The wind blows through this little town like a newly landed boat passenger, all breezy with new ideas and pent up enthusiasm, legging across the gangplank, scarf whipping about, and pushing past the locals without considering them. From my apartment balcony I can look out across the treeless rice fields to the line of trees along the coast, just at the edge of a morning’s walk, from where the salt air flies in and harries the metal bannister of my apartment building. On blustery days like this I can smell the brine of the sea and that fresh stirring of ammonia, carried in by distant seagulls.
I’ve heard that some of the highest concentration of birds gather along that imagined coastline over there. Now that things have slowed down at work and I have several weeks to put the new apartment in order, I think I might take a bike ride out that way to see for myself. Since coming to this area (northeast Chiba) of Japan four months ago birds seem to be my constant companions, watching over me during some of the bleakest days of my life. Just when I feel that I’m just not going to make it, some bright-eyed elf of a bird flutters into view and does his dance, either to distract me from my, as one of my readers put it so humorously, “tortured writing”, or to remind me that even in the depths of self-doubt nothing is really ever that serious or self-important. And like an angel dressed as an overworked waiter the one bird, the white wagtail, that has always followed me everywhere, all the way since childhood, daily I find one of their representatives waiting impatiently at the foot of the apartment stairs, calling out, “Hurry! Hurry! There is work to be done! No time to dilly-dally!” I’ve seen a ural owl and a wood cock, two mysteries that let their guards down long enough for me to receive their blessings.
On other, cloudy days when even the birds take to the bushes or when night falls, I’ve found myself out away from the windbreaks and trudging along dirt roads, sometimes long after midnight, with the sky slipping along the heavens and me down here, below, making my way between ditches and telephone poles. One night, having spent the entire day at my office in the university without another soul in the building, I emerged onto the deserted streets and couldn’t feel the draw of the compass that usually beckons me home. I stood beside a sleeping maple and listened to a shred of corrugated plastic banging against a wall, trying to make sense of the emptiness that welled either from my own heart or resided as it was in the carelessness of these modular houses.
What is it to need someone, anyone, nearby, just to hear their voice, though you don’t know them, or to reassure yourself that you are not just imagining those dark shapes fluttering at the periphery of your vision? Why do I end up whispering so much to myself as days go by without speaking a word to another person? What is this need to speak, to reach out and brush your fingers against another soul, or to say, “Stay. Stay for just a minute. I need to see myself reflected in your eyes, to know that I am there.”
With her gone now the nights seem longer. I still have the habit of turning over and reaching for her, my fingertips expecting her smooth shoulder and my ears listening for the soft sound of her breathing. The white mug that was paired with the blue one, which we both used to share a cup of tea together every night, now sits unwashed in the sink. She had wrapped it in newspaper while packing and when I took it out of the box in my new place the flood of memories choked me. One after another memories came spilling out of the boxes, so many of them that I had to stop and go for a walk.
I wonder how you are doing, dear heart, over there, all alone yourself? Are you holding the blue cup, or turning over and patting the mattress where my pillow once lay? Do you have to go for a walk, too?
I guess I can say the worst is over and that from here on out it is the healing that takes over. I’ve had some hard walks in my life, sometimes the trail so battered and strewn with boulders or the rain so bad that the mud made it impossible to push on, that I had to turn back and hope to climb the mountain again. What often made those climbs easier was a partner to consult with and call to through the thick mist. It’s easy to get lost when you’re on your own. These last few months have opened my eyes to the existence of that door through which you might never come back. It didn’t know it was so easy to lose all substance and turn into a ghost right before your own eyes.
Yesterday I took a train ride through the area north of my town and stood in the doorway of the train when it stopped at the next station. A quiet little place, with farmhouses guarded by bamboo groves and side roads that turned off the main roads and took off into the hills. “Maybe this is where I can settle down.” I thought. “Maybe the thing is to go further and deeper than you are now, take the quietude a step closer to the birds and follow their lead.”
Along the edge of the field a wave of starlings settles into the grass and soaks in the bright morning sunlight. Azure-winged magpies swoop in and out of the persimmon canopy, chuckling and purring to one another. A black tailed kite keens high above the fields, rising on the updrafts and disappearing into the clouds. A white wagtail cocks its head and bobs its tail. Then it is off scuttling along the road top, peeping its satisfaction.
“Excuse me, sir. I think you forgot your umbrella.”