Brown Trout, Zen Trout

Brown Trout, Zen Trout

By Rachelle D. Lawrence

 

I was standing alone on Raincrow Lake when the all lights went out. 11:34 am. Totality was here.

Three days before the solar eclipse, my husband, two-year old son, and I had travelled five hours by car to get to Ashton, ID—cousins and in-laws and friends and friends of friends trickling in behind us until our bodies alone were enough to heat the entire three-story cabin through the cold summer nights.

During the day I sat outside in the rocking chair, reading Matsuo Basho’s Oku no Hosomichi and reliving my Tohoku years in haiku.

Two hours before totality, lawn chairs and kitchen barstools were carried outside with Costco muffins and lemonade. Paper glasses and solar filters were passed around, the telescope set up, and the 2017 USA Solar Eclipse Party began.

We watched the moon eat the sun.

The dog, a handsome chocolate Labrador that was more puppy than dog, curled up under the trees into a ball and refused to wake up as the sky grew darker. The kids tried putting a pair of paper glasses on him, but the dog-puppy did not open his eyes, did not join the party. The sun became a crescent. The leave’s shadows splayed crescents across the sleeping dog, spilling crescent sun shadows onto the rocks and tumbleweeds.

As totality approached the air became cool, the horizon taking on an orange-sunset blush. It felt wrong. I felt creeping panic. Even as my mind tracked the minutes and seconds, every atom of my body squirmed with the wrongness of it all. The sun was almost at its zenith, and yet it was growing darker.

Everything was grainy, like a bad TV connection.

I left the 2017 USA Solar Eclipse Party. I left my husband and two-year old son seven minutes before totality. I walked past the cabin out to the lake. The crickets and frogs were chirping on the bank while the trout plucked flies, breaking the lake’s surface PLOP! expanding ripples.

11:34 am.

I took off the paper glasses. The sun was gone. The moon was a dark circle haloed, the sunlight sneaking around moon-mountains like so many tendrils of fire.

Totality is only a minute and a half long, I thought. The thought burned up at least three precious seconds.

I have to stop time.

Impossible.

Then I have to capture time.

I took out my phone and started recording. But the screen showed only a pale reflection, none of the vibrant horizon or the celestial struggle of moon and sun.

I put my phone away and tried mentally recording every detail, burning the image into my mind. Time was almost up. No matter how much time I would have later to remember this moment, I had no time to record, to observe, to list the details.

Then I grasped, for the first time, Basho’s truth.

“To say more is sacrilege. Forbidden to speak, put down the brush, respect Shinto rites. Later, back with Master Egaku, we wrote poems on the Three Holy Mountains.”

With a baker’s dozen of seconds left, I closed my eyes, and breathed.

I hear nothing. The fish have stopped biting. The lake is still. Have the trout fallen asleep? I don’t think so. I think, like Basho, they are fully in the moment without thought, without action. The poems would come later KATSU! when the lights turned back on.

Book Tourist

Book Tourist
By Rachelle D. Lawrence

Stepping off Alaskan Airlines flight 820 and breathing in Maui—the ultimate Hawaiian sup’pa man, says IZ—I can’t get Holden Caulfield out of my head. Tourist. My boss ok’d a week’s vacation.

It’s a family vacation, but I feel too old to call it that, too pre-middle-aged. I’ve been out of the family game too long to really be a part of the band. We all have, little brah Jesse and twin sistah Courtney. Brah? Sisters? You goddamn tourist. Holden loves italics, it’s what gives him voice.

Ok, fine. Separate from the parents (meal ticket) and pick up the rental Jeep Wrangler, white, and let’s go shopping. That’s what tourists do. That and read on the beach to burn the white meat while sipping something fruity. Queen Ka’ahumanu Center has a bookstore.

MFOL. Maui Friends of the Library.
Used books. Volunteer staff. Three locations. Proceeds go to the children. Cut the crap and get a tourist some books!

We browse slowly, grazing, eating up first sentences, paragraphs. Two old men are sitting in the middle readery on fluffed armchairs. One, the skinny wrinkled one who talks too loud, is telling the other about how he’s ninety-three and the wife’s dead and girlfriends are hard to come by on the island and should he move to the Big One? I snagged some signed Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s and Oliver Gold short stories. A U of H’s master’s thesis on Japanese-Hawaiians. All under $20.

We leave fat and happy. Jumping into the Jeep, Jesse hits his head and it hits me how tall he is, taller than me, an adult like me. When did that happen? We need to stay awake. Jet lag can creep up on a body, and it’s get ya.

