Nagoya Writes

February 9, 2008

Well in the Blue Bamboo by Joe Sichi

Filed under: Issue: 2001,Prose,Sichi — usbengoshi @ 6:46 pm

It has been four years; four years of the same stained walls and bars which are rusting, but not fast enough to do me any good, four years of the same stainless steel toilet, the only thing in the place which shines and the last thing which should, four years of the same meals slightly rearranged to appear different from day to day, four years of silence when companionship is wanted and noise when silence is needed. Now that it is over, I feel I can tell it; well, most of it anyway. After all, the four years would have been but two if I had told it all to begin with. I have served all of the four long years thus don’t ever plan to tell the last bit. A doubling of my sentence for my silence deemed insolence was a bit overboard I still think, but I don’t plan to dwell on it. Here is what happened:

The first time I stepped through the gate I scarcely noticed it. I was hiking in a wooded area not far from the leaching reaches of the city when instantly I found myself in a grove of giant bamboo. The trail along which I had been hiking was a small meandering footpath which had started in relatively open fields and soon progressed through thick scrub; switching then to a more wooded area as it had wound between two small natural reservoirs, and finally up and into what I had assumed to be a bamboo thicket.

The trail was all but forgotten as I stopped and gazed around me at the inspiring bamboo. For these were no ordinary bamboo; to begin with they were blue, and not a cerulean blue either, but a firmly cobalt blue with streaks of indigo and only a passing flirtation with green. Their height was equally magnificent, easily twenty meters they charged straight upwards, with no time for frolicking and curving as a normal tree has. Astonishingly, as amazing as the bamboo themselves were, more tangible than either their height or color, more distinct and grabbing than what essentially was fairy-tale proportioned blue grass, was the light in the bamboo forest.

The very air itself was blue. Even when I stared straight up to where the sun found its way through the canoe-shaped leaves, thickly meshed an unreachable height above the forest floor, the light – the air – remained blue and I could not see beyond it. I believe I even tried looking directly at the strength of the sun and remained encased in bright blue air.

I resolved to go back, to return really, with sketch book and colored pencils and capture the Blue Bamboo Forest. Thus I did, about six months later on a rare day off. The second time I entered the grove I noticed the gate. It was so clearly a gate that I was stunned I had not recognized it during my previous entrance. The noises of the wood stopped as I stepped through the two immense bamboo, slightly arched and crossing at a point perhaps ten meters above the trail; immaculately blue in color, neither gave ground to other in width nor in height, their very roots seeming to prod the ground into action. I passed through and the living blue force of the light inside encompassed me as the ocean does a fish.

Quickly I sat down and began to sketch. I may have been there five hours or ten minutes, I do not know. Even my normal habits of tobacco and passing my hand across my chin did not plague me as I drew. For once I did not step back intermittently and look from a distance at what I drew. The colored pencils seemed to fly across the page of their own accord; touches of purple creeping in where normally I would abhor it in a drawing. Blue filled the page pervasively, and yet not overwhelmingly. Yellows and transparent greens tickling the cooler colors with a fiery almost d­runken insistence.

At some point I stopped, put the drawing on the ground and stood up. For the first time ever I knew that a drawing of my own was done; that it would stand no further refinement, nor need any, that there could be no second guessing of color or intensity, that it was finished, that it appeared as though it had always existed just as it was, and yet retaining the excitement of a newly created work and vowing that it always would.

As I stretched out my back and arms and fingers, closing my eyes momentarily from the strength of the light within the grove, a voice spoke.

“You have stolen.”

I sat or fell down and tried to think as the voice spoke again.

“You have stolen.”

After a moment I was able to think and I replied, “Yes, I have stolen, but what is art if not theft.”

I took the drawing and my pencils up quickly and left the blue bamboo forest, distinctly feeling the presence of the gates as I passed them for the second time that day.

I did not return to the blue bamboo for some time. A local collector found the drawing of some interest and paid me a great deal of money for it, much more than I was used to receiving for my work at the time. She also introduced me to certain gallery figures in the city and in circles where I had not previously been known. Subsequently, she became my lover and patron and convinced me to give up my normal job and focus on my art. The forest was forgotten for a time as I began the regular circuit of openings and received calls for my work from both gallery owners and magazine editors and their ilk. I had achieved a sort of limited and yet potential fame from the sale of that piece which I had ignorantly entitled “the Dance of the Blue Bamboo.”

Although the woman who now owned the drawing was my lover, I did not see it again after its sale for perhaps a year. She was married and we never met at her home. One day, she invited me to a small gathering at her residence, I did not ask, but assumed her husband to be away. It was quite a normal affair, twenty or so people gathering for an afternoon meal on her spacious lawn. There were a few other artists and many of her wealthy, art-loving friends. I made small talk and sampled the food. I indulged in the wine and finally becoming fed up with the ministrations of a woman who loved my work but who could not recall a single piece, I excused myself and went off in search of the bathroom.

There it was, hung and framed expensively at the end of a long gaping hallway. In truth, it was immaculately placed. I could not have designed or found a better place for it myself. I paused in front of it to reacquaint myself with the drawing when the voice spoke:

“You have stolen.”

There was no subtlety this time, no pause for my own rationalization, “Yes, but all art is theft.”

The voice spoke again.

“You have stolen.”

It continued, repetitively, increasing in volume, “You have stolen. You have stolen…” until finally I clenched my ears between my hands and surged out of the hall and into the bathroom. The voice subsided some as I stuck my entire head under the faucet and attempted to wash myself sane.

The bathroom happened to be of the type with two entrances and so I left by the other, and avoiding the lawn found my own way out the front door and went home.

Perhaps it was the wine, but I slept well that night. The following night it began again, like thunder this time.

“You have stolen.”

