Saturday, November 22, 2014


Kyoto received the bonsai tree as a wedding gift from her Auntie Saachi two days before she left her home.  It was a sweeping tree, stretching its branches from the pot and reaching for an imaginary sea that waited for it beyond the boundaries of its own soil.  As Kyoto held the glazed green pot in her hands, she remembered its significance.   

“Does she speak?” Aunt Saachi was waiting for the girl to express appreciation.  Her niece’s shy manners were no excuse for rude behavior.  Yoko, Kyoto’s mother nudged the girl gently. 

“Say something,” she whispered.

Kyoto wondered if the tree was to come with her when she left the home. It didn’t matter at this point; she knew she would have to be grateful regardless.  “Thank you, Aunt Saachi.”

The old aunt blinked her eyes and nodded, satisfied with the forced gratitude.  “Of course you have taught her how to care for a bonsai tree, haven’t you?”

Yoko smiled and nodded.  “We have learned from Mr. Ukiyo.  He lives in apartment six-A.”

Aunt Saachi wrinkled her nose.  “That man!”

Kyoto and her mother looked at each other; Yoko stifled a smile.   Aunt Saachi didn’t care for the apartment dwellers, but especially for their gardening neighbor.  A Korean war veteran, Mr. Ukiyo had been shot in the leg four decades ago, a world away from home.  He was nearly abandoned by his own troops because they failed to realize he was one of their own.  After the war he returned to San Francisco a more anxious version of his previous self.  He began the terrace garden to bring peace to his inner world, he once told Kyoto.   His outdoor balcony had an extensive array of potted plants, especially bonsai trees.  It certainly was a place of peace.

“He was a farmer in the homeland, was he not?” Auntie Saachi knew him only from the elevator, where he greeted her, stooped over and humbly dressed in jeans with dirty knees.  “I can see the grime beneath his fingernails when he pushes the buttons.  I take my handkerchief out to push them again after he has been in there!”

“I believe Mr. Ukiyo was born here, Aunt,” Yoko said, thoughtfully.  She turned her head toward the light that shone through the front window.  Her hair had been rolled into a neat bun at the nape of her neck in the morning and still cooperated with her fastidious attire.  Yoko’s gold dress ensemble had been chosen and worn to honor her Auntie’s visit.  As much as she looked elegant, Yoko’s Auntie Saachi looked even more so.  Nearly eighty-five years old, the woman still wore the most fashionable contemporary clothes, purchased by a personal shopper from Sak’s and Neiman Marcus.  Her features were still stunning, her chiseled face impeccably dusted with powder and rouge.  Her lips, a strawberry floating in a saucer of cream, were pursed with just the right amount of disdain as she considered her grand-niece.

“Are you ready to be a wife?” she asked Kyoto.  The girl sat still, trying to breathe steadily as she held the tree in both hands.  She looked at her Aunt’s thinly veiled arrogance, knowing she wasn’t ready; she wasn’t nearly ready to be a wife.  She might never be enough of a person to be a mate to anybody.  The air grew warmer and the girl cradled the tree close to her chest, suddenly hoping that she might steal away from the tense meeting and retreat to her neighbor’s house.  Mr. Ukiyo would tell her the story of the sweeping bonsai again.  It would be just what she needed to hear; a significant story that would assist her in leaving her home of twenty-eight years.

“I am as ready as I can be, Aunt,” she answered, her voice wavering. 

“Well, don’t expect music,” Auntie Saachi leaned forward and rapped on the glass top of the dining room table twice. 

The table echoed under her Aunt’s voice.  Yoko looked carefully toward her daughter, hoping she would not be silent. 

“I will try not to expect anything, Aunt.”

Auntie Saachi turned to Yoko and raised her eyebrows.  “Have you told her everything?”

Yoko nodded once, seriously, as if the two women held a secret between them.  Kyoto stretched the neck of her rayon sweater, hoping to allow more air in her lungs. It was too much to bear; she decided to make an excuse to leave. 

“I’m sorry, Auntie, but I have an appointment with the wedding coordinator,” she said, standing up and bowing.  Both Auntie Saachi and Yoko looked at her with surprise and incredulity.  Kyoto tried to inhale deeply; the air was warm and stagnant.  She dipped the tip of her finger in the moist soil of the tree. 

“Must you go now?” Yoko asked, a look of horrified worry on her face.

“I must,” Kyoto said, wincing.  “I wish I could stay, but I cannot…”

“You cannot what?” Auntie Saachi looked squarely at her grandniece, eyes narrowed into slivers.  “You cannot tell your young friend that your Great Aunt is here on a special visit to see you?”

Tears welled in Kyoto’s eyes.  “I cannot breathe properly, please forgive me.”  She bowed slightly again and walked toward the front door, one step in front of another.  As soon as she opened the door, she felt the fresh air from the terrace before her.  It was cool and moist with fresh rain.  The sidewalk below the terrace was pooling with gentle mirrors, wet and refreshing.  Kyoto heard the sound of steel wind chimes coming from Mr. Cabot’s first floor apartment; she recognized their tone.  They cooed to her every day as she collected the mail.

After two long breaths, Kyoto refocused.  At her waist was the redwood fence that once was stained bright red.  Now faded, the wood splintered and was soft in places.  The maple tree that was once a sapling, staked in the middle of the court,  now tried to reach the fence with its branches.  At her feet, the familiar grey aggregate pathway meandered along the fence line before curving to a stop in front of Mr. Ukiyo’s door. 

