Posts Tagged ‘A Tale of Silences’

Something Like a Dragon

June 19, 2009

By grace, 2,015 words written on the new book today! Whenever I throw word counts around, it’s not my intention to boast. And sheer numbers of words, of course, mean nothing: enough monkeys with enough typewriters could bang out an enormous number of words. I mean only 1.) to demonstrate that there is forward progress, and 2.) to establish credentials. What gives me the right to hold up my head and talk about writing as if I know something is not the things I’ve published: it’s the fact that, today, I’ve been walking the walk, with my fingers on the keys, choosing certain phrases over certain other phrases, figuring out how to get a little more of the story out of the excavation site without damaging it too severely. So the book is on track and moving ahead nicely. (Or, as Spock says in the recent excellent film: “Thrusters on full.”) Soli Deo gloria! [The story is told that J.S. Bach wrote that phrase on every manuscript when he composed music: Soli Deo gloria -- Glory to God alone.]

That “excavation” theory of writing is set forth clearly by Stephen King in his On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I think he’s exactly right. How about this [my own variation]? — “Writing is bagging the smoke.” It’s attempting to throw a curtain around the misty shape that coalesces — just for a moment — within your reach. If you can get the curtain around it, you can preserve it (or at least its shadow) in a fixed form for yourself and others to enjoy. If you can’t, it’s gone again, because it’s always drifting, always changing, like the clouds in a summer sky. Ooo, I like that! (This cloud motion theory explains why, if you would tackle the same idea at different times of your life, you’d get significantly different stories.) Though you may not believe it, I am still on topic here. . . .

So it’s high time we talked about that dragon! To refresh your memory, and so that you don’t have to go back to a previous post to see the poem in question, here again is “Glory Day.” (The term “Glory Day” refers to the Fourth of July, which for me has always been a symbol of the height of summer . . . the time of freedom and imagination, the season “better-than-which-it-does-not-get.” I wrote this poem at some point during my college years. Specifically, I remember that I wrote it on a 5th of July, the day after Glory Day, sitting on a folding chair facing north across the field between my house and Chris’s house, in the shade of the maple trees at the northeast corner of our yard, with the barn directly behind me. The barn is gone now, but most of those trees are still there.)

“Glory Day”

We found the old cat one hot Glory Day

In the steamy weeds, swelled to twice his size;

Green glory thunder echoed in his eyes

As we laid him out where the smell of hay

And green maple shadows would make the flies

Forget him; and watching the heat waves rise

From the wind-mirroring beans we covered him with clay.

There was lightning low in the sky away

Off, and a distant rumbling down the road;

The Virginia creeper whispered to the wagon

It covered like time-snails’ tracks, the old load

Of bricks for building; something like a dragon

Crawled south in the blur of wheat’s golden sway

When we buried a tomcat on Glory Day.

 

That’s sort of a sonnet: it has 14 lines. But look at the strange rhyme scheme: ABBABBA ACDCDAA. In a departure from normal sonneting (sonneteering?), I compressed the part before the break and expanded the part after the break. See the overlapping effect in what’s normally the first eight lines (now seven)? — ABBAABBA has become ABBABBA. With that overlap, and by carrying that A-rhyme through as I did, I was trying to emphasize unity, that all these elements of the poem are inextricably woven together (“seamless throughout,” like that garment the soldiers didn’t want to tear but cast lots for instead).

In other words, the dead cat is the dragon. The beans, the heat waves, the maple shadows, the creeper, the tracks of time-snails: all these are the dragon, and they are the thunder, and the thunder is the cat, and the dragon is the image of the invisible wind mirrored in the beans that sway. All these things are part of growing up on a farm, where death and life are bound up together; where life bursts from the soil every spring . . . where fragile green things grow from the cracks of old dead fence-posts . . . where everything goes to sleep in the winter, blanketed with snow . . . and where there’s always the smell of something dead wafting from behind some hedgerow (“In ahind yon oul fail dyke / I wot there lies a new slain knight. . . .”) Moreover, it’s all bound up in “Glory Day,” the A-rhyme, the phrase found in the title and in the first and final lines of the poem. “Glory” is freedom and celebration and fireworks in the sky; it’s wonder and youth and being alive, learning and growing; but it’s also a word lodged in the Beyond, isn’t it? Believers in Christ live in “the hope of glory.” We speak of “the glory to be revealed in us.” . . . “We have beheld His glory.” . . . “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” . . . We often set “glory” as the condition opposed to the here and now: there are those of us alive now, and there are “the saints in glory.” So it’s a loaded word — and, I hope, a loaded poem.

