Farewell / Is a word / That must be / Like a sword /
Sensitive gyroscopes making awkward leaps bring me here, like a new sport, a new dance, feeling intrigued but trying to bring you along. I’m inviting you to meet a friend, who I wouldn’t recognize myself except the novel road curves towards his home, circles it and does a little number engaging his own qualities into their fullness. Akin to a sparring match, and actually, that’s right. The one is engaged in combat, though only to illustrate a handhold, or a sense of balance, the Wu Wei inside a fall, through the mastery he possesses. Because the matter is a sword, a handle for us both, to the battle, or closer cut to the bone, the one, my friend, who has prepared to do battle.
My friend is ronin, a creature of honor who no longer has agency to honor or to be honored except in fear. At one time, in its time, to be ronin was dishonor to a samurai but then, as the world died and the shoguns were lost into the minds of the populous, all samurai were without place. Generations later almost all samurai became ronin, wandering samurai, tacticians, generals, executioners, uncontrolled. But you might already understand, because you are close to me, just a few degrees off, and are alive in a time of secret educations, and perhaps you have seen the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura. I watch for samurai who have forgotten scars but not battles.
Come to the center of the archetype, the temple. I am talking about the place where myth overwhelms the most elegant features of histories, recorded in books and films and uncovered in antiquity by scientific means, to become a convincing, intriguing truth. Magic is the place where complexity overcomes itself to become instantly comprehensible, simplicity which shines, lantern in the briar, rosette in glass, clearly. No simple order is magic like this until seen by the magical eye, the eye like Thich Nhat Hanh’s which sees a cloud floating in this sheet of paper.
The samurai stands in the temple, stretched by many forces. Personal and impersonal forces. I see many lives layered over his. I once had a woman in my life who I called my samurai, once when she came out of her bathroom in black geometric kimono. And she was unlike any other who I called samurai, in private or in jest. My others were like the ronin, though feared and lonely with lost companions, free and dignified by their own practice, though they only chopped wood. She, tired and stiff, was still toiling under a shogun. Her days with a camera to her eye, directing the battles of other men, a gilded position with few moments of freedom. She needed to be stroked, given everything without effort, but still strictured by obedience and honor was her elastic and exalted skill. Fealty gave her art but the canvases were rolled up and sold without being seen by her concubines and peers.
Consider dignity and grace, in battle as in life, as the hallmarks of samurai in a society of poor thieves and farmers. These honed skills wielding sword and landscape in massed battle must have been like a jeweled cat fight, faceted, shimmering ghosts, machines, swarming clockwork of genius. As like a painting into life, like floods in slow motion.
But modern history records a time when the elaborate gilded education of strategy and war was cast aside. The hierarchy shifted and samurai were seen amongst the common like blades without scabbards, ferocity without meaning, agents bereft of agency. This means something to me just now. Think of armies disbanding en mass after a cataclysmic war. Always, the warriors return to villages and cities, becoming fishermen and bakers again, grandmothers and stepfathers, disappearing with their scars. I believed the empires destroyed many men, taking identities with their fall. But some lives cannot hide inside work, a job, or lose the meaning of their discipline. The lives of saints who cut their hair and build houses, who give credence with their gravity to the invisible college, the mystical order of secrecy and wisdom.
My ronin pours me a complicated drink, hot when it reaches me, and doesn’t waste a word on me in my observable mood. He serves as is appropriate and graceful. Tact finds important work at every depth of intimacy. No veil unpierced, I think. Remember the story of the ronin shaving his head and wearing monks’ robes in a practiced act of deception. He is not a sword so that when he attacks, the deceived doesn’t remember to fight instead of bowing, and staggers out bent impaled on his own plucking. No Sword. Not just snatching a sword from his opponent to then cut him, but to fight as if a sword was not important. The knife sings when there and when not. When the ronin returns we must act out the ritual of ordering and eating to its end, like deep cover, then a second drink and he joins me. I see all his knives laid out, which one he selects to discuss, clean. Not to cut, and an education has begun. He eschews credentials and so cannot bestow them, can receive no pledge, or very little at all, only contracts with other loose blades for a renegade conflict, rush the fortress again. Possibly just a trick to invite death.
