Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Chapter 2: The (Re)birth of the Faceless Kumoso

Losing faith is a funny thing. From the point of view of the one losing it, it looks like a betrayal. It is the embarrassment of a declined proposal, or the sinking feeling in the pit of one's stomach after one realizes that the roulette machine has an indifferent predisposition towards black this particular hand, when you bet your kids' college funds on red. But from faith's point of view, the whole tragedy is nothing more than a dramatic misunderstanding which is endured patiently and with the slightest of smiles, like the smiles on the stone buddhas on the cover of my Lonely Planet guide to Thailand.

I was afraid to go to bed last night. Not because of any fear of nightmares or someone breaking in while I was asleep. No, I was simply afraid that if I laid my head down at 6:30 this morning, there would be no alarm loud enough to wake me for my 10 o'clock meeting. I hate sticking people like that. One of my biggest pet peeves is people being late and not calling. And there I would have been, doing the very thing I hate. I guess that is how the drinking in the bathroom began, staring at the reflection of my haggard face in the mirror.

I had googled 'sore throat remedies' yesterday in a desperate attempt to try to do something for this disconcerting malady and had found a large number of people attesting to the healing powers of...cayenne pepper. Mixed with water and gargled. Every fifteen minutes. I winced just thinking about it. But reading things that people from as far away as Malaysia were writing, testifying (some incredulously so) to their miraculous cures within days after "nothing else worked."

I had a small jar of it on my spice rack. It seemed brash. But seeing how we tried in the same desperate manner to get high in middle school by smoking cigarettes packed with nutmeg because we "heard it" somewhere, making fire water rinse out of a neighboring spice did not seem as ridiculous in comparison.

I stirred two tablespoons in warm water like the recipe said. The Jim Bean specials at Bob and Barbara's had accustomed me to to this nauseous hesitation, like looking over the edge to the water below just before jumping a cliff. I closed my eyes, mouthed a little prayer, and threw my head back, the molten pool spilling over the lip of the cup and welling into my mouth. Of all my body parts during this experience, my throat was the one trembling with fear like an 18 year old boy going to war for the first time. That was, at least, right before my mouth was empty. Now, it was all he could do not to collapse under the pressure of the sustained weight of the water. I gargeled once, twice...three times for good measure, and spit the venom in the sink, wiping the stringy lines of spittle from my mouth on the back of my hand. I rinsed with water, and went to the bookshelf to take de Coussad into the bedroom with me.

He assured me it would be okay, that he would wake me up when it was time and that I had nothing to worry about. I was hesitant, but the offer of sleep to one who has not had it was like the offering of a virgin to a sex-starved man. I decided to trust the voice in my head telling me that it would not be necessary to do the old five-glasses-of-water-before-bed Native-American alarm clock trick; two should suffice. I just had to trust him that I would wake up after I had gone to sleep.

I drank the first cup of water, then the second. But my hand did not return the cup to it's perch. It felt as if the moment I put it down, the moment the porcelin 'clinked' when it made contact with tile, that I was signing something. I did not know what it was. But it felt important...important enough, at least, to take a minute to consider it.

It was then that the voice that led me into the bathroom--the one that to this point had been gentle and comforting--began to seethe with suppressed but controlled rage. He ordered me much more forcefully to put the cup down and go to bed. But still my arm stayed in the air as if it had turned to stone, the cup hovering a hair's thickness above the surface of the holder. This really set him off, and he became like a drill sergent, yelling at me incessently. I could feel it's hot breath on my face...the smell was nauseating. I closed my eyes the way you turn off a tv. And yet all this did was diffuse his form into the darkness. I had become blind. I curled myself into a ball on the bathroom floor. I felt the terror of a child about to be born.


When I opened my eyes, it was quiet. The florescent light by the mirror hummed slightly and some crickets were scratching their wings somewhere in the night. But the voices had stopped. I got up off the ground and stared at myself in the mirror. I should have been shook up...and I was. I clutched the sides of the sink with my hands and spit into the sink, tiny red flecks floating in the clear bile like grains of sand caught and suspended in a piece of amber.

"Take this and drink it."

I spun around, only to face the shower curtain. I turned back towards the mirror and was caught by my reflection. I looked into my eyes as if they weren't my eyes at all, but the eyes of someone watching me from behind a painting, the way they say the Mona Lisa's eyes move with you as you walk by her. I have no doubt this was enough to drive more than a few men to madness. But it was only because they did not believe that art could possess life, could transcend time and place. To those who believed that, it imparted a secret, a key, delivered to them by Da Vinci himself.


I stood at the mirror for a long time. I didn't know what was what or who was who, and nothing was making any sense. Whose voice was this now? Whose was the other? What freaks me out the most is that they both sound the same...at least, before the first started screaming and carrying on. This voice is gentle, but firm; kind, but stern. He tells me to fill my cup three more times, and drink.

