The Red Kimono

Danny O'KeefeHistorical Perspective, HP, Short Stories

We drift now back in time as we near the Day of the Dead. We remember. We must remember, however clouded our recall. 

We are on a 747 headed for Japan. We have filled the plane with our desire for adventure and for our love of whales, and the hope, however vain, of committing some kind of demonstrative, compassionate act that will dissuade the Japanese from killing and consuming them. How necessarily arrogant of us, Americans, believing that a song, placed into the heart and the mind, is the most powerful weapon of all. We know this from experience. All of us have been moved beyond surfaces by songs: songs we have heard and songs we have written for others to hear. We are on this trip for ourselves, too, selfishly in a way. We want to know each other, however timid or bold our approaches may be. Something unspoken but felt binds us together even before we meet. We have all reached into a human mass before us and focused the field into a felt state from which we became fulcrum and return. Loci. 

There are more than one hundred and twenty five of us, all tolled. I am sitting next to Warren Zevon. I don’t know him and we barely speak, as he’s involved in writing a story (a cover for shyness I think then) for Rolling Stone magazine about this event. I’m shy, as well, in my slightly arrogant coolness. But eventually we break down because we must, talk. He’s drinking, has been, and I am not, haven’t. Smoke’s my rule of thumb. I like the casual dislocation it brings. To me the germ of creativity is in the dislocation of time and space that is dream or dreamlike, simulacrums of universes not always apparent. Most often it is a waste of time in a vain attempt at de-commodifying the Moment’s intrinsic material value. The Isometric’s essential deception: You push and are pulled constantly at once. The storable, unitary value of time is the grandest illusion of all. 

We are speaking about the whales, sharing what we know. I don’t know as much as I think, and say. I do have a story, however, and Warren is looking for stories. I’m a whore for the media glow and a mention in Rolling Stone is like getting a nice physical stim from someone attractive. He’s curious about the response between humans and whales that doesn’t occur in quite the same way with other mammals and humans. The elegance of the yoga between horse and rider is magnificent; being able to sign with an ape; to approach and mingle with a herd of elephants; to sit on a limb across from an orang, staring in trance-like meditation of the fundamental; a hummingbird that lands on your finger. But the whales are different. Becoming aware of their voices and their behavior is as seductive as any myth. They are exquisitely vocal (the humpbacks and Orcas, although I know, I know, the Orca is not a whale, but a member of porpoise society). They are races, more than species, and are compelling to us as are all races. The Real Other is equal to ourselves. It must be for the courage and curiosity it demands for affective confrontation. 

I’ve been in the water with Orca, I say. He comes up from the page and the can of beer and looks at me for the first time. He’s silently acceded and I pause a bit because I know this is a good one. There’s madness in this one, curiosity and assumption, too. And longing. Inter-species longing. 

I’ve been following the exploits of Greenpeace, the Canadian activist group that has provisioned vessels and taken to the seas to confront those who would slaughter the whales. Modern Ahabs in reverse. They compel me. I play for their benefits; I give them sums of money. One of their founders is a man named Paul Spong, a cetologist, a studier of the behavior of whales, particularly the Orca. 

He lives the summer months on a small island off the coast of British Columbia between Vancouver Island and the mainland. It is idyllic, in many ways. Rock outcroppings buttress the small cove and lift his modest log dwellings from the shore. There are many eagle and raven and they contend, each having command from time to time. The Orca drift by, heading up the Johnstone Strait or Blackfish Sound in search of salmon or to simply commune with their various clans in this annual meeting place. He leaves hydrophones in the water to hear them and to learn their voices and callings. He is a man studiously in thrall. 

We’ve spoken little, but his suggestion to come visit (some time implied) has been turned into an assumption to pay a visit soon, as the multi-fold mobius in my brain has been endlessly treading since I first heard the Orca and know they respond to call from human voice or instrument. Paul Spong plays the flute or recorder to them and among them from his kayak, and they return their powerful, gliding lilts back to him. I believe that I can get them to respond to my guitar, or my voice, or the elegance of my Completely Cosmic Vibe. Candide, and did. 

