The grafts of morning pierced the walls of the dark hut, illuminating it with light of the December sun. Outside, a pair of sparrows hopped and fluttered through the white grass, picking apart small red berries and nipping at the insides. A slight wind shook the thin walls, and a few flakes of snow drifted down from the roof and settled on the the ledge outside the window. Endo opened his eyes, slowly, and took in the world, one breath at a time.
It had not been an especially restful sleep. In his village, it was said that the makings of dreams come from fragments of the day, the scraps of unmeditated experience that settle on the mind at night like snowflakes on a warm bath. Endo did not recall an especially blizzard-like day of thought and stimulation that would cause such restless dreams. Nonetheless, he spent much of the night in an acute state of longing, as if he were breathing through a straw, aching for air.
How strange it is, he thought, that we live as if we were not breathing, until our breath is taken from us like a thief. Then it becomes more valuable than gold. He recalled a haiku that his friend Kichijiro had shared with him at the monastery during the summer, when they would go for long walks after evening meditation, chewing thin shoots of bamboo:
Like a whale without a rib,
a maimed existence.
a maimed existence.
In his dream, in the light of the Autumn moon, Endo saw the silouette of a girl standing behind a window. The illuminated rice paper was like a canvas on which her form had been spilled from thick India ink: the blotting of her hair collected in a ball on top of her head, the swan-like neck, the gentle curves shaping her kimono. He could see that she was bathing. She let down her hair, a great splash of black, and drew a sponge over her shoulders, and down her slender arms. Endo became aware that the longer he stared at her, the more he became aware of the fact that he was gently fighting for air that did not come in full. His eyes were like great dark lakes, open and vast, and never ending. He heard the voice of Hijo, his master, saying that the world of form is like smoke curling from a stick of incense; only a fool would try to capture it in a bottle and expect it to still be there in the morning. But Endo knew that while the smoke may have leaked out and made its way back into nothingness, the sweet, heavy smell remained like a poignent resin.
In his dream, Endo waded through rice paddies, trying to make his way to the house. Never did he take his eyes off of this bathing swan. He was aware of every step, the warm mud oozing between his toes, the water buffalo moving slowly nearby, his heart beating rapidly. He recalled that Hijo and some of the other senior monks would often go into the forest to meditate amidst the wild boars. "Fear is a tool," Hijo told the monks. "One would be wise to use it to build the seat of enlightenment." Endo was filled with such longing for this young swan that he was gripped with fear. He was afraid that she would disappear before he could actualize her presence. In all his life as a monk, he had never touched a woman. It was all he could do to keep from running with abandon.
Slowly, slowly, Endo approached the window. The blood beat in his head, and his hand was trembling. He was sure that at the moment he touched the screen, the house would vanish, or he would wake from his dream, though at this point, he was not aware he was dreaming. As his fingernail brushed a fiber from the screen, he felt as if the world would crush him any moment.
But the world did not crush him. He placed the ball of his finger lightly on the shoji. It was like skin. He felt the light from the candle inside sway gently as he held his hand up. The air was thin, silent, and quick to betray. The shadow of the swan turned gently, and Endo felt his breath leave him for what felt like an eternity.