♦ Scroll 36
The cathedral was just about to close for evening, but I bought my ticket and hurried inside anyway. The light was dim and heavy with incense, and the night show was just beginning. A tall man in a top hat with an owl on his left arm had taken the stage and was looking out into the audience for a volunteer. Without hesitating I put up my hand, and went up on the stage. Then the top-hat man pulled out a red handkerchief from his pocket and ordered the owl to take it in its beak.
Immediately the owl flapped up from his arm and circled above the audience three times, then dropped the silk handkerchief on command, and as it floated through the air it was snatched by a thin woman in a long, close-fitting black dress who was wearing far too much costume jewelry. She gave a small, sharp cry like a bird, and caught the chief in her hand and smelled it. She gave another cry, this time like a bird of prey, and collapsed onto the row of chairs.
Being a doctor, I pushed my way down the aisle and felt her pulse on the neck. It was still beating, weakly, so with the help of a couple of men I lifted her up, carried her backstage, and laid her on a divan in one of the dressing rooms. Meanwhile, the owl flew back to his master on the stage. I made her to inhale a stimulant, and in a minute she came to and cried, “That handkerchief… that’s mine…that perfume…I recognize it as the one my lover wore when I lived in Morocco," and she promptly fainted again.
I still don't know why I did it, but while she was out, I opened her purse and to my great surprise I found a photo of me. I never could remember seeing her anywhere in Morocco or anywhere else but the image in the photo was clearly my own. It was an older photo, shot maybe 10 years ago, while I was working as an intern in a hospital in Istanbul. And the handkerchief was definitely not mine, because I was allergic to perfume of any kinds, and have been since I was a child.
The photo was a group of 6 people, all dressed in Muslim costumes from centuries ago, and clearly had been taken at a wedding of one of the nurses working in the hospital. I don’t remember why I was invited but I'd gone and remember the moment that the photo had been taken. I had been drinking champagne & cassis liqueur all afternoon and was quite drunk when the flash went off, but I’m still in a maze why the top-hat man, the owl, the handkerchief, the thin woman, her lover in Morocco and myself are stringed together like a clattering costume necklace.
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Istanbul, Turkey.
Posted, March 6, 2019
♥ Scroll 35
Swallows have come back and so has the fear. This evening, just as I was pulling the drapes closed, I saw a swallow on a branch of a skeleton-like tree trying to look in my room. And I sensed someone approaching behind me, but when I turned around there was no one. A small downy feather lay on the bed, and I heard a feeble sound from under the bed. I peeped in, and to my great surprise, I found a dark hole just below the head of the bed. Without hesitating, I reached my finger inside of it, and felt bitten by something.
In panic I pulled back my hand, and at the tip of my finger was a small puncture wound from which blood was just starting to bead. I sucked the tip of my finger, and wondered if I’d been dreaming, because the blood was tasteless. But it couldn’t have been a dream because I couldn’t get a wink of sleep last night due to the wind howling around the edges of the house all night long. I got out of bed several times during the night and went to the window, but there was only a wall of rushing rain when I looked out through the curtains.
I worried about swallows, especially the one who seemed to have wanted to enter my room through the open window, so I let a few of them in from the storm. In the night, the birds seemed to multiply, and by morning they disappeared one by one, sucked into the hole under my bed. I wondered what was happening down below, so I went outside the house and found the door to the cellar, hoping to enter and have a look around. There was a brand-new lock on the cellar door, and the moment I saw it I knew that someone was in use of the cellar.
I had left the house empty during the long winter and hadn't bothered to check the cellar when I returned. Rain was falling in torrents but I set off past the wet skeleton tree, heading into the village to look for a way to sleep without hindrance. While wandering the village I came across an inn-like farmhouse and immediately headed inside and went straight to the bar. The air was cozy & it smelled of shochu distilled from sweet potatoes, rice, barley, etc. I drank a bowlful of one made from brown sugar and bought a bottle to feed the sparrows in the cell, then headed to the supply store, purchased the largest steel bolt-cutter I could find and began walking back to the house in the pounding rain.
Some things are best left unknown, but my curiosity won me as usual, and I headed right back home. As soon as I entered my room and found it empty, I covered the hole with a thick volume of encyclopedia, and went out to look inside the cellar beneath the house. Everything seemed 'heightened' somehow ─ I could actually feel the shochu moving through the blood in my arms, and my head spinning as hell. I had no idea what’s going on with me ─ the bottle I had bought for the sparrows was almost empty without my realizing it and I could hear tiny feet scratching & air rustling through feathers on the other side to the door. Desperately I cut the lock open and pushed the door open wide ─ the room was completely empty inside.
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Place, unknown
Posted, December 29, 2018
♣ Scroll 34
The ghost first appeared in the winter, when suddenly I found myself lost on my way to my aunt’s in the woods. I was just 5 years old and it was the first time I’d ever tried visiting her house by myself, so I could have expected that anything could happen. Snow had been piling up all day, and all of a sudden a flash of lightning and thunder roaring close by. There were no familiar trees around, so I made a run for an old shed beside the pathway. I stood underneath the overhanging roof and knocked at the door, but there was no response.
In panic I banged so hard on the shaky door with both fists that my hand was cut and a trickle of blood ran down my wrist. Shocked, I sucked the blood from my hand, which somehow made me feel at home. I was all ears to hear a nursery song floating from the depths of the wood — ”a girl in red shoes has gone with a blue-eyed alien” — a song that my mother had sung to me lifetimes ago. I found my feet moving of their own accord, and I began heading for the valley below, where my mother used to have taken me and my brother for mushrooming.
It wasn’t easy, because of the snow, and after a short distance I had become completely exhausted. By now even the small house was lost in snow and it was getting dark. In helpless fear, I broke into sobbing and lay down in the soft white snow. At first I felt frozen and terrified, but after a couple of minutes I began to be drowsy and felt as if floating on the softly rocking waves. I heard at the back of my mind the sound of something like the engine of a boat, and then something like a light from far-away appeared and seemed to draw closer. Was I swimming, or sinking to the sea bottom?
From above, rays of light, blue and white, were falling on and around me and I felt comforted by their warm glow. I felt that if I could only float upwards to them, then my aunt’s house I’d been looking for would turn up. But on the contrary, it became increasingly difficult to breathe and the falling snow had turned to a school of tiny white fish, floating suspended all around me. I reached out towards the school of fish and tried to catch some, but I found myself handless. I was no longer breathing through the nose but through the gills of each one of the fish in the vast constellation of fish spreading out across the sky.