We have first met at his small house at Alert Bay, one island up. We have smoked, talked, eaten a meal, listened to the CBC and readied ourselves to look for the Orca in the morning. He lives with his lovely wife, then called “Toosi”, and precocious child, Yashi, who eye me somewhat warily as a pilgrim, but gradually soften to let me in. 

We head out in the morning in the Zodiac across the glassy greeny-hued water, some hanging fog, but the promise of sun, however briefly. We glide down Blackfish Sound and in the distance see movement and then a surface. A Minke whale, silent, steady, blows and rolls down in another dive. We stop. We wait. In a moment it surfaces again, this time near us. We marvel, deeply, feeling fortune and blessing. My memory has told me for years that I also witnessed the sighting of a walrus during this excursion but nothing of record or anyone else can verify it, and those familiar with the territory look at me when I mention this with that skeptical look reserved only for the most misguided and misinformed. 

Eagles abound. There are sea lion. Ravens call in their code that bears no real resemblance to the crow’s. Paul will go back for the others but this trip is to take the gear and provisions to the laboratory on the island he leases from one of the timber barons. I have brought along amplifiers and guitars and am quickly brought to my senses that I will have to be very adaptive to be able to make sound in the water and get the Orca to respond. I have a “Pig Nose” amp, a small portable guitar amplifier that gives a distorted sound and is used as a practice amp. I have also a hydrophone and an underwater speaker, as well as a stereo portable tape recorder. I will hook the underwater speaker up to the Pig Nose and the hydrophone to the tape recorder and play my heart and soul through the water to these amazing logos of life. 

We call around on the CB, “Any black fish sightings?” The answers return either, “No”, or are deceptive and intentionally misleading, as this is a forty-eight hour fishing period and the Orca follow the salmon, as do the fishers. To tell someone where Orca are is to give away fish. We get fooled a couple of times and retire to the mainland shore for a bite and a smoke. 

I’ve made a deal with Yashi for comic books in trade for eagle feathers. Seems like a good deal to us both. Eagle feathers abound, he knows where, and I’ll be going to a good comic book store before he gets a chance in the fall. 

As Yashi hunts for the elusive feathers, Paul, Toosi and I sit looking out at Johnstone Strait, pondering our own reveries and enjoying the beauty. We have been scanning this long stretch of the water for the vaporous spouts of rising Orca, almost willing them to rise. Suddenly, and it does seem suddenly, they are magically right in front of us about four hundred yards out. More than a dozen Orca in all with a large bull in attendance. The level of our excitement leaps the scale. We quietly, quickly put our selves into the boat and slowly motor out into the strait. The Orca seem to know we are there and why, and move very slowly. I am tweaking with excitement as I put my hydrophone and underwater speaker over the side and pull my guitar out (a Les Paul Special) and plug it into the Pig Nose. Earphones on and the tape recorder running, I play a few tentative ”blues” bends to the waiting pod of whales. I wait and hear in return the faint glide tone of their answering calls. Contact with an alien species! I’m beside myself and beyond. Oh, for a craft, a suit, a means to be in the water to welcome myself into their midst. I play a few more excited strings of notes and as I listen on the headphones I begin to recognize my problem: I don’t have enough separation between the hydrophone and the speaker so I’m picking up an inordinate amount of guitar and not enough of the answering whales. I soften the volume and tone of the guitar and play again. They answer, still softly, tentatively, as if wondering what I am saying to them and what is the appropriate response. Or, it may simply be that they are being polite, as directed by elders, in the hopes that we will satisfy our curiosity and be on our merry ways. Faith relieves me, as I believe they know Paul Spong and his family in a very intimate way, a way that only Orca could know. They sense his wait and see attitude in this introduction, as they sense my elation in their presence. 

