Bonsai

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. ‘Why are they here?’ I asked irritably, my voice rising slightly. As a little boy, I’d learned to enjoy gardens and forests, but I’d never been interested in individual plants. They were so different from the other plants, the expansive ferns or the palms. Almost all our couple friends had children. Her legs and arms were wrapped around mine like branches of ivy or honeysuckle. Midori, who danced with exceptional sensuality, always scolded me for my stiffness. ‘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. 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. Like my schoolmates had before, my colleagues often joked about my stark temperament, but they’d never taken it too seriously. If she had gone with me that first Saturday afternoon, we could have lived the adventure together. So I looked for him everywhere, but I never found him. ‘I think you’ve learned to look closely enough at plants to realize: these aren’t plants, and they’re not trees, either. 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. ‘How did you know I only come on Sundays?’ I asked. If this man were still there, my wife had the upper hand when it came to who had ownership of the garden. After those first few glorious weeks my sister and I spent playing with him, he ended up abandoned in the kitchen. Going home, I’d leave the garden through the back gate, where the guard would nod politely in recognition. ‘What brings you here on a Saturday, Mr Okada?’ His question unnerved me. Asserting myself as a cactus made her exaggerate all her reactions. Where was Midori, my wife, the woman with whom I’d decided to share my life? For days now you’ve been looking at me like I were an alien!’
She was right, but what explanation could I give her? In reality, this was nothing new. ‘Why did you bring me over to see this?’
‘I’ve been cultivating them for many years. The gardener seemed to carry out his work perfectly. It’s just the dream I had last night.’
‘What dream?’ I blurted out, noting anxiety in my voice. He’d tell me all sorts of things! There they were, forgotten in their dry, coppery earth. Midori and I went home early and gave in to our lust until we fell asleep. At the office, I sat straight and tall, anticipating the moment when the door would open to let in bad news. I didn’t know whom she was talking about, so I asked her. I went inside and took a hot shower. Finally I asked the guard at the booth about him, and he looked as surprised as someone seeing an apparition. ‘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. But Midori didn’t take it the same way. 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. ‘Well, you may not realize it, but plants are worse than animals. 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. 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. That’s how I started going to Aoyama on Saturday afternoons instead of on Sundays. 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. ‘I don’t blame you,’ he said at last. I realized that in some way I blamed him, and I felt the need to tell him so. I stopped worrying about things that, before, had bothered me or made me anxious, like not being able to dance. It was so simple: I was a cactus; they were not. It might seem stupid, but that’s how I spent my Saturdays, and to me, it all felt like a real adventure. A few of them began to stand out to me more than others. He would generally limit himself to comments about whichever plant he was pruning. I didn’t mention my greenhouse visit, either. You’re one of the ones who just come here to walk in the park, right? I decided to take the afternoon off and go to Aoyama. Nevertheless, as soon as Midori left the apartment, I put on my raincoat and set off for Aoyama. ‘He doesn’t come on Sundays,’ he said. The question was inevitable and came swiftly: If I was of the Cactaceae family, what was Midori? ‘Why are you looking at me like that?’ she asked. ‘Shouldn’t you be working, Mr Okada?’ he asked, moving over to a bush he began to prune with both hands. We hadn’t gone for a walk together in that garden since before we married. We’ve never talked about that,’ she explained, looking at me inquisitively, as if trying to decipher my thoughts. I decided not to return to the greenhouse. ‘My wife knows him and asked me to say hello,’ I lied. As the days passed, my place in the cactus family became more and more evident. I thought of the old man, helpless and dying in the hospital, anxious over the fate of his plants. The gardener returned to his work in silence. I was ashamed to say I had come by just to see him, so I evaded his question by changing the subject. 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. One afternoon, however, I suddenly took an interest in the greenhouse. One night my wife couldn’t stand it anymore and got angry:
‘What’s the matter with you? When Midori tried to stretch her branches around my body, I could only reject her. ‘What did you do to your hair?’