The ghost was unfurling above me like a soft white blanket when I found myself lying in my bed. I was totally confused because I appeared to be moving through landscapes at an alarming rate - wood, snow, water - and now each of them seemed to appear at once. Fish danced at the borders of the ghost's body as if a translucent cape flaring, while snow falling like flower petals. There was a rustle on the floor as another shimmering school of bright blue fish rose up from the floor to meet the falling petals. Everything had dreamed itself into the ghost, and the ghost was, I believed, the blue-eyed alien who’d brought me back home.
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Tiger's Nest Temple, Bhutan
Posted October 22, 2018
♠ Scroll 33
They say the globe is getting warmed, but I'm not sure. Certainly it's getting smaller and smaller each time my guardian star looks approaching. Or am I fleeing from the galaxy in which I've been imprisoned for so long that I don't even know which direction to fly? Either way, it can't be worse than this coffee, or the fish and chips someone left in the kitchen.
Tomorrow a fitful wind may tell me that I've been possessed by a spirit of some kind, but today I’ll see my doctor and take a medicine for fever, and dance to her tune. Her persistent and flat melody will lead me to my death, certainly. All day I've been sitting on the front steps of the house, watching like a dog waiting for the return of his master, who has left home for good.
Overhead hundreds of birds have flown into the sky before I’ve decided to give up and go have a glass of good whiskey. I don't like whiskey, but I can’t help it because there’s no other choice. Anyway, I’m thirsty for spirits of any kind these days. I take the shortcut to the village, which is a dirt path through the trees that ends up, sometimes, to a dead end which I have never known before.
There in the village they usually sell only wine, but today I'm determined to fight. I don't care who with, as long as with humans, or even monkeys, who are talking into cell phones. Today I’m not wearing gloves, or socks, without protection from sunburn―all the trappings of the faint of heart. When I reach what I thought to be a dead end, I notice there's a small path to the left that seems to be untrodden.
I’ve decided to take the path and ended up descending to the village through a difficult tangle of rhododendron & scrub. Thoroughly scraped up & dirty and I finally arrived at the village, which looks completely changed from what I saw more than 20 years ago. No villagers are in sight, no naked children playing in the water, and I dive in the river with a lungful of air. I wonder how long it will last.
Photo by James C Hopkins: Namo Buddha, Nepal
Posted September 30
♦ Scroll 32
The only thing left to do was hide the body. Long golden light slanted across the park outside and the birds seemed to be watching with their gleaming black eyes through the rustling leaves in the wind. The smell of grilled meat floating from the stalls on the street below, making me slightly nauseous—or perhaps it was something else. Suddenly I needed to get some air, so I went down the stairs, not by the elevator, and out to the park.
There was no one in the park and I tried to take a deep breath, but felt dizzy as if suffering from altitude sickness although this jungle city is just barely above the level of the sea. That damn bird was calling from the trees, like a sentinel, and seemed not to leave its post unless I got out of the park. I had nowhere to go in particular, with the body still in my room on the 9th floor so I headed towards the waterfront to clear my head.
It had all happened so quickly, and by the time I finished putting away the dishes and glasses to the cupboard after the binge, my mind became blurry like dishwater. I had no clear memory of the moments leading up to it—only a vague recollection of the doorbell ringing, of sunlight cutting across the coffee table, and of that face appearing again after so many years. It isn't as though I didn't expect it—I had often thought of her while I was busy collecting acorns and nuts to feed the squirrels in the park.
They were very hungry, especially at dusk, and, like her they were never satisfied. I arrived at the waterfront, and gazed far out to sea as usual, looking for a sign of a boat. Not that I wanted to flee for retreat, but wondering when the last ferry would arrive and who might be on board. A light appeared on the horizon and I noticed a small sailboat approaching. When it came closer I found no human on the deck, but a hundred of birds circling & shrieking above the empty vessel.
Shaken, I decided to return to the apartment to face the body in my bedroom to see if it was still there. Definitely, I had no idea how she could enter the building while that sentinel bird was watching, but somehow she had managed. The docks were dark by now, and as the shrieking birds faded in the distance, my past memories grew dim, and I hardly remembered why I had picked up the knife in the first place. Perhaps because the bird had called from the trees, telling me, "Wake up...!"
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Koh Phangan island, Thailand
♥ Scroll 31
I've been having a terrible headache since the rain began and there's no sign of it letting up. The rain, I mean, which has been pouring as if to wash away all my persistent illusions. You'd better jog at least for 30 minutes to overcome your insomnia, my doctor advised me, but of course I disregarded his orders and decided to drink gin for 30 minutes every evening instead. The effects have been fantastically rewarding!
At first for a few days something nebulous appeared at a corner of my room, which gradually took a human shape, and finally turned out no one else but Philip Marlowe himself, who spoke to me as though I were a suspect in one of his crime cases. "I'll tell you where I was last Wednesday, night"—I was in confusion and said,"Are you by any chance planning a date with me, because if you are you can forget it!"
To my great surprise he walked over and kissed me immediately, which made me feel assured that I was one of his suspects. "Follow me," he said as we waltzed out together into a gin-soaked sky. I didn't hesitate for a second, my headache a long-forgotten memory, and waltzed on after him, excitedly, wondering what kind of crime he thought I had committed. He stopped in front of the first bar we came to and looked in my direction.
"Next one," I said before he could answer, and made for a neon-lit entrance like a mouth of a deep-sea fish. We opened the door and stepped in as if sucked into the 19th century again. Faces turned to look at us, from the bar stools along the bar, and the bartender beckoned us, in a familiar way, to sit on the stools in front of him. I was startled to find the wall behind him, where shelves of bottles and glasses should be, was a huge aquarium with mountains made of rock, plastic houses, flowing green seaweed and 5 or 6 small sharks patrolling back and forth.
"Gin. Two," I said to the bartender, who had suddenly begun to resemble a hammerhead, and he offered me a tall glass of gin, his eyes protruding from both ends of his forehead. In sudden panic I drank my gin in one gulp, turned to Marlow and blurted out, "How did you know it was me?" He looked at me coolly, cocked his hat and said,"Because you look like a goldfish gasping for air whenever I try to stare into your eyes. Elementary, my dear, and I'm taking you in," he said & spun me around, slapped the cold handcuffs on my wrists, and in a second he had shoved me down the hallway and through the bedroom door.
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Martha's Vineyard.
Posted, February 2018.
♣ Scroll 30
There are certain things that I'm always late for, and art openings are one of them. There's something about entering a strange, new world and joining with a new group of people. I need to prepare myself for the deception, and with the art opening crowd it takes some time: short black dress & boots, of course, but accessories are always difficult. As a man, I'm never sure what kind of necklaces I should wear - a choker of boar's fangs or a long string of fake human skulls. But I would certainly wear pearls tonight.
