Thursday, September 3, 2020

A Brand New Sky

We hear many stories about how this world came to be, and they all tend to involve an event more or less like the snapping of fingers. Let there be light, and there it is. Or a turtle is conceived, floating on an endless body of water, or the goddess cuts off her little toe with a shard of obsidian. There's more or less nothing at one minute, and more and more something the next. And though I love these stories, and see the spiritual truth in them, there is a voice in me, and I'll only speak for myself, that used to say, "Well, that's only a story." But I have found out that sometimes this is exactly the way that things happen. You see, I was there one of the times that the world was begun.


It wasn't very long ago. I was living in Vermont, making my livelihood as a professional kitemaker. Those days I read everything I could about kites, especially on their history and traditions of kiteflying in the Eastern world. My own designs evolved into a hybrid of Japanese kites; I built their designs using modern western materials and stitched surreal elements on them that could then hover in the sky.

I often got work lecturing for schools about Chinese and Japanese kites, and one time a museum in Brattleboro, Vermont hired me to participate in the opening of a new exhibit of Japanese craftwork. The show included many wonderful traditional kites. For this opening they had also invited a traditional Taiko drumming group, who would perform in the parking lot outside the museum building. I learned that they were from Nagasaki, so I spent the week before making my own versions of the traditional Nagasaki fighter kite to fly overhead as they performed.

There was only one problem. The Brattleboro Museum is lovely, an old train station that sits just above a river in a narrow valley that runs parallel to and behind Main St. From outside the building you look in one direction at fire escapes and untidy brickwork, and in the other is the river and tall trees. And on that particular summer day not a breath of wind blew through that narrow canyon. I toured guests through the museum, and set out my kites outdoors for show. Occasionally I could fly one by backpeddling, making it dance around in the manner of those little fighters. But I would eventually run out of space and the kite would drift left, right, left, right, and fall to the ground like a colorful leaf.

After one of these stabs at flight one of the drummers came over to see the kites, and he got a kick out of seeing this bit his homeland fabricated with an American accent. I asked if they would be starting soon and he got this great crooked smile on his face.

"Yes. Soon."

Ten minutes later there was a buzz in the air as we sensed the performance was soon to begin. I put down my kites and joined the rest of the crowd. We all looked toward a cermonial cart, a simple wooden job with four big wooden wheels, painted a bright laquered red. On it sat the largest of the drums, an enormous barrel supported horizontal several feet above the platform. It had drumskins on either end that were easily five feet across. Five of the drummers approached it, four of them wearing traditional hippari jackets with an iconic crest printed on the back. The fifth was bare chested, wearing only a tiny white loincloth. He was muscular and compact, graceful and utterly confidant. He hopped onto the cart in one smooth motion and the others took positions at the four corners and began to push.

They sent the cart with its huge drum and unsmiling passenger right into the crowd. They wove S's through the scattering group. Then they came to a stop in the center of the lot. I looked around to see how big the crowd had become. We filled the area, extending down the road, and even half filling a little park that was across the street. I saw that kids had climbed into the branches of the trees there to get a better look. A couple of pigeons flew in circles over the brick buildings toward Main St, scared by the sound of a truck's grinding gears. Then they came back to roost in the ironwork and boarded up windows.

We all watched the man by the drum. With great care he reached down for a drumstick the size of a piece of stovewood. He turned it slowly in his hand, finding the place where his fingers and palm met it most intimately. Then he planted his left foor below the drumhead, whose center was at his eye level. He planted his right foot several feet back and turned his head, looking over his left shoulder toward the drum.

I became aware that a profound silence had descended upon this little valley.  Everyone was intent on every motion the small man made. His gaze at the drum deepened. He seemed to duplicate the stillness of the wood and skin. Then his arm began to slowly move back, and the drumstick came into position, poised over his right shoulder. His knees bent and his torso lowered. For a timeless moment he stood there, motionless, intent on the drum before him. The world was absolutly still.

Of course. It was not yet born.

When his body uncoiled and the element of the drumstick met the element of the drum, something happened that I could never of imagined. There was an explosion, but it was not on the cart. It burst from the brickwork behind Main St.

From every nook, each last cranny, and every shadowed hollow flew pigeons, born into the new world in instant flight. They darkened the sky, then scattered. At the same time noise was born, and in the wake of the single drumbeat the sound of town traffic resumed. The next drumbeat came, then the next and the next as the rhythm accelerated into a drumroll generated by a flurry of muscular arms.

By then the wind was born, and I went to my kites and placed one in the brand new sky.