Douglas Penick / Fiction, 2015


1 A Kiss Lighter Than Mist (1)

© by Artist Bill Wolak

A Kiss Lighter than Mist



A Thread of Unending


Like a clear cool stream, her voice moves in the dark. She reads aloud:

At the ancient, tile-roofed monastery on Mt. Heng in central China, Hui-Ssu, an esteemed meditation, master speaks to a hall full of monks. He says:

‘When we follow the Buddhist path, we look at our own mind. Look, look directly. Can you see? Whatever you see or sense is rising and falling, an endless stream of sounds and illusions. Nothing lasts. Nothing is real enough to sustain us. We are the shimmering surface of limitless sea. We call it mind. Innumerable differences in time, sensation, place; these are momentary. Watch this and the flow of false ideas stops. You fall effortlessly through infinite space.’

That night Hui-Ssu dreams he is in a world of half-formed beings that gleam in the air and move like winds across heaven and earth. Filled with lust and pride, they fight, their sexual encounters are delirious, they sing, their music is beyond imagining. Hui-Ssu dreams he is nothing but a wisp of air, but deities sense his presence and chase him.

He dreams he is seeking a place to hide. He hides in a cave, but it becomes a mountain demon’s mouth and begins to close on him. He is choked in the sulfurous steam. He escapes, hides in a cedar tree, but is suddenly engulfed in flames and smoke. Escaping once more, he hides in a lake, but a whirlpool drags him into the depths. Rising in a bubble, he flies off in the night air. He takes refuge in the womb of a barbarian princess and falls into dreamless sleep.


Here, the day is devoted to an intensity of metallic clatter, hospital noise, fluorescent light, words addressed sharply or with distanced gentleness, physical intrusions painful and not, fraudulent optimism, oh yes, well-meaning. No meaning really. No privacy. All the whirl addressed to a life that, sooner but really later, if ever, should return to normal. “You’ll be your old self.” He cannot move. He cannot change anything.

Night, though punctuated with distant groans, occasional cries, pinging bells, rushing feet, night is solitary, unending, He knows there is no going back.

Darkness is not still. His body moves sometimes. It is something unknown, never known. Memories flicker, dissolve. The night moves slowly forward. Small pains loom large with possible implications. Unknown. Then the flickering of wrenching fears. No turning back. Carried in a warm airless subterranean river moving forward with a faint hiss. Terrifying. Perhaps not.

Calmly, steadily, she is reading aloud. Something different.


In the Spirit Treasure House at Isonokami are Celestial Treasures. They were brought from Heaven to Earth by the first ancestors. The gods have filled these Divine Embodiments with their being, power and name.

In the Spirit House dwell the Mirror of Offering, the Mirror of the Sea Shore, the Mirror of Boundaries, the Eight Span Sword, the Ten Span Sword, the Seven Branch Sword, the Jewel to Give Life, the Jewel to Remove Life, the Jewel of Endurance, the Jewel of Increase, the Jewel of Sufficiency, the Jewel of Return, and cloths: the Serpent Stole, the Wasp Stole, the White Crane Stole.


The air smells of antiseptic. Why did she read something with almost no story? He lies in darkness and hears her read on the other side of the curtain. The sounds of nurses and carts and the PA system summoning doctors only occasionally interrupt. The bedside light glows on the fabric and gives faint light. She is reading to someone he assumes is a man, assumes is her husband. It’s a ward for men. The man never speaks. From time to time, he expels gasses; sometimes he sighs. Undisturbed, her even voice continues.

He lies in darkness and listens to her read. Is she thinking of her mute husband, even as he may now be dying? Is he silently responding to these words, drawn into a wider expanse of feeling?

Emperor Kimmei received the elegant and well-dressed foreigners and their large entourage of monks, translators, calligraphers and craftsmen at his court at Shikishima no Kanazashi Palace in Yamato. It was early spring. The scent of snow on the mountains mingled with the smell of softening soil. The Emperor sat on a portico of the palace half-hidden behind a rippling, translucent, white silk screen. His court was assembled before him. The emperor’s three chief counselors sat one on his right and two on his left. On his right sat Ōomi (Great Imperial chieftain), Soga no Iname no Sukune, also known as Soga no Iname; and on his left, Ōmuraji (Great Deity chieftain); Monotobe Okoshi no Muraji, also known as Mononobe no Okoshi, and Ōmuraji (Great Deity chieftain), Ōtomo Kanamura Maro, also known as Nakatomi no Kanamura.

