Silence falls on the mountain with the mist. The thickness of the air is placid — the fog is a gift to foil the bustling world below, and has been left unstirred to swim along the roadway. The windless land I find myself in feels like a kiss, gently placed and left to sit until it fades away. Nothing moves, nor feels like it breathes here in the ether, save for the trees, and save for me.
This forest in its late-winter slumber is where dreams come to incubate. It is a vastness. The frost is melting, the trees are creaking; the wood is filled with the sound of visions stirring in the moments before they wake.
I dare not disturb them. My feet place themselves slowly, moving in such a way as to leave the silence undisturbed, but my efforts are inconsequential; nothing could disturb this world of dreams that I am in. Any splashing or crunching which my steps produce is deafened at once by the all-consuming stillness of the wood, the sound waves emanating from me concussed immediately by the fog. This is their world: gentle creaking, waking oaks, bristles of listless pine, dripping water from melting ice; anything you hear is the air passing through the lungs of the mountain. There is nothing else.
My fingers are red with rust. I hold a framer’s nail between them. My tight grip on the spike is the only thing of tension here. It’s been looking for its place, and trusts me to take it there. I can’t let it down, and so I look about me curiously: there has to be a place to anchor the works of the hands here — somewhere here, a giant to fell, a lion to kill, a beam for placing. My steps proceed — I am looking — something moves.
There is a man there behind a tree.
It’s Akira in his dreams.
Coming closer, I find the man stooped over his tools: pencil and paper, trowel, and hammer. Neatly-folded building plans protrude from his pockets — ideas too big for the vessel that holds them. His balding head is scratched by a curved index finger. He looks around at all the trees, stands up, and shuffles about between them, squatting at the foot of each and prodding the roots with a gauge of sorts.
He mutters to himself. “You will know them by their roots.”
“Fruits?” I bite my tongue, angered for the fact that I broke the silence. There’s something about words that proceeds — you can never take them back.
He looks around, unsurprised that I am there, and showed no signs of offense for the way that I spoke to him. Plainly, he speaks again: “Not fruits, Roots!” And back he went to his work.
“What can you know about them, judging by their roots?”
He set his trowel down, placed a hand on his knee, and looked into the distance. “Amazing, isn’t it, the difference between some questions.” He looked over his shoulder, and smiled at me knowingly.
Akira placed his ear to the ground and using a mallet, gently tapped at the protruding root of a mighty oak tree. He nodded, satisfied. “Some questions yield no answers, that’s all.”
“What sorts of questions yield no answers?”
“Haven’t you noticed?”
“No, I can’t say that I have.” I said this without thinking, and as the words tumbled forth from me, I wished I could take them back. Meaningless, they fell to the ground, tumbled in the wind, disappeared into the distance.
He nodded, and watched my words tumble away. “To us, the tree is a column, a canopy, a fixture, but the tree is more than that.” He tapped at the forest floor, which was covered with leaves left over from the fall. “The extent to which a tree reaches is beyond where it localizes. Roots have their own world, their own implications, and consequences. They can lift up roads, crack foundations, destroy water supplies and choke out other planted things. Some roots are even rotten, and in spite of this, many trees don’t yet show decay. Make no mistake, it’s coming — it’s always coming. If not now, in a decade, or a century, or a millennia. You can plant the mightiest city of Earth and plant it with no mind to the manner in which its roots are laid and it (like a tree must be replanted, grafted, seeded), will need to be undone and remade. So I ask you, if you were me,” He stood up, grunting as he rose. “…and you were looking through the forest of dreams, hoping to find the lumber which would make the beams that might just bear the weight of the world, why would you examine the roots?”
He was standing uncomfortably close to me, now, or perhaps it was the way in which he stared right through me. Unable to meet his eye, I looked down to think. My shoulders dropped, and I felt lost. Yet, a spark: I was standing on the road, looking at the potholes freshly made by a winter storm. Suddenly, the ground underneath my feet felt transparent, as if I could see everything, and my spirit rose in wonder: the road, so sturdy to travel upon, was a thinly laid crust — destined to eternal repair or immediate decay. The ground was a wrinkled skin that the trees were anchored within. It was a world of webs, interconnected. In all this darkness, a light began to shine: “Wait, I know,”
Akira raised his eyebrows, squinting his eyes behind his glasses, examining me as I thought aloud.
“A question is meaningless unless it’s truly asked.”
He chuckled. “Very smart. What is that supposed to mean.” He chuckled as he said this, warmly, a jovial reminder that I hadn’t quite been specific enough — and yet, the tumbling words didn’t feel like such a tragedy now. Each sentence that fell from my lips seemed to fall a little bit less; each moving more closely to something that might resemble a word well placed, rather than simply dropped.
“You have a purpose here, and are asking questions that carve away at the unknown. You’re rendering the fat, or so to speak — you’re reducing things to what you need, and only asking the questions that help you get there.”
He nodded. “Very good. But in spite of being singly focused, I am still an old man and am entitled to a break. Even in my dreams, I’m old, and even in dreaming, I need a break.”
