For me, there is only the traveling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length, and there I travel, looking, looking breathlessly ...
The Young Master
In the depth of winter, I finally learned that there was within me an invincible summer.
If the sky can crack
there must be some way back
to love and all we love …
Yaeko Mitsaki won her first national violin contest at the age of nine. Competing against hundreds of other students, some twice her age and older, her rendition of L.V. Beethoven’s Violin Romance No. 2 on the stage of Tokyo’s Meiji Park Amphitheatre in front of ten thousand stunned patrons left them, at least initially, in astonished silence as she completed its final, ardent movement. But that silence didn’t last long: a great noise, like an approaching avalanche, grew in volume with each passing second, until it drowned out everything else in the amphitheatre. The crowd was on their feet, vigorously applauding the pretty young girl before them. Yaeko Mitsaki blushed furiously in response, looking resolutely at her violin instead of at the audience, her smile nervous and faltering.
Shortly thereafter, critics began hailing Yaeko Mitsaki as “the Young Master,” writing that her delicate sense of nuance and emotion was like that of a “broken-hearted butterfly alighting on a spring rose in Heaven’s very garden,” her intensity a “supernova exploding amid the toneless gray of banality.” An extremely shy, soft-spoken girl, “the Young Master” utterly transformed on stage. Her eyes ablaze with passion, she played the violin as if it were an extension of her very being, as if it were her only means of true expression—as if each piece, each movement, each note would be her very last. All other times, it seemed, she stayed completely silent, her eyes kept down and away from the many admiring glances of strangers. After several performances broadcast live on Japanese national television shortly after the contest, it became almost impossible to avoid those stares. Yaeko Mitsaki fan clubs began springing up everywhere, along with many devoted fanzines and websites. Requests for interviews constantly poured in, as well as a burgeoning crowd of autograph seekers, who seemed to follow the Young Master’s every movement, who knew exactly where she was going to appear and when. On her tenth birthday her parents, both obscure civil engineers working for the Japanese government, signed their daughter to a multimillion-dollar recording contract, in addition to twenty international tour dates with the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra. Despite the general decline in popularity of classical music, Yaeko Mitsaki’s performances were regularly featured on pop music stations, her appearances sold out weeks in advance. And though Yaeko was painfully shy, she still sat through many interviews, becoming very gradually more comfortable with them, with one well-known interviewer, famous for gleefully tearing up big television and film stars on the set of his show, beaming at her at the interview’s end, completely won over by her, calling her “a delightful, supremely gifted wonder.” Yaeko Mitsaki posters were doing a brisk business in music stores, the bestselling of them featuring a close-up of the Young Master, her bright eyes wide and intense with zeal as she played in a recent performance in
Surrounding her were other great violinists throughout history: Viotti, Spohr,
Paganini, De Beriot, Bull, Bell.
The caption at the poster’s bottom read: FIDDLING WITH ETERNITY.
A year later, Izumi Ishikawa, preeminent critic for Classical Essence magazine, scheduled an interview, his first, with Yaeko in advance of her latest release, a compendium of famous violin solos from the last three centuries titled Sacred Solos by Yaeko Mitsaki. Izumi arrived at the Mitsaki home half an hour early. The sounds of Yaeko’s violin could be heard coming from an unseen room adjacent to where he was seated with her parents in their sitting room. As Izumi Ishikawa made polite conversation with them, his attention kept turning to the music flowing from behind the closed door nearby. Though muffled somewhat, the music was still surprisingly clear. The melody was expansive yet innocent, driving yet unassuming, simple yet profoundly eloquent. As he listened, increasingly torn from making good social graces and holding up his end of the conversation, Izumi found himself swept away by Yaeko’s playing…. He imagined a great forest at twilight, as seen from a high cliffside, his heart delighting at the rich, muted colors: the dome of softening blue sky above, sketched patchy white here and there; the whisper of green-black pine below as the invisible life within it settled for sleep…. Yaeko’s inspired playing seemed to coax him into feeling that an entire orchestra was accompanying her: he could “hear” the other strings, the horns, the woodwinds, the percussion; he could sense exactly where they’d come in, what they would play. It shocked him then: he could not imagine existence without this glorious melody in it, as if it had always been there, as if it were a singular force of existence itself: a physical law, like gravity…. His mind felt suddenly scrambled as it reasserted itself in a strenuous effort to identify the composer.
