Our bodies are like bonsai trees. Not one
little innocent leaf can grow freely, without
being viciously suppressed, so narrow is
our ideal of appearance.
– Khyentse Norbu
After I got married, I started taking walks in the Aoyama Botanical Garden every Sunday afternoon. It was a way of taking a break from work and domestic chores – if I stayed home on the weekend, Midori, my wife, would always end up asking me to fix something. After breakfast, I’d take a book and walk from our neighborhood to Shinjuku Avenue, where I’d enter the garden through the east gate. That way, I could walk by fountains, cross the lines of trees in the courtyard, and, if the sun was shining, sit down to read on a bench. On rainy days, I’d go to the café – almost always empty at that time – and settle down by a window to read. Going home, I’d leave the garden through the back gate, where the guard would nod politely in recognition.
Though I went to the park every Sunday, it was years before I entered the greenhouse. As a little boy, I’d learned to enjoy gardens and forests, but I’d never been interested in individual plants. To me, a garden was an architectural and green space where you could go alone, but only if you had something to read or amuse yourself with, and where you could even take clients to close a good deal. When I was young, I’d gone to that same garden with a girl from school and, later on, a college girlfriend, but neither of them had thought to visit the greenhouse, either. I admit that the building wasn’t exactly enticing: it looked more like a chicken coop or storehouse than an enclosed garden. I imagined it to be an oppressive place, maddening like Tsukiji Market, though smaller and filled with unknown plants that had unpronounceable names.
One afternoon, however, I suddenly took an interest in the greenhouse. I remember it was the Thursday of a long weekend. We had decided not to go out of town, and in the air there was a Sunday kind of atmosphere. Maybe that’s why I had the urge to take a walk among the trees. It wasn’t really the most suitable day for a stroll: as I was leaving, my wife pointed out that it had started to rain. I picked up my book and a large umbrella and got ready to leave the apartment. But just when I was about to pull the gate to our building shut, Midori appeared smiling on the stairs, with her raincoat on, and announced that she was coming with me.
We hadn’t gone for a walk together in that garden since before we married. After so many years, Aoyama had turned into a space reserved for me, one of those places you gradually make your own and that constitute a kind of refuge, an island cut off from contact with other people. I won’t deny that the idea of Midori joining me on Sundays made me feel slightly uneasy. Even so, I didn’t object. When I decided to get married I resolved to share everything with her, and I liked to make it known that there were no secrets between us.
We entered the garden through the east gate, as I always did, and waved to the guard, who seemed pleased to see me with a companion. He must have wondered about my domestic situation, since he’d never seen me with anyone else. Besides, Midori and I were the perfect image of a happy couple; we looked made for each other – or so we’d been told ad nauseum since our wedding day, so often that we’d ended up believing it. Midori really likes the rain and was in high spirits that day. I remember her under the umbrella, waving her hands about as she spoke of her teenage years in Aoyama. Although we hadn’t known each other then, Midori and I had both grown up in that neighborhood, and both felt a special fondness for it.
‘Back then, I used to come to this park as often as you do,’ she said, as if trying to recover a certain authority. ‘Isn’t it strange that we never saw each other?’
My wife went around the park several times, inspecting everything, like a property owner returned from a long absence to take stock of the ravages of time. Meanwhile, I held the umbrella that covered us both. When it seemed like she’d never tire of walking around, she stopped suddenly, as if she’d remembered something.
‘Of course!’ she said, her eyes wide. ‘The greenhouse!’ And she slipped out from beneath the umbrella and ran off toward the ancient building. With my feet sinking slightly into the wet ground, I watched her head for the door without moving from my spot.
But the greenhouse was closed, and Midori was as disappointed as she had been enthusiastic before.
‘I really would have liked to see the old man again,’ she exclaimed.
I didn’t know whom she was talking about, so I asked her.
‘There was a gardener here who I used to sit and talk with. He’d tell me all sorts of things! Nobody else liked to talk to him. My classmates all said he gave them nervous stomachs, like a bad omen. But I was fond of him, and he never did anything to upset me.’