The Emperor’s uncertainty, his impulsiveness were evident. The ambassador in dark blue brocade presented the tiny gilded bronze statue of a standing child Buddha, texts and implements. The Emperor had seen the gods embodied in swords, spears, jewels and cloth, but never had he seen a god in metal shaped in human form. He inhaled suddenly.

He lies still in the darkness and listens to the sounds and words unfold. Familiar. Unfamiliar. Is she thinking of the effect these words may have on the one to whom she reads? Or is she simply reading something that interests her to assuage the boredom and sadness of sitting beside him? Is the one she reads to silently moved by all these words? Is he drawn as a stranger into these worlds?


She is continuing. It is another night, but it feels just part of some endless waiting.

After the Emperor has received the Korean King’s gifts and the court has withdrawn, the objects are moved to an inner chamber. Late in the afternoon while it is still light, the Mononobe Lord, Mononobe no Moriya returns to look at them carefully. He examines the small gold child on the shrine. This creature is neither human nor deity, but it is so real, he expects it to move forward at any moment. It is not from his world. He shivers, looks around to make certain he is alone. He will not allow himself to be afraid. He reaches out with his right forefinger to touch the metal child. It is warm.

He moves to the wide paulonia wood table where the texts are displayed. He kneels to look more closely. He has heard of reading but has never seen it done, nor does he himself know how to do it.

On rolls of golden silk, there are rows of black markings, almost beautiful in themselves, complex, tense, poised full of energy. He can feel the concentration of intention in these marks. Row upon row of alien designs stand before him. They are waiting to make their meanings manifest. He feels he is looking at a large army standing across from him in battle array, ready to attack. He has been told that men who know how, can interpret these signs just as a hunter can interpret tracks on the ground.

But Mononobe senses that what the reader of these signs may learn is unlike what the hunter knows. It is not knowledge from this world or even this time. It is not knowledge attached to these mountains plains, lakes and streams. It has not flourished beneath this sky. It has not been sustained by offerings of grain and wine. It is not part of any man or any deity’s memory or love or need.

And yet, this knowledge originating in a remote place and spoken by people now long dead can again be brought to life in a new land with new people. It has no living connection to this place and people, but it will occupy their minds and influence their actions. Like a plague from afar. Of this Lord Mononobe is certain.


Again it is darkness and silent. There is faint rustling in the corridors. But around him, there is no sound.

In his body’s dark interior, he senses that there are caverns large and small. And on their unlit walls, he imagines markings, outlines of wild horses, vanished lions, and a small stick figure man with a crude bow marked in red. What wanderer or hunter or seeker of some other kind makes permanent these deep dreams of fleeting herds on the walls that never felt sunlight? In his very self?

These caverns in the body, in its mind where still he explores, where still he hides, and which he forgot when he used to wander in the outer world. It is a place where he feels frozen by fear, where he does not know his own being or the purpose of its haphazard journey.

There in those deep subterranean expanses, indistinct, vast subtle streams move slowly amid cold pools of strange unlit repose.

Such explorations beneath the surface ameliorate the greater claustrophobia now, the unfamiliar and unwanted noise, the waiting for someone to attend to new pain, the need to drink, the strangled need to swallow, the blocked need to urinate or defecate, the pointless need to spit. All such powers now delegated to professionals, who are paid money and who work on schedules not convenient for anyone.

The starving, hungering wanderer so full of needs, descending into the caves.

From where her voice, steady, cool, almost matter of fact summons him, draws him out. He did not hear her begin.


…husband and half brother of the Princess, the future Emperor Yomei, leaves her bed in the early night. She sleeps without moving or dreaming. Princess Anahobe lies in her bed. It is early morning, fresh and clear. She opens her eyes. A Buddhist priest from China, young, serene, with golden skin, glowing with golden light, is waiting by her sleeping platform. She opens her eyes. She is not afraid.

The priest speaks in a voice that is melodious and soft, “I have made a vow to save the world. I need a pathway to enter the world so I might fulfill this. Could I then dwell for a while in you Highness’ womb?”

She is overjoyed, wordlessly replies, “I accept. With all my heart.”

The Priest’s form becomes a sphere of gold light. The Princess opens her mouth. The golden sphere enters her mouth warm and blissful; it fills her body with weightless ecstasy.

