Monday, September 8, 2008

Thunder of the Mountain

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The Sun Behind the Clouds-Collection of short stories

Mountain Night

It was a cold, dark Friday night in March as I drove down the country road. I stopped my car in front of a brightly lit 24-hour gas station that had a small convenience store next to it. I went up, bought some food for the next day, filled up the tank, and continued on my way.
On the dark mountain road, through the black lattice of the thick and thin branches overhead, you could see the sparkling stars against the dark sky. In the headlights, I saw many jackrabbits sprinting away into the darkness.
When I reached my destination, I saw a cluster of buildings at a fork in the road: a tavern, a small old wooden post office with a sign on the roof that read MOUNTAIN CENTER POST OFFICE and a general store. A sign stood alongside the road: “Mountain Center, Elevation 4,400 feet”. It was very quiet and cold.
Further down, I found a motel, in the dark forest, by the mountain road, but it was already closed. It was past midnight, so I had to try to sleep in my car in a campground. I huddled in the back seat, covering my body with a thick, warm plaid blanket, but I was too chilled to sleep. I needed something warm in my stomach to help me sleep, so I drove back to the tavern. Perched on a high, jagged cliff, it was surrounded by cars and pickups. A large neon sign of a white champagne glass blinked on t he rooftop, providing a sharp contrast to the dark sky. Outside it was quiet, but as I opened the wooden door, the tavern exploded with noise, light and smokes. About twenty people were cheerfully dancing to a band playing heavy rock music and another dozen were found at the bar, sitting on high barstools or leaning against it, clapping to the loud music and drinking beer.
“May I have a coffee?” I said to the heavyset bartender.
“We don’t serve coffee this late,” he said. Then he reconsidered. “All right. I’ll make some just for you.”
I sat at a small wooden table close to the band and the dancers. I wondered where they came from and where they all could go.
I noticed a girl with brown hair. Her long flowing locks shone in the light like a reflecting river, dancing joyfully by herself. She moved around smoothly with long strides among the other dancers without touching them. I had never seen anyone so energetic. All of a sudden, the bartender was by my side with a mug of coffee and a stainless creamer in his hands.
I paid, tipped and thanked him. He returned to the bar. When the music ended, the people, including my flamenco girl, crowded around him while a few of them wandered to their table, smiling beneath the dim lights. He handed out bottles of beer, collected bills and slapped change on the wet bar. It gave me a pleasant feeling to watch this entire simple scene unfold before me. I didn’t see anyone else drinking coffee. They were all swigging beer of various brands.
When the band began playing again, most of the patrons hurried back to the dance floor. The brown-haired girl began hitting her heels hard on the wooden floor rhythmically and excitedly, weaving in between the other dancers.
Finally, after I had finished my coffee, I stood up and went to the bar for a bottle of beer in an effort to share their exhilaration. I sat on a stool. The bartender was still putting glasses on the bar and laughing with the customers. He often went to the register, punched the keys, and I heard the tinkling sound of coins. I beckoned with my index finger and ordered a beer.
At the bar, I talked to a shaggy bearded man who sat beside me. His name was Michael. I found out from him that the population of the Mountain Center was just over 300. We didn’t, or rather couldn’t, talk much more because the noise of heels hitting against the wooden floor increased, making it only possible to drink and watch the dancers.