Thank you to everyone who put forth a theory as to what the “something like a dragon” is! I appreciated them all, and every one of them was a good answer. A couple of you “went public” and gave us your ideas in official comments; a couple more slipped them to me by e-mail. Your theories about the dragon included:

a rumbling train, the sounds of its progress echoing the thunder;

a row of hills undulating in the distance;

a river, stream, or the Flatbranch Creek;

and even the “raccoon lugging a knapsack” from Maxine Kumin’s “The Presence”!

One might also say a tractor — a solitary tractor crawling across the distance in the vastness of a field can take on a mystical aspect. All these answers are good, and all can be right together.

As for me, I wasn’t thinking as literally as you all were. For me, the dragon isn’t necessarily anything physical or material. It’s more an abstract concept, suggested by those amazing and unsettling shadows the wind leaves in grain fields, which motif I’ve used again and again in my writing. [From my poem The Horror in the Wind: "The wind in shapes / and shadows masks / the dreadful footfalls of the gods." And from "Seawall": "Across the slopes, the wind stirs the green asili stems in vast wandering arcs, as if unseen creatures larger than dragons are playing there."] Jesus mentions this phenomenon, too, doesn’t He, when He’s talking to Nicodemus?

The dragon-like thing crawls south. For me, south is the direction “toward warmth, toward imagination, toward enchantment.” South is the “good” direction. At that time in my life, “north” meant college and cold, hard work and the big city; “south” meant home and freedom.[Treebeard has the line in the LOTR movies about how he's always enjoyed walking south, because it always feels like he's walking downhill. I hear you, 'Beard!]

My intention in this poem, then, is that on the day when all these elements are present: the green, the tree shadows, the dead cat needing to be buried, the heat waves, the passage of time, the thunder — on this day, the wonder and terror and joy and grandeur almost manifest themselves in a tangible shape. That thing crawling south is wonder itself. It’s the shape of something that has no shape; it’s the expression of something that cannot be expressed. (Heh, heh! Sounds like I’m talking about Arthur C. Clarke’s Monolith!) All you can do is get the general idea.

Whew! That’s more than anyone ever wanted to know about “Glory Day”!

I was thinking about this use of a dragon to represent something abstract and larger, and it occurred to me that animals — in particular, big animals — are sometimes used this way. It seems to be an ancient and fundamental device.

I need to quote again from my story “A Tale of Silences,” which appeared in Cicada, January/February 2006. This tale is set in a mountain village in Japan in 1970, about 25 years after the war. The main character is an old man named Jii who has lived all his life in the village, which is now slated for obliteration through the construction of a new dam which will flood the area. The story tells of Jii’s last year in the village.

One night, he is awakened in total darkness by strange sounds, and he realizes a bear has gotten into his house and into the very room where he’s been sleeping. For a long time he lies there, not daring to move, and eventually the bear (for reasons unknown) goes away. Jii ponders what this encounter has meant. Here’s the excerpt:

As Jii sawed, chopped, and bundled sticks, he watched the forest, wondering if his bear would return. At times he was sure he could feel eyes upon him, peering from the underbrush. Once he thought he heard husky breathing nearby, but it might have been a breeze in the pine branches. And once, just as a broken limb he’d sawed off dropped into the decomposing leaves, he saw a bear on the next ridge. It was black against the dull sky and huge, bigger than any he’d ever seen. Slowly its head turned in his direction. When the eyes found him, Jii was somehow sure this had been the bear in his house. It gazed at him for a long time, then ambled into the trees.

Later, at dusk, the bamboo swayed in the wind. Sipping hot tea, Jii watched from the window. He envisioned human figures coming and going among the grove’s shifting shadows: himself and Fusa, sometimes middle-aged, sometimes young, once hand-in-hand for the first time. . . .

