Linguists estimate that of the 6,000 or so languages now spoken in the world, about half will be gone within the next 100 years. In his paper “Endangered Languages of the Pacific Region,” Osamu Sakiyama reports that Nasarian has only twenty speakers, Maragus and Ura have only ten speakers each, and Aore has only a single speaker—and by the time you read this, those speakers will have died. These are plain facts.
Shozo Sakurado was the solitary speaker of his language, the language itself a harmonious hodge-podge of musical vocables that sounded more like song than speech. He had been born on an island in the Pacific, but had found his way to the United States where he acquired a new life and an education. Sakurado had a cheerful energy about him, which was both good and necessary, because his strongest desire was to revive his dying language—a hopeless task which would have plunged anyone else into despair. He worked out of a storefront in watery Portland, Oregon.
Sally Raven knew Shozo Sakurado was crazy. But that was perfect for Sally because she was a psychiatric social worker completing her PhD, and Sakurado was her dissertation topic. Sally Raven was a Native American, a Tlingit, born in a village in the Tlingit area that stretches from southeast Alaska along the coast of Canada and southward toward the United States. The Tlingit language has a complex grammar and some exotic phonemes, but it’s spoken only by about five hundred people and is probably going to go extinct in this century. Sally spoke, or used to speak, Tlingit, but she had put that and much else behind her when she left home—home being a succession of villages, fjords, islands, and beaches. That was years ago. Last week Peter Drock had asked to move in with her, and she had said yes. By the next afternoon they were sprawled side by side naked on Sally’s brass bed, both of them glistening with sweat and exhausted. To be precise, Peter was sprawled star-shape on the bed, and Sally was curled up on the margin but, yes, they were both sweaty and exhausted. Sally noticed that even with the curtains drawn against the sunlight, his pale body appeared to glow with lunar brightness beside hers.
“You know this is only for the summer,” Peter reminded her.
“Of course, I know,” she said.
“I like to make everything clear and completely understood,” he said.
“Otherwise people imagine things.”
“Well, that’s not always so bad, is it? Imagination, I mean.” Sally’s eyelids felt heavy with sleep.
“I hope you didn’t say yes just because you were lonely.”
“No, I’m used to being lonely,” she assured him. “I’ve been lonely for years.” She let her eyes close.
“Maybe you said yes because you need somebody,” he suggested.
Sally gave a long contented sigh and let herself drift toward sleep. “Maybe I said yes because you said you needed a place to stay,” she murmured. “Or maybe because I’d never gone to bed with anyone so, so—so white.”
Peter Drock believed Sally was overly emotional and was probably falling in love with him, but that was all right with Peter because at summer’s end he was flying back to the East Coast. He had an expensive apartment in Cambridge and an office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was deep into information theory: packets of information, redundancy, noise—things like that. He had come to Portland for a communications conference, had seen Sally in a Starbucks and decided to stay for the summer. She was drinking coffee and memorizing words from a big ocean-blue notebook. He had struck up a conversation and, as he expected, he found she had an interest in language. Later he learned she was only a social worker, which disappointed him, and up close she was not so young as he usually liked, but she was clearly impressed when he told her what he was going to achieve in life. Peter was writing a book, a book to make mathematical linguistics understandable to non-specialists and make himself better known, probably even famous.
Unfortunately, the book wasn’t coming along well and he realized that he hated writing. That’s why he slammed shut the lid on his laptop this morning and told Sally, “I’ll come with you to your dissertation. I’ll pretend to take one of his language lessons.”
“Great!” Sally said, delighted. “Sakurado is a wonderfully paranoid person and very likeable.”
“Anything will be more likeable than writing a book,” Peter said. He pulled on a sweatshirt imprinted with God said followed by Maxwell’s equations for light.
“Just don’t upset him. Sometimes he weeps,” she said, kissing Peter’s cheek. “Let’s go.”
Shozo Sakurado’s classroom was jammed between a tattoo parlor and a shop that sold incense and scented candles. His sign above the sidewalk said Learn A Sound Language Free Lessons, formerly Seattle, San Francisco, etc. As they approached it, Peter said, “Let me go in first, by myself, to make it look real.”
