Shigoto was making his way though the gardens at the end of the day, it had rained and he was thoroughly soaked. He was looking forward to a hot bath, also a fresh change of clothes, and had decided that he would go and visit his mother. He planned on eating his main meal of the day with her and his grandmother, rather than spending the entire evening in the company of the other gardeners. There had been an air of tension about the gardeners of late, mostly focused on the continuing presence of Tanuki san in their midst, and there were times when Shigoto felt like sidestepping the role he had taken on, that of defending his friend from barbed comments the others.
As he was making his way, he stopped every now and then to look again at certain features in the gardens; the rocks and their placement had become something of particular interest to him since his last conversation with Maguro Sensei. Now at every opportunity he would stop and look at the stones, try to see them in the context of their arrangements. Try to understand why the rocks had been placed in just that particular position, why that particular attitude for the stone had been chosen. He would walk about the stones, scrutinizing them with a close interest, and had taken to running his hands over there surfaces, as he has now seen Sensei do countless times. He realised that he was seeing the stones and their arrangements in a different, a new way. Previously they had for him simply existed where they lay, he had ever really questioned the notion that there may have been a particular logic, or purpose to their being where they were. Sensei had at times, when they were working with stones, made comments as to the nature of stone arrangements, but he had not sufficiently made the necessary connections between the ideas expressed and stones themselves. Now he felt he was beginning to see something of what had been veiled from him before. As a result when he looked at the stones now, it was with an awakening critical eye, and an expectancy of them to yield up their secrets to him. Now the garden was beginning to evolve in his mind’s eye into something far deeper, more sophisticated and complex than he had ever imagined before. He loved to stop sometimes and just stand still where he was, close his eyes and listen, just listen. Then he could hear his own heartbeat, and the sound of his breath, but he could also hear the complex tapestry of the soundscape of the garden too. When it all fused within himself as it could at such moments, it seemed as if the garden, the earth, the wind, trees, and birds… creation itself were speaking direct to him. Calling to him.
He had stopped to examine a rock set to the side of the path, and was now standing quite alone, he closed his eyes to better absorb the sounds of the garden, and became aware of the dripping water falling from the trees. So distracted was he by this particular melody, that he failed to hear the gentle crunching sounds of feet walking along the path behind him. By the time he had registered the sound, and turned around eyes now open, it was too late. Coming up the path were two maids from the household, with short stabbing steps in their tight kimono, and their hands clasped in front of them. One had a flat basket hanging from under her arm. With a sense of shock Shigoto saw that one of the figures was the form of the girl he had seen dancing the Wisteria dance, Her face, her poise was unmistakeable, he had been living with her image in his mind ever since, and now here she was before him. A previous chance meeting in the kitchens, that was so brief it barely seemed to have registered, had at least yielded the opportunity to discover her name, Nureba, and he had clung to that fragment as if it were something more precious than the sun itself.
“Ahh…” managed Shigoto, as he attempted to recover from the surprise of seeing the two figures. A sense of surprise that was deepened as he recognised whom the two figures were. “Ahh…” he repeated.
“Well, we were just wondering who this figure was, looking lost in the garden. Not that we expected it to be one of the gardeners, did we Meikin-chan?” The speaker’s companion shook her head lightly.
Shigoto gathered his scattered senses the best he could, but his mouth was dry, and it felt as if his tongue was stuck to his palette. One part of his mind was screaming out a thousand questions he wanted to put to this girl, yet somehow there was nothing but confusion in his mind.
“Nureba san,” he at last managed to stammer out her name. “What are you doing here? I mean it there something that you need, something I can fetch for you. There were no instructions to bring foliage to the kitchens. Nobody said anything to me.” He waved his arms in a helpless gesture.
“We were just taking advantage in a break in the weather. We had a few moments to ourselves, that’s all,” said Nureba confidently. “We thought we would take a stroll through the gardens, didn’t we Meikin-chan?” Nureba’s companion nodded silently, her eyes remained fixed on Shigoto as if assessing and recording his reaction to this chance meeting, in order that the information may be exhumed and dissected in greater depth later.
“Oh,” said Shigoto, his mind blank, unsure of the protocol of the moment. Nothing so far had seemingly prepared him for a moment such as this.
