Enticed to leave our apartment this morning by the sun that is finally out after days of gray cold, I’m now sitting in the little Zen garden we recently discovered in the neighborhood near Waseda University. It is near the Kanda-gawa River and is only a fifteen-minute walk from our tiny apartment. It has become my daily destination to escape the city and in which I sit and write. Though I don’t think Zen is the correct description for the garden style because it has rather an overgrown look to it, its secluded and peaceful setting always fills my soul with that much-needed ‘moment of Zen’.
The occasional sounds of a distant car motor or a rare strolling human are the only things to enter the garden to remind me that I am not completely alone in a post-humanity world. I focus on the loud whooshing of water as it empties endlessly from a large angled spout of bamboo set into the middle of an otherwise motionless pool. Besides the rushing of water, the only other constant sounds are the bird songs, which are often strange, and I mostly don’t know from which type of bird they come. I recognize the familiar ‘aw, aw, aw’ of a raven—but there are also miscellaneous tweets and chirps, and a weird squeegee-toy sound of ‘eee, eee, eee’ all competing for my attention. I notice though how the many bird voices don’t tend to speak over each other. Are they all part of a conversation, or am I just unable to discern more than one at a time?
I like to sit on the steps leading down to the pond and watch the large Koi swim lazily by. They have not a care in the world. Who is luckier: them or me? The Koi appear as brief flashes of oranges and whites slashing through the otherwise army-green opaqueness of the pond water as they rise to the surface to show me they’re still there before gliding past. Just a few weeks earlier the water’s surface was a translucent blue, acting as a mirror to the sky and as a window exposing the details of their watery home. Now they slide off to disappear into the shadowy depths of the water like the sharks in a discovery channel episode.
It’s comforting to think that nothing exists here to bring me sadness, or pain. I am feeling calm.
These are the moments I want to remember when Japan is but a distant memory and I am dropped back into the cacophony of Manhattan—where pretty much anything can kill you at any time. Where if I were in a quiet garden like this, I’d be watching my back for something or someone to sneak up on me and cause me pain or, at the vey least, a good fright. My thoughts drift to homesickness for a moment.
I allow my attention to reluctantly leave Manhattan and to concentrate on the pond and its inhabitants in front of me once more. I sit on the second of three stone steps that lead down to a small cement platform that overhangs the water. The Koi swim up to, then slide noiselessly under, and back out the further side of this overhang. Their telltale, albeit brief, flash of oranges and whites are all that give them away.
It’s strange how they seem to know I’m there. I never see them in this area of the water as I wander down the path that wraps around the pond, but as soon as I sit down on the hidden stone steps beyond the overgrown clumps of bamboo they begin appearing around me. As I sit, more and more of them appear.
One of the largest—an orange one with a black saddle across his back—returns again and again to the area near where I am. It remains but an orange blur sliding back and forth under the murky green water, to and fro, under the overhang and back out. Soon an equally large white fish with a slash of orange across its tail joins him. As it swims toward me I notice the black spot across its face that gives it the appearance of a Cyclops monster. Quickly, two more slightly smaller orange and white mottled bodies join these two large monsters, and they all slide together in a conspiratorial group under the rock, but are slow to appear on the other side.
I can see them soundlessly swimming closer. One after another circle around the small rock ledge that is all that separates them from where I perch, disappearing into the murky depths again and again.
Suddenly, a gasping mouth breaks the milky water’s surface and I jump as the cold, soulless eyes of the finned, ominous Cyclops creature meet mine. Where before I saw beauty, I now only see a large gaping, gasping orifice opening and closing as if it’s trying to speak. ‘Watch out,’ it could almost be saying.
They are all rather scary looking—such primitive creatures, I think. I shudder and am glad that they will remain in their element and I in mine. These fish are huge. Some look to be over two-feet long. They are almost as big as the ravens.
I then notice the ravens. While my observations had been drawn to the advancing Koi, there are now several ravens around me. There are two in the cypress tree directly to my left, and one on the leafless bush beside it. As I watch, another two land in the tree across the pond with an ‘aw, aw, aw’ before settling themselves down to sit, turning their heads to the side to fix a cold, motionless stare directly at me.
A small brown bird happily chirping lands momentarily on the small tree on the tiny mound in the middle of the pond which lies no more than a meter from where I sit. He sits for a minute, but then flies off shortly as a large raven takes his place. The raven’s beady, murderous eyes meet mine—and his angry gaze follows me as I nervously move up to the next step, closer to the path.
These birds are huge—even bigger than the Koi in the pond—and possess long, dagger-like beaks that they brandish like weapons to rival any New York mugger.
I hadn’t noticed how many of these birds are in the city until I recently shooed one away during a walk. It hadn’t been in my way, it had just proved too tempting as he perched but ten feet away. And I hate ravens. But ever since that moment, I notice them everywhere. It feels as if they are watching me and calling out my whereabouts to their friends nearby. A mocking (to me) call of ‘aw, aw, aw’ is always answered with a similar response from a tree close to me.
Here in the garden, the bird calls stop and total stillness descends.
Abruptly there is a loud WHOOSH that shatters the peaceful tranquility. I jump. While my full attention had been aimed at the increasing numbers of circling Koi and gathering ravens I hadn’t noticed that the fountain had stopped, and now someone or something has flipped it back on causing it to disgorge an initial massive belch of water which explodes into the still pond and lays waste to its surrounding silence.
I try to calm my now fractured nerves and grab frantically for the peaceful serenity I had achieved earlier when I first entered the garden. It’s such a beautiful place and the sun feels so good on my shoulders.
I look around myself at the water and the foliage that hides me from view. No one who wanders into the garden can see me from where I sit. If no one can see me, does that mean no one can hear me?
I get up to leave. This quiet sanctuary is giving me the creeps and I head out to where lies Tokyo, my true escape.