Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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It is typhoon season in Japan. The wind rips raveningly at the grass roofs and scatters bales of hay across the fields. It buries the land beneath torrents and pools and knocks down the drenched passersby as they strive for home.
In the center of the ancient city which is the hub of the new one, the sounds of thunder breaking, of the rain god raging, and of a small clear stream of water that has woven a path through the roof to trickle into his wing of the palace fill the head of Yushiro Matsuko, Imperial Typhoon Counter. Seated cross-legged on a bamboo mat, silver-streaked pony tail resting on his back, he is bent in silent contemplation of an empty wall, his gleaming black brush poised in mid-air before him. His hand lifts, brush meets wall and draws one rich line of paint over it, hand and brush drop, first down to his knee, then to the dish, waiting receptacle.
The absorbed man rises, motions for his assistant — who has been stationed in attendance in the doorway to the Imperial Typhoon Archive — to come retrieve his sacred instrument, and then turns to face the multitude of lines (similar though not identical to the one he has just drawn) arrayed over the walls of the chamber; he begins to walk, slowly, pensively, through this room and the ones beyond it, eyes intent on the strokes covering their surfaces, black lines that are his gateways to life and passion.
They are tranquil black lines and vicious black lines, angry and appeasing ones; every trait of savage Nature, of the Typhoon God as he tracks his eternally recurring course over time has been recorded here. At the very far end, they are fading lines. Marker of storms present and maintainer of storms past, Matsuko is the twenty-eighth in an illustrious lineage of imperial typhoon counters stretching back to 1202 A.D.
When he dies, the mantle will fall for the first time to the shoulders of a Westerner. Roger Lafollette, his apprentice and underling, who even now is washing out the paint bowl with sand and reverence in the back room, became so enchanted with this aspect of Japanese culture after certain revelatory days in San Francisco that when he came to Kyoto ten years ago, and presented his intimate knowledge of the shrine, of the ceremony, and of brushwork to the Commission, no one could dispute his right to the succession.
Such is the strain of the Imperial Counter’s job come typhoon season that, once every five days, Lafollette receives his master’s charge while Yushiro packs a satchel and takes off to the country. Driving with dazzling speed over the rumpled Honshu terrain, he invariably pulls up outside his favorite inn, the New Moon, where he is known and well cared for.
First, a dinner of steak tartare and sushi, served by inn-owner Matsushito, then a concert of lute and bamboo flute by the hearth, and finally retirement to a chamber that will be the scene of prodigious bedplay until morning. One by one, the hotel’s staff and regulars take turns inserting the master key into Matsuko’s door, darting one another discreet and knowing glances as they pass in the corridor.
Yushiro begins softly, meditatively, calmly orchestrating long sweeping caresses, a breeze that stirs the surface of his companion’s body, which lies before him like a barren landscape whose contours his hands must identify. As the breeze becomes stiffer, his partner’s body arcs and pits itself in response to his call. She is like the parched earth which opens its pores ever wider in hopes of receiving water. Yushiro hovers over her, lights her mouth with his flashing tongue, tickles her mountains until they stand up straight against the air, and caresses her valley as the shivers and trembling inside unleash her frozen stream. His winds and clouds are pulled close by her long arms, he finds himself lost in her forests, running over fields of black scented hair, her lips rushing streams back into his ear, her voice speaking the hidden tongues of earth — the tongues he hears with brush in hand — sucking him into line after line, slit after slit, storm after storm, until he finally relents and pours himself out into that deep tumid ravine, that splayed and swollen line secreted between her legs.
So it goes, again and again, as he whom the Great Beyond charges as its earthly conduit in storm after storm releases himself in aftertremors by which he gives off sparks and light all night long, to return to his shrine purified, in balance, his senses cleansed and his mind clear for the rituals of the coming week.
For with the next day Matsuko undertakes his weekly review of the 9,238 lines traced upon the Imperial Archive’s walls since 1202 A.D. He must not falter in this fundamental task. The reader can imagine its magnitude, if not its significance. With the trained eye of the master and the mathematical retention of one who has conjured a working abacus from his brain’s grey matter, the Counter must review the tally, record any subtle changes in wall texture or humidity, and repair any traces of paint decomposition. The report he files is then examined by the Imperial Meteorological Prescience.
Any attempt to scant on the fastidious count and review must be resisted; trust is implicit. For a number of reasons, there is no greater offense than dishonesty on the part of the Imperial Typhoon Counter. A falsified count falsifies history; it blasphemes the hallowed work of all his tireless, deceased forebears and renders the Counter’s own life of scrupulous concentration meaningless; most importantly, however, it falsifies his society’s very relation with the cosmos. It can only be interpreted as an open display of contempt both for one’s society and the powers beyond. The punishment is extreme: burial beneath a hail of nails, a veritable storm of iron. It is as if the very lines one had disdained to count turned against one with the violence of a typhoon.