Sally started to say something, but by then Peter had turned in at the open door, discovering abruptly the whole place was not much wider than the door and only five feet deep. It was so shallow that the man (copper-color face, shaved head, rugby shirt) seated behind the desk had been able to tilt his chair back to the rear wall and was singing with his eyes closed against the sun. It was a mournful song, the unintelligible words coming slower and slower until there were only solitary vowel sounds, solitary musical notes, like drops of water falling from a tree after a lashing rain. When he had finished he opened his eyes, saw Peter and crashed forward in his chair. “Come in, sir! Come in, come in, come in,” he said, cheerfully.
Peter took a half-step forward, all there was room for. “What is this language, this sound language?”
“You would like to become a student,” Sakurado declared, quite pleased.
“Yes, and the song—”
“Not to worry. If you listen, you will learn.” He had swung a small folded lawn chair up over the desk and gave it a brisk shake, snapping it open.
“That song you were singing, what language was that?”
“The words of the rain. Beautiful, yes. And also very sad. Please sit down. First lesson is the introduction. Not difficult at all.”
Peter sat down, the back legs of his chair on the sidewalk outside and his knees bumping against the desk. “What language—,” he began.
“Ah! Here she is,” he said, smiling past Peter. “My very faithful student. She doesn’t need a first lesson, but will keep you company.” He gently handed a folding chair over his desk to his very faithful student, Sally Raven. Sally sat down, opened the large blue notebook in her lap and, poising her pen at the top of page, looked up at her teacher and smiled encouragingly.
“Shozo Sakurado,” he said.
“What?” Peter said.
“My name. Shozo Sakurado.”
“I don’t know what language you teach but your name and accent sound Japa—” Peter stopped because Sally had flung out her arm, slapping him in the chest with a page ripped from her notebook.
“You can use this to take notes!” she said, cutting him off.
Peter took the paper but continued to speak, saying, “Mr. Sakurado, I don’t believe—” But Sally’s hand smacked into his chest with another sheet torn from her notebook. “Hey!” Peter cried, turning to her. “All right, all right,” he muttered. “He’s not about to weep.” He sat back in his lawn chair, sighed and folded his arms.
“Please begin,” Sally said politely.
Sakurado vanished beneath the desk, leaving his students to gaze at the back wall which was painted a patchy, blotchy blue and decorated with bright picture postcards of white sand beaches and clear lagoons, plus an antique poster of a phrenological head—the profile of a bald person with areas of the head labeled like countries on a map. The labels had been imperfectly whitewashed over and other words had been written near the mouth describing different sounds, such as sibilants, dentals, fricatives. Peter leaned toward Sally and said, “Does he read head bumps too?” Sakurado emerged with a cardboard box, which he set bottom-side-up on the desk, and on that he placed his lecture notes.
He began by talking about the Pacific island where he had lived, an island so small it would not show up on a map “unless the map is too big to unfold.” He described the broad white beaches, the lavish greenery, the coral reefs that broke the incoming waves and threw off spray “as clear and sparkling as tears.” He spoke of the rising sea, how it flooded the island and dispersed the islanders, sent them into exile where they must “live as strangers among strangers, learning a new language and forgetting their own.” Peter, growing bored, glanced at Sally and was astonished to see her eyes were glistening, filled almost to overflowing with tears.
Sakurado had lectured for about forty-five minutes. Now he was discussing the grammar and curious verbal structure of his language, in which, he emphasized, the words sounded like the things they represented. In other languages there was no connection between the sound of a word and what the word stood for. “For example, the same animal we refer to by making the sound—” and here Sakurado paused, then carefully enunciated the sound dog. “That same animal is referred to in France by the making sound chien, and on the islands of Japan by the sound inu. But all that is different in my native language, the sound language, the language of the island, Nagori.” Then he swept away the cardboard box and said, “Lesson over.”
Sally shut her notebook and exchanged a smile with Sakurado. Peter stood up to shake hands, saying, “Congratulations, whoever you are.”
“Shozo Sakurado,” he replied.
“Very imaginative, all of it,” said Peter.
The handful of passersby who had stopped to listen to the lesson had drifted off. Sally waited a few steps away and as Peter turned to her, he heard Sakurado behind him say, “Bow-wow!” He looked back and saw Sakurado sitting with his hands folded on the desk, quite sober. “Bow-wow!” he repeated and waved good-bye.
They walked along, Peter’s blond hair glittering in the sunshine, Sally’s hair swaying like a black banner in the breeze. “What did you think?” she asked him. “Isn’t that a beautiful story? Isn’t he interesting?” She cradled the big blue notebook against her breasts. “He’s the real thing, all right.”
