Welcome to Infomancy

Welcome to Infomancy.net, the website of haikuist and author Stewart C Baker.

You can read free reprinted and original fiction and poetry right here online every Tuesday.

If you’d like to browse around my published fiction and poetry (much of which is already free to read on external sites), check the relevant links in the menu to see a list of each.

One of the poetic forms I’ve been toying with lately is the chōka. This long-form Japanese poetic structure is one of the earliest forms of waka, and tanka derives from it. Which means it’s a very distant ancestor of haiku, that’s for sure!

Similarly to haiku and tanka, the chōka goes in alternating five- and seven-on lines, and–again like the tanka—is capped with a pair of seven-on lines (an on being a “sound unit”—normally translated to “syllable” but not quite the same). The main difference is that chōka can be of any length you wish. Historically the form was often used as a panegyric–public songs performed publicly in praise of the various Japanese kings, queens, and emperors.

M. Kei has a very informative post on the form if you’re interested in learning more: http://kujakupoet.blogspot.com/2006/05/origins-of-japanese-poetry-choka.html

This poem of mine, tentatively titled “River-cut,” started with an image of the lush hills of coastal Oregon rising from the foggy seas. I think it sounds more like the start of an epic than a complete poem in its own right, but here’s the opening so far:

River-cut

by Stewart C Baker

once was a time
when green hills rose tree-skirted
from the mist
cast up by waves and spellcraft
all along the coast
their slopes glinting, sunlit,
until all rolling
they merged with the waves below
identical
in all but their stillness
and the stags which danced
across their untouched meadows
skittish at man-smell
echoing earthbound the hawks
who wheeled and dove
to pick clams from the water
and drop them again
to shatter into fragments
on rock-dagger shoals
overrun with human sounds
as fresh-hewn ships
sleek and eager as terns
spilled from the rivers’ frothing


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Original Fiction: “They Come in Waves” at Freeze Frame Fiction

In lieu of posting a new piece of fiction or a reprint here this week, I’d like to direct your attention to the newly-launched Freeze Frame Fiction, which just went live today.

As you may have been able to tell, I have a story in this new ‘zine! I like to joke that it’s a story about lesbian zombie romance, but stripped of hyperbole a better description might be that it’s about relationships, regret, and still zombies.

Here’s a teaser:

No breath any more.

Cold steel at the edge of the darkness, and voices.

He pushes, and with a screeching buckle there is light and scent and terror like a drug in the air.

The salty copper taste of flesh and blood.

#

Jorah sits up shivering with cold and perspiration, sure that in the moment just before her dream turned to morning she had heard a distant booming thunder like the white caps of waves falling in on themselves.

She collapses her tent, packs and shoulders her bag, and hurries on down the trail. Remembering the dream, she takes another photo and sends it to Ella.

I am here, Jorah imagines it saying. I am here, I am coming, I am sorry. Do not forget me. Love.

So if you like flash fiction, go check out my story and the rest of the pieces in the first issue of Freeze Frame Fiction!


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Now Available at Grievous Angel: two short speculative poems

I mentioned last week that I’d sold a haiku and a tanka to Grievous Angel, a new e-zine by Charles Christian of Urban Fantasist.

Well, they’re now live!

Go check it out for yourself at http://www.urbanfantasist.com/article/new-poetry–haiku—tanka-5071

If you’re of the poetic or flash-fictional persuasion yourself, I’d also add that I received a prompt turn-around time on my submission and—just as importantly—was paid promptly upon publication.

Reprinted and Original Haiku

by Stewart C Baker

fresh-raked coals
she takes her father’s will
out on her children


Originally appeared in A Hundred Gourds

freeway moon
the slow occlusion
of my evening


Unpublished

 
election day I cast my line into the river


Originally appeared in
Modern Haiku

sunny weather
she waits for her lover
to get over it


Unpublished

orchid tree
the drifting scent
of traffic


Originally appeared in Crysanthemum

after the funeral
identical cars
turning the corner


Unpublished


 


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Reprint: Butterflies

Butterflies

by Stewart C Baker

She was four when they furrowed her, opening holes in her skull and channels through her brain. She was four when they prepared her for the Tree.

Four, but not afraid—not really. Jeyna had known of the Tree, of course, and how important the guardian’s duties were, but fear was foreign to her, along with the words her parents had repeated the night before: honour, sacrifice, pride.

Her parents themselves she remembers mostly as a jumble of impressions, all tear-streaked faces and shaking hands. She can picture their clothes, though, crisp and orderly, their pristine white subtly emphasising the cream-coloured soulsteel curves of the Place’s inner halls.

Her father’s broken baritone still echoes through her mind: “It’s not right, Kel. Not right.”

Still, he left her there.

They both had, outside the surgery, but she had not been afraid. She was curious. What would it be like, this new life with the Tree? She turned to the doors to find them open, awaiting her.

And to find Marin, clad in a vibrant red robe, her arms outstretched in welcome.

Marin, who was all smiles and gentle caring, who held her hand during the blackening pain of the furrow, and who soothed her burning recovery with patience and cool water. Marin, who trusted and raised and loved her all through the long years of her training.

#

A life without Marin? Jeyna would as well imagine a life without the Tree, a life without the smooth soulsteel of the Place around her. But they never lie, the realities which flitter in the forefront of her altered mind—the infinite storm of relentless, ash-grey butterflies.

The Tree, as always, buttresses her body and spirit. Its monofilament tendrils drift out and above her place within its trunk, comforting in their familiar motions. She can feel—very dimly—the sharpness where its interface pierces the base of her skull, but mostly she feels the supple smoothness of its soulsteel on her flesh, its vast energy throbbing through her.

