The Light At The End Of The Tunnel (1)
Paul Malone, Emma Downey, Jasmin Fürbach, Connie Phlipot, Marianne Graninger, Jennifer Cornick, Paul Sloan, Holly Girling and Keith Gray.
You can also listen to the podcast here.
From the lookout I spotted the box kite tangled in a beech tree in the woods below. Tomato red at one end, avocado green at the other (like the topping on my morning toast) the kite tussled with the branches in the breeze. And like me, metaphorically at least, the kite was struggling to break free. Over the hills we both longed to fly—up through the atmosphere— over Vienna to the east and beyond. To Japan maybe.
The breeze found its way through the zip in my thin Übergangsjacke, giving me a shiver and a thrilling revelation: I had just seen the box kite’s owner walking through the woods: a young Japanese woman wearing a white and cherry spotted dress with a ribbon at the waist. Simple, elegant and vintage. She looked as though she’d just stepped out of a time machine… from 1942 or thereabouts. And she trod barefoot through the wild garlic that carpeted the forest floor, her white slippers in hand, all the while peering up at the trees.
I was about to call out to her, offer help if needed…invite her to lunch even (she really was beautiful), but something held me back. Her fearful expression, I guess. She was searching for something. The kite, I know now. But I didn’t know then. I imagined a Japanese WWII fighter plane—the Kawasaki Ki-61 (I still have the model from my childhood) crashed in the trees. Her lover climbing out, a bloody scratch above his brow, a pistol in his hand—one he wouldn’t hesitate to use on me.
Now that irrational image fizzled away. Only she remained. “Your kite!” I shouted triumphantly and took off down the lookout stairs, the theme song from “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” running through my head.
Once I whirled out of the concrete spiral a gust of wind hit my face. It carried the scent of Lilly of the Valley or Maigluchen as they know are here, those beautiful snowy poison bells. I looked around searching for the woman, couldn’t see her but I heard her words on the breeze but I could not understand them or even guess what they could mean, their shape was too different in my ears. Was she gently coaxing the kite down or cursing the tree that held it captive in the foulest words of her native tongue, I wondered. My pace quickened, I had been a good climber in primary school, it used to impress the girls, I had the perfect excuse to approach this young woman and I would take the opportunity, forget shyness. I could picture us sitting on a rustic wooden table in the nearby Beissel having lunch together.
Now I’d lost sight of her in the midst of my giddy thoughts as I scrambled down the slope through the trees. A white cherry dotted skirt caught the corner of my eye, there she was, she had recovered her kite and now it glided assuredly over her head in the steady breeze. She walked briskly, in purposeful steps down the path. As we moved onto flatter ground I was close to her, I could have just gone and spoken to her but I had missed my chance for a natural introduction. With every step I was further from my cute first meeting story, I’d lost my nerve.
The sun had gone down and it was getting colder, I felt my shoulders tighten. The woman had put a red anorak over her dress. It was time to forget her I thought, that is unless we happened to take the same bus. Someone was walking close to me now, their footsteps sounded heavy, echoing, that was weird. I turned around slowly.
Instinctively, I stepped backwards. The woman, in her signal red anorak, underneath which I could still see glimpses of the dress that had caught my eye, she stood before me. I didn’t know, how it was possible to have missed her approaching me. But there she was. I would have expected to spot a trace of accusation in her face, not the confused hint of a smile, curiosity evident in her manner. Her fingers spasmed around the kite, giving away her nervousness. I let my gaze travel over her slender shoulders and down her arms, seeing her shiver despite the anorak. For but a moment, I imagined myself offering her my own jacket, how she would smile and thank me.
A stranger, that’s all I was to her. Even if I were to talk to her she would know, she would realise, I had followed her. I couldn’t quite understand why she hadn’t moved yet. Shouldn’t there be some kind of interaction, some reason why she seemed to look at me the way I looked at her? I opened my mouth, ready to ask her, but closed it again without having said a word. The voice in my head, the one that reminded me day in and day out to become my best self, it urged me to speak up, to use the opportunity. Once more, I tried to ask of her a reason for her still being here. When no words passed my lips, her almond eyes narrowed. She tilted her head, raised an eyebrow. Maybe she understood. Maybe she could hear me even through the silence. I watched, in an anxious state of expectation, how the corner of her mouth ticked upwards. She leaned in, one hand closing around my wrist.
