Yoko Tawada

Artwork by Miko Yu

One day, when you open your eyes, perhaps there will be a tiger standing beside your pillow. The sky is azure, the earth is amber, and should the two go to war, all words shall be swallowed up in the turbulence and suffer a hundred falls, a thousand scratches; and no beast, bird, or man shall be able to tell the chill from the swelter, joy from dolour. Perhaps the tiger will speak to you. No one may learn the words of the tiger, but on that day, perhaps you will listen carefully to what it says, and comprehend. If you light incense in an attempt to erase the tiger, it will vanish, whereupon countless cold blades of sayamachi grass shall sprout from every inch of skin, and all sound shall disappear from this world. If you do not light the incense, the tiger will come every day.

Or perhaps the tiger will not come to you at all. Every morning, you'll open your eyes and look around, but you'll hear nothing, not even the whir of a hayaka fly. If it does not come, it will never come, even if you wait a lifetime. There are many who secretly wait for the tiger, in both city and countryside. There are those who pray for the tiger's coming and sleep with their pillows directed towards the Yala mountains, while some eschew sleep and brew teas through the night to remain perpetually aware.

Apparently, the desire to meet the tiger has been around for a very long time. The temple records and other sources tell of numerous young women who, a few hundred years ago, left their homes and entered the forest in search of the female tiger adept known as Kuei Ching, rumoured to live somewhere deep therein. A boarding school now stands where the tiger adept's house is said to have once been. As may be expected, a woman by the name of Kuei Ching has gained recognition as a master calligrapher there. And just as they did hundreds of years ago, young women today still abandon their homes to head for this boarding school. One day, Li Shui packed up her belongings and left. Li Shui is my name.

At the time I left home, women wore armoured mufflers of lavender, breasts were hidden behind gleaming chest-pieces that resembled cuirasses, belts were worn above the waist, knee guards had an exceptional number of pleats, and shoes were bow-shaped in the front and low-heeled in the back—such was the fashion of the day. The August heat had become one with the swarms of ushika flies, and sickened by the prospect of thrusting my face into that roiling mass, I walked bent over and took as few breaths as possible. I had often heard stories of 'branch screams,' a frequent phenomenon during summers when the thunder god seemed to summon showers every evening, and as I walked on, the pines and the cedars—perfectly normal trees—did indeed let out sudden, shrill screams overhead. I shuddered, as if the sound had bitten into my nape. Could someone who feared something like this ever reach the halls of Kuei Ching? I grew anxious at the thought that I would never get there, and at the thought that I would.

The calligraphy master was commonly known as the Tiger Mistress, but there was no hint of contempt in that name. The reputation of the Tiger Mistress was something I'd heard of since my schoolgirl days, and the sound of the name Kuei Ching evoked a sense of awe, as if a hexagonal cloud had suddenly taken shape in the sky. For that reason, I never once thought that I would someday become one of her disciples. I had given up long ago, convinced that the tiger would never cross paths with someone like me. At both nursery and youth school, I was always slow in writing, my elocution was dull, and not once did I earn the praise of my tutors. I was particularly weak at debates, and the idea of defeating an opponent with words was entirely foreign to me. That was why I had never considered mastering the tiger's way. As was the norm, after graduation I would have taken part in reproductive-organ-centric meetings—which grown-ups called 'secretings,' in hushed voices—until I was with child, whereupon I would have received congratulatory missives adorned with auspicious bindings of green, red, and gold from the entire family, followed by a life of sipping sweet porridge every morning, as I suckled my naked babe.