I turn on the faucet, and slowly fill the first. I raise the cup to my lips and look in the mirror. Dark circles are beginning to form under my eyes, and my stomach is churning in it's own juices. I am not surprised by how I look...but it is not until you really see for yourself that it hits you: this is what it's going to be for the rest of your life if you listen to him. I buck up and throw back, wanting to crush the little white cup in my fist and shatter it into a million pieces on the way back to it's little alter. Instead, I turn on the faucet again.

When I look up I see my father. I am visiting him in the hospital. He is very happy, telling my mom and me about all his new friends on the ward, how they played basketball the other day against the staff and almost won. He introduces me to his roommate. "This is my son," he tells him proudly. Then he asks if we would like an ice cream sandwich, as if icecream sandwiches were one of the greatest joys life had to offer. I have never been so embarrassed to be my father's son.

If I had tears to cry and could cry them, I would have then in the bathroom. Reliving this scene playing before me in the mirror like a movie, knowing that someday too I would have a son who would feel the same shame, who would be trapped in his own hell in a rented room in Maine in the middle of winter with a bottle of pills that can either save or end him, depending on his choice of what to do with them...

"Okay, last one." The voice startled me. I filled my cup and raised it to my lips.

"Tell me," it asked, "if you had to guess what the One Thing was, what would you say?"

I said I didn't know. I suppose smoking was a pretty heavy chain I had been trying to break for years. It's a little disconcerting to think I would have to give it up for good, but I know I could do it, especially since there seemed to be so much at stake here. Maybe chastity was the one thing I was missing. God knows how my life would be fucked over by that one.

The voice smiled. It was the faintest of smiles, but appeared in the emptiness like a shard of sunlight escaping from behind a cloud. The emptiness was saturated with tension, the kind that is strong enough to send veins of light crackling across the sky right before a thunderstorm. I have always been terrified of thunderstorms. They meant...


I was screaming. Hysterically. Like a decapitated head staring at its body in the seconds before it's extinction. The mind, completely severed from the very body that has assured its existence since their fusion, suddenly finds itself spatially and temporally separated, like a liferaft from it's ship, existing afloat in an ocean with no land in sight. But unlike a life raft at sea, not only is there no land in sight, but there is also no sea, no raft...no thing. If screams were possible here they would be loud enough to be heard in lives to come.

"No, no, NO!" The reflection in the mirror kept flickering in and out like a bad tv set. It was hard to make anything out...just streaks of purple velvet and black and screaming as if a mother's child had just been cut out from her wound; there is no rational way to process the event. "Please PLEASE! Take it, I CAN'T!..." I threw the porcelain cup against the wall, sobbing. But instead it hit the towel hanging on the rack in front of it, and dropped to the vanity in tact. I screamed and put my first through the mirror, a million shards of glittering reflection like stars in the universe, about to fall to earth. But they never fell.

At this point I seriously thought I was losing my mind. Like the flecks of cayenne in my spit in the sink, the pieces of the mirror were frozen in the air. I could see my eye, its reflection at least, in a shard, like that weird eye on the pyramid on the back of dollar bills. It held me in its gaze, becoming more and more intense. I felt my retna beginning to burn, stronger and stronger, until I finally blacked out, and crumpled to the floor.


I woke up around noon. It took a moment for my mind to register the painful discrepincy between the pressure of my bloated bladder and the time on my phone. He was supposed to wake me up. I have that fucking meeting! I trusted him.

A string of "fuckfuckfuck"s follow me out of the bedroom as I try to figure out what to do. I check my work phone: 1 missed call. Ugh. I throw the phone back on the table and sit down in my boxer shorts in the sunlit kitchen to think. I rub my eyes and try to clear my throat but it's just as closed off as it was last night. FUCK!!!

I don't understand. First I follow a false voice, which gives way to what I thought was a real voice. I follow the real voice and it tells me to do something, which I do, and none of it comes true. Not only am I not healed of my cold like I thought I would be, but he promised that if I drank all five glasses of water that I would wake up. Was this just another wolf making sheepcalls?

I decide to bag the day and call out sick. The feeling is nice--just having a day to hide out. It reminded me of the winter I spent in my apartment. It was the best winter I ever had. I took out a file folder from my desk drawer of writings and pictures I made. I was big into Kayne West that winter. His music made me do a lot of crazy things. His beats got into my head and pounded with each footstep I took, his lyrics engraved themselves in the back of my head. Kayne had a lot of potential with Jesus Walks. People were getting it--the message was getting through. Then I heard about his wager with 50 cent over who could sell more of their most recent albums, respectively. And then I knew that he was gone.