I opened the door of Gallery Panache and immediately was pushed back by a person who was exactly attired like me. I had no idea why but she seemed to be in a hurry to get out of the place. Immediately behind her followed a man who was disguised as a thunder god. He had a big hammer in his right hand and a bolt of lightning in the other, and he was clearly drunk. Somehow I had stumbled into something shaggy when I realized I was following the thunder god. But I was wearing 3-inch-high-heeled boots with pointed toes and felt grateful to have simply remained upright.
Inside the gallery the place seemed to be wrapped in a red fog, blown supposedly from an artwork. I vaguely saw further in the interior just what I had been looking for, and headed towards the hallway leading back to the offices. But as I moved through the gallery, through the red fog, I hit upon a yellow-haired man with a big sack like an inflated balloon. He shouted, looking at my pointed boots, "Who let you in with those on?!" Momentarily set back, I looked down at my feet and staggered, because I had no idea where I'd got them.
The yellow-haired condemned me, "Those are my boots and I want them back." "Impossible," I replied glaring straight at him, as though wearing the pair of boots were of life-and death importance, although I felt like taking off the damn boots as soon as possible. Because I have something more important than putting an idiot in his place, however, I stepped past the man and headed directly for the back hallway. Just down the hallway, second doorway on the right, was standing a customs officer, whose face was somewhat familiar to me.
He tried to stop me, but I forced into the room, where I found what I had come for all along. "I left this in here last week, I said to the customs officer," turning to show him a violin case that looked old and worn-out. I couldn't remember why I had left it there since I always carry it around with me when I'm on the job. The last thing I remember was an airport, where I was to meet a woman on an important job, although I forgot what the job was. I remember she asked me what's inside, and I replied it's just a gift given by my grandpa when I was six.
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Ventspils, Latvia.
Posted, June 2017.
♠ Scroll 29
In spite of myself I am here again, at the window, watching lightning stab at the dark city and waiting for the phone to ring. In the lit window of the hotel across the way is a silhouette of a woman peeping through the curtains to see what is happening in the street. A minute ago I certainly heard, mingled with the rumble of thunder, a scream as if someone were being attacked. There were several figures silhouetted in several windows, but the street was empty and strangely silent.
I felt, however, as if we were in for a storm, or trouble of a different sort. The wind began to pick up outside, and the tops of trees stirred. In no time blackbirds one after another began to drop from the sky, with horrible-sounding thuds on the rooftops. There's a certain kind of panic that creeps up the back of the neck, but I tried to calm myself. Logically thinking, the dropping of birds from the sky means that there was a tornado in the vicinity but one can never be certain.
The end will come in a way that no one expects, certainly not me, and unsurprisingly, I have no idea where I'm bound for, except I feel as if I were involved in an inescapable scheme. As if I stepped into a spiral galaxy of shadows, lipstick & falling birds. Now when someone asks my age, I simply tell them I am two hundred and seventy-five years old today, and shall be eighteen tomorrow. I expect piles of adventures to meet with as soon as I can bring myself to walk across the street.
Down at the furthest end of the wet streets I see a dark figure approaching toward my window. It looks as if gliding inches above the street, but soon it becomes clear that he is riding a skateboard—swooshing back and forth in great arcs, like a bird looking for a place to land. He stops in front of my house and the silhouette in the window across the street opens the window and calls out, "Wait, please, my dear!" When she comes down onto the street with her skateboard under her arms, he seems to have gone, returned into the wet night.
The woman stood alone at the curb for several minutes, looking up at the birdless sky, where even stars were dispersed. I left my room and went downstairs and stood in the dark of the living room, watching the woman standing on the curb across the street. After a few minutes, she started skateboarding, as if to follow her own karma. She no longer seems to be concerned about the fallen birds or the receding figure, or the phone that had begun ringing inside her room. I stood there in the living room for what seemed like an eternity, listening to the distant thunder, then put down the receiver.
Photo by James Hopkins: Jurmala, Latvia.
Posted, February 2017.
♦ Scroll 28
Long before he returned to the table, I had decided that I had to disappear. I finished the last sip of wine and sneaked out the room while he was arguing with a woman next to him. I wondered what they were so mad about but, frankly, I was more interested in the fact that a thick fog had rolled in from the sea, and I wasn't sure I could find my way back to the boat. I turned right on a cobblestone street, then left, and soon a white-plastered wall blocked my way, so I turned right. There I unexpectedly bumped into the very man whom I had never wanted to see again.
He asked me, "Where are you going?" Shocked, I immediately lied, "I've had an emergency call and I've got to get to a friend's house," and pushed past him. I broke into a run and immediately bumped into the woman who had been sitting next to the man. She said, panting, "You've left this behind," and handed me an envelope. I dropped it into my bag and hurried away, towards the sea. The fog was getting thicker and I tried to remember how I had made it to the conference room in the morning after a long night in the bars along this same waterfront—today nothing at all seemed familiar.
I past the docks where the big boats were moored, but my small boat was nowhere to be found. Utterly upset, I went all pieces and sat down on the edge of the dock, with my feet dangling over the water. I don't know how long I had sat, but when I looked up the fog had completely surrounded me, and I felt benumbed, and suddenly someone or something bumped onto my back, and when I came to I was underwater. I struggled to surface for air and, as I came crashing back into the world again, everything was completely changed.
The fog had disappeared, there was an almost dawnlike glow in the air, and birds were singing just as I remembered them singing long, long ago. However, I couldn't recall anything that had happened the moment I'd felt that push against my back. I climbed up out of the water and onto the dock and sat down to inhale salty air into my lungs. I had never felt my mind so blank, which I took as a sign of departure, and began to plan my next move. There are moments in every person's life when you'd never want to see anyone, any alligator or to eat any kind of chocolate.
And also there are moments when you feel obliged to open a sealed candy box and call it breakfast. I took the envelope from my bag and stared at it in a puzzle because I had no idea who had given it to me or what it contained. Time seemed to lengthen and curve, the same way it did when I was underwater, and strangely nostalgic for home. When was it that I set out, determined never to come back to the known? I could no longer remember my birthplace, so I opened the envelope and found a note reading "Your boat has been washed on a beach and I'm waiting there for you."
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Wrightsville, North Carolina.
Posted, December 2016.
♥ Scroll 27
I wandered alone in the forest until I came to a place where they told me the murder had occurred. I looked around, but didn't see anything except a black dog, whimpering and limping into a clump of bamboo trees. I followed the dog into the trees and onto a sandy path that seemed to lead deeper into the forest. "Why not" I thought, and headed down the path behind the dog, which seemed to be scenting along the path. The dog then stopped short and started digging the sand until he had uncovered what looked to be the remains of a small animal, perhaps a rat.
