August 2009

Mariko Nagai


Julia Alter
Kurt Brown
Alex Dimitrov This marks an author's first online publication
Gregory Lawless
Austin MacRae
Kirby Olson
Simon Perchik
Marvyn Petrucci
Dan Veach This marks an author's first online publication
Ryan Vine
Rob Walker
Hilde Weisert
Marjory Wentworth
Ross White
Michael Wynn

Haley Carrollhach This marks an author's first online publication
Mariko Nagai

David M. Katz
interviews Daniel Brown

David Rigsbee
reviews Divine Comedy: Journeys through a
Regional Geography

three new works by
John Kinsella


Mariko Nagai's work has been published in New Letters, The Gettysburg Review, The Chattahoochee Review, among others, and has received the Pushcart Prize both in poetry and fiction. She has received fellowships from the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center, Yaddo, UNESCO-Aschberg Bursaries for Artists. Currently she resides in Tokyo, Japan, and is Assistant Professor of Japanese Literature and Creative Writing at Temple University Japan Campus.

Drowning Land

As soon as dreams leave dreamers, abandoned or rejected like leaves in late autumn, brown and bogged with rain, they find birds to fly with, and make their way over the mountain; past the pasture where cows and time stand so still a painter could've painted it as still life; past the cows digesting their past slowly; and finally drop down to land on the roof of a house where the boy sleeps. Then they seep through the cracks, down the wide beam that holds the house up, and drop into the boy's mouth that's slightly open with a hint of snore. Dreams find their ways into the boy's sleep. He dreams people's thrown-away dreams, nightmares where children hide under beds to hide from imagined and real monsters, daydreams of great riches and loves that get interrupted by teachers who want facts, facts that they can see, facts, nothing but facts. Moments so real, more real than anything they know so that wherever they may be, whatever they may be doing, those things cease to matter. He dreams them all. Call him a dream collector. He dreams them all. And sometimes, he sees all that is hidden underneath, hidden under the faces people put on in the mornings, as soon as they wake up, dreams that are too near to the heart that only at nights do they dare to come out.

The boy does nothing but lies in his bed and sleeps. That's all he does. In his sleep, he has lived many lives. He sleeps all day long, eats whenever he wakes up, but it is never too long. He goes back to his bedding as soon as he is done eating, curling up like a question mark. His mother says that he is a no-good son, a lazy boy, why can't you help around the house? Don't you want to be a good son to your old parents? Why don't you use the good health the gods have given you to help with the farming? She says this every day, from the time she is up to the time she goes to bed. The boy has learned to nod off as soon as he sees her, first stretching out like a cat whenever she raises her voice, or tweaks his ear, or on occasion, sweeps him like dust with her broom. He pretends that he cannot understand a word she's saying. And without understanding, anything can sound like a mermaid song. He pretends to be a bear during its winter sleep, its heartbeat slowed down so slow that it beats only twice a minute. Or perhaps a rock in the quiet brook. Just letting the water pass over the top of the boy. He just sleeps, and dreams of all the things people never remember.

A dream: the boy's standing in a bedroom in Boston. The boy is a man with short black hair. Outside the window, the moon is as big as a house, yellow and bright with closeness. He sits at his desk and recites a poem. With words of a poem in his head, he falls asleep. An angel kisses his forehead, whispering the poem over and over until the man's sleep is the poem itself. Across the town, a woman reads the same poem over and over, asking herself where the love has gone wrong. She asks where it has gone wrong, or whether all this is just in her head.

A dream: He is now a young man. The heart shatters, breaking like branches under the weight of snow. Snaps. All the pain has piled up and up, until the branches bowed, until they bowed and the tips touched the ground. And the heart breaks. Standing in the black field where fire has left nothing green, the young man cries until his body shakes. Until it stills. The young man does not speak. Only looks. Wind touches trees as if to comfort them, but they do not rustle; they creak. Dried and charred from the fire. All gone. The fire has eaten everything in sight, leaving only the remains of what it has embraced, black and hard, brittle to the touch. The harvest. The cattle. Nothing left. Not one thing left to remind the young man of all the labor he has put in. Even his tears, which should have come out, have been sucked dry by the fire, fire that dries all moist things instantly. He stands still, wanting to understand the message of the gods, but the ground is silent. There are no birds in the sky, as if they, too, know that the ground is silent. He doesn't know how long he has been standing like that. Clouds part, and suddenly, the sun shines on the field. Underneath his feet, a worm wriggles out of dark earth. He picks it up gently with his fingers. It wriggles, trying blindly to free itself. And the young man laughs. Laughs until tears roll down his cheeks. Laughs so hard that he is crying. But no longer from pain. In hope.

A dream: She is watching a man moving slowly toward the house surrounded by rice fields. The house itself is surrounded by green, the early summer rice field—green still light enough that it feels more refreshing than it does overwhelming. She is watching a man walking slowly toward the house, face unrecognizable from the bent back. From afar, she knows that the man is a soldier, a figure clad in beige like any other soldier who has been newly released with the surrender. She has seen men passing through, all with the same look on their faces: bewildered, released, dejected, eyes barely visible in dark, folded skin, folded hurriedly that the lines go every which way. The war has made them anonymous. The sun beats heavily on her neck, but a child knows nothing of seasonal changes. From the house, she hears her grandmother scream, then numerous hurried steps rushing toward the gate. She keeps watching the lone figure approaching her world. And he does change her world.