When she got off the dance floor, she sat beside me and ordered a beer. I smiled at her. She told me her name, and I told her mine.
“Would you like to dance?” asked Pat, the dancer.
“Sure,” I accepted.
As we danced, we kept smiling at each other. She hummed to the music, one hand on my arm, the other on my back. I recalled the wonderful times when I had been in love, and how fine it would be again. We were the only couple dancing close together. Feeling pleasantly warm and thirsty from our dance, we returned to our beer.
A while later, a young man walked up to Pat and asked her to dance. She accepted. Lost love---I was shattered. I realized I was going to have to hold off falling in love until I find the right girl.
As closing time neared, the dancing became wilder. I spoke to more people. Michael invited me to spend the night in his trailer in the mountains, and when closing time came, I shook many hands goodbye.
In my car, I followed Michael’s vehicle, which had three of his friends inside. Not far from the tavern we turned left onto a dirt road between tall pine trees and stopped in a parking space. We all got out of the cars. With help from Michael’s flashlight, we walked up a winding dirt path until it ended at a small trailer against the dark mountain. A small window shone with an orange light and gave me a warm feeling. It was quiet and cold.
This small home had one large long room. A map of Mt. San Jacinto National Forest was tacked by pushpins on the wall up near a lamp. It was cold. Together, my host and I carried in chopped pinewood that made the trailer smell like winter incense. Michael built a fire in the potbellied stove and he put some more firewood to make the flame hotter. He was a very quiet man. His smiles took the place of words.
He sat down on the sofa with his guitar and set his fingers on the frets. He watched the ceiling for a moment, before he made music. One of his friends sat on the carpeted floor and played another guitar to the accompaniment of his strumming. Another, who also sat on the floor, joined them, playing on a Jew’s harp, which produced a soft “pinging” sound; the trailer sounded both happy and sad, like it had captured the feeling of the forest. The one who played the Jew’s harp stopped ever so often to drink tequila from the mouth of a bottle. He licked salt from his fist between his index finger and thumb before each swig. He passed the bottle to me and I put salt on my fist and I drank like he did. It made my stomach warm.
Michael stopped playing his guitar. He smiled. Michael seemed very happy with his music and also very happy living in the forest. He sprinkled the salt on my fist, and I drank it from the mouth of the bottle.
“Do you have any plans for tomorrow” I asked Michael.
“Not particularly,” he replied, after drinking. “How about you?”
“I would like to stay here and enjoy the nature, do a spot of fishing. But, I must go home.”
When I had enough tequila, I thought about the brown-haired girl in the bar. It suddenly hit me that the purpose of this night’s trip was to show me the connections between the world and me, and to prove that by plunging into life, I would understand it better. I mused over much philosophical thoughts until we had the bottom of the tequila bottle faced right up to the ceiling.
My companions, lying down in sleeping bags, were steeped also in silent thoughts and tequila. I lay down also.
“No, no. You’re our guest. You sleep on the sofa,” Michael insisted. It was a soiled old sofa, but to me it was beautiful. Michael covered me with a sheepskin coat and then, happy as a lark and as well provided for, I went to sleep.
A few hours later the sound of birds and the bright ray of sunlight awakened me.
After writing a brief thank-you note to my new friends, I slipped into the piney, earth-smelling morning, ready for the adventures of a new day.
As I drove away, I wondered how long it would be before the music of a new day would begin to play, or, if I might ever return for another conversation---or dance---with Pat.