He pulled the animal out of the sand, and sped off down the path, despite of his supposedly wounded foot. I expected he had dug up a piece of sock or cloth or something that belonged to the victim, but I supposed that would have been too easy. With no idea how to proceed, I began walking down the path and came to a dead end, beyond which a big wooden house loomed up in the fog. I couldn't help but knock on the front door, and after a long while an old man appeared, seemingly irritated at having been awakened, and stood there glaring at me without speaking.
"Excuse me for bothering you," I started, but before I could finish the sentence, the black dog came out from behind the old man, barking at me. What is this?" I wondered, as a strange sense of dread began to rise up the back of my neck. "I've lost my wallet" I blurted out, without thinking, and tried to make sense of the weird situation. It might be that I had been killed by the old man and now awakened to a nightmare that was only starting to unfold, but that didn't seem to fit either. How could I be sure that there had actually been a murder, and what for I came upon the place?
I pinched myself to make sure that I was not dreaming, and all the while the old man kept staring at me, with the door wide open. Finally he spoke, as if someone coming out of a long sleep, and said, "Did I ever know you?" I wasn't sure because I felt no pain when the dog, coming outside, bit me in the leg suddenly—then everything went silent. I pulled my service revolver out of its holster and shot the man dead, spun, and regardless of the body lying peacefully in the entrance, I went into the house and to the living room, which, to my surprise, looked familiar to me.
There I found the box of shells that I had left behind the day before, when I had killed the man's wife and I reloaded the gun. Outside the sun was just beginning to decline and I left the house wondering why I had killed blindly those elderly people. By any chance they might have been my own parents and perhaps that was reason enough. "Now where's that dog?" I thought. The whole thing started because I followed the dog deep into the forest to get a clue to a murder which had been supposedly committed there. I had no idea that it turned out a real stroke of luck when the dog dug up the old lady's heart. "Here boy" I shouted down the empty path, whistling into the razor night.
Photo by Yoko Danno: Ohyamazaki, Kyoto.
Posted, September 2016.
♣ Scroll 26
The flowers had been acting strangely ever since the sun went down. I seldom saw them after midnight and just assumed that they were behaving as flowers always did when left alone in the dark. But what I saw last night was unearthly. Although there was not a breath of wind, each flower was swaying and waltzing on the beach like drunken Viennese on New Year's Eve. Stalky women with their arms extending as if to catch the ghostly moon, their necks craning as if to escape from their own shadows.
They seemed to be afraid of standing still but somehow stayed rooted, even as the weather changed & the ghost crabs scuttled past them to the water. The sharks hovered following small fish, squads evaded ejecting ink. The ocean's another battlefield like every one I've ever known but, tempting as it was to join the battle, that night the rising wind gave me a clear sense that I should pay attention—something was up. I walked slowly backwards, because the waves began receding and the sands escaping from beneath my feet.
I hardly could keep standing when I realized that not only was I moving backwards, but so was time. With each step, I was receding slowly into the past, and with each step I sensed ghostlike human shadows increasing in number around me. I had no fear of them, only felt they were willing to talk with me rather than threaten me, and had the clear sense that they were more frightened of me than I was of them. As I moved deeper into the jungle, I lost my sense of body position.
I had no idea where I was heading for in the tangled vines and trees until I felt myself swept up and off my feet, tossed like a rag doll through the forest, and landing hard against a tree. After some time I was able to stand, and looked around and found only an expanse of blue water before my eyes and the white sand around me. Forlorn on this white island, I regretted having not listened to what the ghosts had tried to tell me, and knew now that they had been trying to warn me of the dangers that lie in the predictable, comfortable, sunlit world.
Desperate to return to the darkness I took a final look around at the past, and gradually a familiar landscape came into view. I heard someone whisper in my ear, "Dare to be lost...." I realized that I had even stopped dreaming in the broad sunlight, let alone hoping for gleams of light in the darkness. With a single step forward, I began the journey back the present, step by step, until I met face to face with my shadow, which looked like following the movements of my mind. Moonlit, it swayed as if practicing dancing, as if trying to hold me with its extending arms.
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Koh Phangan island, Thailand.
Posted, March 2016.
♠ Scroll 25
I've decided to stay on this island until the birds tell me that it's time to leave. Every day they come to the doorway and look inside the house as if looking for something. They have been building a nest under the eaves, using colorful pieces of thread, yearn and cloth from scraps of clothing that looks like they might belong to a prostitute or a Russian teenager. I imagine the birds waiting for just the right moment, then flying into the living room, littered with all kinds of clothes I'm collecting to send out to charities. The birds have been watching for my absence so that they can finally take over the house—they may get that chance soon.
This morning I set off for the other side of the island, carrying only a mystery book and a whistle. I had never been beyond the hills surrounding the paddy fields since I washed up on this island exactly one year ago, and honestly never had to desire to know what lay there. Something in the way that the birds were acting had shaken me into flying. The parent birds watched me as if they were urging their over-grown chick to leave the nest and, not wanting to crash to the earth just yet, I made threatening gestures with the mystery book and shouted at them.
As the birds flapped off into the jungle I noticed that, on the underside of their wings, bright red marks were flashing like alarms as they fled. When I was a child, I thought that I might some day become a valiant cop and chase after robbers with spirit. But the fact is that I have been evading birds' droppings or in fear of their excessive concern about raising their young for years. It is only since I landed on the island that I've been able to sneak out to this side without being watched by the parent birds.
I felt, finally, a sense of emancipation by the turquoise sea when I was finally able to plunge in naked and be swallowed by a different element. "No—they will never find me here," I thought as I swam to the sea bottom out of hunger for home. Surprisingly I felt no need of air and was soon surrounded by a school of parrot-fish who seemed to have taken me on as one of their own. "Oh well," I thought, flashing a lime green wing, perhaps I had actually turned into a fish, "I wanted to be a bright-colored tropical fish since my childhood." I went hunting for food with my new pals—the memory of sky dissolving into sea and only the colors remaining.
That night a boat passed overhead scattering something like brown-red liquid. My pals immediately responded to the drippings and flipped to the surface of the flashing sea, but when we arrived, we found only moonlight dancing across the waves. We were far from the shore and the birds' nest. There wasn't even a shadow of the boat over the horizon and not a breath of wind over the surface of the sea. As my friends swam in circles and launched for the impossible moon, I floated a few meters below the surface, where the moonlight deflected in all directions, shimmering, like a huge translucent veil. I no longer wanted anything more than to return to the sky, to chatter in the treetops, to fly again.
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Koh Phangan, Thailand.
Posted, January 2016.
