© 2019 Yoshi Matsumoto, All rights reserved.
A panda bear holding a sitar looks absolutely hysterical.
It was a big, round body. Giant. Obese even by panda standards. The black and white fur was draped in the colorful red and yellow of the bear’s changshan, a garment which hung over him like a circus tent. He wore little round glasses that slightly magnified his eyeballs and the fur of his chin was grown long enough that he’d braided it into a tight goatee. On the bear’s head there was a little blue skull cap that rested neatly between his ears and somehow gave more symmetry to a face so rounded on the bottom by extra chins. The bear held the sitar in his paws. Wayln assumed it was a normal sized instrument, even though in the giant bear’s grasp it looked like something made for a mouse. The panda sat at the far end of a long table, with the rest of his band seated on either side.
They were out of tune.
Wayln walked through the door of the apartment and found a quintet of creatures busy at the tuning of their strings and the lubrication of their voices with alternating cups of cold water and steaming spiced tea. At table with the bear there was a tiger, two pink-faced macaques, and a little red panda dressed to the nines in a black lanshan, who obviously wanted to die looking his best.
At first they did not see him. Wayln stood in the door way and watched as they laughed and passed platters of food back and forth between themselves. Baked fish and steamed clams, sushi, great bowl-fulls of rice and trays of steaming hardboiled eggs covered in pepper. At least two dozen teapots of every size and shape covered the table and in the middle of it he saw sweets. Ice cream sitting in a tubs, cherries, sliced apples covered in caramel, raisin cakes, sweet dumplings smothered in sugar. There were curries and piping hot soups. Noodles and scallops. Little bottles of sake. Garnishes of mint.
Wayln’s mouth watered. How was it that such a feast existed on the edge of time?
The panda almost choked on a mouthful of daifuku when he looked up and saw the raccoon. A big lump slid down the bear’s throat as he forced himself to swallow.
“Look!” The panda’s paw slipped from off his sitar and pounded on the table. “Look! Look everyone!” He screamed, pointing. “Someone has seen our signal! Another friend for making merry! Give him sake! Tea! Oolong prepare our guest a plate! Welcome friend! A thousand welcomes! What a pleasure and a blessing you are to us, come to join us in this solemn hour.”
Everyone one looked at him and cheered.
“Our prayers have been answered! Break out another round!”
“You are too kind.” Wayln said bashfully as they continued to cheer. The priest folded his paws together beneath his chin and bowed slightly at the waist. “Please. The pleasure is all mine.”
“Pahhh!” The big bear let a gust of air out through his cheeks. “Too kind!? It’s the end of the world! What better occasion for kindness could there possibly be? We shan’t have the opportunity to practice it again. Tonight!” The bear slammed his fist down on the table. “Tonight I decree to be a night of sumptuous food, beautiful music, and lavish language! Ha! Come! Come new friend! Gather round! Drink! Eat! Do you play an instrument? A band is only made merry through the addition of many voices.”
“Sadly I don’t.” Wayln said as he knelt down and removed his hat and picked up a pair of chopsticks. One of the macaques handed him a bowl. “It is one of my regrets that I did not spend more time learning music. For what it’s worth though, I am not afraid to sing, even if I must do so poorly.”
“Ah-ha!” The bear clapped his paws hard before his chest. “That’s the spirit! That’s the spirit I admire! I tell you that’s why I’ve always liked monks. I’ve always said that. Haven’t I? Haven’t I? They’ll back me up on this I’ve always said that.”
The panda pointed to his friends and around the table every head nodded and agreed to confirm to Wayln that it was true.
“They have a true zest for life! A poetry in them! Never in my life have I met a monk who would not sing if you asked. How rare is that? How rare? What on earth is wrong with so many people that they will not sing!?”
The bear shook his head despondently and then promptly changed course. “Tell me Father, do you like the food?” He said as he shoved a huge platter of deep fired dough towards the newcomer.
“It’s delicious.” Wayln said through a mouthful of cod. “My thanks.”
“Oolong made it!” The bear shouted. “All of it Oolong! He is my brother! My true brother! Incredible chef. Incredible. Can you see the resemblance? Hmm? Can you see the family face?”
The panda pointed enthusiastically and Wayln’s eyes drifted to the much smaller creature with a soft face and ringed tail, unsure if the bear was being sarcastic. The red panda looked back at him and smiled. Shyly, as though he did not like being the center of so much attention.
“I, um, I see that you share a spirit, if not a face.” Wayln answered honestly as he looked between the two. “The same light is in each of your eyes.”
“HA!” The bear laughed. “Yes! The same! The very same! He is adopted but closer to me than any blood. Were it not for Oolong I’d have nothing. He saved me! He is my patron saint, my muse, my brother, and my first and dearest friend. He made all of this possible! I am but the artist. Oolong is my soul.”
The red panda smiled, the bear’s opulent praise making him blush.
“A pleasure Oolong.” Wayln said as he stuffed rice into his face. “I’ve never met someone named after tea. How interesting.”
