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ZZZZZOOOOooooOO… XXXXsssssHhh… MMMmmmmMMM. MMMmmmmMMM… XXXXsssssHhh… ZZZZZOOOOooooOO.
MMMmmmmMMM… XXXXsssssHhh… ZZZZZOOOOooooOO.
(Pop, pop.) (Pop.)
ZZZZZOOOOooooOO… XXXXsssssHhh… MMMmmmmMMM.
ZZZZZOOOOooooOO… XXXXsssssHhh… MMMmmmmMMM.
The internet fizzled through ancient speakers in Lady Biwa-no-obi’s bedchamber, a perpetual dribble of noise emptying into a deep and growing pool. The pool hung over her head like a pendulum. The pendulum was still but present, threatening, growing. It was something she had learned to live with, practically an extension of her body, another part of being summoned to court. Lady Biwa-no-obi, known also as O-gin, felt a shiver creep down her ribcage like falling water. The unseasonable chill in the air seemed to snake its way into the folds of her kimono and puffify gravity, making it thick like dough, and consequently heavier; the fine silk dripped off her arms with special weight.
MMMmmmmMMM. MMMmmmmMMM. MMMmmmmMMM. (Pop.)
O-gin shuffled about her room, ran her fingers across the strings of her floor harp, but the sound was rough and bristling with secret energy. Frightened, she walked back across the room and sat in her chair. MMMmmmmMMM. With a click of the remote control, a vivid blue-and-pink technicolor image of a sakura, its blossoms fragile and high-def and dancing in an artificial breeze, flickered across the projector on the far wall.
It was Tuesday, boring Tuesday, and the Emperor was not at court.
“The devils are going to bomb the capital any day now,” Prince Kuni-no-kara-e said over the telephone. “I can smell it on the air. Gunpowder.”
O-gin waited for him to continue, to put an end to the buzzy static that filled her receiver like an angry swarm of bees, and then:
“What devils?” O-gin said. “Which devils?”
XXXXsssssHhh. (!!!) (Pop.)
“Lady Obi, the devils that would do us harm.” Prince Kuni-no-kara-e’s voice was condensed by hundreds of miles of telephone wire. O-gin thought she could hear him typing over the phone, a clattering sound that carried particularly well through the tinny receiver; which in fact carried better than their voices. She could picture the look of abject boredom in the prince’s eyes. It was his defining quality, a mark of nobility. O-gin waited for him to stop typing, but the sound continued; and, as O-gin had nothing more to say on the matter, the subject was dropped. (Snap.)(Pop.)MMMmmmmMMM.
“Tell me a story,” the prince said after the hum became oppressive. “A true story. One that has not been heard at court.”
“What kind of story?” asked O-gin.
“A story about love, and courage, and science,” the prince replied, predictably.
Though Lady Biwa-no-obi was famed in the Emperor’s court for her storytelling, at the moment, she had no mood for it. Besides, Prince Kuni-no-kara-e already knew everything he had any desire to know; and the secrets she carried, the fine details that made up her days, were of no interest to someone like him. But the prince had made the request, and she dared not refuse. She’d have to invent something: an interesting challenge, not without its dangers.
O-gin cleared her throat, and in a rich, honeyed voice, a childhood habit wasted in the crush of telephone wires, she pressed her lips to the freckled black plastic and began:
“Billions of years ago, when there was nothing but a hard, compact point of energy at the center of the universe. A flame was ignited and everything that was or would be exploded like a kernel of popcorn. You were there. I was there. Japan was there, and the other countries, and the warriors and the devils, too. The future was there, and the past. The dinosaurs and my floor harp and the steel in your Maserati. They were all there, condensed and bubbling and raw.”
The prince yawned. “And then?”
“The scraps of energy and matter raced outwards, screaming bullets, filling the empty space with fire and lava flying through the vacuum like strings of god’s spittle. Some parts cooled and hardened into planets and moons and great balls of ice; others burned bright with pure, holy energy and became stars. Some bits slowed down, but nothing stopped – there was nothing to stop it, nothing to make it stop! Everything stretched and twisted, expanding outward as fast as anything is allowed to go. The cold, stony bits at the edges are still there, moving outward, fast as a fox spirit, faster even, pushing into empty space where nothing has ever been before.”
“Space was there,” the prince interrupted.
“Space is nothing,” O-gin spoke softly, so as not to upset the prince.
