Bonsai

Our bodies are like Bonsai trees.
Not one innocent leaf can grow freely,
without being viciously suppressed,
so narrow is our ideal of appearance
—Khyentsé Norbu

 

After I got married, I always spent Sunday afternoons at the botanical gardens in Aoyama. It was a way of taking a break from work and from household chores—if I stayed home on the weekend, Midori, my wife, would always end up asking me to fix something. After breakfast, I would take a book and walk through the neighborhood until I got to Shinjuku Avenue, where I entered though the east gate. That way I could walk by the long fountains, cross the lines of trees in the courtyard and, if the sun was shining, sit and read my book on a bench.  On rainy days I went into the café, almost always empty at that time, and settled down next to a window to read. When it was time to go home, I would leave via the back gate where the security guard gave me a polite nod of recognition.

Although I went to the gardens every Sunday, it was many years before I entered the greenhouse. I had enjoyed gardens and woods ever since I was a very small boy, but the individual plants had never interested me as such. To me, a garden was an architectural space where green predominates, a place you could go alone, although never without something to read or entertain yourself with, and which could even serve as a good spot for closing a deal with clients from the office. As a boy I had gone to the same gardens with one or other of the girls from school and, later, with girlfriends from college, but it hadn’t ever occurred to any of them to go into the greenhouse either. It has to be said that the building wasn’t exactly attractive: it looked more like a chicken coop or storehouse than an enclosed garden. I imagined it to be a claustrophobic space, maddening like Tsukiji market, but smaller and full of unknown plants with unpronounceable names.

One afternoon, however, quite suddenly, the greenhouse started to interest me. I remember it was a Thursday, a national holiday, and so we had Friday off as well. We had decided not to leave town, and there was something in the air very like the atmosphere of a Sunday. Perhaps because of this I felt the urge to walk among trees. It wasn’t really a suitable day for walking: as I was leaving, my wife pointed out that it was raining. I picked up my book and a large umbrella and prepared to leave, but just as I was about to close the metal gate at the entrance to our building, Midori appeared on the stairs with her raincoat on, smiling, and announced that she was coming with me.

We hadn’t gone back to walk in the gardens together since we’d been married. After so many years, Aoyama had become a space reserved for me, one of those places you gradually appropriate and that constitute a sort of refuge, an island cut off from contact with other people. I won’t pretend that I didn't feel a little apprehensive at the idea of Midori accompanying me to Aoyama every Sunday, and yet I didn’t protest, either. When I decided to get married I had said to myself that I would share everything with her, and I liked to tell her there were no secrets between us.

We entered the gardens through the east gate, as I always did, and waved to the guard, who seemed pleased to see me with a companion. He’d no doubt been wondering about my family situation, as he’d never seen me with anyone else. What’s more, Midori and I gave the perfect impression of a happy marriage, or of being “made for each other,” as we had been told ad nauseam since the day of our wedding, until even we had ended up believing it. Midori likes the rain very much and she was in high spirits that day. I remember her underneath the umbrella waving her hands about as she talked about her adolescence in Aoyama. Although we hadn’t known each other back then, both Midori and I had lived in this neighborhood as teenagers and were especially fond of it.

“Back then, I used to come to this park as often as you do,” she told me, as if wanting to regain some sort of authority. “It’s so strange that we never saw each other, don’t you think?”

My wife walked around and around the park, inspecting everything with the air of someone returning to her property after a long absence and noting the ravages of time. Meanwhile, I held the umbrella that covered us both. When it seemed like she would never tire of walking, she suddenly stopped, as if recalling something.

“But of course!” she said, her eyes wide. “The greenhouse!” and she ducked out from under the umbrella and ran toward the ancient building. Feeling how my feet were sinking slightly into the wet earth, I watched her head for the door without moving from my spot.

But the greenhouse was closed and Midori’s disappointment was as great as her enthusiasm had been.  “I really would have liked to go back and see the old man,” she exclaimed.

I had no idea who she was talking about, so I asked her.

“There used to be a gardener here who I’d sit with and talk to. He’d talk about anything! No one else liked talking to him. My classmates used to say he gave them an uneasy feeling, like a bad omen. But I was fond of him, and I can’t say he ever did me any harm.”