There Is No Green Pasture

The train rumbled across the New Zealand countryside. It seemed almost a crime that noise should be allowed to disturb something so beautiful. Startled sheep bounded away from the track. The sheep were grazing in the smoothness of green sea.
“Aren’t they in the arms of shepherd?” I said to a man who sat in front of me.
“The pastures in New Zealand are green all year around,” he said proudly.
“It’s opposite of Australia.”
“The woollen animals aren’t sticking out of the grazing over there.”
“I’ve heard that in Australia, once every three years, they have terrible droughts.”
“Do you know the name of New Zealand’s largest city?”
“No, Sydney. Because many young New Zealanders go to Sydney for better opportunities.”
“I know what you mean. I met many young Kiwis in Sydney working there.”
“And many of them never come back,” he said sadly.
I gestured at the beautiful countryside that seemed to go on endlessly. “How could they leave this wonderful country?”
“Beautiful scenery doesn’t pay for food or cloths or housing. Australia is where the good money and the good jobs are.”
“Then why are you here in New Zealand?”
“I did work there for many years. But I came back. I shouldn’t have come back. Would you return to lower wages and fewer opportunities?”
“A charming young waitress, who served my dinner one night in Christchurch, had two jobs, one during day and one at night, earning money for a trip to Europe next spring. So I said jokingly to her, ‘You’re beautiful. Why don’t you get a rich man?’ And she replied, ‘Well, there ain’t many rich men in New Zealand.’”
“It’s very hard to rich in New Zealand unless you win the lottery. You see I have two tickets,” he pulled them out from his inside pocket. “I wish I could return to Sydney to work to get rich. But it’s too late now. I have a wife, five children, two ponies, two dogs and twenty-three cats.”
“I guess you’re already a rich man. I have none of those,” I smiled.
“You’re the lucky man. Because you’re still single. You can go wherever you want to and whenever you want.”
“You’re a lucky man living in a beautiful country. At least, you can have a simple and good life. You can’t buy fresh air.”
“I am paying for it in other ways.”
It must be terrible, I thought to myself, to be doing what you wanted, be where you wanted to be doing it, and still not be completely happy.
We sat in silence until the next stop at K Station. As the train slowly screeched to a halt we shook hands and said goodbye to each other. The man departed.
Climbing down from the car, I breathed deeply the pure air and walked toward the station restaurant where many passengers were heading. In the shaded area of the platform, two railroad workers in their uniforms were chattering; one was leaning against the side of the opened doorway of the goods wagon, a wet cigarette clinging to the corner of his lower lip while rolling another cigarette; the other one was standing with his hands resting on his hips.
In the restaurant, a large crowd already swarmed around the busy counter, ordering their food and drink: weak milky tea and coffee, a variety of sandwiches and lots of hot meat pies. Behind the counter, three women, two young and one old, were hard at work. It probably was the busiest hour of the day, I thought.
The big windows looked out to the blue sky and sea. Many oil paintings, depicting snow-capped mountains of New Zealand, hung on the stark white walls.
While many of the passengers were sitting at the tables enjoying their meals and drinks, I raced outside with my cheese and onion sandwich and a small carton of apple juice.
At the end of the long platform, I saw an engineer who was sitting in the back of the driver’s cab talking to an unseen companion beside him. The sleeve of his blue shirt was rolled up above his left elbow, which was resting on the still. Turning my back against the hulking yellow engine, I walked down the baking hot asphalt surface of the parking lot behind the station. The sparkling blue ocean across the sand soothed me.
At the edge of the parking lot, I sat on the tall early summer grass on a rocky bank, resting my feet on the two large smooth-surfaced, grayish-black oval rocks leaning out to the sea as I ate. Other rocks along the bank were shining in the sun. Apart from the relentless hissing of the white foamy waves, it was very quiet, as if the world was dead. In the cool breeze, the blades of young grass brushed against one another.
On the breakwater, far off to the right, cray-fishing boats were gently bobbing up and down near the small fishing village perched in the hills. A brown horse stood as motionless as its surroundings; its flanks were shining like oil in the sunlight.
Suddenly, loud speakers announced that it was time to board. I stood up. Walking toward the train, I saw a tall, young man taking photographs with a 35mm camera. A camera bag, jammed with other cameras and camera equipment, was on the ground near him.
“Did you take many good pictures?” I asked.
“Oh, yes.”
“Where are you from?”
“Switzerland is as beautiful as New Zealand.”
“But we don’t have sea.”
The train started off with a thunder and jerk as we all settled into the cars.

