitude for the boy.
She continued to watch as a woman appeared from the entrance of the house, led by a small dog of which the woman was attached by a skinny, red leash. The dog appeared to be feeble-minded, with its tongue hanging from the corner of its mouth, panting, walleyed, growling at its shadow. The boy looked up at the woman from his position on the ground, the dark skin at his knees suggesting he spent a fair amount of time situated down there. The expression on his face was that of a knowingness sunken into a despair of longing, momentarily unblinking, manifesting that this woman was his mother. The woman stood faced away from the boy, not yet having acknowledged him, speaking noiselessly to the dog with her face distorted and eagerly expressive as if cooing to a baby. The dog, ignoring her, had begun yapping at a cloud, its eyes bulging and ringed with a viscid, yellowish mucous. The woman offered the dog a piece of food which she pulled from a pocket at the waist of her purple cardigan; the dog snatched the morsel and ate with zeal.
From behind the window, she rubbed her nose with the back of her hand, squinted a yawn, and then returned her attention to the boy and his marionette. The marionette had begun swaying beautifully, its feet moving gracefully across its tray, its arms outstretched and wavering measuredly. Surprised by this sudden dexterousness in control, she struggled to find the boy’s hands, until she located them in the lap between his knees, folded, still. She followed the strings from the marionette’s limbs and discovered them limp, the spindly mechanism to which they were attached discarded on the surface of the stage. The marionette moved over it, using it as a prop in its delicate dance, pirouetting as it leapt from its master. The stings refused to tangle as the marionette continued to swirl, its small movements mesmerizing, a more enchanting thing rarely seen. The boy watched his toy with gentle pride, his face serene, eyes equally equable and loving.
Suddenly the dog barked with a sharpness heard through the window, angered, shrill. The dog jolted and pulled from its leash with such quick ferocity as to startle the woman, a fright causing her to release her grip on the thing, the leash now a shock of scarlet trailing behind the dog as it bolted, leaping in a flash, tearing the marionette from its prance upon the tray, the puppet now exanimate and flaccid between the dog’s teeth as the animal landed and continued to run down the street, the vibrant clothing of the marionette flushing, droplets of crimson marking the path down which all disappeared with the dog.
The woman cried out and made to dash after the dog, though she soon found herself swearing from the ground after having tripped over the boy, he who remained kneeling, hands in lap, tears forming in the corners of his eyes as his head drooped, still slowly bobbing to a rhythm silent, the tray upended, his sole companion having been stolen from him, that lone friendship now broken and gone. A crow cawed churlishly from somewhere hidden; it had begun to rain.
When something had gone awry, in this place or that, her pattern was to consider the place ruined and she would vow never to return. Not only did she promise to avoid these places in perpetuity, but even the mere thought of such places was enough to undo her entirely. Countless nights of sleep had been lost due to an infected memory of a place which would leave her riddled with torment, and she would lay painfully awake for hours, unable to find relief from the interminable baying of some malefic memory from the caverns of her mind.
As the number of ruined places grew, her world shrank ever smaller, until she was barely able to move. Due to this increasingly suffocating confinement, she made a decision to rearrange her reactions, and thus constructed and nurtured a newly formed tendency to return to these befouled places with driven aspiration. She would return not to confront them nor pretend them innocent, but to replay her interactions with them, to readjust her relationship with them, a purposed reencounter in the hope of replacing the contaminated memory of a place with a fresh, possibly more neutral one—or at least one which was significantly less plagued.
She had been experiencing some success with her purposefully rearranged remembrances, though she had also been troubled by a particular side-effect. Rather than waiting patiently for an opportune moment to return, she would find herself with an unsettling preoccupation with returning to a place after having experienced something ruinous there. She might sit feeling itchy for hours, even days or weeks, until she had successfully replaced a repugnant recollection, herself going over and over the script with which to correct a place upon her revisit. She would make revisiting these places a priority in her feeble life and would often spend a considerable amount of time traveling a considerable distance to some far-flung location so that she might correct what had gone so very wrong before—all with the singular ambition of altering her memory of a place to something less antagonizing. Even if such travail was horribly inconvenient, her restlessness demanded that a return occur, quite the opposite of her previous condition—in which the mere thought of returning to a blighted place would send her into a fevered panic.
She had begun to worry that this replacement pattern was becoming just as troublesome as her previous tendency to avoid. She was concerned that she was intrinsically doomed to feel overly-burdened by her fraught relationship with the world and its places in one way or another, be it this way or that, and that she would forever be on the outs with it all. It might be best not to go anywhere again, she whispered to her self. Wouldn’t it be far better to work at reducing ourselves to an invisibility, a silence, a diminished thing without contact nor consequence? Surely it would be far nicer, much gentler, to simply not be at all?
