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Friday, Nov. 17, 2000

BILINGUAL

A song that stirred the music of the heart


By TOSHIMI HORIUCHI

The season was far advanced when Etoile Nord came to Kyoto to study at a certain university.

The sound of temple bells stretched thinly across the day and five-storied pagodas bathed in the setting sun. Crimson leaves fluttered down from the maple trees and shadows rustled among the fallen leaves. Cool air hung fragrant with chrysanthemum. Leaves of the gingko flamed gold.

Nine days passed. Late one afternoon when Etoile returned to his room he found a little insect sitting on the desk by his window.

"How do you do?" said Etoile softly.

The insect bowed slightly with a smile on her face. He put a yellow handkerchief on the corner of his desk for her to sit comfortably on. After a time of thoughtful consideration he named the insect "Bell."

On Sundays Etoile played with Bell, talking to her, stroking her cheeks and rubbing her back.

When in good humor, Bell looked at Etoile with her head to one side; when displeased, she looked at him with her head to the other side. She gave comfort to his heart, which lit up a lamp of music within him.

One morning Etoile awoke to find Bell gone from the corner of the desk. He searched the room for her, crawling on the floor, rummaging in the drawers, fumbling about in his pockets, investigating the wastebasket, turning over the bedding -- all in vain. Her disappearance weighed heavily on Etoile's mind.

That evening he hurried back to his room but Bell was nowhere to be found. Outside the window lightning flashed and a heron screeched in the deepening darkness.

The next day, Etoile awoke to hear the temple bell riging in the rain. Still Bell was nowhere to be found. He could hardly resist the impulse to abandon the heaviness of space and time.

When the afternoon sky cleared, Etoile went to the river. Whenever he was lonely he strolled along its shore. No human figure beside his own walked along the shore that day. Over the river hung clusters of leaden clouds. The air felt chilly. But somehow he sensed his loneliness melting away like snowflakes falling upon the water.

Late that night Etoile returned to his room and turned on the light. "Oh!" he cried. Bell was on the yellow handkerchief.

"Where have you been, dear?" he said tenderly. Bell moved her hands as quickly as she could. He understood that was her way of expressing her apology. "Where is your door?" he inquired gently. She sat still and silent -- in agony, he thought.

After a long search Etoile found her door, a small knothole. In haste he filled it up with a piece of cloth and tape. Brightness returned to his heart.

Sitting atop his shoulder, Bell regarded a letter Etoile was writing to his family. At long last, the morning sun wiped the frost from the withering grass which held the last songs of insects.

Bell's love of basking in the sun grew. She often dozed in her seat on the window. She disliked walking about and began to lose her hearing. Her eyesight failed and at night she showed signs of silent longing. Worry increased in Etoile's mind.

One midnight he awoke to a mysterious song filling his room. For a moment he couldn't believe his eyes and ears as Bell sang in a tremor on the yellow handkerchief.

Etoile paid close attention to Bell's song -- swelling into the highest tone, fading into the lowest, rising into the sweetest, sinking into the saddest.

Just before the stars dimmed, Bell stopped singing. She lay tired out on the yellow handkerchief and stared with vacant eyes into the bluing sky outside the window.

"What made her sing so sweetly, so sadly?" Etoile wondered. This question sharpened his thought that:

a flea or a mosquito has nothing but desire to eat human blood; but such an insect as Bell has a mysterious soul that stirs the human heart.

Later one snowy evening, Etoile returned to his room and turned on the light. Bell was lying on the desk. She seemed to be sleeping.

With cold biting at his heart, Etoile softly covered her with a handkerchief. He turned up the gas heater, had a cup of coffee and watched her sleeping face. The air warmed. The sound of falling snow silenced the night.

Ten minutes passed. Bell lay still. Twenty minutes passed. Bell was motionless. Etoile touched her cheek with his fingertip. It was cold. Her body was frozen.

The music in Etoile's heart broke into dissonance, into pieces, and scattered like bits of frost across the starless night.

Toshimi Horiuchi is the author of many books including "Minnesota Songs," "Journey to the Fire Flower" and "Synesthesia in Haiku and Other Essays." His essays that appeared on this page have recently been translated into Japanese and compiled into a book, titled "Atarashii Fuga no Sekai (A New Poetic World to Create a Cozy Home for the Soul)," from Liber Press, Tokyo.


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