This is part three of a longer story. If you missed parts one and two, you can go back and read them here: New Fiction: The Abbot’s Garden, Part 1 (of 3); New Fiction: The Abbot’s Garden, Part 2 (of 3).
The Abbot’s Garden (3 of 3)
by Stewart C Baker
Showa 26, Thursday March 8th
Too tired to write.
Showa 26, Sunday April 8th
I am finally recovered enough to return to this journal.
Until a few weeks ago, my waking hours were an agony of chills and fevers, my sleep snatched at random and filled with delirium. I do not recall much. The doctors tell me I was lucky to survive, and lecture me on my age.
Ryouji and the wo—.
No, enough of that.
I still do not think she can be who she claims, but I will give her the dignity of a name. Ryouji and Akemi have visited several times, though only the last is clear in my memory. That was about a week ago, as the last of the winter’s snow was melting in the late spring sun. From somewhere outside the window, I could hear the cries of a scrap metal collector hawking his rates.
Ryouji, his hair no longer shorn, wore a neat beard and Western clothing. He looked every inch the scholar he had been before coming to the monastery. Despite this he was shamefaced and hesitant. Akemi was her usual self: she stood in the doorway with her arms crossed beneath her breasts and looked on with hard eyes.
Ryouji sat beside the bed. “The doctors say you should be able to leave in about a week.”
“Monastery life is good for the body—I’ve always told you that.”
He smiled weakly. “They did say, though, that you’d have to take it slowly. Too much stress and you could collapse.”
“Is that what happened? I thought it was the cold.”
Ryouji nodded. “That’s right. But it’s weakened your body’s defences. If you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t last long.”
I mulled this over. The world was transient and I did not particularly mind if my time in it was over. I had lived long and truly. But there was Ryouji, tied down by his fantastical dreams.
“Don’t worry,” I said, forcing cheer. “I’m not ready to become a Bodhisattva just yet.”
He sagged in his chair. “I am glad to hear it, Abbot. If Akemi hadn’t refused to wait for the bus, hadn’t forged her way back here through the snow . . . “
He talked on, but I heard not a word of it. Akemi had saved me? Akemi, whom I had treated with nothing but disdain? I looked at her, mouth half-open, and let Ryouji’s words surround me.
A faint smile played across her lips, but she made no other response. When I looked closely, though, I could see something like compassion in her eyes.
Akemi . . .
Now that they have both gone I wonder if she is perhaps a better guide for Ryouji than me with my doubts and my worries.
But no, that is impossible. She may not be malign—indeed she seems to truly care for the well-being of others—but she is just as lost as he. Although here in the hospital I can admit to myself that I cannot account for how else she would know what she does of Ryouji’s fantasies.
It is a puzzle, a koan almost. I must find the answer when I am well.
Before he and Akemi left, Ryouji told me of their efforts for the garden. After my hospitalization they had rented rooms from a woman who had family in the countryside. Ryouji and Akemi travelled two hours into the country by bus, where they convinced the woman’s uncle to let them take over a fallow field for the garden.
They have spent the days since then planning the garden. Ryouji explained the general pattern to me, sketching shapes and ideas in the air with his hands.
There is to be a rock garden in the middle, fine gravel spiralling out in concentric arcs. Around this he will plant symbolic arrangements of flowers to make the garden “compatible with as many realities as possible.”
Symbolism is nothing new to rock gardens—the forms traditionally built into them represent places from the sutras, or from the old Daoist legends. But they remain symbols alone, guides for meditation, pointers to the real and not the real itself. Ryouji is convinced that he can make his symbols act as instruments.
The fine tuning is to take place in an island of green at the rock garden’s centre. Its carefully placed bonsai and boulders will be the focal mechanism that forges the gap between realities. Every snip of the shears, every careful application of moss, will have a big effect. Or so Ryouji tells me. The very centre of this island will hold a second rock garden, a duplicate of the outer one in all but size and the direction of its gravel arcs.
I did not—still do not—understand a word of it, but after he finished speaking, I nodded my head and smiled as if I were happy for him.
“Have you started to place the rocks yet?” I asked.
