The two gardeners resumed their work. Above them the sky scraping crowns of trees sporadically broke into temperate waves of motion, before settling once more into their preordained shapes. Eventually it was Shigoto who broke the silence between them.
“Have you ever been to a tea ceremony, Kamaboku san? I mean a proper tea ceremony, with guests and everything.” Shigoto asked.
“No, now you don’t really think the likes of me would be invited do you, eh?’ He chuckled at the very thought of the possibility. “ No, they will all be fine men who come. Men of good standing and fine manners. They would not want the likes of me, a simple clumsy gardener there. No, I have had tea with Sensei, though. A few times, Sensei does not mind, he loves his tea and will drink with anyone.”
“I know. I go sometimes to study Tea with Sensei, I enjoy it,” said Shigoto.
“That’s good, drinking tea in that way is something that gentlemen do. Sensei likes you, you know. I can see it in him. He will teach you what ever you ask. Sensei knows a lot of things, you know, he is a cultivated man is Maguro Sensei. You can trust old Kamaboku’s eyes on that one, Shigoto.”
“He came from Kyoto didn’t he? He told me that one time.” Shigoto sensed the conversation heading into areas of great interest to him.
“Yes, so they say, a Zen priest and all. Fancy that. Makes you wonder sometimes how we end up as we do, doesn’t it? There he was, a priest in the capital, at some big monastery or temple the one moment, and then Lord Saeko brings him to Mikura to be Head gardener. Hey, Shigoto, do you think that I will end up in a temple in Kyoto sometime, eh? An inexpensive geisha house would do, I dare say.” With that Kamaboku rocked back in laughter at his own humour so much that he over-balanced and landed on his back, among the desiccating weeds and seedlings they had so recently torn from their fragile hold to the soil. When he had recovered his poise sufficiently he asked Shigoto, “You ever think of those sorts of things?”
“No, not really. Have you been to different places in Japan, Kamaboku san?”
“Oh no, you must be joking. When would the likes of me get the chance to travel? Not that I would even if I had the chance. Though I have ventured all over this island. When I was an apprentice, in the time before Maguro Sensei, we would travel all over the island collecting plants for the garden. Hikishio Sensei, the Head Gardener then, was especially keen on that. Sometimes we would be away for days at a time, sleeping out in the open, rain, sun, and frost, whatever. We would collect trees and plants from the wild, from nearly every part of Mikura. Sometimes we had to go backwards and forwards many times to bring back things we found, even send word to the farmers to come and help gather things in, and bring it back to Hirame. What wonderful times those were. I was about your age, I suppose, when I went the first time. Could not believe how big this island was myself.”
“You brought back trees for the gardens?”
“How do you suppose these things got here in the first place? They did not just spring out of the ground by magic, you know. Sometimes rocks too, then we would have to send for oxen and timber sledges to drag the pieces back. One time Lord Saeko, when he was younger, was out with his falcon hunting, and he saw a stone he wanted brought back. It took us a week to get it here. But we did it. It’s on the shore of the lake now.”
“A week? To bring one stone back?” Said Shigoto incredulously.
“Sure. It’s the tall, square looking one, with red markings on one side. The colour is supposed to bring good luck, wealth, that sort of thing. There are no really good trees left on Mikura, not one’s you can get at anyway. Sometimes the farmers bring trees in, but all the best ones have probably gone by now. We had the last of those, they are all here in the gardens now. You look next time, I mean really look at what is about, and think how all these things got where they are. The gardeners of Hirame have been building this garden since… well, a long time anyway.”
Kamaboku had settled on the ground his legs now drawn up under him in a comfortable manner. His weeding tool lying idle at his side.
“Oh we travelled all over this place in those times, you know. There is on the other side of the mountains, a place where the earth looks as is has been ripped apart. Imagine that, it looks as if a giant being came along and tore at the earth with his bare hands, bursting it open like flesh slashed open by a sword. You are walking along one minute, and then the ground just drops away, straight down.” He motioned with his hand, the fingers plummeting downwards. “Down, where? Who knows? What’s down there? Well … There is a stream that falls in to it at one end, you can hear the water running, but you cannot see it. We tried to enter the gorge from below, but the passage became blocked with huge boulders and there was no way through. The sides are all bare rock, but in the cracks there are trees and other plants that grow there from seed. Because the roots cannot run, the plants stay small, and have twisted shapes from growing out towards the light. Some of the best pines in the gardens came from there. But those trees came at a price, they were hard to get at you know.”
“How do you mean?” Shigoto encouraged his companion to elaborate.
Kamaboku looked across at Shigoto a moment before continuing. “ There are the bones of someone in that gorge to this day, unless the foxes have carried them away and buried them by now.” He paused, as if to invite the inevitable question.
“Bones, whose bones?”
“There was one tree Hikishio Sensei was especially keen to get at. A pine, a real beauty, may be seventy, eighty years old, older perhaps, who knows. The branches were short and stubby, and shaped like perfect clouds. You would not have had to do a single piece of pruning to it. Not like these,” he gesticulated at the trees in the ground about them. “It was the sort of thing that you dream of finding, and may be you do, but only once or twice in your life. The trouble was it was growing in a crack in the rock face, there were no ledges nearby, and the rock fell straight down to it, and below there was nothing, a sheer drop. There was no way to climb down to it. It was near the waterfall, so there was always a mist, you can imagine how slippery that rock face was. The only way to get at it was to lower someone down on a rope, while they tried to dig the tree with as much root as possible out of that crack. Hell of a job, just like hanging off the end of a rope in a rainstorm. Sometimes you would have to hack away at the rock first to get at the tree roots, they would be so wedged in there. We had done it before, going down a rock face on ropes, I had done it myself, got some decent stuff that way. I had no fear in those days, climb anything, go anywhere, I was young then. Bit older than you but not much probably. We would be paid a bonus too when we managed to bring good trees back.”
“Did you get the pine then?” Shigoto was eager to get to the climax, and could vividly picture Kamaboku hanging perilously over a yawning chasm.
“ I did not go down, someone else did. Then the rope snapped.” Kamaboku paused in his narrative.
“The rope broke? Did you get the tree though? Is it here in the garden still?” Shigoto was impatient to get to the climax of the story.
“The rope broke.” Kamaboku quietly repeated. “The tree is probably still there. A bit older now no doubt, but still there.”
“What happened to the gardener?”
“Still there as well, I guess. As I say, unless the foxes have stolen his bones.”
“Who was it, the gardener, I mean?”
“Oh, just someone I knew. That’s all, just someone I once knew very well.” He spoke in a quiet wistful, far-away tone. A gust of wind caught the trees above their heads again, and the crowns swayed and rocked drunkenly for a moment. “Hey, we should get moving, Sensei wanted us to meet him at the Shikiami-an teahouse didn’t he? We can leave the tools here, we’ll be coming back.”
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