Tomo & the Book

Tomo was gone, gone with the Book. Whether he had managed, on his three-year old legs, to escape into the city of buzzing lights, or had along with the Book been folded into an incommunicado speck of dust now floating around the house -- this was anyone's guess. What was clear was that Tomo was gone, slipped off the face of the earth, as if for a moment the rules of gravity had not bound him and -- shoop -- spun off he was by the earth's immense rotation.

Papa, mama, Ari and I searched every hiding spot in the house, or at least the few that we knew of. The intractable nature of the house impeded us. We, especially mama and I, were reluctant to go in, for searching the crevices of the house was a dangerous endeavor. It required two people, one to do the crawling, and the other to hold onto the piece of red string that was tied around the crawler, like a leash. A person could squeeze into a dog-sized space and, following the curving contours of the surrounding walls, without noticing find himself in a part of the house he did not know to exist; or, worse, a part of the house that he knew not to exist. It was as though the searcher shrunk as he went deeper and deeper into the crack, like a diminishing echo. If a person went too deep, got sandwiched between the dusty barriers that were presumably walls (though an entirely different report might be written about papa’s suspicion that they were in fact curtains), or lost in the mazelike blackness, then he must holler out for help, as loudly as possible, for at the other end of the string the cry dulled to a mute vibration. Vigilance, we knew, was key. The ideal partner would sit with his back to the wall, keeping his ear pressed to the crack, and would make sure he heard the crawler's cry the first time around. For if the partner sat there twiddling his thumbs, or (worse) humming, the crawler could get stuck within the catacombs of our house forever.

Fights started in our family over who would have to go in. Mama and I were a team, which was bad as we both had fast tempers. You are a boy, she said, you should go in. I said I’m taller than you so it’s more likely that I’ll get stuck; furthermore, that’s sexist. We fought and bickered; a complex marketplace of duties and promises evolved at the threshold of the crevice. On the other hand, Ari and papa, papa always being the one willing to do the dirty work, operated efficiently in tandem and had already spelunked through a few tunnels. If papa, who seemed to lack most sensations of pain, managed to get stuck or lost, then he shook himself furiously and the red string would vibrate. Then, Ari would pull the string, which would be light in weight at first, but gradually increase in tension, and she would be forced to strain like she was pulling an obstinate carrot, until finally the full-sized explorer would pop out of the crack, panting and coughing up dust.

No one was sure as to the nature of these cracks. Papa surmised that at one point they were home to families of mice, but that as the buildings aged and as people began messing around, any sort of alteration could have occurred. Most of them were gaping tunnels between, say, the cabinet and the wall, tunnels that didn’t seem to make sense, that weren’t really tunnels at all. If you looked in from the right side of the cabinet, you wouldn’t be able to see the exit on the left; instead, all you could see would be a thick, texture-less blackness, a curtain that seemed to fade into itself, within which occasionally, at some depth that approached you,  burst out scattered dots of light, as brief and colorful as aurora borealis, though unconfirmed as either optical illusion or evidence of subatomic “extraterrestrial” life. If you took a broom longer than the cabinet and waved it around, to the extent that it ought to stick out through the other side, still, there would be no evidence that it had reached through the black part and into the light again. After too many of these experiments, some which involved projectiles, lasers, and even a miniature explosive concocted from household alcohols, I began to suspect that my little sister Ari, who was either observing by standing outside and saying: nope, still can’t see the broom handle, or doing the testing herself, was pulling my leg somehow. I confronted her, we fought bitterly, and any sort of household scientific endeavor degraded into disunited bickering, save for papa’s pointless musings. The Book, having been kicked into a corner by previous generations and thought lost, had probably appeared out of one of these cracks, though this was just one of a few theories.

Tomo the three year old found it one day on the kitchen floor, lying on the cool marble. It had our family name, in gold-leaf characters the size of Tomo’s hand, inscribed on the thick, wooden cover, which was a scratchy maple color. Sheaves of paper stuck out at odd angles, as though someone had forgotten to tap the papers on the table to make sure the edges were even. Tomo’s small hands travelled over the pages, roaming over the patches that had the consistency of tree bark. Marked on the pages in black ink were three hundred years of family history: names written in Chinese characters, date of birth, date of marriage, date of death. The most recent date inscribed was more than 500 years old.