‘The same thing as always,’ she said, annoyed. When they asked us what we did to look so happy, we’d always say the secret was not having them. Let’s face it: it’s endless blackmail. I had to try to sleep. I had a hard time waking up that morning and took a longer shower than usual. Bonsai
Guadalupe Nettel
Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine
‘Bonsai have always prompted a kind of fear in me, or at least a puzzling discomfort.’

          Our bodies are like bonsai trees. The next Sunday, I couldn’t resist heading straight to the greenhouse, but I saw no one. 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. 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. The cacti were the outsiders of the greenhouse; that, along with their consequential defensiveness, was their only shared trait. 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. ‘You have to really know plants to love them, and you also have to know them to hate them.’
‘Hate them?’ I asked. One night, after a nightmare I couldn’t remember, I was startled awake. 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. 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). ‘It is what it is,’ I could now respond cynically. No, she had to be something else, something much gentler but also not completely incompatible. 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. 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. When it seemed like she’d never tire of walking around, she stopped suddenly, as if she’d remembered something. One day, for instance, I noticed that the gardener never paid any attention to the cacti. I was very hungry and didn’t want to run the risk of delaying dinner with an absurd argument. Every once in a while, in an elevator or some hallway, I just might recognize another cactus. He must have wondered about my domestic situation, since he’d never seen me with anyone else. I went over to their planter and observed them for a few minutes. As soon as I reached the greenhouse, I started looking for a climbing vine to confirm my discovery. ‘Yes, don’t worry. 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. ‘Cacti are another thing entirely. 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. 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. It reminded me a little of the atmosphere established between two people who are used to sharing an office. 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. When I grew tired, I’d say goodbye and leave the greenhouse for the café across the way. 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. ‘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. I don’t even remember how he disappeared from the house. ‘Back then, I used to come to this park as often as you do,’ she said, as if trying to recover a certain authority. As I searched, I almost tripped over the gardener, who was scratching at the earth in a potted plant like a kitten. As I said, the plants were beginning to seem more interesting, or at least not as boring as before. I felt liberated. Midori took a deep breath. We had decided not to go out of town, and in the air there was a Sunday kind of atmosphere. It was a year before I was able to go back to the garden. Even so, I didn’t object. .’ I started to speak. 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. ‘To be honest, they’ve never interested me,’ I replied. The moon was waning, and the sight of it made me profoundly sad. ‘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. Maybe that’s why I had the urge to take a walk among the trees. Since I’d been there on Saturday afternoon, I didn’t go back to Aoyama. In the greenhouse, all the plants looked perfectly tended and shiny. It wasn’t a lack of friendliness, just simply being consistent with my nature. ‘I dreamed we had a baby, a beautiful little baby boy. When I had nothing to say, I didn’t speak. I lay there thinking about Midori for several minutes, about her quiet way of infiltrating any space and taking possession of my life. But this pleasure wasn’t going to last long, either. They must have felt lonely in that big greenhouse, with no chance of communicating even among one another. 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. And that’s how I knew that my wife was a climbing vine, soft and shiny. Saturday I went to Aoyama, but the old man wasn’t in the greenhouse. 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. 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. ‘Why do you want to see him?’ In his face, I thought I noticed some concern. In fact, my colleagues remarked that lately I seemed ‘in good shape,’ even ‘more natural.’
There were also some changes at home. It’s true that Midori was also fragile, but in another way; she wasn’t on the defense, brandishing spines in every direction. I got up from bed and went out onto the balcony to smoke a cigarette. It’s not that I had become a botany fanatic, but suddenly they’d taken on a kind of personality. On Monday, as I stared attentively at the rug in my office, I found myself thinking about the gardener. With my feet sinking slightly into the wet ground, I watched her head for the door without moving from my spot. 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. ‘We’ll talk tonight. 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. ‘A gardener knows all the worms in his territory, even the ones who only show up every once in a while.’
I smiled. Since that day when the gardener wasn’t there to meet me, I hadn’t returned to take walks in that park. Are you not interested in animals, either?’