♦ Scroll 24
There was only one thing left to do. I took a sheet of paper from the drawer of the desk and started drawing a sketch of an "impossible door" to the inside of anybody. If only I could shape it up exactly right, then there might still be a chance that I could save her. Mustering all of my concentration, I tried to visualize her smile, but found myself looking down on a vast river from a balcony. Last time I saw her was when we had boarded the small wooden motorboat at Siem Reap and headed upriver, into the jungle.
For two days the engine sputtered and clanked as we chugged upstream, never stopped even while we were asleep. At the end of the 2nd day she abruptly said, "I was here before," which was impossible, because it was her first trip to Asia and she hadn't been out of my sight since the incident six months before. "Perhaps" I said, feigning indifference, but decided from that moment on that I should not be involved in her dream. I was in danger of being drawn back into a world of shadow and slanted light from which I had just barely escaped.
The riverbanks had been drawing closer and closer all day, and now it looked as though sucking our boat into a huge whirlpool, then the boat collided against a rock and turned turtle, throwing us into the water. Desperately I struggled to get out of the vortex, for eternal several minutes, and when I surfaced she was nowhere to be seen. I swam for the shore and crawled up onto it and looked around, my head still swimming. Then I saw a dark figure receding into the dense fog along the edge of the river, heading into the jungle, and I called out.
There was no response, and only my voice came back. I started walking, my motto being "always step forward," not knowing east from west, through tangled plants, until I came across what seemed to be a kind of 2-rut road through the jungle. Not knowing whether to turn right or left, I decided to follow the 2-rut road, which seemed to have been abandoned for a long time. As I cut along the ragged road, my eyes became adjusted to the dim light of dawn and I heard an approaching vehicle of some kind. An old bus came bounding down the jungle road and I flagged it down.
The driver opened the door and asked, "Are you going to the Temple?" I had no idea what temple he meant, so let the bus go and resumed walking like a salmon swimming upstream to its birthplace. What is it about not passing through some doors that seems more powerful than the ones we pass through, even if lured by colorfully winged creatures? I thought about the "impossible door" I had tried to finish drawing before I left home, before it was too late to rescue her from sliding down the forgetting curve into dark space, before the sun setting behind pagodas beyond the vast, glittering river.
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Kathmando, Nepal.
Posted, September 26, 2015.
♥ Scroll 23
A voice reverberated through the overhead speaker, "Please take your seats, we are about to begin our decent into Bangkok." I looked up from the book that I'd been reading and, out the window of the plane, saw that the airport, including the tarmac, was entirely covered with weeds. But I wasn't surprised when the flight attendant came by and whispered in my ear, "Don't worry—it's not really Bangkok." The plane landed and all the passengers got off the plane. I found myself standing in a field in a country I couldn't recognize immediately but, from the clouded sky overhead and the cool air blowing through the trees nearby, I guessed somewhere in the northern hemisphere—perhaps Europe.
Somewhat shaken, I picked up my bags, which had been tossed from the plane, and started wading knee-high through the grass toward a dark building in stone. At the entrance of the building was a fierce-looking dog, chained to the wall, which lunged at me, snapping his teeth, barking like a demon, and splattering the granite stones with saliva. Shaken, I opened the heavy wooden door and tried to go inside but was blocked by a wooden bar, from which hung a notice: POINT OF NO RETURN. With the mad dog outside, I had no choice but to turn around and shoot the dog squarely between the eyes. Surprised, it fell to the ground with a whimper, and I stepped over its chain, and ran off from the place.
After a minute I realized when I thought I shot the dog I actually didn't carry a gun with me and therefore I must definitely be in Bangkok. I ran through the trees of the jungle, pushing leaves aside and looking for something familiar, but soon wondered if there was a jungle in a city. In dismay I shouted into the gloom, "Somebody!" and there was no reply. After what seemed like hours of walking through the sticky forest, I came upon a man in rags, whom I had a feeling I'd met somewhere before. I dared to speak to him, "I'm lost, but I'd like to go to a beach" and he said, with fear in his eyes, "There is no beach and there is no jungle—there is only this" and he held out a broken piece of cobalt-colored glass.
"Nonsense" I replied, and the man disappeared in a misty rain. I had no umbrella, nor a sedge hat, but neither of those seemed important now—something was happening. Overhead I heard an approaching roar, the sound of a helicopter like rusty laughter, which gave me gooseflesh. How could the chopper search me out when I had only shot an imaginary dog? My whole holiday was starting to feel like watching a 3D movie. But this terror in my heart is real as any of the things I had experienced in my so-called "real" life. I could hear the helicopter approaching, and I ran for a grove of bamboo nearby to hide myself, in vain. Only a tiger could be concealed in a bamboo grove, they say, but I would rather have faced an imaginary tiger than face whatever it was that was descending from the sky.
Again the voice came through the loudspeaker, "Fasten your seat belts, please," and the airplane went into a dive. I was shocked, but collected myself in a moment, and looked out the window of the plane. The twin rows of blue light of Suvarnabhumi airport were coming into focus, emerging through low clouds, and I remembered I had left the northern country for good where the cool air had been caressing my cheeks. Once shattered into pieces, there's no way to restore a wine glass, and helplessly, I wondered what was the true meaning of the notice, POINT OF NO RETURN, that I had seen hanging across the door near the mad dog. Clearly that option had been avoided, and now I had to deal with the reality that opened up before my eyes without end.
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Asura Cave, Kathmandu valley, Nepal.
Posted, July 11, 2015.
♣ Scroll 22
The wallpaper was even worse than I had expected, and the tea seemed to have been brewed with only menace in mind, but what really upset the day was that my mobile kept ringing from very early in the morning. I had no idea why, because I had already broken up with her and there was nothing left to say. I switched it off, and left the hotel, knowing that if I stayed put in the room, the sickly-patterned walls would start heaving and shaking uncontrollably.
I couldn't stand the eerie sound from the four corners of the room—like the wind, wailing across a vast plain—but I couldn't seem to find where it was coming from. I called the reception desk, but the line was dead. I went out of the room but there was not a human, nor even a shadow, in the corridor whose carpet had become even more Chinese than before—if that's possible. At the end of the corridor was a mirror hanging from the ceiling. I rubbed my eyes in disbelief, because I saw a tiger reflected in it and when I looked down I saw only fish.
Back and forth, back and forth—I kept looking but the tiger in the mirror and the fish on the floor never changed their forms and looked alive. As I advanced I realized to my great shock my own reflection in the mirror had disappeared and I was actually brushing aside banana palm leaves and twining vines, pushing my way through a steaming green jungle. Anything was better than the wallpaper, and the strong smell of tangled vegetation, yet I was doggedly searching for my image in the mirror. If only I had known where I was I would have been able to start the day over again.