She feels also the Place, its winding inner passages and its dizzying shafts, its artificial oceans and sprawling, engineered forests. It is for this beautiful globe of living green and tempered soulsteel that she stays vigilant, for all its teeming millions that she performs her duties.

Out here beyond the ends of time, her mind and the Tree are all that separate life from death. For a decade she has stood her watch, striking at each metaphysical butterfly, choosing a single one of its wings to affix to the vision of the Tree she keeps in her mind. Only one path can stay the Place through time.

She must carry out her duty in an instant: that is all it would take for the butterflies to settle on the tree she holds in her mind. Then, reality would stutter and trip, the bubble of space-time that keeps her people safe would fade. The Place and its wonders would burst into ghastly oblivion.

She has never failed in her duty, has never missed a single instant. Even the butterflies, ivory-tinged and formal, that spelled her parents’ deaths she struck through without regret. Always, she has chosen the reality which prolongs the Place. Always, she has acted.

Until now, when the butterfly is clad in red and bears Marin’s face.

And so, instead of striking, Jeyna hesitates: the butterfly settles into the leaves of the tree in her mind. It jerks and twitches its wings, and in a fluttering of light spawns two new red-black pests.

The Place begins to shift, a subtle disjunct only Jeyna can feel. She closes her eyes, striking the child realities from the tree in her mind as they appear. But always, when she returns to the red butterfly, she hesitates; always, she lets it dance its wings and propagate.

Eventually, inevitably, she slips again.

The butterfly-children twitch and dance, and there are four realities, four choices. She makes two, but the others have split, and when she solves those there are more. The Tree thrums with heat as she draws on its power; her skin burns with the frantic pace of closing possibilities.

Jeyna knows she cannot keep up—the disjuncts are feeding off each other, each butterfly-branch branching, the blight spreading until she is faced with a seething red-black chaos, an endless array of choices and realities she can no longer process.

She slumps, sweat-sodden, against the hardness of the Tree, and opens her eyes. The walls of the Place begin to flicker, then fade, and the swirling purples and greens of the maelstrom press through.

#

At fifteen, she made ready for the joining. She fasted fifteen days, cross-legged on the floor of her cell, for the Tree required great purity of body.

Next, two nameless men, their faces obscured by shimmering, half-teardrop masks, led her to the baths. Immersed in the crystal-heated waters, Jeyna recited the rituals Marin had taught her, for the Tree required great purity of mind.

Then Marin arrived, quietly smiling, and spoke the words: “Young one, pure one, cleansed of the world. I come to ask of you your duty. Are you able to serve? Have you made ready, body and soul?”

Jeyna stood, the clean freshness of the water sluicing over the cusp of her youth, down the lean, untested curves of her body. She felt washed free from the stains of life, and was pleased.

“I have, and I am.”

Marin nodded, her face aglow with a fierce and loving pride, and escorted her to the Tree. The old guardian stood there still, ensconced in the hollowed-out bole of the trunk. Her eyes darted about the room, the only sign that life and wits had not left her.

Jeyna took in her empty, sagging body, the narrow wrinkled lumps where bone showed through her papery skin. She had seen these things before, but always at a distance. The guardian had been for her a kind of shrine, an ideal to work towards. Now it was her own body she saw in those tired limbs and that misshapen flesh. Her own darting eyes and grim mouth.

A frisson of excitement shot through her. To serve so long…

She looked to Marin, who lay a hand on her bare shoulder, its pressure firm, yet light.

Then it was all happening at once: a gasping rattle from the guardian; the two men removing the woman’s shuddering body from the Tree.

Marin lifted Jeyna into place in the now-empty hollow. “She who was guardian is gone,” she said, “but lives on in you. All those before now stand watch with you. Remember them, and do them honour, and strive to act as they have acted. As they stand with you, you stand for the living. You can not fail.”

Jeyna took one final unaugmented glance at the Place, and then the Tree’s interface pushed into her brain as she slipped into the soothing embrace of its cold, rigid walls.

Beautiful, she thought, seeing for the first time not only the Place as it was, but as it might be—as it must not be.

So began her watch.

#

Jeyna staggers, naked in the cold of the Tree-room. She grasps for the butterfly choices, but they are gone, and with them the tree in her mind. Everything is knocked loose. Her life, the lives of the Place. Reality itself is no longer certain but a dread, stumbling mystery.

How had—? What—?

The Tree! She spins, but it is occupied; a fresh-faced girl stands in her place, eyes adart with her duties.

Jeyna knows, then, what has happened. This new guardian has pulled them back from the brink and replaced her. She has failed.

A hand touches her shoulder, a nostalgic feeling like the last blush of childhood. It is Marin, she knows without looking.

“I doomed us,” Jeyna says.

“Almost.”

Jeyna snaps her head around. “Almost? The Place shattered; the colours of space were pushing in; I could—”

“You stood your guard ten years, long enough for me to train a new guardian. When reality crumbled, you fought long enough for her to retrieve you—and it. Whatever choice unseated you does not change that. You did not doom us.”

The confused anger drains all in a rush, and Jeyna hangs her head. “Your death. I could not allow your death.”

Marin laughs, but there is no malice in it. “All things die, child. Even here, even now.”

“But you were the only one. Always…”

“My death will not change our past together, child—Jeyna.”

Marin squeezes her shoulder, and Jeyna remembers the turbulence of puberty, how she had tried to make Marin hate her, resent her, show any emotion at all beyond warm acceptance. The feeble strength in the older woman’s hand surprises her, its skin like paper-covered bone. All things die.

She tries to hide the tears that come, as she can not stop them.

