The Light at the End of the Tunnel (3)
Written by Paul Malone, Anmol Gandhi, Jon Pickering, Eleanor Kiesman, Gabrielle Smith-Dluha, Tamara Raidt, Caroline Stevenson and Keith Gray
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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.
“Hi,” I mumbled when my feet halted a few metres away from the woman.
She gave me a terse smile before turning back to the box kite.
“Your kite’s stuck,” I blurted out.
She glanced at me.
“An acute observation,” she said. I mentally face-palmed myself.
“I mean—” I said, trying not to screw this up anymore. “May I help you?”
“Sure,” she said, although her tone suggested she did not think I could.
“It’s the perfect Viennese day,” I said as I circled the tree. I was going to salvage this box kite, so help me God.
“The kind you only see if you stick around long enough,” she smiled. For some reason, the mention of good weather softened her up.
“Okay, we might be able to get it out.” I said, standing on the opposite side of the tree. “The leaves seem to be more spread out on this side.”
Right before she walked toward me, I could have sworn I saw doubt flicker across her brows.
Once she was next to me, I said nonchalantly, “So, you’ve been here awhile?” I hoped I was better at fooling her than I was at fooling myself. My heart was beating at 225mph—
faster than some Formula 1 cars went.
“Born and raised,” she said.
“Oh.” I hadn’t expected that.
We both fell silent as we gazed up at the kite, mesmerised slightly by its dancing to the tune of the soft breeze accompanied by the rhythmic tap-tapping of a nearby woodpecker. My heart began to calm once again, as it always did when I managed to escape into the woods. I could feel the tranquillity seeping into my bones.
“So what exactly is your plan to recover my kite?” Her soft questioning voice, almost a gentle caress across my brow, pulled my eyes from the plight of the kite and back to this mystery that was her.
“Erm…” I winced at my inarticulate reply. What was it about this strange, out of time woman that was robbing me of my usual poise? “Well I could find a large branch and see if I could dislodge it.”
Her face once again grew troubled, almost fearful. “I- I do not believe that to be the wisest course of action,” she replied, her voice actually shaking slightly. “My kite could be broken, or even blow away entirely. I cannot afford to lose my kite. No, that simply will not do.”
Something caught my eye, glinting in the sunlight. Raising a hand to shield my face from the bright light, I looked harder at the red and green fabric panels on the side of the kite. Was there… Yes, there was something metal on the inside of one of the fabric pieces. I stared hard at the small object, but was unable to identify it – although it could be no larger than 5cm across. Well, the only way to know what this new mystery item was would be to get the kite down.
Now I just needed to work out how exactly I was going to achieve that.
I felt a strong desire to please this woman, to reunite her with her kite. I couldn’t explain it, this pull I felt. She was beautiful, but it was more than that. Her clothing, the way she walked, the worried look in her eyes… she seemed familiar to me somehow. I felt like an actor in a play who’d forgotten his line. She stood there, looking up at her kite in the tree, and then back again at me, hoping for me to produce a solution for its’ rescue. But more deeply, I felt as though she were waiting for me to to tell her something, or ask her something. And I was determined to find out what it was.
I pulled out my phone and began searching the people I knew, hoping to find someone useful. At least, more apt at getting a kite down from a tree. I stopped at a contact with only a first name – Felix. I’d met Felix briefly at a networking event. His day job was at MA42. Also known as: The parks department.
“Hey, I’ve got it! I know what to do. I have this friend…well, ok I know a guy…I know a guy who can get your kite down. He works for the city parks department.”
“Stadtgärten? You know someone there? But you don’t…um…I mean, I thought you… Never mind. Please, call him. My kite can’t stay up there.”
I hesitated. Did she know something about me. Did I have that same shimmer of familiarity for her too?
“What did you think?”
“Please, it’s nothing. Really. Please just call your friend.”
Just then, a low rumble. I looked up. Blue and clear. Another distant murmur. Looking eastward, a dark wall of clouds approached.
“No,” she said, “My kite can’t stay up there!” She squinted at the dark clouds and then strained her face upwards into the branches that were too high to reach. “I’ve worked forever on this.” She was clearly stressed.
“It’s about more than the kite.” She said, glancing into my eyes for a moment. “But it’s just too complicated to explain. I don’t even know you.”
I said nothing. I put all myself into listening, receiving what she needed to tell.
She started again, “These times are so uncertain, surreal. I’ve put a lot into this kite.”
She stopped and looked so seriously at me, her beautiful eyes clear and steady. She tucked her dark hair behind her ear, turned her face away and started talking again.