“He’s a fraud is what he is. He’s bogus,” Peter informed her.
“Oh, no. Please don’t say that. He’s just a little paranoid, that’s all,” Sally said.
“You mean like when he said bow-wow to me when we left?”
“No. That’s the way he always ends the first lesson,” she said. “Whenever anyone new drops in he gives the first lesson. I’ve heard it a lot. But hardly anyone stays for the next lessons. Except for some homeless men who used to come in the mornings between when the shelter would make them leave and the library would let them in. But they only lasted a week.”
“He’s sane. He’s also a con man,” Peter said, his voice firm.
Sally winced and abruptly stepped off the curb, saying, “Let’s eat.” She zigzagged through the street traffic and ducked into a sandwich shop. They chose a table, ordered their sandwiches, and while Peter listened to his accumulated cell phone messages, Sally looked over her old language notes. After their sandwiches came they carefully talked not of Sakurado but about the decayed Old Town neighborhood and it wasn’t till they were finishing that Peter said, “Why do you think he’s paranoid?”
She brightened. “He thinks there’s a conspiracy aimed at him and people are trying to control his mind.”
“Oh. Well. That does sound like paranoia,” he conceded.
“Exactly!” She smiled, clearly relieved. “He thinks people are plotting to help him out, to do him favors behind his back. He believes persons unknown are trying to jolly him up, make him feel good.”
Peter’s coffee cup halted halfway to his mouth, and he looked at Sally to see if she were joking. “I never heard of paranoia like that,” he said.
“It’s a rare case. That’s why I want to write about him. And because he’s so interesting, so authentic.”
“Maybe he’s faking that, too.”
Sally ordered a fresh sandwich wrapped to go and they left the shop. “We haven’t got much time to get back to the language school,” she said, dodging between two cars in the ragged street traffic.
“It’s not a school, it’s a hole in the wall,” Peter said, catching up with her. “And why do we have to get back there?”
“Because at this hour he shuts the door and walks down to the river and simply stares at the water. I know because I’ve followed him. I think he can’t afford to eat lunch.”
“He doesn’t look starved to me. He looks trim.”
“I didn’t notice,” she said vaguely. “Maybe he meditates. Many well-built people meditate.”
“He probably works out at a gym. And you can’t tell how old he is with that shaved head.”
She thought about that. “I don’t think age matters that much. Not to me, anyway.—So. Well. One day in class he was looking for some misplaced notes under his desk, and he came up with a small square pillow and a folded blanket. I think he sleeps there. And I know he closes the school and goes for a walk at this hour.”
Sure enough, when they reached Sakurado’s place, the big door was closed. Sally hauled it open wide enough to reach inside; she took a glossy brochure from her notebook and laid it on the desk and then placed the sandwich on the paper. She pressed the door closed with her hip. As they walked away Peter asked what the booklet was about.
“It’s about social services in Portland. I think he could use it.”
“I don’t know what kind of a scam he’s running, but he sure has you hooked,” he said.
Then they split—Sally to the clinic where she worked part-time, Peter to make calls on his cell phone and then back to their apartment to begin his book.
Before Peter Drock moved into Sally Raven’s apartment, the two had gotten to know each other, of course. Sally had told him about her youth among the Tlingit (absent father, drunken husband, dead baby), and Peter had told her about himself (Newton public schools, Rensselaer Polytech, Stanford.) And their first love-making on Sally’s brass bed had been a complete success for both of them, finally, more or less. But an awkwardness developed between them after Peter attended Sally’s language class at Sakurado’s storefront.
Now they got along somewhat like suitemates. Peter bought groceries, Sally made dinner, and they shared the bedroom. Actually, to be precise, Sally decided to sleep alone in the big brass bed but she let Peter sleep on it in a sleeping bag that she had loaned him. Peter had his half-dozen books lined up on the sitting room window sill and there by the window he typed and deleted on his laptop. Sally scribbled her dissertation at the kitchen table and lowered her voice when she practiced Sakurado’s strange vocabulary lists. Some of the so-called words sounded like soft noises, others resembled songs or solitary musical tones. Most unnerving to Peter were the more recognizable sounds—the cries of sea birds, the gusts of rain blowing through abandoned houses, the sound of great waves that rolled from the kitchen to the sitting room. Peter still admired Sally’s generosity, her stamina, and her being a Native American Tlingit. But, frankly, he was disappointed by her naiveté, or maybe annoyed by it, for she truly believed in that make-believe language.