But what was shocking about the Book was what had been written in the marginalia, in what was clearly neither the intent nor the doing of the lineage of authors. Will you grab me by the neck where my veins are will you drive a screwdriver into my forehead where the pulsating is. Will you drive the Mongols out of China and save the library of Alexandria. Sentence upon sentence, seemingly without structure or purpose, as if radiated by an errant, off-beat isotope of Uranium that spat out sentences instead of particles, had been scrawled within the wide margins of the Book, trapping the austere Chinese characters within a thick, messy border. Stories, completely unconnected, seemed to jump from one place and land in another, intertwining and overlapping each other in their senseless swimming within the wooden medium. The swarms of inky worms had eaten at the edges of the paper, crawled beneath the thick mainland area of the page, and emerged, where they dared, as a spare word, or sometimes a comment on the characters (the characters themselves we could not read). We envisioned a solitary writer, hunched over a desk, set apart from the darkened room by lamplight, scribbling in his family’s ancient book in what essentially amounted to graffiti. It was, upon review, a senseless love letter to the writer himself, a barely legible act of writing tens of thousands of words long, all of which occurred long after the family book had been cast away, or had been stolen by the writer.

Nobody knew for sure how the Book had gotten there, on the kitchen floor, though for a while the crevice theory dominated the others and seemed a sure answer. All in all, several hypotheses had taken hold: the first, put forth by my sister Ari, that Tomo had fabricated it; second, that it had been hidden in some ancient storage space somewhere in the house, and Tomo, the black box who kept all secrets, had found it, forgotten it and rediscovered it; and last, that papa had ordered it on one of the blackmarkets and forgotten that he had scribbled in it during one of his drunken states. The first option, that involving a three year old fabricant, was to Ari’s protest quickly ruled out as ridiculous, improbable and overly imaginative. Initially, the second, the crevice theory, seemed the most plausible, and both papa and I backed it. But mama was convinced that it was the third, that papa had drunkenly written in it. It does not match my style at all, papa said. The argument quickly devolved into a disagreement over the assertion that mama chose whatever option would paint papa in a bad light, or, conversely, that papa was too drunk too often to know anything about anything, and why did I marry you. They left to argue in the bedroom, walking and throwing their arms up like two young lads on a country path, and their sounds faded as they receded into the dark of the hallway.

Ari, Tomo and I peered over the Book, and gradually all left but Tomo, who sat on the kitchen floor and took out the loose pages like he was sampling different shades of carpet. In Tomo’s small, searching eyes, the marks began to take on meaning beyond the iron rigidity of dates. In different styles of handwriting, he divined several generations of authors, and drew out their peccadillos, studying them like calcified insects. He saw in the flourish of a serif the trained hand of a classical age; he saw in blotches untold tragedies. Slowly, the air around Tomo grew heavy, ripening with the vapor of forgotten stories. Drawing itself from the fertile air, as lightening once joined the first life form from inanimate molecules, a story weaved itself around the guideposts of the ink, and pulsated. Miniscule moving pictures shone on the surface of Tomo’s watery eyes, and he saw ancient men of the Book with long, stringy beards practicing their signatures and twirling their baby-hair brushes in the damp air. Resigned old men amused themselves, in their pagodas and water gardens, by complaining about the weather. In the ponds twirled koi fish among the lilies; and there he was, by the pond, a Tomo of that age struggling with a rod that had hooked not the small fish that had been put there for play but the sea monster itself, the furious leviathan, wrenching and thrashing furiously beneath the disturbed lily pads. An enormous, slimy whisker slapped Tomo in the face and curled around him like a tentacle.

