Excerpts from Dennis James Sweeney’s manuscript, Tsurezuregusa, a finalist for the 2015 TS Book Prize.
Before there were bolts strung up and down the rocks: those were better days. Everything was the way it was made.
A bird was in the hut today. When I cupped my hands around it and lifted it to the air it did not even protest. Its eyes, the blackest beads. When I set it in the dirt next to some oats, the bird did not eat or walk or fly. It was ill. Rapturous. Devolved. An evil spirit eating it from the inside out.
I don’t know how long the bird had been in my hut. Possibly since I arrived, which was not so long ago. I open the wooden door and it sucks the sickest creatures in. The forest, too, wishes to die somewhere else.
There is a story about a man who returns home as the sun goes down. When he walks into his house the blackness has permeated it, sudden and thick, causing the man’s pulse to quicken. He steps over the objects he imagines strew his living room floor, toward the lamp that is his only source of light. His worst fear is to twist the switch and see before him a second human being, crouched and waiting, who has infiltrated his home. With trepidation, the man turns on the lamp. Yellow light floods his living space. It’s exactly as he left it: a pair of socks on the floor, a half-eaten bag of chips on the card table where he eats his meals, junk mail grocery store flyers lying on the couch and the folding chairs. The man, then, reconsiders his worst fear. He is entirely alone.
The hut is built of logs cut from the surrounding area and plastered together with a mix of mud and grass. In its exact center, between two posts, is a wood-burning stove built of rocks and a chimney that extends through the ceiling. Against the south wall, a dais is spread with a straw mat for sleeping. A table and two chairs sit at the north end. I don’t know why Taro left two chairs, as there is only one of me, but their presence is a great comfort. I switch between them daily.
I stand by my decision to have the hut built before retreating to it. Despite obvious objections as to the authenticity of the hermitage and its survivalistic quality, I judged it best to come upon the dwelling as if it had suddenly appeared in a small clearing in a lost valley. In this way we achieve the necessary timelessness and spacelessness, the sense of nesting in a capacity that has existed for centuries, like the trees around it.
I house myself in rain, the rains that began the day I opened my eyes in this place. It’s almost as if these walls are a façade for the incessant, irregular taps. In the middle of the night, when it really pours, I feel like I am swimming.
Do not ask me about the past! The past is a pink couch with red, floral stitching. It’s not even comfortable. Tell me: What use is a couch beneath a tree? What use are the flaps that hide the dust when all that the couch rests on is dust?
Sanity is relative. Sanity is relative the way the position of the sun is relative, eternally circling the astronomer, the astronomer eternally circling it, trying to grasp where the huge orb will be next. For example, I spent an hour today scrubbing a single piece of cookware. I let the creek water fill it and scrubbed the metal with a scrap of steel wool. Still detritus remained, so I let the cold water run over it again. I kept scrubbing and more came off, though the smallest specks were still resistant. I set the pot in the stream. The sun was shining, causing the water’s rock-leaps to glisten, and every time I thought I saw something alive in the creek my eyes would flash to that spot. Though by then whatever I had seen was downstream, and it couldn’t have been anything more than light in the first place. Listening to the water I found I had to relieve myself, so I walked a ways off in the woods and did that. I returned to find the pot unsettled, by what force I don’t know—a bear, or the wind—and sat again on the smooth rock where I had been and righted the pot. I went on scrubbing.
The afternoons seem to go by this way, with distraction and a watered-down care. As I said, sanity is relative. The trees surely see me as a meticulous, busy man. Though the ants speak among themselves: Will he ever get down to business? That lumbering, wandering creature. His brain must be made of wood.
Fine: a gift glossy in my hand with paper made to epitomize gloss, snowman print, pasted-on sparkles, a faulty bow, then the satisfying rip, the paper’s torn edges, a shoebox, and, inside the box, a sweater, also with a snowman on it.
