I began collecting musical patterns when I was eighteen. It started with simple rhythmical things, mostly 2 and 4 beats
per measure (2/4, 4/4 time), but quickly progressed to more complex time signatures: 3/4 time, 3/6 time, 6/9 time, 9/13, 13/19, &c. &c.
By the time I'd reached twenty-one I'd already collected a range of rhythmic patterns to make even the most seasoned drum
expert / [ethno-]musicologist green with envy. When people asked me how I did it, I'd normally answer by just tapping out a rhythmic
response. Few knew how to interpret these responses; in fact, most would just shrug and walk away, mumbling under their breath. For me,
however, rhythmic patters were my language, and words grew less and less important over the months and years. Why tell someone "I'm
hungry"* or "I'm scared" or — most misleadingly of all — "I like/love you," when it's much easier to respond by way of beats?
* Translator's note: Lit. "My stomach is empty."
From a scientifically verifiable standpoint (see Nakamura, et. al., 1973, 1988) — as well as from an intuitive one
— we know that language is nothing but a series of numbers and signs that signify messages we wish to convey to one another,
though our body language is often more understandable and accurate than the words we use, is it not? When we break these numbers and
signs down to their most basic, their most primal
components, however, what's left is, well, sound. Beats. Rhythms. Does
not the unborn fetus respond to the rhythmical pulsations of its mother's womb without
the need of words? Does it not respond to
the fluctuations of her heart as it pumps blood and nutrients through the intricate labyrinth of veins and arteries of her body?
Let me pause to explain something to you before explicating my story in full. In our language — Japanese:
nihongo, or alt. nippongo — we use a combination of pictographic and non-pictographic characters to convey
meaning, though all have been borrowed and/or appropriated from the Chinese (even our hiragana and katakana syllabaries
are derived from kanji, which literally means "symbols of the Han [peoples]"). Most of us Japanese have trouble remembering these
complex characters because — and this is simply my theory, mind you — we are linguistically and culturally estranged from
them; that is to say that the characters were not designed for us to use, but rather for the Chinese to use. Whereas the signifiers —
i.e. the characters themselves — have remained the same (or, in some cases, slightly modified), that which they signify has
shifted. Although many Westerners don't realize this, conveniently preferring to lump all of us Asians — or, more insidiously,
"Orientals" — into the same genus of yellow-skin, slanty-eyed, hard-working Easterners, the two languages couldn't be any different.
It's like comparing English and Swahili, or French and Hebrew. OK, now that I've gotten that out of the way…
Just days before my father's "eternal sleep" I'd tapped out — on the metal bar of his hospital bed — a simple
but profound rhythmical message as follows:
My father was for many years a writer of what he dared only to call "fictions." He couldn't for the life of him write a
regular, situational story, no matter how hard he tried. In his younger days he had aspired to follow in the footsteps of the popular writers of
his day — shishosetsu, or the "I novel," was still a viable form after the Second World War, albeit dying — though his
writings were neither autobiographical, nor about characters with whom the reader could relate. My mother, it is said, dutifully read
everything he composed, even his fragments — many of which would today be labeled as "microfiction" or "flash" — though her
commentary was apparently always the same: This is not a story, it's yet another metaphysical inquiry into the nature of life and death.
(The way it has been related to me, this ever-predictable verdict was always followed by a wide yawn and a sly grin. Mother died a
year before father, almost to the day.) At any rate, my father was, and remains, the loneliest man I've ever met. He once told me that if it
hadn't been for my accidental birth he would have killed himself, and I'm sure he meant it.
