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 ...
Painting With Sound
Painting With Sound
Yaeko didn’t listen to music; she didn’t turn on the television propped overhead in the corner; she didn’t read. As May crawled into June her strength slowly began to return to her. She approached her physical therapy like a soldier, exercising with a regimented fury that astonished the hospital staff. She had never tried pull-ups before, had never even desired to try them. Now they were an obsession. With her legs little more than dead weight and dangling like rubbery mozzarella sticks beneath her, she struggled to complete even one pull-up for what felt like an eternity of trying. The many broken bones she had suffered, bones now healed—the ones that still held feeling, that is—creaked and twinged with agony. She’d cry out. The therapist and nurse would come rushing to help; she’d curse fiercely at both to stay away. When she failed to pull her chin above the bar even once, she’d swear again, tears streaming down her reddened face. Then she’d slap their helping hands away and angrily try again. And again. And again … until her muscles fatigued totally and she could feel nothing but a helpless numbness throb incoherently throughout her body. When she finally achieved her first pull-up, instead of feeling victorious, she felt even more rage course through her—because she could not yet complete two. When two became possible, she swore viciously over her shoulder at the nurse, who was joyously clapping at Yaeko’s new benchmark, now lowering her hands in stages, her eyes wide with shock. The physical therapist next to the nurse merely raised his eyebrows and looked away, suppressing a grin, shaking his head slightly.
Yaeko attended classes with other patients with similar disabilities, most of them her age or close to it. She made no friends at these classes, though she tried to be friendly to everyone there. She tried. But it came immediately apparent that she had another glaring disability: she was not fluent in French or English—not even close. For a long time this made her hate these classes until the psychiatrist, realizing how this need, this obvious gap, had been completely overlooked, arranged for private lessons in both languages, to take place after her physical therapy. But even with this gap filled, Yaeko preferred to work alone whenever possible, to do things on her own. It had always been so with her, this stubborn independent streak.
Now that streak was magnified a hundredfold. The wheelchair she was confined to felt like a rolling prison, her own personal carriage to nowhere. She often dreamed of a great highway, an infinite stretch of road, one reaching into lands full of magic and castles made of crystal and peopled with luminous beings that could release her from her permanent confinement. She’d wheel desperately along this road, trying to gain those lands, but the faster she pressed, the farther away those lands receded; perversely, the slower she traveled the stickier the road became, turning to rubber cement, so that the joyful promise of her arrival remained remote and inaccessible. As she unenthusiastically rolled to class each day, she’d occasionally veer down a side hall and lose herself within the hospital’s labyrinthine passageways, ultimately finding herself in nearly deserted corridors, where she’d wheel as fast as she could to the other end. Once there, she’d touch the wall, to convince herself that she could overcome the infinite, gummy highway in her dreams, that she could reach her goals—and the victory of walking with the gods.
It was late June when she took another of these surreptitious excursions, finding herself eventually on the thirtieth floor—the top floor of the hospital. She exited the elevator and peered furtively down the long, abandoned corridor. From here it appeared that the hallway’s end opened into pure space, like peering through a cardboard tube into the clear sky. She smiled widely. The beings of light, she fantasized, were there, past the glass that separated the cool Swiss air from the unseen patients inside. The beings were waiting for her: she needed to get to the corridor’s end as fast as she could before the sterile tile floor beneath her turned to impassable rubber cement. She looked left, looked right—then tore down the hallway at breakneck speed, smiling impishly. She felt as though she could fly at any moment; she thrilled in the fantasy. When she came to the glass many feet later she leaned forward and pressed her palms flat to its cold, smooth surface and closed her eyes for a time, breathing heavily. There was a door in the glass; it became apparent only now, just inches from it. The door was nearly seamless and practically invisible, held in place by the smallest of silver hinges. There was a small brass placard in its center; even from here it appeared to float, so clear was the glass. The placard read:
. She noticed the
large red button for wheelchair-bound patients to the right of the door and pressed
it, then watched as the door swung silently open for her. EDWARD
The fresh kiss of early summer greeted her as she passed beyond the invisible barrier: the hint of a cool, late afternoon breeze scented with the smells of a dozen different flowers and spicy pine from the forest under the mountains miles away, along with the comforting odor of burning wood from an unseen fireplace somewhere nearby. Just a few feet away was a short concrete barrier covered in vines with a shiny silver banister running along its top. She drew close to the barrier, peered over the banister. Her own room was many floors beneath her … she had never been up here before … the frightful yawn of space below made her head spin pleasantly with its suddenness and proximity. She thought without willing it how it would feel to pull herself over this banister—now close enough to touch—to push away—to release—and to fall to her death. How her end was only two or three seconds away from this rooftop—should she will it. In the distance the frozen waves of peaks floated over the sprawling rooftops in challenge, as though mocking her courage. She smiled in return at them, flush with a heady sense of freedom.