Outside of the hotel it has been raining, night and day, like splinters of glass. I opened the window for the first time in weeks and jumped. The ground was not so far away, and when I landed I rolled to the side and bumped against a rhinoceros (I thought), but in fact it was a sandwich man in disguise. On the boards hung over his shoulders were written simply the word "Repent!" I thought about it for a moment, and then asked him, "Are you a churchman?" but he only snarled at me.
I fled from the "rhino "as fast as my limping legs would carry me through puddles, across tangled streets, past noodle shops & karaoke bars and finally into a Russian restaurant where they were just setting up for the evening. It seemed as good a place as any to start again, so I ordered borscht as properly as a czar might have done at the Kremlin. But nothing returned to normal except sound coming from far off as though it had followed me—the sound of wind across a vast open space. I ordered 3 glasses of vodka, and finally found myself wrapped up in my own heartbeats.
Photo by Yoko Danno: Hakata, Kyushu, Japan.
Posted, April 19, 2015.
♠ Scroll 21
It had been snowing for days. I pushed against the wooden door of the house and brushing off the snow from my overcoat, entered. I had just come back from an adventure with a good friend of mine and was frozen to the bone, but flushed with the new cash in my pocket. I struck a match to start the woodstove, and smiled in glee, recalling what had happened that afternoon. I thought such a deal would be made only in a movie or a fantasy, but a stranger actually bought my dreams at an incredibly high price and now I could finally be alone. The fire crackled to life and in the flames I saw, my goodness, the stranger's face!
I kept staring at the ugly face, which started eating the coals one by one—slowly and deliberately as the smell of burning flesh filled the room—until the fire was out as the face disappeared. Shocked, I ran to the phone and tried to call the police, but somehow alarmed, phoned instead a restaurant across the river to deliver cheeseburgers. The answer was, "Impossible, because of the snow" and the phone instantly died. I struck another match, and lit a candle to see inside the stove, but found only ashes. I opened the window to let the lingering burnt smell out of the house—an eerie, warm wind blew into the room stirring the ashes from the stove and swirling them into the room.
The next part of the story is a bit unclear from what happened afterwards, but I do remember the ashes taking the form of a woman, and the woman started smearing the ashes onto her face, when I remembered what my good friend had told me. He advised me not to sell my dreams, and if I did, he said, I would end up never having a dream in sleeping, but have nightmares in waking, which is how he had spent the rest of his miserable life. The ashen woman opened the door and beckoned me to follow her out into the night where snow-shrouded trees cast their shadows, because I was very hungry.
I could have eaten anything, dead or alive, and in that disoriented state I followed her at a distance, and found myself beside a frozen river. The woman was nowhere to be seen, and I found the weather had abnormally changed. It was hot outside and the ice had started melting, which made me feel impossible to walk to town across the river so I followed the river downstream, wondering all the while what had happened to the ashen woman and why it had suddenly become hot. Just a short way down the river I spotted a cabin, very similar to my own—a column of black smoke rising from the chimney. I approached the cabin, with a sense of foreboding and, looking through the smoke-smeared window, saw myself warming my hands beside a stove.
Behind me, the woman made of ashes brushed her hair and whispered into my ear, "Go inside and into your own body out there." I had no idea what she meant but found myself doing exactly as she said. I opened the door of cabin, stepped inside, and then looked up at myself from the stove. After a moment I started picking up my body piece by piece, glowing white among other ashes and bones in the stove, and swallowed them one by one. I felt warmth rising up from my stomach and spreading through the fragments of coal, which were igniting with fierce red and orange, blowing and scattering around the room. Soon the whole place was ablaze, scarcely before I bolted out the back door to buy my dreams back!
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Bern, Switzerland.
Posted, February 24, 2015.
♦ Scroll 20
Red bird alighted on the edge of my bed last night and dove into my dreams as I slept. When I woke this morning the bird was already gone. A shaft of sunlight was streaming through the curtains and when I opened them I found that the yard was deep in snow. The footprints of a bird led from the window sill to the fountain in the garden, which was shining white. I worried if the red bird could fly because I found a red flight feather fallen at my bedside but the footprints ended at the fountain, so I assumed that the bird in dream, in fact, had appeared and was not far away.
I put on my boots and went out in search of the bird, but it was nowhere to be seen. I looked up and saw a red airplane fading away into the blue sky and knew, from the markings on the tail, that it must be heading for India. Suddenly I had the urge to leave the country as quickly as possible so I washed my face twice and drank two cups of green tea so that I might be cleansed of the nightmare last night. I wanted to be free from any bird or fish, red or blue, because their poems were indecipherable, their manifestos as simple as snow. Long after lunch I was still trying to solve the puzzle.
Where did the bird go without the flight feather, and where was my travel agent? I knocked on the door again, and again, neglecting a "Closed Today" sign. There was no answer but I could see two figures moving behind the frosted glass partitions inside. There was classical music playing loudly, and one figure—woman—seemed to be making a lunge at the other—man. I wondered if I was witnessing, by chance, one of those rare insights into what really happens in office buildings when there are no customers around.
Fascinated I watched the woman land fully on top of the man and start pecking at his face like a bird. Her lips really looked like beaks beyond the frosted glass and the man tried to shield his face with his hands. In horror, I rapped on the window with my knuckles, and shouted "Are you alright?" and opened it, which was unlocked. I felt a cold shadow slipping by me and a sudden chill passing over me as the woman let out a shriek and flew past me and out the door! Leaving the man writhing on the desk, I followed behind her, who seemed pursuing something—something dark and fast.
Then I heard a flapping sound of a bird or something large with wings, and suddenly I was pushed to the ground from behind. I struggled to get up, but couldn't, so I kept lying on my belly for a while. Then something heavy went past on my back with the smell of a wild animal, and somehow I felt a weight removed off my mind as if dispersed into the sky. It has taken several weeks, but I've become accustomed to the feathers that cover my whole body, my fingers gone. Craning my neck, flapping my wings, I made a flying start and headed for the fountain, burning white in the backyard.
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Painting on fusuma at Nanzen-ji temple, Kyoto, and a paper bird from Norway.
Posted, December 18, 2014.
♥ Scroll 19
Today I've got good news that the birds have returned to the trees outside the house. I heard them this evening, fighting for branches and berries for supper. But yesterday I had been worried all night how they would avoid the violent typhoon that I'd seen on the television, approaching from the south. Now things seemed calm, but it made me uneasy. As a rule of thumb something unusual would always happen after peace, like the sun returning even after the longest night—often the gods will only return after something beautiful has been sacrificed.
I mixed peanut butter into the birdseed and put it on the windowsill. I wonder if I should have added a few drops of plum liquor to attract the woman next door as well. She's been leaving things in my yard at night—coins, scraps of cloth, a single red rose, which I knew were not meant for me. Apparently she was expecting someone or something, besides birds, to come along and find them and the thought of that keeps scratching at the back of my mind. I pour a glass of plum liquor for myself instead, and lean on the back of my couch.
