PRESCRIPT: This is a short story, the idea for which occurred to me – seemingly out of the blue – almost in its entirety earlier this week. In terms of total writing time, it only took a few hours spread over a couple of days. For those unfamiliar with the title, “kintsukuroi” is the Japanese art of mending broken pots and bowls, based on the philosophy that they are all the more beautiful for having been broken.
Kintsikuroi: a short story by Brendan Byrne. © Brendan Byrne 2017. All rights reserved.
He did not know where the idea came from, or when it first occurred to him. He just looked out the window one day and thought: that space needs a bonsai garden.
To be sure, he knew nothing about how to grow or care for bonsai. But it was a dismal patch of ground, dusty and bare in parts, choked by weeds in others. And the rubber plant that was the only substantial tree growing on the plot looked sad and depressed. Yet he also saw a potential there: if properly cared for, the rubber plant could thrive and spread its fronds, creating a shelter under which small plants could grow.
He dithered. There were a thousand excuses he could fall back on to do nothing. His work kept him busy. His family demanded his attention. He simply couldn’t be bothered.
Yet day after day, the sorry patch of ground kept reminding him. He would find himself staring out the window, thinking about possibilities. Maybe some small white pebbles. Perhaps a garden ornament of some description. He would glance up at the overhanging eaves and imagine some chimes hanging down from a hook on the underside. And big chimes, too: fat large round bass tubes, deep and resonant.
He put it off. It was Summer, and too hot. The little reading he had done told him bonsai did not thrive well in intense heat or direct sun. So summer definitely wasn’t the time to plant a bonsai garden.
The season rolled by, and it was Autumn. Once again, he found his heart strangely moved by the vibrant colours of the oaks and elms and Japanese maples. But despite the tranquil days, the bright blue sky and brilliant sun, the air was cold, the morning and evening frosts bitter and hard. Now was not the time to plant a bonsai garden.
In due course it was Winter. The wind howled off the Southern Ocean, battering the city with storms and driving rain. Even if he wanted to, the weather made the idea of planting a bonsai garden absurd. He tucked the idea away in the top drawer of his desk and forgot about it.
But when Spring arrived, it tugged at his attention again. This time, he could find no excuse in the weather, in the demands of work and family, in the drag factor of his own lassitude. Yet, still he made no move to plant the bonsai garden. He simply said to himself: not now, not yet.
Finally, on a sultry, overcast day in Summer, he decided he would plant the garden. It had been an unusually humid and wet season, and he had spent the days languishing in front of the air-conditioner, vainly trying to stay cool. But on this day, as he sweated and boiled, something inside him announced that the time had come.
He drove to the local nursery, purchased six bonsai plants and three bags of crushed white gravel. On his way to the cashier, a small white garden ornament – a stone pagoda – caught his eye. He decided it would be a perfect accompaniment for the garden. He returned home, carried the plants and gravel and ornament to the barren plot, then got to work. First, he trimmed away the dead branches on the rubber plant, reducing what had once been a shabby mess to an ordered arrangement of fronds. Next, he pulled out the weeds and cleared the ground of its conglomeration of dead leaves and twigs.
His knees were sore and his back ached; sweat dripped into his eyes, at once stinging and blinding him. But he persisted. Having cleared away the detritus, he carefully placed the bonsai plants in what he hoped was an elegant pattern around the rubber plant. Then he cut open the bags of crushed gravel and poured their contents over the ground, spreading the small white pebbles around the bonsai and the base of the rubber plant. By this stage, his clothes were soaked with perspiration, and he was breathing heavily.
But he did not stop now; his task was almost completed. Noticing a patch where there were neither bonsai plants nor the overarching reach of the rubber plant’s fronds, he placed the small white stone pagoda and surveyed the result. Perfect. It balanced the whole arrangement nicely.
He took an old watering can he’d found in the garden shed, filled it with water, and carefully watered the bonsai and the rubber plant. Then he sat back, resting against the cool stone steps leading down from the back door, and studied his creation.
He felt a small, absurd sense of delight. Despite all his procrastinating and delays, that task was finished at last.
He had planted the bonsai garden.
For a long time afterwards, he tended the garden diligently. On hot days he watered the garden twice, once in the morning, once in the evening. On days when rain fell, he only watered it in the morning. Every weekend, he removed any weeds that happened to poke up between the small white pebbles. He gathered up fallen leaves and twigs.
The bonsai garden gave him a feeling of joy and delight. Perhaps it was its simplicity, the bald contrast between the bright white pebbles and the darker green of the bonsai foliage. Or perhaps it was the knowledge that he himself had created it, converting a sterile patch of ground into a small space of beautiful perfection.
His wife and children were amused by what they regarded as his “pastime”. His friends found it astounding that he should devote himself so whole-heartedly to this project. It was, afterall, just a collection of bonsai plants in pots, arranged around an undistinguished rubber plant. They smiled indulgently as they discussed what they all regarded as his charming eccentricity.
But as the hot days of Summer gave way to the chill brightness of Autumn; and as this in turn deepened into the bleak gloom of Winter, doubt began to gnaw away at his happiness. One of the bonsai – which to him looked like a kind of miniature pine tree – did not seem to thrive, no matter how careful his ministrations.