There was a walkway that led to the right, easily wide enough for two wheelchairs. Yaeko turned and advanced down it, the class she was now supposed to be attending completely forgotten. The walkway was a mural, a beautiful abstract swirl of pastels. The vines were on both sides of her now, crawling up the side of the hospital thickly, the leaves shadowy green, almost black in parts. They shuddered pleasingly with the fragrant zephyrs of the settling day. She wheeled down the colorful path until it opened abruptly into a large courtyard, as though a huge square chunk of the corner of the top of the hospital had been cleaved away, leaving a startling, wide space, open in two directions. The mountains ebbed away from her, the lake beneath them like an echo of light revealing another land beneath the softening waves, the city of
a faintly roaring portal riding the shimmering edge of that echo…. It all
seemed to beam in welcome to her from up here, an incredible, wide panorama
denied her from the thin window of her bedroom. The courtyard had been worked
into a delightful rooftop garden, the thick vines rising over the top of the
hospital, the mural beneath her wheels spreading out like a rainbow in swirling
flood, giving her the sensation of floating forward on the current of a river.
It was like she was not in a hospital anymore, but in a remote wild space
deeper than it actually was. There were benches here, set along the curving
walkway, spaced in such a way as to give her the feeling that she was
visiting—or floating by—a city park, but a pleasantly hidden one, a park in
Shangri-la perhaps. An actual stream gurgled nearby, fed by a large and very
lovely granite fountain, the courtyard’s central feature; smaller shade trees
had been planted here and there; some were in full bloom; they in turn were
surrounded by many varieties of flowers and roses, all meticulously tended. The
walkway was bordered with cobblestones in parts … the cobblestones formed their
own walkways and were themselves bordered with green grass, suitable for
A tall, very thin man holding a palette stood watching her. He was a few feet from the building’s edge, on a small patch of grass under a blossoming shade tree. An easel stood between him and the edge. He motioned at her to come to him.
Yaeko hesitated for a moment, and then wheeled mindfully down the winding mural walkway until she was just a few feet from him. She fully expected to be chastised for being somewhere she didn’t belong, and waited expectantly for the rebuke. She looked up at him.
The man’s face was gaunt and hollow, his head completely bald. He had a very strong cleft chin and a full, smiling mouth; his startling blue eyes were savagely alive. Up close he was taller and even thinner than he first appeared. He was bone thin: his clothes were far too baggy for his form. The early evening breezes waved through the sleeves of his shirt as through a flag. He regarded her in an almost mocking fashion, his eyes narrowing as she drew close. He nodded then—but she knew instantly the nod wasn’t meant for her. The man turned briefly to place his brush and palette on the park table next to him before looking, not at her, but at the mountains in the distance, his chin raised slightly. Yaeko took a moment to gaze up at his painting—and found she could not look at anything else. For the emaciated man had painted the panorama before him so expertly, with attention to detail so complete, that the details themselves were lost in the total simplicity of his efforts. The painting reflected her dreams somehow—dreams that infused her reality with the only hope she had felt while at this hospital, dreams that brushed over the city, the mountains, the cathedral, the lake, and offered in reply the diaphanous, indistinct perfections of potentialities—her potentialities—as represented by the mountains, the lake, the city in his rendition, focused into startling relief. She hadn’t noticed that the tall, gaunt man had taken his gaze from the vista and brought it down to her.
“Cotton candy,” he said with a Midwestern-American accent.
She looked up at him. He was smiling slightly, studying her. “Do you like cotton candy?”
Yaeko’s English—despite approaching her English lessons as she had pull-ups—was still only at the stage where she could pick up perhaps every other word; but she understood his question and nodded shyly after a time. He seemed to understand her deficiency, because when he spoke again, it was with an obvious, mindful slowness. He swept his long, thin arm out from his body, and, looking around, said: “Another day passes. Days like cotton candy on God’s tongue.” He smiled at her again, a corner of his mouth rising slowly.