It was while I was on the way back from the hospital that "the symbols" made themselves known to me in the most
peculiar of ways. As I was turning an oblique corner at a narrow confluence of labyrinthine streets, an orange-red ray of sunlight cut across
my field of vision. It was in that incredibly profound millisecond (or less? it felt like an eternity) that I beheld an entire esoteric language
theretofore veiled from sight: all of the rhythms I had assimilated, all of the significations and their signifiers, were clearly laid out before me
in the form of intricate, yet discernible, symbols. I no longer recall how I got to the library, nor how I found the stacks that housed the musty
tomes I had believed would hold the answers in my search for this new language of signifiers but, once I did, there was no stopping me
— I spent the next three days and nights going through volume after stolid volume of indecipherable texts that, by all means,
shouldn't have existed in that library, nor in any library for that matter — at least not on this plane of existence. In my feverish,
obsessed state, however, not once did I stop to think that perhaps I was dreaming, or delusional, or that the opaque symbols on the pages of
those dusty tomes were no more than a reflection of my own confusion, my own doubts and fears, the inscrutable sickness of body/mind
which had engulfed everyone in our family, sooner or later.
It was on the third day that she appeared at the end of the stacks, a tall, dark shadow gliding across the linoleum
floor, long strands of hair trailing behind her like silken threads from an unwound cocoon. At first I tried to ignore her figure, imagining that
she/it would eventually go away and leave me to my private obsession, but as her slender (yet imposing) form continued to shuffle back and
forth, back and forth — simultaneously calm and restless — for so long (minutes? hours?), there came a point, finally, when I
could no longer ignore her presence; my concentration had been broken, and my search for the symbols I had so tentatively glimpsed came
to a sudden, complete halt. At first I tried tapping out the following rhythm, ever so gently at first, and then with increasing intensity:
Then she, in turn, responded:
I could not decode her message, however, for it did not resemble the rhythms with which I was familiar, and so I tried a
different approach: I traced out kanji characters in the air, first for "na" (name), and then for "nani" (what [is]?). The response
came a moment later: "rei" (apparition, spirit) + "ko" (child [fem.]). Reiko. Her name was Reiko. And then she repeated —
by way of finger gesticulations — my original question to her, "na" + "nani," and I thus responded, "mu" (none, absence), to which she bluntly retorted: "uso" (lie/liar)! I shook my head and traced out the character for lost, "mei" (or "mayou," in its more common verb form); in turn, she outlined the symbol for mountain, "yama," quickly followed by the character for death, "shi," and was gone as suddenly and as completely as she had appeared.
When I looked back down at the tens of unwieldy, dust-ridden volumes laid out in front of me, scattered about the floor as
if a typhoon had whipped through the stacks, I began to laugh internally with such force I worried I might bust my own appendix, for the
answer to my search was obviously not to be found in this dark library, but rather out there in the world of movement, light, and sound. I
gathered up the volumes, put them back where I had found them, and exited the library, my hair a nest of half-hatched ideas, my face and
chin prickly with the stubble of prematurely graying beard, my eyes focused within, focused on the symbols that would later return in a
somewhat transubstantiated form.
The following day I sat inside my cramped room with the air conditioning turned to nine, watching the television on mute
while contemplating Reiko's enigmatic parting message. The staid patterns of light and color that shifted across the monitor's pixilated
surface induced a trancelike state skirting the line between waking consciousness and sleep, wherein my eyes remained half-open the entire
time, focused neither fully inwardly nor completely externally. It was then that someone began shouting out "Keiji! Keiji!" from a nearby
building, perhaps one of the neighbors. My father's name being Keiji, I immediately thought of his ailing form in the hospital bed where I
had left it (him) three days prior, though the term keiji (n.) also means "detective" in Japanese, depending on the Chinese
characters employed, and on the context in which it is spoken. I decided at that moment that I ought to go to the hospital and check in on
my father, but before I reached the car I noticed a tall man wearing a long trench coat and hat, despite the suffocating humidity, leaning
against it, smoking a cigarette. This man, no doubt the "keiji-san" the voice had earlier alluded to, was questioning the old professor of
philology who lived across the street and who taught at a nearby Buddhist university; he was said to have an extensive knowledge of
Mahayana scripture. The eccentric professor was tapping a gnarled stick on the ground and shaking his head from side to side. In his
tapping I recognized a steady, rhythmical pattern that went something like: