As Clear As Cloud

Yoko Tawada

Illustration by Cody Cobb

There is a man's face before me. The skin is sallow, but in his eyes is a frenzy of movement, like the spray off a stone pounded by falling water. He catches my gaze and his face brightens instantly, as if he has found a childhood friend. It is our first meeting. Reminds me of someone. Can't recall. His dry crimson lips open, and with each buh-buh-breath he spews syllabubbles at me. The wrinkles around his mouth, at the corners of his eyes, upon his brow all make tiny waves that lap endlessly at the shore and fade away. I don't understand Chinese, and even though my interlocutor must know this, he goes on speaking at me. I feel I'm being told over and over again, Surely you understand.

In my brain, the syllabubbles are always one step away from turning into kanji; instead they become a growing mass of warm lumps. Flailing white hairs play hide-and-seek among black ones. Or perhaps the white is that of sea spray, not hair. A white-maned lion dances, unhinged. Against a dark cliff, waves crash and shatter into white and crash again. Behind, a boring uninterrupted expanse of leaden sky and sea. A faint black line lies in the distance. If that is the opposite shore, then this body of water may be a lake, not the sea. A massive lake, the likes of which no one has ever seen. Or else, an unimaginably wide river. With a start, I return to myself and the water is no more than lifeless grey wallpaper, and the apparent horizon is merely its seam. The male torso in front of the wallpaper is still speaking.

He is a poet-in-exile, and I have just been informed by one of the poetry festival's organisers that the woman seated to his right is his wife. Every time the poet stops speaking, she nods and relays his words to the bespectacled young man seated to her right. Her actions remind me of interpretation, but both the poet's words and his wife's sound like Chinese. Only the tones are very different. Listening to the poet's voice, all at once I am walking along the shore on a night when the waves gurglegrowl and the reeds let forth a rush of susurration. In stark contrast, his wife's voice flows smoothly, like something made of silk, but there is no coldness in it. When she finishes, the bespectacled young man looks at me with an urbane smile and speaks, rendering her words into effortless English. "The poet says he is pleased to meet you, he feels he has met you before in some fantastical location, but that's not possible, surely." The young man must have noticed the clouds of confusion gathering at my brow, for he kindly offers an unsolicited explanation. "You're probably puzzled by the need for this double interpretation, but the poet has lived in solitary confinement for over ten years, and is no longer able to speak words known to men. Only his wife understands him. What she conveys to me, I translate into English." The young man's respect is evident in his use of the term "poet" instead of a name.

The bespectacled young man, I learn, is a researcher and lecturer of modern Chinese literature at a university on the East Coast of the United States. "I've lived in America for a long time," he says, but he doesn't look a day over thirty.

I go back to the poet's face. He is probably around fifty. His eyes are sunken, his cheeks hollow, making him look frail from certain angles, but he speaks with such vigor—the bones of his face even now are almost dancing under his skin; his open mouth reveals a bright scarlet tongue; his eyes shine—that I lose my balance and freefall into the delusion that I'm talking to a man in his twenties, wait a minute, how old am I, and what time is it now?

"What do you mean, 'unable to speak words known to men'?" I cannot contain my curiosity. Without any change in his expression the young man turns to the poet's wife and translates my question. She steals a smile at me, before whispering in her husband's ear. At once, the poet's face radiates light, like the sun emerging from the clouds. Words flashflood forth from his wide-open mouth, stunning the other poets—engaged in hushed conversation on either side of us—into silence. The diners around us also fall silent, and begin observing us with visible hesitation.

Completely ignoring the change in the air, the poet speaks a torrent of sound at me. His wife listens, nodding gently from time to time. I listen and nod too, but of course I have no idea what any of it means; I nod only to say, I am taking in your words.

The last of the verbal fireworks go off, and the poet's wife relays the words to the bespectacled young man, bringing her lips close to his ear. As he starts his English interpretation, nearby ears grow wings and gather round like so many curious butterflies. He lowers his voice a notch, but then the ears flutter even closer, that not one word may go unheard.

