|Jul/Aug 2012 Fiction|
He ages quickly— faster than before. A life compacted and accelerated. His legs ache like an old man as he stands watching the clouds over Thenac. The sunlight everywhere scattering to blue. The grape vines thick from decades of care, their production now abated for the season. The soil is heavy like clay. Autumn's light is fading; the yellow leaves everywhere making a contract between the ground and sky.
An explosion in his head forces him to kneel, the frailty of his knees obvious as they embrace the soft dirt path. His hands fall to his thighs, and he witnesses all colors at once. They are organized in this vision, differentiated by wavelengths. His sight then wanders outside the visible spectrum, and he senses the ultraviolet. He sees the waves as particles colliding, bouncing and refracting, and others moving through the earth as if it did not exist. The intensity of this image is overwhelming, and he realizes he is about to die.
Then his eyes fail, like a hand is being held over them, and he is lifted. He can feel the air moving quickly around him through the darkness. He begins to smell pine and cedar. He can feel the wind from the Alps and Volgas, and then the smell of the plains of Tibet. He tastes salt water as he crosses the Sea of Japan. He is travelling farther east when the darkness lifts from his eyes and the plum trees and soft light remind him that he is still in Bordeaux.
The scenery is reminiscent of Goya. The painter lived in exile nearby, and Edo can see every detail of the paintings from that period—art from a deaf man obsessed with history. He tries to remember the brush strokes, but his mind moves to a vision of Amaterasu, the Shinto goddess of the sun, as a blinding light, knowledgeable in things beyond the Earth. Then, exhausted, he collapses. The leaves barely move from his diminished weight. The brown of his monk's robe merges with the dirt.
He wakes as if a boy, unaware of his surroundings. The stars seem especially bright in the dark firmament. The moon is waning in a crescent, slivering into the sky. He stands up slowly and moves quietly with no care for his uncovered feet on the cold of the pre-morning dark earth. His senses are not yet functioning, but his mind races and he considers his hands covered with sun spots. His arms are thinner and weaker than his imagination of them.
A life now slowed for examination. The energy so fertile in his head has finally been overtaken by the failing chemistry of the body. His mind is tired for the first time in his life. The winter is approaching, and the cliché does not go unnoticed. He is reminded of Dylan Thomas' And Death Shall Have No Dominion. Edo notices the distortions of his memory and feels a pang of loss.
By the time he returns to his simple room at the monastery, the sky is opening, breathing in the still grasses and rotting dandelion seeds. The morning is no longer a dream, and he thinks of his friends from youth, now almost all dead, rare connections within the vast space of the universe. But, because of these memories, he does not have to count the prime numbers, force his hands to replay old music recitals, or recite verses of the Dhammapada.
He extends his hands upward, stretches his fingers and opens his back, his eyes against the morning sun, and feels the slight upturn of his lips. He has, for a short time, found a way to stand still in time—a glimpse of what he has trained for since a boy. But then he grasps for air and tumbles into physical pain.
In 1603 when Ieyasu was appointed Shogun, he established Edo as the capital. Japan closed its borders for 250 years and thrived. Naming her son Edo was a reminder, his mother thought, of the brave Samurai and better times in Japan. And so he had the weight of the island's history embedded in his head from birth. Despite a nearly comprehensive knowledge of 17th and 18th century Japanese history, he grew up as an outsider—a white boy with a brown mother, a child of war. The only memories he had of his father were of long silent walks through the wooded areas on the outskirts of Tokyo. The man and the boy with light skin, stark against the brown of the pine bark.
Edo was born just after the end of World War II. Japan was decimated and endured an American General removing powers from an Emperor. Like his country, Edo was frail to begin with but grew quickly. His mother was proud of her big son. He was tall for his age and strong, a good sign in those times. He was admired for his physicality. But he was already leaping though time.
Edo aged quickly because of a disease that was not yet named. Werner syndrome is a very rare autosomal recessive disorder that causes premature aging. The defect is located on the short arm of the eighth chromosome. It would not be for a number of years that anyone fully understood the disease, but its symptoms and impacts were apparent to the young boy. The later genome maps that the biologists began to uncover became a fascination for Edo—as if they could describe a destiny.
In Edo's case, Werner syndrome also camouflaged the specter of autism. Each day felt like many in his head. The multitude of ideas, although exciting, were also burdensome. They did not allow time for nonsense or laughter or play. The gene responsible for Edo's disease was named WRN, letters that sounded like a bird to him. So he learned everything he could about these small, excitable birds with loud songs. He studied the many genera, the many migration patterns, searching for a metaphor to guide him.
Edo was given flute lessons and taught to read Latin and Greek and English. He learned the languages without difficulty. The flute was similar, his pitch nearly perfect. He outgrew the teachers at the Tokyo schools quickly. He became an oddity and learned to keep his head down. He memorized everything he saw from that shadowed view.
Prince Shotoku is considered the founder of Japanese Buddhism. He established a large monastery on the remote north island near Nara and named it Horyuji. And that is where Edo was sent by his mother. The first white boy to be admitted. The quiet suited him, as did the discipline and requirement for memorization. While he would outgrow the academic teaching quickly, the spiritual training stayed with him.