Slowly the bull glides to us and moves counterclockwise around the boat. He “clicks” his echolocation sense on the hydrophone and speaker trying to assess the nature of the sound, and how it could possibly be an extension of our vocal organs. He is amazingly close, so close that stretching out over the sides of the boat would get me within touching distance of his dorsal fin. The feeling is beyond compelling to do so. This is an interesting thing about whales and the phenomenon of inter-species longing: They inspire within us this overwhelming desire for bonding that other animals don’t, excepting humans. It is tribal, like wanting to dance with the Native Americans or longing to go with the Beatles when they left the stage. Let me be with you, of you. Sacrament. We are very soft of voice as the bull assesses us and we speak softly through a microphone that has replaced the guitar. The big Orca has satisfied his curiosity, deemed us relatively harmless, and now saunters his glide back to the waiting pod of females and youngsters. We venture a few more attempts at communication through different instruments and our voices, and the whales continue to answer politely, if not overly enthusiastically. This parlay lasts about a half hour overall and then the sense of completion takes over and the whales slowly start to move off and up Blackfish Sound. There is no need to follow. They have made us complete this day. Our silent hope that we somehow have contributed equally to them remains tacit but they continue to fill us for some time. The experience has been tantric in a hard-to-define way. The mind races its mobius tracings to imagine a means of joining the Orca in their environment, to be adopted into their tribe, to be of and with another species in order to satisfy this longing that one can only imagine is also God’s. 

We slowly motor back to the island with a deep sense of satisfaction and “rightness” with the world. Toosi cooks a rockfish she has jigged earlier that morning and we eat and talk about the possibilities of a real interactive facility for the connecting of inter-species, a floating dome large enough to allow the Orca to put in for a visit on their own accord. Ah, these are the dreams from which dreams are made. Warm and dozy I slip off to my slumber to follow the Orca. 

In the morning I wake to the sound of eagle warning cries. They seem to be right on the small cove of beach outside the window. No, it is ravens who are imitating eagle calls in order to ward off any interlopers who might be eyeing the carcass remnants of the fish Toosi caught and has thrown out for the benefit of whomever may find it first. There is a language in this wild world. A language that ravens and eagles speak to each other, a language that on quiet, moonlit nights makes you believe that the Orca and their land clan, the Wolves, howl back and forth in the joy of being here. 

Now, how I’ve related this to you and how I’ve related this to Warren Z. are incontemplatables over this distance of time and space, rendered now eternal. In any case, we exchange a few more pleasantries and commentaries and go back to our inner dioramas. 

Time has flown, as has the 747, and we are being told that it will not be that much longer until we arrive in Tokyo. We are also reminded that Japan has a no-tolerance policy on drug use, a point brought closer to home by the headlines of Paul McCartney getting busted and being asked to leave the country for having the audacity to bring in some pot. All of a sudden there is a rush to the lavatories and a line. Who knew so many would be holding? The stewardesses are concerned, to say the least. Billows of smoky clouds waft out of the opening and closing doors as some exit, some are admitted. The lovely, perfumey scents float into the cabin and everyone smiles, laughs and the bond grows deeper and more complex. We are children of this revolution and naïve as in a dream, meandering through a fanciful tale of our own imagining. 

Coming into and through customs is a step down and sideways into wonderland. I’m directly behind Wavy Gravy, the wise fool, poet and shaman of hipsters everywhere. He has filled his suitcase with toys and tools to delight and amaze. He has trick light bulbs, masks, wigs, God knows what else, and the Japanese customs man looks at him with a look that is complex, and although it borders on disdain he never fully commits to it, not completely understanding the possible need for this paraphernalia nor the person in possession of it. An honest man, he waves Mr. Gravy through and doesn’t even consider me worthy of inspection. Americans! How did they manage to win the war? 

We are in Tokyo, all one hundred and twenty-five or so of us. Not all of us are performers but most of us are. We are to put on three days of concerts at a venue called the Harumi Dome. The Japanese have welcomed us but in their diplomatic way have shunted us to the side and made sure our effect on the public will be deflected. The Harumi Dome is away from the city. It is also a school break, spring vacation, so many of the students to whom we would be taking our message have gone back to their homes or away from the city. Evidently there hasn’t been a wealth of promotion for this event or maybe we simply don’t have the cache we have imagined. It doesn’t matter. We are here and we are insular to all but ourselves and our music. 

