Thursday, 26 December 2013


Zhen counted buttons into batches of eight as he'd been trained to do:
Tinker, Tailor,
Soldier, Sailor,
Rich Man, Poor Man,
Beggar Man, Thief.
This old English nursery rhyme his British employer said was a neat trick, which as well as helping him count would foretell what he might fall or aspire to. To Zhen this rhyme gave him no hope at all, sitting as he was on a garment factory floor sorting buttons. A menial task for a new worker, who had been stripped of his ancestral skill.
But even as a boy, he'd loved buttons. Big, small, metal, plastic, and shiny; their different hues, textures, and shapes. Back then, he had been a respected tailor's son until his father's small enterprise died as the trade was taken over. It was not possible to complete garments in the same speed as the factories, although his work was detailed and finer. 
Cost too much. Cost too much.” People began to say, “Needs to be cheaper.”
So with no business or merit for his boy to inherit, but with tailoring in his blood, the father sold Zhen to a factory owner whose sole business was making clothes. The labour was hard and the daily quotas were high. Stoppages were rare: the air always filled with the sounds of machines sewing seams.
At first, Zhen, as his name suggests, had been greatly impressed; astonished at the piles of jumpers, shirts and trousers that accumulated in a single day, but this he shook off when he saw the inferior quality of the cloth and the machine stitching. His father, and likewise his grandfather, would not have been content to give these to peasants.
Zhen questioned the way these clothes were being made and earned himself more tasks of counting. His employer said he would be sure to fall to the lowest rung of the rhyme: a beggar and thief. Zhen on hearing these words, instead of being deterred, was inspired to do exactly that. He begged and stole rags of cloth, sweeping them off the factory floor and bundling them under his tunic. He often walked out the factory door with his abdomen distended, but the foreman not being quick in thought or youth, dared not challenge Zhen's alteration in physique or the taking of property since verbal warnings, firings, and company medicals meant employer grumblings and extra paperwork. At the end of a long day, all the foreman wanted to do was go home to his wife, smoke and drink.
But for Zhen, working late into the night was the start of it. In a corner of his candlelit shared hostel room he repeatedly threaded his needle. Pushing and pulling the needle and its thread in and out, in and out, of different fabric. There was never enough of the wasted cloth in one colour or pattern and so he patched his collected scraps together. Floral squares and birds caged in rectangles; cranes and rivers; moons and pagodas; emperors and concubines; and Chinese characters. His fingers were nimble, his stitches were neat, and he'd soon completed his first patchwork jacket, but quickly began work on the next.
During this time, Zhen's thieving extended to buttons, zips, clasps and food. He begged from the poor, he stole from the rich, he made deals with soldiers and sailors.
He lived to reclaim his good family name: Hui as the tailor of emperors.
*With thanks to Brandon W Jones for inspiring me to stitch this piece together. Brandon W Jones is the author of All Woman and Springtime.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Fool Moon