‘They really said that?’ I asked, genuinely interested. ‘What did he talk to you about?’
‘I can’t really remember, to be honest; about plants, I think.’
‘How can plants cause a nervous stomach unless you’re eating them or making them into tea?’ I asked.
We laughed and started talking about something else. The rest of the afternoon in the Aoyama garden went by as peacefully as it began. Midori and I went home early and gave in to our lust until we fell asleep. On Monday, as I stared attentively at the rug in my office, I found myself thinking about the gardener. I was very familiar with the guard who greeted me from the booth at the entrance, I also knew the guy who pruned the bushes in the spring and planted flowers around the fountains, but in all my years of going there, I’d never seen Midori’s gardener. If this man were still there, my wife had the upper hand when it came to who had ownership of the garden.
The next Sunday, I couldn’t resist heading straight to the greenhouse, but I saw no one. I went over to the booth and asked the guard about the old man.
‘He doesn’t come on Sundays,’ he said. ‘Why do you want to see him?’ In his face, I thought I noticed some concern.
‘My wife knows him and asked me to say hello,’ I lied.
‘He’s hardly ever here anymore, he’s too old to still be working, but if you come around on a Saturday, with a little luck, you’ll find him.’
So I went another week without meeting the gardener.
On Saturdays, Midori usually spent the whole afternoon at the salon. Like the walk in Aoyama for me, her cosmetic routine was a space she reserved for herself, and just the idea of seeing me pass by the window would have made her hair stand on end. I, on the other hand, rarely knew what to do with myself at those times. Sometimes I’d read the newspaper a second time or watch a game on TV. I remember it was raining that Saturday, a dirty rain like melted hail. Unlike my wife, I hated the rain. Nevertheless, as soon as Midori left the apartment, I put on my raincoat and set off for Aoyama. It was unlikely that the gardener would be there on an afternoon like that at his age, but as soon as I got to the greenhouse, I saw him on his knees, wearing a gray uniform and working the soil in a flowerpot. I approached slowly and respectfully.
‘Well, look who it is!’ the old man exclaimed. ‘What brings you here on a Saturday, Mr Okada?’ His question unnerved me. I was ashamed to say I had come by just to see him, so I evaded his question by changing the subject.
‘How did you know I only come on Sundays?’ I asked.
‘A gardener knows all the worms in his territory, even the ones who only show up every once in a while.’
I smiled. Although his joke seemed a little daring, I felt no trace of the nervous stomach Midori had mentioned. On the contrary, the old man seemed pleasant, and I felt like spending some time with him.
And so I stayed in the greenhouse, watching him work. Unlike the other garden employees, he didn’t wear gloves; he’d rake the earth with a tiny trowel and pull up the weeds with his wrinkled fingers. Now, almost a year later, just the memory of those blackened nails is enough to make me sad, but at the time his hands seemed curious, as if they belonged to a goblin or some character in a story.
The gardener returned to his work in silence. So as not to bother him, I took a little tour of the greenhouse, pretending to be interested in the names of the different species they stored there, but it wasn’t long before I came back. When he saw me, the old man lifted his head and cast me a watery look. His black eyes seemed to be floating in their large sockets. As the elderly often do, he had a somewhat childlike expression, like someone who still allows the world to surprise him.
‘Do you like plants, Mr Okada?’ he asked in a serious voice.
‘To be honest, they’ve never interested me,’ I replied.
‘I should have known. You’re one of the ones who just come here to walk in the park, right? If you showed up one Sunday and instead of pine trees there was a row of cypresses, it would all be the same to you, or maybe you wouldn’t even notice.’
‘You’re probably right,’ I admitted. ‘As long as there isn’t much of a difference between a pine and a cypress.’ (The truth was I had no idea what a cypress tree looked like.)
The old man looked at me without saying a word. Perhaps to a fanatical gardener what I’d just said could be interpreted as an insult, but there was no trace of offense in his face or his dark, watery eyes.