Later, as Yaeko sat with her parents to begin the interview, Izumi asked her gently, “That was very, very beautiful, Yaeko. Who was it? Ludwig? Amadeus? Bach? Some obscure work by Vivaldi? Surely not Handel or Schubert or Mendelssohn…. It seems incredible, but I am not at all familiar with the composer.”
Yaeko, blushing and staring at her knees, grinned shyly. She shrugged very slightly, but did not answer. Her father, smiling and nodding proudly while glancing at her, said, “She is too modest, Mr. Ishikawa. It is hers. She tells us it is nearly completed. She has been working on it for over three years now.”
The hairs on the back of his neck came to life, stood on end. His background, experience, and credentials had granted him access to the finest classical musicians in the world for thirty-five years, but in all that time he had never heard anything—anything—like that.
His interview, which ran in the August 2002 issue of Classical Essence magazine, featured the writing of a man never before prone to effusive praise of any kind, but which included this passage as part of its conclusion:
It happens only a scant handful of times every two or three centuries or so: the natural but very rare confluence of supreme creative talent, a supportive, disciplined, uplifting environment, great patience and resolve, an intense desire to excel, and the adequate niche in time or, for the purposes of our analogy, vessel, into which all these may flow together like a pure spring river, to mix completely and gel—not into something hard and unyielding, but alive, free, simple, supple—and astonishingly brilliant. Legend has it Mozart learned to compose by the age of five; Mendelssohn had committed all of Beethoven’s symphonies to memory by age eight; and Menuhin, that most brilliant of the previous century’s violinists, performed Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole when he also was but eight. We are blessed that just such a vessel has filled to overflowing in our own time, and has given us this angel. But perhaps I should back up: for supreme talent, the right environment, along with the remaining (and very necessary) factors coming together at a propitious moment in time are clearly not enough. These hard to find—and even harder to nurture—ingredients need one more to catalyze the whole mixture, and that last ingredient is love. Observe, if you will: for all are present here, assimilating perfectly, and in perfect measure each. My advice: stand back from the beaker! For if you have been dazzled thus far, you haven’t seen—or heard—anything yet….
Three weeks after Izumi Ishikawa’s piece was published, he quit his lifelong career as a classical music journalist and returned to the Mitsaki home, asking the Young Master’s parents if he could be her manager. He would do it for free, he told them: he had enough money to last him comfortably the rest of his life: he had pursued musical perfection for nearly four decades, and now that he had glimpsed it only wished to help nurture and protect it. After meeting with Yaeko’s young teacher, Amon Fujiwara, Izumi was hired on the spot, and for nearly double what he had made as managing editor and senior staff writer for Classical Essence magazine.
In early December of 2002 Sacred Solos by Yaeko Mitsaki, already a million-seller in
was nominated for four Grammy Awards, including Best Album of the Year and Best
Artist of the Year. Japanese newspapers exploded with the news, splashing
Yaeko’s picture across the front page, complete with her many accomplishments
and biography. Japanese music critics endlessly broke down Yaeko’s competition,
with an obvious and proud bias, as much as pronouncing Yaeko the winner in each
of the categories she was selected, stating that any other outcome would be a
travesty of justice and mark the awards ceremony as an outright fraud. Yaeko
had just returned from another international tour, visiting such places as Moscow, Russia,
and , where she met the
leaders of both countries, both of whom seemed to hold her in the same
reverence as her most enthusiastic fans back home. Johannesburg, South Africa
In early January, Yaeko spent a morning on the set of the popular Saturday children’s program “Roxy and Soxy,” where she played a short two-minute ditty by Joseph Hadyn after being interviewed by the show’s three young hosts. Then she patiently signed autographs, surrounded by a hundred kids, all wielding pen and paper. Izumi stood patiently and protectively over her shoulder, smiling tenderly. After a magical afternoon at a local amusement park, Izumi whisked Yaeko away to mid-town
Tokyo for an appearance at Youth Spectrum
Superstars, where she was to accept an award at their annual ceremony that
evening. Youth Spectrum Superstars was a nonprofit organization dedicated to
providing disadvantaged or troubled youth shining, same-age examples of
excellence and education. It was an organization Yaeko took great delight
participating in, as she always felt unpressured and unhurried while working
under their kindly auspices. She spent the rest of the day there, first at the
program’s school, where she sat with ten-year-olds, showing them the basics of
violin; and then at the awards ceremony itself, where the audience gave her a
standing ovation as she shyly hefted the heavy gold trophy the emcee had
presented to her. Yaeko blushed characteristically as cameras flashed in
staccato bursts of brilliance all around her. Izumi then ushered her and her
teacher out of the building and into a waiting limousine, where her beaming
parents awaited. They kissed her and held her close, she remembered….