She caught herself in a conversation with her self and recalled an interaction which had occurred but a day or so prior: She had collected her minuscule wit along with whatever bits of courage she could muster and brought her self to a place into which she had never been before. As she entered this place, the world became blurred and she became duly separated, with herself watching her self as they approached a point at which interaction was compulsory, all eyes upon her as her eyes fell to the floor.
What she had wanted seemed to her to be simple, a painless desire, one lacking in all complication. Though when she offered it as her yen, it soon became difficult, mired in confusion, and she lost her self—the world blurring even more, all unfocused, her mind now scattered with thoughts fugitive and disarrayed.
Oddly, through the discordance of it, there had been something there which had interested her, which compelled her, something unique and new. Although she had been so perplexed as to think herself unworthy of it, as if having requested it she would be found guilty of all manner of crime, that she must feel ashamed for even having wanted it—there it is, outlined before her, proof of her contemptibility. She felt herself begin to quake and considered fleeing from this place, dashing out, abandoning all of it for the safety of her home. This cursed place, her idiocy, all of it crashing down upon her like bombs—the world at war with her once again.
Though she discovered something familiar within the cacophony, something of which she had spoken before, a known thing—a refuge. She spoke quickly through timidity, with eyes still firmly affixed to the ground, the words coming from her with an ease of practiced repetition. And with this recognizable thing firmly in hand she departed, an exit appropriate and allowed, the sun warm on her brow—she had escaped intact and with tact—though without that thing which had captured her fancy, that thing which felt interesting and strong, herself having been far to frightened to ask for it.
And there she found herself within her self, within a calmed time as one, considering that memory as a potential point for trial. For had she not forgotten of that place until just now? Had she not been without the demand for return, for correction, for a purposeful rearrangement of the memory of it? Perhaps she was getting better, recovering, finding herself with a certain gentle repose. And so she remembered the place as worthy of fanciful reconsideration rather than one of utter ruination, mistaken rather than forsaken, and she gathered herself quietly so that she may go out for another cup of tea—although this time it would be of the sort which had initially so delightfully intrigued.
It is bizarre, this sensation, fascinating in its grotesquerie. It floods inevitably, any mood shall be found suddenly awash, it having drenched all in its wrathful wake.
At first an attempt is made, with humility, a peek through timidity. Gingerly it is conveyed, as if upon a novice valet’s tray. The heart’s beat jolts, skips, its rhythm lost in it.
Why this again? Why must we try? What is innate drags itself from the dampened life unlived, it desperately pushes past all gates and barricade, breathless, only to be battered back.
The feeling looms large, itself towering, dark. An abuse of epithets rains down from it as ponds form from evidence of a mistaken motivation. One moment with mechanism, the next unwound entirely, until finally—in a flourish—all is redacted, retracted, and ultimately destroyed.
Nary a lesson learned, never does it stick. The fated result pounding like some sickly reverberation. Surely it is only for the hope of regard, descry, the awful tug of an ever-elusive affinity? Though it is most futile, assuredly, and so with an unheard whisper of an apology: we retreat embarrassingly, necessarily, with anguish—ashamed.
Tomorrow we shall find it stranger, that sensation, startled by its vehemence. It must flood, naturally. Though today, for now, having already met its malice: we move slowly, sheepishly, ourselves delicately forsaken—forborne.
Last Call — A Buddhist monk confronts Japan’s suicide culture.
Related and recommended: The Departure.
She rested and she read, herself having chosen to neglect the path entirely for the day. There had been things to do, things to have done, and these things did not allow her to travel freely within the confines of her periphery. Had she ignored this demand from Circumstance, she surely would have found herself in a shrubbery or a hedge, her legs protruding ridiculously from within foliage, her belongings strewn, her mood plummeting more and more with each passing moment.
Having safely avoided misfortune by way of diligence, she was sitting contentedly upon a bench at the place which she adored, absorbing something absorbing, when a fairly large fly alighted on her arm. “Ah, you have come to pay me a visit,” she said to the fly, “it’s nice of you to have stopped by. Is it possible that you might consider me a worthwhile friend?”
She looked at the darkly-greenish fly as it inspected her skin, skittering here and there, considering her rather considerably. “Of course, you are not considering me as a friend at all, are you?” she said. “You are simply determining whether or not I am dead, thus worthy of your eggs.”
Disappointed by being unworthy in an ever-increasing multitude of ways, she returned her attention to her book, but was distracted by a faded memory of something amusing, something she had once found in a Victorian periodical, something which had ended up only causing her misery—as there had been no one with whom it might have been shared at the time of its discovery, as there is no one now—and so it had been shoved and shelved with pique. She struggled to recall the witticism, to bring it forth from hiding, and after an embarrassing amount of time: it was uncovered from within a faraway recess of her maleficent mind:
He had been playing progressive euchre and listening to the sentimental ballads of the day as performed by young women who didn’t know whether they could sing or not, but were willing to try. That night a mosquito bit him.