“My death will not end me, either,” Marin continues. “In this place, as in all others, we live only as guests in each other’s hearts. I will live on within you, Jeyna, and in the child now in the Tree.”

“And when I die? When she dies?” Even here, even now. “When all of us are gone, and the Place with us?”

Marin’s hand leaves her shoulder, and Jeyna regrets the questions, the bitterness of her voice. Is she still a child, to act this way? But then Marin is before her, catching her up in an embrace cool and red.

“I’m sorry,” Jeyna whispers.

“You are right to ask. We alone hold back the veil of night from all that ever was. We alone carry forth the beauty and rightness of life. There may be a time when the veil drops, but that too will be beautiful and right.”

Marin steps back, then, gently lifting Jeyna’s hands from the red of her robe.

“I know,” Jeyna says, “and I understand, but the hurt is no less.”

“For that,” Marin says, “I am sorry. But my time has passed, and more than passed.”

Jeyna meets the older woman’s gaze. She expects to see sorrow there, red-rimmed pain to match her own, but Marin’s eyes are at peace—the cloudless, reaching blue of an open sky.

There is another reeling snap as reality resolves itself, and Marin is gone. Other things, too, are subtly different: the shape of the room, the colour of its walls. She notices a slight variance in the drift of the Tree’s tendrils, and wonders what other changes have been wrought.

She tries not to think of oceans and forests, of countless trusting souls.

Besides, it cannot be undone. She draws a single jagged breath and turns to face the uncertainty of a life without everything she has known.

But there next to the door stands one of the nameless men. He bows his masked head and raises his hands in supplication. In them, a robe of the richest crimson. Jeyna takes it, surprised at its roughness. Always before she had thought it soft.

Marin wore this once, she thinks. Then she does understand, well and truly. Laughter bubbles up from somewhere deep within as half-forgotten conversations wash over her.

The robe fits well around her neck; it settles into place on her shoulders with a distant, yet somehow familiar comfort.

“This too is beautiful and right,” she murmurs.

The nameless man nods—a terse, disjointed movement all angles and duty. “As you say.”

Jeyna smiles. She allows herself one last brush of her fingers over the fabric, one final indulgence. Then it is time.

Past time. “Come,” she says, and strides from the room.

She does not look back, but she remembers.


This story first appeared in Spark: A Creative Anthology in the January, 2014 issue. You can purchase a copy at the Spark website (ebook and print both available).


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Sold! Two speculative poems to Grievous Angel.

I’m happy to say that I sold a speculative haiku and a speculative tanka to Grievous Angel, a new imprint of Urbanfantasist.com.

There was a quick turn-around time on these, and the editor, Charles Christian, seemed personable when I queried about a few unclear points in the guidelines (since updated), so I’d definitely recommend sending him some speculative poems if you’ve got ‘em! Payment is $1 per line, with a $5 minimum. (Also 6 cents per word for flash, $20 minimum.)

I’m told my two poems will run some time this week, so that’s a plus as well.

Reprinted Tanka

by Stewart C Baker

(Trigger warning for gun violence)

always
this endless dissection
of histories . . .
another gun attack
bursts over the news


Originally appeared in
A Hundred Gourds

the chill
of that long-ago morning
won’t leave her . . .
on the opposite shore
a fawn watches its reflection


Originally appeared in
A Hundred Gourds

shadows
of children dancing
in the street . . .
thus do we scatter
like seeds in a hot wind


Originally published in
A Hundred Gourds

after the cull
the quiet of the forest
man doesn’t know
the universe doesn’t care
about the cost of life


Unpublished


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New Fiction: The Abbot’s Garden, Part 3 (of 3)

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

Hospital.

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.

I nodded.

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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New Fiction: The Abbot’s Garden, Part 2 (of 3)

This is part two of a longer story. If you missed part one, you can go back and read it here: New Fiction: The Abbot’s Garden, Part 1 (of 3).


The Abbot’s Garden (2 of 3)

by Stewart C Baker

Showa 26, Wednesday February 21st (cont.)

The clamour which erupted made the chaos of the previous day seem quiet as a winter stream. Monks shouted at the top of their voices, pushed over tables, pointed and gestured about in a rapid fluttering of robes. It was as though a brief, localised typhoon had swept into the hall.

Ryouji stepped through all of this, placed one hand on the small of the woman’s back, and gripped her wrist with his other. She made a tentative movement into the room but Ryouji shook his head, leaned forward and whispered something in her ear, and spirited her from the room.

I waved my hands above my head in great sweeping arcs to draw the monks’ attention.

“Brothers! This commotion is most unseemly; it distracts our minds dangerously. I am sure Ryouji has some explanation . . . “

I became aware that my mouth was outpacing my thoughts, and stopped speaking. What possible explanation could there be for a dead woman walking through our doors?

Haku, still standing, saw his opening and took it.

“Does he, Abbot? And would not his explanation further ‘distract our minds’? He would speak only, I am sure, of demons and other evils.”

“Y . . . No, he has renounced all that! You all heard him!”

“Then why has this woman who looks so like his dead wife burst in? Why has he run off with her instead of staying behind?”

I could make no response, for I myself did not know. They had vanished so suddenly that they seemed apparitions, like the second Ryouji of the evening before.

“Is this a monastery,” Haku continued, “or a cheap popular novel? Ryouji must leave. His garden must be torn down. Or perhaps you have some words to say in defence of this latest madness too, Abbot Ichiou?”

He took a step towards me, grim face betrayed by a spark of excitement in his eyes. If I spoke a word in Ryouji’s favour the monks would turn on me. Haku had infected them with his superstition and they were monks no longer, but a many-headed creature filled with blinding passions.

I made my voice cold. “Do as you will.”