‘I don’t blame you,’ he said at last. ‘You have to really know 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 your relationship with them is like a relationship with any living being. Are you not interested in animals, either?’
I recalled a dog I had owned in high school. After those first few glorious weeks my sister and I spent playing with him, he ended up abandoned in the kitchen. I don’t even remember how he disappeared from the house.
‘The truth is . . .’ I started to speak.
‘Well, you may not realize it, but plants are worse than animals. If you don’t take care of them, they die. Let’s face it: it’s endless blackmail. Plant one and you’ll see. As soon as the first leaf appears, you’ll have to keep watering it; when it gets too big, you’ll have to repot it, and maybe later on it’ll catch some disease. Don’t be fooled, Mr Okada: plants are a nuisance.’
I looked around. In the greenhouse, all the plants looked perfectly tended and shiny. Everything seemed to be in its rightful place: the plants that needed light were in the sun, and the ones that needed shade were in the darker part at the back of the shed. The gardener seemed to carry out his work perfectly.
‘If they annoy you so much,’ I asked, ‘why do you still bother taking care of them?’
‘Let’s say it’s a commitment,’ he answered tersely. ‘Some of us have a sense of duty, though not everyone knows what that is. When I took the job in the greenhouse, I signed on to care for these plants, and that’s what I’m going to do, until I can’t anymore.’
The next day I didn’t leave the house. Since I’d been there on Saturday afternoon, I didn’t go back to Aoyama. I stayed in to humor my wife, who, predictably, charged me with dozens of tasks, like fixing the door to the kitchen (the lock didn’t work and had to be changed) and installing a new bathroom shelf (her makeup no longer fit in the cabinet). Then we watched TV, and even though Midori made several attempts, that night we didn’t give in to lust. I didn’t mention my greenhouse visit, either.
That’s how I started going to Aoyama on Saturday afternoons instead of on Sundays. I didn’t go in through the east gate anymore, the way I had for years, but instead went straight to the entrance nearest the greenhouse. And I no longer walked around among the trees or sat down to read on a bench. When he saw me arrive, the old man didn’t look surprised anymore, but instead welcomed me with a smile of recognition. Also, as time passed, he spoke to me less and less. He would generally limit himself to comments about whichever plant he was pruning. It reminded me a little of the atmosphere established between two people who are used to sharing an office. Only I wasn’t working with the gardener, just sitting near him, lighting one cigarette after another as I watched him. Little by little, I became familiar with his work, but also with the plants. A few of them began to stand out to me more than others. When I grew tired, I’d say goodbye and leave the greenhouse for the café across the way. It might seem stupid, but that’s how I spent my Saturdays, and to me, it all felt like a real adventure. I don’t know if it was watching the gardener work, looking at the plants, or the furtiveness of it all, since I still hadn’t said anything to Midori. And, as often happens, I had to do a kind of balancing act to preserve the secrecy. On Sundays, for example, I’d take some book from my study and leave the house as if I were going to walk in the garden, but I actually went to the Jenjiko café a few blocks away from our building. That’s how, almost without realizing, I let a whole month go by and still hadn’t broached the subject with Midori. After all, I told myself, she was the one who told you about him, and you only went to the greenhouse because of all her memories. Why keep it a secret? It was as if I were stealing something from her, something I refused give back. But instead of shame, this theft brought me a pleasure I had no desire to relinquish, and just as a thief clings to his loot, absurd as it might seem, I refused to bring up the topic with my wife. But this pleasure wasn’t going to last long, either.