“Excuse me,” said the insect, “but I have to live.”
“Go ahead,” said the blasé youth; “it’s a positive relief to be bored in a different way.”
In 1930 French architect Emilio Terry offered a model of a spiral house that he called en colimaçon (“snail-style”), illustrating his view that architecture expressed a “dream to be realized.”
Clinging like dampened cloth, the memory has adhered. Movement becomes difficult, breathing labored, a bead descends from brow. There was a time when no one had been known, acknowledged, the recollection of it has lodged uncomfortably; like a splinter nestled nastily within the skin.
Skipping hand in hand like springtime children, maypole merriment, braiding fancifulness into one another’s being. Shared thoughts and fears, hiding beneath blankets as secrets are revealed. Panic, a reversal, an abandonment complete; like a basket placed at an orphanage’s back door.
Another summer comes to a close with a certain solemnity, like the curtains drawn on a play without audience. The marigolds waft as winds bluster, hither and yon. A path meanders through fields of yellow florescence, a butterfly falls, along and alone; like a leaf cast from a dying tree.
A solitary porcelain teacup rattled on its mismatched saucer as a train passed nearby, its destination away from here, the lower panes of a window lightly fogged by the teapot which wispily waited upon the lacquered wooden table, its yellowing surface scratched and worn, her elbows resting at its edge as she sat there, forearms bending upwardly and coming together in clasped hands to support her head as it lay tilted on its side, her eyes unblinking as she gazed through the window, a pair of cranes screeching at one another as they alighted clumsily in the patchy grass which hatched angrily alongside a stagnant pond, blackbirds protesting noisily, a turtle easily slipping beneath the water’s surface from where it had been sunning itself on a broken branch, a stillness settling once more.
You are my only friend, she said. Can you help me understand why it is I become such a despicable thing when I am in the company of others—some others besides you, that is? We seem to find such peace and amity when together, an ability to be ourselves as we are, a tenderness unknown outside of these walls, the sincerity and kindness with which we regard ourselves, that joy we feel in our own company, the silent knowing as we exist so near to one another, our deepest intimacies entwining us as we conduct our lives gently within this room.
Though when it is interrupted, she continued, I come apart and behave maddeningly, as if I am without the means to control myself. I speak ill and act the same, as if I am a foreign thing, myself distanced yet remaining physically as an ugliness, this thing continuing in my place, a polluted proxy which knows nothing of my intention or identity: in a misused word, I become selfless, without self, with my true self finding itself lost and torn from here, banished into some manner of prison, unable to reconnect and intervene as such terribleness goes on and on, as if I am locked away and damned to view this catastrophe as it plays out in front of me, myself behind a thick wall of glass, myself separated, shorn, shrieking without a voice: Stop! Why must it be?
It is due to the fact that you detest yourself so, her self responded, that you cannot bear the shame of presenting yourself as you are. You have manufactured poorly-stitched-together identities out of scraps which you have found laying around, pieces and bits which you have witnessed others take kindly to, their shared affability and agreeableness with one another when speaking of this or that, displaying this or that, when relating to one another. You see this and take it for your own, stowed away, kept in the attic of your being, there to be retrieved when needed, when it is required that you be present apart from me. You slip into these fairy suits and fumble, for that is not meant for you and it is ill-fitting, you are not that which you are pretending to be.
You know little but what moves you genuinely, her self said, her own eyes shifting towards the window as well, settling on the menagerie surrounding the pond. The gentleness you feel when we are alone, together, is our selves allowing ourselves the comfort of being, authentically. We know of that which we adore, what moves us, what we agree to believe. We are not ashamed of those things, those thoughts, that aesthetic, this way or that. We feel—strongly—and what leaves us mute is that which identifies us, to our selves, precisely. We are friendless, not unfriendly. We are in pain, hurting, though not hurtful. We know the deepest joy, though are not joyful.
Our shame is what destroys us, the depth of this embarrassment, the gravity of feeling entirely worthless. Her self rises and moves across the room, settling messily on the floor, her face pressed against it, her body folding itself into herself, as she grows weary. Only when we feel comfortable will the monsters cease to come, cease to manufacture malady in an attempt to comfort us, to protect us, only to make matters worse. These foul, distorted attempts at preservation are our curse, dearest, so wipe away the tear and the thoughts which provoked it: let us escape into our selves, let us be with our private peacefulness, our playfulness, our own mirthful, mistaken ruin.
Maryanne Wolf’s Positive Way Forward for the Modern, Distracted Reader
— Emily Andrews reviews Wolf’s Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World