When I die, the world that I lived in will continue as it was. I cannot take anything from it, but I won’t be able to sustain any more attention to it. My concerns will remain the same only less diffuse, like I’ve finished sweeping up the endless shattering glass of my living and must begin to inspect the pilings. To invite death all the way in, to the bedroom of the matter. When I die I will run out of this world like melting ice, once so still for a lifetime. What I remember is once Briar Rabbit and I, Briar Aspirin, were walking past one of those freestanding kitchens out in the wood. They appear like a multi-purpose stage set for homeless Baba Yaga. They stand empty, big windows and a big bell at the doorway to announce dinner for anyone, for Vassalissas carelessly wandering. Well, we notice this sound, quick high and punctuated, whizzing inside. And so I say: Well, well. Guess there’s something for us to look into. Rabbit hunched her shoulders and said, I can’t see anything. That’s because it was the smallest thing you’d think to look carefully for flying into a window over and over again, the little Briar Hummingbird. Thing was smash smash smashing his self while I tried waving it away. Those few snarls and arm-wavings made me ache with the fear I suppose I was after. And it didn’t work either, Hummingbird was frantic: some sad character in my life had left the door open and little humming one-track mind got lost inside. Door was still open but he hadn’t found the way out, which still makes sense if you’re not trying to think like yr neighbor or yr humankind friend. Rabbit said around to me from inside Little chest on this bird, pounding hard. I’ve never been so close to one. Or at least not where I had all the power and authority. I needed to ask what she meant. Well, see, little little scared one doesn’t know how not to die in here, and lords, if we can’t save him, we’re no better, but from here, from now, I know all Hummingbird needs to know. The way out is over there. She had a point. We set about trapping the Briar Hummingbird, just like you catch a spider, covering him with a basket, and sliding a firm surface, as is recommended, under bird in question. Only we were awfully clumsy, or I was, Rabbit calling caution, cause now Hummingbird was inactive, not caring what happened to precious leg or feather. I was frightened. Little thing’s heart is meant to be suspended in flight, like when I’ve seen him, all precision and magical appearance and lack of concern with the rest of us. This seemed dangerous, like a shark forgetting to swim or a deep thing brought up to the surface too fast. We carried him out to the little porch on the kitchen and uncovered him. Long whistle and low blowing on Hummingbird but he doesn’t stir. Rabbit says, I never imagined hummingbirds could play dead. And he was still, oooh, totally still, and all I can think is I just met him, that if I just left him alone, there’d be nothing for me to do now, now that he’s dead. Even when we see tiny subtle eye movements and the pounding chest return, Hummingbird wanted to do nothing but lie on his back. Should the Briar friends just leave the little one alone now? Without an ending to the story? With tears almost in my eyes, the pound pound pounding smash smashing mystery of loving beauty and swiftness, so much to be hurt amongst the constant death and forgetting of the sharp strange Briar world. And in an Aspirin way I just wanted to knock him around, but the Briar Wind came to us first. These two old friends made a quick arrangement, too quick for Rabbit or Aspirin eyes and he was up and gone. Just waiting. Stuck on his back like Turtle but free like anything without a terrible mind, in an instant. Well, Rabbit said, good job. On the windowsill there was a single gray feather from that battle. A willing sacrifice, playing dead to my heavy hands. Amen, said the briar and the bog.
I am only safe with samurai. Only the honed blade, the most apparently dangerous can coexist with a person such as myself. Who will sit in the glade of yellow flowers knowing brigands are coming over the hill in moments, and peacefully weave a silent daisy chain of dreams with me. And speak softly with me. I won’t rouse in time, too close to sleep, failing even to boast or brag against old cruelty. Only ronin will sit long nights with a fool, uninfected by dementia. Unangered by fantasy and obvious gullibility, almost enthralled with fatal awe.
How will I write something that will hold this magic together? (A story of episodic partners) Brilliance binds these things but will you see the sun or just my shadowy objects? Most folk tales won’t try to convince you, they’re just already true, at least how I’ve heard it.
I remember leaving the ronin, the one great and honorable ronin. It was springtime though the desert only just barely showed it to me, then or now. He saw another acolyte leaving for the wilderness, errant, another heedless attempt to escape an ineffable lesson. I had listened though, to their stories as he wove, where they gathered their armor and their manuscripts to risk never coming back, or falling in love in a way that keeps the bow headed for ever deeper seas. I thought I would always know the way back. He knew that there was no risk: once gone, never coming back. The months forget their names need telling, and the dangers are only kept to a distance with watching, simple spelling, or staying.
Throwing down your sword is also an art of war. If you have attained master of swordlessness, you will never be without a sword. The opponent’s sword is your sword. This is acting at the vanguard of the moment…
…not to grasp (the opponent’s) attempt to keep hold (of
the sword) is also swordlessness.”