“Let’s keep it going.” Courtney gets behind the wheel and I don’t argue because I want to stare out the window at nature until my soul expands to harmony with the palm trees and banyan. Jesse plugs in “Welcome to Nightvale”. Next stop.

Lahaina Wharf Cinema Center, MFOL.

The shelves have been picked over. West Maui gets the most foot traffic, hotel pool-side reading tourists. The jealous white-haired lady behind the counter tells Jesse that he’s got “beautiful hair.” He runs a freckled hand through his ginger mane. “Thanks, I guess.”

I’m tempted to get a stack of 1950’s pulp SciFi, 20 novels high, but don’t. There is the return trip to think about, the logistics of suitcases and the traveler’s dream of only carry on items. I settle for a Middle Eastern novella about elephants and a Japanese picture book. It’s been six years since I lived in Sendai and my Japanese is shot. Maybe ultimate Hawaiian sup’pa man Maui can help me get it back. A tourist always thinks that a vacation can change her. Lose weight, wake up early for sunrises, finish that TBR pile, learn Japanese, again.

Stuck in traffic going south we turn the music up loud. We sing off tune to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and watch the driver in front of us throw a plastic cup of pistachios shells out the window. A car wreck up ahead stops the one-lane, double yellow line, dead, so I get out and pick up the Tesoro half gallon cup. Empty shells crack under my feet like pop-its as I get back in the Jeep. It starts raining.

Pu’unene Bookstore, East Camp 5 Road, MFOL.

Directions: Turn onto Hansen Rd, then left onto Old Pu’unene Ave, drive past the abandoned Sugar Mill, and follow this sign (BOOKS, with an arrow pointing left).
The BOOK signs circled us around the Pu’unene School to the back buildings. The clouds had retreated back into the mountains. The rain has stopped and the dirt road is pot-hole mud. We race through the Sugar Mill, mud splattering the white Jeep until it’s dripping brown. Queen Ka’ahumanu and Lahaina books had only wetted our appetites. We are ravenous.
Inside the shack of a library, the bookshelves are full to bursting. Less tourists and more locals. Books taken out invariably came back in, a snake eating itself. We ravage the shelves.
After hunting through the Hawaiiana, Poetry, and Eastern Meditation sections, I have to leave a pile of books at the counter. I need my arms free for more heavy lifting. The woman—were all the volunteers female?—took out a paintbrush and started dusting the stack.
Classics, general fiction, hardbacks, fantasy, magazines all flew by in a book haze.
“Are you all done?” The woman started dusting my new pile. I nodded but my eyes are darting around, scanning spines, making certain I hadn’t missed anything good, anything I needed, anything I’d hate myself for missing.

I grab two novelizations of the original 1970’s “Planet of the Apes” movies, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes and “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” originally 95¢ each.

“All done.” I wipe my hands off on my jeans.

“Wish we had more customers like you.” She separated the books into two piles. “The martial arts books are going to be forty dollars, and let’s just say the rest is $5.”

Jesse helps to stack the books into my arms and Courtney opens the Jeep door for me. Stuff Holden, I thought. I’m no tourist, I’m on pilgrimage, and I’ve worshipped at the trinity of MFOL alters. No matter where in the world, bookstores feel like a goddam home.

“Ouch.” Courtney had pinched me. “What’d I do?”

“You’re not wearing green,” she smiles.

What books had my twin and Jesse gotten? I’d have to remember to take a look when we got to the hotel room and before going out for expensive fish and chips with the parents. Book people are my people.

“At least it means that I’m not dreaming,” I said, and hug my books close.

Walking into the house on the beach my parents were renting for the week, with bamboo and turtle décor, my mom oohs and ahs over our books before taking me into the kitchen. “Look at this,” she says and opens a cabinet door. A beach-read novel and a North Korean memoir fall out. Inside, the shelves are stocked full of books.

Maui, HI
March 17th, 2017
St. Patrick’s Day

 

The Killing Monk Technique

an Iaido short story

By Rachelle D. Lawrence

 

“Next, 八本目。” Shiomi Sensei took his place at the front of the Las Vegas dojo and faced two rows of students, waiting. “多数の敵。”

I[1] was the last to sheath my sword with an awkward and echoing shiiing-thud.

“This last kata is a charge. Now, we practice it all nice and pretty, but in Toyama-ryu Iaido we must always remember the practical.” Lifting the curved blade overhead with both hands, he started walking forward, slashing down with each step.