“Our mother owned a teashop.” The red panda said as he pointed to his larger black and white sibling. “We were raised in the back room amidst the spices and grew up filling tea bags. I suppose it seemed only fitting.”
“Yes!” The panda agreed loudly. “Yes! Both of us! Ha! Oolong and Gunpowder. How’s that for names? Oh how the other children teased us! We might as well have been named after hors d’oeuvres! Ha ha! Deviled Egg and Crab Cake! Fried Green Tomato and Mozzarella Sticks! The taunts could not have been worse!
“I’m sorry.” Wayln swallowed and set his chopsticks down across his bowl. “You are not the Gunpowder, surely? The painter?”
“The very same!” The obese bear laughed with impunity as he turned a bottle of sake upside down into his mouth. “We are all artists and this my new friend is our round table! I know it’s rectangular, but no matter, mere geometry will not stop this merry band. This! All of us! We are The Order of the Final Salutation of the Soul! Valiant knights standing proud against the darkness! Driving back the cold and the empty with weapons of mirth and music and cheer!”
It was only then that Wayln noticed the art hanging upon the walls. His lifted his eyes and scanned the room in astonishment as he recognized masterpiece after masterpiece suspended on the drywall without pomp. To one side the famous Crossing of Saint Cariven’s Bridge in all its neon glory, to the other hung the brilliant Flow of the River Thyme. Behind the bear was the crimson Statue of a Hero, Sad. He saw Lamp, Revisited, resting neatly between the curtains.
“Forgive me.” Wayln was so overwhelmed he could do naught but fold his paws and bow. “I’m sorry. Had I known I was in the presence of greatness, my greeting would not have been so informal.”
“Oh pffftt!” The bear stuck out his tongue and made a noise like a fart. “Please friend! You were so pleasant before you knew I was famous, don’t ruin it with admiration. Greatness? Bah! Great in the eyes of who? People? People hold up all manner of stupid and inane things as great, their opinions are worthless. Look around you friend. We are all of us artists. Ink stained wretches who ply the mysteries of life and death with prose. We have spent our lives covered in pigments and the dust of marble and stone. We have all attempted to write autumn on the treble cleft and the years of life beneath it on the bass. The fact that I received fame for my work and they did not is a matter of accident and chance, not skill. And the proof of our equal greatness is in this very metaphysical pudding which even now brings us to communion round this table. Our arts have purchased for our souls redemption, and for it we may face the end in peace. Every life a novel and we merry composers shall write ours until the last period is inked upon the page by the giant inkblot swallowing the world. We are players! And by the gods we will play on! We will play until the curtain falls!”
The bear brought his bottle down hard upon the table and rattled all the cutlery. “A bow!” He said. “That is what is needed! A curtain call! Stand friends! Stand brave knights of the Final Salutation! Stand and take your applause!”
“Ysevalod!” The bear pointed a claw to a tiger sitting behind a banjo. The tiger did not stand as he was asked, but the bear did not seem to mind. “Poet! Nobel cat of the northern mountains who pressed the universe into a song! Sadanuchi! Chakodan!” The bear’s paw drifted round the table to the pair of macaques, one holding a simple drum, the other a biwa of fine red oak. “Husband and wife dramatists! Virtuous thespians! They could stage the creation of the world and fool the gods! And my brother Oolong! He…”
“Is nothing over special!” Oolong jumped in, interrupting his brother with a smile. “I cook, I bake…” The red panda said, holding his paws up before his chest as if in self defense. “That is the extent of my greatness. Gunny please, you embarrass me.”
“Nonsense!” The panda huffed. “Is a chef not an artist? No. No. Do not listen to him new friend. Oolong makes the best cup of tea in the history of all the world and I will listen to no one who says otherwise.”
“A gross exaggeration.” Oolong said to the priest as he shook his head in protest.
“Not so! Not so!” Gunpowder shoved a teapot away from himself across the table. “Here! Taste! Taste and see new friend that I speak the truth! Brother, pour some for our guest!”
“Gunny, please,” Oolong protested, “He doesn’t…”
“Pour!” Gunpowder shouted even as he held his the back of his paw to his forehead as though he would faint. “For the love of the gods pour! That a new friend would perish and not taste the honeyed dew of heaven in your brew is more than I can bear! Please… please…” The panda moved his paw down and clutched it against his chest. “My heart. My heart cannot take such sorrow.”
The red panda rolled his eyes at his brother’s dramatics and covered his face with his palm.
“Please.” Wayln tapped the red panda on the shoulder and offered his cup. “I have traveled far. A cup of tea would refresh my bones.”
“Yes!” Gunpowder slapped his paw against the sitar and it rang with a bright melodic hollow. “Drink! Drink all that you want!”
“Please don’t expect too much.” Oolong said as he acquiesced and began to pour, the orange brew falling like a spring waterfall from the teapot’s spout. “My brother tends towards… well, exaggeration.”