As I said, the plants were beginning to seem more interesting, or at least not as boring as before. It’s not that I had become a botany fanatic, but suddenly they’d taken on a kind of personality. In short, they were no longer objects, but living beings. One day, for instance, I noticed that the gardener never paid any attention to the cacti. There they were, forgotten in their dry, coppery earth. Some erect like sentinels, others curled up at ground level, in the guarded stance of a hedgehog. I went over to their planter and observed them for a few minutes. There seemed to be no movement in them, aside from that stiff and somewhat defensive attitude. The many tiny thorns on their greenish skin made me think of my own face when I went more than two days without shaving. According to my wife, I have too much hair to be Japanese. But, beyond the beard, I felt that the cacti and I had something in common (there was a reason I found them so endearing, though I also felt a little sorry for them). They were so different from the other plants, the expansive ferns or the palms. The more I looked at them, the more I understood them. They must have felt lonely in that big greenhouse, with no chance of communicating even among one another. The cacti were the outsiders of the greenhouse; that, along with their consequential defensiveness, was their only shared trait. If I’d been born a plant, I admitted to myself, I could only have belonged to that species.
The question was inevitable and came swiftly: If I was of the Cactaceae family, what was Midori? The woman I had chosen to share my life with was clearly no cactus. Nothing about them reminded me of her. It’s true that Midori was also fragile, but in another way; she wasn’t on the defense, brandishing spines in every direction. No, she had to be something else, something much gentler but also not completely incompatible. I spent Saturday afternoon examining every species in the greenhouse but didn’t succeed in finding the one that resembled Midori.
As the days passed, my place in the cactus family became more and more evident. At the office, I sat straight and tall, anticipating the moment when the door would open to let in bad news. Every time the phone rang, I felt a new spine push through my skin.
In reality, this was nothing new. Like my schoolmates had before, my colleagues often joked about my stark temperament, but they’d never taken it too seriously. Now, however, everything seemed like a logical consequence of my condition. It was so simple: I was a cactus; they were not. Every once in a while, in an elevator or some hallway, I just might recognize another cactus. Then we’d have no choice but to greet each other, avoiding each other’s eyes.
I felt liberated. I stopped worrying about things that, before, had bothered me or made me anxious, like not being able to dance. Midori, who danced with exceptional sensuality, always scolded me for my stiffness. ‘It is what it is,’ I could now respond cynically. ‘You chose to marry a cactus.’ Around that time, I also stopped smiling hypocritically at the colleagues I ran into in the office lunchroom, something I’d been doing for years. It wasn’t a lack of friendliness, just simply being consistent with my nature. Surprisingly, no one took it badly. In fact, my colleagues remarked that lately I seemed ‘in good shape,’ even ‘more natural.’
There were also some changes at home. When I had nothing to say, I didn’t speak. From then on, I refused to maintain pretend conversations with Midori about her pedicure, her new dress, or whatever had happened to her friend Shimamoto on vacation; most of all, I stopped feeling guilty for not telling her about my friendship with the gardener. That didn’t mean I loved her less; on the contrary, the more I became myself, the better I could relate to the world. But Midori didn’t take it the same way. Asserting myself as a cactus made her exaggerate all her reactions. She was always asking me where I’d spent the afternoon, and as if that weren’t enough, her libido became very persistent. In the mornings before work or at night before we went to sleep, Midori felt the urge to make love, which, of course, went against my cactus nature.
One night, after a nightmare I couldn’t remember, I was startled awake. The almost-full moon streamed through the shoji, painting the room a bluish light. Midori’s body was practically on top of mine, deeply asleep and breathing calmly. Her legs and arms were wrapped around mine like branches of ivy or honeysuckle. And that’s how I knew that my wife was a climbing vine, soft and shiny. That’s why she likes rain so much, I thought, while I can’t stand it. I lay there thinking about Midori for several minutes, about her quiet way of infiltrating any space and taking possession of my life. The more I thought about it, the further away sleep felt. Luckily, I remembered my schedule for the next day: I had an important meeting at 9 a.m. I had to try to sleep.
I had a hard time waking up that morning and took a longer shower than usual. All through breakfast, my wife was silent. She seemed upset about something.
‘Are you feeling OK?’ I asked the question affectionately but avoided touching her.
‘Yes, don’t worry. It’s just the dream I had last night.’
