Ponder the Starry Night
Part One: Grasshoppers
The grasshoppers in the low-cut grass rustle their bodies like paper on paper. The thin, summer-worn sound is quiet and restless, though it is settled, as well. All grasshoppers make the same sort of music: this is and always will be my ground, my home, my low-cut grass; I sing to the stars, and I will never see them. Their green, comical bodies are hidden, scattered over the back lawn. Only their longing sounds can be heard on the heavy, humid air.
Cho Hakkai sits with his weighted hands pressed palm down on his knees. In the summer air he wears a light cotton t-shirt, borrowed. His glasses are off and it is obvious by the way he is smiling that he cannot see the world, not even when a mosquito buzzes by the very tip of his nose.
This is the way he likes his nights.
The warm wood of the porch steps is firm beneath his bare toes, and a beam is solid against his back. The house was once a tree and will one day be the earth among the roots of a tree and will one day after that be a house again. It makes his bangs tickle his forehead, to know this replica of the karmic circle. The grasshoppers know it as they rustle, a chorus of unimportant and lazy bugs. In the winter, their bodies will curl up like lifeless corn husks left too long in the raging sun, for instead of preparing for winter they played music all day and on into the dark night.
A breeze wanders along his skin. The wood is far from alive beneath his body. Here is where Cho Hakkai remembers: I was merely in the earth once, spread out on the earth once, above these earthly things now.
He does not believe, however, that he will ever rise to embrace the swirl of the star-strewn sky.
Instead, he watches the low-cut grass stretched out before him and shifts his hands on his knees. He has created a place for himself, carved quietly into the air and against the firm wood. He feels as if he is following a set pattern, a path marked for him since before this being was sentient, since before he even walked the warm earth. He lifts his head slightly, eyeing the stars with a friendly air and a writhing conscience.
"Ii kaze desu ne," he says.
He is not speaking to anyone at all. He is not even speaking to the stars.
"Hn," grunts a voice behind him. Sometimes Cho Hakkai forgets that he is not alone in his little circle of air, that air cannot protect him, and that people are still there. He forgets that he cannot truly talk to himself in the presence of another. If a man talks and no one but himself can hear what he is saying, does he truly say anything at all? The point of speaking is to be heard, but Cho Hakkai is not the sort of man who calls attention to himself.
Sometimes, he just thinks aloud, or pretends to offer up another part of himself to the circle he is caught in.
First, he was inside the earth, curled in fetus around and around and around himself.
Then, he was with the earth, with her hand in his own, and the wheat fields were gold, like her hair.
Then, he was upon the earth, with the rain making the dirt wet and cold, with the weight of his body spilled out before him, mapping his sins in the dark.
Then he is above the earth, all ties severed, all attachments ripped asunder, and the times when he murmurs to himself are not insights to his character for he has none; no, then, he is just talking to the stars.
It is quiet again. Cho Hakkai does not disturb things in the loud way of a child or the obnoxious way of a drunk or the whining, needful way of a puppy. He does not command attention. It merely shifts to him as the world shifts, all eyes fixed on the ignominy of a murderer before the scaffold. Is he pitied? At least, he is a spectacle, with his hands tied before him, or behind him, and his eyes lifted to the sky.
Where are you, up there?
I must know, before I come!
Am I coming?
Do you know where I am going?
I must know, before I come!
Am I coming?
Do you know where I am going?
There is somewhere he is going to. It is taking him a long time because he is travelling in slow, slow circles, along with the world on its axis and along with the heavenly bodies along the tedious lines of karma. This is all he needs to know to have the corners of his eyes crinkle in cosmic recognition.
I know you, he says to the heavens quietly as he watches the swirl of a starry night, I know you because I am a miniature of you. We are tracing circles like ripples in the universe. It has never mattered how big the ripples are. Bigger ripples feed off into smaller ones like the sea flowing into many rivers.
This is life, with the grasshoppers: minute ripples.
This is life, with Cho Hakkai: a ripple touching upon one thousand and four others. More, now. His body is stretched out. His name does not matter. The earth is wide and round.
Life is a circle.
On a summer night like this, Cho Hakkai knows he is returning to the earth one day, which will reach up and claim him, and he will not miss or be missed. Death does not notice the absence of the grasshoppers and the stars. Death does not mourn the loss of summer nights.
You pray for the world to mourn for your loss, but they will name it their loss, and wear black clothes for a short time, even if the sun is shining.
Cho Hakkai remembers:
On a summer night like this he sat on a porch with Kanan by his side. She was the cool curve of a body that fit into his. With her there, he did not forget the world. He did not speak to himself. He had a different name and jis hair tickled the back of his neck. Hers was freshly wet. She had just come back from bathing. In the dark summer's evening she wore only a white cotton nightdress, clinging to her moist skin, and she might as well have been naked before him. Kanan was a glowing, celestial body in their backyard, shimmering like a firefly caught in a jar.
If she stood far enough away from him he would reach out, to assure himself of her existence, round and smooth with the curving of the earth.
She rested her toes on his toes, her hand on his knee. She inclined her head so that it almost touched his shoulder.
"Look how far away the stars are," Kanan said, her hair falling in rippling waves down over both their shoulders, "taunting us to seem so close."
When only his own hands rest on his knees Cho Hakkai watches the stars coolly, with his face smiling and his eyes lost behind. Anyone who knows him knows that he cannot see them, for his glasses have been folded and left on the kitchen table. He does not squint or try to focus so that his myopic eyes scramble to focus upon the blurred world around him, and snap back into reality. Cho Hakkai prefers to see other things. A night on the porch of his own home. A night before he knew the karmic circle and felt the earth turn and want to question the stars but feel as if he does not need to anymore.
The stars are in the heavens.
He will come to them, or they will come to him.
Or perhaps he will simply remain buried in the deep earth, with his eyes unfocused and turned upwards, and seeing as much as he ever saw on a summer night such as this.
He is not tethered. He has become so light and so empty that he realizes he could close his eyes and lift his hands and suddenly float to the stars. If nestling in among their flaming bodies would not be such an inevitable disappointment and such a quick way to satisfy himself, he would let himself lift off.
"Look how far away the stars are," Kanan said, "taunting us to seem so close."
Cho Hakkai's lips curve into a familiar and hollow smile, as if the expression is painted onto his face, the prediction on a mahjong tile. He is good at mahjong, and card games too, but like a father with children, he lets others win, sometimes. It is funny, he thinks, that games of how the cards are dealt, how the tiles are given, are what he excels at. He tilts his head back a little, baring his neck to the world, and laughs. It is a soft sound.
"Temee," the growl comes from behind him, "what are you laughing at?"
"I thought," Cho Hakkai says as he turns, face caught in the starlight, "a cricket told a joke. It is only polite to laugh, ne?"
Genjyo Sanzou has a pretty face. His lips are curved into dour lines but Hakkai knows them when they part, when that harsh expression fades. To watch Genjyo Sanzou drink and smoke on a summer night is to wonder whether the wind blew and froze the priest's face in that expression, making him the example and the warning of a childhood myth. The air is thick and heavy with his cigarette smoke, swirling with it. The beer can be smelled, too, if you try hard enough, mixing in to crush down the usual smells of summer and freshly cut grass.
Cho Hakkai thinks, I have taken bullets for this man, taken bullets from this man.
"Temee," Genjyo Sanzou says again, his voice low and rough in his throat, like stone grating against stone.
Cho Hakkai shrugs lightly and turns his face back to the stars. His world smells like laundry detergent, the cheaper store brand, and his own freshly washed hair. The things outside of his world are unattainable and deceptively close, wavering like the stars in the sky.