Given nothing but lumps of coal and extreme pressures all his life Hearn forged in the depths of his soul fine diamonds into a keen knife with which he cut loose from the past and traveled far, a refugee from West to East, devout outcast— a lotus flower floating free. Scholar of suffering, he knew what others felt as the Other; short of stature, of olive hue, and abandoned by his mother. An orphan of so many lands, he was a boy born from two climes and tossed between so many hands to become a man of the Times. Blind in one eye, yet he could see more clearly things that mattered most, despising modern industry, and mourning Japan’s ancient ghost. Loathing the Old Testament creed, his heart leapt at pagan creatures, seeing in them the ideal breed of human joy with wild features. He was said to be of those men aloof and adrift in his ties, yet tried to avenge a kitten when a man blinded its eyes. Some claim he stole tongues from the dead whereby to tell tales not his own, but storytelling is well-read in itself—nib of ancient bone. What stories had been given them that gave him in turn, came ago, extending thus from sleeve to hem, till he wrote them for us to know. Should we judge from utopia a wayfarer of unfair fate when, steeped in myopia, living well at a later date? Is he an appropriator of cultures belonging to those who gave him his nomenclature and his set of kimono clothes? Who faults da Vinci his paintings of the Madonna and her child? It is, in life, of the plain things that motifs are copied, then styled. What privileges did he boast (which critics have afterwards claimed) when as an orphan, coast to coast? Not more than “gender” can be named. Before the fortune and the fame he lived many years in a barn, laying upon hay, cold and lame, and only frayed daydreams to darn. A Greek, he witnessed the Banshee faceless upon a flight of stairs; a Celt, he saw Persephone rising from Plutonian lairs. Born to love a well-told story, his soul was half Irish and Greek, he sought what was grim and gory being small, but not at all meek. Like Hearn himself, Japan did take and borrow from other countries, their tales oft of meaning and make as in China, and its sundries. Why should that be a jackdaw flaw for him to know good seeds from bad? To replant a seed breaks no law when fertile crops are to be had. Should we let all be so fallow that all seeds should wither and wane when someone who is not callow should grow the crop with his rain? As for his much-beloved wives, he learned from them of tastes and tones, living as a man of odd lives— a soul reborn which dharma hones. He had a freed-slave wife back when it was a grave crime in the States, but he was a radical then— a rebel against such mandates. True, his ambition would end it and he would leave her all alone, but destiny chomped at the bit and there were yet fields to be sown. Fate took him faraway, not done with his strange life and its strange ride, to the Land of the Rising Sun to find his Mama Sama bride. Soon adopted into a clan of Samurai, to which his wife was a noblewoman, the man found for himself a peaceful life. This is why today he is yet celebrated in Chicago for every gory vignette of that city’s vast crimson glow, and why his cookbook of Orleans is used by Creoles and Cajuns, a French tongue for all tastes and scenes he was loved like other Bay sons, and why, in the land of Japan, he is still respected today, known as the learned Western man who heard what their ghosts had to say. And so Hearn traveled very far, floating like a leaf on the wind, living a story as bizarre as a Kwaidan tale by the end.
Haunted, not by a ghost
or a hobgoblin or elf,
but by an online post—
haunted by himself
everyday, hour to hour,
click by view by share,
mouse to signal to tower
around the world, here and there.
A video of him drunk
and falling down some stairs,
And soon that video multiplies
without hope of exorcism,
watched by millions of eyes
through a single lens prism.
He cannot get a job
because that digital specter
makes him seem a tipsy slob,
no matter the job vector—
like juice he is concentrated
into a human extract
marginalized and rated
by one embarrassing act.
Meanwhile she is haunted, too,
but in a more revealing way—
bare skin with an intimate view
uploaded for Pornhub play.
Her ghost is a thing of shame
that writhes atop her ex
with no context of love to claim
redemption for the wild sex,
and so she sees her ghost contort
her whole life into one act,
making her seem an escort—
a thousand lies from one fact.
Without her consent she sees
her ghost downloaded at high speed
all over the world for monkeys
to please themselves, when in need,
and she is wholly helpless against
her evil doppelganger,
no matter how incensed
while her ghost lets a man bang her.
How strange that a ghost may
outlive a person not yet dead,
and outlive them long after the day
they are laid down in their dirt bed.
The moon was a skull in the sky, dark clouds laying over it like a torn curtain. The man sat in a black SUV, the engine off and the window partially down. Fog rolled off of the graveyard hilltop on which he was parked, his cigarette smoke blending into it. The graveyard was small and old, overtopping a rural road rarely visited by anyone except raccoons, opossums, and the occasional deer. The loved ones who once knew those buried here were by now buried too, but elsewhere, in more modern graveyards where flowers were still arranged in futile gestures of love and longing. The road was as dead as the hilltop. No one passed here at this time. It had been raining all week, ceasing just after midnight, and the fog rose like ghosts from the burial plots.
The man in the driver’s seat preferred backroads and scenic routes when driving to a job. He smoked his cigarette and stared out into the darkness absently. He would eventually take a nap, if he could, shrouded in the anonymous murk of this backwoods county.
The man was as unremarkable as his SUV. He did not wear a black suit like they often did in the movies. He wore a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and a John Deere hat over his bald head. Tomorrow, when he would arrive in Florida, he would shed this outfit for a button-up shirt, khakis, and maybe sandals— if the weather permitted. What he wore changed drastically from day to day. Shoes, shirts, pants, glasses, wigs. Sometimes he would actually wear a black suit, if the nature of the job required it. Sometimes he wore a white suit. When a job was completed he often wore three different styles of clothes from day to day, and bought some clothes along the way— paid in cash only—to improvise according to what was needed to safely cross state lines without drawing attention to himself. He kept his clothes within the hidden floorboard of his SUV, alongside the other tools of his trade.
His type of cigarettes changed, too. It was his only addiction because he knew that addictions, in his profession, could be deadly. The deadliest addiction was the one known as complacency. Living day to day caused complacency. Not dying caused complacency. People were so successful in living day to day— in waking up alive for the majority of their lives—that they were often surprised when they suddenly failed at it. Life was a gamble, from moment to moment, and the man in the driver’s seat knew that truth better than most since he was something of an assistant to the debt collector at the end of everyone’s gamble. It was a rigged gamble, much like in any casino. Everyone eventually lost the bet. That was why he was not addicted to his complacency. People risked everything, from moment to moment, and risked it all…with or without their consent. The universe did not care about consent, and never would. The cosmos were a cannibal mother, birthing and then devouring its young over the duration of a lifetime, particle by particle, memory by memory, until each child was once again but electrons conjoined in the nebulous expanse of Void. Ash to ash, dust to dust.
The man in the driver’s seat tapped the ashes into his ash tray, then took a pensive drag on the half-burnt cigarette. His eyes were not reptilian or empty of what some people generically labeled a “soul”. He could emote. He could do Shakespeare with such rapturous expression that Hamlet’s father would have clapped as if brought back to life by the riveting performance. Emoting was one of his many talents; one of his many skills in his needful toolbox required by his jobs. Not only could he slip in and out of his disguises like a chameleon its colors, but he could color that plain face of his with whatever tangential expression suited his circumstantial disguise. And it was all genuine, too, as he ingratiated himself or made banter or courted hearts— genuine until the moment when the lights were flipped off of that grand production and the curtains were closed.