“Did they really say that?” I asked, genuinely interested.  “What were they talking about?”

“I don’t really remember very well; about plants, I think.”

“How can plants make you feel uneasy unless you eat them or make them into tea?” I asked.

We laughed and changed the subject. The rest of the afternoon in the Aoyama gardens passed as peacefully as it had begun.  Midori and I returned home early and succumbed to lust, then fell asleep.  On Monday, as I stared at the carpet in my office, I found myself thinking about the greenhouse. The guard in his little hut who had waved to us at the gardens’ entrance I knew very well; I knew, too, the man who pruned the bushes in spring and planted flowers around the fountains; but, in all these years of visiting the place, I had never seen Midori’s gardener. If the old man was still there, my wife had an advantage over me in possessing the park.

The following Sunday, I couldn’t help heading directly over to the greenhouse, but I couldn’t see anyone.  I approached the security guard’s box and asked him if he knew where the old man was. “He doesn't come in on Sundays,” answered the guard. “What do you want him for?” In his face I sensed a certain amount of unease.

“My wife knows him and she asked me to say hello,” I lied.

“He hardly comes in any more, he’s too old to still be working—but why don’t you come by on Saturday, with a bit of luck you’ll catch him then.”

So another week went by without me meeting the gardener.

On Saturdays, Midori used to spend the whole afternoon at the beauty salon. Like my walk in Aoyama, beauty treatments were a space she kept for herself, and the very thought of seeing me appear in the street outside the window of the salon would have made her hair stand on end. Unlike her, I rarely knew what to do with myself at that time of day. Sometimes I read the newspaper for the second time or watched some sports program on television. I remember that on this particular Saturday a dirty rain was falling, a kind of melted hail.  Unlike my wife, I hated rain. Even so, as soon as Midori left the apartment, I put on my raincoat and set off for Aoyama. It was unlikely that the old man would be working on an afternoon like this, but when I got to the greenhouse I saw him on his knees with his gray uniform on, working the earth in a flowerpot. I approached him slowly, with a respectful air.

“Well, look at this!” exclaimed the old man when he saw me. “What brings you here on a Saturday, Mr. Okada?” His question unnerved me. I was embarrassed to admit I had come with the sole purpose of meeting him, so instead I changed the subject.

“How do you know I only come on Sundays?” I asked.

“A gardener knows all the worms in his plot, even the ones that only visit occasionally.”

I smiled. While his joke might have seemed a little cheeky, at no time did I experience the feeling of unease Midori had spoken of. Quite the opposite: the old man seemed friendly and I felt like spending some time with him. So I stayed in the greenhouse, watching him work. Unlike the other employees of the gardens, he didn’t use gloves; he scratched at the earth with a tiny trowel and pulled up roots with his wrinkled fingers. Now, almost a year later, I feel myself growing sad at the mere recollection of those blackened nails, but back then his hands had seemed simply curious to me, like those of a goblin or a character from a fairy tale.

The gardener returned to his work in silence. So as not to annoy him, I took a turn around the greenhouse, feigning interest in the names of the various species kept there, but it wasn’t long before I approached him again. When he saw me coming back, the old man lifted his head and looked at me with black watery eyes that seemed to float in their enormous sockets. As sometimes happens with old people, his expression had something childlike about it, the look of someone who still lets the world surprise him.

“Do you like plants, Mr. Okada?” he asked, his voice serious.

“To be honest, they’ve never interested me,” I replied.

“I should have guessed as much. You are one of those who come only to walk through the park. Isn’t that so? If next Saturday the pine trees were no longer here, and there was instead a line of cypresses, it would be all the same to you, or perhaps you would not even notice.”

“You may be right,” I admitted. “Assuming there isn't much difference between a pine tree and a cypress tree.” (I really had no idea what a cypress tree looked like.)

The old man looked at me without a word. I thought that maybe, for a passionate gardener, what I had just said to him could be interpreted as an insult, but I saw no trace of resentment either in his face or in the expression of his black, watery eyes.