Yaeko fell asleep that night thinking of the man and his painting.
She skipped class again the next day, and instead of finding a random, abandoned hallway to tear down gleefully, chose to return at once to the courtyard. The tall, thin painter was there, in the same place, working on a new painting. He stopped work long enough to acknowledge her presence with a smile and a slight incline of his head, gesturing with a downward sweep of his arm next to his body for her to join him before returning to his work. She wheeled up until she was just behind him and to his left, where she could watch him paint. His new painting was of the lake, but seen close-up: his masterful artistry touched expertly upon the cold, mirrorlike quality that body of water always seemed to possess, as if it could never be disturbed even in the most violent of winter blizzards. She sat silently, completely transfixed; she watched him paint for another three hours, his work like the purest of meditations, until the sky above began emptying of light and the city of
twinkled to life. When she turned to go she tugged at the elbow of his baggy
shirtsleeve and smiled up at him, waving. The man had been concentrating so
fully on his picture that it seemed to startle him. He was trembling with cold
but seemingly oblivious to that as well. He looked down at her, his eyes
radiant and severe, as if they created their own light, their own warmth. He
nodded at her and watched her go. As she pulled past the courtyard’s entrance
she stopped briefly and turned back. The man was back to his painting, a still,
skeletal shadow, but somehow more substantial than the shadows behind him. She
had not exchanged a single word with him, but somehow felt as if she had just
spent an entire late afternoon in pleasant conversation with him.
The next day he wasn’t under the shade tree near the edge of the building, but at the fountain. He had set his easel up there, and was working, and when she appeared, instead of motioning to her as usual to join him, gestured towards another, shorter easel next to his. There was another palette and brushes lying on the fountain’s flat edge.
Yaeko rolled close to him. The painter watched her approach, his gaze steady. “Right-handed, or left?”
When she didn’t understand initially, he held up each hand, repeating himself. She got it. She held up her right hand. He chuckled. “Of course,” he said, shaking his head self-reproachfully. “Of course. I already knew that.”
He came around her wheelchair and set the shorter easel and canvas within her reach, handing her a fresh palette and clean brushes. She looked up at him. His eyes seemed to peer straight through her. She struggled for the words she wanted to say. She stuttered a few times, but eventually got out between frustrated shakes of her head and several long pauses: “No. Want to paint—over there.” She pointed to where he had been the past few evenings, under the blossoming shade tree.
The thin man nodded in understanding, then picked up her easel and walked, with her following, to his old spot. He set the easel up and came around to face her. “Better?” he asked.
She nodded, smiling. “Thank you.”
“If you don’t mind, I would like to stay where I am,” he announced slowly. “Is that okay with you?”
Yaeko’s smile expressed her response adequately. The thin man’s hand rested on her shoulder for an instant as he passed her on his way back to his easel next to the fountain. She glanced at that hand for the brief moment it was there. It was a hand like worn pink quartz, a hand of awesome power; a hand she knew instantly as it touched her had experienced much life … perhaps too much. While it rested on her shoulder she felt for a moment that were he to decide it, that hand could easily crush the life from her—or achieve the impossible delicacy of touch fine enough to paint masterpieces. The contrast made her hesitate for a minute after he had gone. Presently she lifted her chin, studying the Swiss panorama before her for a long time before starting to paint.
The enigmatic painter did not come to her again until the summer sky had turned from a draining orange fire, to a deep pink overcast, to indistinct purple-gray streaks. Yaeko flushed with embarrassment as he approached: her panorama, compared to his, was laughably pathetic. He stood over her shoulder, studying her picture for a long time before speaking. Yet when he spoke it was as if to an equal, not some contemptuous novice.
“As I expected,” he chuckled, speaking slowly and enunciating each word. “Precise, but not coldly so; less like a steel drill bit, more like a hawk diving for dinner. Passionate. Intense. No, not a surprise at all.” He chuckled again.
Yaeko said, fumbling for words, “I have not finished it. May I tomorrow?”
He nodded and then added, speaking slowly: “Tomorrow, if you don’t mind, I’d like to show you how to shade, and perhaps how to use secondary colors more effectively. Would that be okay?”
She nodded enthusiastically.
The thin man said: “Come. Let’s be cleaning up.”
