Search View Archive

A Moving Case OR: GO AHEAD! JUMP IN!

The film plots, which are making up the bulk of the discussion among the four of us here on the roof in the night, turn to death.

A_ speaks of the protagonist in a film she saw recently which she loved though it was “pretty creepy”… deceased, the character’s casket, floated onto the water on a primed raft, was ignited via a flaming arrow shot by funerary celebrants lined up along the shore, thereby immolating the remains of the character onto the lake, or into the shallows of the sea.

I tell of a Chinese film I love, the story of an ancient, blind, banjo-playing, wandering minstrel, who told his youthful, blind, banjo-learning disciple, somewhere along the course of their wanderings, of how he’d been told, when he was a blind, youthful disciple, by his master, on that blind, wandering, master instrumentalist’s death carpet in the depths of the desert on the master’s final night, that he (the current ancient blind minstrel, when he was a young blind disciple) could, when he broke his 1,000th banjo string in his life of wandering minstrelsy, open a drawer in his banjo (the master’s instrument unto his death at which point it passed on to the disciple, replacing the now-former disciple’s shortnecked instruction instrument and announcing him a master), where he’d find a piece of paper explaining his blindness.  Or explaining what he could do about his blindness; I can’t recall this prognosticative device precisely, the one time I saw the film was years ago.

The minstrel broke his 1,000th string while playing wildly beautiful music from a nude red mountaintop overlooking the bare expanses of Mongolia, and his youthful verve and hope were reborn, and he hurried blindly into town and to the tavern there, where he’d have the drunken tavern keeper examine the sheet of paper that he’d carted about the vast tracts of the northern deserts for all the years of his non-ancient life.

He handed the paper to the scowling tavern keeper (the bleary townsmen leaning near), because he, the minstrel, couldn’t read it, being, of course, blind.

They couldn’t read it, either, as the paper was blank…the tavern keeper and the drunken townsmen laughed uproariously, the minstrel wandered back out to the sun and the light and the day he did not see, to find his disciple again and carry on their mission unto his death, at which point he instructed the boy from his death carpet that he would be leaving him his life as his banjo, and their mission, and the chance that the boy would one day find humans to enthrall and a disciple to train as his ongoing mystery of blindness and mortality passed in the great stretches of the world of days within nights.

The boy floated his old master’s corpse on a bier, the camera lingered on it as it reached the foot of a tributary in the deep, barren canyon-tracks that the water’d carved in the Mongolian desert, and the bier turned on the current as that current met a greater river in a deeper canyon…ethereal, pulverizing music, Chinese banjo music, played into the theater in which I sat with my date, a Brazilian who didn’t know what she should make of my helpless laughter.

In the first moments of telling Life on a String’s plot, and in the telling’s last moments, I turn to J_, who’s seated on the tile ledge on the roof of her man Je_’s building, who is seated alongside her talking to A_, as J_ looks at me or at the others, or herself or at things, or towards nothing in particular.

She asks me if I know how I want to die.

I tell her that I am at present working out in fiction a cruel obsession of anonymous disposal that I’ve borne close to my heart since my youth.  And tell her that now I intend to proceed within the reality of death, rather than within its image, which is forever elusive, being an image.  That I am intending now to live out the second half of my natural life, having survived that early obsession with conclusion.

-Leaving me open, I laugh to J_, for OTHER OBSESSIONS!

With this, the four of us stand, or she and Je_ stand to join A_ and I, as we were already standing, in order to leave the roof in the night.

-And you? I ask J_;Do you know how you want to die?

We’re approaching the small sky-lit hut that houses the top of the building’s stairs.

-No, she tells me.  Perhaps I’m too young yet to have conceived a plan.

-Ah, I reply, as we near the door, which Je_ and A_ have already entered, to descend to his apartment.

-But, she asks, would you like to hear a story that I was told when I was a girl in Korea?

-I would, I tell her.

We’ve reached the open doorway, and I turn up once again to view the (infinite) dark arch, the star speckled sky.  And then I defer to her, motioning with my arm and my upturned palm to the door’s maw and to the first of the building’s three flights of stairs.