I recalled a dog I had owned in high school. 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. That didn’t mean I loved her less; on the contrary, the more I became myself, the better I could relate to the world. I won’t deny that the idea of Midori joining me on Sundays made me feel slightly uneasy. Sometimes I’d read the newspaper a second time or watch a game on TV. 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. ‘The strength of a plant like that,’ he said, ‘is rooted in its unwavering willpower. And I no longer walked around among the trees or sat down to read on a bench. A few months later, Midori and I separated. I went over to the booth and asked the guard about the old man. There seemed to be no movement in them, aside from that stiff and somewhat defensive attitude. What could have happened to the old man? That’s how, almost without realizing, I let a whole month go by and still hadn’t broached the subject with Midori. 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. My classmates all said he gave them nervous stomachs, like a bad omen. 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. Not one
        little innocent leaf can grow freely, without
    being viciously suppressed, so narrow is
our ideal of appearance. 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. Take a good look, Mr Okada,’ he insisted while I examined the miniature bark as if some answer were hidden within. I shivered. For a moment, I thought he already knew everything. There was the café, the rectangular fountains, the greenhouse, and also the rows of pines and cherry trees. Now, however, everything seemed like a logical consequence of my condition. ‘Of course!’ she said, her eyes wide. I imagined it to be an oppressive place, maddening like Tsukiji Market, though smaller and filled with unknown plants that had unpronounceable names. Meanwhile, I held the umbrella that covered us both. But I was fond of him, and he never did anything to upset me.’
‘They really said that?’ I asked, genuinely interested. 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. Although his joke seemed a little daring, I felt no trace of the nervous stomach Midori had mentioned. ‘This one is a special case. ‘The truth is.. ‘I should have known. – Khyentse Norbu
 
After I got married, I started taking walks in the Aoyama Botanical Garden every Sunday afternoon. According to my wife, I have too much hair to be Japanese. Even I didn’t know what to think. They’re capable of climbing from the ground to the top of a tower. She was there – there was no doubt about it – but why couldn’t I see her the way I had before? 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). Why do you think they grow so fast?’
‘And cacti?’ I asked. 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. If you don’t take care of them, they die. I remember her under the umbrella, waving her hands about as she spoke of her teenage years in Aoyama. Midori really likes the rain and was in high spirits that day. The rest of the afternoon in the Aoyama garden went by as peacefully as it began. Some erect like sentinels, others curled up at ground level, in the guarded stance of a hedgehog. 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. The many tiny thorns on their greenish skin made me think of my own face when I went more than two days without shaving. Every time the phone rang, I felt a new spine push through my skin. 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. 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. I waited in the café to see if he’d suddenly show up, but after a while I realized it was useless. I approached slowly and respectfully. I also thought about how betrayed and unhappy a vine would feel if unable to reproduce. Most of all, I remembered the longevity of the cactus: eighty years or more in dry, coppery earth. The more I thought about it, the further away sleep felt. That’s why she likes rain so much, I thought, while I can’t stand it. 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. This was true: her hair was the same as ever, and so were her nails. ‘You’re right, it’s the same,’ I said to end the discussion. All through breakfast, my wife was silent. 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. Nothing about them reminded me of her. 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. 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. The bonsai was a climbing vine. Trees are the most expansive beings on earth, a bonsai, on the other hand, is a contraction. And as I said this, I realized we were whispering, like two people sharing a secret. Bonsai have always prompted a kind of fear in me, or at least a puzzling discomfort. How could I know for sure? The more I looked at them, the more I understood them. Also, as time passed, he spoke to me less and less. But hadn’t we always been like that? Midori was busy with some galley proofs she had to send to print that same night, so, fortunately, we didn’t discuss reproduction. It can live to be eighty years old and reproduces every twenty. I thought of my life with a climbing vine and how quickly it came to an end. The old man must have noticed and said:
‘I feel the same way. I promise.’