With my eyes shut I tried to remember a word that was coming up to the surface of my mind when I sleep at night—something like "black box" or "hat box" but neither one of those seemed exactly right. The moon came up slowly behind the couch, and I turned around, and the woman from next door was standing in my room, which was impossible, I thought, because I am always very careful about locking. She was carrying a rattan bird cage with a jet-black bird inside. The bird was absolutely silent, but looked at me with inquisitive black eyes.
The woman said, with a troubled look, "This bird spoke and asked me to take it to Baltimore, in America." I stared at the woman and the bird, no sure whether to be more shocked that my next door neighbor had appeared in my living room, or that this bird knew the name of my hometown. I really missed the smell of the sea and the taste of oysters from the bay—it had been years since I was there. "Then you must take him there," I told the woman, who retorted on me, saying, "It's you that are responsible for the bird."
I was dumbfounded because I had never seen the bird before, yet strangely found myself saying that, yes, I would take the bird. The neighbor handed the cage to me and disappeared like water absorbed in the parched soil. I wondered how I could go home where I had long neglected, especially after what had happened there, but I found myself preparing to leave immediately. One week later I found myself standing in the mud where my old home should have been. The garage where I had locked up my dear old Ambassador had washed away as well, leaving only a black license plate lying on the lawn. I picked it up, walked to the edge of the bay, and tossed both the license plate and the birdcage into the receding tide.
Photo by Yoko Danno: Ohyamazaki, Kyoto, Japan.
Posted, September 20, 2014.
♣ Scroll 18
The rain seemed like it would never stop, and now the boat was really sinking. I scanned the horizon for land or another vessel, but nothing was in sight, not even a piece of wood. In panic I took off my shoes, and started to bail out water with them—sloshing water over the sides of the small sailboat, and tying off the lines to keep the sails full. The wind & rain picked up and the boat began to move slowly through the sea like a snail moving on a huge wavy wet leaf. The pole star appeared just above the horizon and for a moment it gave me a little hope—a kind of predictable connection, in the unpredictable sea—and then it was gone again, covered by clouds. I continued to bail out the water frantically with my shoes.
The rain had long stopped but the water in the boat seemed never to run low and I knew that there wasn't much time before the boat went down altogether. There is nothing like contemplating the end of your life to make one think of living fill to the brim, but at present I couldn't do anything but make my boat lighten for my dear life. I threw away everything that was of value—compass, knife, silver pen, corkscrew—keeping only the most worthless things in the boat. Desperate times call for radical transformation, and this time, although I frantically wished a miracle would happen and get me out of this nightmarish state, I woke up instead to the fact that I had thrown away in panic all of the means of communication.
As a last resort I checked the pockets of my pants and discovered, to my surprise, a small black stone dog which I had purchased at a bazaar in Bangkok years ago. I looked at the black dog, as if looking for an answer, and was reminded of a small wood-carved dog cherished by a monk, who had lived in a temple in Kyoto some 800 years before. He is said to have written love letters to his most favorite island, and somehow I had a gleam of hope that this black stone dog might somehow hold secrets that could help me as well. I rubbed the back of the dog, and to my surprise it whined. Inexplicably relieved, I rummaged in the food box, picked up the last bottle of beer and drank it off before realizing that the dog had disappeared.
Then I heard a splashing sound off the port side, and when I bent over the rail to look, a small dark figure was swiftly fading into the distance. In despair I took a notepad out of my shirt pocket, tore a page and wrote down: "leash." The next time I would not be so careless, but I didn't understand why my boat had leaked so. I added on the torn page, "Burn this with other trash on the beach," folded it up, put it in the beer bottle and let it float on the waves into the dark. Hours passed, maybe years, when I suddenly heard shrill calls of birds and felt something soft drop on my cheek. I found myself still in the same old boat, the sun blazing down on me from a cloudless sky, and a small piece of paper next to my foot in the bottom of the boat.
I picked up the paper, opened it, and found the word "leash"! I surely had washed the message out to sea, but was I in a bad dream, or so it seemed, so nothing was predictable at this point. The birds overhead seemed strangely disturbed, and kept circling and circling overhead, calling like air-raid sirens. Crucially alarmed, I armed myself with an oar in one hand and a noose in the other, fashioned from an old cotton line from the deck, tossed the noose overboard and began paddling west towards the sun. The cloud of birds gathered and dispersed, again and again overhead like a swarm of biting worries, which I soon realized was impossible to dispel. I kept on moving into the evening glow until my arms could paddle no more. As soon as I stopped, the birds descended onto the boat, covering it like a blanket, and put me to sound sleep.
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Ishigaki-jima, Okinawa, Japan.
Posted, June 11, 2014.
♠ Scroll 17
Yesterday they closed the casino. It's just as well—I had gotten tired of throwing the dice. Even the heavenly bodies are taking a chance these days, especially when it comes to fast money. Everybody dreams of becoming a millionaire by clicking a mouse, or touching the head of a white tiger. Not knowing what they should feed to wild animals, carrots are scarce in the supermarket. There's a strong breeze blowing off the sea, sending a howl like a stray wolf's. It is strange at this time of the year to watch the tips of the waves foaming into spray, and to hear them crash against the shore, all down the coastline.
Outside the sad casino a dense fog hangs low, wrapping up the streets of shops and bars with only a scattering of people about. On a day like this I have to decide quickly which way to take when I go to my favorite cafe to write. One wrong turn and the whole journey becomes hectic, as usual, like entering a huge food mixer, tossed from side to side, back and forth, with pieces of carrot, broccoli, onion, celery, garlic. In case of danger what I need are a pinch of salt and a lucky slice of lime to rub on the back of my hand. Today I chose a street I rarely take, just because I noticed a new sign "No Man's Cafe" at the entrance of the street.
I couldn't resist going inside to see what the place was all about, but as soon as I opened the door I knew I'd made a mistake. I was the only customer in the dimly-lit room, and as I entered a hoarse call of a bird welcomed me. I looked around and found a rattan birdcage hanging from the ceiling, but there was no bird in it—only a blank sheet of paper. I stared at it for a moment, picked it up, and started folding a crane with the paper, which is the traditional way to do when we are in desperation. I thought it a better way than gambling with dice, or drinking my way back to clarity—although both have proven successful in the past.
Immediately the paper crane leapt from my hand and burst into flight, squawking and circling the room several times, and went inside the birdcage. I felt thirsty and wanted to order a glass of wine but there was only a half-finished bottle of retsina—dastardly drink from the wrong side of the Mediterranean. Desperate, I fled the cafe and headed for the casino, knowing full well it was closed, but I wanted to see it with my own eyes. There was a rumor floating around that the casino was still operating, in a secret room, accessible through an unmarked back door. Maybe there was a way to tell the correct back door from other similar ones.