Incidentally, a man with whom there had been a mutual ripening of affections by our third secreting happened to be a chelonomancer, and he scried in the arrangement of moles along my inner thigh 'a tiger shape that appears once in six thousand men.' A woman bearing the tiger shape, should she produce children, would give birth to triplets that would soon die of illness, but if she abandoned her husband to enter the Forest of Trials, the path to the Wandering Sky would open before her, the man declared. I did not know this at that time, but there were in fact many types of sky, and the Wandering Sky to which bearers of the tiger-shape went, though low-hanging, stretched out far beyond all others, thus the verbal powers of the intellect easily reached boiling point there. But even if I chose this new path, what if I were unable to reach my destination? There was much to worry about. What would I do if the branches of the forest kept catching at my feet as I walked, if the writings that met my eyes only grew dark and faded into shadow? My heart could not be stilled. The man anointed my brow with one drop of an aromatic made of crocodile oil and prayed for good fortune. From that day on, with a view to my eventual departure, I gained entry as a servant to the house of a person renowned for having an extensive library. I studied the texts on my own, and two years later I wrote a letter to Kuei Ching. To become her apprentice, there were no difficult tests such as those which await applicants to the schools of the Ministry of Currency or the Ministry of Arms; instead one had to write her a letter directly conveying one's intent to enrol, and then wait for an acceptance letter. Receiving such a reply was no mean feat, it seemed. There were those who had not yet heard back despite twenty-three years of waiting, while others got a rejection letter right away. I still had not heard anyone talk of receiving a letter of acceptance from Kuei Ching. By now, I must have recalled hundreds of times the day that I received Kuei Ching's reply.

When I recall that day, even the terror of having to walk through the forest vanished. Even when I saw a 'waterfiend' form on the stream's surface and stare right at me, I did not think of returning home. When I recall that day, a faint warmth cuts thin across my brow. It was a morning when the light of the spring sun reflected off the old carp stone lanterns in the garden, and made it seem as though gold scales were emerging from within. At that time, it was my habit to spend the entire day in my room reading, so I had little cause to idle in the garden, but that morning I slipped out after my breakfast of mixed grain porridge and stood there, looking off into the distance where a pagoda stood.

When Mother asked what the matter was, I replied that I was in a sour mood; and even when Father told me that there was going to be a shadow play tonight at the common hall, I was in no mood to think about puppets. Before long, from the direction of the pagoda, an apprentice from the Transportation Bureau came running towards us, the tails of his crimson hip-sash dancing in the wind. Although he was far away, the large brown envelope in his hands was clearly visible, flapping like the wing of a great moth. The outline of the male body of the apprentice from the Transportation Bureau grew more blurred the closer he came; I even thought he would just dissolve into milky light by the time he got to me. At last he stood before me and handed me the envelope, but although I unfolded the letter I was unable to read it; excitement gripped my breath and a throaty panting was all I could give voice to. Strangely, even without reading it, I knew that it was an acceptance letter. At that moment, chosen by a personage I had not yet met, I felt for the first time as if every inch of my skin were being wrapped up in freshly steamed sweet manju. What did it mean to be chosen? Long after that day, I would still be unable to ask Kuei Ching this question. Thinking back, the fact that I, who could not accumulate knowledge, whose thoughts kept stumbling over themselves, who was forever heading towards a contradiction—that I was selected in spite of all this could be due to the workings of the mind that, by chance, were strong in me: what the ancients called 'soulflight.' I had read about this phenomenon from texts, but I only learnt what the word really meant much later. Even as I walked through the icy shadows of the trees, my innards gripped by despair, I only had to recall the sensation of being sheathed in light upon receiving Kuei Ching's letter, and the curse of terror would break—this affect too might have something to do with soulflight, in that the spirit is sent hurtling to a remembered state, and everything appears as it did then.

I still remember how the few tranquil minutes I spent sheathed in the morning light, as I unfolded and mutely read the letter, were filled with noise as if each bright fragment had gained a voice of its own. I was completely unable to understand the letter's contents, but in truth I was grateful for it, and re-read the letter several times. More accurately, my gaze kept travelling back and forth over the characters. My pulse quickened, the flow of my bodily fluids swelled. To the onlooker, I may have seemed aroused at the time. What sort of letter was it? I cannot even recall if it had been written in words that I could understand. I wonder if I really did read the letter. The apprentice standing beside me had no idea what was going on, but his breath grew shorter to match mine, and as I abandoned all decorum and let out one pregnant sigh after another, the restless youth pressed his gaze to my lips, his limbs twitching with excitement. I folded the letter and embraced this youth whom I had just met, and we exchanged words of congratulations. In return for delivering Kuei Ching's letter, I gifted him with nectar. To this day, when I recall the face of that youth, the weight of the letter returns to my palm.