Haku’s eyes gleamed. “To the garden then, brothers! We will stop this insanity before it spreads.”

They surged from the room, their faces flushed, leaving me alone with the echoes of their passage.


I stayed in the dining hall until darkness set in, then took up a flashlight and returned to my study. No monks disturbed me; I supposed at the time none thought me worth the bother.

The path took me past what had once been the rock garden. The dim starlight illuminated trees torn up by the roots, gravel scattered in violent explosions of grey. Moss had been ripped from boulders and littered the walkway. Branches floated in the koi pond, and I noted with revulsion two of the fish lying dead and gaping in the dirt, their eyes unseeing through a milky-white film. Their scales of orange-and-silver glittered in the beam of my flashlight.

In my study I found Ryouji and the woman who looked like his wife sitting tensely behind my desk, speaking in hushed voices.

“So,” I said, “there are some boundaries they will not yet cross.”

“I am sorry, Abbot, for what has happened,” Ryouji said, his voice clear and loud. “But everything has changed. It seems impossible, but this is Akemi.” He gestured to the woman. “She—well, I’ll let her tell it.”

The woman’s voice when she spoke was shaky, tenuous, as if she were seeking a hold on reality through her words. Or as if she were caught in a lie.

“It was evening and I was at home, waiting for Ryouji to come home from the university. I had finished cooking some time before and was listening to the radio. I remember I was hungry, and the roasted smell of the rice made me impatient. I was going to call and see when he had left the campus—it is only a few minutes’ walk.

“As I lifted the receiver I heard a soft tak sound from somewhere. I hung up and turned off the radio and it came again; in the silence I could tell it came from outside. When I opened the door the air was cold and crisp, and the stars above shone clearly. The tak sound came again, just in the street beyond our garden. It was something like a hollow bamboo water spout striking a rock, only . . . thicker somehow.

“A layer of fog hung low in the street. I thought that strange, but saw ahead of me a shrouded human form making his way through it, going away from me. I thought it might be Ryouji, that he had perhaps missed the house in the fog. When I took a step towards him something crunched underfoot.

“I looked down and saw a watch that had been Ryouji’s grandfather’s, an heirloom we had long thought lost. The numbers etched onto its face stood out as though the fog were not there. I realized suddenly that it was in fact receding, the form of the man fading along with it. The ground was littered with objects from Ryouji’s past. Terrified, I bolted after the man, crying my husband’s name as the fog enveloped me. And then . . . “

“And then,” Ryouji interrupted, “she appeared here. The fog she saw, the strange clutter of forgotten objects, all of them are just as described in The King of Elfland’s Daughter—there is a section where the lord tries to find his elven wife, who has gone back to Elfland. But that magical kingdom has drawn its boundaries in on itself, and all he finds is an endless field of barren rock, littered with cast-off childhood items and dreams.

“If she has seen something similar it means I was successful in the creation of my garden, that—”

“Your garden is gone,” I said. “Haku tore it from the ground.”

He paled at that, and the woman drew in a sharp breath. Her story, of course, was ridiculous, a lie. It had to be. But she bore a truly uncanny resemblance to Ryouji’s dead wife. Where had she come from, I wondered, and where had she gotten her tale? What did she want? Whoever she was, she had ruined everything. A part of me even wondered if Brother Haku had not somehow hired her to come here for just that reason.

“If they have destroyed the garden,” Ryouji said, “then we must leave.” He turned to the woman. “I am sorry you’ve been caught up in all this. It is my fault you are here, my fault you cannot get home. I promise I will get you there. I will reunite you with your Ryouji.”

Had he accepted her story at face value, then? Though I myself could not explain her, her story was clearly impossible. “Ryouji,” I said, to remind him. “Akemi died.”

“I know, Abbot,” he replied, in his voice an indelible sadness. “And my garden brought her here again. I must send her back to her own reality, but if the monks have destroyed the garden as you say, I cannot stay here. They will destroy any other gardens I build again, or do something worse.”

“And I know now I was wrong in building it the way I did. Your words have opened my eyes to that, Abbot. What I must do now is not bring the dead back to life by pulling them from other worlds, other realities. No, I must merge all the varied paths, mix together all the good in all the realities and excise the bad. Suffering will cease to exist. For this, I need more space than this monastery can provide.”

As he spoke I saw in his eyes again that horrible look. He was caught up in his own suffering, and I felt keenly my failure to connect with him, my inadequacy compared to the fathers of Zen. All humanity has suffered, I wanted to tell him. It is suffering still. Suffering has nothing to do with war or oppressive imperial policy. It is the nature of reality, the nature of existence. To live is to suffer; to suffer, to live.

If I could not make him feel this, I was a failure indeed. But before I could speak,

“I came to your study to avoid the monks,” Ryouji said, “but also to retrieve the books you gave me. I will leave after I have them, and take Akemi with me. We will take an inn for the night, and tomorrow we will go north, to the wide-open lands of Hokkaido. I will build a new garden there, and heal all that is bad.”

“Ryouji—”

“I am sorry, Abbot Ichiou. I have chosen my way.”

I bowed my head. “Your books are in the closet there.”

He slid open the closet door and picked them up, still wrapped in the paper he had brought them to me in.

“Thank you, Abbot,” he said. “For everything you have done for me over the years.”

“Let me do one more thing, Ryouji. Let me see you off tomorrow morning.”

He nodded, and promised to wait. I was sure I could convince him of his foolishness, and set him once again on the true path.

After they left I wandered the monastery, which was filled with an eerie silence, and thought of what I would say. The dormitory was empty, the meditation hall deserted. In over an hour of wandering I did not see a soul. All was still, silent, abandoned.