I have been composing a song with Japanese lyrics that I hope to be able to play here. It is becoming clear that the nuances of the Japanese language are beyond the easy acquisition of a neophyte gaijin. Every time I proffer a translation of Children of the Sun, help us save the whales. I get a soft rebuff and correction so that as I get closer and closer to the performance time I have no clue as to whether I will be correctly singing my intentions. The piece is accompanied by a recording of three humpback whales in the southern Atlantic Ocean recorded by Roger Payne. They sing their haunting songs like Miles Davis plays trumpet in Kind of Blue. The song seems to sync perfectly with the track, and the emotion it arouses in me is vast and complex. 

As the time comes to perform the piece in front of the thousands now gathered in the Harumi Dome, I am closer and closer to becoming completely frozen with fear. My hands are so cold I have to hit them to feel them, to vainly attempt to bring them to task. Fortunately, there is a Buddha here to help me. Jackson Browne’s associate, Donald Miller, is along for the ride on this trip and senses that I’m close to catatonia. He guides me onto the stage, makes sure I’m plugged in and standing in front of the microphone, offers some kind of reassurance and softly pushes me off from the shore into the sea of faces leaning up to see. Taiyo, no kodomo tachi, minna de, kujira-o s’kuo. It passes like a dream, the whales calling to all of us: Don’t kill us; don’t waste us simply for food. We are beings, sentient beings like yourselves. Rise up into greater compassion and higher expression of your own being. We are here upon this Great Wheel of Life together. 

I am passing through this strange idyll in time and space and then I’m revolving out the other side of the stage, standing once again among my peers who have only marginally noted my performance as they are consumed with the prospects of their own. 

In a sense this phase is over. There is more to do, to see, but the statement has been made and we will not know the effect for some time, if there is one. We retire to our hotel to see how we can best entertain ourselves and be entertained by our hosts. There is sake, there is Korean barbecue, there is sushi, there is much conversation, good feelings, and laughter. We are emissaries of the clouds. 

I have two imagined goals here in Japan, besides my performance, of course: I want to see if an old raku tea set can be found and purchased for the practice of the fine and ancient Art of Tea; and I want to observe the tattooed backs of the women of the Japanese underworld, the Yakuza: A fool, emboldened by imagination. 

M and I have eyed each other, spoken a bit, and edged closer into our common magnetic field. She has a friend along, but only a friend, though a friend who’s yearn has gone beyond chaste friendship. No matter. M will decide. She is beautiful in the way she has always been, unforced yet reserved, keenly observing all about her. The rest of the day passes into dinner and the evening and the revelation that there is a steam bath, a hot tub, and accompanying bathing paraphernalia up on one of the top floors. Let’s spa! We assume others will already have taken the territory, but no, it’s ours. Earlier in the day a hustler of multiple grades of kimonos has sold us silk robes. I’ve chosen the least expensive in a nice shade of green and M has gone more sophisticated and chosen a beautiful red kimono, complete with obi. She is a shade of tan with dark hair and the color sets her off beautifully. We go back to our rooms to return robed and ready for the bliss of steamy hot water. 

We can see out over the vastness of Tokyo. There is a room for steaming and the hot tub that is not large, but adequate, and there is a television. Why not? We turn on the TV and lo, and behold, it is a talk show where they are interviewing women of the Yakuza and showing us their inked and storied backs. I am nonplussed in bliss. I am nude in a steamy warm room with a beautiful woman of keen observation and impressive talent who is regarding me favorably, and I am seeing the exquisitely, complexly tattooed backs of the women of the Japanese underworld, consorts to outlaws of an ancient order. 

We bliss and ruminate, speaking of whatever comes along and using the sounds of our voices really only for the purpose of resonating the field. 

The warmth of the water has pealed away the layers of tactile defensiveness and opened us to our needing of touch. The tactile quickly takes us into the non-verbal and the melding of the fields. Once inside the envelope we surrender to our eyes, to our fingers, to tongues, to flesh in warm water against flesh in warm water. And now I am immersed within you and beginning to transform. 

And then you are standing there wrapped in your red kimono, a beam across your face that radiates from a core of expectant delight. I am rapt, as well. We are transported into the timeless space of lovemaking, slow and elastic. We are in your room, in your bed, you in your red kimono, exposed in an endless, curving surface of tan flesh and red silk. Here the mobius of flesh: Flesh that melts into and out of emotion, reflecting back into deepening feeling. It is lyric and novel and forever as myth. 