Paler each day, the sun sought to warm the land by showering more and more thin light, the last of its summer store. It sparkled from the few sere leaves, blazed on the streams, and suffused morning mists like a golden forgetfulness. Jii felt an urgency in the clamoring light; soon all the bears would go into their dens. Before they began their long sleep, and all the land with them, something must be done. Some secret, Jii began to think, must lie hidden near at hand, some riddle of dying leaf or unturned stone that, if solved, would bring peace and clarity. He became convinced that the bear had come to call him out before the valley was lost, to awaken him from his den in the deep years, to lead him to an answer for which he did not quite grasp the question. All he knew, as surely as he knew the sun sank earlier each evening behind the purple height, was that time was running out.

Later, Jii again encounters the bear up close:

The great bear had come — the mountain’s nushi. As if sunlight were shining on his back, Jii felt a comfort, his fear melting away. The terror of the nushi’s first visit was gone, but still Jii could not turn around. A sense of his own insubstantiality kept him unmoving, as if to stir in the nushi’s presence might cause him to dissolve in light. He lowered his head, filled at once with weariness and a peace he had not known since childhood — the earliest days and nights of consciousness, the only time in mortal life that one rests completely. Sinking to the floor before the nushi’s gigantic paws, Jii slept.

Do not fear, said a voice to him in his dreams.

This Japanese concept of a particular area’s nushi  or “lord” — the guardian and master of a certain mountain, forest, or river — has to some degree been introduced to western audiences through the film Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke) by Hayao Miyazaki, in which the Shinto gods of the forested mountain take the forms of gigantic animals.

It’s interesting, this manifestation of things powerful and divine in the forms of animals. . . .

In Lord Dunsany’s The Book of Wonder, I recall that one of those haunting, enthralling black-and-white pictures shows a pathless forest, and the hind parts of some huge, bear-like animal just visible as the creature passes behind a tree. I don’t have access to my copy of the book right now — anyone out there with a copy, can you confirm this memory? I was intrigued by how the artist chose to depict only part of the animal — and not the head.

In my own first, unpublished novel The Threshold of Twilight, I included a great Well called Twilintarn, which was a point where worlds intersected. Some tremendous, powerful Presence moved over the water there — the Keeper of Twilintarn — so terrible that to see it directly was death, as some unfortunate villains found out. From the glimpses we get of the Keeper, it seems to be a four-footed animal, though of colossal proportions.

In that same book, there is a wild Stag running through the fantasy world: a noble animal which is the embodiment of our own world, this one in which we live. Yes: in that world, our world runs around as a wild Stag. If the Huntsman with his black arrows kills the Stag, our world will perish. And already as the story begins, the Stag is wounded, its steps faltering.

How about Melville’s Moby-Dick? Isn’t the white whale really more than a whale? Doesn’t it represent something bigger?

Lurking in the shadows behind the Old Testament are Leviathan and Behemoth. Both halves of the world have their dragons, some good, some bad. Looming large in my childhood was King Kong: an animal of gigantic size, ruling his lost island of wonder. It’s not a stretch to say that Kong is a symbol of what is wild, free, beautiful, and should not be touched by humankind.

And then there’s Aslan, a lion and the Lord. There are humans and humanoids in Narnia; C.S. Lewis might easily have given his Christ figure a human shape, but he did not.

Back to that picture from The Book of Wonder, of the great beast moving among the trees, and only its hindquarters visible. . . . Since childhood, I’ve been intrigued by the passage in Exodus 33, in which Moses has asked to see God’s glory. God reminds Moses that no one may see God’s face and live, but He offers this alternative:

Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”

I quoted here from the New International Version. I checked four or five different translations of the passage. A couple say God’s “back”; one said “from behind”; and two used the phrase I remember hearing/reading as a child: God’s “back parts.” As a wide-eyed child thinking of this encounter, I always imagined that “back parts” sounded more like part of a quadruped than a human figure. (Yet God has a “hand,” too, that He puts over Moses’s eyes.) It’s pointless to read too much into “back parts,” which is only a translation. [Hey, you guys who have studied Hebrew -- I know there are at least two of you! -- This would be an excellent time to help us out!]