Yes, every instant was a gamble and a game. Whether it was cosmic debris colliding with earth or the microbes in a man’s body destroying him with disease from within, the gamble played out without favorites, and with utter disregard for mankind’s delusion of importance. Even a man’s own genes foretold that he was doomed, breeding cancer to devour him with the very cells that manifested him. It was inevitable. The stage would be silenced and the spotlights extinguished. For most people there would not even come the forethought of taking a bow before the end.
“Yes,” said his passenger. “But why did you have to help it along? Why did you have to shoot me in the back of the head while I was taking a piss?”
It had been the right tactic, and the right pay. Leo Romanoff. Age 53. 5’10”. 198 lbs. Money launderer for a Russian oligarch. Went into a public restroom while his two bodyguards stood watch. Pistol and silencer for the two bodyguards, then Romanoff himself. His two bodyguards sat in the backseats of the SUV, their faces veiled in shadow just like Romanoff himself.
“You could have talked first,” Romanoff said. “We could have come to a financial arrangement. But you didn’t. You didn’t want to talk. You just had a job to do, didn’t you?”
The man in the driver’s seat never wanted to talk. He never spoke to them when they came to him like this. He would have never listened to them at all if their voices did not seem to come from inside his head. They acted like the job was personal. But the job was never personal.
“Even when you loved me?” she said, sitting in the passenger seat. Her blonde hair was luminous like moonlight, but her face was black within the halo; a solar eclipse. “You cried when you killed me in our bed. Why so many tears for a job that was not personal?”
Natalya Heidmann. Age 34. 5′ 9″. 120 lbs. Wealthy widow of a hedge fund manager. Her husband’s daughter resented the money her deceased father had willed to his third wife. She wanted Natalya to love the man who killed her, so he comforted the widow and slowly seduced her over the course of a few months. Three months into their relationship stepdaughter told him to kill Natalya. So he kissed her upon her lips and slit her throat while her eyes were closed. A jealous ex-boyfriend was used as the patsy. But it was not personal. Nothing was personal.
The universe did not care about love, family, society, ideals. Such things were as inconsequential as dew upon a headstone, and as meaningless as a headstone upon a mass grave. The worms worked their magic regardless of human pretenses, recycling flesh into forgetful soil. The mindless earth rolled on, like a ball on a roulette wheel. Eventually its luck would run out. It was a mirthless game where everybody eventually lost. It was the only game in town.
“I liked games,” the little girl said to the man in the driver’s seat. “I used to, I mean. And you played them with me when you were our butler. I would play hide and seek with you a lot, until the night you were no longer playing. You found me and I didn’t even scream for help. Who could have helped me?”
Anna Maria Gurlukovich. Age 7. 4’3″. 54 lbs. Daughter to an Pro-Russian politician in Ukraine. He had poisoned her parents’ tea and then strangled her when she tried to hide. It was a politically-related job. Afterwards he was relocated to the United States with the help of the CIA.
“You treated me like I was your daughter,” she said. “And then you killed me.”
So, too, did the universe. He may have been the man in the driver’s seat, but he was also a passenger. He did not drive any of them to their final destinations. He was not the arbiter. He was just another puppet upon a string. He chose nothing. Their deaths were never his to decide, nor the particulars. He had been chosen, but anything else could have easily accomplished the same result, and would have, given time.
He shifted in the driver’s seat, trying to make himself comfortable for a nap. He snuffed the cigarette butt in the ash tray, then tried to extinguish himself with sleep for a while. His brain did not obey, however. It began to wander. The passengers in the SUV murmured in discontentment. He did not know what else they could want. More time? What good would it have done them? The same result; nothing more. He had scoured the philosophies of the world— from Greek Rationalists to the Asian Harmonialists to the German Mechanists and the French Absurdists—and he could only confidently summarize the meaning of Life as thus: Shit happened and then you died.
His eyelids began to close, drawing themselves down so that the outer night would be welcomed inward. But then he saw a herd of deer pass through the graveyard. His eyelids jerked open and he roused, sighing. He watched the deer. Their ears sensed him, lifting alertly, but their empty, imbecilic eyes skimmed over him without further concern. Occasionally they hopped along, as if ready to flee, only to stop and graze once more upon the grass, steadfast in their own complacency. He could have shot any of them and they would have tumbled over, surprised by Death as if it had not been staring them in the face all along.
Fireflies drew his attention from the deer. They blinked in and out of the darkness. People blinked in and out of that darkness, too. The darkness did not care. One moment they were alive, the next moment they were not. Nor did he think himself a spider capturing the fireflies, like so many in his profession did. If he was a spider then he was a spider trapped in the same web as the fireflies. He held no pretenses sacred— only the moment that followed the previous. And he knew it was only sacred to him because it was all that he had…until he lost the ongoing gamble. All he could hope for in life was the occasional contentment of small, temporary victories because all humans were engaged in an existential war for which they would inevitably suffer a final defeat, given time.
It was time to move again. He had dawdled too long. Movement was crucial for his job. Always be moving and never be restless. Movement meant peace of mind and relaxation. It was only when he stopped to rest that he became restless and fretful and was visited. He could settle down when he was dead, and that was inevitable. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but eventually. Until then there was no rest for the wicked. And so the world never rested, because it never stopped its one-sided gamble, no matter how many it raised and buried from moment to moment to fleeting moment.
He obeyed all rules of the road, as he obeyed all rules within society. Except for the one, and that was because a greater Law held precedence over that arbitrary one. Obeying the other rules helped him serve that greater Law. After all, that one Law trumped all others. The rules of civilization bowed to it as well, civilization itself made manifest from the fear of that Law, and the promise of that Law, and thus was never immune to it. That Law was Death, and everyone obeyed it. When his time came the man in the driver’s seat would bow his head in resignation to it. There had been times when Death taunted him. He had scars to attest to the playfulness of Death. A scar just above his heart. A scar along his left temple. Several scars from knives up and down his back. But they were mere reminders of the Law, and so he saw them as heralds of things inevitable; post-it notes he could not throw away.
He came to a bridge, and the bridge was closed. Headlights flashed back at him from the orange sign that warned against attempting the bridge. It began to rain again. It was a downpour. Through the heavy hammering he could hear his fellow passengers murmuring with unrest. When lightning flashed he could see them in his rearview, though their faces were still eclipsed by Death. When your life centered on the end of other lives you were keenly aware of the destination. It was easily traversed, but never returned from. There were no refunds for the ferryman’s crossing. The river could not be forded but one way.
The rain had filled the river to teeming, the overflow flooding out his planned route. It might delay his job for a few days— maybe even a few weeks. No matter. Everything in its own time. He turned around and followed Fate’s path, as he had always done. However it determined him to go, he went. The particulars did not matter. The end result was the same.
I saw, too, that her hands clenched her flowery robe among her trembling fingers. I thought her fingers restless. Their lissome loveliness provoked much mischief in my heart.
“Should your fingers be restless for further play,” I said, “I should like to volunteer myself as the instrument of your joy.”
“My fingers are taloned,” she said, fluttering her fingers so that I might see their nails. “They will not stop for blood or bone or scream or plea.” She sighed. “Should you take them as wives to your fingers, however, they would serve as ever it might please you.”
“But I will not sell a false hope for such a delightful service,” I said, “no more than a kappa will sell his water to a thirsty man. I cannot marry you, as I have said before. Should not my honesty attest to some honor in my soul? I have ever been a servant of the truth, even when concerning you.”
“A poet’s truth always implies promises never fulfilled,” she said, “even when speaking of honor.”