“I don’t blame you,” he said finally, “you have to know the plants to love them, and you also have to know them to hate them.”

“Hate them?” I asked.

“Plants are living beings, Mr. Okada, and the relationship one has with them is like any other relationship with a living being. Do animals not interest you, either?”

I recalled a dog I had owned in secondary school. After a glorious period in which my sister and I had played with him, he had ended up abandoned in the kitchen. I couldn’t even remember how he’d eventually disappeared from the house.

“To be honest . . .” I began again.

“Well, despite what you might think, plants are worse than animals: either you look after them, or they die; it’s basically constant blackmail. Plant one and you’ll see: as soon as the first leaf comes out, you won’t be able to stop watering it; when it grows too much you’ll have to repot it, and perhaps after a while it’ll get some sort of disease. Don’t you doubt it, Mr. Okada, plants are a pain.”

I looked around me. All the plants in the greenhouse looked perfectly tended and shining. Everything seemed to be in its rightful place: the plants that needed light in the sunny areas, the shady ones at the end of the shed, where it was darker than the entrance. It looked like the gardener did a perfect job. “If they’re such a pain,” I asked, “why do you still bother with them?”

“Let’s just say it’s a vow I’ve made,” replied the gardener, laconically. “Some people have a sense of duty, although not everyone knows what that is. When I took this job in the greenhouse I vowed to take care of these plants, and I will do so until I can’t do it any more.”

The next day I didn’t leave the house. As I’d been there on Saturday afternoon, I didn’t go back to the gardens at Aoyama. I stayed home indulging my wife who, predictably, gave me a whole load of chores, such as mending the kitchen door (the latch was broken and needed to be replaced) and putting up a new shelf in the bathroom (her make-up no longer fit into the cabinet). Afterward, we watched television and, although Midori asked me repeatedly, we didn’t succumb to lust that afternoon. I didn’t tell her of my visit to the greenhouse, either.

And so I began to go to the Aoyama gardens on Saturdays instead of Sundays. Instead of turning up at the east gate, as had been my custom for years, I now went straight in at the entrance near the greenhouse. I didn’t walk back and forth under the trees any more, or sit and read on a bench. When he saw me arrive, the old man no longer looked surprised and instead welcomed me with a smile of recognition.  He also, as time went by, spoke less to me. In general he limited himself to commenting on the plant he happened to be pruning. It reminded me a little of the atmosphere that establishes itself in an office between two people used to working in the same space. Except that in this case, I didn’t work with the gardener: I sat opposite him and lit one cigarette after another while I watched him gardening. Bit by bit, I began to familiarize myself with his work, but also with the plants. Some of them started to attract my attention more than others. When I grew tired, I said good-bye to the old man and left the greenhouse to go and have a drink in the café opposite. It might seem stupid, but this is how I spent my Saturday afternoons and to me it seemed like a real adventure. I don’t know if it was watching the gardener at work or looking at the plants, or simply the secrecy—I still hadn’t said anything to Midori. And, as so often happens, in order to preserve this secrecy, I had to start juggling. On Sundays, for example, I would take a book from my study and leave the house, pretending I was going for a walk in the botanical gardens, but in actual fact I went and sat in a café in Jenjiko, a few blocks from our apartment. Without realizing it, more than a month passed by like this without me mentioning the topic to Midori. “At the end of the day,” I said to myself, “she was the one who told you about him and you went into the greenhouse because of her memories of the place. Why keep it a secret?” It was as if I was stealing something from her, something I refused to give back. Instead of feeling ashamed, this act of stealing brought me a pleasure I had no desire to give up and, in the same way that a thief clings to his loot no matter how ridiculous it might be, I refused to broach the subject with my wife. This pleasure was not to last long, however.

