Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Cherry leaves

As Kamaboku and Shigoto arrived in the Courtyard, two other gardeners were getting ready to leave and they shouted something indistinct to Kamaboku who waved back at them. They had left a bamboo rake, brush and a wicker basket by the foot of the steps leading up to the veranda in front of the main hall of the palace. Shigoto stood looking about him at the vast empty expanse of the Southern Courtyard stretching out in front of the shinden building. The courtyard was bounded on three sides by buildings, and was open on the fourth side, where it ran out in front of the Great Dragon Pond. Because of its intimate proximity to the principal reception rooms of the palace, it was not a place he ever ventured outside of festival days, or those occasions when the inhabitants of Mikura were called to appear before their Lord and master. Then the courtyard would be a bustle of colour, movement, familiar and unfamiliar faces, and a thousand different things to catch the eye. The bulk of the main hall loomed over the two figures, it’s immense and imposing structure, appeared to Shigoto as an ancient beast, to be struggling with the twin burdens of age and grave responsibility, trying to get to its feet. Shigoto looked up in awe at the vast expanse of the roof and imagined all the tiles cascading down in an uncontrollable tidal wave towards him. His mouth was dry, and he felt very small indeed.

“Ah, here are your tools,” said Kamaboku as he strode towards the rake, brush and basket, and then brought them back to Shigoto who was still standing looking unsure about him. “Come on now, look lively, its your first day at work, Shigoto san. Here take the brush, eh. Now what you have been assigned to do is to sweep and clean the Courtyard. You must leave it in perfect condition, not a leaf on the ground, and not a weed to be seen.”

Kamaboku held out an arm holding the brush towards Shigoto. The end of the bamboo handle of the brush reached above his head. He looked at the tool in his hands, the head of which had been made by bundling and lashing together very thin long bamboo side shoots into a flared tongue-like shape, and the worn ends of which curved lightly upwards through repeated use.

“So, here you are, set to, somebody will be back to see how you are doing. Until then you are to be on your own. These are Sensei’s instructions. He is very strict, as you know well, so do a good job of it, mind, eh.”  Kamaboku edged in closer to Shigoto and in a quieter voice, said, “If I were you I would start in one corner, say over there, and make your way across to the other side, all the way along the front of the building. Then make your way back again to the side you started on. Tidy a section a few paces wide each time. Backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards. That’s the way to do it. Easy as anything, eh. Oh, and make sure to brush out any scuff marks properly.”

“What are scuff marks?” asked Shigoto, holding his brush and feeling hopelessly lost with the enormity of the task before him.

“These …” replied Kamaboku with his trademark smile, as he dragged one foot across the loose gravel surface, leaving a faint mark on the ground, and with that he left Shigoto to his own devices, and made his way across the courtyard in the direction of the gardens.

Leaving the rake and basket behind, Shigoto took the brush, with its oversized handle, and walked slowly and carefully across to where Kamaboku had indicated a place to start. He set down the head of the brush on the surface, and looked up toward the building. The veranda was at a height where, if he pushed himself up on his toes, then he could see a distance along its length. There was no one there, then Shigoto turned to look down the length of the open corridor that lead on to a pavilion set over the Great Dragon pond. The pavilion was empty, and the corridor vacant and still, but for the breeze humming softly as it passed through some ornamental fretwork under a low handrail. Shigoto looked down at the brush, then, cautiously started to walk sideways along the front of the veranda of the main hall towards the steps dragging the brush behind him. Arriving at the side of the steps he looked up, and could see from his new vantage point that he truly was alone. Then he set off back to where he has just come from, now dragging the tool behind him. For an hour or so Shigoto marched quietly backwards and forwards across the courtyard dragging the brush behind him. When he came to the first of the two ancient trees in the courtyard, he stopped. One was an ancient cherry tree, its trunk splitting open like a rotting fruit, at its centre a gaping vacant space emptied by time and decay. Several posts had been driven into the ground around the cherry, and a girdle of rope prevented the last morsels falling apart completely. Still, several live branches hung on through antiquity to reach weakly up into the sky, and every spring it would blossom, just as it had been doing for over two hundred and eighty springs previously. On the opposite side of the steps, on the west side of the courtyard, was a citrus tree, with a dark, deeply fissured trunk of exaggerated girth twisting about itself. In its great age, it seemed to be caught between being pressed down from above, and forced up from below, as if it alone were responsible for keeping the sky and earth apart. Above the trunk there was a dense series of domes of dark evergreen leaves, and now in the late summer, small orange coloured bitter fruits peeked shyly between the dense masses of the foliage.

The rope girdle wrapped tight around the waist of the cherry had been coiled very neatly, with tight abutting turns. Shigoto walked around the tree following the turns of straw-coloured rope, looking for a beginning, or an end. The binding had been done so neatly, with such great dexterity, that he could not see how the ends had been fastened in. From around the base of the tree, he collected a few dried leaves which had tumbled down from the branches above, putting the crisp fragments of leaf together in a neat pile he went to collect the basket where it sat waiting for him. Arriving back by the tree, Shigoto was surprised to find the leaves had disappeared from where he had left them. He looked up, half expecting to notice a breeze or wind. The air hung still. Walking around the tree, looking to see where his hoard had scattered to, he came across the leaves on the opposite side of the trunk.

“I did not put the leaves here, on this side, I am sure I did not,” he thought to himself. Then as he bent down to pick up the leaves to deposit them in the basket, he noticed that the leaves were not in the small neat heap he had created, but lying in loose lines running out from the base of the trunk toward the centre of the Courtyard. He crouched on his haunches and carefully picked up the leaves one by one, dropping them into the basket as he went. From time to time he looked up, his eyes scanning along the veranda, running the length of the corridor, and also behind him across the expressionless space of the courtyard. Though he appeared to be alone, he could not avoid the feeling he was being watched. A bead of sweat ran down from his forehead and dropped onto the back of his hand, he fell back startled for a moment. When he realised what it was, he laughed. “Hey, I am a gardener now. I am Shigoto Okugi, 15th Grade Under Gardener,” he said aloud, to reassure himself.

With the leaves collected and in captivity, he continued his wandering backwards and forwards across the space dragging the brush behind him. When he came across a leaf or any other foreign body, he would stop, drop the tool he was using, walk over to the basket and deposit his collection there. Then walk back to his brush and resume his meandering course. 

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