JOURNEY TO BEAUTY FEEL after Ki no Tsurayuki
At the end of Absence-of-God month, at the beginning of the Spring Wrapping Festival, I decided it was time to visit my friend who lived beyond the Eastern Barrier, and for the two of us to go again to the place known as Beauty Feel.
I left my house mid-morning, full of happiness, for it had been a long time since I'd seen my friend, and even longer since the two of us had gone together to Beauty Feel. Arriving at the train station, at the confluence of avenues where the sky is so wide it leaves one breathless (because there are no trees and the district paper storehouses are low), I noticed that the clouds seemed to be layered one upon another upwards from the horizon -- a rather strange configuration that felt like a presentiment. But of what? I wondered. As soon as the train arrived, I could see what my intuition had anticipated: everyone in the crowded ochre-colored car was sleeping, piled one upon another in their pale spring linens, just as the clouds had been, no doubt because it was the day after the so-called "Stand and Wait Moon," when people keep all-night vigils to commemorate the final night of Absence-of-God month. Only one young girl was awake (probably her family had paid a beggar to keep vigil for them), and she was sewing a gold buckle on a pair of trousers, using her own long black hair as thread. She had forgotten to take the price stickers off the bottoms of her sandals, and I found this amusing as she was the beautiful, haughty type, and her oversight revealed a hidden aspect of her character. Further, she was sitting directly beneath one of the many cheap advertisements one sees on trains these days, this one instructing riders to "Think fresh -- drink fresh." I wanted to compose a poem or two on these images, but had neither room to maneuver nor a free hand to extricate my pen and diary, tucked away in my clothes. But as the train lumbered across the East River Bridge, my position afforded me a good view out the window of the girders and pylons encased in pale paper for the Spring Wrapping Festival, which would begin on the weekend. All the bridges over all the rivers would be wrapped, as well as some buildings (to engender in the faithful the inner change of mind called "suddenly, there is a god") but the East River Bridge was always the most beautifully wrapped, owing to its important position at the place of the rising sun. I was glad to be standing, to be able to see it before the wind tore off its delicate wrapping, as always happens.
When we arrived at the canal many people got off, and I found myself sitting down next to the haughty miss. I was about to say something witty to her (perhaps an echo of the ancient poem "Is this the path / Of the wild boar to its lair?") when four children in school uniforms rushed aboard and wedged themselves between the girl and me. They were speaking a combination of several provincial languages, were overweight, unruly, and seemed to be of inferior breeding. Their antics (twirling around the poles, constantly changing seats, popping their spittle-soaked ginger candies) ruffled the feathers of my young lady, and she lost her composure completely and gave them dirty looks. I had to laugh when she stood up, muttering curses, and the children made faces after her, and mimicked her mincing gait. She stood facing the door until the train pulled into her stop. I wondered where she was headed, her buckle still unsewn.
Soon we passed the Eastern Barrier and arrived in my friend's town, named for a series of ancient rulers. The pink towers on the low skyline, the clouds still arrayed in their strange formation, and the sight of plum trees just beginning to bloom in the residential district below, lent a somehow nostalgic aspect to everything, and brought on thoughts of walking home from primary school in my old hometown, past an alley where lilacs were blooming, or going with my parents on an outing to the suburbs. And when the sun broke out from behind the clouds for a moment, it felt like a revelation, and inspired this poem:
White plum tree blossoms
I decided then to make a point of looking at all the otherwise familiar sights and recording them in prose and poetry, like "A Journey Along the Seacoast Road," which inspired Basho's "Narrow Road to Oku":
"A fisherman's hearth
Then I would give the finished work to my friend, like poets did back then. As I took out my pen and diary, the agora with its flags came into view, and the arches of the old aqueduct upon which the train clattered steadily as it pulled into the boundary bridge station -- the last stop. The boundary bridge station is quite charming, with its old-fashioned arcade of tiny trinket shops along a walkway above the street. After buying a few small rice candies from an elderly vendor as a gift for my friend, I made my way to the stairs. As I was about to go down, something caught my eye:
On the station walls
On the street, I found myself in the middle of the noontime crush -- lady clerks on their lunch hours shopping for shoes, manual laborers crowded in the restaurants, fat bankers waddling in groups, taking up the whole sidewalk. I turned the corner:
Passing under the aqueduct
From the restaurants and cafes along the side street music appropriate to the beginning of Spring played. One particular song brought to mind the rough but somehow magical transition from a happy time to a time of suffering. One only ever recalls vividly the times of heightened emotion, I noted. The burly roofers and joiners plowing past me, eating noodles with their mouths wide open, seemed oblivious to emotional modes. An admirable quality!