As I said, the plants had started to seem more interesting to me, or, at least, not so dull. I hadn’t exactly become a fanatical botanist, but I did suddenly start to notice each plant’s particular personality. In short, they stopped just being objects and became living beings. One day, for example, I noticed that the gardener never paid any attention to the cacti. There they were, forgotten in their dry, coppery earth. Some standing upright like sentinels, others shaped like little balls, hugging the ground, assuming the circumspect position of a hedgehog. I approached their pot and stood observing them for a few minutes. There didn’t seem to be any movement among them, besides this rigid attitude as if on the defensive. The multitude of tiny spines on the greenish skin reminded me of my own face when I haven’t shaved for more than a couple of days. According to my wife, I am too hairy to be Japanese. But more than the beard, it seemed to me that the cacti and I had something in common (it wasn’t for nothing that I felt such affection for them, though I also pitied them a little). They were so different from the other plants, like the expansive ferns or the palm trees. The more I looked at them, the more I understood the cacti. They must have felt lonely in this big greenhouse, without even the possibility of communicating with each other. The cacti were the outsiders of the greenhouse, outsiders who shared nothing with each other apart from that status and, because of this, their defensive attitude. “If I had been born a plant,” I realized, “I could only have belonged to this family.”

The question was inevitable and could not wait: if I was a cactus, what kind of plant was Midori? The woman I had chosen to share my life with was not, whichever way you looked at it, a cactus. Nothing about them reminded me of her. It’s true that Midori was fragile, too, but in a different way; she wasn’t on the defensive, brandishing spines in all directions. No, she had to be something else, something much smoother but, at the same time, not so incompatible. I spent that Saturday afternoon looking at the different species in the greenhouse but wasn’t able to find the plant that looked like Midori.

As the days passed by, it became more and more obvious that I belonged to the cacti. At the office I held myself upright at all times, anxiously waiting for the moment the door opened to let in a piece of bad news. Every time the phone rang, I felt a new spine push through my skin.

In fact, I had always been like this. My school friends and my work colleagues had made jokes about my austere temperament before, but I had never given the matter much thought. Now, on the other hand, it all seemed like a logical consequence of my condition. It was simple: I was a cactus, they were not. Occasionally, in a lift or corridor at work I would recognize another cactus going by. When that happened we would greet each other stiffly, avoiding each other’s eyes.

It was as if I had been liberated. At that moment I stopped worrying about things that before had weighed heavily on me and caused me distress, such as not being able to dance. Midori, who danced with an inimitable sensuality, always reproached me for my stiffness. “I can’t do anything about it,” I could answer her now, cynically, “you chose to marry a cactus.” About this time, too, I stopped smiling hypocritically to colleagues I met in the cafeteria at work, something I had done for many years. It wasn’t unfriendliness, merely consistent with my nature. And, unlike what might have been expected, people did not take it badly. In fact, my colleagues commented that recently I was looking “in good shape,” even “more natural.”          At home, too, there were a few changes. When I had nothing to say, I didn’t speak. From then on I refused to hold false conversations with Midori about her pedicures, her new dress, or what had happened to her friend Shimamoto over the holidays and, above all, I stopped feeling guilty for not telling her about my friendship with the gardener. This didn’t mean that my love for her was on the wane; quite the opposite: the more I came to accept myself, the better I was able to relate to the world. Midori, however, didn’t take it in this way. After I declared myself a cactus, her reactions became increasingly over-the-top. She began to ask me more and more frequently where I had spent the afternoon and, as if that wasn’t enough, she became very insistent on the question of lust. In the morning before going to work or at night before going to sleep, Midori would feel like making love, something that of course went against my nature as a cactus.

One night, I woke up startled after a nightmare I couldn’t remember. The nearly full moon was shining through the shoji, bathing the room in a  bluish light. Midori’s body lay practically on top of mine, breathing peacefully in a deep sleep. Both her arms and her legs were entwined with mine, like the branches of an ivy or a honeysuckle plant. And that is how I found out that my wife was a creeper, smooth and shining. “That’s why she likes the rain so much,” I thought, “whereas I can’t stand it.” For a few minutes I sat and thought about Midori, about her quiet way of infiltrating every space and taking possession of my life. The more I thought about it the less sleepy I became. Luckily I remembered the following day’s agenda: I had an important meeting at nine. I should try to get some sleep.

The next morning it was hard to wake up and I took longer in the shower than usual. Over breakfast, my wife stayed silent. She looked worried about something. “Are you all right?” I asked her kindly, but taking care not to touch her.