“It’s my father. He’s a businessman, you know, in banking. That’s his life. My parents want me to be a doctor. They think I go to medical school. Every day after breakfast, I say goodbye, like I am going to class. I take my bag and books. I found out I am a good liar. But actually, I go to museums. All day, every day for hours, days, weeks. It started with a Japanese vase exhibit at MAK and then I couldn’t stop. I thought I would just skip class that one day, but I never went back. I don’t even know how many museums I’ve gone to now. And at night I stay up in my bed looking into my family roots. I look into family albums, the internet, books. My parents think I am studying.
You know what I found?”
I shook my head no, I didn’t know. What?
“My great grandmother was a kite maker. This was unheard of for a woman in those times. No women made kites. What the men did is that they made box kites for fighting. They hand painted the faces of famous Samurai on the kites and battled them. But not my great grandmother. She made hers secretly. And entirely differently. She painted something else on her kites, not Samurai. And see this dress?” She turned her back slightly so I could see the artfully tied bow. She smiled for the first time, “She wore this kind of dress.”
“Beautiful” I breathed.
“And do you know what she painted on her kites?”
“The face of her beloved son, Gabriel, who fell in war. She thought flying that kite around with his face on it would help her communicate with him.” She paused. It felt like eternity.
“What did you paint on your kite?” I broke the silence that dwelled upon us, glancing at the dark clouds that came closer at the same time. “Well, I assume it’s painted. From here, I can only see one side…”
She smiled as her eyes got watery.
“You know, I feel very close to my great grandmother. She and I, we share the same kind of pain. Now that I feel it too, I recognize it in people’s eyes – the ones that have gone through mourning and the ones that haven’t. I believe you have.”
I was struck by her piercing look, probing my soul for some answer. I remained silent; for that was the best I could do given the circumstances.
“I painted my brother Michael, who got killed in a car accident three years ago, on the exact same day.
– I’m so so –
– Don’t be, she chuckled nervously, it’s not your fault a drunk driver took the road that night. You know, I was broken. For years, I thought there was no light at the end of the tunnel. But now, I can see it.”
She sighed and looked up to the kite. At that very moment, a violent squall made the tree shiver. The branches danced in the wind and the kite began its slow fall from the top. It landed at my feet without a sound. It was the first time I could see the painting of Michael’s angelic face. His dark eyes seemed pointing at me. A shiver ran down my spine when I realised: I recognised him.
That metallic object which had caught my attention earlier was the pin of his medical name tag: Dr. Kageyami. Unlike his sibling, he had fulfilled his parents’ wishes.
At once I was transported back to that ward and all the hours spent on it. His face during that time had become a familiar anchor amongst a sea of white overcoats. He had always appeared to be wearing a halo when he shook me awake at the bedside and I looked up at him groggily against the glaring lights. He told me gently but matter-of-factly that nothing more could be done. Did I wish to be in the room when her machine was turned off? I had not thought of him since that final day five years ago. Dr. Kageyami – Michael – hadn’t existed beyond those hospital walls.
Since being plunged into darkness, I had combined her breakfast ritual with my own. It was admittedly more adult – real tomatoes on toast and not just tomato ketchup. Most cultures, religions and families dedicate one day of the year to dine with the deceased, but I dined with her all year round.
Would the kite have even caught my attention if it had not been such a neat summary of my existence?
The wind rustling through the trees brought me out of my reverie and back to the patient gaze of my new companion. She had the expectant look of someone who had just handed their teacup to a fortune teller for the pattern of the leaves to be deciphered. The course of our fates would be decided by my next sentence. There was no staying quiet now. I tried my best to sound upbeat:
“My daughter would have been an artist. She’d have had her own exhibit at the MAK, my Lucy.”
The look of total understanding and shared sympathy on this woman’s face released a rising wave of sadness from the pit of my stomach, rising up through my chest and throat and bursting out of my mouth in a low and awful moaning rush of grief. I tried to say Lucy’s name out loud but it got lost in the depth of my misery.
Now the storm came. The rain lashed the trees and me and Michael’s sister. But she wouldn’t let go of the box kite. We crouched down with our arms tight around each other’s shoulders and we were soon soaked through to our skin as the storm hit us from every side. It felt like the wind was going to whip us away, but we clung on. Thunder bellowed at us. Lightning hoped to scare us. It felt like the cold rain was going to freeze us. But huddled together we managed to keep warm. We didn’t drown.
I wasn’t sure how many hours the storm assaulted us but it’s ferocity couldn’t last forever and it weakened, lightened, eased until at last there was sunshine through the branches of the trees once again. Michael’s sister and I stared at each other in our sodden clothes, relieved that this harrowing storm was finally past.
She was the first to speak. ‘Will you paint Lucy on the kite?’
I nodded. ‘I’d like to do that.’
‘I’ll paint my grandmother too.’
‘And then what will we do with it?’
‘We’ll take it far away from any trees that might try to hold it back, and let it go of course.’
I nodded again and smiled. That would feel wonderful.