Rebel’s Room

We all sat on the carpeted floor as a single light bulb shone brightly upon all our faces. The room was filled with many men and young boys. They were in their traditional clothes. The men wore brown apple pie hats. The young boys had shaved heads. Most of them were staying in this second-floor room of a concrete apartment in a dusty ancient town of Pakistan. They were resting from their long and ferocious fighting in Afghanistan and some were receiving medical treatment for their wounds. In the hallway, outside the open door, several young girls, wearing colorful peasant clothing smiled broadly, as they looked into the room. They didn’t dare come in.
The room had no furniture. The only display, or decoration, was a large board of a wall-mounted collection of ammunition samples: bullets, steel fragments of shell casing, peculiar assortments of jagged metal and a piece of very thick glass from the window of a soviet jet bomber. They were proudly displayed like the trophies of a great sportsman.
A large old-fashioned fan was circulating slowly on the ceiling, fighting a losing battle against the heavy heat. Outside, it was almost dark. Through the window, you could hear the sounds of the horses’ hooves pulling the carriages at trot.
“My brother’s son’s leg cut by German doctor here in Peshawar. In this city there are two or three legs cutting everyday. Even more arms cutting up. I also lost many relatives and friends,” Jawad spoke. He was the leader of a small band of mujahideen. He had been fighting the Soviets for more than six years, since the day the Soviet Union invaded his country. Both he and his two brothers were proud to be rebels fighting against the Russians; they were also inordinately proud to be the grandsons of a man who spent his entire life fighting the English, who likewise had grand designs of conquest on Afghanistan in another era.
“Is there any way to keep the Russian prisoners alive instead of executing them?” I asked through my interpreter.
“We have no choice,” said Jawad. “One day we shot down a helicopter gunship. Pilot escaped with his parachute. We gave him to Pakistani government. But two weeks later, they gave him back to Soviet Union.”
“Pakistani government scared to make the Russian government angry. So they returned him,” added Raz, showing his badly stained teeth as he spoke.
“We are also busy all the time and no way to watch prisoners. So only way is to kill them,” said Jawad.
“We don’t like kill people, but the Russians kill us,” explained Raz.
“Last summer we shot down one more helicopter gunship and two Russians pilots survived with their parachutes. One woman and one man. When they come down slowly into village we wait with knife, sword, sickle and stone. My men finished them like goats,” Jawad’s lips curled slightly into his cheeks, in what seemed like the beginning of a smile.
“Russians are scared. They cry and scream because they don’t believe in Allah. If you don’t believe in Allah dying is horrible,” Raz showed his bad teeth.
“And you,” I asked, “are not afraid to die?”
“No, I am not scare to die. It is respect to die for cause. We enter heaven when we die.”
“Do you think you’re going to win this war?”
“Oh, yes,” replied Jawad. “We fight until we win or be killed to go to heaven. You can win if you have heart. No matter how strong your enemy is. If you are scared, you will never win. No matter how good your training is.”
“That sounds very fundamentalist-----and dreamers,” said I.
“We are dreamers. We cannot be slaves.”
“No,” said I. “I understand that.”
Jawd put his fist down so as to emphasize his feelings more energetically. “It is better to be lion for one day than chicken for thousand years.”
“We love freedom,” said Raz, showing his teeth.
“And Allah,” added Jawad. Raz nodded. “I don’t know politics. I’m only fighting to kill our enemies.” He smiled.
Just then the light bulb spluttered and went dead. The room was thrown into darkness.
Jawad broke off and said something to someone in a strange-sounding language, presumably to get the light.
He continued in the darkness, “If you are not Afghan, it is very difficult to fight in our mountains. Sometimes the snow up to our necks in winter. That’s why Russians sure lose.”
“I know that the Russians are not used to fight in rugged mountains,” I responded.
“A Russian prisoner told me that the Russian soldiers are very happy with snow because it remind them their homeland,” said the leader.
A young boy came in holding a brightly shining kerosene lamp. His face was brightened in the light.
The boy seated himself beside me. The lamp heated me.
“Do you miss your country?” I asked the boy, who was listening attentively.
“Ooh, ooh, ooh,” the boy replied. He smiled, looking right at me.
“He want to fight,” said the leader.
“How old is he?” I asked.
“You would let him fight at his age?”
“Next year.” Then Jawad said something to another boy.
The boy quickly went out of the room. He returned holding a small box and handed it to Jawad who opened it near the bright lantern. He showed me many black and white and faded color photos that were taken inside Afghanistan.
“This is thirteen.” He pointed to a boy who was holding a Kalashnikov standing among the rebels in a photo. “He is sixty-five years old.” He pointed to one in the same photo.
The whole room suddenly brightened as the power returned.

The Sun Behind the Clouds has 27 short stories

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Saturday, September 6, 2008

The Rejected Stone - Mystique of the Ancient History of Japan

The Rejected Stone - Mystique of the Ancient History of Japan (Sample Chapters 1-2)