Disappointment of disappointments. The weather outside is frightful. A tree whose roots belong beneath the ground fills the living room, harsh light shining into everyone’s eyes. The couch, I tell you, is like a stone with stone armrests. That anyone would sponsor its presence in a room bestowed with the title living is unthinkable.
And yet. The cheering music never calms.
There is the story, too, of the woman who drives to work one day to find the doors of her office locked. She goes around to the back door, descends the half-staircase, and pulls at its handle. Also locked. She scans the outside of the building. On the first floor, slightly raised from the ground, she sees a cracked window. Removing her shoes and threading their heels through a belt loop, she scrambles up to the window, bracing herself against the sill with one hand and pushing the window open with the other. Once inside, she replaces her shoes on her feet. Judging from the pictures, she is in Sam Addel’s office. The portraits of his children are smarmy, even offensive. She tries his door. Of course, it’s open from the inside.
When she enters the main room of the office all the lights are off. The water cooler leers at her, the most human figure in the room. At the secretary’s desk the calendar reads FRIDAY. Today is Saturday, the woman realizes. She pulls at her hip-tight skirt. It feels like sex slipping across her. Then like needles, all the polyester a poking sheath.
She removes her suit jacket and walks out the front door. The burglar alarm goes off. Her car is the only one in the lot. Suddenly desperate, she runs to it.
I have no idea where I am. Truly: I was brought here blindfolded on a journey of more than ten hours, as per instruction. I could be anywhere.
It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters but the ten or so miles I can walk in a single day. In those, I have been assured, there are only the rumbling trees.
It’s not as if I do not have food. Practical considerations dictated that a man unused to making his way in the wilderness should store a year of provisions as a backup while he teaches himself to forage. The food lines the east wall from corner to corner. Taro built a shelf in three heights, each for a different kind of can: one vegetables, briny with sodium; one protein, beans and the like; and one dessert, chocolate pudding and rice pudding and fruits in a thick syrup. I have taken to calling them all beans.
K-rations, my father would have said. Though there is no war now, in the proper sense of the word. Only peaceful citizens barreling through the streets in blind mechanical husks, killing people that way. Still, I wield my can-opener every meal like a weapon. I am already beginning to dread its clack.
Do you remember shopping malls? Escalators stabbed at forty-five degree angles like golden swords through perfume sections, purse sections, boys’ sections, women’s? The smell of space extending infinitely, every inch of it filled with product? It wasn’t anything, we knew that even then. All it was was somewhere to go. But when we opened those big swinging brass-and-glass doors—well. Like arriving at the lip of a volcano.
A quandary: How to dry laundry when the air is so drenched that a morning-to-evening stay on the line will not dry it amply? I would hang the clothes inside but the intrusion of wet ghosts into the hut would do little for my night’s rest. I already don’t sleep so well. Something about the daily idleness, the stationary nature of this hut and all that belongs to me.
I’m more free than I ever was but I stray less far than I ever have. Something about the wall of conifers in a man-made circle around me. Their branches shake like a dare.
The days have begun to end earlier, I have begun to notice that. Every day when I wake the rain is beating down and during those moments I am unable to convince myself that it will not continue to pour forever. Inside the hut the sound is deafening, worse than raindrops on a tin roof: instead, a rustling in the straw like the migration of a thousand invisible rodents. My skin shivers. So I sit on my porch—I have taken to calling it my porch, although it’s only a strip of dirt outside the door to the hut—and watch the sky saturate the soil, drops wetting my feet while the rest of my body remains dry under the eaves. By just past the sun’s height, the rain has stopped. It leaves a gray sky peopled with slowly moving splotches of darker gray. When the day begins to end, I often dismiss the coming darkness as another of the sky’s endless variations on the color gray. Then the light declines further, and I remark to myself how brief the days have gotten. That old work ethic. There aren’t enough moments in the day! But sure there are.