And it is morning. God damn the Sun and his masked emissaries, the watches and the clocks. The last little crumbs of touching, rapture remembered: The sweet expectation of a new morning with, and as, a new person. And here then the vanity of our weakness that leads to the greatest of folly: The request for verification. Didja come? The look, the pause. No, I never come unless I am in love. 

Whack. The Wall. Oh. Quick the backward step. Ego! Here Ego! The balming palm assuaging. We are eggs in our conception and we retain our fragile shells throughout time, mending them, piecing them back again and again though they may re-craze and even shatter. All the king’s horses, indeed. I’ve reflexed backwards through a time continuum, I’ve armored and I’m almost, already gone. A kiss, but only as a sealing off of something that shall remain timeless, and grow in sacredness in our passing of the years. 

Time solves and dissolves. We are back on the plane, waiting for the last of our stragglers to appear. The last one on board is Lonnie Mack, the great hirsute slammer of the blues and the power line. The Japanese have not appreciated his playing as they have been put off by his expansive growth of beard and hair, something beyond frown in their culture. He looks primitive to them and he plays and sings with a rawness that has no discrete coyness in it. It is being without décor. 

He comes through the door of the 747 with a broad, beaming smile all over his face. He has found something that makes him laugh, because it laughs: A laughing loaf of bread. Squeeze it and it cackles. He squeezes it and breaks up. He squeezes it again and we do, too. It’s absurd as this trip has been absurd, and as meaningful. To be able to allow laughter to re-meld the bond that we all know in some hours will be ending, but for memory. We sigh as one. We chatter softly a bit and then quiet. We are going home. 

I have eaten skewered and roasted eel from a street vendor, having misjudged the culture by the seemingly evident cleanliness of everything. Eating off the street is what mothers warn their children against in every culture. As the trip progresses I am getting ill. I can feel it building inside, making me strange, ballooning me, tethered, in and out of my body. I mentally roll into my cocoon and remain there for the rest of journey. I will be told by a doctor in Hollywood that I have diabetes. My blood sugar is off the scale. Fortunately, it is only a food-born virus, the revenge of the eel, a slight warning from Japan that it is not what it appears to be. 

Some years later I am playing a small club in the little town where M resides. She has been gracious and has come to see and hear me. I am open in my playing but reserved in her company. I cannot explain, nor will I, that I got very close and was almost through her door when it slammed. Too close to call. After the show is over she makes an overture with her eyes and wonders if I have a place to stay. Here is where the knife tightly resists the backward pull as it is withdrawn by memory: Unfortunately, I do have a place to stay. There is that moment’s hesitation followed by regret and the steamy recall of the red kimono. If this could be, it can’t. I never completely lose touch but we don’t speak again. We spend our times as meaningfully as we can and then one day I hear the sad rumor of her illness. She is passing, bravely and beautifully, but she is passing. And part of me is passing, too, with her. I bend myself to memory and to song, a song she will only hear from the place where she still resides within my heart. 

The Red Kimono
Tell the shadows to step back
Tonight there must be light
At first glance things seem different
But this is second sight 
From a distance now eternal
We’re in Tokyo, Japan
We’re here to save the whales
If, with our hearts, we can
And, of course, to save ourselves
Stealing moments to redeem
The places where the flame
Illuminates the dream
There are yakuza women
The glowing screen reveals
Their tattooed backs are stories
Of fates already sealed 

And You 
In your red kimono
Float out of the steam
And You 
With the rose obi in your hand
(With the unwound obi in your hand)
Stand beaming
And You 
In your red kimono
And I
Are dreaming 

You are the mirror of the flower
In a classical Noh play
Voices nearly wordless
It takes our eyes to pray 

We, who learn to worship Love
Like water, like air
Who suffocate and drown
When it becomes too rare
Turned and shaped upon the wheel
We are what we’ve desired
The mystery of the glaze
Is revealed when the clay is fired 

We never speak of it again
Redeemed but not reborn
Sailing the flesh curves
Under the silk you’d worn

(c) 2001 Bicameral Songs