She remains paused there on the tar paper, her breath indrawn as she prepares the opening of her story.  I turn again to the night that seems almost exterior, almost behind us, leaving my arm and hand out and gesturing to the doorway.

She enters the door’s mouth and begins down the steep top flight of stairs, beginning also her story:

-It was told to me as a little girl when I was growing up in Seoul…

I enter the stairwell behind her.  I am already high above her as she tells me:

-It is the story of Momma Frog and Boy Frog.

I am already high above her because this first flight of stairs is very steep, almost a ladder of stairs from the roof down to the building’s uppermost landing.  And because, were we standing side by side, J_’s face would be at about my chest.  So now, as she’s several steps down by the time I begin the descent, her face is at about my knees, so I can’t quite tell if she’s said Flogg or Bogg, Dodge, who knows.  For J_, once she’s gotten one’s attention, resorts to the most beguiling, quiet, silver-lined tones…the shape of her projection is that of the glass blower’s first delicate, smoldering, liquid swell.

I can’t proceed into the story without knowing her characters, and so I ask her (we continue our slow descent: for each of us one foot lowers to a step, at which point the other foot joins it in ultra-fine and dramatical politeness):

-Momma and Boy who?

She pauses on the steps below the steps I pause on once she’s paused.  She’s about halfway down this unusually steep initial flight.  She may be catching her breath to speak, to project back up to me, well above her, halfway between her and the doorway I’ve left open, which is allowing for the entrance of the night.  So, to be polite and to leave her to dwell in the exquisite space she forms once she’s gained attention, I lean down to her, to where she’s paused below me.

I bend in half at my waist, to get my ear alongside her face, as if I were a perpendicular crane or brace of flesh and she were a chime or pendant, a radiant crystalline vessel whose cylindrical contour is a waft of jasmine or honeysuckle scent that one passes through in a garden or a forest on a moonless night, a resonant contour, filled and faintly sparkled with ancient starlight.

-Momma and Boy FROG, she reminds me.

-Ah, Frog!  I exclaim, delighted.

And I rise behind and above her, motioning again for her to precede me, which she does, turned towards me, behind her, again above her, continuing with her story again, allowing for my sense of propriety.

At the first of the uppermost landing she proceeds with her story, telling me:

-Momma Frog knew she was about to die…

I see that I can gain the several steps that lie between us and pull alongside J_ , and thus we can walk off the last steps side by side, where these steep steps turn down onto the walkway between the building’s crème and taupe wall and its iron banister, and turn together down the top floor’s corridor, as we both have narrow hips, and then her face will be at my shoulder as she continues her story, and I can turn my face down and watch the landing as we pass along it, all of which I do, and she does, too, and then I turn us to the head of the next flight of stairs, which are normal building stairs and not so steep as the last ones.

At this point, having listened in with her quiet intensity along the landing, I pause again, my eyes cast down the steps before us.  Yet I find that I’ve paused us, not just me, and we stand a moment at the top of the steps, still side by side as she speaks.  Yet I see that It is still too narrow for us to descend the regular stairs side by side, that one of us must go first as the hip and shoulder motions inherent in down-stepping would have us jostling into one another.  So I defer again to her, assuming a politeness, or assuming its guise, but find that the unspoken suggestion that she’s the woman so she goes first doesn’t begin her, doesn’t get her started from this us as we’ve paused us.  Thus I motion with my hand, not wanting to interrupt her honed phrases as she spins out the simplicity of her tale, which was recited to her when she was a girl, and which she has since recited periodically, and even now is practicing for future recitals of its enduring impact, one hopes that one day she delivers it to her little girl or boy.

Once I motion with my hand, though, she begins, first, still talking, down the steps.

Where these steps turn to meet the next landing, the landing before Je_’s landing, I move again alongside J_, and we carry on down this passageway side by side again, as we had along the upper passageway.  Her story unfolds exquisitely, it’s as if I am at the edge of my seat, her tones and manner in which she molds the music of her phrases pulls my ear to be nearest her as she speaks.  The landing draws to a close and I see the space before us in which we’ll turn to face the last flight of stairs before Je_’s landing below us, where he and A_ are already talking and unlocking his black door.