I thought of Haku’s superstitions and remembered classical Chinese tales of the supernatural. Of ghosts and demons, of people possessed by foxes, or of scholars who, falling asleep in abandoned country mansions, witness great feasts held by the dead. Of travellers who vanish into the wilderness and never return.

On my way back to my study I passed again the ruins of the garden. A breeze blew there, a soft susurration in the leaves of the trees still standing which twined wisps of fog through their branches. One of the dead fish was gone, and I tried to convince myself it had been carried off by some night-time predator. But the woman’s tale came back to me, joined with the visitation of Ryouji from the evening before, and I hurried on, shivering in the night-time air.

In my room I thought for some time, and then took out this diary once more. I hold it now in my hands, doubting my mind in this formless world of mists.


Showa 26, Thursday February 22nd

I awoke before dawn, having slept poorly, with aches in my body but my spirit firm. I had decided. After one last tour of the empty monastery—except the garden—I returned to my quarters to retrieve my travelling box with its neatly packed bowls, robes, and shaving razor. I added a book of koan, then locked the gate behind me on my way to town.

I caught up with Ryouji and the woman near the station. They were walking at a sedate pace, Ryouji with his books in one hand, the woman carrying nothing. She nodded occasionally while he gestured with his free hand.

“Ryouji!” I shouted.

He turned his head, then slowed to a stop and greeted me as I approached.

“Abbot Ichiou, I had not thought to see you so early. It will be hours yet before our train departs.”

“I am not coming to see you off, Ryouji,” I said. “I am going with you.”

The woman raised her eyebrows. “Forgive me, Abbot Ichiou, but I had thought your duties at the monastery would keep you there.”

I grunted. What would she know of duty?

“Who have you left in charge?” Ryouji asked.

“Nobody. The other monks are all gone.”

“Gone?” Ryouji said.

“Yes. They vanished last night after you left the monastery, and were not there this morning. I have locked the gate and am coming with you, Ryouji.” I addressed the woman next. “I do not know where you have come from or what you seek here, but you cannot be who you claim. I advise you to leave and return to your home.”

I tried to keep the momentum by storming past, but she moved to block my path.

“Return to my home, Abbot?” she said, her voice a perfect study in wounded innocence. “That is all I want.”

I grunted again, brushing past her. The sun shone full in my eyes, but I did not falter—I knew the path with the certainty of long familiarity.


The cars of the train were filled with people, but a pair of middle-aged men in Western-style suits gave up their seats for me and the woman. I sat next to the window, travelling box in my lap, and she sat in the aisle seat, her legs crossed at her ankles with her knees pointing delicately away from me. Ryouji stood, books between his legs and gripping the back of the seat with one hand.

We rode in strained silence until we reached Koriyama, where we stopped for the night. I knew a Shinto priest in town who kept a set of spare rooms and suggested we sleep there. The walk through the hillside paths which skirted the town took nearly an hour, the sun slowly replaced by the lights from houses in the valley below and the air growing colder. The back of my throat tickled, but I ignored it—illnesses have never affected me much.

My friend greeted us with his usual calm and offered us the use of his rooms. The woman took one for herself, and I shared the other with Ryouji. This was just what I had been hoping for—at an inn the three of us would likely have all been together. While Ryouji lay out our two futon, I ran my razor over the stubble atop my head, eyeing my reflection in the bathroom mirror to be sure I had removed it all.

When I returned to the room, Ryouji lay already in his futon, his eyes closed and his breathing even.

“She cannot possibly be Akemi,” I said.

“Mmn.”

He did not open his eyes, so I rapped twice on the lid of my box with the handle of the razor.

“Forgive me, Abbot,” he said, again without moving or opening his eyes, “The past few days have . . . I’m just so tired.”

“Akemi died, Ryouji,” I said. “You gave me the news yourself. This woman, whoever she may be, is not your wife.”

He made no response, his breathing slowly shallowing into a soft steady whisper that even now accompanies the scratching of my pen.

I must try again tomorrow.


Showa 26, Friday February 23rd

Despite the cold weather, our room was stuffy and foetid. I slept poorly, and on the walk back to the station this morning my throat was scratchy and dry, and I was much slower than usual.

Several times the woman came back down the path to me, offering her arm with an uncomfortably direct gaze.

“Leave me be,” I snapped at last. “I am old, not infirm. The day I cannot walk under my own power has not yet come.”

She gave me again that look of practised injury and returned to Ryouji, who looked back at me but said nothing. He, at least, knows what I am capable of.

On the train Ryouji spoke of his plan for the garden, of his “design,” as he said, “according to the principles of Elfland.”

I closed my eyes and leaned back in the seat, suddenly unable to focus, too tired to dissuade him from delusion. His words drifted over my head like smoke from a distant fire. The rest of the day’s travel was equally indistinct. Cities sliding past without names, unpeopled.

When we stopped, Akemi offered to help me from the train, but I mumbled a refusal. The roughness of the path from the station made me stagger, but I did not fall.

I do not remember getting to the hotel, but when I look up from these pages I can see a stormy grey ocean stretching north from the window of our room.

The air here too is choking and close.


Showa 26, Saturday February 24th

The next ferry to Hokkaido will not depart until Tuesday night.

I am tired, so tired.


Showa 26, Sunday February 25th

“Abbot Ichiou is stronger than you credit him.” (This in Ryouji’s baritone, waking me from an uneasy sleep.)

“Perhaps.” (The woman’s tenor.) “Perhaps, when he is in the shelter of the monastery where he has lived his sixty-odd years. But this is not the monastery, Ryouji. It is the real world.”

“He—”

“He needs to rest, Ryouji. Do not deny it.”

