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Chapter 34

I slide open the window.

Along the little path by the house, an old, hunch-backed lady sits on the cinderblock wall.  She looks down at her wrinkled hands.  She wears a gold ring.  She straightens her gnarled fingers, adjusting the ring, still holding fast amid waves of sinew and bone.

Close to my face, a tiny mayfly climbs the windowpane.

To be transformed into ephemeroptera, the mayfly; to shimmer and glow like the last light of dusk lingering in distant mountain haze; to forget the long day passed, and the long night ahead.

These are some ways to describe the word they call here "kagirohi."  I saw the word, scrawled across an old book.  Photographs of the Great Lord amid shadows and flickering candle light, or half hidden by thick black locks, facing herself in the salon mirror.   Photographs of winter scenes on the black, wet streets, snow quickly becoming slush in the dark city while still pristine and bright on the distant mountains.  Photographs of groves of weeping cherry trees, swaying full bloom in mists of grey dawn.

As I poured over the old pictures, the Great Lord told me stories of her youth, stories of the tangled web of time and encounter that make up this world.  Stories of which many certainly lead down dark, secret paths.  Paths that I did not have the linguistic skill, or nerve, to venture down uninvited.

In the sacred book from this world, the Tale of the Shining Prince, the prince describes the telling of tales: "the gap between enlightenment and the passions is, after all, no wider than the gap that in tales sets off the good from the bad"(Genji Monogatari, trans. Tyler, p.461).

Perhaps this spider-web-thin line is what inspired Asai Ryoi to enter and write about this neighborhood, Shimabara, when he, 400 years ago, changed the "sorrowful world of the passions" into the "floating world."  In Shimabara, and the numerous "flower cities" that developed in its image, passions themselves become a vessel, like an empty gourd, floating on a flowing stream: "If you live in this world, some things heard and seen are called good or bad, everyone is interesting, and you don't know what will happen beyond the space of time one inch wide.  Your stomach sickens to think of something as firm as the thin flexible skin sliced from a fresh gourd.  At this moment, to view the moon, or snow, or flowers, or crimson leaves, to sing songs, drink, and float along, now, small personal worries and foibles are not troublesome.  Don't sink; be like a dry, empty gourd in flowing water.  This is what is called the floating world.  Listen to this, and truly, you can feel it."(Asai Ryoi Ukiyomonogatari trans. Waxman)

The spirit: the lively butterfly, or the momentary mayfly, takes flight.

And what if you commanded an army of butterflies?  What if, with your arts, your make up, and your silks, you could turn another dirty, leaf eating worm into a fluttering, dew drinking, pollinating beauty?

Those who managed to conduct the transformation, and reap the profits, grew wealthy and powerful.  In a world of black, grey, white, and brown; flashes of color, and flutter of wings can make even a fallen blossom appear to return to the branch:

The fallen flower, to the branch,
Rakkwa eda ni
If I saw it return- oh!?
Kaeru to mireba—
It was only a butterfly
Kocho kana!

(recorded by Hearn, Kwaidan, trans. Waxman)

Now, nearly everyone floats, orbiting distant worlds, communicating along tubes of light and sound, mind to mind, the body a flimsy image.

But here, in the old empire of ephemeroptera, only the "Queen Bee" still flies with gossamer wings.  Yesterday, she was transplanting her flowers.  One little plant went from one small pot to another small pot, now in the company of two other little colorful blooms.

Despite the bright, reflective, glamour of her ancient wings; amid a vast forest of floating trees, the Great Lord appears small, and still.