Funakura

I

WHO in Funakura can walk is there. Motionless they stand in road and field, the silence not the silence of great heat alone, or of the hour of the day, Pan’s hour, but the silence of an Oriental place, no note of insect or animal or human being. The mayor is among them, the chief of police, the president of the bank, the two doctors. Thirty years ago there was a missionaire catholique, but no other foreigner has ever visited the village of Funakura in the hiura of Kamitogo in the island of Kiushiu.

The mayor advances. The mayor is unsteady upon his high stilt-like geta. The timid thing in each of us is large in him.

He bows. I bow. He bows again, the crowd behind him bows, and he and I and they bow.

The mayor regrets that life in Kiushiu is crude.

I shake my head.

He takes my protest as a compliment. and bows. I meet his bow with a bow, and he counters my bow with a bow, at each fresh impulse a fresh unrest rippling over the crowd. The crowd is sensitive as a thicket of bamboo, the pliant tops yielding deferentially to every new current of air.

The mayor waves me toward the village that lies half an hour in the distance, and he leads the way, and I follow, and the low rumble of many hundred geta follows me.

A gentleman from the rumble catches up, talks for a time, and retires. Another catches up, talks, retires.

Once we pass an old woman kneeling by the roadside, and once a boy too lame to meet us, and once an old man. Before each the procession halts. Someone speaks for the crowd, and a dialogue ensues, shy in the presence of the stranger, and astonishing for how it has nothing to do with the occasion, each phrase marked by a formal bow, hands and knees upon the ground, and the nose brought down till it rubs the earth.

‘Old man,’begins the speaker for the crowd, ‘it must make you very happy to have your daughter home from Tokyo.’

‘It makes me very happy.’

‘She seems lovely.'

‘Nay, she is lovely.’

‘Yes, she is lovely.’

A pause. The speaker bows, the crowd bows, the procession moves, the old man, agaze, remains on his knees.

Till now the road has been straight. Just ahead it will bend toward the village. Here a cry breaks the quiet. The cry is peculiar. Even in the shrill of day I am uneasy. I appeal to the mayor. He nods in the direction of a house across rice fields, and as he nods the cry swells once more. It begins strangely, ends strangely, is not of an animal, not of a human being. It is the cry of the insane. An old sage lives in that house with only his wife, and sometimes he shrieks at intervals through the day, and sometimes is abroad and shrieking all the night, or stalks from door to door and in a tone of summons forewarns the population, as he did of my coming. I am surprised he should be at large. The mayor assures me he is not dangerous, that the insane are rarely kept in an asylum, and the asylum is the jail.

Nevertheless the experience has made me aware of the thirteen hundred miles to Yokohama, has made me conscious of a tip of earth pushed up from the sea, one Occidental on it, many Orientals, the Orientals mumbling quiet, neither the whisperings nor the noddings fathomable, the spirits therefore illimitable,and from the illimitable it is never far to the dreadful. I begin to suffer funny little anxieties about what they may be thinking. I wish absurdly that I did not have to smile and nod. I should like to free my voice, but cannot, as in a dream.

Then a house, then a scattering of houses, then a street lies before us burnt and ancient and deserted —not a person, not a stir. The hard sun is upon it and brings out the uninhabited look. I am thinking of the yellow dead Pompeii, when a girl of about five brings up stock-still before me. She is naked, and her tight brown belly protrudes in gallant fashion. Her eyes are on me, yet she only slowly sees what her eyes see, is shaken by that sight, recovers the use of her good sense, and flees.

The doctor smiles. The doctor has come to point out the house where they found the Buddha with unequal eyes. It was his own mother’s experience. She had screamed in her sleep, had been roused by her husband, had related that she had beheld a Buddha with one eye large and one eye small, not an image, but a living god. She knew where she had beheld it. Though it was not yet light, husband and wife got from bed and went. It was a newcomer to the village. He heard the two amazed people, was not himself amazed, led them where he slept, and there in the earliest streaks of day stood the god, one eye large, and one eye small.

Seeing that this interests me, another points to another house. There were born there in quick succession four daughters, and it is not for daughters that the nation celebrates the Tanabata, so when the fifth child came also a daughter, the father named her Sue, which in our language means Last, and when the sixth came a daughter he called her Mitzu, signifying Enough; but when the seventh was the same, wrath overpowered him, and the whole village heard him bellow, ‘Tome,’ meaning, ‘Stop.’

Laughter meets this conclusion, and the procession moves lightly onward.

Mine is one of the grand houses, less Japanese and less lovely. The mayor helps me into the vestibule. Women hasten to take off our shoes, put them with the geta in a trim row before the door.

Before the door every cranny has filled. So many in so narrow a place, all smileless and silent, makes them more than ever a multitude, and now as one piece the multitude bows. Up and down, as far as I can see, every creature is bending.

The mayor draws me into the room, and after us one by one come the village worthies, each rid of his geta by an imperceptible shake, each going to his place as if it had been rehearsed, each letting himself sink till his buttocks have found his heels. I am at the garden end of the large circle. For me there is a pillow. I shall remember it long, this first moment upon my knees, these Japanese gentlemen, like porcelain figures, sedately in a ring. They fan themselves assiduously.

The room smiles in its confidence of dimension. No solitary adornment breaks the openness. Two alcoves lie in the opposite wall; above the one a lattice door; within the other a metal vase, and behind the vase a poem in large ideographs, saying that morality is like the bamboo, meaning that it is straight and strong and true.

The president of the bank whispers to the doctor, who whispers to the mayor, who looks at me, begs me be at my greatest ease, not to sit upon my heels, but to kick my legs freely from under. I obey, it may be too eagerly, for all are amused; the fans express it ; and the fluttering floats beyond the room where, in the doorway, in the vestibule, in the street, from every projection of the houses round, sallow faces and squirrel-like eyes follow the scene.

‘We are touched by this coming of the friend of a friend of ours,’ the mayor begins.

Then another, ‘And we hope that the sun has not been too hot.'

‘We hope that the dust has not been too heavy.’

‘We hope that the road has not been too weary.’

‘ We are grieved that we have so little to give.'

And an old woman, ‘But we have our hearts.’

The talk that continues so simple has yet something singular. At first I thought it ignorance of words, but now I know that it is more than words. There is an emphasis that resides wholly within the idea, and still wears as an insistent rhythm wears. The drum in Oriental music has grossly that effect. It is as if the speech smothered a passion in the thought, so that, though the thought could glow, it could not flame. As it heats, however, its sense clears. The interpreter is easier to follow.

The glasses of sake meanwhile circle, and a nervous bowing seesaws the air. A gentleman slides up to speak to me alone. It has to do with his perplexity at my having journeyed so far to visit so uncharted a spot. Another comes to tell me of an English teacher in the middle school in Kagoshima who after twenty-five years can speak no Japanese, is married to a Japanese who can speak no English, the partnership ironically happy. One tells me that to-morrow he will show me the sword dance, by which in times of national discouragement the spirit has often been kept alive. One declaims that for scientists and artists there is no nation. One cleaves in: Even should there be war between my country and his, I need have no fear. One hastens to explain that the phrase, ‘even should there be war,’ implies only an extreme contingency.

Then out of the crowd someone calls for banzai. Banzai means ten thousand years of prosperity. Each gentleman at once shifts from his haunches forward to his knees, the swarthy circle seeming fiercely to come down upon me. Lugubriously and marvelously someone pronounces my name. Lugubriously and marvelously all pronounce it after him, and on the last tone appear to brace themselves, to set their faces, to suck a blast from somewhere deep below, then splatter forth: ‘Banzai! Banzai! Banzai!’

This is the first free burst of flame. It is damped as by a hand. What occurs is like a chill change of mood. But among so many I look about me almost expecting something physical to explain it. A boy slides toward me, bows low, addresses me formally. Then all bow low and mumble formally, and disappear. I say disappear, because the speed with which they go, the lack of bustle, the noiselessness, would in the Western world beg for comparison unless among apparitions.

I rise and stretch upon my toes and feel myself thin and tall. For the first, time I note how very low the room is. Everything was meant to be seen from one’s knees. The lovely instinct worked from that point, conceived the garden, and placed the narrow street. The latter is deserted now, the sun is gone, and round me in an empty room runs a ring of empty cups.