It is written in the texts of the neo-classical period that the forest is a land of potential violence not because of the beasts therein, but because unseen things manifest themselves in forms borrowed from our own paranoia. The 'decapitating wind' would be no more than a mere gust, unless a living thing, a human who fears losing his head more than anything, should happen to pass by. Trees have no heads and thus do not have to worry about decapitation. My back started to ache from walking bent over, but since I did not have the courage to stand up straight, I squatted on the ground. Squatting made my knees hurt, so this time I planted my buttocks on the damp earth. Sitting down, I saw a mantle the colour of indigo tea on the other side of the grove. It seemed to belong to a woman resting her buttocks on the ground, just as I was. What I glimpsed of her profile resembled a bride doll, for which I had little affinity, but after crossing paths in the depths of the forest, I couldn't just walk by without calling out to her. Well met, and where do you come from, I asked across the grove, which shocked the woman as if a pot had shattered, and she looked around wildly. Although I could see her from my position, it seemed I was invisible to her. At that time, I did not yet know that such things often happened. Over here, on the other side of the grove to the right of and behind your nape, I explained, but she only got more and more confused, and when she lost her composure, frantically searching around her as if in a fog, in a cloud, I stood up and walked around to the other side of the grove. The woman finally calmed down when she saw me, and asked, describing a clear boundary with decorum, if I too were going to the venerable Kuei Ching's school. As I nodded, my heart sank. This woman of insufficient years and seeming inexperience, whose voice grated the ear, whose hair was held high in an arrogant braid—if even she had been selected, Kuei Ching could not possibly be a good judge of people. I asked the woman to go on ahead; I'd sit here for a while and continue after the pain in my lower back got better. She called herself Chuang Niang, and when she heard me mention my back pain she quickly moved away, as if worried that I would infect her with some vile disease. When Chuang Niang finally left, I felt relieved. Making a difficult journey beside someone with differing sensibilities is just unbearable. When travelling alone, even if one felt a little dispirited, one was never at a loss. Alone, one could see hedgehogs in chestnut burrs and laugh, or enjoy mimicking with the tip of the tongue the sounds of the woodpecker's beak against the bark. And in so doing, one's heart would grow light. To travel while having to chat with someone of unlike mind would make the sunset heavier on one's shoulder, and when darkness fell, it would feel deeper than what the eye saw.

After Chuang Niang left, the sound of the wind grew stronger. It occurs to me now that this wind, producing layer upon sonic layer as it coursed through both upper and lower reaches of the sky, sounded not unlike the voice of Kuei Ching. Those who tried to follow any one strand in her voice lost sight of it at once. Those who sought to capture clear streams met with an overflow of stagnation instead. In the mistaken belief that this was evidence of Kuei Ching's repressed desires escaping through her voice, some men even stiffened their members when they heard her speak. This was something that happened later, when a group of workers were repairing part of the school roof; that was what they whispered to each other as they eavesdropped on Kuei Ching. In reality, her voice simply amplified itself through internal friction, infinitely expanding the resonant space. Repression had nothing to do with it, or at least that was what I thought at first. This voice of Kuei Ching, and the sound of the wind I heard that day in the hour of darkness's descent, were almost identical.