This evening Peter didn’t bother to open his laptop but sat by the window wondering how to get Sally Raven to stop believing in Sakurado. Sally came in from the kitchen with a glass of white wine in each hand. “I learned a beautiful poem tonight,” she said, handing him a glass. “And I practiced the word for ear and to listen—those words are variations on the same sound, which means sea shell. And there’s a soft deep luminous sound that means when the eyes of two people in love meet and see into each other.”
“How long have you been listening to that Sakurado person?”
“Not long. He began two months ago. I know the language pretty well now. It’s easy, more like learning a song or a poem,” Sally said. “And they all fit together.”
“Why keep going back?”
“Sometimes he forgets the grammar or he uses the wrong word, and that’s embarrassing when there’s other students in class. But I’ve taken good notes so I can help him out, help him remember things right.”
“He forgets his own language?” Peter laughed and laughed.
“I don’t see what’s so funny! Besides, his stories about the island always make me feel better. The native people are like an endless family, and there’s always children playing at the edge of the sea. In fact, I’d like to go there,” she added.
“He said the islands were underwater now. And you told me global warming or something had made the sea rise and everything washed away, all the people drowned.”
“I’m not sure what happened. I think it’s still there, someplace. I mean, if we can get enough people to learn the language, and if we all pay for a ship—”
“Ever wonder where that fraud gets his money?”
“He works nights for a printer on Market Street. I know because I sort of followed him,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful language—”
“There’s no such language.”
“What do you mean?” she said.
“I’m a scientist. I know linguistics. Your Sakurado is a fraud.”
“Shozo isn’t about linguistics,” she said, hotly. “That’s like saying Picasso is about paintbrushes!”
“Did you ever hear of Ferdinand de Saussure? Let me tell you about Saussure,” Peter said. But just then Peter’s cell phone rang and he had to answer it.
Ferdinand de Saussure established modern linguistics and invented semiotics, now you know. He was born in Switzerland in 1857, a remarkably bright kid. He entered graduate school at nineteen, wrote a book on Indo-European languages at twenty-one, and had his doctorate by the time he was twenty-three. Scholars hadn’t been able to create a science of linguistics, he said, because they hadn’t understood the nature of language. They had been examining individual words, and doing a nice job of it, but the essence of language is in the formal system, or code, which controls those words. So the true science of linguistics, Saussure said, was the study of that system. And Saussure also laid the cornerstone of a new science, semiology, the study of signs. After all, words are simply signs pointing to things. And, it turns out, signs and the way they relate to each other create reality. But to get back to plain words, Saussure taught that words are arbitrary sounds and don’t have any essential connection to what they refer to. There’s no language composed of words that sound like what they mean. And that’s the point that Peter Drock wanted to make when he was interrupted by that phone call.
Peter must have overslept the next morning, because by the time he got to the kitchen table, Sally was already on her way out. “I made a pot of coffee,” she said, gathering up her purse, her keys, a lipstick. “On the stove.”
“The call was from the person renting my Cambridge apartment for the summer,” Peter explained. “That’s why I had to answer it. And the reception is better outside. That’s why I went outside.”
Sally shrugged. “That’s all right. I already knew about So-sure. I’m not a complete dummy.—I got the morning hours today,” she added, sweeping up her notebook. “See you later,” she said over her shoulder.
Sally rarely used her car because it was falling apart again, but this morning she drove to the clinic and when her shift was over, she drove to the river. A soft rain had begun to fall. She parked and walked along the grassy margin and found Shozo Sakurado sitting on a bench facing the water.
“Professor Sakurado, you’ll get wet,” she said.
Sakurado turned. “Ah, Miss Raven. And it really, really is you,” he added.
He smiled and stood up. “And I say really you because there have been times—in broad daylight, at noon—when I thought I saw you out of the corner of my eye when I was walking here, but when I looked, no one was there.”
“That happens to everybody.”
“Does it? That’s good. I was afraid someone from your office might say I was paranoid.—Do you have time to join me?” he asked, gesturing to the damp bench.
Sally seated herself at the nearest end of the bench.
Sakurado resumed his place at the other end, saying, “I even thought I saw you one night on Market Street on my way to my night job.”
“It turned out to be only another shadow in the darkness. But here’s the actual true Miss Raven. In the rain.”