But what is clear is that Moses had a “Glory Day” experience here! We can’t see the face of God . . . or that of the Keeper of Twilintarn. Jii’s bear comes to him in the pitch blackness. We can’t see the wind, but we see its shadow in the grain, and we feel its power. We can’t clearly see what crawls south, but we know it’s something like a dragon, anyway! We behold God’s glory, and we press on toward glory. And we write, attempting to throw the sheet over the ghost.

Grrooinnkkk! Hey, it’s Midsummer’s Eve this week! There may be Good Folk dancing in your garden! When the Eve falls precisely is a matter of which you prefer and when the weather is best: I’d place it on Saturday night or Sunday night if you prefer the solstice, or Wednesday night if you want to go with the eve of the birth of St. John the Baptist.

Grrooiinnkk again: Are you ready for this? My agent has given me the green light to make this announcement. Through the outstanding work of my amazingly incredible agent, we have found a publisher for The Star Shard as a book! Though some details are still being worked out, and more revision is coming, Houghton Mifflin has graciously agreed to give the book a home.

So it’s truly a happy Midsummer’s Eve, and Soli Deo gloria!

Metamorphoses

February 9, 2009

I recall the first line of Ovid’s Metamorphoses as being “Now I will tell of things that change.” But I just looked it up, and in the first translation that Google offers, it’s “Of bodies chang’d to various forms, I sing.” Either way, the Roman poet Ovid saw all of classical mythology as being about change . . . the changing of one form into another.

Heh, heh — maybe it’s appropriate that I’m writing this posting on the night of the full moon. A friend back in my hometown also informs me that the almanac calls this one in particular the “Full Wolf Moon.” So go ahead, change into a wolf or whatever if you’re so inclined. I’ll just go on talking.

I’m thinking about how that element: change — underlies such a huge number of the stories we love. In Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Max wears his wolf suit, and it’s his room that changes, with a forest growing up around his bed, and so begins his journey to the place of the Wild Things.

In my novel version of The Star Shard, I titled one chapter “Metamorphoses,” because I noticed how some lesser transformations in the tale reflect the big transformation that’s the core of the story: namely, Cymbril getting older; Cymbril coming to a deeper understanding of who she is, to a state of greater strength and confidence, to an increased awareness of how she fits into the world — and of the beauty of the larger picture.

From that first moment in the theater here in Niigata, when I was watching the Peter Jackson version of The Fellowship of the Ring, I was absolutely captivated by the opening narration, the very first words we hear in the film:

“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost; for none now live who remember it.”

[That's an accurate quote: I just checked it.] From that first decision made by the filmmakers, I was hooked. I knew this was going to be something great. Peter Jackson and company understood that The Lord of the Rings, too, is a story of change. The Third Age of Middle-earth is passing; the Fourth Age is dawning. The time of the Elves is drawing to a close. The day of Men is at hand. And in such hours of transition, when all hangs in the balance, the deeds of the smallest persons can shape the fate of all.

One of the things that gives Tolkien’s story so much richness is the fact that Middle-earth doesn’t have the smell of new plastic about it, as if it were just unpacked from the box carried home from Best Buy. Middle-earth is an ancient place, a land of memories and scars, of wars and old wounds, ruins and marshes filled with the dead. “Much that once was is lost.” Alas, my memories of the book are foggy (it’s been about thirty years since I read it), but in the films, we’re constantly reminded of the declining of the world, of the loss of much that used to be better.

Elrond doubts that any hope can come from Men. “The blood of Numenor is almost spent” . . . and Elrond was there to witness personally the failure of Isildur to destroy the ring. Elrond doubts (at first) that Aragorn can rise to the challenge of being King, since “He turned from that path long ago.” Aragorn himself (in the movies) wonders if he’s up to the task.

And how about Theoden? The filmmakers take pains to show us his insecurities, that he feels himself to be a sorry latter-day scion of much greater forebears.

Tolkien’s Elves think of their whole history in Middle-earth as “The Long Defeat” — sometimes gaining little victories over evil, but steadily sliding downhill, the Shadow steadily growing. And isn’t that reflective of our real lives in this world, when everyone speaks of how bad it’s all getting?