‘What dream?’ I blurted out, noting anxiety in my voice.
Midori took a deep breath.
‘I dreamed we had a baby, a beautiful little baby boy. We’ve never talked about that,’ she explained, looking at me inquisitively, as if trying to decipher my thoughts. I shivered.
I looked at my watch in alarm: I was fifteen minutes late.
‘We’ll talk tonight. I promise.’
Midori and I had been married for eight years. Almost all our couple friends had children. When they asked us what we did to look so happy, we’d always say the secret was not having them. It was strange that Midori had brought this up just after I’d discovered her true identity.
The meeting with our client that morning was a total disaster; I couldn’t concentrate on the conversation for even a minute, much less convince him to sign a contract. I decided to take the afternoon off and go to Aoyama. As soon as I reached the greenhouse, I started looking for a climbing vine to confirm my discovery. As I searched, I almost tripped over the gardener, who was scratching at the earth in a potted plant like a kitten. He seemed surprised to see me.
‘Shouldn’t you be working, Mr Okada?’ he asked, moving over to a bush he began to prune with both hands.
‘I left early today,’ I said, and almost immediately I added: ‘What do you think about vines?’
The gardener put down the pruning shears and looked at me, surprised.
‘The strength of a plant like that,’ he said, ‘is rooted in its unwavering willpower. They’re capable of climbing from the ground to the top of a tower. Their advantage is, they survive no matter where you put them, they can adapt to any climate.’
There was a strange inflection in the gardener’s voice, as if he were about to announce some bad news. For a moment, I thought he already knew everything.
‘And those plants,’ I asked, feeling even more uneasy, ‘do they have a special breeding period?’
The old man took some time before answering.
‘It depends, some of them do it every month, others every week. Why do you think they grow so fast?’
‘And cacti?’ I asked.
‘Cacti are another thing entirely. Some of them reproduce only once in a lifetime, and generally right before they die.’ As he said this, he stood and put the shears back in their pouch. ‘Come with me,’ he said, ‘I’m going to show you something.’
The gardener led me to the pot that contained a few cacti I’d seen several times, but one of them now had a red flower at its tip.
‘This one is a special case. It can live to be eighty years old and reproduces every twenty. But that’s not what I wanted to show you,’ he said, ‘this is.’
Beside the pot of cacti, an inch off the floor, I noticed a gray rectangular container that hadn’t been there before. The container held a miniature reproduction of the Aoyama garden. There was the café, the rectangular fountains, the greenhouse, and also the rows of pines and cherry trees.
‘Are they real?’ I asked, surprised. And as I said this, I realized we were whispering, like two people sharing a secret.
The gardener’s only reply was to shake his head, but in such an ambiguous way that I didn’t know if he meant yes or no.
Bonsai have always prompted a kind of fear in me, or at least a puzzling discomfort. I hadn’t seen any for a long time, and coming across so many of them at once made me feel almost physically unwell. The old man must have noticed and said:
‘I feel the same way. They’re an aberration.’
I was surprised to hear it from the mouth of a gardener, but at the same time, that word corresponded so closely to what I was feeling.
‘Why are they here?’ I asked irritably, my voice rising slightly. ‘Why did you bring me over to see this?’
‘I’ve been cultivating them for many years. I’ve pruned each one of their leaves, seen them dry up and fall into the earth in the pot, simulating the death rattle of real trees but without making any kind of noise. Take a good look, Mr Okada,’ he insisted while I examined the miniature bark as if some answer were hidden within. ‘I think you’ve learned to look closely enough at plants to realize: these aren’t plants, and they’re not trees, either. Trees are the most expansive beings on earth, a bonsai, on the other hand, is a contraction. Whether they come from a leafy tree or a fruit tree, bonsais are just that, bonsais: trees that betray their true nature.’
I walked home in the rain. Since I didn’t have an umbrella, my clothes were dripping when I arrived. The whole way, I was thinking about the climbing vine and the cactus. A cactus would suffer in a rainy climate like this, but a vine would be happy there. I loved Midori, but allowing her to encroach on me was contrary to my nature. I also thought about how betrayed and unhappy a vine would feel if unable to reproduce.