It was a while later that a sound other than the wind skimmed across the aural field. When the acute angles of the grassy blades had already turned into silhouettes, straining my eyes I could barely make out through the lattice of some twenty, thirty cedars a horizontal rock the size of a sea turtle, whereupon the ragged breathing of the woman astride that rock, mixed with the assorted noises of the vegetal realm, became audible. Leaving the path, I stepped in among the cedars and saw a munificence of flesh, bared from buttock to thigh. Beside the rock against which the woman was rubbing her body, a discarded silk half-robe lay crouched like a small animal, traversed by a rustling line of nagame beetles. As she moved her body back and forth, the silks tied around her forehead fluttered in the air. Bobbed hair, a citrus mouth, eyes closed. When the woman stopped moving, her horned-owl eyes flew open, and although she saw me she showed no sign of surprise, nor did she try to cover her semi-nude body. Instead, a girlish smile lit her face. With her, I felt I could share the troubles of my journey. Although my game with the pleasurefiend was interrupted, if I were able to make a new friend that way, all is well, said the woman. What land do you call home, that you blithely use words like 'pleasurefiend' in conversation, I asked, my interest piqued. The woman gave her name as Yan Hua, and said she was born on the other side of the great mountain range, in an area known for animal husbandry. If you're going to Kuei Ching's place as well, let's hurry, because it's getting dark, she added. Deftly arranging the silk half-robe around her waist, Yan Hua stood up first and started walking. Thinking of the earth sticking to Yan Hua's wet thigh, I recalled the tiger shape hidden between my own legs. Although I decided to enter the school after I had my fortune divined and was told that the path to the sky would not open without Kuei Ching's guidance, could a fortune read from the skin's surface really be a sound thing? I revealed my doubts to Yan Hua. I believe in divination, since the sign could not possibly appear without a reason, was her reply.

At this time, the tiger shape and the tiger's way were probably no more than alternate names to Yan Hua for a sliver of hope, shining indistinctly amid a chaotic mess of beast imagery. We can't rely on scholarly knowledge, only divination and sorcery will save us—it was when the sickness hidden within her began to seep out through the new exits it found again and again despite all she did to seal them off, that Yan Hua adopted this line of argument. When I first met her, I would never have guessed that she was sick. Actually, the concept of sickness did not have a defined place in my mind at the time; I thought it was an indirect term for taking a rest. Neither my mother nor my father had ever been really sick. When they said, I'm feeling sick today, that meant resting in the shade without doing any work. Perhaps that was why I too had never been touched by sickness. In Yan Hua's case, perhaps her body was being consumed by the force of her spirit, propagating out of control. Her skin radiated an almost enviable warmth that was at odds with her slow walking pace. It was as if her energy heated up her legs and turned them into heavy loads instead. A heated object, compared to a cold one of similar size, has more weight and is much harder to move.