“I think this is falling mist, not rain,” she said, holding her palm out to catch the drops. They discussed the weather for a while, and Professor Sakurado agreed with Miss Raven that it was merely falling mist, not rain, and a warm mist at that, though the drops were getting larger.
“And please call me Sally,” said Sally. “I have a question. Did you ever hear of a man named So-sure?”
Sakurado looked puzzled. “Maybe,” he replied slowly. “Maybe, Ferdinand de Saussure?”
“That’s the one. Who is he?”
“Let’s see. He was Swiss. His most famous book is called A Course in General Linguistics.” Shozo smiled, his face lighting up. “But he didn’t write it. It was composed by students who took good notes in class.” He laughed. “If you would call me Shozo—,” he began.
“Oh, I do. In my mind, I mean, love.” She gave a quick laugh, shaking her head to erase her misspeaking. “I mean, I love your classes. The sound of the language.”
“And the poems or songs,” Sally continued. “They fit together. They tell a story, almost.”
Shozo looked at her a long moment. “Only a person like yourself—or, no—only you, yourself, would notice that. Only you have listened to them, all of them.”
“I’m sure—,” she began, but broke off, distracted by his sad eyes. “I’m sure there are many more,” she said, plucking a heavy rope of wet hair from her cheek.
“No, no more. The end,” he told her.
She hesitated. “No more? What do you mean, no more?”
“Everything ends,” he said. “Everything ends on July twelve.”
“Tomorrow? That’s impossible! What happens to the classes?”
“No more,” he said mechanically.
“But I need more. They have to go on.”
“Everything ends on July twelve, always.”
The air was thick with rain and Sally’s face had become gray, her lips violet. “What do I do now?” she asked, looking at him, her hair glistening black, streaming rainwater.
Shozo scrambled to his feet and pulled off his rugby shirt, saying. “You’re getting chill. Here, take this, at least it has sleeves.” The copper colored flesh of his chest had a sparse peppering of short hair, the same as on his jaws.
“The rain is chilling you.”
“Oh. My car’s near here,” she said, looking around.
Shozo had pulled her to her feet, or else Sally had taken him by the hand to lead him to her car. In any case, he had lifted his shirt over his head and stretched it over Sally’s head and they ran (huddled together this way) to her car. They ducked in, but then Sally sat behind the wheel, staring blankly ahead. “Where do I go from here?” she murmured.
“I’ll show you the way.”
“What? Oh, that. Don’t worry.” She tried to start the car, but it didn’t catch.
“At least we are dry,” he said, wringing out his shirt. “And cozy.”
“It’s a VW, but it came in from Mexico. They don’t make them this way anymore.—What am I talking about? Am I making any sense?” Abruptly the car leapt forward, halted, jerked forward once more and then pulled smoothly ahead. “I’ll drive you back to the school,” she told him.
They sat inches apart, their elbows touching at every rattling bounce, neither one saying a word. The windows fogged up. Sally rubbed her hand vigorously on the glass to clear a porthole to peer through. “You are a good driver,” Shozo announced.
Sally glanced at him. “Really? Do you think so?”
“Like a harbor pilot in a storm, very good.”
They pulled up at Shozo’s place. He got out and turned to her. “Thank you, Sally.”
He smiled, the corners of his eyes wrinkling, and she smiled in return.
“Thank you, Shozo.” She pulled away from the curb and drove home, her smile gone, her face a desolate blank.
Sally didn’t go to the last class. She woke up at the usual time that morning but lay heavily in bed and gazed at the ceiling. She remained that way while Peter got up, shaved, showered, and pulled on his clothes. He shook out the sleeping bag, smoothed it and turned down the open corner. “Are you okay?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she said, her voice flat, tuneless. She pushed herself halfway to a sitting position and tucked a pillow behind her head. “I mean no,” she emended. She wore a sloppy old t-shirt in bed; her hair had fallen in front of her eyes, but she seemed not to care and didn’t push it away.
She told him the language classes were over.
“Does that mean you can’t write your dissertation? Is that the problem?” he asked.
“You said Sakurado was your dissertation subject. Can you still write about him?”
Sally lifted her hands a bit and let them drop listlessly on the blanket. “Oh. That. Yes. I can still write about him. I’m already halfway through. For what it’s worth.”
“Then what’s wrong?”
“How’s your book coming?” she asked, just to change the subject.