I watched her leave, and not solely to look for a fox’s tail hidden beneath her kimono. Her stride beguiled, too, as did so many other aspects of her. Yet, I knew that wherever she walked, and however graceful, it was a path not my own. I walked a path plotted on paper and shadowed by ink. How else would I rival or surpass that famous poet, Matsuo Basho? His inky shadow obscured me from the fame I deserved.
I could not escape Lady Utano’s song. It was as a small centipede spiraling in my ear, gnawing at my mind. Thus I welcomed the distraction that Lord Gou offered later that evening.
“Come, let us think of other things,” he said. “We have more entertainment for tonight. Something special! Something enchanting!”
Lord Gou seemed quite pleased and excited. Perhaps the entertainment awaiting us was special, or perhaps he was merely relieved at having his house purified. Perhaps both. I followed his entourage into the main hall where his long, low table resided. At the head of the room was something new: a booth of lacquered wood, a red curtain drawn about it. It seemed we were to be audience to a Bunraku show. This diversion was at least worthwhile, I thought.
Lord Gou bid us sit. The musician took up a shamisen. Evidently he would be providing the dramatic atmosphere for the performance.
“Seat yourselves, my friends,” Lord Gou said. “The show begins soon!”
The show began immediately, and without further ado. Two puppets rose from below the curtained booth. One was a man and one was a woman. The man greeted the woman with a bow, and she bowed to him. He then came forward as the shamisen was struck affectionately. She tried to turn away, but the man bowed to her again and she simply demurred, then invited him to walk beside her. They strolled together as the music was struck placidly, like the falling of easy rain on a lake. The two puppets turned to one another and seemingly kissed. A beautiful note sounded, punctuating their moment with the grace of Heaven.
Suddenly, another puppet appeared. He wore a lavish kimono and a dark beard. A harsh note was struck upon the shamisen and several other puppets appeared with swords. There were so many that I marveled that so many puppeteers should not only inhabit such a small booth, but that they should do so while so adroitly manipulating their puppets. I fain believed that Thousand-Armed Kannon himself had to be squatting in that booth, arraying the simulacra of life.
The puppet woman was taken to the puppet man with the beard and he pressed himself unwantedly upon her. Her lover attempted to intervene, but was cut down by the warriors amidst discordant twanging of the shamisen. I looked at the musician, wondering if he was suffering a malady or paroxysm of the fingers. But his hands moved not at all, gnarled with terror as the shamisen’s strings trembled and shook of their own accord. I then noticed that Lord Gou had risen to his feet, livid with confounded rage.
“How dare you mock me in my own home!” he roared. “How dare you question my authority!”
He rushed forward and tore aside the puppet curtain. The puppets collapsed immediately through the air and fell limp upon the floor, the booth empty. Upon seeing this, Lord Gou fell back with a startled cry and the diviner rushed forward. Lord Gou quivered upon the floor, clutching at the diviner’s robe.
“Deliver me from these foul spirits!” our host pleaded.
The commotion drew the servants of the household into the main hall, followed by the true puppeteers. All were baffled and confused, including myself. Upon seeing the puppeteers, Lord Gou rose to his feet, the wrath in his face blazing and his teeth gnashing within his beard.
“You! You seek to make a fool of me!” He drew his tanto, ready to spill blood. “I will castrate the lot of you and throw your manhoods to the crows!”
The puppeteers ran from the room in a clumsy rush. Lady Utano intervened on their behalf, gliding forward into a low bow. She was like a prayer hushing a violent storm.
“My lord,” she said, “they are not the source of this mischief. They have been telling me of their travel from Kyoto.”
“I agree with the Lady,” the yin-yang diviner said. “This is the work of spirits. Yokai, possibly.”
Lord Gou sheathed his blade once again, turning upon the diviner with a snarl.
“And whose fault is that?” he said. “You were supposed to purify my home!”
“There is a darker stain on this estate than I realized,” he said. “I will resume my rituals immediately.”
Lord Gou merely grunted, then turned upon the musician. “Cease your noise, imbecile or I will have your fingers severed one by one and your tongue…” He did not elaborate on the punishment, for his last word fell from his gawping mouth like a dead bird. He saw that the musician had tossed the shamisen from himself and that the instrument played itself as it lay untouched on the floor. It played a dreadful discord before its noise died abruptly with the snapping of its strings.
I had a terrible dream about puppets. They pirouetted without hands in a great darkness. Men, women, children— all dancing as they floated in the air. Then, gradually, I realized they did have a master that manipulated them all, and that master gradually formed from moonlight within the darkness.
But before I could see the master I woke. It was late in the night, or perhaps early in the morning, just before the dew could form. The room seemed crowded with invisible specters, all watching me. I told myself it was a ridiculous sensation born of childish fears, but could not slip from its clammy control. Rising, I went outdoors, into the garden, to pace a bit and to breathe the calming open air.
The man was on the moon bridge again, staring into the moon pond. He waved to me and I went to him, not really knowing why.
“Unable to sleep,” he said. “We share the same affliction. Doomed without rest and without end.”
His back was to the moonlight, and so his face was black shadow. His robe was richly red. It must have cost him much to have such a robe.
“Perhaps we should drink more,” I suggested, “or perhaps we should drink less.”
“Diviner,” he said, “you are not enjoying your stay in Lord Gou’s hospitality. Most would question why the navel of paradise should chafe so.”
“I am not a diviner,” I said, without much feeling. “There are kami haunting this place. But it is no matter. The diviner— the true diviner—is working to purify these grounds.”
The ghost was silent a while, staring into the moon pond. “Do not trust that diviner,” he said. “He is not what he seems.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
Before the man could answer me I heard a great flapping of wings near the roof of the manor. I turned and glimpsed a shadowy bird passing astride the air. I could not tell what kind of bird it was, nor its size. It plunged out of sight. Returning my attention to the man on the bridge, I found that he had gone. I dropped my eyes to the moon pond, among the moon and carp and lotuses. I saw no one there, either. Feeling even more greatly unnerved, I returned to my room and attempted sleep once again. It did not come willingly, but had to be wrestled for obedience. It was a losing battle for me, as well as it.
I had not slept well. My grogginess clung to me like a goblin. I tried to shake it only to find that it had crawled in behind my eyes. I did not attempt any of the Lotus Sutra that day, knowing such an endeavor was doomed from the start. Instead, I drank tea and sat beneath a red flowering plum tree, away from everyone. Lord Gou’s servants sought to better my health with remedial herbs and honey. I was informed that Lord Gou himself had suffered a bout of ill health also and was now resting in his room, tended by the yin-yang diviner. The musician and the minister seemed of adequate haleness, for the former played his music incessantly near the moon pond and the latter enjoyed the company of many prostitutes. I did not know which — the imbecilically joyful music or the oleaginous laughter of the minister while the whores giggled indulgently. I swooned with fatigue and what grew to become a fever.
I did not remember coming to my room, but there I lay, on the floor with a pillow under my head and a kimono draped over me. The silk was soft, but it burned like fire. Someone knelt next to me, my eyes too blurry to see their face clearly. To see was to hurt. To think was to hurt. To exist was to hurt. The Buddha was right: existence is pain and sorrow.
A breath passed across my face, sweet as plums.
“The flames of Hell can be felt in this life,” she said, placing a cool hand over my hot forehead. “We must not fan them with sin and vice or Hell will come for us before we can atone.”
“Utano,” I said.
“Rest,” she said. She laid a moist cloth over my brow and then sang a song. Even in my agony her song was beautiful. Her song was restive sleep after a grievous journey.