After a short walk past the campus of the secretarial academy, and the social clubs of the town's various ethnic groups, I spotted my friend's house, with its emerald-green latticework up the side, and flat, sand-colored facade refracting the sun. I stepped onto the porch and rang the bell. As I waited, a woman walked by and gave me a suspicious look. Rather than be offended, I reminded myself that the citizens of this district were often wary and unfriendly. When my friend appeared she was wearing a pretty spring car coat, slate grey, with a sheen.
"It looks like a worker's coat," I told her, and she smiled.
"Well, I have been working," she laughed, and it was true -- for months she had been struggling to finish her treatise on the crag tips at Nara called "Guests of the Moon."
I poured the rice candies into her hands and she, delighted, poured half back into mine. Happily we ate them as we walked under the aqueduct -- the short cut to Beauty Feel -- talking nonstop for a quarter of an hour about her new plan to make posterity her confidante, and my new theory that the landscape of our memory narrates us. We agreed that the two ideas were compatible, and could be combined to interesting effect, and decided to work on a collaborative tome. We also agreed we were feeling peckish, and stopped in the first cafe we came to, which was decorated -- oddly -- with red wagon wheels. Our waitress was lame, but she had a wide, pleasant face. Two workmen sat in the booth behind us, hunched over their meat sandwiches, necks sweating.
Back on the street, we couldn't help but notice each other's excitement when Beauty Feel finally came into view, its orange windows stocked with the oddest selection of toiletries. We discovered this shop a year ago, when we'd stopped in for something so mundane I can't remember it now, on our way back from choosing my wedding shoes. Now, as we crossed the street against the light, beneath the wrapped girders of the boundary bridge station, crashing past bankers, lady scribes, and traffic, I thought of this poem:
To come all this way
We grabbed baskets and took off in opposite directions. Up and down the just-mopped aisles, redolent of disinfectant, we went, choosing whatever captured our fancies until our baskets were too heavy to carry (after awhile I just kicked mine along the floor in front of me). When we met up again we compared choices. Mine, Whale Sperm Shampoo, Vitamin A Cake, Salt Soap, Dr. Collosum's Cerebrina Tonic, Whipped Silk Soak, and Lucky Poem Blanket; hers: Active Ovals for Nails, Hydrolyzed Radish Oil, Air Zoom Pills, Bear Oil, Cultivated Pearl Spray, Space Warmer, and Hoof Lacquer. We laughed so hard we cried at the discovery that each of us had chosen Arabian Formula Masculinity Tonic for Men. ("Never start a sexual encounter after a strong meal," the directions on the side of the package read. "You'll end up tired and in bad humor and you may have the risk of death. After the encounter, keep silent. Being gentle does not mean you are gay.")
After regaining our composure, we brought the baskets up to the clerk, who was absentmindedly brandishing daisies and humming. So gleeful were we that we probably seemed like two refugees who'd recently fled a country of few freedoms for the myriad possibilities of a place like Beauty Feel. Our purchases were quite expensive, but we merely laughed, for we knew they would provide us with wonderful memories for a long time to come.
We parted in front of Five and Famous Butcher Shop, both of us vowing to never let so long a time pass before making another trip to Beauty Feel. On the train back home, I sat across from a tiny elderly lady and her companion, who could've been a man or a woman, so rough were her features and dry wedge of hair. I looked out the window at my friend's town, passing behind me. It was sunset, and I was exhausted, but not too tired to notice the wrapping that covered an entire building billowing out in the wind with an alternating up-and-down motion, as if there were little animals running races underneath it, and the window decorations particular to that region -- rivulets of iridescent liquid that ran down the panes and changed the light in the room at dawn and at dusk, to remind residents of the sacred passing of time, and the different qualities of the hours spent at home before and after work. When we reached East Bridge the river beneath was aquamarine, and the sun, burning bright just before it dipped below the horizon, cast slats of light along the floor, flashing as we moved past the wrapped girders. The brightness made me close my eyes, and I fell asleep for a brief time, and dreamed that I heard the words, "The library-sized island of Formosa will soon return to prominence." I awoke with a laugh, and wondered what such a message could possibly presage.
When I got off at my stop, in my town whose name means "broken land," I was again at the confluence of avenues where the sky is so wide it leaves one breathless (because there are no trees and the district paper storehouses are low). The clouds were gone, and everything seemed different -- much duller, more lackluster. And I wondered:
Was it my friend who
Sharon Mesmer lives and writes in Brooklyn, but grew up in Chicago's Back of the Yards hood. "Journey" is a story from Mesmer's second collection, "In Ordinary Time" (forthcoming). One day, she visited her friend in Queens, and thereafter....