(Footsteps pacing.) “We cannot stay here. In Hokkaido, we will have only six months of warm weather. Six months to lay the foundations of the garden to connect you with your world—to draw together the good of all the worlds. Six months to lug gravel, to select stones, to dig and plant and prune and . . . Only six months, Akemi, before the snows descend and we will have to wait.

“Once that happens the Abbot will have to endure a whole frozen winter, not just the tail end of one. If you are suddenly so worried about his health, consider that.”

“If you care for him at all,” Akemi replied, “you should leave him behind. He needs a hospital, not a ferry trip over a frigid ocean to go sludging through knee-high snowdrifts until you find the perfect rolling vista.”

As the silence stretched, tensing, I half-opened my eyes, but all I could see was the ceiling, which was the grainy off-white of cheap plaster on cheap wood.

“I will not leave him,” Ryouji said at last. “He left his monastery to follow me. And . . . “

Footsteps again, but softer this time, less frantic. “I am going to the baths,” the woman said. “When I get back, I expect to hear sense.”

The door slid open, and she spoke again in a softer voice. “I know this is important to you, Ryouji. It is to me, too. I want to go home to my own world, my own husband. I don’t want to stay in this strange Japan where I am dead and you are half a monk. But the Abbot’s is life important too. Would you throw it away to satisfy your own desires?”

After she closed the door, but before I heard her footsteps starting away, I made a show of waking noisily, standing and stretching with one hand on the small of my back.

“I am sorry if we woke you, Abbot,” Ryouji said. He looked small against the window, like a child who had lost his way. “Akemi thinks we should take you to a hospital.”

I let out a laugh. “Nonsense! I shall be fully recovered by the time the ferry arrives. Already I feel much improved.”

He said nothing, and I wondered if I had overdone it. But then he smiled.

“I am glad to hear it, Abbot. If you change your mind, we will stay until you are sure you are fit to continue.”

In the hallway outside, the soft sounds of footfalls travelled the length of our room, then faded and were gone.


Showa 26, Wednesday February 28th

We have arrived in Hokkaido, our ferry placing us in the midst of a frozen land. In the city of Hakodate, where we have taken rooms at an inn, Western-style homes loom above drifts of snow as tall as a man. The streets are cleared, and people rush along them bundled in many layers of clothing, their breath steaming white from their mouths.

Outside the city the snow is broken only by the green of pines and stark browns of bleak myrtles. Ryouji is pleased with the vastness of the place. The woman is impatient—eager, she claims, to be home. I am that in truth, though I should not be: ‘home’ is but a feeling which distracts and entangles.

Home is robe, bowl, and box. Home is . . .

Waves of dizziness overtake me, as though we were still crossing the choppy sea. I must continue this later.


Thurs Mar 1st

Fresh snow this morning. We took a bus to the countryside and looked for land to rent.

I focused all my efforts on staying upright, and can remember nothing more.


2nd

Feverdreams and

canot write i

hot then frezng then

I h————


End, The Abbot’s Garden, Part 2 of 3

Part 3, and the conclusion of the story, will post next Tuesday, June 3rd.

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New Fiction: The Abbot’s Garden, Part 1 (of 3)

So far I’ve been posting fairly short reprints. Here’s something different! A roughly 12,000-word short story about Zen Buddhism, early Science Fiction, and (maybe?) interdimensional travel.

I’ll be posting part of this story every Tuesday for the next three weeks, with part two going live on May 27th, and part three going live on June 3rd.


The Abbot’s Garden (1 of 3)

by Stewart C Baker

Showa 26 (1951), Sunday February 11th

Ryouji believes he can contact beings from another reality by careful realignment of the monastery’s rock garden. Some of the blame for this is mine, and I have started this journal to track my efforts as abbot to cure him of his delusion.

He sits reading most nights in his rented room, the soft hum of the electric light just audible in my study across the courtyard. He never seems to mind the evening chill; he simply reads, trying to forget his wife’s death with immersion in the unreal. This obsession worries me—I am forever trying to change him, to show him a better way.

Occasionally I join him and he tells me fantastical stories from other lands, translating in bursts of Japanese as his thoughts overflow. I insert futile koan into the gaps between his words, hoping to awaken him to the true nature of things with strangely adapted Zen riddles:

“Has a fictional character Buddha-nature?”

Or: “Whenever he was asked about literature, Master Gutei simply tore a page out of a book.”

Or: “Ummon said, ‘Literature and ignorance correspond to one another. The whole earth is literature. What is your true self?’”

None of them ever work. He simply pauses a moment longer and continues speaking—no doubt he does not even properly hear my interjections, so busy as he is inside his head.

Tonight I had finally decided to try a different track. If Ryouji so loved books, I thought, I would supply books which instructed, books which could direct his powerful mind to better purposes. When I went to his rented room near the monastery’s southern gate, I took with me an armful of treatises on gardening.

If Ryouji saw them when I entered, he made no comment. He just looked up from the volume spread open on his desk, blinked a few times, and started to read aloud as though I had been there all along.

The story he told was of an apparently infinite library, and it was stranger even than his usual fare. Many of the books in this library did not even have words, holding simply the same three letters over and over for hundreds of pages. People lived there, spent their entire lives walking through it and reading and reading and reading. Some thought the books revealed some truth about the universe; others believed they were meaningless.

The story was blessedly short, and when he finished I cleared my throat. “Ryouji,” I said, “this tale perfectly describes your own situation.”

“Abbot Ichiou, am I to understand you actually listen to my readings? All this time I thought you came only to convert me.” A slight smile worked its way across his face to show he meant no disrespect by the comment, but I waved my hand in dismissal.