Fifteen minutes later, he accompanied her to the elevators. “Until tomorrow,” he said to her as she turned in the elevator to face him. His gaunt face appeared ghostly, nearly translucent in the cold, sterile white glare of the corridor’s lights; it was drawn and tinged grayish-yellow, his skin like an afterthought, a ghost trapped under wax paper. She focused on his eyes instead, which seemed to be anchors for his entire being—for hers too—as though they held both of their souls fixed firmly and securely to the earth. He inclined his head in parting as the elevator doors closed.
The next day, as she was sitting in the elevator, having just escaped another boring class on self-sufficiency, the car slowed to a stop on the very next floor. The doors jerked open. Her psychiatrist stood before her, looking sternly down upon her. He stepped inside, saying nothing. He turned to face the open doors; he stood stiffly right next to her; she saw that he was noting the number inside the glowing white dot on the gold panel.
The thick silver doors rumbled shut. Yaeko’s stomach fell; the elevator was rising again. The seconds passed like frozen molasses. Her heart pounded in her throat. The silence was unbearable. Finally the psychiatrist spoke in Japanese, his voice low and strained. He did not look at her.
“I was sent to find you. It was an easy matter, really …” He pulled a device that looked like a cell-phone from his suit coat pocket. “The wheelchairs in this hospital are all tapped with a locator—yours too. It’s next to the left wheel, under the seat. Sometimes a patient—Alzheimer’s patients mostly—will wheel himself out of the hospital, or get lost within it. It’s a big, big hospital, Yaeko—as I’m quite sure you know by now.”
He pocketed the device. He still wouldn’t look at her, observing instead the red electronic display panel above his head indicating which floor they were at. The display read 20 when he spoke again. “I told your teacher not to worry. When I saw where you were going each day, I …”
He finally turned to face her. Then he motioned at her wheelchair. “I’m surprised you haven’t been ticketed for speeding in that fancy contraption.” He shook his head. “You just amaze me, Yaeko Mitsaki. I should have guessed that it could only be one such as you that could open him up. As it could only be one such as he that could open you up.”
Yaeko stared down at her lap.
The elevator slowed. Stopped. The doors opened, revealing the long corridor with the bright glass opening at its far end. He motioned her out with a resigned sweep of his arm, following her as the doors behind them rumbled closed.
When they came to the glass door at the far end of the hall he knelt before her, his face very serious. He said:
“I must accept, I suppose, that there are people out there who, when shown the pleasant, easy valleys through Himalaya-sized challenges, will opt to climb the peaks every time instead of walking through those valleys. Valleys that professionals like me are supposed to point out.”
He sighed and then reached for her hand, which was resting on a wheel, grasping it tightly.
“It shouldn’t surprise me about you,” he went on. “I should’ve known when you refused to put handles on the back of this wheelchair. Nobody’s going to push Yaeko Mitsaki around; she’ll do it on her own. It’s in your music too—that utter defiance, that integrity, that refusal to back down from the challenge of the extraordinary, the impossible…. I love your music, Yaeko. I haven’t ever told you that, but I do…. I remember an interview from a couple years ago with your teacher, Amon Fujiwara … He told the interviewer that you would spend months on a single difficult phrase, or even just a single note or two—until you were pleased with how it sounded inside the composition. You never backed down. I remember him saying he learned more about playing violin by teaching you than he ever could just by practicing it alone. And if I remember correctly, Amon himself was considered one of
finest violinists, yes?”
When she nodded, he rose to his feet, releasing her hand. He cupped her cheek. He smiled wistfully, then said: “It’s a beautiful day—and another great mountain awaits you. Go, my friend. I’ll clear your absences with your Independent Living teacher. And—I’ll see you tomorrow morning.”
And with that, he left her, his fading footsteps sounding like hard-boiled eggshells cracking on the cold white tile of the floor.
She sat in the silence for a long time before pushing the red button that opened the glass door to the rooftop courtyard.
The thin man sat with her that day, and for many days afterward. He brought a chair and lowered his own easel to paint while sitting next to her. He helped her complete her unfinished panorama before moving on to new challenges: painting the fountain, then the beautiful shade trees, and then a portrait of him…. He showed her techniques of painting complementary colors, of scrumbling, of viewpoints and vanishing points and flat coloring.
“Now,” he had said that first day, raising his brush, “to properly shade an object, you first need …” and he was off, speaking on the finer points of painting—but not to a novice: the tone of his voice held great respect for her and made her conscious not of his words so much as the sense of how those words made her forget herself. He used his own blank canvas to demonstrate various techniques; he pointed to the many elements of her work as if to a fellow professional; he watched her closely as she tried out his suggestions. When she completed the portrait of him he sat looking at it for a very long time.