Nor did it let up for fully two weeks. By that time I was less a thief than a lunatic. I thought first to go back to the Blue Bamboo Forest. I arose one morning after yet another sleepless night and hiked in using the same trail I had before. As I passed the two reservoirs the droning began. A bit farther in I saw animals and birds fleeing away from me and from the area of the blue bamboo forest as the very leaves and blades of grass began to shriek at me. I managed to bring the gates within view, my head throbbing when everything went black.

Apparently a woman out walking her dogs found me and called assistance. I do not know. I woke up sedated in the east wing of a large metropolitan hospital.

After my release, the voice came again every night, allowing me no sleep. I managed to give myself brief periods of respite mainly by drinking heavily, and once when I fell and knocked my head against the edge of an oak table. I became haggard and increasingly it became clear what I must do. My lover assumed I was painting at a marathon rate and did not come by. All the better, for once I had realized what I must do, I did not wish to see her nor anyone.

I made my initial foray at night. Around the perimeter of the house I passed, noting where the lights were on and where they were not. I noted that there were no dogs and remembered that I had not seen any on my previous visit. The voice seemed to pick up in strength the closer I was to the house and I realized that it would take something stronger than only my will to get near the drawing. I returned home to plan again.

It turned out to be alcohol that I settled on, it had succeeded in the past as a way of slightly dimming the presence of the voice with its singular statement. That next night I began to drink early, just before the sun went down, and I set out again, just after midnight. I arrived at the house and quickly scaled the fence. The voice increased in volume in spite of my drunkenness. I snuck along a long wing of the house where I remembered noticing no lights the previous evening. I broke a small pane of glass out of a French door and reaching inside, quickly turned the handle and stepped in. If an alarm went off, I could not hear it, as the voice was now at a furious roar. Somehow I made my way to the long hall where the drawing hung. Overcome, I fell to the floor and crawled along the passage towards the drawing. “You have stolen. You have stolen…” boomed incessantly in my head, louder and louder the closer I got.

My lover’s husband later claimed that his karate training and well-placed kick had knocked me out, but in truth I was passing out before he ever entered the hallway. My lover must have pretended not to know me before both her triumphant husband and the police who came to collect me from him. I was locked up for a day to sober out prior to going before the judge. I had not been in trouble before and as I had actually taken nothing before passing out, I was eventually released with a probationary period of three years and orders to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for that period and report at regular intervals to the court that I had done so.

I was not out the hands of the authorities even a full twenty-four hours before I was back at the house where the drawing hung. In fact, as soon as darkness fell I was there stalking the perimeter, the voice clanging in my head. I could deal with the authorities, their power over me but temporal. It was the reality of the blue bamboo forest I must answer to first.

The voice had not stopped since I had passed out. The entire time I was incarcerated it was there, dull and rumbling, at times barely discernible, as when the judge had pronounced her decision, but always there, relentless. This had proved to be a blessing. Without even the slight breaks I had managed to give myself prior to my arrest, I was forced to listen to the voice instead of merely resisting it as I had previously done. In fact I began this while imprisoned. With no inducible escape from the voice at hand in the cell, I had finally stopped fighting and listened to it. I was stunned to find that there was a rhythm to the words and even subtle clear distinctions between notes and tones. Far away from the painting or the gates of the blue bamboo forest the voice, once I listened to it, was actually a gentle riff played on an acoustic guitar.

Just outside the house where the drawing hung it was an overture played by an orchestra in full swing, and as I opened the not-yet-repaired French Doors and rushed into and down the hallway toward the drawing for the second time in a few days, it was a resounding fugue. This time I reached the drawing, without losing consciousness, for I was now a philharmonic burglar, and capable of dancing down the hall and back out with the drawing in my hands, and not stopping until I was before the gates of the blue bamboo forest.

There I was in total darkness. The fugue had reached its climax as I fell exhausted to the trail just before the two great blue sentinels, for their hue shown even in the dead of night. As I lay before them the music came to an end and I sensed that something was needed from me.

“I have stolen and I would return that which I stole.” I finally managed in just a hint of my own voice.

“You have stolen,” resounded again in my head like an echo of my own words, but this time as soft and gentle as a single flutist warming up at the opposite end of a great concert hall. The blue light of the forest reached out and engulfed me drawing me through the gates and to the very spot where I had drawn what seemed so long ago. If my own legs carried me I am unaware of it. I do know that my first thought was to burn the drawing there and then, but something held me from that. Instead I began to dig with my hands in the dirt. I dug for a long time before I reached soft moist earth, and even in the strong blue light of the forest, the small hole I dug glowed with a light of its own. At last I reached a depth suitable to contain the entire drawing. I placed it there and began to fill the hole back in, but actually there was no need, for as soon as the drawing was in the earth it all but disappeared, the colors of the drawing merging so perfectly with the glowing warmth of the small hole that even I, with my face but inches above it, could no longer distinguish the drawing from the hole. I filled it in anyway and lay my head on the soft earth, exhausted.

I awoke the next morning refreshed, with none of the pains or aches one would normally associate with sleeping on the ground with no pad or pillow or blanket. I returned home in the early morning light with a singular note of music floating purely and randomly in my head.

I was arrested that evening, and admitted everything except the whereabouts of the drawing, for I had never told my former patron and lover where the drawing had been done, and knew that I never would. I would take whatever they gave me, and serve it in peace, but I would never tell them the location of the drawing, nor of the existence or the whereabouts of the blue bamboo forest. I will not tell you either.

I was thinking that I was lucky to have been able to restore the balance I had upset when the judge finally got around to pronouncing my sentence after a long and protracted trial in which I took no interest having already admitted my earthly crime. There was still music in my head even as she began to speak,

“You have stolen…”

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