I had forgotten we were in a dream.
Akira pulled a flask from the air. He unscrewed the cap, raised it into the air, and toasted me silently. He took a sip and sighed with pleasure. “Hot Sake,” volunteering the answer to my unasked question. “What will you have?”
I hadn’t even thought that the magic might work for me. The first thing I thought of was a thermos of coffee, and at that second one appeared in the air above my head and plummeted toward the ground. My reflexes kicked in — I opened my hands, lunged forward, and grasped it before it hit the ground. My sweaty, rusty nail fell to the ground and made a pinging sound off of a rock on the forest floor.
After I was finished with my fumbling, I poured myself some coffee into the old-style thermos cap. “You’re a builder too.” He sipped his sake, he wasn’t surprised at this either. Looking at his aged and wrinkled face, I doubted that anything surprised him.
“I wouldn’t say that…”
“Are you not unless you do? I haven’t built anything yet.”
His answer didn’t miss a beat. “Do the trees not start in the roots?” He sipped again, and slowly lowered himself to sit on a rock. I did the same — I caught myself doing everything that he was doing, and became self-conscious. Silly.
“You’re a builder. I caught you red handed.”
Without thinking, I looked at my hands, marked by the rusty nail that now laid on the forest floor. Akira grabbed his middle and laughed a big, grinning chuckle — a mirthy gust of human wind that carried across the wood like a clap of thunder. I thought the world was bound to hear.
We paused until the echoes stopped. Then, he asked me: “Are you going to leave it there? The nail.”
“I’m not sure.”
“If you did, nobody would ever notice. It would sink into the ground, deeper and deeper, year after year, rust over, flake apart and like any other burial, the thing buried will decay as time passes and, one day, will become the dust that it once was. Everything does this, but some things have the chance to do other things first.”
I set my coffee down, and reached to pick up the nail. Such a curious little thing, a sort of thorn that has more than a few powers: it has the potential to hinge, fasten, mark, hang…
I twirled it around in my fingers. “I’m not sure where it’s supposed to go.”
“Supposed to go?”
“I don’t know where I should put it, what I should do with it, what preparations I need to make before I place it. If I place it in a tree somewhere here in the dream, it’s as good as buried.”
Akira shook his head knowingly. “That’s true. If you leave something in a dream it’ll never be real to anyone else but you. Perhaps that’s good enough, but I’ve never been much satisfied with that.”
A chill ran over my body. “Why aren’t you satisfied with leaving dreams here in the forest?”
“A better question might be, ‘what sort of root are you?’ There are capillaries and veins, and arteries…” He pointed to the ground at a large, veinlike root that stood a few feet off, bulging from the ground. Each has a purpose. The big veins are more noticeable, but that doesn’t make the others somehow less. They’re just smaller. I have never wanted to be a big root, but I guess that I am. I have chopped all sorts of trees down from my forest — spruce and pine, elm and acacia; there are some Methuselahs that I’ve saved for the right time. I have built things with them. They were dreams that I took to die, but in their death have made places for others to live and dwell and find themselves in. From time to time, someone will wander through my forest. Some come with arsenals full of tools, and some,” he pointed at me, “come just with a nail.”
A great pause grew between us, filled with sipping, and thinking.
“I think that I’m a capillary.”
I felt myself flailing. “I have no idea where I’m supposed to put my nail.”
He shrugged, and nodded slowly. “But you’ll never know the right answer if you ask the wrong questions, will you. Regardless…” He screwed the cap back on the flask, threw it into the air, where it disappeared. He clapped both hands onto his thighs, straightened his back, and smiled. “Break is over!”
Akira Kurosawa braced his hands on his knees and raised himself to stand. He pulled a hat from nowhere and placed it on his head. Dreamland magic. “The work goes on, always on, if it is working…”
I walked with him. “What is it that you’re working on?”
“I am working at knowing things, placing myself in this context — dwelling with my dreams. My wife says that I come here to take my tools for a walk. She’s probably right!” He chuckled. “But because I’m out here, because I ask the question, whatever it may be. By asking things of my dreams, I sometimes see a thing that no one else can, and these are the moments that I honor the roots and their earth by building the means by which others can see the same thing — in the real world, I build homes from films. I tell the stories I learn here in a way that only I can. This way, an untold story may be honored, learned from. I doubt anyone can see things the same way as anyone else.”
We came to a clearing.
“Have you ever thought that you won’t only ever have the one nail? Perhaps you will only place one at a time. Makes sense to me. I didn’t make all of my films at once. I didn’t listen to all of these dreams at once; I’ve only ever eaten one meal at a time, slept one night at a time, breathed one breath at a time…”
He kneeled at the roots of the trees in his dreams, and tapped away, listening to the echoes in the roots.
I bit my lip, and started to speak. I stopped. I wanted to ask, “How could I ever know if that’s the case?” But I already knew the answer — I needed not even ask the question.
He looked up at me, smiling.