I tried to pull my hand free, but her grip was strong, surprisingly so for someone with porcelain delicate arms. She leaned close to me, her breath sweet like bubble gum, the ends of her hair a curtain covering half of her face.
“I need you,” she said.
I looked into those almond eyes. Did she mean for love? My pulse fired up at the thought. Then I studied her face, it was not not passion, but fear, in those lovely eyes.
“What can I do?” I answered and she relaxed her hold on my wrist. The kite hovered behind her, a few feet above her head.
“Come with me. I have to explain something first.”
I had been planning to catch the 17:05 bus for home, but instead I followed her away from the bus stop. She led me to a low grassy area behind the school and then knelt down, clasping her arms around herself to stay warm.
“The kite has a message. For someone across the country.”
“Can’t you mail it?”
She looked at me as if I were an ignorant child. “No, I guess I didn’t explain myself.” She stood up and brushed the grass from her knees.
“It’s not simple like a letter. The message is in the design and interplay of color on the kite. Only the person it is intended for will understand.”
I didn’t understand at all, but I nodded. I wanted to keep listening to her soft voice and watching the swish of her hair. “Okay, tell me more. Like who sent you on the mission.”
“I can’t tell you that. Trust me. It’s important, not just to me. To everyone, the earth.”
The was leading into the occult, mystical world that I avoided. But somehow I did trust her.
“At least tell me who are you sending it to.”
She shot me an undefined look. “I’m not supposed to…”
In fact, I didn’t really care. I had always told myself to be more spontaneous, to catch the opportunities that popped up – and what could have fit that intention better than helping this beautiful mysterious lady to save… whatever there was to save. I nodded. “Tell me what to do.”
She looked right and left, then pulled out some papers from under her skirt. Where had those been hiding? She either didn’t notice my surprised look or just ignored it – probably the latter, as she seemed more and more like a professional undercover agent from an old-fashioned Anime Movie to me. As she spread out the sheets, I realized it was a world map. Somewhat disappointed I asked myself what I had been expecting. Maybe some ancient Japanese signs speaking of the world’s destiny, readable only by some chosen subjects in the modern world. I glanced at the woman kneeling in the grass next to me. If someone were to be the chosen one, it would have been her. “Look”, she said, refocusing my attention on the mission I had no idea about. “The message was sent off here” – her hand moved from Japan to the coast of Portugal – “and has to go here, unharmed. Members of the Order are positioned everywhere in between, they have all been informed and are ready for the kite to arrive and pass it on.” “The…Order?”, I replied. I was very willing to help this beautiful lady but didn’t want to be drawn into some sort of cult here. She sighed, then leaned forward and whispered in my ear: “The Forest’s Order. You can consider us the…guardians of nature.”
I never heard of such a thing in my life. As much as I was ready to jump in with both feet, to have a new adventure, this was outside the cosy little box I cultivated as my comfort zone. Way outside it. All I had really wanted was an opportunity to naturally introduce myself to the beautiful woman kneeling on the grass across from me. I still didn’t know her name.
“Can you tell me who you are?” I looked at her and the kite message and the map spread out between us.
“Sakura,” she said. “I look after the blossoming trees in the spring time.” The tree branches in the forest rustled around us as she said her name. One or two of them releasing petals to float in the air, and swirl around us.
This felt more magical than I liked. I don’t have magical powers. And until this point, like the vast majority of the population, I believed magic did not exist. Same with the guardians of nature. She already had her kite which means climbing trees was not what she wanted. “What can I do?” I asked, more timidly than I would have liked given my new resolution.
She looked at me, at her kite message, and the map. “I need the winds to change,” she said, as though it were simple and accomplishable. “The kite needs to fly and everything is in the wrong direction.”
I was saddened that this task wasn’t accomplishable. And through my inability to help, I had lost the opportunity to know her better. It ached more than it should have based on so slight an acquaintance, her beauty, and a slight touch of her hand on my wrist.