“Yes, don’t worry. It’s the dream I had last night.”

“What dream?” I asked, noting the anxiety in my voice.

Before she answered, Midori took a deep breath.

“I dreamed we had a child, a beautiful baby. We’ve never talked about it,” she explained, looking into my eyes, inquisitively, as if she was trying to decipher my thoughts. I shivered.

Alarmed, I looked at the clock: I was running fifteen minutes late.

“We’ll talk about it tonight. I promise.”

Midori and I had been married for eight years. Almost all our married friends had children. When they asked us how we managed to look so happy, we would reply that the secret lay in not having them. It was curious that the very night I had discovered her true identity, Midori had spoken of this topic.

The meeting that morning was a total fiasco. I couldn’t concentrate for even one minute on the conversation with the client, let alone convince him to sign a contract. I decided to take the afternoon off and go to the gardens at Aoyama. As soon as I got to the greenhouse, I started to look for a creeper to confirm my discovery. As I searched, I almost bumped into the gardener who was scraping at the earth in a flowerpot with his trowel like a kitten. He looked surprised to see me. “Shouldn’t you be at work, Mr. Okada?” he asked without pausing as he pruned the bush he had in his hands.

“I left early today,” I said, and almost straightaway added, “What do you think about creepers?”

The gardener put his shears on the ground and looked at me, surprised.

“The strength of a plant like that,” he told me, “lies in its strong will. They’re capable of climbing from the ground up to the top of a tower. The advantage is that they survive wherever you put them, they adapt to any climate.”

There was a strange tone to the gardener’s voice, like that of someone about to announce bad news. For a minute I thought he knew everything.

“And these plants,” I asked, feeling even more nervous, “is there a special time when they reproduce?”

The old man took a while before answering.

“That depends; some do it every month and others every week. Why do you think they grow so quickly?”

“And the cacti?” I asked.

“Cacti are another matter. Some of them only reproduce once in their lives, and they generally do it just before they die.” As he said this, he put his shears into his bag and picked it up. “Come with me,” he said, “I’m going to show you something.”

The gardener showed me the pot with a few cacti I had seen many times before, except that now one of them had a red flower at its tip.

“This one is a special case. It can live for eighty years and it reproduces every twenty. But that’s not what I wanted to show you,” he explained, “it’s this over here.”

Next to the cacti’s pot, but a few centimeters from the floor, I noticed a gray rectangular container that wasn’t there before. The gardener had put it there this afternoon, when he hadn’t been expecting me. In the container was a miniature reproduction of the Aoyama gardens. There was the café, the long rectangular fountains, the greenhouse, and also the lines of trees, the pines and cherries.

“Are they real?” I asked in surprise. As I said it I realized that we were speaking under our breath like two people sharing a secret.

The gardener moved his head in reply, but in such an ambiguous way that I couldn’t tell whether it was a yes or a no.

Bonsais have always scared me a little, or at least made me feel inexplicably apprehensive. I hadn’t seen one for a long time and to suddenly find myself faced with such a number of them made me almost physically uncomfortable. The old man must have realized this, and he commented, “I agree with you, Mr. Okada. They’re an aberration.”

It surprised me to hear such an expression spoken by a gardener, but at the same time, the word came very close to what I was feeling.

“Why are they here?” I asked, irritated, and raising my voice a little. “Why have you brought me to see them?”

“I’ve spent many years cultivating them. I have clipped each one of their leaves and I have seen them dry up and fall to the earth in the pot, simulating the death throes of real trees, but without any kind of ostentatious display. Look closely at them, Mr. Okada,” he insisted, while I carefully ran my hands over the stunted bark, as if it hid some kind of answer. “I think you’ve learned enough now by looking at the plants to see what I mean: these are not plants, nor are they trees. Trees are the most spacious living things on Earth, while a bonsai, on the other hand, is a contraction. Whether they come from a leafy tree or a fruit tree, bonsais are only that: bonsais, trees that betray their true nature.”