A dream: Her legs no longer listen to her. The woman has become too old—most people lose their friends one by one because of death, but the woman has lost control of her own limbs one by one. Her legs no longer have the strength to carry her around, though she is as skinny as the little girl she once was. Day after day, she sits on her couch by the window, and looks down onto the street three stories down. Day after day, she sees many people rushing by, hurrying to get to places only they know how to get to. She looks out. Her only friend, her husband, so old that wrinkles and sunspots cover his face like a mask, would sit with her for few hours, too, holding her hand. They would sit and watch days pass before their eyes. Seasons turning, leaving the window and the room untouched. Day after day, there would be a little girl in braids passing the window at the same time. She is first a little girl in braids wearing a pair of stockings, then she becomes a young girl in a ponytail and rolled down socks, then a young woman with short hair and transparent pantyhose. The old man and woman watch her grow up with the years, loving her as a grandchild they never had. They never talk about her, just watch her, each with a separate love, each with a separate understanding of her. And the young woman never knew about the two pairs of eyes that watched her grow up. One day, right in front of the window, the handle of her big bag breaks, spilling her notebooks and make-up on the street. Both the old woman and man gasp, wanting to help her gather her stuff before hurrying feet trample everything. The young woman quickly scoops down, rescuing her little possessions from the trampling. Suddenly, she stops. She feels someone close to her, and the little voice in her head says, Look up, look up or you will miss them. She looks up. For the first time, she looks up and sees an old woman and man looking down from the third floor of the rundown building she always walks by. Then the world slows down suddenly, the old woman and man unfocused, blurry; instead, the moment focuses on a young man with a bowler hat, looming over the young girl, blocking the window, curtaining the old couple completely now, and he asks the young girl, can I help you? She blushes. The old woman and man hold each other's hands tighter. Soon, the old woman dies, followed by the old man.

A dream: The only thing he can see is the sky. Lying on his back, the sky moves, clouds passing over him as if the world could care less about a man dying. It doesn't care. If he could touch the sky, he would. If he could touch his wife once again, he would. But even if he could, he wouldn't trade the view with anything else. He feels small, but also, he understands that he is dying because he must, as anything else, as clouds that must move on.

So he sleeps on and off for three years, gathering dreams like an avid collector, pigeonholing them in his memory. Loss goes here, love goes here, hope goes here, loneliness goes here. In the end, each dream can go into each hole. They are all the same, all the things humans experience in one lifetime. And they are all his, and yet they are everyone's, if anyone chooses to want to look at it, or to understand it. Everyone is too busy to look, working hard just to live for one day. If they cannot keep their own dreams, how can they—why would they want to look at someone else's dreams? Only someone like the boy, who has no real life of his own, can toy around with it. His mother, when he tries to share these dreams he has seen, says that he is a dreamer, and that he doesn't know anything. He is just a dreamer, impractical and useless. To him, all the dreams he sees are as real, more real than his house, his mother. All these told more about people than they ever dared to say. All the pain he felt in different dreams is real and his heart has broken so many times. And the laughter filled him up.

One day, he dreams no dream. He hears a voice by his ear, a whisper, really, that someone might have mistaken for wind passing through the whirligig. It's time to wake up. He gets up from his bedding. Through the doorway and into the front yard, he stumbles. The sun blinds his eyes, and he staggers under the weight of such brightness. From one darkness, his eyes slowly readjust to the bright light he is not used to. Slowly, he sees dark shapes of people working in the far away fields, most bent in the middle, shouldering the whole sky as they reach down to the ground and tenderly touch the green buds wilting under the heat. Everything bows under the brutal sun. He shades his eyes and begins to walk toward them, and as marionettes pulled by invisible strings, village children follow behind him, some laughing, some yelling out, the lazy boy has woken up after three years of sleep, the lazy no-good boy has woken up. He does not hear anything. Soon, rocks follow him from behind, slivering the air and pelting his back. He does not feel them thudding on his back. He just walks on until he reaches the edge of the village where the stream lies. The stream is too low for the season. Crops have wilted. The winter will be harsh.

He kneels on the ground and puts his ear against the ground. Children stop throwing rocks at him. He moves a foot away, kneels again. All the adults have unbent themselves, looking at him from their fields. The boy presses his ear again. Everything is quiet. Even birds have stopped in mid-flight. Only a swallow in the sky. The boy presses his ear. He hears something faint, something rushing under him. He lays his palm down, and feels the ground. The same voice he heard earlier says, Here. The boy gets up as suddenly as he has gotten up suddenly from his three year long sleep, and runs home. Runs into the shed and grabs a hoe and runs back to where the sound is, little off the stream. With a hoe, he breaks the dry earth. He keeps digging and digging. The adults start to laugh, some making twirling signs by their heads. The boy's mother, when she realizes that her son is the center of attention, runs to him and grabs his arms as he is about the strike the stubborn ground again. Stop it, what are you doing? He pushes her aside and keeps digging. Everyone stands still. He keeps digging and digging as the summer sun eats his white neck, turning it bright red with a sheet of sweat over it.

One by one, children begin to run home to get shovels, hoes, axes, anything that will break open the earth. Soon, adults begin to wander away from where they are toward the edge around the cluster of children hacking the ground. They, too, after watching, begin to dig the earth. The hole has become a crater, deeper than three adult men put together, wider than the path leading to the edge of the village. And they keep digging. No one says a word. The whole village raises their arms in the same rhythm, in the rhythm of two beats, up, down, up, down. Drop them strongly on the downbeat. As the boy strikes the earth one more time, the water begins to seep through, spreading out like a river, spreading out like the sky the boy has once seen in his dream.

There is water for the field; winter will be kind.



Mariko Nagai: Poetry
Copyright ©2009 The Cortland Review Issue 44The Cortland Review