Historical Background of Paekche Kingdom

The Puyo tribe of Manchuria founded the Koguryo Kingdom as one of the kingdoms of Kaya, Koguryo, Paekche, Shilla and Lolang in the Korean Peninsula. The Koguryo was situated in the northern part of the peninsula stretching across Manchuria, the Lolang the northeast, the Packche in the southwest, the Shilla the southeast and the Kaya in the south.
Each of the five kingdoms developed their own culture and military power, while they were fiercely fighting against each other to expand their territories. Periodically the five kingdoms allied with each other to maintain their own dynasties. Each of the kingdoms developed their own arts and architecture after extensively remodeling Chinese culture. As the predominant religion, Buddhism heavily influenced their art. The rulers of each kingdom used Buddhism as an effective tool for unifying the people.
The Lolang, the smallest kingdom, collapsed in 313AD. The Paekche took half of the Kaya near the southeastern of the Korean Peninsula in 512AD and the Shilla conquered the Kaya in 562AD. Then the Paekche conquered the Kaya in 642AD.
Since then the Koguryo, the Shilla and the Paekche remained as the principal kingdoms of the Korean Peninsula.
The Paekche had the most advanced culture among the three kingdoms. It had excellent architecture, astronomy, art and political structure. Paekche’s art was distinctive, refined and sophisticated. Roughly the whole Paekche culture was like a gigantic artisans’ workshop, with thriving architecture, sculptures, paintings and metal works being produced. Simplicity in art is distinctively the Paekche style. The arts of the Paekche are immortalized in the smiling images of Buddha, murals, architectures and the round end of eave tiles, which had simple designs of lotus flowers.
The Paekche also heavily influenced China and Japan, both culturally and politically, and played a leading role in international trade with the various southern Chinese states, and with Japan. Entire southern parts of China and Japan existed as the territories of the Paekche and were a maritime empire, similar to the influential Roman Empire and the Greek city-state, Athens. The Paekche even provided advanced culture to its rival kingdom, Shilla.
Basically the Koguryo and the Paekche have similar cultures. The Paekche broke out from the Koguryo. This is shown through the murals of tombs. The founder of the Paekche, King Onjo, is the son of King Tongmyung, the founder of the Koguryo.
In 660 AD, the Paekche fell to the allied troops of Shilla and Tang. The Shilla Kingdom conquered the Koguryo and united the peninsula in 668 AD.
Although the Paekche lost its power in the Korean Peninsula, where it was founded, its civilization was not completely extinguished.
In fact, the civilization of the Paekche also sprang from Asuka in the Nara Prefecture, Japan, from the late 4th century. The Paekche introduced Buddhism into Japan in the end of 4th century.
As the result, Asuka, the ancient capital of Japan, became another artisans’ workshop based on Buddhism. The civilization of the Paekche gradually took deep root in Asuka and spread to the whole of Japan. You could see the assimilation of the Paekche civilization in the distinctive style of Buddhist temples, gardens, wooden statues of Buddha, murals and many other crafts. Even today, Asuka village remains as an archeological site where many cultural properties were buried.
Unable to separate the Paekche Kingdom and Japan to understand the Paekche culture as a whole is like you can’t omit even one voice out of alto, tenor, or soprano, and bass for a motet.

Part 1: Destroyed but not Defeated

He was still looking at it. He was looking at it again. He was simply looking at it. He viewed it from many different angles. People who saw him might have thought that he was an insane. Indeed, he was obsessed about something. He was looking at it like one looking at a sculpture in an art museum or in a park. He was looking at it with his heart pounding.
It was not a mysterious object he was looking at. It was a religious monument. It was an ancient monument. It was a five-story granite pagoda. It was not creamy-white granite but pure nothing added with different materials. It had the color of the plumpness and sleek curves of plain coarse and dark gray Paekche earthenware displayed in antique shops or museums. The pagoda had both a timelessness and beauty standing in the center of a ruined Buddhist temple located in the center of Puyo as the last capital of Paekche Kingdom.

