Thursday, 23 May 2013

The Heron Tale

It was as the sun begun to set when he came across the temple precinct, at least what remained of it, as clearly the place had seen better days. The thick outer wall was pierced by a large ragged gap, where the earthen material of its construction appeared to have dissolved in the rain. Broken shards of the wall’s dark grey roof tiles lay scattered amongst the leaf litter sheltering in its deep shadow. The bamboo forest all around was now reclaiming the ground from where it had once been cleared, and several tall stems arched skywards as if to try and protect the fragile-looking disheveled building that stood in the centre of the plot. But for the insistent cawing of an unseen crow a profound silence enveloped the whole place, adding to the overall sense of desolation and abandonment.

Shigoto had been traveling all day from early morning and had been looking forward to finding some food and shelter for the night. When the farmer he had spoken to earlier had indicated that he might find a place to stay at a nearby temple, his spirits had risen at the thought, and in his mind he was ready to offer his services as a gardener in exchange for being allowed to stay a few days. Now standing under the ancient wooden gate he wondered if anyone lived here any more, there was little sign of habitation, and no scent of smoke carried towards him in greeting. It seemed as if the land was about reclaim what it had once been forced to give up.

“Excuse me, is there any one here?” He called out from the gateway towards the dark gloom of the building. His call was simply swallowed by the silence that permeated the whole place. Stepping forwards from the gateway he approached the front of the building, the thatched roof was ragged and pieces of straw detached by wind or animals were scattered about on the ground. By the entrance a small bell hung on by a grimy cord, Shigoto reached up and hesitantly shook it causing the bell to reverberate weakly. “Excuse me, is there any one here?” He called once more into the impenetrable gloom of the interior. He was about to turn away when he thought he heard the sound of someone moving within the building.

‘Maybe it was an animal,’ he thought when nobody appeared. ‘The temple seems to have been deserted. Everything is falling apart, as if no one cares for the place any longer.’

But then from what seemed to be the dark depths of the interior a thin voice came, “What do you want? This is but a poor temple, there is nothing to steal here but the moon which you can see through the holes in the roof.” Shigoto was not sure if the voice had come from a human being or from the building itself.

“Excuse me, Sir. I am a traveler looking for lodging for the night. I was told I might find a place to stay here tonight.” Increasingly he was unsure if he wanted to stay after all, the whole place reeked of decay and gloom. Then suddenly there was a diminutive figure crouching on the floor at the entry porch before him. The priest looked as ancient and worn as the temple itself.

“You can see for yourself, there is nothing more to steal anymore.” The priest’s voice appeared to float out from his bent over body, and Shigoto had to lean forwards to catch the words, lest the slightest breath of wind blow them away.

“I…I am not a thief, Sir. I am traveling through this district. I am a gardener by trade; I am making my way to Kyoto to study at Daitoku-ji temple. I was told I might find lodgings for the night.”

“You are not a monk or a priest then.” As the priest spoke, Shigoto noticed that he inclined his head away from him, he was not looking toward him at all.

“No, I am a gardener. My master was Maguro Sensei, of Mikura island. Now I am making my way to the capital to study at Daitoku-ji.” Shigoto raise his voice a little in case the priest was hard of hearing.

“You do not have to shout, I hear very well. I heard you coming up the path. I knew you were arriving before you did. I may be old but there is nothing wrong with my hearing at all. I can hear everything that I need to know, more than you probably, you sound young from your voice. Which place are you from?” It was then that Shigoto realized that the priest was blind. It explained why there were no lamps lit, the priest had no need of lights in his world.

“I lived all my life on the island of Mikura, it’s many a day’s travel west from here. I am on my way to the capital.” Shigoto started to explain, it was as much to put himself at ease as to satisfy any curiosity of the old man. Having spent the time traveling alone he now found himself hungry for the comfort and company of another human being, particularly one that offered no threat to his wellbeing.

“A gardener you say? Not a priest then? Well, you can sleep here tonight. You do not walk like a priest anyway,” the old man muttered waving a claw of a hand before him, beckoning Shigoto to step out of his traveling sandals and enter the building. Shigoto was immediately relieved that the old man had not insisted on asking him what a gardener, a mere gardener, was doing traveling alone in these parts, even though he had rehearsed what he was going to say to justify his arrival at the gate. Following as close behind the priest as he dared, he entered the thick darkness of the interior.

“Do you not use a lamp?” Shigoto asked as his foot stumbled against something hard on the floor, as soon as the words came out he felt foolish. In the darkness something scuttled noisily away.

“The birds tell me when the sun rises, and when it sets. I have no need for any other light,” the priest answered simply. “You can sleep in here. When the sun rises it will be another day.” Then without a further word he seemed to disappear, leaving Shigoto alone with a silence that settled itself about him as if it were a second skin.