“I can’t get into the third paragraph.” Peter sat on the edge of the bed, his shoulders bent. “I loathe writing.”
“You told me you published lots of papers. You said you had a publications list as long as your arm.”
“I do. But the papers are mostly math. I can write math,” he told her.
“I thought you were writing about communications.”
“I am. Information theory.”
“Ferdinand de Saussure,” she said, carefully articulating each syllable.
“No. Saussure is a hundred years old. Claude Shannon is the man. He was a genius. Let me tell you about him,” he said, turning toward her.
“Don’t,” she said.
“He made some great equations about communicating.”
“I’ll make you breakfast if you shut up,” Sally told him.
Sally fried ten strips of bacon, scrambled four eggs, and toasted three slices of bread. While arranging the bacon strips in the pan she heard that Claude Shannon had gone to the University of Michigan where, among his courses in science and in mathematics, he came across the curious works of George Boole—an obscure and long-dead teacher who had devised a way to write logic statements in mathematical notation. She was cracking eggs when she learned that after Claude Shannon left Michigan he continued his studies at MIT, where he worked with electrical circuits. At some point Shannon was struck by the similarity of electrical circuits and switches to the mathematical logic invented by Boole. By the time Sally had finished breakfast, Shannon had written his MIT master’s thesis and demonstrated how Boolean logic could be used to solve the problem of arranging switches in an electric circuit. “Then he turned his idea around and showed how an arrangement of switches could be used to solve Boolean logic problems,” Peter said, clearly delighted. “It was the greatest master’s thesis ever, and it created the computer!”
“What’s that got to do with language?” Sally asked.
“I haven’t told you that part yet.”
“I’m going to take a shower,” She said.
Peter’s cell phone rang. He looked at the caller’s number and said, “It’s the crazy woman who’s renting my apartment.”
“Don’t forget to do the dishes when you’ve finished the call,” Sally told him over her shoulder. After her shower she drove all the way to Cannon Beach (she didn’t care if the car broke down), meandered barefoot down the shore, stared at the gray Pacific, then drove back to Portland. That took care of the day.
Sally felt no better the next morning, but she got up anyway. When Peter crawled out of his sleeping bag, he found the brass bed was empty, smooth and tight. He pulled on his jeans and an old t-shirt and washed up, all the while listening to her singing from the kitchen—or not singing, but rather chanting, or reciting, or whatever it was that she did when she gave voice to that fraud Sakurado’s make-believe language. Peter identified the cri-cri-cri of gulls, the crash-and-hush of waves against the shore, the sounds of children playing at the edge of the sea, and that was followed by a passage of recitative (which, frankly, he found simply tuneless) and then a lovely, slow melody of such nostalgia, such intense longing, that he stopped toweling his wet head and stood at the kitchen doorway, listening. Sally didn’t see Peter until she had finished singing. “I almost let it slip through my fingers,” she announced, apparently stunned.
“What are you talking about?”
“Reality,” she said, sweeping her car keys from the table. “Whatever that is.”
She drove to Shozo Sakurado’s place. The sign was gone, but the door was partway open, and Shozo was behind the desk in the shadowy light, wedging a handful of picture postcards into a bulging backpack. There was a plump duffle bag open beside it.
“Ah, Sally Raven,” he said, his face brightening for a moment. “Good. You are here. Yes. Excellent,” he said briskly, tugging the zipper shut on the backpack.
“What are you doing?’
“Packing, as you can see.” He gave her a quick smile. “Good-bye, San Francisco. Good-bye, Seattle. Good-bye, West Coast—”
“Where are you going?”
“Shozo, please,” she said, her voice a mix of anger and panic. “You’re already in Portland.”
“Portland on the other side. Portland in Maine on the East Coast. You think I’m crazy? You think I don’t know where I am?”
“I don’t know what to think, I—”
“You think I don’t know truth from fiction?” He laughed.
“I don’t—,” she began.
“Next, Portland in Maine. Said to be beautiful. Have you packed? Or are you here only to see me off, wave good-bye?” A note of hostile gaiety had crept into his talk.
He turned to the back wall and began to take down the drawing of the phrenological head, the one with areas mapped on the bald skull. Freshly inked Japanese kanji filled each part of the head.
“Wait! What’s the writing? What did you write on it?”