II

The light has begun to fade. The garden walled, the trees dwarfed, a rain basin cut as if by water long dripping on rock, straw-roofed outhouses with toyhouse angles — all that even at noon must be unreal when twilight falls is dream. It seems somehow somewhere else, and I myself in no such undoubted place as Funakura in Satsuma in Kiushiu.

A great Japanese emperor once said: ‘Twilight is everywhere.’ He was looking then, as I am looking now, out upon dream, and I see that such a setting may give a simple musing depth. I believe the schoolboy who tells me the words are a poem, that they may even be a great poem.

Did the emperor mean that some hour of beauty is part of every place and thing? Or did he mean merely that the immensities are common, to every creature sun and air? Being an emperor, it is the latter that he meant, very likely; yet one may have hoped, knowing now how unutterable are the twilights in these islands, that there was something also of the former. The former is what the twilight means. It is as were it saying: ‘Follow me; see how I float lightly out of the heaviness of night, and how I conclude in an intelligible gentleness the unintelligible hardness of day; twice in each diurnal revolution I cast this mantle of mood, cast it always with a feeling of flight; when I glower, I smile; from a capacity that, never knew ache of emptiness I bring always the fresh kakemono.’

In the little street a holy man goes by, lifts his eyes heavenward, drops them again, chooses to look within instead of without. A student under a stupendous straw, more like a sail than a hat, reads in a book as he walks, stumbles nearly headlong, but sticks to his page. An elderly man contends with an elderly man, passionately and all-excludingly, his coachman of the emblazoned ramshackle coach watching apparently nothing more remarkable than the dirt that is driving backward while he is driving forward. But Buddha is wise. He expects a slow conviction, or perhaps he expects none, paints for the charm of painting. Tonight he uses grays — pale grays and heavy, grays far away that are nearly black, grays overhead that are like the grays in Dutch skies with the filmiest overlay of gold, and in the west above the rooftops a gray that is drunk with red.

Silently, as is the rule of the Japanese meal, we hurry through the rice and tea. To-night the village fêtes the god of business. The god of business is not important among gods; his affair has been left to boys of fifteen. Early they canvassed for paper lanterns, brought them to the end of the street, where the village shrine stands upon a mound of ground.

At the foot of the mound are two tall poles, and on the top of the poles, but as if high above and pressed into the pale heaven, two pale lanterns. With the darkening these take body, and those yellow ones low along the ground grow yellower. One by one the houses bring forth the lanterns of the houses, the coats of arms upon them smeared by weather. Patches of holiday kimono stamp increasingly this gilded darkness. The darkness reels, sport movements break it, wind and children jostle and jar. It is the Orient of night and fancy and freakish shape and freakish motion. It is imagery on an eyelid, riot without clash, carnival in dream.

But there is no sound above the blunt footfall. At Rosmersholm it is said the children never wept and the old never laughed. That keeps returning to me now, for these children never weep, and the laughter is not like laughter, is much of mind, and little — but I am not sure—of heart.

We mingle with the throng, follow eighty-year-old grandmother into the street. Grandmother lived in this village when Perry put into Tokyo Bay, saw one generation troop to the Chinese-Japanese war and the next to the Japanese-Russian, can count a family seven hundred years on one plot. Where she comes the crowd yields.

‘That lantern at the roof edge,’a man in the crowd points to a cylinder yellow and huge, with one pitchy ideograph at its middle, ‘how long do you think it has hung there?’

Seeing it is thickly oiled, I venture it may be so much as a year.

‘A year!’ He has a voice of thunder.

‘ Half a century. It was put there to remember the day Sizuka was betrothed. That was the tenth of the Meiji.’

A woman hobbles from the house, says she has heard talk, understands the foreigner thinks her lantern odd. She will make a gift of it to the foreigner. I am affrighted at the thought, assure her that I could not be the one to profit by so unusual an act. Peremptorily she lays discussion, knocks the glorious thing from its holdings, presents it with its past and its cobwebs.