“The Wishing Jewel you gave to me
was as dew upon the tree
and it shines with a light all its own,
but now I walk alone—alone.
“The Jewel you gave fell with the wind
through leaves at our Summer’s end,
and though I hold it, the winds still moan
while I walk on, alone—alone.
“Foxes laugh among sunshowers,
haunting pagoda towers,
and while my heart becomes as a stone
I walk this night alone— alone.
“The Jewel is hot as a fresh tear,
yet, lover, you come not near.
Willful fox! You refuse to atone,
so I walk forever alone…”
I fell asleep in the lull of her lilting voice.
I heard wings—huge wings—thrashing the air. Something heavy landed upon the roof, and then leapt down into the gardens. A large shadow, like a bird, stalked the screen door, pacing restlessly.
“I smell death,” it said with a raspy voice. “So much delicious death in this estate. My brethren will wish to roost here, in time. But they indulge the great feast of the famine. So many starved dead— what good is picking their bones? Better for fat, juicy souls glutted on decadence. No piety. No blessings to choke you.”
The creature laughed, squawking like a crow, and then walked away. I was overcome with fear and fever and fainted beneath my fatigue.
Breath wafted over me like charnel smoke over a battlefield. It stank of death and hopelessness. I dared not open my eyes.
“I will attend the poet,” said a voice.
“I am attending him,” Lady Utano said.
“But my lady, it is not proper,” the diviner said. “Your uncle objects mightily…”
“He would object more mightily to a death in his home,” Lady Utano said. “And he has improved greatly in my care.”
“A sick man must be tended by one who knows the spirit realm and who can defend him from its malicious forces.”
“I am the only malicious force this man needs to fear,” Lady Utano said.
“I…see,” said the diviner.
I succumbed to sleep once more.
My fever broke, in time, and a new day was heralded by birdsong. Drenched in sweat, I sat up. Lady Utano’s kimono still remained upon me. The Lady herself sipped tea at my table. She wore only her white undergarments. My hand reached for her, unconsciously, and she offered me a cup of tea instead. I took it tenderly and sipped as if it was her bare breast. My thirst did not abate for many cups.
“You are so false, Toshiyuki,” she said. “I wonder if you also keep a little bottle of tears up your sleeves when encountering wiser women who are warier of a man’s sweet lies.”
“Only a bottle of ink,” I said flippantly.
“Then perhaps you should mark your face as becomes you: with whiskers of a dishonest kitsune. Your shadow is vulpine, Toshiyuki. Either you are possessed by a yako or you are a fox.”
“I have been told that I am a diviner,” I said. I laughed weakly, and it hurt as it rattled out of my chest. “Perhaps my mother was a tenko. I am of a vulpine nature, admittedly.”
“And my uncle is like the ocean,” she said. “Often even when calm there is a legion of sea giants warring below the surface. Imagine what might happen if he were to learn of our love?”
“This is not love,” I said. “It is a delightful dalliance. Nothing more. Nor did I promise more.”
Sometimes I felt as a Bunraku puppet in a theater, performing in accordance with the will of other forces. When Lord Gou summoned me to the main hall I thought it was to congratulate me on my recovery. Instead, he did not seem to know of my illness, but rather had invited me to witness a troupe of dancers from Kyoto that had come to perform for his patronage.
“Come, Toshiyuki!” he said, hailing me as I entered. “We have been awaiting you! A fine entertainment awaits us tonight!”
I took my seat at my host’s long, low table. There awaited me— as there awaited everyone at the table—a cup which smelled of strange earthly odors. I lifted the cup tenderly, for it was a cup of some fine resplendence. Made of smooth porcelain, it was white and had kanji upon its sides which read “remember”. I believed it was of the saikai type of pottery. Saikai meant “reunion”, but why such exquisite cups were called by such a name I did not know. As for the liquid within it, I knew even less.
“What is this?” I asked. “It is not sake.”
“No, it is not sake,” said the diviner, smiling. His rotten-egg face wrinkled terribly and his voice croaked harshly. No doubt the many prayers and cleansing rituals had strained it hoarse. “It is a special drink made from maitake mushrooms. I made it for this occasion. It seemed fitting, for why should we not partake of the ‘dancing’ mushrooms while watching lovely creatures engage in dance?”
“Exactly so!” Lord Gou said, raising his cup and draining it to the dregs. “Let us enjoy in all senses this entertainment I have arranged this night!”
The minister raised his own cup in agreement, though he could not drain his own cup as well as Lord Gou. He choked and coughed halfway through the quaffing of it. The musician drank his steadily, playing his hichiriki between sips.
Merriment was all well and good, but nobler works required my attention now that I had recovered my health. Kabukimono I was, but decadence chafes without hard work and sweat to lubricate the leisure. I resented the squandering of this time.
Yet, I knew better than to be an ungrateful guest, insomuch as could be perceived. So, I sipped at the maitake drink. It was not so sweet as it was salty. I managed to drink half of the cup before the dancers gathered at the head of the main hall, preparing to showcase their talents. They wore yukatas, for to dance in this Summer heat was to invite suffering. The women also held pretty little fans in their hands, masking themselves occasionally with them as they spun and gestured to the piping of flutes and the beating of drums.
And they danced well. As I drank I watched the robed figures perform. It seemed to be a Bon Odori dance. I had seen it performed once during the Obon festival in the Ugo province.
Lord Gou growled suddenly, and slammed his fist upon the table. “I did what was within my right!” he said. “The two of them belonged to me! I am the governor of this region!”
The minister swooned, smiling laxly like a drunkard. “I knew you were a kitsune, my love, but I do not care. I love you as deeply as the cherry blossoms love the winds. I tremble at your merest movement, your gentlest sigh…”
The musician had abandoned playing his hichiriki, and was instead arguing with someone who was not present beside him. “You may have taught me the song, but I brought it to life. What good is a thought of music until you breathe life into it? I breathe life into all of the songs you killed with your ineptness…”
It was all so bizarre. They sat at the table, yet seemed to be far away with their souls. Suddenly, the others vanished— as did the main hall, the table, and the dancers. I was standing in a hall, slowly walking down its corridor. I saw my father. He looked sad and he shook his head. I tried to ask him what was wrong, why he was ashamed, and he gestured to the hall beyond him. I followed it, coming to a lover of mine. She looked brokenhearted. I tried to explain to her that I was fated for things greater than being a husband to a courtesan. Many other lovers came, one after the other. They were a hall of Noh masks— some sad, some demonic. They accused me silently with their eyes. Flames spewed from their mouths and the vision lifted.
I was once again in the main hall, and I saw the dancers spinning in harmony with each other like Karakuri machines. The drums continued to beat and the flutes continued to pipe. The old diviner was staring at me with his beady eyes. A faint smile touched his lips and I felt angry, and afraid.
Lord Gou stood, then, and went to the dancers, joining them.
“Let us all dance!” he exclaimed, mimicking the graceful movements of the dancers with his own clumsy, heavy-footed parody. “Dance for your ancestors! Dance with a light soul and a full belly!”
The minister rose and joined the dance, grinning as if he was dancing with his kitsune bride amidst sun-showers. The musician staggered upright and stumbled into the troupe also, dancing vengefully as if to spite the apparition with which he was formerly arguing. The last to join in the dancing was the yin-yang diviner, cawing with laughter. I watched them all dance, wanting to quit their company and retire to my quiet room. As I stood to leave I noticed that there was something wrong with the shadows of those dancing. The dancers had shadows shaped like small animals spread upon the floor. Badgers and raccoons and monkeys. Lord Gou’s shadow, meanwhile, reeled in the form of a great bull as he twirled and gestured. But I had had too much maitake to drink, and still felt the weakness of the fever. Discreetly I returned to my room while my host danced a madness among his honored guests. The festivities disagreed with me.