But that wasn’t what Yaeko remembered most of all. Yaeko would never forget Izumi’s eyes as she sat in the limo and he pulled her into a proud, joyful embrace as well. Eyes so full of joy, so full of pride—but, suddenly, fear too: a veil of terror that burrowed straight into her heart and held her fast in its icy grip. It lasted only half a moment, but it was a whisper of time so potent she knew it would stay with her the rest of her life. Her hands balled convulsively in his palms, and in the very next instant he pulled her close again, as if to hide that terror from her. He whispered into her ear: “Never mind an old man, my dear …” He pulled back, grasping her shoulders, as if testing them for heft and durability; he gently cupped her face in one hand, smiling wistfully. Yaeko’s heart was beating very rapidly now, but in the next moment her parents had latched back onto her and the moment had passed, as a nightmare passes with waking. Izumi’s eyes, however, remained bright with an alien wonder mixed with something she had never seen before. It was difficult to peer into them as she had with ease countless times in the past. The limousine was off, and then Yaeko was relaxing with the four people she enjoyed most in the world … and now Izumi’s reserved, dignified, and serene countenance had returned, making her feel better. Her day had been perfect, and now she could enjoy the rest of the evening with the people she loved most in the world.
These four adults were her best friends. In truth, she preferred the company of these individuals to that of her few same-age friends. She found her greatest joy simply being among them, especially when they were all together like this. They enjoyed each other’s company, laughing easily and often with one another; they never indulged in petty games of power or one-upmanship; they refused to offer intimate details of her life or their own to the public, and—best of all—they absolutely refused to treat her like some prima donna by pampering and fawning over her. Yaeko knew if she was the violinist in this quintet, that these four she cherished so much were chairing equally important instruments, each essential to the composition’s ultimate perfection; that without even one of them the piece would fail utterly, would be incomplete and meaningless.
As the limousine gathered speed, Yaeko glanced up at Izumi. The city of
tore out of sight from behind his head, as though he were advancing towards her
from a kaleidoscopic sea of glittering neon gems. He wore a warm smile on his
face now; and she could hear over the rising crescendo of the limo’s engine
that he was humming her melody…. Her mother grasped her hand in both of hers….
Yaeko remembered inhaling then—it felt suddenly quite intensely wonderful, as
though she was breathing with her entire being, as though the earth had just
given her its very lungs…. She turned, smiling widely with delight at her
mother, ready to share this amazing feeling—but was abruptly blinded by twin
yellow stars that were growing brighter and larger by the nanosecond just past
her mother’s head, beyond the tinted window of the limousine. The two stars
rushed towards her with awful speed, splitting apart, wider and wider, as if
thrown at her by an angry god. Yaeko jerked away, shrieking—Izumi’s eyes were screwed shut! —Beside
her, her mother screamed in terror—the limousine lurched violently
sideways—agony flashed in her hips—
It felt as though she was fighting for oxygen under hundreds of miles of soggy woolen blankets. She clawed her way upward, struggling for air, for light: but the blankets were far too many, were too heavy, were too thick … and now she could feel herself fatiguing. She fought blind, mindless panic: her lungs burned for air; her eyelids felt as though they had been stretched to the point of tearing in half and then nailed to her cheeks. She languished in total darkness. Her mind seemed unable to focus, to make sense of what was happening…. And now there were disjointed voices: they filtered down through the miles of blankets, muffled and impossible to hear clearly; and though she couldn’t completely understand them—some seemed total gibberish, like a language she knew she had heard before but could not identify now—others seemed to make a sort of random, distant sense:
“The will is quite clear; we have no choice….”
—(sounds of crying and wailing)—
“Who the hell thought of this?”