I went inside and took a hot shower. Midori was busy with some galley proofs she had to send to print that same night, so, fortunately, we didn’t discuss reproduction.
Saturday I went to Aoyama, but the old man wasn’t in the greenhouse. I asked the guard where he was, but he didn’t have any explanation. Apparently, they were used to the old man disappearing for a few days. I waited in the café to see if he’d suddenly show up, but after a while I realized it was useless.
When I got home, Midori was there. She’d just returned from the salon. Like every Saturday, her hair was very smooth, almost the way the water made it look when she’d just gotten out of the shower.
‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ she asked.
‘Like what?’ I answered. ‘What did you do to your hair?’
‘The same thing as always,’ she said, annoyed.
This was true: her hair was the same as ever, and so were her nails. There was nothing new, but I still couldn’t help but find her different, as if instead of returning Midori to me, the people at the salon had sent her double.
‘You’re right, it’s the same,’ I said to end the discussion. I was very hungry and didn’t want to run the risk of delaying dinner with an absurd argument. Besides, what could I say – that today she looked like a replica of herself? We ate dinner in silence while Rossini’s La gazza ladra played on the radio. Then I realized: I was sitting in front of a perfect bonsai. The bonsai was a climbing vine.
I thought the feeling would pass, but that night, before going to sleep, I noticed the contraction of those dwarf trees in her worried face again. When Midori tried to stretch her branches around my body, I could only reject her. Every night that week was the same, and a profound disquiet was growing in me.
One night my wife couldn’t stand it anymore and got angry:
‘What’s the matter with you? For days now you’ve been looking at me like I were an alien!’
She was right, but what explanation could I give her? Even I didn’t know what to think.
I got up from bed and went out onto the balcony to smoke a cigarette. The moon was waning, and the sight of it made me profoundly sad. Where was Midori, my wife, the woman with whom I’d decided to share my life? She was there – there was no doubt about it – but why couldn’t I see her the way I had before? Midori was there in the room, but she had turned into a climbing vine, just as I had turned into a cactus. But hadn’t we always been like that? How could I know for sure? I felt alone in the world, trapped in a perspective I’d never escape. At a distance, in the bedroom, I heard Midori sobbing – expansively, the way she did everything – and her cry penetrated the deepest corners of my consciousness. I reproached myself for my attitude: if I’d just told her about my greenhouse visits and my relationship with the old man, things wouldn’t have taken on such a terrifying dimension. If she had gone with me that first Saturday afternoon, we could have lived the adventure together. We’d be sharing a story now, not living with this stupid point of view between us like soundproof glass. I decided not to return to the greenhouse.
A few months later, Midori and I separated.
It was a year before I was able to go back to the garden. Since that day when the gardener wasn’t there to meet me, I hadn’t returned to take walks in that park. What could have happened to the old man? I couldn’t help but associate him with my divorce and the sadness that, ever since then, I felt in my deepest roots, a feeling not at all like an upset stomach. I realized that in some way I blamed him, and I felt the need to tell him so. So I looked for him everywhere, but I never found him.
Finally I asked the guard at the booth about him, and he looked as surprised as someone seeing an apparition.
‘Mr Murakami is in the hospital; he’s very ill,’ the guard explained, lowering his eyes respectfully.
It was the first time I’d heard the gardener’s name. I thought of the old man, helpless and dying in the hospital, anxious over the fate of his plants. I thought of the ten years that had passed since Midori and I moved from the Aoyama neighborhood to Jenjiko, to our married couple’s apartment. I thought of my life with a climbing vine and how quickly it came to an end. Most of all, I remembered the longevity of the cactus: eighty years or more in dry, coppery earth.
‘Bonsai’ is excerpted from Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories, published throughout the English-speaking world by Seven Stories Press.
Image © Anna Hesser