Shouts, spilled ink on the Book of names; entire preceding generations blotted out to one senseless sludge-like character that spread slowly across the page. Oblivion invaded the surrounding nations of ink, which had been so defined, so indestructibly rich in culture, and generations faded even as the family sought to repair the present. Fables of monsters and fishing-boys, told in other books; Tomo saw himself as the progenitor of all man-and-fish legends -- it was he who gave Captain Ahab his vengeful heart, it was he put dreams of lions in the old man’s sleep. Tomo saw the oceans like hills, upside-down U’s that eclipsed each other and moved up-and-down, like churning waves. As he beheld the Book with blank eyes that looked closely into the worthwhile distance, he made out furrows on the surface of the waters that travelled into the horizon, that were almost penciled in, and then he saw himself standing on a point outside himself, on the surface of the rolling hills of water, gazing back at he the beholder.

Then the story, finished, folded into itself, and Tomo moved down the page. Each man in the family line had inscribed his name there, once to mark his marriage, at least once to mark the birth of a son, and once to mark the death of his father. Tomo could see in the death dates the attitude of the son: the measured hand of the pious and the hurried lines of the greedy. One date of death had a line crossed through it -- had the father been resurrected, had he died and been reborn? A religious era was written with characters denoting grace and empathy, instead of spring leaves and success. From grease stains Tomo extracted the murmurs of past generations expounding their conception of the family’s rise-and-fall. He watched 13-year olds diagram their family’s legend with oily french fries: this wretched fry pointing downwards marked the beginning of the fall, and this horizontal fry the stagnant dark ages, but a-hah! so-and-so became this-and-this, and so our family rose once more.

Names written, then scribbled, some even omitted. Gaps in the Book, children with birth dates but never encountering marriage or death, not out of tragedy but of sheer irreverence for history, an immortality by negligence. Bored with the traditions of their parents or the lack thereof, each generation rejected the last and propelled itself forward on its invented meaning that was true because it was yet new. Tomo knew them but could not understand them, the deathless children in suits and science who traversed the world and claimed to change it, but never bothered to put themselves here for Tomo, for Tomo to smell. He crinkled his nose and carefully flipped the page.

Could Tomo read? We always had the suspicion that he could, though he refused to learn the alphabet and had a habit of disgracing himself whenever tested, the humiliation always followed by an unusually keen sense of shame. Tomo was self-aware, papa claimed, what was inside was struggling to get out, impeded as it was by undeveloped motor skills and crayons. Papa called crayons devil things: lent to children for their nontoxicitiy, yet utterly incapable of carving a fine line. Papa said if he were given crayons and expected to write, he didn’t know what he would do, after all nobody could take crayons seriously... but by then we had stopped listening to him.

Tomo could see himself in the Book. He noted the foreign names which were responsible for different strands of his body. He could feel them in his composition, in his calculated programming, their touch in each note and half-measure, even in the cadence of his breathing. Evidence of revision and erasure was found in the changes his body unnoticeably underwent. He rubbed his small flat nose, and instinctively traced that quirk, the magnetism between his hands and his nose, to a set of characters, relatively new.

Tomo heard papa call his name, which did not make sense as papa had already disappeared into the hallway. I was in the dining room trying to do my homework. I saw Tomo carefully pick up the large book and stand on his wobbly feet. He looked like a midget with an enormous square treasure, which he could carry only with all his clever dexterity. I have a habit of being the last one to see the person before he disappears; such was the case again. 

 

***

 

I found Tomo a few months later, when we went back to our summer home in Sogo, where it was 2015. By then, most everyone had forgotten about him, the dominant theory being that there was no evidence that Tomo was not a creation of the book, as no one seemed to remember his actual birth. But I had not forgotten my brother. One late summer evening, I went bike riding to enjoy the evening cool. On the way home, I was drawn by a particularily vibrant frog song into a tiny creek, where I found Tomo. We had a conversation, but it seems that this story too is closing in on itself like (hah) a book, preventing me from recording this last adventure. I shall hurry. He was squatting next to the creek. Tomo, I said. Hello he said. I have become a forest fairy. The book was lying by him, on the dirt, its pages open as if he had been consulting his blueprints. Tomo I said, you are not a forest fairy. Ha-ha, he said. I know. 

Later we rode across the vast and empty soccer fields, Tomo clinging to my back like a koala, pointing his chubby finger and shouting mispronounced obscenities at the sunset. We chased a crow, unsuccessfully, and then we went home. (Mar. 2015)