Some of the stories I receive reflect the almost magical quality of boyhood wonder. This one comes from Masami Teraoka, the noted Japanese-American artist now based in Hawaii. (Here's a link to his Wikipedia page, with a fine portrait of the artist.) His meticulously painted, ukiyo-e influenced triptychs satirize everything in contemporary culture from the abuse scandal of Catholic priests to the technology revolution, from American political absurdities and contemporary art itself. Brought up in Japan, Masami's boyhood memories include the distant view of the irradiated sky over Hiroshima in August 6, 1945. That story is for another time. For now, let's settle for magic:
by Masami Teraoka
The girl next door gave me a swallow one day. My sister said, "I know you love birds, so you should take care of it". I was so excited. Our neighbor had put the swallow in a little insect cage—a very small cage, about 4 x 6 x 6 inches. The little bird’s feathers got trapped every time he or she flapped its wings.
My grandpa was watching all this over his glasses, from the tatami mat by the register in his kimono store. "Oh, Masami!” he said. “A swallow is a good bird, Ekicho; but it’s unlawful to keep a swallow as a pet." "Oops!" I thought, “I’m busted.” But anyway, my sister and I went ahead and climbed upstairs to the 3rd floor—a huge empty defunct space that had been built as a western-style restaurant. When my grandpa opened the kimono store, he opted for an ultra-"modern" concept, where his clients could have lunch upstairs at this western-style restaurant on the 3rd floor. But the idea did not do well, with WWII in progress, so the former restaurant was in a bad state. The curtains at every window were fraying. I had made this my studio.
As soon as we were upstairs, my sister insisted that my granddad had told me to let the bird go, but by then I was already attached to it. I loved the beautiful feathers, the splash of red feathers on the head. They all looked so organized and sleek. Wow, this bird is beautiful, I said to myself. The most striking thing was the swallow’s head, which unlike a sparrow’s is rather flat. I never also had the chance to see a swallow at such a close range. Every part of the bird was new and stunningly beautiful. The long tail feather was really special.
OK. After I had studied it, I realized the time had come. I had spent about ten minutes with the bird, and my sister once again reminded me that I was supposed to let it go. She opened the large sliding glass window that captured the entire view of Mt. Senkoji. I was so sad to let the bird go! Still, I decided to say goodbye, and opened the cage door. The swallow took a moment to collect him- or herself before flying off toward the Saikokuji temple—one of the many in my home town in the inland sea area.
Yasue and I waved goodbye as we followed the bird’s swift departure. Moments later, it had disappeared into the sky. Whoosh, and it’s gone.
And then, perhaps no more than five minutes after it had left, the bird came back—back to my empty studio space. It started off flying counter-clockwise. We were astonished, excited, elated!!! We followed the flight-path of the bird in a state of total ecstasy, of total disbelief!!!! And that was not all…
Before we knew it, there were a few more swallows vying to get into the studio. And then more. Amazed at the spectacle, I started to count them. Wow! Wow! This was incredible! Some began to alight on the curtain rods. Others joined the flock that continued to stream counter-clockwise around the studio. I kept counting, one, two, three… seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve… fourteen, fifteen, sixteen… Wow! And still more? Twenty-four, twenty-five, twenty six… thirty-five, thirty-six!!!
We were intoxicated, thinking they had come back to thank us!!! Wow!!!!! We watched the birds’ flight patterns in that counter-clockwise circle, following the movement of the leader. We were totally in heaven!!!!!
Eventually, though, the swallows seemed to have decided to leave. First one left, then another a few seconds later. Then a group of a few birds flew off, then another, and another. We were so sad to see them to go. But we thanked them for their beautiful gratitude. We just could not thank them enough for what seemed almost like a fairytale.
Next thing I knew, this thought popped into my head: what if I had trapped 36 swallows and let them go one by one? Would each of them have brought 36 birds back? What a spectacle that would have been!