"I was locked up in solitary confinement on the side of a sea cliff for many years. The only things I could speak with were the waves, the wind, and the trees. Not even the birds would say anything to me."

For a few seconds there is complete breathheld silence. Then the background noise of the restaurant resumes, the way a paused video starts up again, but I remain frozen in my seat, unable to return to my meal right away. The poet looks at me, motioning with his chin as if to provide encouragement. He says something to his wife, but she shakes her head, swallowing his words whole instead of regurgitating them. I decide that at this point I cannot refuse conversation, and with no clear thought in mind I say, "So you spoke with the waves, the wind, and the trees," repeating what I have just heard. The young man distinctly separates the three nouns. The poet's wife also produced the same three sounds, but each with a completely different pitch and texture. A question pops into my head and straight out my lips—"Didn't you speak with the clouds?"—and when those clouds arrive at the poet through the mouths of his wife and the young man, he smiles like a child and nods vigorously. Yes I did, I'm sure I did.


After dinner, I return to the hotel and turn in for the night. The bed smells of an unfamiliar detergent. Turning my head, I can see the moon through a small window diagonally above me. The night sky is pitch black, without so much as a cloud for variation. The moon is extremely small. Perhaps it's because today's sun was so large? There is a rabbit inside the moon. There should be two, why is there only one? Moving near the window and sticking my head out like a turtle, I confirm that there is indeed just one rabbit. Suddenly the rabbit speaks, in classical Chinese—夜光何德,死則又育? 厥利維何,而顧菟在腹? Huh? Come again? The midnight glow dies and grows again? What is this "midnight glow"? The moon? The moon sets and rises once more. And this is due to some kind of virtue? What's virtue in the first place anyway? Something obtained through bitter experience, or that which we possess from birth? And what does the moon gain by keeping a rabbit? Is a rabbit with one ear still a rabbit?

A young child asks questions tirelessly. Why, why, why, it demands to know, and its parents answer each and every one. Why, why, why, it's important to keep asking questions, or so I was taught in elementary school. I become a child once more and ask why, why, why. Even as an adult, I continue to ask why, why, why. Oblivious to the dictatorship that has somehow grown up around me, I keep asking why, why, why, and that is why I'm locked up in solitary confinement. I cannot recall the details of my arrest. What ought to be a hotel room suddenly becomes a cell. A square frame, possibly a window, floats blurrily into view, and looking outside I can see despite the darkness that it is water far below in which a circular slice of the moon quivers. A concrete wall drops vertically from the window all the way to the abyss. The open window is an exit. Those who wish to take the plunge are most welcome to. That'll free up a much-needed room for the night, is what it seems to say. I tentatively approach the door and try the knob. Locked from the outside, of course. I chide myself for not confirming during check-in if this was a hotel or a prison. Anyway, what's the name of this country? All I do is ask questions; I'd never kill or harm anyone. 遂古之初,誰傳衟之?上下未形,何由考之? Who witnessed the beginning of the world and is telling us in the present about it? When even the sky and the earth were still connected, what basis was there for any thought at all?

It did not do for me to doubt what is written in that celebrated book, to direct such questions at that celebrated scholar. The beginning of the world is clearly described in the Bible, and it did not do for me, an ignorant mortal, to pose the impudent question, "Just who exactly was around to witness the beginning of the world?"

But perhaps it is a mere misapprehension; this incident may have nothing to do with my arrest. Perhaps my brain is simply twisting, tingling, transmogrifying an unrelated situation. Something just within reach which I can't recall. I try to gather my thoughts but a mechanical noise interrupts, derailing that train forever. The telephone by my pillow is ringing. That's my wake-up call.

translated from the Japanese by Sayuri Okamoto and Sim Yee Chiang

Excerpted from Kumo wo tsukamu hanashi (Kodansha, 2012) by permission of Yoko Tawada and Kodansha.