♦ 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)