By dark, my mind has accommodated the time. I move inside and light the stove, trying to ignore how frightened I am. For if the noise of the rain makes me shudder, the sounds of night take on the aspect of another world. The forest is alive: Swishes of wings across each other like a full, seething orchestra. Batteries of trees unfolding themselves after the hard photosynthesis of the day. The modest contribution of an army of slugs eating their way through what’s dead.
I pretend all of it is the sound of the fire. When I put it out before rolling onto my dais to sleep, I hold my breath. Only when my eyes are closed and my body still do I allow myself to breathe again.
We arrived after ten hours of travel in the darkness. I could feel the walls around me, wet already with the forest, sharing their wet with my skin. Taro sat me in a chair and stood before me. Checked my blindfold. His voice, then, hot in my ear. Count to ten thousand, sir. Then his hard hands on my shoulders and something wet and soft on my forehead. A kiss. Before I could object he was gone, and I was left to listen to the creaking of the walls and the business of the woods outside them.
It was late afternoon, a terrible time to arrive. He could not leave a fire to warm the hut because of practical considerations—what if, before I was allowed to remove the bandana from around my eyes, a spark caught and made of the whole project an inferno? So I sat and waited. I have never been more frightened in my life. Nor more unsure. At every number I whispered Taro grew further away, covering his soft steps with leaves and brush.
I remember the instant when I untied the blindfold. Sight seemed at first more obscure than blindness. When my eyes adjusted to the dim light, I was overcome by an emptiness. Four walls, little more than twenty feet apart, stood like mute sentries around me.
All was as we had agreed. The stone furnace, the chimney hocked together with mud. I had been sitting so close to the furnace, I discovered, that if I had tilted my head just past the point of discomfort I would have grazed it with my crown. I fixed my eyes on whatever would hold them. A skillet, a large pot, and a small pot hung in a line on the wall. A knot punctuated one of the floorboards. A can-opener sat calmly on the middle shelf of cans. I suddenly thought: What have I done? I am stranded in the forest, in flight from hope, from any suggestion of love. To find my way back is death. All I had decided about the dark world seemed to escape me then—seemed little in comparison with my sudden loneliness and fear.
Then I spotted a strange item opposite the cookware: four cattails tied in a square as if for a picture frame, but without a picture in it. How it was hung I couldn’t tell—maybe by the frame’s own weightlessness. My mind, distracted, began to imagine the old, rotten world. As suddenly as my fear had come on, I was in the city again, struggling for breath. I hated it deeply. Pulling myself away, I returned to the hut.
There was nothing. The cattails, I swear to you, were gone.
The days before fire were the worst.
After days, I taught myself how. That first night I shuffled in the dark with only a fleeting sense of what surrounded me. I longed for nothing more than light. After light, I longed for nothing more than warmth. It was mild—autumn—but I wanted to be bound inside something, curled up until the light dawned. Thank God, my bed was made and stacked high with thick blankets, enough to enclose me in a sort of womb. In the morning, my first thought again: fire.
An electric lighter and a stack of more plastic-wrapped matches than I thought a man could ever need rested next to the furnace. Why hadn’t I seen them the night before? But creating heat was not easy, even with the right implements. For example: What do you light? For example: Once you have ruined all the kindling in your small clearing, do you venture into the forest and search the ground there, thick and unknown as it may be? There are no newspapers in the forest. I stacked the stalks of grass and narrow sticks in pyramids; I stacked them log-cabin style; I channeled all the experimentation and good-natured angst of a boy scout camping trip but without the boys, with only foreboding. By night, I had gotten something small to burn but when I looked around for hardier fuel to pile on, I remembered I had not gathered any. By the time I returned inside with an armful of sticks, my small conflagration had given up the ghost. I opened a can of beans and ate it cold. From the corner, the sacks of rice mocked me.
I decided to work with discipline: I took a day and did nothing but gather wood. I slept with the stack beside my bed that night. The next evening, the furnace became so hot I had to sleep without my blankets. I felt naked in the dying artificial light, sweating sweat I knew I wouldn’t wash for days. It was a victory.