Probably the saddest story I’ve ever written is “A Tale of Silences,” published in the January/February 2006 issue of Cicada. Set in a rural mountain village in Japan in 1970, it tells of an old man named Jii. Early on, we learn that the building of a new dam is going to flood the area, and the village where Jii has lived his entire life will cease to exist. The story chronicles his last year in the village, as he moves into the winter of his life. Jii is a widower, and somewhat alienated from his son, who has left the village and embraced more modern values. Here’s a passage from the story describing Jii’s observation of his son, Masashi, who has come to visit:

“Masashi was one of only three in his high-school class who had survived the war. Now, at forty-two, Masashi had sunglasses hanging from his collar, one earpiece tucked into the front of his shirt. He looked out of place sitting in his city clothes on the worn tatami floor beside the dim wall panels, like a bright tennis ball that had bounced into an old garden. He was no longer the color of the village.”

As Jii interacts with various people in the community (including Mizusawa, who has come home emotionally crippled from the war in Manchuria; and Shimo, a strange, silent youth who is feared and disliked by most of the villagers for his habit of peering into their windows at night), he comes to a slow acceptance of time’s inevitable march and the beauty of life’s tapestry.

In the end, living with his son’s family in Tokyo, Jii finds a simple joy in his woodcarving and time spent with his grandson:

“Jii did not care for the noise and the hurry in the streets. He missed Iwano’s smoking and Mizusawa’s stories of privations in Manchuria, stories that seemed to keep back as much as they revealed. He would have preferred a stand of bamboo to the overgroomed park that he could see now outside his window, a place where trees were imprisoned like zoo animals and people crowded on weekends, gulping at the air,  faces turned optimistically toward the sun.

“Yet even here, amid the gentle kindness of Masashi and his wife — here, with Makoto tugging at Jii’s sleeve, so eager for his stories and his attention, Jii found the tale still unfolding, heard most plainly in silences. At times, he was sure he could smell something like mountain air wafting in, unexpected and welcome — the clean, moist exhalation of ferns, cedars, and the rich carpet of all things once alive — though perhaps it was a trick of the breeze in the park, brushing past some brave, fragrant, leafy thing.”

This story was written at a time when I was facing the mortality of my parents. They’d gotten old and sick, and I was realizing that before long, no matter how you did the math, I wouldn’t be the kid anymore, with parents to come home to on holidays. I remember one night when it especially came home to me; I was back from Japan for a summer visit, sleeping in my old bed. My room there was adjacent to the bathroom, and I remember that night being deeply affected by the difference in the sound of my dad’s urination when he got up to relieve himself in the dark hours. Dad had always peed like a pirate, his stream a resonant booming in the bowl, on and on, endless and reassuring. That night it was a paltry, halting trickle. It was as if dark years slid onto me from every corner of that aging house, years on years, stacked and compressed, and now weighing me down. I remember my parents coughing in the dark, coughing with chronic smokers’ hacks. I remember listening to the sounds of mice chewing and scrabbling in the closets. And I lay there in the dark, in my old familiar bed, at the bottom of a well of years. Hadn’t it just been days or weeks before that I’d been a teenager, worried about high-school classes and my girlfriend and whether or not I’d ever get published? Now my parents were old and frail, and the walls were full of mice.

“Change and decay in all around I see,” says the hymn “Abide With Me”: “Oh, Thou Who changest not, abide with me.”

Therein lies the comfort: if the underpinning is solid, the surface changes aren’t so bad. In fact, they can be beautiful. A common fault of beginning writers’ fiction manuscripts is that they don’t want their characters to have to experience change — not too much, anyway. Certainly nothing painful. But it’s change that makes a story.

A good friend of mine recently observed that we have to seize happiness and drag it out of the dark that surrounds us. Or, as Blake wrote, we have to “build a Heaven in Hell’s despite.” It’s doable, since we have an ultimate home beyond all change, won for us by Christ.

Ours is not to fear the changes, but to celebrate the hour. “The world is changed”: but to change is to be human. Observe the changes, and let them become stories.

Sail out in this full moon’s light through a year and day, wearing a wolf suit, to where the Wild Things are. Consider this final quote, particularly in the light of who said it:

“Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy.”

                                                                           — Anne Frank


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