“Not yet. Akemi has been walking the woods looking for boulders; I have been trying to find a supplier of gravel.”
A relief: I have plenty of time to talk them both out of their sickness.
As they left the hospital, Ryouji placed a book on my bedside table. I was surprised to see Japanese on its cover, and I wondered if he had given up his foreign books. The title, Society Eight-hundred-thousand Years Hence, was strange enough, though. After Ryouji and Akemi were gone, I glanced inside its cover and saw that it was a translation of a novel by an Englishman named H.G. Wells.
I did not at first intend to read it, but in the absence of the structured daily life I am used to, I found my mind wandering. The book’s story, about a man known only as ‘The Time Traveller,’ is just as fantastical as I would expect of Ryouji.
It is an odd tale even for Ryouji, in truth. Parts of it have lodged in my brain. One scene in particular towards the end I cannot shake. It is near the end, before the time traveller disappears for good. He goes forward ever on into the future and finds himself by a deserted seascape, terrifying in its stillness and quiet.
There is an eclipse; when it ends, and the sun reappears “like a red-hot bow in the sky,” the traveller sees life. The creature is half-submerged, moving slowly towards him. He describes it as “a round thing, the size of a football perhaps” with tentacles trailing down, “black against the weltering blood-red water, and hopping fitfully about.” The image is so clear, it is as though the writer of the story had seen the thing himself.
I remember the story of the “labyrinth” disguised as a garden, and the story of the magical kingdom of Elfland, and I feel uneasy. Does Ryouji honestly think that such places exist? That their borders are unstable and can shift?
If such terrifying creatures as the football-thing exist, why would he want to reach them?
Showa 26, Tuesday April 10th
Tomorrow I will leave this place.
Showa 26, Friday June 8th
In the month since my discharge, life has settled into routine. Akemi and Ryouji spend the better part of their days in the garden, endlessly re-arranging rocks, pruning trees, and tending to flowers or grass. They will not let me help them, and I stay in the small house the farmer is lending us, meditating or reciting the sutras, trying to regain my footing. In the evenings I lecture them half-heartedly on the principles of Zen.
Ryouji asks me questions about the gardening books I lent him which I explain as best I can. In truth, he knows them better now than I ever did. I struggle daily against the strangeness of his ambition, the impossibility of the woman we call Akemi, the wavering of my own heart. At times, when Akemi looks at me over dinner, I feel the strangest sensation, as though if I were to only accept her story . . . But I cannot.
I long to return to the monastery, and sometimes wake in the night thinking I am there, forgetting it has been abandoned and its monks have gone.
Tonight during our evening meal Ryouji told us the garden was finished. There was no joy in his announcement, no exuberance, but a strange flatness to his voice.
“All we can do now is wait,” he said. “Any further work would only imbalance things.”
Akemi could not hide the shining of her eyes.
Ryouji shifted in his seat. “And there should be no danger this time, no . . . ” He paused for a moment and looked down before continuing. “No disconnect. Akemi, you said you saw a shadowy figure in the fog before you found your way to the monastery. I did not want to tell you this, but it is possible your version of Ryouji did not make it to this reality. It is also possible he will not return to where you call home.”
Her eyes dimmed as he spoke, her face going from happy to confused, to afraid.
“But the dining hall,” I said. “We saw him there before he disappeared.”
Akemi gave me a grateful smile and I flushed, feeling like a child caught repeating something foolish he had heard from a friend. I tried to remind myself such travel was impossible.
“It is true another Ryouji was there,” Ryouji said, “but, . . . the man we saw in the dining hall, Abbot: how would you describe his actions?”
I thought back to that event, the first disruption of our lives and minds. “He was calm, in control.”
“Exactly. He knew just what had occurred and what it meant. Moreover there is this.”
He took a small piece of paper from his kimono, unfolded it, and placed it on the table before us. On it was written: Our task is impossible alone. We must learn from the Abbot.
“The note he gave you before he disappeared,” I said. “I remember. So your sudden willingness to join the monastery and give up your books, your insistence in having me along and our conversations since . . . “
“Yes, Abbot Ichiou. I have used you for my own ends. But that is not the worst of it. Akemi, by your own account you and your husband lived a peaceful, mundane life. That will have made him a completely different person, with different experiences and knowledge. The only conclusion is that the Ryouji I saw was not your Ryouji at all.