I dreamt that night of Mt. Asama erupting into the sky. Its mouth expelled a fire-froth that spilled over all lands, from sea to sea, and the black smoke became a million crows while the liquid-fire marched forth as red-faced Onis. They conquered the world, stamping underfoot all beauty there was to behold. It was an army of land and air come to blight the earth with death and corruption.
The only sounds were those of the piano, kneading the silence of the lounge gently like a sleepy cat ready to lay down on its pillow. Her fingers were unnaturally long and thin as they scuttled across the piano keys like deep sea crabs across the white sands on the ocean floor. Watching them move disturbed Ben, and yet he was mesmerized. He slouched on his bar stool, nursing a ceramic cup of saki while listening to the overly tall, middle-aged pianist ply her talents in a room so empty it was not only sad, but sleepy and in need of bed. It could have been the saki— hot, strong, overpowering—or it could have been the insomnia, or even the loneliness at long last taking its toll, but as he spent more time watching her abnormal fingers the more he wondered what they would have felt like scuttling across his arms and chest. She was not too many years older than himself.
Behind Ben, the bartender polished a beer glass. He was a silent man in a white collared shirt and a black vest. He was backlit by the bar’s cool blue lights— all of Hong Kong was lit in cool blue lights at this late hour. Shelves of booze lined the mirrored wall, the glass gleaming darkly like the skyscraper glass beyond this hotel’s windows. Ben saw his reflection in the mirrors as he turned toward the bartender. His eyes were rimmed blackly as if the four hour flight and the incessant itinerary of cities had suckerpunched him good, left and right.
And yet he was not knocked out for the count. He wished he had been. The incessant travel wore on him, fraying his senses while simultaneously denying him the relaxation and rest necessary to recuperate. He felt like a fish being taken out from one expensive aquarium sprawl and dumped in another, each one empty of water while he floundered and slowly died, breathless.
But at least the music was good. The pianist’s songs were beautiful arrangements of notes and silence, like stars punctuating the outer gulfs and their empty spaces. He had never been a student of music, or any other art, but he knew that space was needful for pretty forms to be realized.
“She’s really good,” he said to the bartender.
The bartender grunted, and then continued cleaning glasses. His face was marked with Chinese symbols that Ben did not understand. Tattoos, maybe. They extended down his neck as well and covered his hands and fingers.
The pianist wore a teal dress with a plunging slit down her back. Her sharp spine was knotched like knuckles through her pale skin, and her shoulderblades were sharp as they flexed and moved with the movement of her arms as she played. Her black hair was short to the nape— a common cut for women of a certain age—and her bangs were long to one side. Ben saw her face in profile, her eyes large, round, as if always agog, and her slight overbite always leaving her mouth open beneath the rounded nub of her nose; her lips full and puckered, yet a little flat against her face— too flat to be sensuous. She did not sing as she played, but Ben thought her someone who spoke through their nose and breathed through their gawping mouth. She looked at him, occasionally, with a glancing sidelong roll of her eyes, and he saw that she had a gap between her front teeth, though her teeth were otherwise straight and white. Her bare shoulders were so bony that he wondered if she had any flesh between skin and bones at all. Her eyelids bulged around her large eyes, as if desperate to keep the latter from slipping out of her eye sockets. She was emaciated, it seemed, but her fingers had great vigor and discipline.
Ben was the only visitor in the lounge. It was 3 AM on a Wednesday morning in a hotel in Hong Kong. Hong Kong never slept— it was true—but even its most money-mad twenty-somethings had better things to do on a worknight than visit an obscure lounge in a hotel booked at the last minute due to a layover. They had parties to go to, probably, and strip clubs. Ben stayed up because of stress. His prime was nearly behind him, taunting him like an athlete from a rival sports team. In the sleepy gloom of the lounge he could have passed for a twenty-something, but in the wide-awake world of daylight and deadlines his near-forty years betrayed itself with crow’s feet and the sneaky stray gray hair here and there. His body, too, had started its slump. Where he was once taut and strong there came an idle laxity to his muscles and their responsiveness. He was not overweight, but he could see the nascent depreciation in value already in his aging body.
“Another saki, please,” he said to the bartender.
The bartender took Ben’s ceramic cup and poured from an oddly shaped, obsidian-black glass bottle. There was a microwave in the corner of the bar. The bartender opened it and put the cup in, heating the saki for about two minutes. The hum of the microwave did not intrude overmuch on the pianist’s song, no more than the distant hum of Hong Kong beyond the windows. When the bartender gave Ben his saki, Ben gave him, in turn, a five dollar bill. The bartender grunted. Ben had no other form of currency, but the bartender did not refuse it.
“To lives lost, and lives worth losing,” Ben said. He tried to drink to his own toast, but the saki burned his tongue and he spit it back into the cup. He blew on the cup for a while, hoping his tongue would stop stinging soon. He hated burning his tongue. Food was one of the few pleasures in his life, now, and a burnt tongue ruined it.
But at least it meant he felt something.
“My wife…” he began to say, then corrected himself with a shake of the head. “My exwife, I mean—she hated saki. But I like it. It warms you up.”
The bartender said nothing in reply, his tattooed face sealed in the impassive expression of the Buddha. Ben turned his attention back to the pianist.
The piano was large, black and polished, its sheen a kaleidoscopic refraction of Hong Kong’s lights as they bombarded the gloom through the windows. The pianist did not have a glass for collecting tips, as he had often seen in other lounges around the world. Instead, she had a hefty wooden Buddha statue in whose lap was a porcelain bowl. The mouth of the bowl was sadly empty. Seeing this, Ben stood up and took out a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet. Walking over to her, and feeling very self-conscious as he did so, he laid the bill in the bowl. He felt embarrassed and somehow wrong when she suddenly looked up at him, stopping dead in the middle of her song. He felt as if he had been caught taking from the bowl rather than giving to it. Her expression was of wary confusion. He stared at the gap between her teeth, somewhat transfixed. Suddenly shaking his head, he hurried back to the bar, feeling as if he had broken some unspoken taboo. She started playing once again, more slowly than before, the notes accenting the slow, ponderous spaces between the melody—as if the song itself was dying in her.
Maybe it was the currency. In some parts of the world Ben had found that they preferred dollars to their own currency. Other parts resented the sudden appearance of American bills. It represented for them an imperial presence, or an arrogance, or simply a tackiness which did not reconcile well with their sense of propriety.
This was a relatively cheap hotel, however, with cheap booze and cheap thrills just down its streets. Ben worried that he had unwittingly insinuated something more nefarious than a simple tip to show some appreciation to a musician. Maybe he had ignorantly committed a faux pas. He had committed plenty of them in the past as he gallivanted around the world, soliciting supply and service arrangements between companies. It was ironic that his job entailed creating connections between people, because he often felt as if he had no connections of his own. He often said of himself that he had been dubbed “Has-Ben” by his friends, but he had no friends and the only person who called him that sardonic moniker was himself.
Sitting at the bar again, he turned away from the piano and stared at himself in the mirror. When the music stopped, he did not glance back at her, but he did see her leave the lounge, her tall, lithe figure floating by like a ghost in his periphery.