Wayln smiled. “I’ve walked eight hundred miles since last I slept in a bed. I doubt I remember how to expect too much.” With that the raccoon took the cup and he found it warm and soothing to his fingers. In the steam rising up from the liquid there was mint and a hint of honey. The monk made the sign of the moon upon his forehead and put the cup up to his mouth.
Sweetness exploded onto Wayln’s tongue and gave way at just the right instant to a subtle combination of bitter and tang. It was a picnic on a summer’s evening surrounded by fireflies, a winter’s morning beside the window, staring at the newly fallen snow. He was in the garden in the autumn, awash in the color of all the changing leaves. He was in a valley in the spring, lying in a field of scarlet flowers. The tea was viscous and heavy in his mouth and it transported across time and space to the memory and emotion of all that was good. As it washed around his teeth he tasted the first rain that had fallen on the tea fields, as he swallowed he new the texture of the sunlight that risen to warm the leaves the morning after. He remembered what it was like to be a child. He smelled again his mother’s delicate perfume.
“I… I have never had its equal.” Wayln said with a slight stutter as he pulled the cup away in disbelief. “You… Sir you are a magician.”
Oolong laughed. “Kind lies and flattery. But I thank you for the compliment just the same.”
“A long time ago I took a vow to never knowingly speak a lie.” The monk said as he looked across the table at the red panda and his swishing ringed tail. “This is the best cup of tea I have ever had. It is the best thing I ever tasted. Your brother is right to call you an artist.”
“A creature of honesty and taste!” Gunpowder shouted as he plucked a rapid series of furious notes on his sitar. “How rare! Sing! Sing with us new friend! It will be an honor to die with you sharing at my table.”
“Singing I can do.” Wayln said. “But to be honest I had not planned on dying. Not tonight anyway.”
When Wayln said this, a grave silence fell over the room. Sadanuchi and Chakodan cleared their throats and looked away. Ysevalod’s banjo came to an abrupt stop, ending on a single bum note.
“Oh?” Gunpowder’s eyes grew sad. He turned to look out the window and saw one of the large clocks floating above the city. It barely had more than four hours on it. A long time to sing. Not very long at all to be alive.
“Friend, is it possible you do not know?” The panda said, turning back to him with a worried face. “I, I do not want to alarm you but if you plan on seeing the sun tomorrow you are in precisely the wrong place.”
“Let us hope not.” Wayln said. “The forecasts have been wrong many times before.”
Ysevlod’s face grew meek. “Yes. But they have also many times been right.”
Wayln nodded. “A chance I had to take.” The raccoon hefted the satchel from off his hip and placed it on the table. He opened the flap and reached in and after a few moments of rummaging produced three items. A book, a quill, and a jar of ink.
“I’m a collector of stories.” Wayln said. “That is my art, if it is worthy to be called such.”
“Marvelous.” The bear said as it stared in wide-eyed wonderment at the tome in Wayln’s paws. “What kind?”
“The stories of people’s lives.” The monk answered. “Of what mattered and what did not. Their pleasures and pains. Their joy and sorrow. Stories of lost and found loves. Tragedy, confusion, bliss. I write about whatever gave them purpose or security or whatever made them afraid. I write about the wisdom they found in it all, if any. Regrets. Fong memories. Anything. Anything people are willing to share.” Wayln smiled at an open page. “For instance, here is a rather moving account of a favorite chess game.”
“Marvelous.” The bear said again. Reverently the bear leaned his girth across the table, looking closer. “Why?”
Wayln answered without hesitation. “To see if the gods still listen.”
“May I… May I read it?” The panda’s claws dug into the table in anticipation and he stared at the pages as though they were holy writ.
“If only there were time.” The priest unscrewed the lid of the ink jar and dipped his quill into it as he spoke. “There are too many stories to tell in an evening so truncated, but, if you would so honor me Master Gunpowder, I would dearly like to add yours.”
“Of course.” The panda nodded slowly, seriously. “Of course. Absolutely. Of course.”
Wayln touched the pen to paper. “Anytime you’re ready.” He said. “Only speak from the heart.”
Slowly the bear’s reverent face morphed back into its boisterous smile. “Hoho!” The fat panda said, picking up another bottle of sake and slamming it down his throat. “Not so fast! Not so fast! Ha! You promised me a song new friend, and a song I shall have! Sing your best for me and then I shall sing my best for you. Fair?”
Wayln set his pen back down. “Of course. More than fair.”
“Alright alright alright alright alright!” The panda screamed, a flurry of notes springing out of his strings. “Everyone! Play with me! The song? “Bring the Morning When You Come.” The tempo? Sad. Slow. This is the last time we will ever get the chance to weep into a composition and wet the music with the water of our eyes. Hold nothing back. Sing from your souls. So they sung. It was a song they all knew, an old folk ballad that had survived the centuries of change and thus proved itself worth singing. They sang low when the song went low. High when it went high. The melody from their mouths bright and clear and sad. Wayln did his best to keep up with the masters and stay on key. The strings vibrated against the wood and the air again the reed and together all these waxed harmonic with the flesh and blood of vocal chords. It was a good song.
Especially to die to.