I turn us adroitly again, having taken again the position along the railing…we pivot, J_ speaks, I listen, thinking I know how we’ll descend these stairs, the lady first as I was taught, and she’ll tell more of her tale back up to me, me above and behind her.

Above and behind her…while wanting to be as near as possible for the gift of this story she’s offering up with drama and grace?

This is not where I was on the previous sets of stairs.  In fact, I was as far from her as I could possibly be, given the circumstances, as I’ve attempted to make clear in the description above, though I’m under no illusion that I’ve succeeded in describing clearly what was happening.  It’s harder to do than one’d imagine, describing what’d happened, though in fact going through that which one goes through, which is to say trying to describe it to one’s self or to the situation as it (one’s self and/or the situation), proceeds, is inconceivably more difficult than this probable failure of trying to describe it after the fact.

At the head of the stairs, we pause again, or I pause before I would usher her on down ahead of me.  And thus, would usher her most extractedly far below me.  And she pauses as well, there at the head of this situation’s, our situation’s, final stairs, which are in fact what have paused us.

This fact gives me pause, and in this pause I recognize us (J_ and I linked by our progress within the story she’s reciting).  And not a moment too soon.  For at this recognition I lose the sense of propriety by which I’d been operating, the sense I’d imported to prescribe our actions, which has, through its insensible prescription, handicapped her and me from being us, which it had been pretending to do, to me, while I was separating us extremely.

Momma Frog and Boy Frog lived down in the rushes by the creek.  For his whole life, Boy Frog did the opposite of what Momma Frog told him to do.  Now, Momma Frog knew she was about to die.  Boy Frog, listen to me, Momma Frog Said: I am about to die.  When I’m gone, bury my body in the silt in the middle of the creek, for there I will rest contended, forever near these rushes in which I lived as a girl frog with my parents, these rushes in which I became a Momma Frog and raised you, these rushes in which you will live your life now, and will maybe one day become a poppa frog.

In due course, Momma Frog died, and Boy Frog cried at his loss, and wished for his mother's contentedness after death.  So Boy Frog, for the first time, did as his mother'd told him, and buried her body in the silt in the middle of the creek, between the banks of rushes in which she had always lived, and where he would live his life now, feeling his love for, and his loss of, his mother.

In due course, the current of the creek swept away the silt he’d spread over her corpse, which floated away down the stream and was lost, far from her home.

At the top of these stairs, the last stairs before our destination, I hold my hand back from the gesture I’ve used at each juncture thus far to usher J_ on ahead of me, thus below me.  She remains paused, looking down the stairs, telling her story…I know, for I looked at her as she looked down, paused, having paused us, where I would’ve continued her down before me, from which process she would’ve been looking back up to me, behind her and above her, in order to continue speaking her story to me.

And I start down these last steps before J_.  And she follows after me, me having turned back, yet not up, to her.  She tells me the last of the story of Momma Frog and Boy Frog, with her face near my ear, our faces and heads rising and falling with our steps and descents, yet staying fairly even.

And I turn on the steps before Je_’s landing, where his black door stands open.  He and A_ are already in his apartment,  but I turn back towards J_ as she concludes her story, turning to her, reversing, so that I step down, down and back, heels first onto the landing before his door.  I don’t step in front of her, as she follows, now facing me, nor do I impose myself such that she cannot gain the landing alongside me if that is her inclination.  And she stops herself, thus us, as I’m already stopped, feet now on the last landing, with her on the final step above the landing, where I’m standing directly before her, below and before her, and we’re face to face as she says:

For Momma Frog wanted to buried on the land, where her body would always be near the rushes where she was born and had lived and loved and died.  And she knew that Boy Frog had always done the opposite of what she told him to do while she lived, so she told him to bury her in the creek.  Then he, in his sadness and repentance at having lost her in life, at last did what she said to him to do, when she tried as she tried to get her final wish.

And so he lost her too in death.

-Thank you for the beautiful story, J_, I say, as the story she told speaks through the story I’d told earlier, up on the roof.

And, rapturous, face to face with her as she looks at my eyes with her eyes and at my self with her self, or at us, for I’m doing the same, I turn us as she steps down to the landing alongside me, and we walk, both one by one and together, in through Je_’s open, black apartment door.


Alan Lockwood


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT-NOV 2000

All Issues