ONCE UPON A TIME . . .
In Old Japan, deep in mountains by a lake that froze half the year, where loads of snow piled like top hats on the heads of weary cows; where gray slush filled deep ditches along the Shogun’s snaking highway to more important places; in a land of snow where snow melted to the whispery tune of mid-summer’s enormous mosquitoes; in a poor province, a downtrodden land where farmers tried to forget the rice tax as they passed the sake, sang the songs, and took turns simmering in hot tubs—cauldrons of steamy water that turned grimmer and browner with each bony, naked bather. It was here, in a village that has never shown up on a Western map and probably never will, in a small, thatched farmhouse on a hill of snow-dusted pines. Heaven’s river of stars, the Milky Way, sluiced through the blackness above, pouring cold light onto an old, cracked, soot-blackened door.
A man stooped over his walking stick, shiny-bald, pot-bellied, boots skidding on ice. After forty years of wandering the countryside, crisscrossing the provinces, an aimless drifter, a wind-blown spirit, was home.
He called himself Cup-of-Tea; this was his pen name. Or you might say it was his bamboo-brush name, since he didn’t own a pen. In any case, it was the name he scribbled in blotchy calligraphy on the rice paper of fat diaries, crammed with thousands of one-line, one-breath, epics . . . for Cup-of-Tea was a poet of haiku.
You might be wondering: What is haiku? Now there’s a blank not easily filled. To do so, we must observe Cup-of-Tea closely: how he slurps his pond-snail soup, how he pisses zigzag out the back door writing riddles in dawn ice, how he nibbles his noodles by the light of a solitary lamp in deepest winter seclusion.
We’ll watch. We’ll listen. Maybe, we’ll learn.