But then it was over, like all victories. In the dark, beside the fireplace, the days spread out before me like steps across a wide, flat plain. I cried. Finally I let myself. At the fact that these small conquests were to be my new joy.
Crying. Suddenly, it seems so silly. When there is no one here to hear you. If a tree falls in the woods and no one hears it, did it really make a sound?
Me next to the downed tree raising my hand, standing on the tips of my toes to be seen. I heard it! I say. I heard it! Look! It sounded like a freight train, yanked off the tracks!
How about the story of the rabbit? A fable, really, told to impudent children. In which the rabbit, tired of being a rabbit, travels miles to God’s house and begs to be released from his calling. I’m tired of being a rabbit, he says. God, beneficent as ever, allows the rabbit to give up his rabbithood. You may be whatever you want to be, God declares, and the rabbit departs eagerly. During the remainder of the afternoon, he strolls the meadows in exultation, neither looking for other rabbits with whom to play nor nibbling on bits of grass.
By nightfall, he has made it to a highway. The petroleum wind whips over his back. He cuts his foot on a shard of glass. Realizing the terror of the asphalt strip, he stumbles away and passes the night in a ditch, cradling his wounded foot. In the morning, he limps homeward. He soon arrives in what he believes is his home meadow but when he checks the southwest corner for his hole it’s not there. He must be mistaken. He is the wrong meadow.
The sliver of glass still burns painfully in his foot. He looks about anxiously. Then a pound rings out from the near edge of the field and the rabbit is killed by a hundred tiny, flying pieces of metal. He has been shot by a man and his boy, out for a hunt Thanksgiving morning. The boy cheers. The man hugs him tight. The rabbit—no longer a rabbit, no longer not—is dead. That’s the end of the fable.
There were pansies propped on twigs in the strip of soil out front when I came, and they have withered and died. Not even a process: a single night of frost, and their tiny plant bones have expanded and snapped. Then again, when I stumbled out of my hut this morning, all the ground was covered in white quartz and I called it beautiful.
Sure it is. All part of the dance. Where there is so much life, there is even more death. There has to be.
My motto: Do not count the days. Prisoners scratch off time with sharpened spoons on concrete walls, but I can’t. I need my spoons for eating and my fragile walls for holding in the dry.
It’s begun to rain even oftener, all day, the bored clouds so prolix. Today I lay in the softening mud in front of my hut with my limbs splayed in the four cardinal directions solely in order to remind myself of my freedom. It took an hour for the rain to soak me through. Then I retreated inside, stripped naked, and gilded myself with the furnace’s heat.
What? No one is here to watch me. Repeat this to yourself: I am not a prisoner. I am not a prisoner.
In another tale, a boy asks for a watch on his thirteenth birthday and gets it. The watch is a horrible thing. It plucks the hairs off his wrist one by one until he is left with a bare, hairless ring at the base of his hand. If he stops wearing it for even a day the hairs begin to grow back and the watch, when replaced, rips them out again, reminding him that he hasn’t worn it with sufficient alacrity given its price and sheen. He begins to wear it in the shower, to bed, during his junior high school basketball games. The watch is heavy on his wrist. Finally he cuffs an opponent with it going up for a rebound and shatters the kid’s glasses, pausing the game for well over fifteen minutes. His cheeks red with anger, he rips off the watch and throws it against the wall of the gym. As he walks out he can see that the crystal, even after its impact against the yellow brick of the gym wall, remains intact. He slams the fire door behind him and pulls his jersey off in the linoleum school hallway.
As he stomps in a red rage past his locker and the lockers of his friends, he can’t help but think about the watch. It was so expensive! What will it do on the floor, without anybody? Surely it’s sitting there still, waiting, ticking away the time.
The boy stops. Hesitates. Turns back toward the gym.
This morning, a spider web spanned the threshold of my hut as if I have been given up for lost. Don’t I enter and exit hundreds of times each day? Doesn’t the spider feel the burn of heat from inside my door during the dewy night? I’m afraid she senses something—a diffidence, the pheremones of an animal that grows achingly close (although the animal himself doesn’t yet know) to no longer being alive. The flies will come soon, she believes. It’s only a matter of time.