“右袈裟切り。”

Right diagonal cut.

“左袈裟切り。”

Left diagonal cut.

“右袈裟切り。”

Right diagonal cut.

“左袈裟切り。”

Left diagonal cut.

“真向。”

Cut straight down through the fucker’s head.

“See? Very nice, very controlled. After the War, Morinaga-san thought this is peacetime, we are civilized. But in war it is different.”

Screaming, Shiomi Sensei charged swinging. His bad knee was gone and his white hair became a helmet of experience, not the dregs of old age. His voice, which had been so mild and polite, roared into life the dead officers of the Toyama Army Academy. I heard them in Shimoi Sensei’s scream. The ghost soldiers of the War gave me goose bumps.

The cloud of the martial gaze lifted, Shiomi smiled, again just a man in martial arts pajamas.

“That is where Toyama-ryu comes from. But we this is peacetime, so we do the kata. Now, everyone.”

Stepping off the dojo floor with a bow, Shiomi watched from us from the sidelines. I tried to clear my mind, to breath, to not just perform the movement but to fight.

I swung wide, almost clipping the woman to my right, my hands sweating so much I thought the sword might fly from my hands. I’d been practicing iaido for over a year, but only in front of Sorensen Sensei and a classroom of 15 students. This seminar was packed with students and teachers from several states. Shiomi Sensei oversaw all the US schools.

As the last kiai scream faded and swords were sheathed and eyes returned to the front in disciplined uniformity, USA director Shiomi Sensei reappeared.

And walked right up to me.

“Who were you attacking?”

Had he seen me almost hit Madison?

“I, uh, I don’t understand.”

“Who were you attacking?”

What is trying to say? My thoughts were a sobbing heap on the dojo floor. I pulled out the name of the kata form.

“多数の敵。Multiple attackers.”

“What did they look like?”

“What?”

“When you charged your multiple attackers, what did they look like?”

I glanced around, hoping one of the other students would give me a clue. They looked as confused as I was, or so was my hopeful thinking.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know because you don’t visualize anyone, right? You’re cutting at nothing.” He slashed his hand through the air like a sword.

He was right. I saw nothing. Even when I read a book, and I’ve read a lot of books, I don’t visualize the characters, the words don’t paint a picture in my head. But when I watched Shiomi Sensei fight alone I could see them, it was easy to see the pile of dead bodies after he had finished a form, after charging.

“How do you do it?” My eyes were level with the top of his head, but I knew a giant stood in front of me.

“敵 doesn’t mean just an attacker, it means an enemy, a danger. Imagine your enemy, a demon, yourself. Whoever you need to kill.”

“I have a hard time visualizing.”

“袈裟切りmeans a diagonal cut, right? No. If you break the word down, 袈裟 means the diagonal stole that a Buddhist monk drapes over one shoulder. 切りmeans to cut. So it means cutting down a monk’s sole. An image to describe the diagonal cut. Visualizing is the key. But imagining cutting down a monk is hard for you?”

“I’ll practice more.”

“You are testing today?”

“Yes?”

“For 一級品 rank?”

I nodded.

“抜刀,” he said. I drew my sword. Without touching the blade, he guided my sword in a diagonal slash, tracing the diagonal cut of his uniform where it wrapped around his right shoulder. “Then look at me. When you slash right, follow my 襟, cut through my collarbone.”

Great. A David and Golith fantasy. David did cut off Golith’s head with a sword, so I guess it fits.

He smiled. “Just stop tilting at windmills, okay?”

“Okay.”

The seminar resumed. Sound returned. The shuffle-shuffle of bare feet on the dojo floor and the swish-swish of the divided-skirt pants, the swoosh of swords cutting through air. Tilting at windmills.

That what my mom said to me. She was watching TV and I was reading, again.

“You read too much,” she’d said, “I just don’t want you charging at windmills like that Don Coyote.”

“You mean Don Quixote?”

“I saw a special about him the other day. He read too many romance novels and thought he was a medieval knight and did battles with windmills.”

“I think the term is tilting at windmills.”

To this day, I’ve never gotten around to reading The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.

“Okay, we are running out of time.” Shiomi Sensei took his position at the front and the students merged back into their lines. “We need to start the testing, so those who are testing get ready.”

He bowed. We bowed. The seminar had ended.

I grabbed my water bottle, rummaged in my sports bag and pulled out a book, reading while I sipped some water. I didn’t want to upset my already anxious stomach.

“What’s that?” Sorensen Sensei hovered at my elbow. He has been anxious all month preparing us for the rank tests.