“Then nothing was there too,” the prince quipped, and gave a snort. “But go on.”
“The stones are there now, alone at the peripheries of existence, all by themselves, and they’re moving so fast that not even light will catch up to them. They all share the same fate, but they have no knowledge of each other, no memory. As far as they know, they are alone in creation. They have no knowledge of us, either – of Japan, of the Earth, the universe, humanity, outside of a vague, distant memory of that first moment when everything was still unformed. We are perpetually behind them, they have no way of knowing we exist. They will never come into contact with each other, or anything else, ever again.”
There was a long silence, and for a moment, O-gin worried she had revealed the depth of her loneliness. The digital cherry blossoms faded, replaced by an aerial shot, taken from a jackhammering helicopter, of Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto. They had reconstructed the spots that had been burned in the fire with a computer, recreating an approximation of how the temple would have looked had history been kinder. O-gin fumbled with the remote, trying to turn down the noise of the helicopter blades, but the volume button had been jammed for more than a week. The sound tumbled in with the rest, into the dread of the growing pool. She gave up and threw the remote down on her pillow.
“Everybody knows that,” the prince’s voice finally pierced the holes in O-gin’s receiver. Lady Biwa-no-obi tucked the folds of her kimono under her bruised, pale knees, and took a sip of tea to soothe her throat. Suddenly she felt cold and exhausted, and wanted to sleep. She had no mood for storytelling.
The prince cleared his throat. “How does it end?’
“My prince, it is not possible for this story to have an ending. Those pieces of rock and scrap are destined to fly outward forever, surfing the crest of total silence. You and I will die, the palace will crumble into the Biwa canal, Lake Biwa will rise and swallow the land, and even the Emperor will someday take his final breath. But those stones are immortals. They will outlast the gods.”
O-gin could picture the prince’s eyes glazed over in boredom. It was just as she suspected – his mind was full. These trivial matters did not concern him.
Suddenly the ground began to shake, and she knew that the first bombs had been dropped; but in another moment the rumbling stopped, leaving O-gin to wonder if she’d imagined it. Perhaps her sash was only a little too tight. She loosened it. The whir of the ceiling fan filled the room completely. Or was it the helicopter? (Crackle.) (Zig-zag, pop.) Her head buzzed, her blackened teeth ground down to powder. The pool above her head was growing. Her breath, visible in the snowy air, rose like a chain of crystals. She was transfixed by the silence, throbbing somewhere beneath the internet crackle and the helicopter blades. Or was that the ceiling fan? (Pop, pop.) She couldn’t say. Oh, and the silence, humming whitely beneath the many layers of noise. Even the silence was adding to the pool. The ceiling fan, the helicopter blades, the dull, chattering prince. The relentless hum of technology – an endless loop of patchwork, a single, intricate wall of noise. Look! There was already snow dusting her pillows, and it was barely August. Look! The television! The ceiling fan!(Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop. Pop.) MMMmmmmMMM.
The prince babbled on about politics. O-gin struggled to pay attention.
And then she thought: If only I were a bit taller, or if I had a chair to stand on, or if the ceiling were a bit lower, or if the glare of the projector wasn’t in my eyes; or if my shoes weren’t so awkward and small, or if I knew just a bit more about the mechanics of electricity. Or if the devils really did bomb the capital, if space and time were fixed and bounded, if someone would take the time to tell me stories, if I could gaze into the past and future, if death was mortal and didn’t loom so impolitely on the horizon, if the bombs came down like falling pieces of candy, or if – she took a deep breath and composed herself. The prince’s babbling continued; his words were little shapes of sound, spread too thin for meaning, dropping like lollipop bombs in the distance, shivering stars, drip-dropping one by one into the humming pool.
If only – well. It was pointless to think about. But if only – well, perhaps then she could reach up to the ceiling and shut the fan off. Perhaps then she could turn down the volume on the projector. Maybe then she could reach up with her shamisen and bash the living hell out of the ceiling fan until it was shapeless and quivering, put her umbrella spike-first into the TV. Maybe then she could stand on her tippy-toes and pull down the cables with both hands, fill the room with electricity, set fire to her stack of kimonos, set the whole goddamn palace ablaze.
Maybe then she could finally have some peace and quiet.
Geoffrey Waring is a writer living in Seattle. He holds an MFA from Columbia University, and his work has appeared in MonkeyBicycle, Fugue, and decomP magazinE. He also translates works of Japanese fiction.