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Colin Rafferty

500 Black Ships (#13)

You don’t know him, or know him only as a shell, a funny name, a repeated pair of consonants. You know he was President, but just sometime, you’re not sure when. You don’t know anything he did.

I’ll explain.

He’s the first president born in the 19th century, the first born after George Washington dies; there’s a significance to this, a continuity, the idea that the country is more than its founders. He’s the second Vice-President to become the President after a death. He’s the last Whig President. He signs the Compromise of 1850.

It’s his name on the letter from the United States that Commodore Perry carries when the black ships sail into Tokyo Bay on the last day of March 1854. Perry turns away all the emissaries the Emperor sends to the ship; he’ll meet only with the Lotus Flower Throne.

This is what I hope you will remember: as President, Millard Fillmore was considered the equal to a living god.

His signature’s lovely, calligraphic elegance, the swash added to the top arm of the F swirling out over the M, doubling back to meet the dot of the I. The first name, waves cresting, black ink a ship’s path on the paper. He had the biggest library that any president had, up to that point. He signed his name in each book, marked its shelf number in each one. Methodical. Complete.

In the same year that Perry opens Japan with Fillmore’s signature, the painter Kano Kazunobu begins a series of scrolls, 100 total, of the 500 disciples of the Buddha, commissioned by a temple in Edo. The disciples—arhats, or rakan—are capable of amazing feats. A dry river flows again. The lotus flower grows from a begging bowl. Stones rain from the sky to end conflict. The rakan fly on foxes.

They travel between the six realms: gods and demigods, humans and animals, hell and the realm of the hungry ghosts, consuming, consuming. When an earthquake kills 7,000 in Edo in 1855, the rakan use tiny dragons to blow out the fires, while people escape from their collapsed worlds.

Kazunobu works on these paintings until his death nine years later. He almost finishes the series; after his death, his wife and his own disciple work from his sketches for the last ten. Methodical. Complete.

Everything happens slowly, with the deliberation of Kazonobu making his 100 paintings. Fillmore’s an accident, president only because of a hot July 4, and some cherries, and some milk. By the time the black ships reach Edo, and his signature is presented only to the Lotus Flower Throne, he is no one again, retired to the city by the crashing water, the city of the Falls. A drunkard consumed with sorrow takes his place. His nation heads towards war, world collapsing, and he is headed towards obscurity and embarrassment, his final notable act to run for the high office again on a campaign against the foreign, a man who would build a wall around his country. He is only a hungry ghost, craving what? Maybe power. Maybe the knowledge of his godliness.

And Kazunobu’s paintings, too. They are installed in the temple, survive the firebombing of Tokyo in the second World War, although the temple is badly damaged. In 2011, the public sees the 100 scrolls for the first time, and in 2012, they travel, in a reversal of Perry’s ships, back to Washington, DC. The Smithsonian Institution sells out of the exhibition catalogue.

Fame and power are fluid things. Fillmore was a god’s equal; then, nothing. What sorrow that must be. Every man who is president is President, whether by election or by accident. Nothing can remove them from the paintings, the forty-four disciples of the Constitution. They perform the amazing, but only briefly, and then they are men again.

When Perry arrives, Japan is unknown, the mysterious East. And now: we know more of Japan than we do of Millard Fillmore, the hungry ghost, once capable of magic, now capable of nothing. Write your name in the book. File him away on his shelf. Use your method. His story’s complete. A tiny dragon will blow out the flame.

Colin Rafferty lives in Richmond, Virginia, not far from the graves of two US Presidents. "500 Black Ships (#13)" is one of a series of forty-four presidential essays.