Hagakure,” I said, flashing the cover of the medieval treatise on samuraihood. “I underlined a few passages to help get me pumped up.”

“Whatever you need to do. Good book, too.” Sorensen Sensei joined Shiomi, and I heard him say, “Rachelle reads nine books a day. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who reads as much as she does.”

My throat tightened. Shoving the book to the bottom of my bag, I grabbed my sword and sent to join the others who were testing. We didn’t say anything. The teachers judging sat down at the dojo front. We lined up on their right side.

The testing began.

I was third in line, and tried to shut my brain off but the damn thing kept thinking thoughts.

Tilting at windmills.

Mom had been right. Here I was, reading samurai books, literally swinging a sword at imaginary enemies, just like Don Quixote. I wasn’t even Japanese. I’d lived in Sendai for two years after college, but I was still as Caucasian as they come. How did Shiomi Sensei and the other Japanese teachers look out at the sea of our white faces and not laugh?

“Rachelle Lawrence.”

I bowed and took my place in front of the judges.

“Show us the basic forms.”

I took a deep breath. And another one.

Fine. I looked Shiomi Sensei in the eyes. I’ll kill you.

There are six basic forms. I cleaved through Shiomi Sensei’s head, a two-handed thrust through his stomach, parry and slash, killing monk technique, killing monk technique.

“Show us the advanced forms.” Shiomi Sensei pointed to the right side of the testing space. “But start from there, facing the mirrors.”

I nodded, my breathing still fast and high from the killing fantasy. Shiomi had been right about the visualization, about seeing what you’re killing.

It was only after I drew my sword that I realized I wasn’t facing Shiomi Sensei. I wasn’t facing anyone. Just air. Windmills.

Me.

The wall was one big mirror. I stared at myself. I looked ridiculous in the traditional Japanese uniform, gripping a Japanese sword with pale, sweaty fingers. My reflection stared back with disgust. And I stepped out of the mirror.

Mirror-me gripped her sword in middle stance, and attacked.

First form. Reverse diagonal slash and then I cleaved my face in two.

I killed myself, over and over. I slashed open my stomach, stabbed through my throat, cut off my right arm, my left, and mirror me got up every time, entrails gushing, attacking. I screamed and charged.

Killing monk technique, right, left, right, left, cut straight down through the fucker’s head. I stared at the ground, chest heaving, but there was no one there.

Shiomi Sensei was wrong. I don’t live in peacetime.

            “A heroic warrior (kusemono) does not concern himself with victory or defeat. Without hesitating, he whips himself into a deadly fury (shini-gurui). This is when he understands; this is when he awakens from the dream.”[2]

 

[1] This is a fiction based on the actual events of the Toyama-ryu Iaido Kai seminar and testing in Las Vegas at the Nevada Shotokan Karate Dojo on November 12, 2016.

[2] Hgakure: The Secret Wisdom of the Samurai by Tsunetomo Yamamoto, translated by Alexander Bennett, 2014, Tuttle Publishing, page 71.

Her Majesty, Lady Murasaki

It’s before dawn and my inhibitions are circling the drain, I’m high on sleep deprivation and a little drunk on words

—have I told you about the words? Man, they’re beautiful, aren’t they? When I was young I took a highlighter to one of my books. When mother saw the yellow-stained pages she asked why.

“I marked the words I like.”

“Happy words?”

“No, all of them, the sad and funny ones too.”

“Why do you like them?”

I shrugged.

Other writes will tell you they have stories waiting to burst out of them, ticking time bombs in their guts and so every time they finish a draft they can breath easy knowing that they saved the world, again. But me, I like the words. There are some words that transform stories into worlds—

and the words are orbiting like planets in my dark bedroom and the computer screen turns on like the sun and I’m blind.

“Well, hello your majesty,” I say, because it’s the witching hour and I’m convinced my computer has become sentient and a little pretentious with all its existential airs.

“Let me just—” I dim the screen and feel her majesty huff at my presumption.

How to appease this MacBook Air 11-inch, this Chihuahua of laptops?

“I dub you, Lady Murasaki.”

Lady Murasaki, author of The Tale of Genji, a contender for first novel ever written on planet Earth. She wrote about Japanese politics, poetry, and women so full of hate they become living ghosts when they fall asleep.

Lady Murasaki. A perfect incantation for predawn writing. A perfect name for her majesty, my computer, the universe that holds my worlds.

Both her majesty and I are a little pretentious, literary-wise, don’t you think?