“It is my calling to listen,” I reminded him, “as well as instruct. It is you who do not attend. These stories you immerse yourself in—they are like the library you describe. They are illusions, Ryouji, endless illusions without meaning.

“But their endlessness, too, is illusory—the library only appears infinite. All illusion can be broken if you step outside it. You need only realise this to enter into the garden of life, the path to truth, and see clearly the attachments which threaten you.”

He looked at the closed book on his lap, but did not speak. I brushed off the front of my robe and stood, placing the books I had brought with me on his desk.

“I have brought you some books on gardening,” I said. “It is my fervent hope they will teach you to work with the real in a way these endless strings of words cannot. Good evening.”

But as I opened the door to his room, he spoke. “Gardening . . . of course! Your insight is amazing, Abbot.”

I stopped, one hand on the door-frame.

“The books are illusion,” Ryouji said. “I know that. It is what they tell us of reality that makes them useful. But the garden . . . “

I sat, cautiously optimistic. I had never expected him to even understand my gesture, let alone agree with it.

“In this same book,” he continued, “is the story of a garden, an infinite labyrinth. The narrator of the story believes the garden’s existence proves reality to be . . . “

He flipped through the pages in his lap.

“To be ‘an infinite series of times, a growing, dizzying web of divergent, convergent, and parallel times.’ Each of these ‘times’—each newly split-off reality—is caused by the decisions we make in our daily life. More importantly, these different realities can interact.”

“Ryouji,” I said, my head spinning.

“The garden in the story is actually just a book,” he continued, “although its long-dead author has misled generations of scholars by writing of an endless labyrinth he wished to produce. The labyrinth and the book—the garden—are one and the same, but so are the book and reality, the labyrinth and reality.”

“Ryouji!”

He waved me to silence. “The details of the story are not important. What is important, Abbot, is the connection with gardens. Gardens are essentially natural landscapes, which means they must exist in many realities. But they are also man-made, and like our actions must be different in each.

“It is like Elfland, a magical kingdom from an old book indeed. There are places where its boundaries overlap with our own, and sometimes the boundaries weaken, and . . . “

I put a hand to my forehead. More stories? More insane, impossible realities?

“Ryouji, please!”

“Sorry, Abbot. Anyway, what matters is that we can create just such a weakened boundary between our reality and others by carefully manipulating our garden.”

He thumped the gardening treatises I had brought him to emphasize his point. “We can make contact with versions of ourselves who live in other ‘dimensions of time’!”

I had not seen him so animated in all his six years at the monastery since his wife passed away, but my heart grew heavy. My attempt to help had done little more than cloud his vision further. His own private tragedy still ruled his emotions, still held his spirit in check.

I could not speak. Without another word, I stood and returned to my room and this diary.


Showa 26 (1951), Monday February 12th

Ryouji has spent the day in the garden, bothering the monks with surprisingly deft questions about the books I loaned him. I believe the only reason they have not thrown him out is that he has made no secret of his strange belief about communicating with other realities, and they do not know what to make of it.

Some take it as a sort of practical koan, wondering if Ryouji has finally given up his scholar’s trappings. They ask if he has come to me, if he has read something in some sutra that rang true, and when I admit to giving him the gardening books, they ask if he has become enlightened. If he is going to join our brotherhood instead of merely living in our midst.

I dare not tell them he is sincere.

Others are not as well-intentioned. Brother Haku, who adheres to folk superstitions with the same fervour Ryouji feels for his books, approached me in the dining hall this evening.

“Abbot Ichiou,” he said. “There is something that troubles me, and I have come to you for guidance. I have heard that you gave Ryouji some treatises on gardening, despite the fact that they are meant to be secret.”

Inwardly, I groaned. Haku had never liked Ryouji, and my association with the man he saw as an outsider had turned him from a good monk into a bitter, jealous soul. Another of my failings, is poor brother Haku.

“It is true,” I said. “I hope they—”

“Is it true, then, Abbot, that he using them to summon demon spirits in the rock garden?”

I allowed myself to laugh. “There you are mistaken, Brother Haku. Ryouji will surely do no such thing.”

“No? And yet I am sure I have heard—”

“As to what you have heard, Brother Haku, I cannot say.”

He flushed, but pressed on: “And yet, does Ryouji not read strange books in place of the sutras? Does he not spend his hours jotting furious notes, learning foreign tongues, or doing other empty things?

“His condition has worsened since he arrived at the monastery all those years ago. His soul has only become more inured in the fatal chain of samsara. If not even righteous words can change his spirit . . . “

I sighed. “It is true that Ryouji is troubled. His path to truth will be much longer than yours or mine. That is why I gave him the books.”

Haku’s eyes narrowed. “There is some sense to that, I suppose.”

“Indeed. And no matter how strange he is, the idea that he has taken up gardening to summon demons is ridiculous.”

“All the same, Abbot, I am worried.”

“I will talk to Ryouji,” I said. “I am sure there is some misunderstanding.”

Haku looked sideways at me as though he wanted to say more, then shook his head, bowed and left the hall.


Showa 26, Sunday February 18th

Ryouji has spent the entire week constructing a new garden in the empty yard behind the bath-house. His designs are shockingly unorthodox, as expected of one who lacks adequate training. Indeed, at times he seems to go out of his way to flaunt the books I gave him. He places boulders in abhorrent arrangements which have strange effects on the eye, making the garden seem twenty times larger than it is. His tree-pruning is barbarous, the designs that result impossible to describe and uncomfortable to look upon.