“May I keep this?” he asked quietly.
She nodded happily. The three hours they spent together each day passed as if they were but three seconds dribbled forgetfully from the chin of time.
On this night the sliver of a new moon arced overhead in a navy sky that seemed to absorb all thought, all pain. She reflected on her paintings; she was almost proud of them. They were placed on her walls or propped up in the corners of her room.... One hid her violin case completely.... And now she thought of how much she hated the time each day when she and her friend parted.
She was looking at the sky, at the moon, her face blank. He was watching her, his bony countenance loose with amusement.
She brought herself back to the present. Looking at him, she said, smiling, “Cotton candy …”
“… on God’s tongue,” he whispered.
He accompanied her back to the elevator. Tonight, for the first time, he stood with her in it. When the doors opened he walked with her back to her room. Yaeko noted the faces of the medical staff that passed them in the hallways. Faces of barely concealed astonishment—though those stares weren’t for her, she knew: they were reserved for the man next to her, the man who would occasionally cup the back of her head in a very fatherly gesture of protection, of affection … But no, they seemed astonished by her as well, as if what they were witnessing—these two individuals, together—was impossible, was not to be believed.
Once in her room he sat heavily in a chair next to the door, appearing drained and exhausted. She gazed at his drawn face, at his baggy clothes, and asked the questions she had pondered many times but knew she’d only be brave enough to ask here, in her room:
“What is your name? Why are you here?”
Though his expression didn’t physically change, his eyes smiled brightly. After a moment’s hesitation, he said: “I suppose it isn’t fair, is it? I know who you are, Yaeko Mitsaki—” he glanced at her as though sharing a mischievous secret with another friend—“and you don’t have a clue as to who I am. Call me Rudolph. My grandfather would’ve been proud of that, bastard though he was.”
He came to his feet. It seemed to take tremendous effort—though he seemed to put as much effort into hiding that fact as he did in standing. He grunted with pain as he straightened his emaciated body. He walked over to her dresser and inspected the trophies without touching them. He spied her violin case in the corner. It was almost completely hidden by her painting of the
skyline. He stared at it a long time. “Why am I here?” he said, looking over
his shoulder. “Ha!”
Without saying more, he approached the vase containing roses by her bedside. He bent and brought his nose to them, breathing deeply for several seconds. Two roses were wilting heavily, were plainly dead. He stared at them, studying them. Then he brought his eyes to hers. His eyes ... he looked straight into her ... he looked straight into her very being ... and then he removed the wilting flowers. One was so far gone the bulb detached from the stem as he plucked it from the others; it landed with a soft, rotting thud on her nightstand. He collected the bulb and stems and half walked, half limped to the small trashcan near the door, where he threw them away.
Peering into the receptacle, he said: “What is inside you—what is inside me—what was inside … them—” he turned and pulled up the chair next to her wheelchair, sitting in it—“that thing is immortal.” He waved his hand dismissively. “Outward appearances are meaningless. You know this. It may be a different rose next time, but that which is immortal inside it—inside you—is one and the same. Okay? So they haven’t really died, they haven’t really left you—have they?”
Yaeko suddenly realized he wasn’t speaking of the roses at all. Her eyes must have given her away—her face hadn’t changed one bit; she was listening as hard as she could—because now he was smiling and nodding.
He stood. He looked at her for a few seconds longer, and then approached her bed. He bent and kissed the top of her head. On the way out of her room he remarked, “I can’t seem to get enough of that cotton candy, Yaeko Mitsaki…. Or … perhaps—” he smiled now—his whole face smiled, but the change was so subtle she was convinced anybody else would’ve missed it—“perhaps it’s sharing it with you that has made it taste so sweet.”
He inclined his head characteristically before departing, the door clicking shut softly behind him.
When he looked up from his work the next afternoon, he did a double take. His eyes widened slowly in surprise, becoming huge, his face unsmiling as he watched Yaeko approach. In her lap was her violin case. In a gesture that seemed almost reverential, he stepped away from his canvas, laying his palette and brush aside as if they were made of fine crystal, before sitting in the chair next to her. He waited attentively as she withdrew her violin, raising it to her chin, her bow at the ready.
She hadn’t played once since the night of her crash nearly nine months ago. She peered into his eyes. Then she said simply: “You paint with color. I—paint with sound.”
