Well of Beauty by Margaret Chula (U.S.A.)
It’s a dark place, this Well of Beauty, tucked into a corner of the Zuishin Temple grounds. The water in the spring served as a mirror for the waka poet Ono no Komachi. Once pure and clear, it is now turbid. Each morning she would gaze at her reflection, then bathe her face in these healing waters from Cow Tail Mountain, the cold tempered by its distant flow. Unlike her bitter heart. Entranced by her beauty, admirers would come, one after another, to her cottage gate begging for admittance. Her most famous suitor, Prince Fukakusa,courted her for ninety-eight days. On the ninety-ninth, the day before she promised to receive him, he fell ill and died in a snowstorm.
The legend of Prince Fukakusa is reenacted every year on the last Sunday in March, with young maidens performing the Hanezu dance. ‘Hanezu’ refers to the deep pink color of the plums blossoming on the temple grounds, a promise of spring.
I feel the darkness of Ono no Komachi’s heart as I descend the spiral of stones leading to the water in her Well of Beauty—imagine leeches clinging to her milky white skin, ghost lovers entering the cavity of her heart.
……….. from the mountain forest
……….. I hear the cuckoo’s call—
……….. its blood-red tongue
AN (COTTAGE) PRIZE:
The Bardo* of Justice by Sonam Chhoki (Bhutan)
……….. a turtle loses
……….. its head over the mountains –
……….. sunset clouds
Kinley looks out the large window of the district court building. Across the river his village is faintly visible through a haze of mist.
He left home at first light for the day’s hearing. The clock on the wall shows 9 a.m. The judges’ chambers are still firmly locked. The sentries haven’t yet taken up their position. The legal clerk is browsing for compound bows on his Dell desktop. He glances up briefly when Kinley knocks. He says with an impassive shrug, ‘there might be a hearing today.’
It is five years since Kinley’s father died. He has been carrying a bundle of papers to the district court: his father’s will leaving him the land, the father’s death certificate, No Objection Certificate from his only sister who has joined a nunnery, photocopies of their National Identity Cards, maps of the land, records of land tax payments and his own petition for the land transfer. Edges of the documents have begun to curl and fray. The signed court order transferring the land to his name remains elusive.
The narrow corridor outside the chambers fills up with plaintiffs and defendants. Awkward attempts at interaction soon fizzle out. Kinley looks around him. A woman with a bruised face huddles in the corner. Two young men arrive in handcuffs, chained to police constables. They squat on a concrete seat at one end of the corridor. The older policeman spits into the flowerbed under the open window. The other picks his nose. A young couple in their best clothes work their way down the queue asking if someone will witness their marriage registration.
By midday the queue snakes out of the building onto the flagstone steps in the blazing sun. None of the ceiling fans work. One of the young men reaches out his handcuffed hand and turns the switch near him, on and off several times. The constable shrugs and says, ‘no good.’
The legal clerk draws down the blinds in his room and locks the door. Faint hum of the air-conditioner can be heard in the corridor.
‘That’s the place to be,’ the other handcuffed man says with a dry laugh. No one responds.
Sound of wheels on the gravel courtyard. Car doors bang shut. A murmur goes down the queue.
‘The judges have arrived!’
Footsteps sound out on the granite floor. In a waft of perfume and a cordon of security guards, a lone judge walks rapidly past the crowd into his chamber.
Kinley knocks on the legal clerk’s door.
‘No hearing today,’ he says, still browsing for compound bows.
……….. frozen river –
……….. a crane searches
……….. in the fog
* Bardo: liminal stage between death and new rebirth in Tibetan Buddhist eschatology.
AN (COTTAGE) PRIZE:
Caged Birds by Margaret Dornaus (U.S.A.)
……….. visiting day
……….. my sister forgets
……….. blue is a color
This afternoon I’m introduced to the new best friend—a wisp of a woman, dressed head-to-toe in canary yellow. There’s a large rhinestone ornament pinned just above her heart. A blue Post-it featuring a list of relatives’ names in flowery cursive hangs beneath the jewel. When she walks, the note flutters against her blouse like a dislocated wing.
She pushes one sleeve up to reveal colorful bangles and a white wristband meant to track her movements. Pretty, she says, pointing first to her arm, then to me as my sister swoops her up in a tight squeeze. Who’s your best friend? my sister asks her. Then they both smile broadly—as if they share some unfathomable secret. As if they’ve known each other all along in some parallel universe I can’t begin to see.
……….. a flicker of light
……….. embracing darkness
AN (COTTAGE) PRIZE:
Uncle Walter by John Parsons (U.K.)
Just after the war, I am sent to Aunt Cath’s in Burnham Thorpe, Nelson’s birthplace. It nestles between the Holkham estate and the great empty expanse of salt marsh that lines the coast; a world of mystery and magic. Steam engines rumble across fields, ‘night soil’ men visit in the dark. The only light is oil, ghost stories of black dogs and headless horsemen abound.
“Uncle Walter’s a dirty old chap” says my aunt Cath, “he washes his face in that old water butt where we drowned the kittens”.
by the flint cottage
into green depths
North Norfolk could only be reached by a single track train; its inaccessibility protected the folk lore and traditions. Uncle Walter, with his rich musical accent, is the epitome of all this, from his battered trilby to his gaiters. On his back door are a mandolin and a twisted hazel. His table is littered with hedging tools and gin traps, even an old bird’s nest. On the wall, foxed prints include the Death of Nelson. A stuffed cat sits on the mantel, a squirrel gun leans in the corner; all magic to my eyes.
from his pocket
a coiled ferret
Uncle has a black pony called Bess that pulls a trap. I help him collect hay from the verges, using a sickle. On our return I perch on top, soak up its smell; listen to the rhythm of hooves, to him talking with Bess in that sing song voice. He has a special way with her; she seems to read his mind. I ask him if it’s true.
down Old Lowses
at a pace through wreaths
of roll-up smoke
He tells me of Suffolk horse men during World War One, how he’d learnt their secrets. He touches his nose and gives a wink. “Them old boys knew a trick or two, they had a secret power; they could calm a horse, even when the big guns went off. “They called it jading; a stoat’s liver mixed with oils, rubbed on the horse’s shoulder blade, with a piece of mare’s caul, but best was one touch from the toad’s bone”.
“A toad’s bone?” I repeat.
“Yes boy, a sort of wishbone. You catch a toad and hangs it in a thorn till its all dried up, then you buries it in the ant’s fortress. On the full moon you throws it in the beck. If the hip bone swims upstream, you catch it and keeps it under your arm. Its this bone my boy, that gives you the power.
We arrive home and unload the hay, Bess, out of her harness, stands in the yard; he smiles and murmurs something to her. She nods and walks quietly into the stable.
whispers from childhood
in the darkness