There was once a Japanese monkey who by trade was a shrewd businessman. In business, he took calculated risks, but at night he was an impulsive gambler. He played cards in basements and bars, or wined and dined wealthy clients at casinos. If he got bored, he studied the odds and placed bets on horses and dogs. Whatever the risk, he was always successful.
His companies flourished and his wealth grew, as did the card-playing and drinking. He placed higher stakes and downed more shots, yet he never lost big or once wrote an I.O.U. Amazingly, even when he was hung-over he still made lucrative deals, and so it appeared the Japanese gods of fortune favoured his habits.
He was entirely Westernised. Living a Japanese Americanised life was simply better. He had the most obedient Japanese wife and the best cuts of meat money could buy. Nothing said wealth like eating red meat and each year his tailored suits went up a size. He quickly turned into a crimson-faced, sweaty-skinned baboon Sumo Wrestler, but to him this only affirmed he was at the peak of his power. People were alarmed by his largeness and virulent temper. It would not do to upset him, which meant that he was able to outmanoeuvre more biddable associates and with his huge appetite gobble up ailing companies as if they were his favourite premium steaks and beef burgers. He got carried away with outrageous business plans, mergers and takeovers. Nobody ever said NO to Baboon-san.
As he got richer, his corporation ran without him, but fat as he was in flesh and profits there was one item he wanted which could not be so easily acquired. His ambitions filled, he dreamt every night about capturing it, and determined that one day he would have it. The difficulty was there was nobody he could schmooze to obtain the rights to it. The item had never been up for sale and the sky was apparently its permanent home.
The moon was round and solid like the biggest, most valuable gold coin. Astronauts said its surface was scarred, but Baboon-san would not believe it. To him, this golden coin was smooth and perfect, so he told the whole world he would be the first Japanese monkey to bankroll the moon and stamp his name on it. It would soon be a local currency. He would crew rockets to the moon and bring back large slices of it. In the papers, the headlines screamed BAKA! FOOL! And business advisers said, “Baboon-san, Baboon-san, it's just not possible!”
Unfortunately the critics were proved right for Baboon-san refused to slim and would not launch a rocket if he was not manning it. Why should he have to undo his years of ballooning into wealth? Wasn't being thin what held the East back? No, it would be even more of a disgrace to return to that.
But he still thought the moon was attainable, and drunkenly bragged about Plan B to a gambling pal: he was going to captain a ship all the way there and bring the moon back in a bucket. His new theory was that if he couldn't fly to the sky he would set sail in it. This, he said, was achievable, and toasted his genius with a line of whisky shots. Half-seas-over, he stumbled out of the bar and saw the moon in a deep and quiet pond. His alcohol-soaked brain assumed the gods had turned the world upside down so he could finally capture the moon. He didn't hesitate, he dived into the cool, calm pond and instantly drowned.
His cruel lesson is now taught to aspiring Japanese businessmen: Drink to foolish dreams, but don't try to capture them unless you're sober.
*My version of a Japanese fairy tale as told in My Year Of Meats by Ruth Ozeki

Thursday, 12 December 2013


I wasn't always metal-bound. One night it just happened. I was drifting off into the land of nod and then I couldn't move. Literally. My limbs were pinned down, my vocal cords cut and my voice stolen. Frozen, nevertheless I tried to fight this strange sensation. My mind racing with scared thoughts, why can't I move? WHY CAN'T I MOVE? Being unable to call out was far worse for that's what I've always done in sleeping nightmares, even though when you live alone nobody is there to hear them. I couldn't even utter a squeak, yet lying there I made it my goal to say “NO!” I knew this one word would stop whatever this was, bring a halt to proceedings. I would not allow the watchful presence I felt in the room to pull me into this dark, dead sleep.
Somehow, in my fright I forced no out nonoNoNoNONO! A string of them from silent to soft to a boom. Then I found my limbs and body had been miraculously freed from their paralytic state. Bewildered, I immediately reached for the switch on the bedside lamp and flooded the room with pure light. All clear. Everything was still in its natural place and nothing was there that shouldn't be there, even the shadows were right.
Cold, clammy fear. Now I was terrified to attempt to go back to sleep. What if it happened again? What I couldn't get myself out of it? For the rest of the night, I slept with the bedside light on in an unrelieved stop-start doze, and when in the morning I came fully to I wasn't sure if I'd imagined it.
Tired the next day, I struggled to think what to make of it? Then it occurred again and again and again...
But with irregularity. Every couple of months, and each time I managed to prevent myself from being dragged into the black void. What did it want with me? I told myself the next time I'd let myself go, enter it, but the shadow always snuck up and frightened me. It also moved to the daytime too so if I tried to catch some zzzzs, I felt the pull instantly. A dead feeling would come over me; my body was heavy and my mind was a dead weight. Defending myself from these overwhelming effects was futile, I had to head straight back to bed and pull the covers over me. Once there, the experience would be different. I was drawn into a comatose state and a vivid 3D world of hallucination. So real, I could see, feel, touch, hear, smell, and taste it.
There were gospel choirs, sounds of drumming, and marching bands; labyrinths with openings, no exits, and corridors; and insects. Conversations with people I'd never met before that I really thought had taken place. Involved, I was not scared, but the part where I tried to wake up was again a nightmare. Completely coming to, and staying that way, was a tremendous effort. My mind had to fight to regain control until the NONONOs roared out of me, and the after-effects were drug-like. The day starts over as if I'm just overtired or hungover. I rub my bleary eyes and splash my face with tepid water.
The daytime phenomenon is a curiosity. It's the nights that terrify me...
Research tells me it's a form of sleep paralysis, but that hasn't reassured me. No article has described it perfectly, until recently when a novel bizarrely turned its focus to that same dark shadow. Metal-binding, as it's known, is common in Tokyo, which the teenager narrator says is when you wake up in the middle of the night and can't move. A spirit sits on your chest and you hear voices like angry demons, or sometimes while you lying there your body floats away. Metal-bound: rigid like a steel rod.
The fear hasn't gone, but at least I know in Japanese it's kanashibari.