The landscapes of Hokkaido remained his most clear memory. The high latitude allowed for great expanses of deep coniferous forests. The well known hot springs bubbled in wide open spaces of muted color, the ritual of the baths evolving from snow monkeys. Their faces formed in the shape of a heart, red surrounded by nearly frozen grey hairs. Steam rose off the smooth top of the ponds in great billows, allowing only intermittent views of the sky.
Edo left Hokkaido at 17 and moved west against the rotation of the Earth, travelling first to the high mountains of the Himalaya, aggressive and growing, pounding against a dark blue sky bereft of pressure. He kept moving towards the center of continents, to old hills, geographies more stable. This transition began with a large step over a small sea, and it was the end of Japan for him. Half of his heart and blood and damaged DNA now missing, the map being redrawn.
The trees of southwest France are less hearty than those of Hokkaido, their leaves turn earlier and quicker. And the light there is softer and fuller, but its shadows less interesting. The Dordogne Valley has oaks marking the roads; it has long, winding, slow rivers, and red roofs on the houses. The monastery that Edo went to sat on three unconnected pieces of land. It was originally named Sweet Potato and then changed to Plum Village. One thousand plum trees were planted by the monks and nuns when they arrived in the 1970s. Their own country's soil was littered with bullets and too wet for such fruit trees. The monastery buildings were originally the out-buildings of working farms. Edo came to the monastery to die.
On his arrival from the small local train station, grapevines filled the view in every direction. The monks then became visible, the color of sod, they welcomed him with informal smiles. He was given a lower bunk-bed in a shared room in a low building near the border of the grounds. He woke up early for meditation, the sky grey and blue at the same time. He practiced returning his mind to the present, to a joy that is everywhere; and then his focus slipped back to his failing body, and back again to his breath, and then to a number with no end of decimal places.
Most days he had difficulty even waking up. He lay down and felt his thin muscles sore and decrepit. The walk to the temple was long for him, but the best part of his day. He brought no torch, no light. The shadows of the other men eluded him, his eyesight too poor to capture the difference in darkness between the sky and earth. He walked in the middle of the country road, aware of the agricultural land on both sides and the breathing of the horses in the cold air. The trees began to frame the horizon. The light existed in the plum trees as he turned the corner onto the final road to the modest stone temple. The farmhouse, now converted with a wooden floor. He could smell the plums rotting in the earth.
The plum picking was done by the younger monks. They didn't appear to know the teachings of the Buddha very well. The subtleties of the translations in Pali or Sanskrit or Vietnamese were of no consequence to them. They were young and undisciplined, unlike anyone he remembered from Japan. He had memorized most of the Sutras by the time he was eleven. He would picture the young Buddha sitting in a field teaching the bikkhus how to breathe.
He could feel his memories more than before, manifested now as movement and vibration. He remembered music lessons. He had carried his flute with him for 35 years. At night he fingered the B foot joint, noticing its fine craftsmanship. It was a Powell flute made in 1934, and it contrasted with the instruments left behind in the corners of the monastery library. The notes he produced were no longer clear, though. His throat was being destroyed by a cancer. It hurt even to swallow.
He still received letters from the one remaining person in his Werner Syndrome support group. She sent him a picture of a balding, old woman. He recognized her. There were eight of them originally. They were brought together from all over the world to be tested and taught. At first awkward, most of them became successful in their careers for a short period. Then their DNA replication failed and they died quickly. Their memories and contributions faded into medical journals and poor statistics. Japan had a high incidence of the disease—a small island fiercely protective of its genes.
What had he missed then? The transition from childhood to adulthood to old age and then to death—his continuum altered. He operated on two timeframes, physical and mental, and was trained to be acutely aware of both. Contemplating the phases of a life's transition was a much used tool in certain parts of Buddhism, but not applicable to him. As he raced across the arc of a life, he was keenly aware of the sections of the curve that he had missed.
This should be the easy part—the dying part. He has cut off all contact with family and friends. He has stopped writing letters or making phone calls from the small phone booth two miles away in the village. He has meditated on it for years. He has watched his cells die, his skin brown, his hair fall out. Still, he aches to see one more summer, to feel heat and grass in a field on his bare feet, to sit under a tree with leaf-covered shade extending forever.
The cool air pricks his skin underneath the knit cap and the brown shawl, his still, blue eyes tearing. He invoices regrets, doubts, and dreams infused with age, frayed and rusting. He tries to classify his small contributions, codify them. All within the confines of a planet with its wobbling and changing magnetism. The universe wholly unimpressed by the human condition: being unable to even survive without an atmosphere.
He finally feels it coming at the speed of light. Slowed down now to the movement of the worms eating the old leaves of the grape vines. He can see the duality of light and smell the baths of Hokkaido. He explodes into an infinite amount of pieces and shapes, understanding geometry and the words of prayer flags. His intellect leaves him entirely, and he is left in honesty. The chemicals being transformed. The heart no longer making a sound.