I put the folder back in the drawer. I decided to call the agency and my client's parents to apologize about the meeting, but wanted to do meditation first; with nowhere to be, it was harder to find an excuse not to. I still had the desire to listen to Kayne, or something pulsing, maddening, to jet into the morning. But instead I found myself at the bookshelf, pulling an obscure cd case out. It was a cd Rebecca had given me. I only listened to it once, but I remember her giving it to me because she thought I would like it. At the time I did not--it was like some kind of bland taro or white rice with no soy sauce. But I decided to give it a go, since he was allowing the use of music for this meditation. I could choose one disc to listen to. I couldn't tell you why I chose this one.

I slipped the jade-green jacket from its sheath and fingered it like it was a delicate piece of parchment. I sat down on the couch and read the brief introduction:

"In many ways, I am a modern-day komuso. The komuso were itinerant, mendicant priests of the Fuke-Shu sect of Zen Buddhism who wandered Japan during the Edo period (1600-1868). These priests were samurai who had lost their masters, and they would take the problems and illnesses of people upon themselves by playing a certain kind of shakuhachi music called Sui-Zen. The ko is komuso means "emptiness" or "nothingness," so the komuso were quite literally priests of emptiness or nothingness. They would wear tengai, a kind of woven basket, on their heads, hiding their faces. This was for anonymity, to suppress the ego. Since they were selfless, empty vessels, other people's problems could be "poured" into them. When someone needed a komuso to play for healing, the patient would see only a flute extending from the bottom of the basket, not a person."

I put the cd in, lit some incense, and sat down. I settled down and watched the smoke spill out from the tip of the incense stick. They were like dragon clouds entangled with one another in the sky. What it must be like to be lighter than air; what it must be like to disappear without having ever really appeared in the first place.

As my eyes adjusted to the smoke, my ears began to adjust as well. It seemed now that the dragons rolling playfully in the heavens just moments ago had now become like great pall-bearers in procession, bearing the notes of the komuso's flute on their backs. I didn't know what was happening, but it felt really important, and my eyes began to close.


I wake up in a grove, not unlike the one in Henri Rousseau's The Dream. But this grove I know, I've seen it somewhere, been there before. I can't place it. But I'm too tired to think about it from all the running around. The lack of sleep, food. Not knowing who to trust, what goes where, when I'm dreaming and when I'm awake. I roll over in the grass despairingly, only to hear the sound of rushing water.

In the pasture of this world, I endlessly push aside the tall grasses in search of the bull.
Following unnamed rivers, lost upon the interpenetrating paths of distant mountains.
My strength failing and my vitality exhausted, I cannot find the bull.
I only hear the locusts chirring through the forest at night.

When I come out of the grove I am standing at the banks of a river. What felt like a tranquil gurgling stream while my eyes were closed had now become a full raging mass of water a good twenty feet wide. There was no bridge, and the bank when on for miles.

I heard something snap behind me and spun around to find myself face to face with a toothless monk. He burst into laughter at my expression and in one great leap, jumped clear across the river, landing without a sound. He must have seen my expression again, because he again burst into laughter--spontaneous, controlled, punctual laughter. I could see from this angle that he was no more than four feet tall. Truth be told, he kind of reminded me of a leprechaun.

He shouted words at me from the other side that I did not understand, all the while pointing at the river--he was telling me to walk across. It was then that I realized I must be dreaming. A quiet part of me exhaled a sigh of relief; anything is possible in dreams, and nothing is real.

But as soon as I put my foot on the surface of that water, the old monk must have thought I was mistaking it for concrete, and howled in laughter. The color drained out of my face as I watched the river take my shoe and swallow it whole. It was only through a closely placed tree branch that I was able to escape the same fate. I sat on the shore to breath and tried to wrap my mind around the fact this was real. The monk hurled what I took to be insults at me from the other shore. I yelled back complaints in English about how I was supposed to do this, how this wasn't even possible. Shit, if Peter had Jesus with him and he still started sinking, what was I going to do with this old Chinese leprechaun when I go under.

What the...the bastard just threw a rock at me. Well, maybe not a rock, but a pebble! Hit me right between the eyes. From twenty feet away! He suddenly looked stern and locked eyes with me. His pupils were black like giant pits of tar. The longer we stared at each other, the deeper I went into those pits, like a miner being lowered down into the earth. For a long time it was blackness all around. Then, like a speck of dust, I see it glitter. I can see the core. But it is his core. And even then, it is a long way down still.
Along the riverbank under the trees, I discover footprints! Even under the fragrant grass I see his prints. Deep in remote mountains they are found. These traces no more can be hidden than one's nose, looking heavenward.

Next Installment: Chapter 3: The Meeting of the Village Woman

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