Matsuko’s predecessor Takawa met such a fate. After thirty-four years performing the sanctified routine, he began to suffer from periods of delirium so frequent that in his rare moments of lucidity he resolved to sacrifice his life. To no avail were his weekly excursions to the Inn of the Seventh Happiness; he had accumulated such a residue of overcharge that he could never hope to restore his inner balance. He lived in constant and painful chaos, and each storm that hit cracked his bones and twisted him like an earthquake.
So he developed a strategy of renunciation. First, he gave up on his weekend excursions to the Inn and instead spent his time defiling the sacred shrine of the Typhoon by smoking Camels there and reading Tokyo Life. His apprentice and underling, young Yushiro, watched in astonishment from the threshold of the archive, but said nothing. Only when Monday morning shed its pink light on a man slowly and deliberately erasing the very storms he had devoted his life to recording did the as yet beardless apprentice turn his back in terror and invoke the wrath of the deities.
Retribution came swiftly. Whereas another, less ethical man might have tried to get away with repeating his last complete if somewhat delirious count, only to be unmasked in the ensuing silence by the inquisitorial regard of the Imperial Meteorological Prescience, Takawa approached his superior with the traditional ceremonial bow of humility and reported the tally of typhoons to be 8,626. He had reduced the count by precisely the number of storms his career had spanned. The Imperial Prescience understood perfectly the significance of this act, and smote Takawa to the ground on the spot.
The next day the twenty-seventh Imperial Typhoon Counter was put out of his misery and young, boyish Yushiro Matsuko was initiated to his life’s mission.
There he sits in the third chamber, lost in thought. One can tell that this grave man, his face marked by two deep creases that rise from the corners of his lips to the corners of his eyes, has entered into the slender trace of black on the wall before him, stroke of absence, portal to a forgotten time. His is the role of Official Rememberer. For each trace there is a story, a world of description and condensed circumstance to evoke. Locked in their contemplation, one gradually feels the clamminess of these ancient quarters as the storms rage outside, whipping the gawking peasants and piercing the backs of litter-bearers like so many needles. Here is the day that a ship from the mysterious West has made safe harbor after a treacherous crossing; it is rumored to carry a traveler of unprecedented physiognomy and color who speaks of a city of palaces built on a thousand islands and populated by dukes and craftsmen. He has penetrated the inner reaches of this very palace and his presence has sent a shudder of foreboding through the monks absorbed in their chants and ministrations. That this is the case is proven by the nick on the side of the figure traced by the fifth Imperial Typhoon Counter, who is famed for his expressive powers. We share his deep anxiety, mingled with a trembling excitement before the unknown, that which opens up new possibilities but which can transform or destroy the comfortable past. One could spend months reliving the emotions embodied in the lines of a master like the fifth Imperial Counter: the wistfulness, the arrogance of the court, the hope and the terror.
That the lines have a time of their own, a realm shared by those initiated artists whose lives are devoted to their care and composition, this nobody doubts. It was not difficult to retrace the 398 strokes Takawa’s tenure had spanned; it was next to impossible to retrace them correctly. Many storms were lost, many days washed away.
In this light the seemingly fastidious weekly scrutiny of the fifty-three walls, the constant effort to detect changes in surface texture and chemistry, becomes more than a mere ritual paying homage to the past and preserving it intact. It is a protective cleansing of windows, a testing of doors onto this special space. It is not surprising that Takawa grew tired of the pounding rains of all time, the needles of wind, the tides of destruction and renewal that plagued him in the wake of each storm; unable to maintain the inner tranquility that corresponds to the storm’s eye, and which is the key that unlocks the eternal realm, he found himself buffeted and torn apart like so much flotsam on the rapids of history.
Nor should it be surprising that Yushiro Matsuko, that harmonious soul, in his twenty-fourth year as Imperial Typhoon Counter, was recruited today by the very deity whose havoc he has so successfully chronicled. Without a word he took the ethereal hand materialized before him by his mentor and new cohort, the fifth Typhoon Counter, and let his body be pulled across the slit into a space his mind had visited freely for years. There he will be united with the Immortals at the placid heart of the vacuum whose whirling arms send us messages on needles of rain, in floods and gales of destruction.
Matsuko’s secret induction was witnessed by his apprentice, Lafollette, who later told the Imperial Meteorological Prescience that his master had literally leapt into the wall of the third chamber, carrying all trace of the 1,798th storm with him.
His Prescience smiled knowingly and bade Roger return to his chamber to meditate upon his forthcoming installation. Then, brush in hand, he drew back the folding screen that covered seven crescents on his wall, each one representing a Counter from an age past who had been convoked to the Typhoon God’s hollow hub. Next to these seven he traced one black circle straight from the void on which he would meditate for the rest of his days.