And in that instant Rudolph was reminded of a concert he had attended long ago, where Yaeko was the featured performer, for her eyes at that very moment held the passion of the entire planet in them, just as he had remembered seeing then. Then, as now, the effect was the same: he forgot to breathe.
For three hours Yaeko Mitsaki played her violin; for three hours Rudolph listened. The dreams of hours-turned-to-mere-seconds had become meaningless: for there were no dreams now, because time had ceased to exist. It was the most grueling thing she had ever done. Not because her fingers were stiff and unpracticed, not because the music was difficult and demanding—her fingers were stiff and unpracticed, but her violin sang as it had never sung before; the music was difficult and demanding, but seemed ridiculously, ludicrously easy in front of this man—it was grueling because of what she saw in his eyes while she played: a lifetime of work, of love, of struggle, of joy, of tragedy: fierce blue eyes bright with tears one second, violent with joy another; eyes that gave no quarter and asked for none; eyes like those of a fellow comrade’s in a foxhole during a terrible battle where both know they are going to die but hate the enemy so ferociously, so profoundly, that it no longer matters. What she gave to him in her eyes he returned in kind in his, so that the circuit was set, completed, and perfected: the switch was thrown; it was a simple act that for a brief time lighted the universe.
Much later, he accompanied her back to her room. They did not speak to one another. As he painfully unbent from kissing her head once more he lifted a single white bud from the vase—a vase now full of healthy young roses. He looked at her for a long time as though in salute, his frail body straight and proud. He brought the rosebud slowly to his nose. He inclined his head.
“Thank you, Yaeko.” He said it very quietly, almost whispering.
And then he left.
She didn’t leave the courtyard the next evening until well past dark. She had taken her violin back with her, along with another one for him. She had played and played and played ... The music floated down the side of the great building, carried by scented evening breezes; it rose to greet the orange orb of the setting sun; it wandered over the burgundy rooftops and through the thin cobblestone streets. The music carried her soul to every corner of
quieting its dull roar to utter silence; it carried her through every peaceful
park, under the whispering shelter of every shade tree; it spirited her over
the placid mirror of the great lake. Her violin cried out for her friend
Rudolph the painter—for he did not come today. She played, alone, next to the
fountain where his easel still stood, the painting on it nearly completed, the
violin she had brought to teach him a little of how to paint with sound propped
up against it. The painting was of her as she sat at the edge of the building,
a slight smile on her face, working next to an easel; it was a portrait so well
done that even its incompleteness seemed purposeful and abundant. Her violin
called plaintively to her friend … but in her heart she already knew. Because
in her dreams the night before she had stepped—not rolled—upon the infinite
highway, had walked its length, had come to the kingdom of crystal and the
beings of light—and had met him there.
The city was sparkling like a tremendous constellation beneath her when she finally stopped playing. She took her own violin and leaned it against the easel, placing her bow on the fountain’s edge. Then she wheeled up the darkened pastel walkway, past the trees standing like guardians, along the gurgling stream, to the invisible glass door that had admitted her to his presence.
The silence greeting her was final and worshipful. The day had stepped back from its own easel. “Cotton candy … on God’s tongue,” she whispered.
And then she left the gardens for the very last time.
“Mr. Goldstein was considered the greatest painter in the world, Yaeko,” the psychiatrist told her many weeks later. “He was impossible and intense and supremely talented and extremely wealthy. The gardens were a gift from him to the hospital and the hospice he would soon be living in, tragically enough. He had donated them just before learning that he himself had inoperable pancreatic cancer. The hallway you went down to greet him every day was still not completely ready to receive terminal patients; the gardens weren’t even open to the public when you met him. He passed peacefully in his sleep. I’m … I’m so sorry, Yaeko.”
The psychiatrist had left her alone after that lonely evening in the courtyard. He knew she would not respond to him, and would resent his attempts to reach her. He had given the nurses strict instructions not to bother her, to let her deal with her grief in her own way: grief that had nothing to do with deadly car crashes and useless legs and wilting roses—but the grief of losing a very piece of her soul in the death of the man named Edward Rudolph Goldstein. She had lost nearly everything in her life, including four months she couldn’t even remember: now even her soul could be counted among the mounting casualties. The psychiatrist did not know if the wound was fatal—and he was sure she did not know either.