“Another saki, please,” he told the bartender. The bartender obliged, and received another five dollar bill for his trouble. The strangely tattooed man did not baulk at the American tender, hastily putting it in his pocket as if it might be snatched away at any moment.
The lights of Hong Kong flared blue and otherworldly in the mirrored wall. They looked like swamp gases floating about the lounge, or orbs of blue flames upon hovering braziers. When Ben looked back at them directly, however, he saw only the neon lights through the large windowpanes—nothing so intense as he had wrongly seen in the reflections of the room. He shook his head.
“Saki and insomnia do not mix well,” he said.
He looked at his watch, and despaired at the hour. Suddenly a figure loomed behind the bar. The bartender nodded to the new arrival and then promptly left the lounge. Ben could feel the person intently staring at him. He glanced up, as surreptitiously as possible, and was surprised to see the pianist looming from behind the counter. She was taller than he had previously thought. She pushed his twenty-dollar bill forward on the counter.
“I cannot be bought,” she said.
Ben was taken aback. “I only liked your songs,” he said, feeling a heat beneath his collar that did not originate in saki. “I wasn’t wanting…um…other services…”
She was not glaring at him—she was too goggled-eyed to glare— but her tone was not friendly.
“I play for myself. Not for you.”
“Okay,” he said, reaching for the bill. Her long fingers snatched his wrist as his hand took the bill. Her hands were even more elongated and slender than he had realized. They were cold, too, as if the bones were icicles beneath the skin.
“I play because I need to play,” she said, keeping eye contact as her grip tightened. “I play to distract from other needs. Not for any man.”
“I understand,” Ben said, as evenly as he could. He was embarrassed and wanted to leave. But she would not release his hand.
“No, you don’t,” she said. “No man does.”
“Well,” he said, “I apologize. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
She did not relinquish her grip, nor even relax it.
“How did you come to be at this hotel?” she said.
Ben frowned, thinking. He had been so tired when he had left the airport. The layover had upset him for some reason. He had encountered many layovers through the last few years, but this one exacted a terrible toll. He resented it. He bemoaned it. It grieved him, though he did not know why. Moreover, it exhausted him. He had no time to book a hotel in the area in advance. He remembered riding a taxi until he saw this hotel. When he saw it he told the driver to drop him off. The taxi driver had given Ben an odd look, but then accepted the money and left Ben at the curb in front of the hotel. Ben could not remember checking in, nor the clerk or even what the hotel looked like from the outside. He had been so exhausted that he simply wandered up, with his hotel key in his pocket, and came into this lounge, buying a drink and feeling sorry for himself. And then he heard the pianist’s song and decided to sit a while and listen to her play.
“I heard your song,” he said, confused. “I wanted to give you something for your song.” “I own this hotel,” she said. “I do not need anyone’s money for my songs. My songs are my own.”
Her eyes were bottomless blackness, no light reflecting in them whatsoever. Ben’s alarm increased as he tried to force his most casual, friendly smile. This was an impossible feat for him since he had not had the practice of smiling in years now. He felt like a trespasser, or a thief. He felt as if he had stolen something very precious, but he did not know what it was or how he had done so.
“Do you…do you ever sing when you play?” he asked her.
She did not say anything for a long time, but her expression was meaningful and intense. “Only for last rites,” she said.
Her expression did not betray anything of humor. It was not a joke, then. Her unblinking stare made him nervous, and so his eyes drifted down her face and her long neck, to the flat expanse of her chest. She had a shallow chest, with the slightest suggestion of cleavage. He looked at her throat, and did not see a pronounced Adam’s Apple. For a moment he feared that she was like one of those lady-boys in Taiwan that tried to hit on him in the bar. But her hips were wide in her teal dress, and her throat was slender and smooth. She was a woman, so far as he could tell, though her curves had been starved shallow by what must have been a ruthlessly ascetic diet. Her bones were too slender and narrow to be a man’s.
When Ben’s gaze returned to her eyes he felt even more embarrassed. He had not meant to stare at her chest while she was staring at him. He had not had much interaction with women for a long time; not since his divorce four years ago. And, much like the day of the divorce, he wanted nothing more right now than to hop a plane to some other place in the world.
“I…uh…should be going to my room,” he said. “I need some sleep.”
The pianist said nothing. Her gaze did not falter, nor her grip. She leaned over the bar, and was so tall that it did not seem that that bar impeded her proximity at all. She was within an inch of his face.
“Sleep well,” she said. “Do not let the spirits bother you.” She tightened her grip one final time before releasing him. “And do not bother the spirits.”
She returned to her piano, then, and began playing once again. Ben did not stay to listen. Her songs sounded somewhat uninviting now; unwelcoming, as if their slow cadences creeped along his back like spiders hostile to his presence.
The bartender returned to the bar. He had prayer beads encircling the collar of his shirt— large wooden balls that clashed with his more modern attire. Ben glanced at them as he left, and noticed the bartender’s tattoos faded from his skin. Where they faded, red hair grew thick and fiery.
Before Ben left the lounge he thought he saw, in his periphery, several people sitting in booths and at the tables in the lounge. He glanced back over his shoulder, and saw an empty room as before. Yet, the chill of their collective gazes lingered on him as he went to his room.
Ben fished in his pocket for his room key. He was surprised to find an old rusty key with Chinese markings along its oxidized metal. Attached to its loop was a paper slip with Roman numbers on it. It told him that his room was on the eighth floor, room 806. He walked up through the hotel, using the stairs in the hope that the physical exhaustion would help cure him of his insomnia. Coming to the eighth floor, he was winded and dizzy. He felt almost delirious. The air was cool and clammy throughout the building. He wondered, briefly, how expensive it was to keep such an old hotel so cool in the Summertime. These old Asian hotels were difficult to renovate affordably.
The eighth floor halls were quiet and still; dim as some half-remembered dream. The doors kept their secrets, but occasionally Ben could not shake the feeling that people were watching him as he passed by. His breath bloomed visibly in front of his face and drifted behind him, like a trail of hookah smoke. Even the distant sounds of Hong Kong were here muted. It was a cold, deaf world, like a graveyard, and yet it was peaceful in a way that Ben appreciated after years of being crammed on airplanes with bellicose passengers, neurotic hypochondriacs, and bawling babies. Part of him wanted to lay down to sleep and never get up again.
Arriving at his room, Ben unlocked his door and entered the chilly room. Most hotels that he stayed in were of the same general style—the American economy style. This hotel was similar in some ways, but different in others. The floor was carpeted in neutral colors and the walls were white. His room was furbished as conveniently as most others. There was a bed, a bathroom, and a run of drawers atop which sat a television. Ben rarely watched television. Having disconnected from it had helped him disconnect from any other thoughts that were painful or discomfiting. Thoughts about his exwife. Thoughts about his widowed father and dead mother. Thoughts about his estranged sister. Thoughts about humanity and normality and life. He lived his work now, spending nearly as much time in the sky as on the ground. Airplanes and skyscrapers made him feel as though he was free from the lows of his life— not living high and happy, but floating above involvement with anyone or anything. He had heard that when skydiving there was a moment when a person hit terminal velocity that he felt as if he was flying rather than falling. Perhaps Ben was falling so fast that he thought he was floating above the messy fray of existence. Perhaps he was a nocturnal phantom existing in parallel to the daylight world of other human beings. Whatever other part of himself that grounded him in the waking world had been taken in the settlement by his exwife. He was glad to let her have it. He would have been glad to let her have everything, including his life.