Had it not been for the thunder god's mischief then, Yan Hua and I would probably not have grown as close as we did. A single pillar of light stood out against the darkening sky, whereupon the thundermass let a mighty roar fall to the earth. Our hair spasmed, our limbs went limp, and Yan Hua and I grabbed each other and collapsed as if we had rehearsed the gesture. If we lay prone, and rubbed our skin on the ground hard to show that we were part of the muddy earth, we would not become victims of the thunder god's fickle violence. The thunder god loathed the proud gait of living things with puffed out chests. The second roar of thunder was lacking in expression, but instead, large raindrops began pelting the forest. The sound of leaves being lashed all at once was terrifying; we shut our ears, we shut our eyes and remained absolutely still, thinking only of becoming one with the earth. Darkness had fallen wherever it could, so there was no choice but to wait. Amid the squall, so heavy that even the words that Yan Hua was screaming next to me were inaudible, my wet clothes compelled my body to shiver even before I felt the cold. At some point, the thunder stopped, and in the time it took for the rain to turn into a drizzle, I had barely breathed at all. When the drizzle gave way to fog, I heard the cries—for-ge-t, for-ge-t—of the night birds. Through the jet-black lattice of trees, we saw a light. Yan Hua and I walked slowly towards it, restrained by the weight of our wet clothes. We came across a hut with crumbling walls and a weathered roof, where woodcutters may have rested during their labours. The light that shone on the hut came from a fire attended to by a woman, who was making sure it stayed within a meticulous square. The look of disdain she gave the two rain-soaked does before her was aimed at our ignorance, our indiscretion for setting out on our journey without considering the weather or the hour, and in spite of not knowing how to start a fire. I suppose you two are also headed to Kuei Ching's school, said the woman. Her voice contained the barbs of a heart that yearned for competition. That this woman called Hung Shih, whose stern eyes seemed ready to tear even her own self apart, could have been something like a kitten to Kuei Ching, or that this same Hung Shih would understand more than anyone how Yan Hua felt when assailed by fits of doubt, were things I only learnt much later. The Hung Shih of this time glared as if baring her fangs at Yan Hua, who was moving closer to the fire. Her curt warning to not let any drops of water from our clothes fall into the fire, too, may in fact have been a rebuke to Yan Hua for assuming that she could simply enjoy the fire's warmth. Hung Shih probably thought that we should have first reflected on our sodden foolishness, then expressed our gratitude for the warm fire we were about to share. There may also have lurked in her mind something like a loathing of wet bodies of the same sex. Our clothes and hair stuck to us like a second skin, showing off Yan Hua's ample bosom, as well as my weak, androgynous form. When Yan Hua's sickness started to advance rapidly and she wasted away, I would have more fat on me than she ever had, but I could never have imagined it at this time. The human body is a mutable thing, and when talking about the past, we must always bear in mind that former versions of ourselves and the people around us lived in different bodies. Thanks to my initial hesitation about the fire, I was able to defuse some of Hung Shih's hostility. Come closer, she said, beckoning me over. Haven't we met before, she even asked. By viewing me as an ally, perhaps she was trying to create a two-versus-one dynamic within our group. The Hung Shih of this time had no chinks in her armour, from her swiftly flowing hair down to her snaketail-patterned shoelaces, but it seemed she had many insecurities about interacting with people. Hung Shih had started off on her journey wearing animosity as a coat with which to hide those insecurities, and with shoes woven from her accumulated knowledge. That night, the three of us slept together in that hut.

When I awoke the next day, Hung Shih was not with us. Taking off first, was written on the table in grains of salt. Salt letters are supposed to bring good fortune, I said, hoping to chase away the dark clouds hanging on Yan Hua's brow, but she replied in a low voice that she had never heard of such a belief. When did Hung Shih take off, I wonder. Perhaps she took off at the break of dawn. Did she take off to avoid the annoyances of walking in a group of three? Did she take off because she wanted to arrive before us? A while later, we took off as well. It's said that if one enters the Forest of Trials from the east, one will arrive at the school after a day's journey, but thanks to the thunder god, I failed to do so yesterday. Certain that I would get there today, I quickened my pace. Yan Hua's mood improved as she walked, and her body seemed to get lighter as well. Striking the bark of trees with her palm as accompaniment, she made a melody with the movements of her feet. I told Yan Hua the story of my meeting with Chuang Niang yesterday. Where did she sleep last night? Perhaps she made it to the school yesterday, I wondered aloud, whereupon Yan Hua cheerfully said that this woman named Chuang Niang was, without a doubt, the person whom she had heard about from her relatives. Apparently, she was the only daughter of a merchant, and though she had no qualities worth mentioning aside from her beauty, this beauty would serve as capital for her entry into a world that she could not have predicted in her youth. To wit, a scholar, whose heart had been entranced by the hues of grief that coloured Chuang Niang's face as she wandered the streets all alone in the world after her parents met an early end when they were swept away in a flood, took her into his care. Considerably more advanced in years, this scholar belonged to that lately growing breed of memberless men, and he was content to simply lick the girl's mouth, nibble on her ears, and share meals of fruit. Chuang Niang believed it was her job and duty to put up with this, and did so with a healthy endurance. Eventually, Chuang Niang came to like his study. Her growing enchantment with the world of texts, the brush's charm, was a process that the scholar observed with a springtime joy at first, then with a heavy heart. When her departure to the forest was at last confirmed, the scholar wet his sleeves with tears, his cries were those of a wild beast. That was the history of Chuang Niang as told by Yan Hua.