Shozo turned and looked at her a moment, then turned back to the diagram. “This one says grief, this one says loneliness, this one says loss, this one says—” He broke off, pounded both fists into the wall, buckling and shattering the thin gypsum-board so it collapsed, fell to the side. The room extended far, far back into the dark. Shozo had begun sobbing, wailing, moaning as he wandered farther and farther back, the echoes of his monstrous grief heaping up in waves, one upon the other, booming like surf. Sally scrambled over the desk, waded into the echoing dark, grabbed Shozo and hauled him back to the light. He lay across the desk, slowly getting his breath back. Sally pushed the door wide open, filling the little room with sunlight, then she took up his knapsack and duffle bag and tossed them into her car. Shozo sat up, rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hands, looked at her.
“Sally Raven,” he said.
“That’s a beautiful name.”
“I’m a Native American, born a Tlingit in the Tlingit nation. I’ll tell you about me another day. And you?”
“I was born in Hawaii. My parents were Japanese, and when I was a little boy we returned to Japan, to Okushiri, an island in the Sea of Japan.”
“No!” Sally cried. “I want the real story. I want the island where they speak the musical language!”
“I’m telling you the real story,” Shozo said. “The kind you read in newspapers.”
For a moment Sally felt dizzy. She shook her head as if to clear it, or maybe to signal no.
“Yes,” said Shozo.
“Tell me the rest,” Sally said, looking directly into his eyes to keep her balance.
“Does it matter?”
“It matters to me,” she told him. “Everything about you matters to me.”
“In Hokkaido, I re-learned English. I have a talent for languages, so I became a teacher of English, then a teacher of Japanese in this country. In San Francisco, I married a Japanese-American like me. We had a little boy. Then I took them to visit my parents in Okushiri. That was the summer of 1993. On July 12, at 10:17 at night, an earthquake shook the island and a few minutes later a tsunami rolled over the town of Aonae, taking away my father and my mother and my wife and my little boy.”
For a long moment there was nothing more to say. Sally Raven and Shozo Sakurado simply looked at each other.
“And now you tell stories about an island and a loss,” Sally said.
“In a beautiful language nobody understands.”
“I think one person understands,” Shozo said.
“I’ll drive us to my place.”
“I’m going to Portland. On the Atlantic side.”
“We can do that later,” she said.
When they got to Sally’s, they found Peter and a woman with straw-colored hair at the kitchen table, a small banged-up suitcase on the floor by her chair.
“Oh, ah, well,” Peter said to Sally. “This is Erica. She just got in. Flew in. From Cambridge. Massachusetts.”
The woman, whose hair stood up in all directions, wore a black swim-top and big turquoise earrings the color of her eyes.
“Let me guess,” Sally said. “This is the crazy woman who’s renting your place for the summer.”
“Renting?” said Erica, astonished. She looked to Peter, then back at Sally. “I don’t know what little fiction he told you, but we’ve been living together for five years. Who are you?”
“I’m Sally Raven, and this is my apartment,” Sally told her.
Erica stood up and shook Sally’s hand, saying, “I’m Erica Lindstrom, and I came here to get the money for my restaurant. And this is—?”
“This is Shozo Sakurado, the poet,” Sally said.
“Poet?” Peter cried, as if he had not heard right. “Poet?”
“Hey, I recognize your t-shirt,” Shozo told him. “You came to one class.”
Peter plucked his t-shirt out to see what he was wearing. “Oh. This. Maxwell’s equations.”
Shozo laughed. “You think God speaks in equations?”
“The language of God is mathematics.”
“Oh, no, no. You got that wrong,” Shozo informed him. “The language of God is language.”
“What the hell is going on here?” Erica asked.
Peter and Shozo and Sally started to explain, all talking at once, while at the same time Shozo and Sally unloaded the grocery bags onto the table. Erica put her hands over her ears. “Never mind!” she said. “I came here to get my money.”
“Peter owes you money?” Sally asked.
“I paid off his student loans and his maxed-out credit cards. Yes, he owes me.”
“Hey, wait a minute,” Peter cried. “It isn’t that way at all. We agreed, Erica, we agreed.”
“We agreed on what, Peter? Apparently I’ve never understood what we agreed on. Apparently you didn’t make yourself completely clear and completely understood,” said Erica. “Despite your reverence for your god, Shannon.”
“He has a god named Shannon?” Shozo asked.