Yaeko had let September fade into October; October had disappeared into November; half of November had passed before she wheeled herself into his office—to his great surprise—and quietly closed the door. Now he looked at her sitting across from him and wondered if he would ever hear again what he had heard—incredibly—impossibly—coming from the courtyard that evening in early September as he stood out of sight, struggling to know what to do, overwhelmed by music so beautiful he couldn’t bring himself to believe it was coming from a human being and not a god. Yaeko’s silence here was welcome, itself a greeting. If she had come to him any other way, he would’ve been deeply concerned. But now he knew better. He knew he had done the right thing. He thought for a moment before deciding to speak.
“I told you about those Himalaya-sized mountains, didn’t I?” he asked her gently.
She nodded, staring straight into his chest.
“So,” he said very quietly, “how’s the view from
Mount Everest, Yaeko Mitsaki?”
She opened her mouth to answer, and then it was too late: the dam had burst. It came as a terrible flash flood, surprising both of them. She opened her arms in a compulsive gesture of attempting to contain it: she jerked her head urgently to the ceiling, screwed her eyes shut, and held still, utterly silent, her mouth wide open. The moment stretched endlessly. And then, with a great lungful of air, she howled with grief. There was the universe, there was the chasm inside her, and now the universe sought desperately to fill the chasm—even the light filtering through her tears had been snuffed out—and she knew with a detached sense of self that she could not halt what roared through her now. But when she finally reached for the psychiatrist many minutes later, he was there.
Yaeko Mitsaki cried.
Sunlight washed across her face. It reflected off her cheeks as tiny twin stars against the clear vertical streams of tears pouring from her eyes. The view of Lausanne from her room had not changed over the past eight months … not really … but now it seemed irreparably, totally different, as if she had somehow walked into a movie screen featuring that view as it swam in her tears, and by doing so introduced some unseen but tangible dimension to her experience of it … for now the city had become achingly, permanently real.
The bright white winter blanket of
Lausanne was on startling
display, a quiet, cold sheet of somnolence and peace. Long silver tongues of
smoke rose from the distant rooftops, held still against the turquoise-blue
sky, the distant lake beyond frozen over, the forests beyond it shadowed with
December’s icy breath and the mountains that loomed over them. The trees rose
against the slopes of those mountains like a church choir, bearing witness to
the day’s passing and her pain. The quiet reached into her room and cocooned
her, swaddling her against itself, holding her steadily and safely.
Winter meant death. But spring was soon to follow. Spring: renewal, rebirth. New life. New chances.
But Yaeko knew: the tears would still come. They would always come.
“Happy New Year, Yaeko,” smiled the psychiatrist.
“Thank you, Dr. Akimoto,” said Yaeko in comfortable English.
“I heard from your physical therapist yesterday that you can now do sixty-five pull-ups.”
Dr. Akimoto whistled tonelessly. “I can do one,” he held up a single finger. “Maybe. If my feet are resting securely on the ground first, then—yes: I can do one pull-up…. You have such a lovely smile, Yaeko. I think this is the first time you’ve actually smiled at me. You are a very pretty young lady with a beautiful smile. Ready to face a new year?”
“Excellent, excellent. The Young Master faces a new year with the hard lessons of the old—and with the wisdom of somebody five times her age. And with the fire of a billion-year-old sun burning inside her. And now … with a brand new challenge.”
Yaeko knew it was coming. She asked quietly, “Where am I going to live?”
“Izumi placed you with his late brother’s ex-wife. Her name is Adele. She will be your guardian. She lives in a small coastal town in the
United States, in California. It’s called Imperial Beach. Think,
Yaeko! You’ll be living in southern California—on
the beach!” And then he went into an off-key rendition of a Beach Boys’ song
for a couple bars, acting as though he were surfing, and then smiled playfully
“I hear it is beautiful there, extraordinary,” he said after he settled down, happily noting her embarrassed smile—embarrassed for him, that is. “We haven’t yet ironed out all the details. You won’t be going to school there straightaway, for example. Due to American red tape we have decided in the interim to hire a homebound tutor for you until we can admit you into their schools—but I doubt you’ll have difficulty with learning in the Americans’ system. Your language teacher tells me you are correcting her English now. Is this true?”
Yaeko nodded timidly.
“You will be leaving in four days,” Dr. Akimoto said. “Tomorrow I am flying to
visit my ex-wife’s mother, who is doing poorly … so I won’t be seeing you off.