She rang his doorbell, looking over her shoulder for her mother’s face.  At last, the door opened, an old man, stooped and smiling greeted her. “Hello, Kyoto,” he said calmly, as if he expected her.   He looked at the bonsai she held, considering it carefully before turning toward his apartment.  “Bring your tree and come inside.” 

She followed him through the mid-century minimalist living/dining room combination and out to the terrace.  His large, rectangular balcony was surrounded with a clean bamboo fence that always managed to hold out the street noise.  Wrought iron tables were placed in rows, filled with potted plants, placed carefully on green plastic.  Most of the plants were bonsai, like the ones she carried.  Perennials, mostly Japanese anemone, bloomed with pink flowers that mimicked the propellers of a helicopter.  The floor tile was a pale red stretching in all directions, succulents peeking out of the corners.  

“I am sorry I did not ring you first,” Kyoto began, before she sat down at the patio table, two wire chairs on each side of it.  Mr. Ukiyo nodded and reached for the potted tree, hardly paying attention to her apology.

“Where did you get this?”

Kyoto sighed, sticking her fists in the pockets of her sweater.  “Auntie Saachi is here.”

For a moment, Mr. Ukiyo looked up at her.  Through the film of his cataracts, Kyoto could not mistake a correction.  “Why are you here?  Should you not be inside visiting with her?” 

Kyoto kicked her foot against the edge of a tile and shrugged.  Mr. Ukiyo went back to examining the tree. 

“This tree is aching to be loved,” he said, finally.  Kyoto leaned forward slightly and reexamined it. “It is leaning forward, ready for a big change.”  He looked up at the girl and smiled, showing a crooked row of yellowed teeth. 

“Do you think so?”

“No wonder the Auntie has chosen this for your wedding!”  He set the glazed pot down on the table and reached in his pocket for a cigarette.  “She is trying to tell you to be unafraid and lean into this change.”

Kyoto could not imagine her Auntie thinking with the same gardening mind that Mr. Ukiyo had.  “I’m not so sure that her meaning was this…”

“Look for yourself,” Mr. Ukiyo pointed to the base of the tree, surrounded by a film of pale, crushed  pebbles.  “Can you see she chose a tree that had a root system that was well cared for?”

Kyoto leaned forward, examining the small trunk.  “I don’t know why she gave me something like this,” she said, sorrowfully.  “I wish I could just leave the tree alone.  It has its own special beauty…”

Mr. Ukiyo exhaled strongly, a plume of smoke coming out of him.   “A tree that is left to grow in its natural state is a crude thing!” he said.  “Only when it is kept close to a person who can fashion it with loving care that it acquires a  shape and style all its own!”

“So you say,” Kyoto smiled at the gardener’s passion.  She knew from years as his neighbor how seriously he took the art of caring for the potted trees. 

He leaned back in his chair.  This is an auspicious gift, young lady! A young girl who is about to get married must allow her roots to be cut by those who have gone before her,” he said, nodding his head emphatically. 


“You should go and be with your Auntie, and not sit here with me.”

Kyoto leaned back in her chair.  “I was hoping you could tell me the story of the sweeping tree,” she said.  “After that, I will go back to be with her.  Even though I think she hates me.”

“Ha!” The gardener stamped out his cigarette in the foil ashtray between them.  “It’s her who hates you?  I see…”

He inhaled deeply and turned the tree toward her.  “Do you see the bonsai?  There is something beautifully controlled about it.  In this earth, we can’t control many things, but now and then we can harness the perfection of natural objects and still protect their integrity.  This tree , with its gnarled and withered roots and twisting branches tell a tale of  sparseness and suffering.”

He turned the tree toward her.  “Do you see the branches?  They are reaching, longing to be loved and noticed.  The tree tells a tale of sadness and being unfulfilled.”

Kyoto looked sadly at the tree.  “It is melancholy like I am.”

Mr. Ukiyo shook his head.  “There is great beauty in melancholy.  Don’t expect the tree to ever stand up straight.  It is exactly as it should be.”

Kyoto nodded.  “Maybe.”

“Yes! Yes!  It is as it should be.”

Kyoto exhaled and picked up the tree.  “Do I take it with me when I leave my home?”

Mr. Ukiyo smiled.  “It is a nice tree to take to your new home.”  When Kyoto didn’t acknowledge his comment, he added, “Robert s a nice man.”

Kyoto smiled, remembering her fiance.  “He says we should have eloped.”

Mr. Ukiyo laughed and clapped his hands.  “Too easy!  What would your Auntie say?”

The girl made a trace with her thumbnail over the edge of the glazed pot.   When she looked up, Mr. Ukiyo stood up, stretching his arms above his head.   She stood herself, picking up the bonsai and following her neighbor through the apartment and through the door.

“I will see you on Saturday,” he said, bowing slightly.  “Don’t worry about the change.  It will all come naturally.”

Kyoto was going to ask him something, but the man closed the door.  She heard him lock it from the inside, leaving her on the porch, gripping the tree and looking at the pathway.  Then, one foot in front of the other, she took the familiar steps toward her door.  She would return to the table with her mother and great aunt.  They were most likely having tea by now.   

Kuniyoshi, Auspicious Desires of Land and Sea

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