“What is more, the garden I—and many other versions of me—built at the monastery was a prototype, incomplete even before its destruction. The way my double materialized was far more success than I hoped for, but the way he disappeared is troubling. It is amazing that you were able to come through as completely as you did, and from as far away.” He looked Akemi in the eyes. “It’s very likely that your Ryouji was not as lucky. He may have ended up in some other reality, or some strange half-world. He may even be dead.”
Akemi pushed up from the table, her arms limp at her side. “Why didn’t you tell me this before? Why did you let me believe?”
“There is more,” Ryouji said. He drew in a lung-full of air and expelled it all at once. “While your husband may be dead or gone, there is every possibility he is home and never left, that he has been searching for you these past few months, distraught and alone.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t want to upset you, and I . . . ” He sighed and looked down, ashamed. “I was so happy to find you again that I did not want to make you hate me. I could not bear to lose you twice so soon.”
She let out a soft snort of air through her nose, scorn now on her lips instead of sorrow. “Lose me? Lose me? I was never yours, other-Ryouji, and this does not change things. As your abbot tells you over and over when he thinks I am not listening, your wife is dead.”
Ryouji sat still for a long while, looking at the back of his hands on the table. When he lifted his face again tears lay wet on his cheeks.
“I will get you home tomorrow,” he said, then gave a self-deprecating half-laugh. “You hate me already, so I may as well admit that the garden has been ready for weeks, since the last of the flowers bloomed. All we have been doing is keeping it primed, ready to connect. I have not been able to bring myself to do it, to admit that you—
Akemi looked down on him, eyes lit with anger, but did not say a word.
“I am sorry,” he said, his voice soft in the silence.
She turned on her heel and stalked from the room, slamming the main door behind her as she left the house.
I gave Ryouji a few minutes to recover himself before I spoke. I was stunned, suspended between empathy and sorrow. To let them tear themselves apart like this, over something that was not—could not be—real . . .
“You have to stop this,” I said. “This illusion, Ryouji, this dream—this lie. Even if . . . Even if it is real, it is destroying you both, and that is needless.”
I had hoped that now, at last, after speaking openly of his feelings and after Akemi herself told him she was not his wife, that he would agree. We could go together, I thought, and find her, and make things right.
He only rose and walked from the room in silence, shoulders hunched. The quiet click of the main door sounded much louder, much more terrifying, than Akemi’s angry slam.
It has been hours since they left and still I sit alone, writing. Even now they must wander through mazes of their own making . . . the labyrinth of the mind.
I do not know how to reach them, how to help them. I do not know what to do.
Showa 26, Saturday June 9th
A battering on the main door of the house awoke me and I went into the hallway. The door shook on its hinges and slammed out of my hands as I opened it, revealing a sky blurred in purple-orange-green, half-lit as though obscured by clouds, although there were none. A loud howling sound accompanied a strong wind into the hallway, along with the bitterest cold I have felt in all my years.
Outside, Ryouji stood in the centre of the garden, his elbow bent, the index finger of his right hand pressed against the tip of his beard. Not a hair on his head was moving, and his clothes were still against his body. The garden itself was equally calm, though I could not see beyond it. Instead of the fields which were normally there, there was only a thick grey fog.
I could only stand and stare, open-mouthed, as the angry winds buffeted my robe against me and filled my ears with echoing noise. I am not sure how long I stood there, but in all the time Ryouji did not move.
Eventually Akemi came to the door beside me, dressed in the tan shirt and denim pants she wore when working in the fields. “Where’s Ryouji?” she shouted.
I pointed outside, and together we walked into the garden. The wind vanished as soon as we passed onto the rocks, and we stumbled. It was quiet.
Ryouji looked up, apparently seeing us for the first time. His form was somehow wrong, as though he had been superimposed upon himself twenty or thirty times. When he raised one arm in greeting, it left an after-image which faded only after a few seconds.
“We’re in trouble. There’s too many instances of the garden like this.”