“You make it sound as if all we have is a financial relationship, a banking arrangement,” Peter said. “We’re more than that and you know—”
“More than that until you decided to stay out here to shack up with—” Erica broke off, turned to Sally and said, “I’m sorry I said that,” then back to Peter, saying, “Until you decided to stay out here all summer and scam this decent Sally Raven.”
Sally waved her hand as if brushing away a fly. “There’s nothing going on between Peter and me. Is anybody hungry? Other than me? Because I’m hungry.”
“We have to leave,” Erica announced, picking up her suitcase. “Peter, out the door!”
“No one has to leave,” Sally told her. “Everybody’s invited to stay.”
Erica sent Peter out to get more bread and more wine. Meanwhile, Shozo found the bedroom, rolled up the sleeping bag and tossed it into the closet, put his knapsack and duffle bag on the brass bed. Peter returned with three bottles of chilled wine and a loaf of Italian bread. Shozo unfolded fresh linen over the kitchen table, lit the candles. Then everyone sat down to salad and salmon prepared by Erica and Sally—the salmon baked under chopped tomatoes and celery and black seaweed powder, echoing a Tlingit recipe from when Sally was a kid. Maybe everyone drank too much wine. Maybe that’s why Shozo turned to Peter and asked him to explain the equations on his t-shirt.
“They’re electromagnetic equations. Light is a form of electromagnetic radiation. God said this.” Peter pointed to the equations.
Shozo shook his head. “No, no. God created light by saying Let there be light, and he called the light Day and the darkness he called Night. He did it all with words.”
“After which God created mathematics to find out what he had done,” Peter said.
“There’s a Tlingit story that says Raven created the world,” Sally put in, hoping to change the conversation.
It worked, and for a while Sally kept everyone entertained with Tlingit myths and legends. But then Shozo turned to Peter and said, “Tell me about your god Shannon.”
“That’s Claude Shannon, not god Shannon. Claude Shannon, the mathematician, the inventor of communication theory. It’s about getting the message across clear and completely understood.”
“What’s his theory of communication?”
“Well, to begin with, he applied the mathematics of probability to information, and his equations using log—”
Shozo cut in. “Another equation? More math?”
Erica turned to Sally, saying, “The nice thing about being a chef is that you begin with a recipe and end up with something to eat. Which is more than you can say about any theory.”
“Math is the most refined language there is,” Peter continued. “It’s pure, absolutely pure.”
“Pure, because it refers only to itself,” Shozo said. “Math is the most impoverished language there is.”
Those four at the kitchen table could have broken up at any time, but each of them felt unreasonably contented to stay there and talk. The windows were open with the curtains pulled aside to let in the soft night air. The candle flames were tall and unwavering.
Shozo spoke passionately about the thousands of languages populating the globe, how each was different in ways that would astonish the speakers of another language, how some use clicks and others use tones, how some have tenses unknown in this land, how one has words in sixteen genders while another has no gender at all, and some inflect verbs to signal how certain the speaker is in saying what he says. But above and beyond all this, said Shozo, is the power of language to shape our reality and create whole worlds.
“No. Reality is what you can measure,” Peter said, pouring more wine into his glass. “No measurement, no reality.”
“Your mathematics is an anemic language and all it can provide is those measurements. Reality is richer and more complex than that.” Shozo opened his arms as if to embrace the disorderly table, the candle-lit room, and the world outside. “This is reality.”
Peter tilted his head back, drained his glass, and set it down so hard it rang. “Numbers is facts, and fiction is lies,” he said.
Shozo laughed. “Our lives are not equations, our lives are stories,” he said.
The last speaker of Aore lived on Mafea Island in the Republic of Vanuatu, an archipelago nation in the South Pacific—all of which sounds fictional but is factual. And it’s a fact that on July 12, 1993, an earthquake staggered the west coast of Hokkaido, producing a tsunami that swept onto Okushiri Island and rolled over the town of Aonae. The words Aonae and Aore are similar, but they mean quite different things, like Portland and Portland. Sally Raven forgot her childhood Tlingit and the language is fast disappearing, though some are striving to teach it to the young. Peter Drock and Erica Lindstrom are no longer living together in Cambridge, a city of many restaurants, including a small one owned by Erica. Shozo Sakurado and Sally Raven, husband and wife, live in the hillside city of Portland—the one in Maine—overlooking the ocean where you can hear the cries of gulls, listen to the crash and hush of great waves, and see children at play on the shore.