There was only one path that led beyond the forest, and since it did not branch out anywhere, unless we met Hung Shih along the way, she must have already arrived at the school. Chuang Niang, whom I had met before that, had surely arrived even earlier. In the afternoon, when the blazing sky was starting to burn our hair, a woman overtook us. She had the light build of a messenger boy and her clothes seemed airy and free, but her eyes were puffy from crying. With a slight nod of the chin by way of greeting, she passed us as if fleeing from something. I suppose you were also tricked by the values of Kuei Ching into going to her school, said Yan Hua in jest, whereupon the woman smiled, the corners of her eyes wrinkling like cat whiskers, and gamely replied that those who are deceived shall also find truth, which was an aphorism I had never heard. Then suddenly, she began to walk at our pace. Even now, I find it strange how Yan Hua managed to find, when they had just met, the words that would slip so readily into the heart of this woman named Chih Chi, who seemed to have nothing in common with her at first glance. Later on, the two did not seem to grow any closer or further apart. There were neither opposing elements nor currents of sympathy between them, just moments when their words and actions aligned perfectly and brought them pleasure. There was no way of telling beforehand if their personalities would match. It is said that if unities and discords were scattered like stars across the night sky, lines linking star to star would be drawn, constellations would be born, and friendships would grow deep and enduring. Was it possible to number all the stars, I wonder. If one were interested in a person, would one not discover points of unity and discord enough to rival the stars? This didn't mean that personalities would match. I learnt later on that Chih Chi loved to walk, and all paths trailed behind her like so many faithful hounds. On that day too, Chih Chi walked as if to declare that walking itself made her so happy she couldn't help herself, and influenced by Chih Chi, Yan Hua's gait transformed into something of a dance. It was when we could distinctly hear the song of the insects that we felt we had finally reached the school. The women are playing. The woman who picks up discarded words from the streets, the woman who sleeps in a sealed tent because she is afraid of spiders, the woman who always puts out a cigarette after smoking a third of it, the woman who helps deliver the mail, the woman whose fingers hurt no matter what she does, the woman who is always biting into a pear when composing poetry—listening to this song, the three of us fell into a profound silence.

In front of the school, silk clothes of all colours had gathered round, and the voices of the women were like the agitated bubbling of a waterfall pool. If we remained silent the sound would have crushed us, so all three of us raised our voices in defiance, cursing the excessive number of entrants, complaining about the soreness of our feet. Standing as far back as we were, we could not see what was happening in the front rows, or if Kuei Ching herself had appeared, so we had to rely on our imagination. Just then, the insectile din was split cleanly in two, and in the centre was Kuei Ching, walking towards us along the one path. Penetrating the mass of women who had gathered around, her body moved forward like that of a rhinoceros. The poets of the humid tropical lands write that there is no creature as blessed with feminine beauty as the rhinoceros. The sheets of armour that hang from the rhino's side call to mind the covers of priceless leatherbound tomes; the rhino's horn points where there are no enemies and issues a graceful challenge. The rhinoceros was not always present on Kuei Ching's face. It came and went, and when it vanished, another kind of beauty would appear. To a youthful face which spoke of trust in the movements of air, of taking pleasure in games, the myriad bitter grievances that wives often bear were affixed as eyelashes, and thanks to the firmness of resolve chiselled into both edges of her bewitching lips, their allure would never dissolve. In her eyes, one saw thoughts turn into small flames. Kuei Ching walked without blinking to the rows of women who were the very last to arrive, and as she walked she stared at the crowd as if they were ears of wheat. She seemed to not look, even while she was looking. Her wet gaze, refusing to look, passed like a breeze over the patches of hair just above the women's brows. This breeze came to me and descended, and for an instant, froze in my field of vision. Kuei Ching looked right at me. At the time, I thought I might have imagined it. With the hundreds of women gathered here, how could Kuei Ching possibly have a reason for casting her eyes at me alone—eyes in which a moist, coy warmth and a chill that pierced contenders were mingled, drowning in each other?

translated from the Japanese by Sim Yee Chiang