Today I ran. I don’t know what seized me. After my morning pot of oats the wet morning air filled my nose and I leapt, limbs fiery, like a gazelle into the forest. Branches whipped across my eyes and shoulders. My breath began to heave. In seconds my body slowed, then stopped altogether. I noticed I was surrounded by plants of the same kind in every direction: fern, pine tree, moss, lichen, fern, deciduous tree, moss. Was I lost?
I turned carefully back the way I had come. My heart stood still. I began to stride with deliberate steps. For all I knew, I thought, pushing through the humming, indifferent trees, my little clearing had never existed. I could be a ghost.
Of course I made it back. Otherwise I would be writing in sticks on the soil, trying to sign my name deep in the dirt so the ages could read me. Only a matter of weeks before the script would be swept over. But those days, oh! Written, they would breathe.
So: I have determined to build myself a path. Not in order to get away, but in order simply to get. The relief of returning to the hut yesterday was accompanied by a sadness that the bounds of my world have become so small. The forest is so great! And I know nothing of it. Cannot even venture a few feet into the trees without becoming hopelessly, breathlessly lost.
Such is the source of my depression: an enforced homeliness, a dearth of movement for the body. Which is why my fingernails are now black with mud, uprooted plants piled at the edge of the clearing. I have noticed the multiplicity for the first time: the clovers, the ground ivy, the small deformations in the soil, the scattered fungi. What did I stare at before? The moss, I suppose, made-to-order at eye level.
Dense capacities of the vanity of the living world: They are but heights to our own heights. Arched imitation of natural settings, shag rug, jungle sounds lent a digestive undertone, sported by black-collar embroideries in the makeshift night. No beast would eat in this. My first dream in ages: Boy leaps down scree and over gating into the tiger cage. In a paw, the tiger has bloodied him. Instantly, all peers—school trip—are in the cage, being similarly bloodied. Nine kids dead before the teachers even look down. Welcome to the jungle. Hand-made. Bare.
The last time I dreamed? Sprawled in white bedcloth with her. Who knows even what the dream was? I was covered in clouds the second I awoke.
She would tell me what she had seen, the parts of our bodies that had grown cold outside the sheets pressing against each other until they became warm again. She could call her dreams up, flashes of baristas we had once ordered from, homeless men she had given quarters to chasing her down backlit streets on which neither of them knew how to run. I would hold her, jealous of her foreign world.
She treasured her separate mind. My solution was to hold her tighter, pull her to my core.
I want to sleep in the furnace. I am never warm enough these nights on my straw mat, on my raised wooden platform, no matter how close I move it to the fire. I wake and a whole side of my body is numb from the cold, so I turn, knowing the other side will soon wake me because that side will have become numb.
It seems perverse to wish for a fire to surround me, flames licking inward until I can smell my own burning flesh, but some nights I nearly let the embers fleeing from the furnace burn, lighting the hut like Christmas in the uncomprehending night. I’d feel a real comfort in that, I think, if it were my way to die. I would march into the afterlife a strong, worthy man. A monk coated in the arms of his Lord.
Building this path is like murder, pulling the ferns and small stalks from the mud, but under every murder is a seething colony of ants or a black beetle searching for something to defile. The plants themselves do not take it hard. I stack their corpses on their living brethren, where they wait for the beetle to find its way to them. A strange life form, I beat my way inch by inch into the forest, authoring a place for my legs to move.
The first few mornings I stepped out and wondered, Who has been here? Who has made inroads toward my hut? But it was me, making inroads out. In the morning light, for those few moments, I forget there was a yesterday.
Other chores: Repair the roof. (The rain.) Tighten the door against its frame. (The cold.) Pound mud between the outside slats, into the gaps that have creaked open in the walls. (Again, the cold.) Gather wood. (The fear. The cold.)