Nureba stood in front of him her eyes fixed on the figure before her. There was a quietly defiant, even challenging quality to the way she looked straight into Shigoto’s face. As if she herself realised the social and moral obstacles standing between them, but was prepared to take the risk and ignore all injunctions as to what was ‘proper and right’. It was an unwritten but widely accepted rule that fraternisation between classes was discouraged outside of formal relationships. Not that relationships did not occur, human beings are human beings after all, and the laws of attraction and repulsion do not always accord nor align themselves with social convention. Shigoto returned the look directed toward him, he looked back into the lacquer coloured glowing eyes of Nureba, all he was aware of was an overriding sense of beauty. All about the three figures lay the garden and they were but actors treading its stage. It had rained heavily earlier, a short brutish downpour, so typical of the season, now the sun was making vain attempts to break through the tangled cloud cover. The ground was still absorbing the moisture and it yielded a complex, almost sweet, heady scent. The leaves of the trees shone brilliant green, their surfaces coated wet and glistening when the sun’s rays found a gap in the clouds, and from far off came the distant sound of water falling, which fused with the calling of birds in the verdant canopy above them.
“Oh well…” he tried his best to recover his balance,” Well, if there’s anything I can fetch for you. I mean, anything I can find for you, just ask. I know the gardens well, you know. I have known the gardens all my life. I was just… just, standing here looking at the stones. There is meaning to how they are placed, you know. The stones are very carefully set. It’s the sort of thing that you learn as a gardener, you know.”
Shigoto racked his memory to try and find some neat phrase that Maguro Sensei had said. Nothing at all came to mind, and all he really wanted of this moment of his life was to suspend time itself, in order that he could remain right where he was, and remain wholly immersed in the beauty that he felt about him, and to remain as he was, caught in a fine web of swirling sensations and delicious emotions.
“Well, you are I’m sure, a font of knowledge concerning the gardens. But really we should not take up your precious time. I am sure you are a busy man with many responsibilities, and we are but like two butterflies. You must forgive us for holding you up. Come, Meikin-chan, we must be on our way, how foolish and selfish we are to delay the gardener from his duties. Come, we should proceed with our walk, besides we have to be back at the apartments soon enough.” Nureba broke off from looking at Shigoto and addressed her companion, who was simply nodding and smiling.
“No, I mean, it’s all right. I have finished work for the day, I just have some chores to do, then I was going to see my mother,” blurted out Shigoto. Already he missed having those eyes looking at him; he felt a surge of anxiety rising within him, a fear of impending loss and separation.
“No, we must be on our way. It was a pleasure and a surprise meeting you. Please accept our apologies for taking up your time.” Nureba was looking his way again with her eyes that seemed to have the capacity to melt him, then she once more turned back to her companion. “Come Meikin-chan, we should be on our way.”
With that the two women continued on their way, taking short stuttering, yet flowing steps in their wooden sandals, the gravel crunching beneath their tread. Shigoto turned to watch the two figures retreat down the path, heading deeper into the gardens. His mouth hung slack, and he felt that he had been disconnected from the facility of motion or purpose. The two kimono clad women gradually dissolving into the scenery, sometimes their heads would incline toward one another, as if sharing some deep secret or other, and they left a trail of soft laughter hanging in their wake. For several minutes Shigoto stood still just watching the two forms, until they disappeared from sight around a curve in the path and were swallowed by the garden. Part of him ached just to take flight and run down the path until he caught up with Nureba, but his legs would not move, they seemed to be rooted to the ground, as if he had now become one of the taciturn rocks he had been until so recently absorbed in. He was just about to turn away and resume what ever it was he had been intent on when something lying on the ground in front of him caught his eye. He dropped to his knees and reached out to pick up a small folded piece of silk in his fingers. It was of the palest green and had a cluster of tiny pallid yellow flowers stitched into one corner. The handkerchief had been folded over several times, and tucked away into the folds lay a tiny sprig of grey-green foliage with a delicate almost citrus-like scent. Shigoto slowly stood and looked up the path in the direction that Nureba and her companion (whose name now escaped him) had gone. He wondered if it he should take the same path and run to catch them up so he could return the handkerchief. Then with a smile to himself, he carefully and deliberately folded the thin layers of cloth again and tucked it away into the depths of the sleeve of his kimono. Then with the light seeming to flood into his heart he resumed his way to complete the last of his the chores for that day.
When he eventually arrived back at the House of Gardeners the others were sat eating contentedly, a little banter being passed from one to another. Shigoto sat silently eating, lost among the thoughts running through his mind, not tasting the food at all.
“Hey, Shigoto,” Konnyaku san called out to him, after he had emptied his bowl. “You know, if it’s you who ends up with dirt stains on your kimono, and not your lady friend, then maybe you need some lessons.” The room collapsed into laughter, as Shigoto’s face reddened and glowed bright.
“I don’t have a girl friend, “ he said defiantly.
“Then maybe its time you quit practicing, and got yourself one.” Once more the room rocked with good-humoured laughter.