“... travesty … —challenged in court—”
“— (gibberish for a long time) —”
“… better served in
Lausanne … much better care … can’t believe
this—he actually thought of it …”
“… damage is too great, no … I’m so sorry … she may never wake up—”
“… she’ll never walk again, certainly not …”
“It’s a miracle she survived at all; let’s just be thankful for that….”
—(more sounds of crying) —
“—(gibberish and crying) —”
The leaden blankets and the desperate efforts to breathe were becoming too much, too much…. The blankets seemed to pull at her ankles thickly, claiming her as their own. She fought and thrashed against them, but couldn’t move—couldn’t breathe! … It felt as if she had been encased in cement and tossed into deep water. She was drowning, sinking rapidly; she felt herself slipping back into that blackness … she was gasping, she was losing consciousness …
More noises, but clearer this time, as if the blankets had suddenly thinned ...
A steady monotone beeping …
The sounds of—chirping birds? …
The sounds of even, deep breathing, very close by …
The noise of approaching footsteps, along with the clatter of something like a thin tray held against a moving body … a tray carrying metal …
A long, quiet moment. Then: a sudden sharp twinge in her bottom. She went to slap it away, and found she could not: to her startled horror, she discovered she had no hands or arms to use. Nor could she turn or look up or down or run…. She was disembodied! The pain in her bottom blossomed severely, unbearably—
—She cried out—
She heard a response almost immediately—a woman’s voice, unfamiliar, with an odd accent:
“Yaeko? Yaeko? Come on, baby girl—come on … come back … we miss you. Come on, Yaeko—fight! Fight your way back….”
But the leaden blankets were suddenly and maddeningly thicker—and growing more so with each passing second. She tried crying out again, the pain beyond human endurance, but it was as if the blankets knew she was going to try and doubled in weight over her. She felt desperate for air; she heaved mindlessly for a sip of it…. But she was sinking again, she felt herself falling back into the bottomless void, hiccupping agonizingly—
The blankets were gone ... but the inky gloom surrounding her remained. She felt as though she was floating now: the sensation was so freeing, so open and tranquil that she cried in joy. The blankets were gone: and she knew in that moment, and with a cold, crystalline certainty, that she had to leave the darkness behind as well or risk them coming back—and for good.
She could move! But—she had no idea how to leave this lightless hell, which way to—to swim? —in order to escape it. For several moments her mind froze with complete panic: with no way of knowing which way to go, how could she escape? The memories of distant voices, of a woman urging her to “come back,” flooded into her mind. But where was she to “come back” from? Wasn’t she already here? Where was “here”? She tried imagining the woman’s voice again. Did it come from an identifiable place, a direction perhaps, beyond this blackness? If so, then she could point herself that way and—swim? —towards it! But try as she might, the memory was too hazy, too distant for her to pinpoint any direction in which to orient herself, as if that voice had been diluted and thinned by a huge, entirely unexperienced swath of time. Fighting a biting despondency, she started swimming (or what felt like swimming) through the sightless void. And then it occurred to her that the reason she couldn’t see was because her eyes were closed!
But she was unable to open them! As before (and as she now was vaguely recalling) her eyes felt nailed shut. She tried reaching for them again—but it became clear: she had no hands to use in order to do so! She had no arms, no legs, nothing! She was “swimming” with her mind alone, and blindly, in a total void, and completely isolated. The thought fueled her growing panic, which sparked long moments of resigned hopelessness, which caused further writhing mentations that felt oddly enough like swimming.
She did not know how long she persisted at this. Days, perhaps. There was no way of knowing. She was alone in her own universe, with her mind at its outer boundaries, and nothing inside but the feeling of death, of staggering loss. She was not hungry or thirsty; she did not need to go to the bathroom. There was only this—this empty, lonely caliginosity …
—Izumi’s eyes were shut tightly—
—There were bright lights coming towards us—there was the sound of screaming—my screaming—Mother’s screaming—
—There was pain—great pain—and then … this. This. But what is this? Why can’t I understand? Why can’t I hear anything, see anything? Where is Amon?—he was sitting to my left … And where is Father? —
She cried out for them. She cried for them until her head pounded with the effort and her panic left her stupid with fear for long, echoing stretches of deserted time. She knew in her moments of lucidity, which were becoming fewer and stretched more distantly from one another, that she was losing her mind—the last thing she had.
Or—or was it?