We continue through the throng. At the end of the street, on the top of the mound, is a small stone box with a poor gilded image. A taper burns before the image. The breeze snuffs the taper again and again, but the boy who has charge remains as unperturbed as a cherub. Each time he relights, a shiver runs in the dark, and for a moment the gilded thing comes alive. I step before the gilded thing. I step away. Grandmother follows me. And queer is the effect of that. For a curtain, it seems, has been let down, and when it lifts it is as upon someone else, so is the change like transfiguration. Something appears actually gone out of her. There is the deadness of a portrait, and the effect is only heightened by the black kimono and the parched feet and the gray hair flat against the rocky head. The centuries between us stare. She sinks. She prays. When she rises, whatever it was, it drops like a cloak, and she goes from the mound gay and vivid as she came.

We descend again to the street. Several join us, among them a boatman and a tall woman, and together we make for the river. The tall woman carries a tall lantern. We leave the throng, enter a dark little way where only a single shop lamp has still the dim hope of some belated transaction. Under the lamp a frog, a prodigious instance, skin slopping like an animal of the opera, bounds boldly out of his gutter, eyes me, compels me to go round him, and, when I am gone round, with a flop flings himself about, and in his gigantic absurdity continues to eye my disappearing visibility.

The river is black, the boat blacker, a long boat steady as a raft. The Japanese huddle at one end, and the tall woman holds the lantern low, so that the shadows over the huddle lose themselves upward. The tall woman does not hail from these parts; her sharpness is outlandish where all is soft. When we have got to the other shore, unexpectedly she is brushed by the overhanging cedars, starts to shriek, catches herself, quickly doubles her thin length, half smothers the shriek between her knees.

The boatman looks long at her, shakes his head, then says gruffly: ‘Too shallow for a body to drown.’

And the huddle is convulsed at his words. Convulsed, but without a tone, and quieted by the vision of a barge approaching like a phantom. It is not the barge that one sees, only its contour in mist floating considerably above the level of the river. One knows that the lanterns are deep in the hull, that the barge is really an inverted lampshade, and yet one is confused at what can be the source of such a ghost. I am all won over to long low boats and pale living lanterns. They make life by making mood, and show the hand of man as not always rude in the face of nature.

While the barge is passing, the boatman trails his oar, then takes it up again. It is a huge oar, and he swings ponderously on the hinges of his ankles. There is about the movement the peace of a heavy pendulum. The silence adds to the feeling. Only once does he tear the night with his big voice, and once the keel divides the weeds, and a bird wakens and sends a single terrified cry through the dark. Immediately there is a whirring needling above our heads.

’It is bad,’ the boatman grumbles, ‘it is bad. Look there, the dragon flies!’

They move in the night like figures seen through water, and the silence is even deeper after this, for everyone knows that in the bodies of the dragon flies dwell the souls of the dead.

At a landing we tumble over the rim of the boat, and pick a way between large boulders up a hillside. Behind us, in glimpses, the other shore. The other shore might be a hanging lit by a poor calcium light. But the spell is broken. My companions have begun again to talk. Suddenly they burst in truculent dispute. Something about a new railroad. This railroad, it is the loud hope, will push through Sendai to a point above where we are. Me they forget in their earnest, go on without me, the talk going with them.

For some minutes I have been sensible of movement in the one house on this bank, it may be forty feet below; and now the boarding separates, and the interior of a room is disclosed. Candlelight comes from a lantern the shape of a toy drum. A man lies on his arms, his feet swinging up behind him; he is old; his chest is propped by a pillow; he moves his finger along the page as he reads by this light so perfect for any other purpose. Next him kneels a woman, sleeping, but balanced. The top and the sides of the room arc in shadow.

I am saying to myself that a Japanese idyl has come to me through a kind of rift in eternity, when I see that there must also be a room to the left, for a door opens, and into the bright rectangle steps the naked figure of a girl somewhere in her late teens. She stoops for her geta, moves across the dark front of the stage, takes a place between the old woman and the old man, then draws a kimono toward her shoulder. But the kimono slips to her hips, making it appear she has risen from the cloth by some mischievous touch. Her skin is dark, her hair black, her breasts firm and virgin. The night shrinks to mere accompaniment. I cease almost to breathe, fearing some snap will discover me. And so it does. The Japanese are returning, loud still on their railroad. The young thing only casually turns, only casually regards us, in part conceals herself.

A few minutes later our path leads by the front of the house. The old man bows, and the old woman bows; the face of the young woman is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.