Midori and I had been married for eight years. Apparently, they were used to the old man disappearing for a few days. In short, they were no longer objects, but living beings. I admit that the building wasn’t exactly enticing: it looked more like a chicken coop or storehouse than an enclosed garden. Midori’s body was practically on top of mine, deeply asleep and breathing calmly. Plant one and you’ll see. ‘Plants are living beings, Mr Okada, and your relationship with them is like a relationship with any living being. It was the first time I’d heard the gardener’s name. The container held a miniature reproduction of the Aoyama garden. ‘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. I asked the guard where he was, but he didn’t have any explanation. The whole way, I was thinking about the climbing vine and the cactus. ‘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. 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. If I’d been born a plant, I admitted to myself, I could only have belonged to that species. She’d just returned from the salon. Why keep it a secret? ‘Like what?’ I answered. It was as if I were stealing something from her, something I refused give back. A cactus would suffer in a rainy climate like this, but a vine would be happy there. Only I wasn’t working with the gardener, just sitting near him, lighting one cigarette after another as I watched him. 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. ‘Mr Murakami is in the hospital; he’s very ill,’ the guard explained, lowering his eyes respectfully. ‘Are you feeling OK?’ I asked the question affectionately but avoided touching her. Unlike my wife, I hated the rain.  

‘Bonsai’ is excerpted from Bezoar and Other Unsettling Stories, published throughout the English-speaking world by Seven Stories Press. Luckily, I remembered my schedule for the next day: I had an important meeting at 9 a.m. And, as often happens, I had to do a kind of balancing act to preserve the secrecy. ‘Are they real?’ I asked, surprised. 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. On the contrary, the old man seemed pleasant, and I felt like spending some time with him. ‘And those plants,’ I asked, feeling even more uneasy, ‘do they have a special breeding period?’
The old man took some time before answering. When I got home, Midori was there. ‘There was a gardener here who I used to sit and talk with. Then we’d have no choice but to greet each other, avoiding each other’s eyes. We’d be sharing a story now, not living with this stupid point of view between us like soundproof glass. Besides, what could I say – that today she looked like a replica of herself? Surprisingly, no one took it badly. The almost-full moon streamed through the shoji, painting the room a bluish light. ‘I really would have liked to see the old man again,’ she exclaimed. I spent Saturday afternoon examining every species in the greenhouse but didn’t succeed in finding the one that resembled Midori. Little by little, I became familiar with his work, but also with the plants. 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. Every night that week was the same, and a profound disquiet was growing in me. When he saw me, the old man lifted his head and cast me a watery look. Since I didn’t have an umbrella, my clothes were dripping when I arrived. But the greenhouse was closed, and Midori was as disappointed as she had been enthusiastic before. Image © Anna Hesser ‘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. When he saw me arrive, the old man didn’t look surprised anymore, but instead welcomed me with a smile of recognition. I loved Midori, but allowing her to encroach on me was contrary to my nature. She seemed upset about something. I hadn’t seen any for a long time, and coming across so many of them at once made me feel almost physically unwell. She was always asking me where I’d spent the afternoon, and as if that weren’t enough, her libido became very persistent. Though I went to the park every Sunday, it was years before I entered the greenhouse. 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. ‘It depends, some of them do it every month, others every week. I remember it was raining that Saturday, a dirty rain like melted hail. On Saturdays, Midori usually spent the whole afternoon at the salon. I remember it was the Thursday of a long weekend. Don’t be fooled, Mr Okada: plants are a nuisance.’
I looked around. ‘The greenhouse!’ And she slipped out from beneath the umbrella and ran off toward the ancient building. I, on the other hand, rarely knew what to do with myself at those times. ‘Some of us have a sense of duty, though not everyone knows what that is. I looked at my watch in alarm: I was fifteen minutes late. I felt alone in the world, trapped in a perspective I’d never escape. 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. 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. I picked up my book and a large umbrella and got ready to leave the apartment. ‘Well, look who it is!’ the old man exclaimed. Midori was there in the room, but she had turned into a climbing vine, just as I had turned into a cactus. Nobody else liked to talk to him. We laughed and started talking about something else. ‘Do you like plants, Mr Okada?’ he asked in a serious voice. ‘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. On rainy days, I’d go to the café – almost always empty at that time – and settle down by a window to read. It was strange that Midori had brought this up just after I’d discovered her true identity. He seemed surprised to see me. Then we watched TV, and even though Midori made several attempts, that night we didn’t give in to lust. The woman I had chosen to share my life with was clearly no cactus. 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. And so I stayed in the greenhouse, watching him work.