The koi pond feeds into a small stream which does not cross the garden north to south, as it should, nor even east to west. Instead it makes a circle, feeding in turn back into the pond, where some number of fish glitter and splash. I tried to count them only once, but they seemed to split off and join into each other in ways I could not quite believe were caused just by ripples in the water. It made me dizzy, and when I looked away I saw quite clearly reflected in the pond a double of myself, eyes wide in horror. I jumped back, shouting in surprise, but the space beside me was empty. When I told Ryouji what I had seen he only smiled and refused to explain.

Since then I have avoided the place and its illusions. The other monks too are disturbed by the garden’s oddness, but since no demons have sprung from behind boulders they have begun to think that Ryouji was not being serious. They are content for now to watch and wait, and hope he will give it up and return to his books.

I hope it as well, but there is something in the air, something like the pressure that arrives before a storm. I remember the tales of the first patriarchs’ awakening and I shudder to think what it might mean.


Showa 26, Tuesday February 20th

Today, Ryouji walked into the dining hall when he was already there.

It was the noon-time meal, and the hall was filled with a peaceable quiet. But at the second Ryouji’s entrance, the silence turned to ice. This new Ryouji strolled to the table where he usually sits—was already sitting. He pointed to the seated version of himself, let out a yell of triumph, and started to jabber incomprehensible questions.

The hall exploded into riotous sound, the monks all shouting and pointing and trying to get away from these two impossible men. The first Ryouji slowly stood, brushing off his simple russet-coloured robe. He took two steps towards the newcomer, held out a single piece of paper, then flickered out of sight like a cloud of steam rising from a hot spring in winter.

The second Ryouji—apparently the real one—snatched the paper from the air as it drifted to the ground, then turned and strode out of the hall, ignoring the monks who tried to question him. I followed as quickly as I could and found him in the garden, paper in one hand and a gravel rake in the other.

“I know you have many questions,” he said, “but they must wait. I am so close!”

“The monks will not stand for this, Ryouji,” I said, holding up a hand to stall his objections. “They turned a blind eye to your reading, because you were only a tenant. But this gardening, this trickery . . .

“The monks do not understand your intentions with the garden—it is not possible to do so! It is a disturbing place, one which confuses the soul instead of encouraging contemplation. And now this mad illusion! I do not know how you did it—”

“I—” he said.

“I do not want to know how you did it. It is done, and cannot be undone. There is no going back, Ryouji, in life as in history. Your wife Akemi is dead and will not return. I am sorry, but this is true. You must choose a path which leads forwards. These escapist delusions must stop. If you wish to continue them, you will have to do so elsewhere.”

Ryouji stood looking at the garden, arms limp, the rake barely grasped in one hand. He did not speak, the fingers of his other hand worrying at the piece of paper, and I knew I had wounded him. I was sorry for it, but knew that I had spoken well—the truth is bitter in the beginning but sweet in the end, as the Buddha said. I laid a hand on his shoulder.

“I am sorry, Ryouji. I hoped the books I gave you might have helped, but they have not. We can no longer have you here unless you lay aside these fantasies. I hope, for your sake, that you do. Otherwise I wish you well.”

He looked up then, his expression unreadable. It was the same face he had worn when he returned to the monastery after Akemi’s death.

I let my hand drop from his shoulder and returned to my quarters, where I took up this journal again. I am so embroiled with emotion I have not been able to meditate. Have I become too caught up in this impermanent world?


Showa 26, Wednesday February 21st

Early this morning Ryouji clapped softly on the door to my quarters. Under one arm he held the bundle of gardening books, and that terrible face he had shown me the day before was gone, though shades of it remained.

“I have thought upon what you said, Abbot.”

I smiled. “I am glad, Ryouji. Have you come to a decision?”

“I have. I disagree entirely with your understanding of the garden. I strongly believe in its reality and that it could accomplish my desires in time. But those desires . . . I am no longer certain they are right. I also fear the consequences of my plan, and cannot justify its possible dangers to myself and others.”

He set the books on top of my desk and bowed to me.

“I have decided to let some other version of myself take those chances. In this reality, Abbot Ichiou, here and now, I would be honoured if you would teach me the Way.”

The words, strangely delivered as they were, had a formality about them. Nonetheless, I felt hope rise warm within me.

“I would be glad to teach you, Ryouji. I will announce it straight away.”

I remember thinking quite clearly as I called the monks to the meditation hall that we could put all this strangeness behind us. At first all went smoothly. I told the monks of Ryouji’s decision and most were pleased, glad to welcome him as a brother. Haku said nothing.

After my announcement, Ryouji said a few words as well. “My brothers, I want to thank you for your patience. I know I do not fit in here. I think too much—it is a habit that is hard to cast off. The past, too, is hard for me to forget. But I am willing to try.

“No, I will not try—I will. From this day forth I intend to live mindfully among you.”

As Ryouji seated himself, Brother Haku stood, a storm in his face. But even this did not worry me. Ryouji had made up his mind, and mere words would no longer dissuade him. I could feel my own inner peace growing stronger by the moment. I was not a failure. I had not lost the way. I tried hard not to let these dual reliefs show on my face, but I feel sure I had a smile there which was most unbecoming.

Haku’s face was a mirror of my own. His mouth was twisted down in a grimace, and his eyes flashed hate. “Brothers—” he began, but got no further.

A rushing wind came from the courtyard, rattling the outer doors, then slamming them open with two loud cracks. Between the doors stood a woman in a flower-patterned Western dress whose hair, cut short and permed, had been blown madly about.

Haku’s mouth fell open, and I felt mine do the same. Ryouji let out a choked gasp, and the rest of the monks had gone as quiet as death.
The woman’s eyes . . .

The eyes were unmistakable. They could belong to no other than Akemi, who had been dead these past six years.


End, The Abbot’s Garden, Part 1 of 3

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