I walked home in the rain. Since I didn’t have an umbrella I arrived with my clothes dripping wet. The whole way I thought about creepers and cacti. A cactus suffered in this wet weather, while a creeper was content. I loved Midori, but to let myself be invaded was to go against my nature. I also thought of how betrayed and sad a creeper would be if it were unable to reproduce.

At home I had a hot shower. Midori was busy with some proofs that had to be sent to the printers that very night and so, luckily for me, we didn’t broach the topic of reproduction.

On Saturday I went to Aoyama, but the old man wasn’t in the greenhouse. I asked the guard where he was but he couldn’t give me an explanation. By the looks of things, the park’s employees were used to the gardener being away for a few days. I waited for a while in the café to see if he would turn up, but I soon realized it was useless.

When I got home I met Midori coming back from the beauty salon. Just like every Saturday, her hair had been straightened into a style very similar to the one she  got from standing under the running water in  the shower.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked me.

“Like what?” I answered. “What did you do to your hair?”

“The same as always,” she replied, annoyed.

It was true, it was the same hairstyle as always, and the color of her nails was the same, too. There was nothing new and yet I couldn’t avoid the fact that she seemed different, as if, instead of Midori, the people at the beauty salon had sent me her double.

“You’re right, it’s the same,” I replied in order to close the topic. I was famished and didn’t want to delay dinner with an absurd argument. Anyway, what could I say to her? That today she looked like a replica of herself? We ate in silence, while the radio played Rossini’s La Gazza Ladra. And then I realized: what I had before my eyes was a perfect bonsai. The bonsai of a creeper.

I thought I’d get over it, but that night, before going to sleep, I recognized again the contraction of those dwarf trees in her worried face. When Midori tried to wrap her branches around my body I could only push her away. This happened every night of the week, as a profound unease gradually grew inside me.

One night, my wife couldn’t take any more and she burst out, “What’s wrong with you? You’ve been looking at me as if I was an alien for days!”

She was right. But what explanation could I give her? I didn’t know what to think myself.

I got out of bed and went out onto the balcony of our room to smoke a cigarette. The moon was waning and as I looked at it I felt a deep sadness. Where was Midori, my wife, the woman I had chosen to spend my life with? She was there, there was no doubt about it, but why couldn’t I see her as I had before? Midori was there, inside, but turned into a creeper, in the same way that I had turned into a cactus. But hadn’t we always been like that? How could I tell? I felt alone in the world, shut up in a perspective it was too late to escape from. Far away, from the bedroom, I heard Midori’s sobs, an expansive sobbing like the woman herself, working itself into the furthest corner of my conscience. I reproached myself for my attitude. I said to myself that if I had told her straightaway about my visit to the greenhouse and my friendship with the old man, then surely things wouldn’t have taken on this terrifying dimension. If she had come with me on that first Saturday afternoon, we would have lived through this adventure together. The two of us would now be taking part in a shared story, not separated by a stupid point of view like a sheet of soundproof glass. I decided not to go back to the greenhouse.

A few months later, Midori and I separated.

It was a year before I was able to return to the botanical gardens. Ever since the day the gardener hadn't showed up for our regular meeting I hadn’t come back to walk in this park. What could have happened to the old man? I couldn’t help but link him to my break-up and to the sadness that ever since then I had felt deep in my roots, quite different from a feeling of unease in the stomach. I realized that I blamed him in some way and needed to tell him. So I looked for him everywhere, but couldn’t find him.

I asked the guard where he was, and he looked at me in surprise as if I was a ghost. “Mr. Murakami is in the hospital, he’s very ill,” the man explained, lowering his gaze respectfully.

It was the first time I had heard the gardener’s name. I thought of the poor old man, dying in a hospital with no one to help him. I thought of the ten years that had passed since Midori and I moved from Aoyama to live in Jenjiko, in our married couple’s apartment. I thought of my life with a creeper and of how fast it had gone by. Above all, I remembered the cacti’s longevity: eighty years or more in a dry, coppery earth.

First published in Pétalos y otras historias incómodas. Copyright Guadalupe Nettel. By arrangement with Anagrama. Translation copyright 2011 by Rosalind Harvey. All rights reserved.