I don’t know why I insist on walking in the morning when it’s so cold these days. An invincible loneliness follows me, wrapped in veils of mist, graphite clouds, and leafless trees. I carry peanuts in my coat pocket to give to crows and squirrels. It’s late winter and the animals are hungry. My hunger is of a different sort, one to see everything renewed in the Earth’s yearly rebirth.
As I meander through the deserted streets and yearn for gentle breezes, I see details of life and dance to a poem written a thousand years ago by Sugawara no Michizane. Verses that speak of a dusk in spring, with the New Year’s moon inebriating even the sky with peach and plum tree blossoms.
A thousand years of excitement at the arrival of spring. Sugawara no Michizane lived in the Heian Era, when the arts flourished in Japan and literature reached its highest refinement. Not only was he an exceptional poet and a scholar, he also had a love of nature and sang it in a seemingly silk woven poetry. Centuries after his death, he became a deity -Tenjin, god of learning.
I think of the poet turned god as I see the Zen temples and gardens still covered in silence. In front of Hinamatsuri’s dolls, I immerse myself in one of the most sophisticated period of Japanese history. It was during the Heian Era that the dolls acquired their rich clothing and Girl’s Day was established, the peach tree festival. I didn’t see a single peach tree in town.
Another voice accompanies me. Far-away, solemn, traveling distances, running fingernail tips along the line of my spine and leaving an indefinable murmur of longing at the back of my tongue, nearly at my throat. Sometimes I want that voice to tell me only of things that make me laugh.
In these cold months, Japantown, where I live, has less color. I don’t complain about my miniature Japan. When I came to live in San Jose, I chose this neighborhood because in my private arsenal of proverbs there is one (recent) that states: those who don’t have Tokyo, adopt Japanese from California. Here I’m happy when I get lost in the trinket shops, walk among the cherry trees, fall asleep with my eyes open on the dusty benches of the Buddhist temple. I buy Hokusai cards and green dragons with long golden mustaches. I drink it all down with real oolong teas, which come with a seal and everything.
At the door of the market, an old man shuffles with difficulty, leaning on his walker. A white and red window opens in my chest.
A whirl of scattered images pierces my soul. And I see it again: the simple house. There, shoes are removed at the door; Sakae offers me milky caramels that were made to stick to my milk teeth; Tereza cuts very thin vegetables, like origami paper. Aunt Mineko talks to Dona Flor (Flor means flower in Portuguese. I always thought that name was beautiful, as if it came from a toy).
In the corner of the room, he is sitting with his back facing away, writing at his desk. It’s night and he’s just arrived home from work, perhaps with a thin layer of manganese covering his shirt. A little mirror at eye level lets him see what’s happening behind him. Japanese songs fill every space. I’m too young to understand them. I don’t know what they’re saying, but the music cradles me.
My uncle Hayashida passed through my life like a Japanese song that I didn’t understand, but that reached me with its melody and eloquent silences. Of him, I know very little, but he’s here, engraved on my chest like an old photograph. Or a jigsaw puzzle of pieces scattered by the wind.
Would he miss his home? What was he thinking about while listening to the songs?
From time to time I remember Uncle Hayashida. Me, the child who got her foot stuck in a small hole in the wooden floor of the house that smelled of cleanliness and secrets, sometimes a foreign quietness.
A house where I learned to look at other worlds, hear the sounds of other languages and try new flavors.
There was a room shrouded in mysteries. From time to time Aunt Mineko disappeared inside there, wrapped in the stillness of sacred things. In the pots, raw rice. In the air, awe.
– Never enter without permission! And be quiet while Aunt Mineko is there. She is praying.
What unknown god did Aunt Mineko pray to? Today I would think of a poet-god.
The scent of incense crept under the door and told me of a faith that made me want to walk through the wall and pray together, in front of the little pots with rice.
The original house no longer exists. In its place is a new one, made of masonry, much prettier, they say. I visited it, but don’t remember. My memory is filled with the simplicity of a wooden fence, a small garden and the house smelling of cleanliness and honesty. I remember this one in detail: the kitchen, the collection of dolls wearing kimonos and the room where I read “My Sweet Orange Tree”.
Better to admit the truth right away: in all these elderly Japanese people I look for the Hayashidas’ traits and gait. Desire to bite again into the fruit of lost childhood. If I revive the Hayashidas, I subvert time and bring back my parents and my early life. Nonsense that occurs to us when we start to get old and our loved ones sleep in their tombs.
I shake my head slightly and go on, a little more lonely, peering into the secret life of the birds and touching my palms to the gnarled bark of the trees along the way. Soon another old poet joins me. Shiki. I recite, smiling:
Undeniably, Shiki. I also think about writing a haiku, but I become distracted by the sight of a peach tree in bloom (is it really a peach tree? I don’t distinguish it from the sakuras, the cherry flowers, but that doesn’t matter as I decided it’s a peach blossom because of Hinamatsuri).
Defying the other trees that are still asleep in the lap of a long winter, this one is covered in pink. The wind stirs the branches and some flowers float up in the air.
I smile and dedicate to the memory of Mineko and Hayashida’s the haiku of someone much greater than me, the poet Onitsura. The poem written in the seventeenth century strikes me hard.
“A spring day — and:
in the garden, sparrows
bathing in the sand!”
Three hundred years is nothing. A millennium is nothing. The beginning of my life. Also nothing. The present tense belongs to Sugawara no Michizane, Shiki, Onitsura and it also belongs to me. The four of us are dazzled with the tree, covered in flowers, announcing that Spring soon will be here.
(Translated by Rebecca Green. Text in Portuguese here.)