"Object lessons" comes from 1873, a novel I'm writing about an archivist during and after the 2011 earthquake in Japan. The archive is a site of layers—of times and places coming together and existing in the present—and ま, the archivist, experiences time and space that way. She also is a compulsive collector of lost things: her own fragmented memories, scraps of paper, objects that in some way might reorder the very disordered time after a disaster. Coming across objects in the wreckage triggers memory; in some cases it also triggers a kind of multi-level historical fugue state, where ま witnesses the passing of timescales much larger than the human one. In "Object lessons," which takes place in Natori (a small, oceanside town ま has walked to from Sendai, a few days after the quake and tsunami), there's some of both: ま remembers being in a monastery and on a train, but she also 'remembers' or projects the invasion of bluebells in Lombardy during the 19th century, the invention or adaptation of the encyclopedia in Japan in the 17th century, and the future she imagines for the archive where she works.
The objects in "Object lessons"—a pilgrim's traveling book; an encyclopedia; a charm or amulet—are markers of the passage of time or the passage through space. The pilgrim moves from temple to temple, where monks record their presence (I was here, the object says, and traces a path: here and here and here). The encyclopedia tells us what 'knowledge' means at a given time and in a given place; it purports to hold a scale model of the world. It tells us what 'here' and 'now' mean by putting them in relation to other things. And a charm is a manifestation of a desire or wish, an arrow shot into the future (with hope) or the past (with regret). They are also objects that incorporate writing, that preserve the marks of language even after the person who put the marks there—the individual, with their perishable body—has disappeared.
For a pilgrimage. ま got hers in Nara some years ago. With a maroon cloth cover and inside the fine texture of the paper. An accordion: there's a risk of everything falling out as soon as you pick it up. In that way, something like her life. Diffcult to fit the book into its stiff plastic case. But it does slide in, eventually. The texture of the cover like an Oxford shirt, thinks ま. She slides the 朱印帳 in and out, in and out of its case, sitting on the train. Nothing to do for these long hours except wait. Imagine walking all this way, which is what they used to do, she thinks. A real pilgrimage. The seats are a plastic velour with a high nap. Gray. Down the middle of each runs a stripe of color: blue/orange/purple on the seats facing the direction the train is heading. Blue/orange/green on the seats facing ま Underneath the table attached to the wall of the train, dedicated travelers have built up a wall of old gum. Its texture is dry, like the scrubbed outside of a walnut. ま runs her fngers over it, wondering about the teeth whose prints are still there. The train is winding around a mountain now, the dense green of it interrupted where a tree has fallen or growth has become irregular, and the warm gold light comes streaming through. Other than that, thinks ま, we could be underwater. She imagines a sea-train running noiseless through felds of kelp.
When she arrives later tonight, ま will stand in the hallway of the monastery listening. In the small cell with its woven foor mats a bed awaits, but in the hallway anything could happen. She will hear the noises of insects, a perpetual trill in the darkness. Other people are moving; there is a sound like a palm-sized rock or an animal dropping into water. Even the wind makes noises, moving the screens and blinds, the tall grass, the trees.
On each page of the 朱印帳 someone will make a mark: one hand sweeping the page, out of habit, cleaning it of the tiniest specks of dust which might otherwise collect in the brush. The ink in its low stone like a tiny ocean: the shore where the brush leaves excess behind, the drop-off of the deeper pool of ink. See how first he applies the stamps (elsewhere you saw them applied afterwards), then holds the brush perpendicular to the page and moves it rapidly in the shape of names and words. Each mark (each red seal, each sunburst, each calligraphed name of a temple; each amount you write in pencil on the back of each page, tallying up the pilgrimage's insignifcant outgoings) is a simple utterance. Each says, only, I was here. At some point such assurance may be interesting. At some point it could save your life. You never know.
An encyclopedia is an almost unlimited assemblage of things, but most of all it tells us how much of the world exists. Look at these early examples, the curator says, they were caricatures of a Dutch exemplar imported in the 1600s. For example the limitation on contents: one hundred subjects. And here we see how the woman (whom we now know to have lived during one of the period's most dangerous upheavals) has made hers a dictionary of the sky, recording the many types of clouds. As though she did not care to take her eyes from what was above her. As though there might have been something too terrible to see on earth.
ま has been assembling such a book: encyclopedia of destruction. Everywhere she goes she sees ruins. They fll with ferns which grow from spore to unfurling fronds as high as her head in minutes. She sees horsetails come up through garbage dumps, cherry trees growing around a reactor. Am I an invisible observer? thinks ま. But Isaiah never saw himself in Galilee and ま simply witnesses Helianthus tuberosus overrunning Lombardy.
Meanwhile the bodies continue to wash up on shore, bloated and misshapen, discolored and eaten, striking against the heavier and more durable things that float there, breaking further. And they wade into the water to pull the bodies out, he and ま, to bring them wrapped in plastic sheets or bedsheets, blankets, garbage bags, to the morgue and refugee centers. And the papers continue to float down on the wind, and in the front room of the desolate mattress store she pins and glues them to the walls: deeds and birth certifcates, passports and extra passport photos (sheets of six with one or two missing), the paperwork for transfer of land, a letter whose address is illegible but whose envelope is unopened. At night when the fire illuminates the building, the papers dance in the currents of hot air.
The archive in ruins, thinks ま. The archive. She imagines the building full of mice, the mice pursued by cats which go feral, the cats breeding wilder and wilder, the larger cats coming down from the hills. Brick disintegrating under a coating of moss, and tree seeds caught in the moss cracking with water and heat, darkness, light, and snow, germinating, growing, breaking the concrete around them, putting out cotyledons, hardening. The first new forest, trees growing out of every storey. She sees the raptors nesting where branches exit windows on the fourth foor, witnesses the return of snakes, cicadas. She writes it down in her dictionary, under archive. With a soft half- smile.
There are other words for it depending on your language but look how elegant we have it here: three pieces, each with their separate function. Most central: 守, the /mamo/ of /omamori/. A roof overhead. Roof: うかんむり, ukanmuri. Easy to remember this character when you learn the verb 守る means protect. Here I am standing inside this place, thinks ま. The rain in thin needles touches the waxed screen. It runs on the tiles, their dark blue glaze. Everything is alive in here, thinks ま. Here. Here. The hereness of the room is like a heartbeat. Here-here. Here-here. A gecko rattles the blind, crawling across it. Under the circular neon bulb that hangs in the center of the room a white moth loops and loops, hitting herself against the light. Everything under something else: a roof, a leaf.
ま's hand larger than the folded square of cloth. Each thing contains another thing: sky holding the world, world holding the water, water all around us, the house inside the rain, the room inside the house, the bed inside the room, ま inside the bed, the お守り inside ま's hand. One thousand daily protections, all new, every day. Who knows what will be necessary tomorrow?
お: the honorifc [sonkeigo] prefix. If you wanted to write it the old way, using a brush and ground ink, you would hold the brush at a right angle to the paper, hold the paper gently with your other hand, push the brush into the ink, remove excess ink by dragging the brush on the inkstone. Bring the brush to the paper. Set it down: pressure here, lift and draw it across, set it down, lift it: that's the first stroke. Begin again. Begin again.
Éireann Lorsung is the author of Music For Landing Planes By (Milkweed 2007), Her Book (Milkweed 2013), and Sweetbriar (dancing girl press, 2013). Recent poems have appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Burnside Review, Colorado Review, and Women's Studies Quarterly. Now she is at work on a novel about archives and earthquakes, pieces of which can be found in Two Serious Ladies, DIAGRAM, and Bluestem. She edits 111O and co-runs MIEL, a micropress (miel-books.com).