Her pregnancy lasts a year.

He lies in darkness and listens to her read. Is she thinking of her mute husband, even as he is now dying?


As he sleeps in his monastery in central China on Mount Heng, the monk Hui-Ssu dreams. He is born to a barbarian Princess far to the East. She is taking a walk through the palace grounds, and, as she passes near the stables, a horse whinnies. He hears the sound. There is a sudden shock. He finds himself lying on his back, cold, wet, naked. The grass is soft and fragrant. The air is cool. It is mid-afternoon and the light is blinding. He moves to stand.

He has never seen her. Her husband’s bed is next to the door, while he is next to the outer wall with a shaded window. He often does not hear her come or go, begin or end. But it is always in the night when he becomes aware of her words.

His own mind drifts to the notion of being, consciousness, bliss: unfettered things and a bridge across birth and death. He feels himself relax in large spaces, and he feels his heart open, almost painfully, as if he were a roadway for others, the ones around him, who are moving through their lives.

Does her husband also feel this?

Tears run from the corners of his eyes.

“I’ll be back tomorrow.”

Can she feel he is listening?


He lies in the utter darkness. The air moving in the darkness through his nostrils is hot and dry. There are sounds distant and muffled but somehow disconcerting. He cannot tell if his eyes are open or shut. He thinks to move his hand slightly and cannot. He panics as he realizes he cannot swallow.

With great effort, he tenses, does not allow himself to panic. He makes his breathing slow. He focuses his mind on his diaphragm, depressing it to bring air into his body, letting it rise to exhale.

He realizes he does not know where he is or how he has come to be here. He has no memory. He has words; he recognizes that he has probably been in a hospital, but he has no personal memory at all.

Opening his eyes makes the darkness uneven, with some parts thicker than others, slightly brownish.

There is, almost straight ahead, a light behind a white cotton curtain, and a voice, a woman’s. A day must have passed. Maybe more than one. The voice is reading.


… at mid afternoon, as Princess Anahobe walks with her attendants through the palace grounds, she wanders past the gates of the Imperial Stables. She is tired. She hears a horse neigh, inhales suddenly. She leans against the cinnabar gate-post and without pain or effort, a male child emerges from her body. The small child stands and takes a step, then lies down on the grass. He gazes at her as if he knew her, and he falls asleep.

As they carry him into the palace, a red light from the west shines down on him. His body smells like lotus flowers.

This child hears nothing but the music of the world’s harmony,

This child hears all,

And there is no discord.

All and all and all in sequences

Unfold beneath him,

Carry him in sequences of rise and fall.

A drop in the air

A shining star

A cotton blanket

A letter in many words

Lantern light

A bridge that crosses sixty rivers,

An eagle

A boat in the ocean

A drop in a rainstorm

A sword

A lacquer box

A string in a harp.


He does not know if he is awake or if he is having an unusually clear dream. He is aware that a long expanse of time has passed. He is not experiencing any pain. He is neither frightened nor anxious. There is complete silence. His mind is empty and fills the space of the room with daylight clarity. Words are not drawing him into any form of life or memory. There are two hospital beds, two chairs beside them, two bedside tables with small bedside lamps. The curtain between the beds is pulled back. The beds are both empty, their sheets stripped. The room is clean. There is no one there. There is no one he will bring to life as he listens to them.


In his monastery in central China on Mount Heng, the monk Hui-Ssu is dying. His elderly attendant looks on anxiously. Hui-Ssu tells him: “The Budhha was a man who discovered awakened mind is unlimited by time or conditions. Wakefulness is living in every one, every moment, everything. The form of the Buddha passes through time and space and shows this.”

Her voice is faint. He has become, as he lies there, a kind of theater. He cannot tell if she is reading or he is remembering her reading. His mind is a vast space, blank and dark. As words are enunciated, forms take shape in the darkness that is his existence. Spaces, men and women, animals, gods and light fill the air as she reads.

That night, there is nothing, no muffled light, no voice, no words. The room is empty. He waits for them, waits to hear them, waits to give them life.


T4_0210_009-1Douglas Penick’s
short work has appeared in Tricycle, Descant, Agni, Kyoto Journal among others. He has written novels on the 3rd Ming Emperor (Journey of the North Star), the adventures of spiritual seekers (Dreamers and Their Shadows), and, most recently, a collection about cultural displacement (From The Empire of Fragments).

Photo credit: Martin Fritter


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