To brief you on what to expect in California,
customs, money, etcetera, you will be contacted by several of the network I told
you about. They will serve as liaisons should you have trouble in Imperial Beach, and will
keep me informed of any serious developments. They are on their way here as we
speak. I won’t be here, however … so allow me now to say good-bye …”
He closed his notebook. He opened his mouth to say something, closed it, then seemed to decide to say something else entirely. What came out was: “This … hospital will never be the same again, Yaeko. You’d be very surprised how many of the staff have come to me in tears over your imminent departure. You have impacted many people here—more than you realize. You seem to have an impact on everyone you meet. I think it is part of that remarkable soul of yours. The soul that prefers mountain peaks to gentle, safe valleys.”
He looked at her for a several long moments, and then asked, “Will you ever play violin again, Yaeko?”
She stared at her knees. After a long time she shook her head.
“If I may venture a guess, I think you will,” he said. “The thing is, Yaeko, that billion-year-old sun burning in your heart—well, your music’s the fuel by which it survives. I am convinced of it now. I am sure Mr. Goldstein was too. The gift you gave him his last day of life came from that fire. It was the sunshine under which he rested after a tumultuous and trying life. And what an incredible gift, Yaeko.”
It was only the second time she had heard Rudolph’s name spoken in nearly four months. Her head snapped up; her heart swelled; the chasm of tears had still not gone away.
Dr. Akimoto looked at her carefully. He said, “The easel, his paintings—save the one he made of you, which we’ve shipped ahead to California—along with your violins … all have been moved to his gallery in Manhattan in accordance with your wishes. But Yaeko,” he leaned forward, staring hard into her eyes, which were again bright with tears, “even as cancer ate away at his life, he didn’t put down his brush. And because of his courage, his refusal to quit working, you and he became friends. Is this not a gift worth passing on to another? To a whole world? Edward Goldstein faced death—and painted. Can you face life, Yaeko—and play your violin?”
He nodded. “Someday, Yaeko … someday you and your violin may save the world….”
“Attendants, please take your positions. Final approach,
… final approach….”
The voice was low, the words spoken very quickly; they were nearly unintelligible, a grumble, really; they sounded from the small speaker just above her seat. A sharp click followed as the speaker went dead, followed by a hollow tone that chimed through the entire cabin of the airplane: the FASTEN SEATBELTS sign had been switched on. Around her, people were securing their trays to the seats in front of them, stowing magazines. Flight attendants were busily cleaning up and preparing for landing. The hiss of circulated air sounded much louder suddenly. Yaeko looked above her at the small circular air vent just as the great plane dipped into a pocket of turbulence, making her stomach flip. It reminded her of a trip to an amusement park in
now a lifetime ago. The plane dipped again, and then rose just as dramatically,
causing passengers around her to gasp.
The flight attendants, who, moments earlier, were walking the aisles of the aircraft, had now disappeared, save one: she sat now in a pull-down seat just in front of Yaeko’s wheelchair. Yaeko had met her in New York before boarding the plane. Her name was Elizabeth. She secured herself with a heavy black harness against the bulkhead. Yaeko met her eyes, and Elizabeth beamed at her.
There were sudden monotone mechanical noises, like hydraulic gears or lifts being tested. Noises coming from outside the plane. Yaeko turned from the smiling attendant and looked out the window to her right. Without and behind her somewhat, the plane’s great silver wing seemed to be alive. Beneath it control surfaces were moving, like limbs of some terrible beast that had just woken from a long slumber. A heavy opaque mist occluded the view below, but then it abruptly vanished, and in the next instant the wing’s lights blazed to life, dazzling her. The aircraft dipped again, and then began turning right, the wing slanting, slanting, slanting downward into empty space…. She felt her tummy flipping again and caught her breath.
She was flying over water again after many hours of crossing
Far below the blue water of the Pacific Ocean
shimmered … and into that blue stretched a long, thin wooden pier, stretching
defiantly into that vastness from a jagged white strip of foamy surf. The pier
pointed into the sea, pointed towards a nation thousands of miles distant ... a
nation she once called home. It appeared ridiculously fragile, as though she
could simply reach down now and snap it in two. She thought of the highway to
forever from her dreams, the one she walked confidently, the one with Rudolph
at its end, waiting for her. As the pier slipped from sight it occurred she
hadn’t had that dream since. Now she found herself wanting to dream it again,
hoping it would revisit her soon.
She thought to herself:
Not a highway … but a pier … A pier—to forever.The thought pleased her.