He, Junichi Takamuku, was looking at it across the flatness of the yellowish-brown earth. The earth rectangular-shaped about the size of a soccer field was flat clean and hard, but not frozen any more, surrounded by gentle hills covered with red pines. The smooth clean earth made the standing-figure look, in a distance, small and insignificant. But it was huge, strong and ancient, which made him insignificant standing by it. It stands firm and proud. It stands firmly on the broad stable ground stone its foundation. Several places of the bottom surfaces of ground stones were chipped slightly to fit to the natural contours of the earth. The preservation of plain little stones in their original positions portends out that the natural environment has priority over the artificial environment. It looked mysterious, sophisticated and unique. It was simple, humble, yet, graceful. It was a combination of art, religion and algebra.
He now slowly walked up toward the pagoda. Then he looked up. Facing it, he felt greatness and hugeness and warmth of the pagoda. Each surface of the stone was not mirror-smooth but rather coarse. He walked slowly around and gazed at it up and down, down and up, over and over again, from many different angles. There were several huge-spaces on which you could slide your spread-out hand between the joints of the weathered stones. You could feel a sense of artistic value from the imperfections and, yet, you could see proportional perfection of the pagoda like a perfect circle of the sun when you never consider the vertical jets of gas, which it produces.
He felt impelled to circle around it many times, like a little boy on a merry-go-round, as he looked up at the body of it closely and carefully. He looked at it up and down on one side, then the other and the other thoroughly. He could almost feel the coarse yet smooth feeling of its surfaces. Underneath the eaves of its five-tiered roofs were shadowed as he looked up at against the gray sky of late winter that reminded him of the identical eaves of five-tiered tiled roofs of the wooden pagodas in Japan.
The edge of a roof chipped off partially. It made the edge of the roof thinner. Did bullets do that? He looked up at the extremely wide spaces between the two surfaces of the stones. Did the vibration of galloping horses widen the spaces between the two surfaces of stones, if not, was it deliberate? Or did the tanks do that? Or did time do that?

Strangely he had an affinity with the strangely shaped chunks of cold granite that cut out of the mountain. But he felt it was warm. The hard granite looked so soft that it would urge you to walk up and touch it gently like you would stroke a cat. He really loved to look up at it. Strangely the more he looked up at it, the more he loved to look up at it, like being magnetized by a great painting. It looked meek, strong and deep.
He didn’t care about things, which give you, no strong feeling, but, the sense of superficial beauty, such as clean and sharp photographs or fine paintings of flowers, mountains or lakes, for which no inspiration required, unless you force yourself to love it. Because there is only skill involved in facile beauty but not soul. What he cared for were photographs or paintings or sculptures that were rather dull, hard to understand, at one look. He cared about art made with passion rather than smooth sailing of skill. He had no appreciation for those sweet easy works done under the name of commercialism for the eyes, but not for the hearts of people.
The pagoda looked like a gigantic man whose tatters and bruised skin couldn’t hide his dignity. It showed harsh reality as the tragic symbol of a defeated kingdom.
He couldn't block his ears from the echoes of screaming of 3,000 young Paekche ladies who jumped right into the Paengma River from the steep cliff of Puso Mountain in Puyo, rather than be captured by the invading troops. Today people call the cliff, from where those young women plunged, Nakwha-arm, as a symbol of noble allegiance Paekche ladies. The name means flowers falling in the wind.

Then he heard the hissing sound the volleys of arrows made, thuds of galloping, and crashing sounds of swords in Hwangsanbul, a battlefield, near Puyo. Commander Kyebeck of Paekche fought bravely with his troop of only 5,000 soldiers against 50,000 soldiers of the Shilla, while 100,000 soldiers of Tang crossing the Paengma River, discoloring the earth with rushing out of hot blood. He took the life of his beloved family, not wanting them to be enslaved by the enemies, before he faced the battlefield. Although he had the heart of a lion, he obviously knew that he would be defeated by the outnumbering enemy troops. Amazingly, in the first three battles, his troop was victorious against the might hordes but alas perished in the fourth battle. Even in the midst of bitter rivalry and adversity, honor, nobility and compassion prevailed. Commander Kyebeck sent a captive underage boy back to his troops. What a clean good fight, Jimocjo thought. In memory of his valor, mercy and loyalty stands an imposing bronze-statue centrally placed in Puyo, where many cultural properties were buried as an important archeological site, the last capital of the defeated kingdom.
Why didn’t Koguryo help Paekche? Why didn’t Koguryo do anything for Paekche? Why didn’t Koguryo help Paekche to defeat the strong allied troop of Shilla and Tang? Did Koguryo want Paekche to collapse? If so, how would it benefit Koguryo? He never thought of this before. Do you think, simply, Koguryo was scared of Tang? Wouldn’t it have been well-balanced battle if Koguryo helped Paekche?

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