It starts with birds.
I wasn’t sure how to begin at first. I sat at the oilcloth-covered table in the cabin, gazing out over the porch, thinking back to Kyoto. I had already decided to set my novel in Kyoto. In order to write about Kyoto, I had to return there in my mind, picture myself there.
I remember sitting at my desk on the second floor of the house behind the Kyoto zoo translating the novel Grotesque by Kirino Natsuo. On moments when I needed to sound out a phrase or search my brain for a word I would stop, look out the window, and follow the flight of the pigeons. As I pondered their flight choices, I debated which word to use: bizarre? weird? strange? Before long I’d be lost in the different feats the pigeons performed, the different patterns, the rhythms. Two birds would fly up, three would land. Three birds would take off, one would land. How easily they caught hold of the electrical lines, never losing their grip, never even looking down. Bizarre? Weird? Strange? By the time I returned to my translation, the answer was clear. It was definitely “bizarre.”
A butterfly dancing over the laundry outside brought me back to the present. I had left an odd assortment of socks drying on the rail outside the sliding cabin door. I watched the butterfly flit delicately here and there and then I was back in Kyoto, back with Grotesque, back with the pigeons.
I would start there. My protagonist is a translator. I still don’t know her name. But I know what she is doing. She is sitting at her desk in a house behind the Kyoto zoo, surrounded by dictionaries, watching the pigeons, and yearning to step beyond her daily grind.
I was watching the pigeons when the doorbell rang. I hadn’t noticed before the way they appeared to divide into different squadrons. As soon as one squadron of five or so pigeons set down on the electrical wire outside my second-floor window, the second would take flight. I hate pigeons. But I enjoyed watching them soar up into the unbelievably blue April sky, wheel out over the Kyoto zoo, and temporarily block my view of the ritzy Miyako Hotel on the far side of Higashiyama. As they turned for home, their wings would wink iridescently. For pigeons, they were uncommonly beautiful. Once landed the earlier squadron would return to the skies. Pedestrians below, tourists mostly—marching noisily between Nanzenji Temple and the zoo—rarely thought to look up at the pigeons perched dangerously above their heads. I always had a chuckle when one noticed too late, dabbing desperately at a desecrated head and glaring upward at the delinquent bird. Usually the victims were raucous high school boys. The one singled out by the pigeon missile would be harangued by his unscathed buddies who would blot at his once perfect coif with hand towels and handkerchiefs. But a few weeks ago, when a pretty junior high school girl was globbed by a bird, I slipped down the stairs and offered her a damp towel. I am not sure what brought her more trauma: being shat upon by a pigeon or being set upon unexpectedly by a red-headed foreigner. “Thank you,” she managed to sputter in something resembling English, despite the fact that I had spoken to her from the start in Japanese. “Dou itashimashite,” I continued. “And please, keep the towel.” I closed the door.
That’s the way my novel started. I didn’t have a plot yet. I didn’t have a title. And my protagonist didn’t have a name. But I had a beginning. And that’s a good place to start.
Photo by Donna Douglas on Unsplash