CORMORANT FISHING

That afternoon, Hiromi, Naoko, and Tomoyuki escort me to Ozu. where we intend to go cormorant fishing. I have only the vaguest idea what that means. We arrive in Ozu a little earlier than anticipated.

summer afternoon--
the barber pole spirals in
its dusty glass

monument shop-
Mickey Mouse and Donald duck
cast in stone

We walk through town and across a little bridge that spans the Hijikawa. Hiji means elbow and kawa is river.

bright sun-
minnows crinkle
the Hijikawa

Tom & Earlthe Hiji river

Because we are early we look for a restaurant, but they are all closed. Eventually we find a place I think opens just for our benefit. It's a kind of combination bar/confectionary. There is a poster of Koizumi on the wall that advertises a certain brand of beer. Sumo wrestling airs on a TV mounted in a ceiling corner. I have toast with chocolate syrup and Hiromi, Naoko, and Tomoyuki have toast with jelly or marmalade.

Ozu inn-
Koizumi's face
advertises beer

sumo wrestling-
a drop of marmalade
on the place mat

We take our shoes off and join others on the boat. Some have brought meals in covered lacquer ware dishes. Altogether we are a group of 12, sitting on tatami mats either side of a table spanning the length of the boat, which has a sloped roof limned with electric paper lanterns. Our oarsmen sits aft and paddles up the river toward a bonfire but apparently the boat is too heavy or the current too strong, as the boat keeps running aground in the weedy shallows. Each time the boatman poles us out and again plies the oars, taking us nowhere. This sequence is repeated for what seems a long hour (or two) with the only visible variable being that little by little the boat slips further down the river.

end of summer-
the spider in the lantern
tumbles down again

Several people look at their watches, but no one complains. Still, it is obvious many are wondering whether we will see anything. Occasionally the boatman mutters something that evokes nervous laughter from some of the passengers. I begin to regret having expressed an interest in the event, as I know Tom has school in the morning -- and it seems to me that Hiromi and Naoko are weaving expressions of grace from threads of anxiety. I wonder if we will be there all night, slowly drifting out to sea. I wonder if at some point I should get out of the boat and guide it to shore so people can go home. I wonder whether my hosts and shipmates' indulgence is not politeness carried too far. Something American in me urges me toward a proactive policy. Something more cautious and patient overrides it. Boats that had passed us an hour before are returning to shore. Their silent motors have taken them to the bon fire and back. People are laughing, quipping and making merry but our boat is plunged in silence. Its motor has never touched the water. I begin to wonder whether our pilot is drunk. At one point he fidgets with the light socket as if he were going to use his electric motor, but the lights simply go out and back on again and another small hope floats toward the sea.

cormorant fishing-
at the mercy
of the drunken boatman

end of summer-
the boat runs aground
in rush grass

If the whole thing was theater, I was totally taken in. Was the non-progress a metaphor for time? Was the boatman, simply playing a role that illustrated how our labors amount to naught? Were the other boats foils to highlight our plight? Were the looks of anxiety actors' expressions? I'll never know, and even if the answer is - no - I will always believe that life at that moment -- intended or otherwise -- was perfect theater.
After the lights blinked off and on, the boatman went to the center of the river and simply drifted backwards and at that moment I noticed all eyes were looking up the river at the bonfire which was now coming to us.
It was a boat with a basket of fire hung on a pole over the water, the pole bending and swaying under the weight of the wood so that sparks were flying in all directions. Four electric lights at the prow illuminated an area down stream where five cormorants tethered to strings swam, occasionally diving in front of the boat. It appeared from one perspective that the cormorants were pulling the boat, though if you followed the strings from their necks to the boat you might decide it was a puppeteer who orchestrated the event. Or were the cormorants orchestrating the man, standing in a grass skirt, arms moving according to the birds' commands? And then there is the nearly invisible presence of a human form behind the man in the grass skirt, a form partially hidden by stacked, wooden crates - and (you must peer closely to see this) in his hand is a paddle barely delineated from the night.

cormorant fishing-
feeling the heat
from a basket of fire

end of summer-
a dark paddle parts
the night

The cormorants dive according to their own whim or some predetermined code of their scripted double helix, sometimes surfacing with a living flash of light. Sparks fly from the basket; embers fall into the hissing river.

hissing
sparks
the cormorant
dives

starry night-
a cormorant waves
a silver fish

So many analogies come to mind as I search my library of self-reference in order to explain the effect: Santa Claus for one; an Alaskan dog team for another; marionettes and puppeteers; a hissing dragon retrieving treasure buried beneath the dark currentcbut none quite captures the act or the fanfare. It is a fanfare of laughter and merriment. And don't for a moment feel sorry for the birds. They are not slaves of the dragon, but happy minions. If the whole thing is a performance, they are the true performers. They grunt and chortle and bow their heads over and over again until one feels like tossing them coins. Certainly the applause breaking out of the darkness is for them. What does nature give us? What does nature take away? In the theater of beautiful and sad, even the exit signs seduce us to the next attraction.

evening-
the river smoothes the dimple
where the cormorant was

And so the moving theater makes its way to shore; all the boats falling away one by one. At one point, just before landing, I thought the oarsman asked Naoko about my presence and whether I was going to Hiroshima. Maybe I was mistaken and maybe it was my own synaptic oarsmen belligerently prodding me to another place. I was told he had not asked about me. If I had heard an avenging angel, if I were haunted by what was not there, it would not be the last such occurrence. If the skull is a magic box, it has many hidden compartments and wherever we go in this world it translates to its own design.

if anyone asks,
"Is he going to Hiroshima?"
tell them I am going
to Hiroshima,
though Hiroshima is gone.

I don't know why. This was in my head like a foolish chant.