Ben brushed his teeth, stripped down to his boxers, and prepared for bed. The bed was twin sized modest with a maroon comforter decked with white lotus blossoms. Above the headboard a framed scroll of Buddha stood, his hand in the Mudra position and a mandorla circumscribing his figure.
Ben laid in bed for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for sleep to take him. Beyond the windows of his hotel room, Hong Kong jittered and glittered on like a swarm of fireflies and moths burning bright on a bug-zapper. He looked at its glow like an astronaut on the moon staring at the distant earth. It was bright and beautiful, but distant and unattainable. There was a peace in that hopeless doom of separation, too, much as there was a peace in a coffin when its buried, oblivious to all of the world’s endless ills six feet up.
The lights from Hong Kong spilled over Ben like a phantasmal waterfall. It reminded him of a dream he once had; a dream of a waterfall near a shrine in a bamboo thicket. It had been a peaceful dream, when he had it, but he woke from it in a clammy sweat, afraid. He had not been afraid of the dream, however. He had been afraid of the life he had woken to.
There was a jangling at the door, then the scrape and click of a key in the lock. The door opened and a tall, thin figure stood in the doorway, her silhouette stretched thin in the hall light.
“You do not belong here” she said, leaning under the doorframe as she stepped inside. She was taller and thinner than before; stretched inhumanly.
Ben sat up in bed, watching her willowy figure as she approached him. “If you do not want me here, I will leave.”
“You do not understand,” she said, closing the door behind her. “There has been a mistake.” The room plunged into deep shadow and soft neon lights. Her figure was embossed by the duality. The teal dress was now too big for her slender waist, swaying laxly, and too short to cover anything below her mid-thighs. She loomed over him like a thinned shadow, her eyes blacker than shadow. “You should not be here, and yet you are.” Her face was blue in the Hong Kong lights. Her eyes were without whites, reflecting nothing. “You are living,” she said, “and this is not a place for you. It is a place for the dead.”
Ben’s voice was even; his tone unshaken. “Sometimes I feel like I am dead.”
“That is not the same,” she said. She paused a moment, though, watching him silently as if in thought. At length, she spoke. Her voice was a whisper, yet it silenced all other sounds in Hong Kong with its command. “Are you not afraid? How far gone are you?”
Ben leaned back against the headboard, sighing.
“The first night of my divorce I was in disbelief. I told myself it wasn’t happening. But it happened, and still it seemed unreal. I never went through any stages of anger or grief. I just felt numb, like my brain had shut off all of its emotions. I tried listening to a few Phil Collins songs, just to see if they resonated at all. But I never felt them. I was indifferent to my own heartbreak. Part of me must have…died so completely that I didn’t have the capacity to mourn anything. It was a clean, painless excision. Like a perfect surgery that removed my soul, and I felt…not exactly contented, but empty.” Ben took a deep breath and exhaled, his breath a tumbling mist in the chilly air. “And then four years passed, and now I am here.”
“But you cannot stay here,” she said. “It is sacrilegious.”
“I can pay,” he said.
“You cannot bribe us here,” she said.
“I meant that I can make an offering,” he clarified.
She folded her long, thin arms across her shallow chest. “Our guests pay in spirit tokens, sutras, and beads,” she said. “Money means nothing to us. Only things of real worth. So…what do you have to offer, Ben, that could be of use to us?”
“What do I have to offer?” he said. This was a question Ben had not confronted since his wife left him for another man. “What do I have to offer?”
The truth was that he was not even sure what he had to offer— to himself or anyone else. He had detached himself from life. He had detached himself from family and friends and everything and everyone that had imbued him with the gravity of meaning. He performed his job in rote fashion, traveling here and there not because of duty or loyalty to the company, but because he had nothing else to do except what other people gave him to do. He had no personal motivations; no goals; no drives. He had emptied himself as a vessel and set it out to sea, letting waves take him wherever was their whimsy.
Ben’s head rolled to the side, his eyes gazing out the window at the busy, demanding world of mankind. It all seemed a futile hustle and bustle among which his absence would mean nothing.
“I have nothing to offer you,” he said. “Nothing to offer anyone. Except everything. My life. My existence. My body. My space. I have no reservations. You can have it all. I feel nothing for my life.”
“You feel nothing?” she said, sniffing irritably. “Then you are a fool. Life is a thing of desires. You are living, so there must be something that you desire.”
“I want to stay here,” he said. “I want to stay among this silence. I want to hear you play the piano every night. I want to live here for the rest of my life, and beyond.”
“Is that all?” she asked, reaching for him. Her fingers were longer than before, and slender as tree branches. A soft light flared in her eyes, like candles lighting in the corners of a shrine in the deep, dark bosom of a bamboo forest. As her long fingers slowly extended toward his chest, the soft candlelight glow expanded, filling up her overlarge eyes with a twinned moon luminosity. Her skin was so pale that it was like moonlight touching a waterfall.
“And I want to be touched by your fingers again,” he said.
Her fingers halted, quivering. They withdrew. “In time, perhaps.”
She stood there a while, looming over him. Neither said anything. Neither moved. They existed in a consummate silence that Ben found to be reassuring. And yet, only yesterday, he thought nothing would be reassuring on this fateful day.
“It is our anniversary,” he said suddenly, quietly. “The anniversary of my marriage to my exwife. She is with her new husband right now. Back in New York. I wonder if she thinks about me at all.” He shook his head and forced a smile; it was no more convincing than any of the other smiles he had feigned since the divorce. “How did you come to own this place?”
The pianist sat down on his bed, beside him. Even when sitting she loomed over him, tall and otherworldly. She slouched forward, the grooves of her arched spine sharply etched in the blue light from the city. She looked like some beautiful gargoyle perching atop a church pediment, peering sadly.
“I had sought the Buddha’s peace,” she said. “But I had not done so through piety and discipline. I did not care for Enlightenment, only abatement, and found it in an opium cloud. Everyday day I sought opium for my suffering. I could have been a musician, long ago, but I found less comfort in the piano than I did in a hookah. I had indulged overmuch and drifted beyond the mortal realm. Now I serve the dead here. It is my atonement. My penitence.”
Ben glanced around the room, and then at the pianist. “It is not so bad here,” he said, “is it?”
“No,” she said. “Death has been very generous to me. Perhaps even charitable.”
“It is a very nice place,” he said.
“With nice people,” she said. She turned and looked at him, meaningfully. “We treat our guests very well here.”.
“As we should,” Ben said.
They both nodded in understanding. She stood, then, and went to the door. She opened it and ducked under the doorframe, stepping out into the hallway. She looked at him one more time and closed the door behind her. Her footfalls receded down the hallway, like music in Ben’s ears. He fell asleep shortly afterward, and slept like the dead.
Days still pass in the hotel, but the hotel is endless. It is like no time passes at all. The bartender still serves saki to the visitors that stay at the hotel, and the pianist still plays gentle, calming songs for her guests. There is a new bellhop at the hotel. He is affable and industrious, carrying the bags of the guests without complaint or grunt or groan. And no matter how disturbing the guests might be, he never gasps in horror or refuses to serve them.
Every night, after his duties are completed, he retires to the lounge to listen to the pianist play her gently trickling notes along the keys. Then, when the hotel retires to bed, he and she go walking along bamboo paths near an old shrine that has somehow still managed to exist, tucked away between the skyscrapers and the milling streets full of people too hurried to see the ghosts of yesteryears taking their time and enjoying life slowly, happily, as only the dead can.