“I cannot do that,” I said, preparing to leave.
“I need you.”
“I can’t change the winds.”
“I can, and I need your help.”
“I can barely take care of myself.”
“Our bodies—these bodies—change the direction of air. In and out, all day, every day, all the time. It’s the same with the winds.”
I pointed myself to the east and blew as hard as I could towards Portugal.
“Did that work?”
“No, we have to breathe into each other’s mouths. You inhale as I exhale, and back and forth. When you feel it- the power- tingle in your fingers and toes, we face west, let go the kite, and pivot east.”
“That’s how we change the wind? We kiss and spin?” I hoped.
“We don’t kiss. We’re just close. We can’t kiss, that’s love, and that brings the North Wind. The North Wind destroys dreams and gardens. He will kill my blossoms.” She cried, scared for her blossoms; and I was caught between wanting to help and kiss her.
“I might kiss you.”
“You might kiss me and kill my blossoms. I can’t risk that,” her eyes darted around the area for someone to help her. she clenched her fists and jaw, relaxed, and looked to me, “don’t kiss me. We can go somewhere- together- later today. I’ll tell you all about the East Wind, she’s mischievous. You’ll like her. She probably planned this.”
I was shocked, “Okay,” we had a date, “what do we do?”
She gripped my elbows and watched my breath to synchronise it against hers. We drew close, heart racing, a kiss with open mouths and eyes, and I remembered then. Exodus. The East Wind scorched the grains, brought the locusts, and collapsed the Red Sea to kill Pharaoh and his army. What had Sakura and I brought upon us?
I feared to fail and so, I focused. Inhale, exhale. Inhale, exhale. Sakura’s body was still, her lips unmoving. I tightened my eyes shut and allowed myself the fantasy–the fantasy of the blossoms that danced around us, the fantasy of the wind fighting our desires, the fantasy of us, me and Sakura, where we might go, where she might come from. Our breath slowed, the fusion of it mushrooming into either something toxic or something beautiful. There was that power Sakura said she needed, that power that surged from her fingertips to my toes, and that’s when I knew.
I knew I could be this kite, this fragile flight of a thing. I knew the winds could change and I knew I could change them. As Sakura drew her lips from mine, once again she grabbed my wrist and with her power spun my body westward. Our breath was still connected, I lived in her lungs, not far from her heart, and she in mine. Eyes to the setting sun, to the marigold sky and the kite, its red and green now almost transparent beneath which a script appeared, an alphabet of leaves and trees and petals. I looked to Sakura, was there really such a power in nature, really such an Order? And then we turned East.
Sakura swung the thin string of the kite and it smiled above us, the wind guiding it in the shape of a mouth’s grin, that crescent of happiness that matched Sakura’s face, and mine. The winds curved the trees, their canopy forming a tunnel for the kite through the forest. Sakura let go of the string and watched it trail behind the kite like a monkey’s tail.
“You are free,” she said.
We watched it go. I shaded my eyes to see it go higher and higher, then be carried across the sky.
‘What now?’ I asked.
But Sakura was gone.
Had she run? I hadn’t heard her. There was no sign of her. And I’d hoped that later we could meet again and… I felt embarrassed by my presumption. I’d taken her beauty for granted.
I walked out of the trees feeling alone and dejected, confused and even ashamed. Had she even been real? Had she even been sane? I remembered thinking about the East Wind legends. How much had I imagined?
I looked up and shaded my eyes again to look for her kite. I needed proof that she had been real, that there were such agents of nature trying to help the world. But I couldn’t see Sakura’s kite anymore.
It was lost among so many others.
More kites than clouds.
Hundreds, thousands of colourful kites carried on the winds. Not kites carrying messages of destruction. But kites of warning, kites of need, kites of pleading, kites of necessity. Released from Vienna and Edinburgh and Lisbon and Ottawa and Tokyo and Wellington and Sao Paolo and every city and town and village in every country in every corner of our world.
Kites of hope for the future filling our skies.
What a fun story to share. A pleasure to be involved. Looking forward to the SWC podcast.