Regretting I had left my dog in the car, I tossed a coin into the air, caught it in my palm, and without looking at the coin, entered the first door that I came to. A passageway led to a waiting room. I found on the door of the consulting room a sign "Dr. Suzuki" and I entered. A nurse looked up from her desk, smiled, and asked me, "What has been ailing you?" I was surprised, because I was feeling happier than ever before, and I knew that she was asking for the password to be admitted to the secret casino. "Boredom," I answered without hesitation, and, as she pressed a button under her desk, the back wall of the office swung back, revealing several men, stripped to the waists, with large dragon tattoos overall, gambling with flower-printed cards.
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Kathmandu, Nepal.
Posted, March 30, 2014.
♦ Scroll 16
Where have you been hiding?" I asked the face in the mirror—not having seen it for what seemed like years. Actually it had only been a few days since I met this strange, foreign woman. She was smiling in the mirror as if she had swallowed a canary, which she may well have for all I know, but at the moment she wasn't hungry for sure. Behind her head, in the tree outside the window, was a big calico cat, peering into the room, waiting for a chance to pounce at anything alive. I opened the window to warn off the cat but accidentally fell with a crash into the bushes below. Gracefully jumping to my feet, I made a lunge for the cat, but it disappeared into the air, screaming like hell.
I tried to go back to my room but the window was tightly closed from inside and, staring out at me as though I were crazy, was my younger sister, who had disappeared more than three years ago! I opened my mouth and she vanished in front of me like a story that had never been told. It was she who had left home, I muttered to myself, and left me to tend to the flowers. Is it possible that she could have returned, after having eaten the cactus flowers I had cooked for her? She had gone wild and run away for good, it seemed, but her sudden return started me wondering. I ran around to the front door of the house, which stood open, and called out, "Anybody there?"
"Welcome home!" my sister responded from inside the house, and suddenly I realized it was 1975 and I was out of orange flavored Tang drink, but there were Oreo cookies in the cabinet, a parakeet in a cage by the red sofa, and one of my toes was bleeding onto the carpet. I shouted, "Bring me a paper towel," and sensed someone approaching, but there was no answer. I remembered I had fallen from the window, when my toe must have been injured, but after that was a blur, and now it seemed I could only imagine my adult life as a kind of dream. Completely confused, I walked into the kitchen and looked at the calendar to make sure if it was really 1975.
It was in fact September 1975—and yet my mind was somehow still my "adult" mind, observing and participating in my childhood life, just as though nothing unusual had happened. I went to the door and hesitated to open it. In my childhood I always had a "fear" mixed with expectation before opening a door and this moment was no exception. Nonetheless I opened the front door, and realized the world outside was 2013 and that I had been planning to plant some autumn flowers, but found my garden grown wild with brambles. I was shocked because I had always kept it neat, knowing that controlling nature is controlling gods.
I picked a handful of cactus flowers and, instead of cooking them, strewed the petals all over the rambling garden, praying intensely that order and balance should return to nature as well as to my mind. But nothing happened except where each flower petal had fallen there appeared a cat with a ribbon around its neck, sitting patiently and staring at me as if waiting for a command. Beneath the tree was the calico cat that I'd tried to catch earlier in the day and I blinked twice, focusing my thought on the strange woman who had smiled in the mirror, then on my sister who had re-disappeared and the calico cat under the tree. I looked again in the mirror and found, to my distress, that the strange foreign woman had returned! I yelled at her to leave me in peace, but the only sound from my mouth was a deep and menacing purrrrrrr...
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Thailand.
♥ Scroll 15
This year is bad for azaleas. There was an untimely frost in early May, just before the flower buds were coming out, and now only a few blossoms have appeared in my garden. I'm sitting here, with the party just a week away, wondering how to entertain my guests without the usual full boom of azaleas. I have been planning the party since last autumn, and requested each guest to wear shoes the color of flowers, but so far their choices will be a little limited. White, of course, pink, drooping blue—it seems that nature is not participating in the festivities, but I'm still hoping the yellow and purple of gorgeous irises may stay in bloom.
But you never can predict nature's whim, especially this time of year. Just as unpredictable this year has been topsy-turvy like having hot summer days in winter, or typhoons in early spring. The other day we had a tremendous tornado which swirled up cats, dogs and people along with houses, cars and shoes, and I saw on TV a monster spider caught up in the swirl as well. When the tornado died down, the monster spider was left in the air and began to take various eerie forms—a huge squid ejecting gloomy ink like a spell, or an enormous octopus-like figure. I felt as if it was going to choke me off with its eight long arms which moved like serpents.
The spider was seen for two days after the storm, then disappeared, and a magnificent rainbow appeared in the clear blue sky. I watched at the spectrum—red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet—and noticed a dark streak of shadow along the inner edge of the arch which seemed to touch the earth just behind a shining new building downtown. I decided to go to the building and have a look—you never know what you can do with this kind of phenomenon until you find out what has caused it. I went up to the roof of the building and found there a pile of ashes still smoldering and a strange-looking lump of melted metal. I took the lump—about the size of a medium-sized coin—and dropped it into my pocket and went home for lunch.
I had forgotten about the lump of metal until a few days later when I heard a strange buzzing sound coming from my clothing closet. I opened the closet door, and found the floor was covered with shining insects, about 3.5 cm long, in gold and green colors, with purple stripes. I groped for the metal lump in the pocket of my jacket but it was gone. Then suddenly I realized that it had given birth to the swarm in my closet—which was spreading in all directions. I picked up one of them, held it to the desk lamp, and it began to sparkle iridescently as though the light from a distant planet had found its way into the cells of the insect. As I held it, it turned to dust in my palm, so I decided to keep the swarm in my closet without touching them.
I wondered what I should feed them with, and left the house to wander the streets—pondering over the strange "insects," azaleas, and the way that storms always bring drastic change. A few blocks away from my house is a butcher shop, and the butcher, who was usually busy chopping meat, was acting funny without any lump of meat on the chopping board. With a knife in each hand he was beating the board like a drummer and singing at the top of his voice. The song was something like this: "Flowers in summer never last, and the azaleas are nowhere now. Come back, come back, my sweet azaleas!" and suddenly I became worried about the multicolored shiny insects in my closet, the party, and the dogs that had been blown into the air. I stopped in the middle of the sidewalk, turned around and headed into the nearest bar.
Photo by James C. Hopkins: Ampawan village, Thailand.
Posted, September 6, 2013
♣ 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.
♦ 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.
♥ 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.
♣ 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, India.
♣ 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.