Do you remember? We used to send notes through the postal system when we really cared. You would receive that ink on paper, ephemeral by definition, and treasure it for its ability to rot. Nothing else ever did. Then they took away Saturdays, and we were angry. When they took away Tuesday through Friday, we found ourselves like the accounts we had read in our parents’ flaking literature, waiting by the box for the mailman to come every Monday morning. Believing that this week, maybe there would be something.
I knew people who ordered an item—something small, a toothbrush or a pack of toilet paper—to ensure they would be greeted by at least one package, hoping that, over the course of the week, they would forget having ordered it.
I knew people who couldn’t stand the waiting. Who canceled their mail altogether.
Yes—I remember. Me barricaded in my home, searching the phone book. Calling friends who hadn’t heard from me in years and asking after only the briefest of pleasantries if they knew anyone who might help me get away. If they said no, hanging up.
Searching the classified ads at midnight, legs pulled toward me in the bathtub. Checking the obits.
Then, back in the classifieds, something catching my eye: EXPERIENCED SURVIVAL SPECIALIST WILL BUILD RETREAT FOR YOU TODAY.
Heart crawling up my throat. A vision. Of damp wood surrounding me, the emptiness full. A fire and nothing but.
My chest pumping, all of a sudden, feverishly.
I would feel sick when my fingers brushed the porcelain of my bathroom sink. The mirror was so wide it reflected everything, including the mirror across from it: an infinite embrace of the whitewashed materials of industry I had invested in for the purpose of a happy life. A vertigo.
Where had the glass come from, what sooty mine worker had dredged the metal backing from the earth? What rusted ship had carried it over plastic residuals in the ocean, leaking gasoline into the blowholes of dolphins and whales? Why, in the end, did I need the mirror? To see myself, pale in disdain for my own paid-for goods?
The only thing worse was when I went outside, an attempt at retreat, only to be greeted by the smoking air. I would rush back indoors, hoping for something clearer to breathe. Once I filled the bathtub with water. I thrust my head in, thinking the untouched had to be there if it was nowhere else. I opened my lungs and tried to breathe.
The water wouldn’t come into me. I hadn’t yet finished with oxygen.
No little cat. No beautiful thing. No easy recollection of the names we loved. Too easy to draw up the sliver that slips through the veins whenever we think of her, electrifying everything from inside. We need to break ourselves of it.
I say we, as if all the trees and thrushing invisible animals share in having known love. Forget it, little cat. That is what I called her.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dennis James Sweeney’s stories and poems appear in Crazyhorse,DIAGRAM, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Indiana Review, Passages North, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. He grew up in Cincinnati and lived in St. Louis, Taipei, countries across southeast Asia, and Colorado, before moving to Oregon, where he lives now. He’s the author of the chapbooks What They Took Away (CutBank Books) and THREATS (alice blue books, forthcoming) and Small Press Editor at Entropy.
Tsurezuregusa steals its title from a classic Japanese work by Yoshida Kenkō. The original work (translated as “Essays in Idleness”) is one of the pillars of zuihitsu, a genre composed of short, meditative personal essays that literally “follow the brush” with which the writer is writing. In my Tsurezuregusa, I’ve adapted this ancient genre to my own developing aesthetic and one a lot of my favorite writers are working in these days: hybrid prose forms that make use of both narrative and the language of poetry.
I’ve also taken one of the themes inherent in Kenkō’s original work, as well as in the zuihitsu tradition in general: hermitage. The narrator of my Tsurezuregusa hires a “survivor specialist” to build a hut for him in the middle of the woods and to take him to it, blindfolded, and leave him there. He’s fleeing the city, his own anxiety over the impossibility of ecological responsibility, and heartbreak. When I began the book, I was most interested in that paradox of “green” consciousness. How can we claim to want to save the environment when we’re fundamentally embedded in structures that work against it? And is a grand, naïve gesture (like moving into the woods alone with a year’s supply of canned food) any help?