But the panic gripped her again, and the eternal blackness washed over her, claiming ever more of her mind, dyeing it darker and darker, just like it. It was infinitely patient, like the deepest ocean. Eventually, there would be nothing more to claim. She’d never be found….
When she came out of the panic—days? weeks? —later she nearly missed the thought, which at this point was little more than a vague impression to her:
Was her mind all she had left?
It had taken her entire will to give that impression language, to even frame it as a question. The blackness was all she knew now: there were only two things in this universe: it and her. And now that blackness was but one answer away from achieving total unity and eliminating forever that which considered herself separate from it. She knew then she had no choice but to discover the answer, for she knew there was no other way to escape it. She knew she could not lie to herself: the lightless void wanted that most of all. The lie would be its own madness, its own defeat. She would have to look into herself with a brutal honesty that offered no guarantees whatsoever and could in fact be her end. With all her will, with all her concentration, she focused.
Was she her mind? Was that all she was? Was there nothing more that defined her, who she was, who she could be? Was there nothing apart from that that could offer her release, liberation?
There was something pricking at her phantom heart, at her unreachable midsection: a feeling of ecstasy mixed with driving determination … it was an old feeling, she knew, but strangely alien now, as if she had suffered some shock that had jarred it loose from her.
Was that what you intended to do, O Angry God, when you threw those twin lights at me? Was that why Izumi had closed his eyes—to avoid your punishment, to save his soul?
His soul …
And then she knew. There it was: that sensation deep, deep within her, at the very bottom of her being. She could not touch it, but she knew that it had saved her.
She couldn’t be just a mind, just useless swimming in eternal darkness. There was light to be found, but it would never be discovered in this pitiless blackness: she would have to create it herself. And she knew that she had done that many times in the past—even though she couldn’t remember just how she had. But it was there—no, not out there—but … but … in here. In here.
There was a lifetime behind her—her lifetime. There had to be. What did she do with her life? Surely it hadn’t been spent here, not all of it …
And then it came to her.
She remembered reaching for that light as a very young girl, and feeling astonished when she discovered she was reaching for something crafted from her very spirit. When she touched it, her spine tingled with joy, as though she was connecting to something that had been split apart from her, now rediscovered and reclaimed. She grabbed it, knowing almost instinctively how to get it to sing for her, how to get it to speak the unutterable sentences that whispered to her from her soul. It would not take long, she knew, before she could tease those whispers out from the strings, from the fine wood, from the bow, from the inexpressible joy she felt every time she lifted it, every time she went to play it.
No, she was not just her mind. She was much, much more. Infinitely more. And within that joy was a melody, more beautiful than all the rest, that had waited for eternity to speak to the world through her and was simply waiting for her to learn its language, to learn how to speak it.... She had listened to that melody, over and over again, in the open meadows of her spirit, as she slept, as she played with friends, as she watched the birds above her house, as her mother held her close. She listened and grappled with its deceptive simplicity; she struggled to understand its nature. She practiced and practiced and practiced, and then practiced more. That very melody sang triumphantly to her now: deceptive simplicity veiled behind the interlacing tones of stunning complexity. A melody powerful enough to light her way and take her from this place of deathly darkness.
And then it came to her. She was the music. The music was she. And just like that she was no longer blind, her eyes no longer nailed shut. She had sight, as if her victory over her own panic had opened them. She felt herself rising through the darkness, floating upward like a buoy released from the very bottom of the ocean. There was light above, a deep twilit blue … she passed into it, passed through it. The melody transported her towards freedom; it would always be this way; she could save herself with her music ...
She could save the world, too.
She floated to the surface of what she knew now to be a sea, one many, many miles from her home. Despite that, she knew she was safe, totally safe, from harm. The melody had saved her. She could close her eyes without fear and sleep. She would sleep; and when she awoke, the melody told her, she would open her eyes fully to face a challenge beyond any which she could conceive. The melody would go away again—and she’d have to discover it—again: she knew somehow she would not remember this infinitely serene moment in time or her heroic struggle to get here. For now she could simply rest, could breathe, finally free of the suffocating blankets, free of the blindness.
And with that realization the incredible sensation came back—as if she could breathe forever.
Yaeko Mitsaki was the melody, and now the melody could breathe again … and the wisps of white cloud floating miles above her were perfect in their disinterested amusement of the little girl floating tranquilly below them.