At some point in the night he awoke, or thought that he had, but the darkness was so complete that it was hard to tell whether his eyes were open or not. He felt a tremendous pressure bearing down on his chest pressing his shoulders down onto the floor. The air was filled with whispering sounds jostling together in an abstract, haphazard fashion; each voice demanding his attention, but the sounds were too indistinct to make out what was causing them, or even what, if anything, they were trying to communicate to him. Just as fear was rising like smoke in his heart, suddenly the sounds gathered themselves together in unison and exited the room, leaving nothing but a light breeze in their wake. ‘I must have been dreaming,’ he thought, now with the pressure off his chest he sat up and rubbed his eyes with both hands. ‘This is a strange place that I have found myself in,’ and he promised himself that with the first light of day he would leave. He had just lain back again when a brilliant light flooded into the room, radiance so bright he could not open his eyes fully. “Who is there?” he called out.

In the centre of the room stood motionless a white heron, one tiny sparkling black eye observing him intently. The light that illuminated the space appeared to be emitting from the bird itself, though of the rest of the room Shigoto could see nothing at all as it remained impenetrably dark as before. Out of instinct he raised his hand up to his eyes to screen out the intense luminosity, but it made no difference at all. Startled all the more, he realised he could not see his hand immediately in front of him, though the motionless heron he could make out clearly as if it were full daylight. The heron lazily curved its neck back until its head and sharp beak were pointing straight up into the air, then as it slowly lifted one thin leg from the floor it opened its bill and emitted a cry so mournful and sad, so filled with a longing at the edge cutting edge of pleasure and pain, that Shigoto could hardly bear to witness it a moment longer. He screwed his eyes tight shut and pushed his hands tight against his ears, but nothing he did could either shut out the rising, nor could he diminish the clarity of the vision of the heron now quivering like a leaf in a tempest. The sound rose in pitch and intensity until Shigoto fell back to the floor as if he were but a raindrop falling into the ocean.

When he came too again, the room he was lying in was softly illuminated by the light of a new day. Sitting up Shigoto looked anxiously about him as if expecting to find he still had the company of a heron. He was quite alone. He rose quickly and gathered up his bundle of belongings. The battered and broken shoji screen was open and he pushed it back enough so that he could step through the gap into the fresh air of the morning. A light breeze ruffled the tall bamboo and the sounds of birds filled the air. He took several deep breaths of the crisp clear air trying to expunge the memory of the darkness.

“Good morning,” it was the elderly priest standing but a few paces before him. “I trust you are well rested, you have slept well past dawn.” Shigoto awkwardly shifted the roll in his arms, and ran his fingers through his hair. “You are probably hungry, come and share what I have, it’s not much, but you are welcome to it. Perhaps, being a strong, young man you could collect a bucket of water from the well before you depart.”

"The farmers who live nearby leave me some food, and I offer prayers for their well being,” the priest explained as they sat and chewed on cold rice and fish. It tasted delicious to Shigoto. After he had eaten the priest directed him to where the well was and Shigoto returned with a wooden bucket full of water, he drank the sweet tasting water and taking some in his cupped hands washed his face.

“I was wondering if there were any other tasks you may want me to do for you, while I was here? Before I leave to be on my way again. To thank you for letting me sleep here, that is.”

The priest laughed softly. “So, you are in a hurry to leave are you?”

“No. I meant maybe there are some jobs you need doing about the place.” Shigoto shrugged. He did not want to mention the disturbed night he had passed. “ To tidy up the garden for example. Jobs that you cannot manage to do yourself.”

This time the priest laughed loudly. “You hear that my friends? He thinks I need help in some way.” Shigoto looked about him, they seemed to be quite alone. “There is something you can do while you are here. For yourself that is. As for my needs, I have all the help I need,” again the priest laughed. Then holding up a thin crooked finger that looked as dry as a twig he pointed over to a thick stand of towering bamboos that had invaded the temple precinct. “If you do not believe me, go take a look over there. Go on, take a look for yourself.”

Slowly Shigoto got up and walked over in the direction of where the priest had indicated. As he entered the thicket of bamboo the land rose gently up, the ground covered by a soft bed of crisp leaves and above him the wind rustled playfully among the fine textured bright green leaves. As soon as he entered the area he saw them, hundreds of pieces of dark stone lay in every direction, most of them had been set upright, though a number had toppled over and now lay face down in the leaf litter. On each stone was carved a figure. Shigoto recognized many as being Buddha-like figures, a crude halo framed their heads. The carvings were simple but unmistakably filled with life. He moved deeper into the forest, with each step he took more figures were revealed to him, soon there were so many he could no longer count them all. Seated bodhisattvas in a meditative posture, then other stones depicting only the heads of deities, each figure’s face individual and unique, all of them smiling. Some of the stones had eroded away so that only the bare traces of the craving now remained, whereas others were very clear and distinct. Shigoto strode on through the multitude climbing further up the slope, at the top he came upon a huge boulder of the same dark granular stone. On one flank he could make out three figures clearly depicting the Buddhist triad, he crouched before it and reaching out his hand touched the cold stone surface, then after clapping his hands together three ties he offered a prayer. He prayed for those he had left behind, and he asked for the strength to complete the journey he was embarked upon. Standing upright once more he walked around the stone, there directly to the rear of the three Buddhas was another carving. It was a bird with a long neck, the body had mainly eroded away, but he could see the distinctive S-shape of the neck bending backwards, the small sleek head with a sharp beak open and pointing up through the green canopy and towards the open sky above.
Please comment. If you found this, or any other post of interest, it is always a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks, Robert Ketchell

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