*As revealed in A Tale For The Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Thursday, 5 December 2013


Some words have a special power. Words that are emotionally charged, that speak of love or are sharp and hurt and pierce your heart like a knife. Mercy believed spirits lived inside these and, by chance, she discovered the Japanese did too. They called it kotodama. Mercy's word spirits however only gave her these words as warnings: NO! DON'T! STOP! Especially when she had failed to listen to her intuition or had gone against her instincts. It was the last curtain call before she could back out, and even so she still sometimes thought she knew better.
These words retained their special power, but Mercy received these as aftershocks, low underground rumbles, and not as she once did with the full impact of an earthquake or a tsunami. She was unmoved, unruffled. Her seas stayed calm with only a few ripples. She barely paused in her thoughts or in her activities. Her inner tide washed the word up and took it straight back out where it rejoined the word ocean; in a low tide, it laid among other sea rubbish, in a jumble of forgotten CDs and unworn clothes, while scavenging gulls perched or shat on it. She had grown used to ignoring such messages, regularly bottling these words and their power-giving spirits.
But that was before she knew her sands of time were running out...
Mercy wasn't young, in her prime, or elderly. She was in-between one, and years before the other. Her youth had flown and her mind had grown, but was not quite mature enough. She had blocked ideas, given in to her fears, written down her hopes and dreams and scrolled them up tight in a Promise Box. This she placed on the junk beach with the messages in glass bottles, then she had jumped into her yellow canoe and paddled off, yelling “Goodbye kotadama!” And felt very satisfied when the mountains echoed these words back at her.
She wasted precious years of her life in limbo, drifting in her canoe on a mythical tide. Mercy wrongly thought this life was safer because in the city she sailed on time: borrowed time, wasted time, too much time, not enough time... The city's sea was swallowed up in a time fog. People forgot who they were, where they were, how they got here and where they were going. Mercy too was sucked into this oblivion. Days, weeks and months were all routine; there were no gaps in the fog for dreams. The city's people believed their sea went on for eternity, as did life and time.
This is true, but their perception was screwed up. The passing of time is not important, it's if you're present in it: from moment to moment. Mercy was not. Her mind raced the minutes and hours, it forged ahead without rest. She wasn't happy or unhappy, she was lost. The life she led had no promise or meaning, and for each moment she was not present, she paid a grain of sand.
As the grains trickled Mercy's spirits grew low and her energy dwindled, and still she told herself it was not the right time, the right moment to live the life she wanted. It was too risky to give the city up, even though her seas were permanently unsettled. She was the boulder the waves tried to topple over. They crashed against her, wearing her hard surface down until one morning she awoke on a deserted, but familiar island with a green glass bottle and a box wrapped in a deep purple cloth beside her. She removed the bottle's cork and unfurled the paper: NOW!
Mercy felt herself surge as she read the word, she was finally HERE, present. She knew what she had to do. NOW! She unwrapped the cloth from her old Promise Box and claimed her abandoned treasure.

*Inspired by Ruth Ozeki's A Tale For The Time Being