Mixing In Good Spirits, And In Bad
“A little drink now and again
has never really been a sin,
and for the high-spirited drinker Jack
who loved his Firebird Pontiac
the most fun he had ever had
(whether in good times or in bad)
started with a clinking crystal shot-glass
full of firewater that could strip brass.
But one night Jack got to drinking,
which meant he did much less thinking
than what was best after his wife left
and took his dog—a vindictive theft
he couldn’t abide as he sat alone
on the loveseat he thought his throne
and brooded over the ways to grieve
this time of year, on All Hallow’s Eve.
1973 was the year of fun
and Jack was hankering for a joyride run,
so he upended a lovely amber bottle
and went driving anon, at full-throttle,
down to a mist-veiled place, called Happy Hollow,
where Whippoorwills often call and follow,
haunting the willows with their strange chorus
and eating souls (according to some folklorists)
whenever the dead are placed in the earth:
that cold clay womb of their mortal birth.
Trees were red and their leaves were falling
and the night air was cool, the harvest moon calling
for all lunatics with wolfish blood burning hot
to enjoy life now, not later, before the grave and the rot,
and drunk Jack was a lunatic if ever there was
and feared nothing while enslaved to his firewater buzz,
and so he drove like a fiery bat from the pits of hell
that flees at the ring of the morning church bell.
He drove past many forlorn scarecrows
crucified here and there among the many corn-rows,
guarding— in phantom moonlight— the nodding fields
whose bounty was all, and more, what a cornucopia yields,
though Jack could not appreciate such a ripe type of bounty
since he was a cornpone politician from a boondock county
and, as such, never valued an honest day’s crop,
sowing only half-truths and lies at each campaign stop;
that said, the scarecrows reminded him of his own voter base—
heads full of straw and staked reliably in place.
Past barns, Jack drove, with baccy hanging side by side
like the gray widows accused as witches, then tied and then tried
by a group of their peers who eyed their fertile lands
and desired that acreage, claiming it with greedy hands.
They were lined up on the gallows for one last dance
in an old bitty ditty end-of-the-line performance,
and, though suffering from a mortal case of severe stage fright,
they still kicked and jigged and tapped when their ropes pulled tight
giving the crowd a lively show they were sure to remember,
then taking a bow into their graves on the first of November.
On and on Jack drove through the valley’s Fall scene
like a speed-demon seeking lost souls on Halloween.
There were fat pumpkins squatting in tangled patches
and pumpkins on porches whose grins glowed with lit matches,
and there was a churchyard crowded with headstones crumbling down
where a crooked Yew tree stood with an owl in its crown,
and a black cat stalked shadows for a trembling mouse
while kids, just down the street, walked from house to house;
kids looking for candy, for mischief, for a little of both,
which could lead neighbors to laugh, or to cuss, or to quoth
the Raven with a rueful snort, “Nevermore”,
as they cleaned eggs off of a window or a front patio door.
Faster and faster Jack drove his Pontiac Trans Am,
all the while listening to “Free Bird”, his new favorite jam.
Every song from that album made him want to be a little risky,
except for that one song he hated, which was called “Poison Whiskey”.
But even “Free Bird” was spoiled as he thought of his wife,
and all of their married years together, and all of their strife,
and even while he saw kids scattering from the roadside
it never occurred to Jack that this helter-skelter hellfire ride
could be disastrous to anyone beyond his lane,
especially as firewater swirled in his raging brain.
His liquour-and-Skynard head was very much indeed
like a Jack O’ Lantern: burning bright and baleful, but emptied
of sense and seeds and anything that could grow
some awareness beyond his scowling wicked-wick glow.
And so, as Jack drove all swerve-a-curve and hell-bent,
he slid and skidded and, (devil-may-care), struck an innocent:
a little girl with pigtails dressed as Pippi Longstocking
who was out with friends, laughing happily as they were talking
and walking from door to door, reveling in the trick-or-treat season,
looking for sweets and good times— now dead for no reason.
Jack saw the twin braids of her ruby red hair
whip and rebound off the Firebird hood, through the air,
along with hearing and feeling the dull melon thud,
followed by squealing tires and glass splattered by blood.
Jack did not stop, nor brake, nor dare a backward glance
in the rearview mirror, afraid that he might by chance
see the somersaulting body of that poor dead child,
now but costume and candy and corpse roughly piled
on the yard of someone who, no doubt, was calling police
to fetch him off to jail with no hope of release—
the thought of which made Jack’s foot all the heavier on the pedal,
grinding the accelerator down to, and past, the floorboard metal.
But while he sped away and rejoiced at eluding the Law
there sat someone riding shotgun, talking with a disfigured jaw.
‘Welcome, to the Land of Nod,’ said the dead redhead girl,
her Pippi braids floating above her head, scarlet and aswirl;
‘You are marked, sir, and must admit your wrong,
or the Devil will get his due of you for all eternity long.”
Just then did Jack’s own jaw hang crooked without a word
as he saw two hellhounds newly come, on either flank of the Firebird;
newly come, he knew, to fetch his soul for their master
who would roast him forever in the infernal Hereafter.
Their eyes were afire and they snorted smoke and flame,
and they were as big as Clydesdales, (or nearly the same frame),
and they galloped and they leapt and they snarled and they snapped
at the sides of his Firebird in which Jack was haplessly trapped.
‘Call off your hounds,’ Jack begged, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt nobody.
It’s just that I’ve fallen on hard times, and needed a Hot-(Rod)-Toddie.
Ain’t a man in his woes entitled to a few shots?
It’ain’t as if I meant to hit one of you little snot-nosed tots.’
To this the girl just gave him a grim (reaper) frown
and told him that he should really just slow the hell down.
‘And let your demon dogs get me?!’ Jack retorted.
‘That ain’t gonna’ happen, missy!’ he said and then snorted.
Jack accelerated his car, trying to lose the hounds,
only to lose control and crash into the cemetery grounds.
His Firebird hit a few headstones, then the twisted Yew tree,
and Jack flew through the windshield, hitting terminal velocity,
and the old owl asked ‘Who?’ goes there, in that place of the dead
where good people, and bad, sleep in a worm-eaten bed.
Jack flew into an open grave, and fell down into Hell
where the Devil awaited him, laughing, as he rang the bell
for all the demons and hellhounds to come and eat their dinner
while a girl rattled a laugh up above, in a broken-necked tenor.
The clinking of ice and glass awoke Jack with a start
so suddenly from his nap that it nearly stopped his heart,
and he found that he had been laying sprawled out and quite limp
on the loveseat, alone, where he had conjured an imp
from his favorite bottle of whiskey, cornfed Jim Beam,
and suffering for his intemperance a wicked Djinn Dream.
He was too close to the fireplace, which burned hellishly hot,
so he stood up and walked a while, his head aching quite a lot.
Jack thought of his wife, who would soon be his ex,
and he thought of the dream, which was surely some hex,
for drunk as he was he believed his wife a witch
who had a voodoo doll of him to poke and to prod and to itch,
(and she would have half his bank account, if his lawyer was right,
which was worse to him than any black magic blight)
and so he poured himself some more drink (hair of the dog)
and stared into the fireplace; at the flames and the log.
Angry, Jack threw the glass into the fire, snatching up his keys,
staggering and stumbling outside, into an October breeze,
and tumbling into his car, hottailing it to Happy Hollow Road
all in a mad dash, as if the Headless Horseman followed.
He knew his wife was staying here, at her mother’s home,
where bourbon was born like ifrit from a still’s chrome.
Meanwhile some children were out walking that street,
and one of them was a little girl in braids, saying “Trick or Treat …”