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” I asked. “I thought you wanted to connect everything with everything else.”
“Yes, in the long run. But it’s too soon for that—I need to know more before I can figure out how to do that without everything coming through at once and trying to exist on top of each other. This was supposed to be a test run to get Akemi home.”
“What’s through the fog?” Akemi asked. Her voice was the same as always, without a hint of the disappointment she must be feeling. I remembered the stories she told of her Ryouji.
“I’m not sure,” Ryouji replied. “You can’t see a thing through it so you might end up anywhere, in any kind of dangerous situation. It was worse before you two got here, actually. I think that must have set us off from a number of other universes where one or both of you is dead. What we need to do now is somehow limit the number of possibilities again. Once we’ve got it down to a reasonable number the environment should stabilise and we can—maybe—get Akemi home.”
“How do we do that?” she asked.
“Make it so this garden is a little more unique to our world. We should be able to just move some gravel about, or re-arrange a boulder—things like that.
“But we need to be very careful. If we don’t make the right changes we’ll end connected to the wrong realities. We need to cut out the possibilities we don’t want by making symbolic . . . “
He trailed off, looking at Akemi and me. It must have been clear that neither of us had any idea what he was talking about, or how to go about it.
“Never mind,” he said. “Just stand there and don’t touch anything.”
“Okay,” said Akemi.
Ryouji walked the perimeter of the garden, just inside the wall of fog. He mumbled to himself as he went, bending to inspect rock arrangements and peering at the branches of bonsai. His after-image sometimes did things he had not, like lifting a single pebble or scraping some moss off a tree. After they did these things, he became more solid.
After several circuits, he stopped in front of a bare-branched tree just off from the centre of the inner rock garden. “This should do the trick,” he said.
He reached up, grabbed a flimsy branch no bigger than a twig, and yanked. Nothing happened—the branch did not even budge. Akemi went towards him and reached up, taking his hands in her own. He looked at her, surprise clear on his face, then smiled and turned back to the tree. Together they pulled on the branch, which snapped with a brittle crack.
There was a moment of stillness and utter silence, and then the winds blew back with a rush of sound, sending me reeling. The tree exploded with unearthly green fire, throwing Ryouji and Akemi to the ground. All of it soundlessly, the howling of the winds which beat in my ears obliterating all else. I ran towards where they had fallen, but then the fog swept down and I was alone.
I screamed, ranting at the universe, at the Buddha, at anyone or thing I thought might be listening. The winds had gone but the thick white fog muted my voice so that even I could barely hear it. Still I shouted, until I realised I was crying, my throat hoarse and aching. My heart lurched in my chest and I collapsed, beating my fist against the ground in frustration and anger. The feeling rushed out from me all at once and I felt empty, drained of all care.
I stood, slow and shaking, and wandered through the clawing white. When the fog at last gave way I was in a dark, drab landscape, utterly alien and terrifying. The sun was a deep dark wound in the sky, bleeding down to earth in a fiery-cold rain. I remembered the book Ryouji had brought me in the hospital and sobbed to think him gone. I waited for my own death at the hands of some giant, unseen monster, but none appeared.
The fog closed in again, and I stumbled through it for more untold ages. I thought I was heading back in the direction of the garden, but came out in another strange landscape, a vast rocky wilderness. Outcroppings of boulders stood in the far distance, but I could not tell their size—there was nothing in that place to compare them to. I stood, gazing at the endless barren place, and saw on the ground at my feet a glittering shimmer. It was a children’s top, the cheap beetle-green of painted tin. The lost toys of Elfland, I thought, as I picked it up. Such a wasteland suited me fine—I dropped the top and walked forward, into its emptiness, but found myself once more shrouded in fog.
Laughter threatened my lips, a horrible bubbling acid laughter. I was walking into books. I broke into a run, trying to escape. If I had come out in an infinite library I would have given up, but the fog faded to reveal a peaceful Western-style landscape: a road winding through rolling green hills to a mansion all lit up in the dark of early evening. The stars above shone calm and steady, hidden at times by gentle wisps of cloud.
A Chinese man with strings of white hair looked up from a tree he was trimming, a pair of shears in his hands. He set them aside and approached me, his gait painful and halting.
“This is not your garden,” he said.
“No, grandfather,” I replied, using the term out of respect. “I am lost.”
He smiled. “At last you have admitted it.”
The events of my life flowed through my mind in a rush and my head spun with all the force of the strange wind. Behind me I saw a wall not of fog but of time, endless time piled up on itself and moving towards some unknown destination, inexorably as the sun across the sky.
I thought of Ryouji and Akemi, struck down by the wind, of the bloody sun edging down towards the horizon, and shuddered—surely not to that?
The gardener pushed something into my hand, a sheet of parchment tied with a red string. I unrolled it. In the centre of the scroll was a single character, written in the most beautiful calligraphy I have ever seen. It put to shame the old Zen masters, made of their penmanship the scribblings of an untutored child.
The character was the most simple: the single line representing the number one. Yet in that sole brushstroke seemed to be contained all the meanings that could ever be. My panic vanished as if it had never been.
“All mazes have a solution,” he said. “All labyrinths a trick. Even time. Go back to your garden.”
He gently turned me and I went, walking at peace through the fog. Dim half-shadows filed ahead of me, with more on either side. They were people I had known, memories I carried inside my head. One slowed, then emerged from the white fog before me.
It was Haku. He wore simple robes, and his hair was freshly shaved. He carried on his back a monk’s travelling box.
“Abbot Ichiou,” he said, as though nothing were strange about our situation.
I thought of his superstitions, of Ryouji’s books, of my own pre-occupation with the koan of the masters, and the words of the eighth patriarch came unbidden to my mind. He decried not only obsession with impure things but obsession with pure things. “Detach from all things,” he had said. “Existent, non-existent, or whatever else. Detach from all cultivation and experience. Detach even from detachment.”
I had disdained Haku and Ryouji for their impurities, but I myself was just as attached to pure things. I tried to think of a way to express all this to the Haku who stood before me, but could not. In the end I settled for a simple “Brother Haku.”
It seemed to be enough. He smiled, gentle and pure as a bodhisattva, and faded away with the fog, leaving me alone in the garden—in Ryouji’s garden. The sun was high overhead, and a slight breeze carried the mingled scents of the flowers Ryouji had planted around the outskirts of his creation.
The only harsh note was the bonsai at the heart of the garden, which stood char-blackened and smoking as though lightning had struck it. The bodies of Ryouji and Akemi lay at its base, their expressions peaceful and their bodies composed—not a hair out of place or a single piece of clothing askew. Their hands were joined around the branch they had grabbed before the fog descended.
I knelt before them and bowed, then clapped three times. I did not have any incense, so I pulled another branch from the ruined tree and stuck it in the gravel nearby, lighting it with a match from the house.
When it had burned away, I told the farmer whose land we were renting of the deaths. As he telephoned a funeral parlour in Hakodate, I sat on his porch and opened the scroll the old Chinese gardener had given to me.
It was blank.
Showa 26, Sunday September 16th
This will be my final entry in this journal. I have come to the cusp of a great awakening. The world that I see is pregnant with meaning; each tree and flower and bird and stone tells me of the many worlds beneath.
Ryouji’s garden is not an impossible madness. It has a trueness many things lack. Why should it seem strange that there are many worlds and that they may cross when the Buddha-nature has neither form nor formlessness, when the Zen patriarchs of old say that pureness and impurity are both missteps? In the face of such wisdom, the reality of a garden which is both here and elsewhere—and everywhere in between—is a small thing.
All through the Hokkaido summer I have worked on Ryouji’s garden, making subtle changes to his design. Soon it will be complete and I will bury his and Akemi’s ashes at its centre, along with his books. On top of that I will bury this journal. I will keep the scroll.
Ashes from two realities and the confessional diary of a Zen priest: in all those other infinite worlds, surely such a combination cannot have come about often. We will be safe from the horrors of another maddening overlap.
I will return to the monastery, perhaps. Or perhaps instead I will wander this land of Japan, going where the wind blows me, seeking nothing and finding it like the nuns and monks of old.
End, The Abbot’s Garden
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