He tried moving it to various positions in the garden, to see if more or less shade would help it recover. He tried giving it more, then less, water than the other plants. He tried special fertilisers and nutrient feeds. Nothing seemed to work. One by one, the plant’s needles turned brittle and brown. It was as though some canker was working its way through the bonsai’s system, killing it before his very eyes.
By mid-Winter, all the needles had turned a lifeless brown. To his surprise, none had fallen off; they just stuck out from the tiny trunk, like a mocking caricature of what it ought to have been.
After a while, he stopped tending the garden so diligently. It was Winter, he told himself, and raining. The plants didn’t need watering so much. Besides, it was far too cold to do any weeding. It was just a garden, afterall. It could attend to himself.
He knew he was in mourning, grieving for the little pine plant that had died despite his best efforts. He chided himself for such foolishness, told himself to grow up. Plants are living things, afterall; like people, they die. For all he knew, this one had been diseased, wracked by some plant-rot no amount of effort could have stemmed.
A kind of fog seemed to settle over his mind and heart. His wife noticed it, and enquired after his well-being. I’m alright, was his standard reply. Just tired.
His friends and work colleagues noticed a change in his attitude: a growing apathy and disengagement. He would smile wanly in reply to their concerns, reassure them that all he required was a holiday.
But he knew in his heart of hearts that he was neither tired nor in need of time away. He would stare glumly out the window at the bonsai garden, note its increasingly dilapidated state. Weeds grew and thrived, creeping over the small white pebbles. Tattered spider webs hung from the branches of the rubber plant. Leaves and twigs piled up against the pots.
He made a few desultory attempts to rescue the garden from its tumbledown condition. But he would only be at the task a few minutes, half-heartedly plucking at weeds and twigs, before the sight of the dead miniature pine tree robbed him of what little initiative he possessed. Angrily, he resolved to get rid of it, to throw out this reminder of his failure. But in the end he just stared at the shrivelled brown plant, seized once again by a strange despair seemingly out of all proportion to the situation.
In the end, he just gave up, resigned himself to the indifference flooding his thoughts and feelings. Consigned the bonsai garden to its fate.
That Spring, something terrible happened: his best friend was killed in a motor vehicle accident.
It happened late at night. A drunk driver, travelling in the opposite direction, lost control of their vehicle and veered onto the friend’s side of the road, causing a head-on collision. The friend and the drunk driver were killed instantly.
He received a phone call from his friend’s widow. Through broken sobs and the heart-wrench of her own despair, she told him the details. He and his wife rushed to his friend’s house to console her; but it was too late. There was nothing anyone could do.
His friend was dead.
He felt like he’d received a blow across the side of his head, the kind of buffet he’d received from his father as a child when he’d been especially naughty. His father had rarely raised a hand to him, reserving corporal punishment only for the most extreme occasions. But when he had, it had left an indelible impression.
His father’s hands felt like iron, the legacy of decades of hard manual labour. On those rare occasions when his father had smacked him, he’d been left with a sensation of ringing numbness, as though someone had stuffed his head full of cotton wool and shoved the world behind a membrane, from which it could only be dimly perceived and felt and heard. At those times, the world had taken on an unreal quality, as though he couldn’t be quite sure that either it or he existed.
The loss of his best friend retrieved that memory from his childhood and clamped it down hard. He seemed to stagger through the days that followed, at a loss about how to respond.
He had lost loved ones before now. A suicide. An overdose. An accidental death while travelling overseas. His father had died some years beforehand, consumed by cancer. All those losses had touched him deeply. But nothing like this. This was his best friend.
They had grown up as children. Met in primary school, and formed a fast bond that had endured over the years. Other friends had come and gone; but this friendship survived everything that the passage of time and the inevitable changes in circumstances could throw at it. Perhaps it was because they were both only children, united by a strange connection which recognised in each other the deep loneliness they shared, the sense of remove which growing up on your own engendered. He had always felt that apartness, that slight reserve which cut him off from other people. But not with his best friend. Because his friend understood, knew without needing to ask or have it explained. They were brothers in a true sense, because their inner lives were exactly the same.
And now his brother was gone.
The funeral service only added to his trauma. At the very beginning, the celebrant declared that this was not an occasion for mourning or grief, but a celebration. Funny stories about his friend followed. A picture show formed the core of the service, his friend’s life depicted in frozen moments of time. The congregation were expected to laugh, to share the tales of good times and amusing exploits.
Through streams of tears, he laughed along with the rest.
In the weeks that followed, he found himself consumed by a restless grief that allowed no rest or repose. It followed him into his dreams, throwing images of past times which he and his friend had shared, before distorting them into a nightmarish horror.
He would wake up scarcely able to breathe. Next to him, his wife slept on, her breathing light and undisturbed. Perhaps they occupied different dimensions. Her quietude seemed unreal to him, unearthly, inhuman. Why should she and the rest of the world slumber so, when he had to endure this torment?
He couldn’t sit and watch television. He couldn’t sit at the dining room table and read his favourite novels. He couldn’t listen to the music he had downloaded on his computer. He couldn’t watch the videos he had captured off the internet.
Nowhere was safe for him. Nowhere afforded him a place to rest. Nowhere could he find a haven of stillness and peace.
One day, some weeks after his best friend’s death, he found himself kneeling in front of the bonsai garden. He had no memory of deciding to do so. He could not quite realise or recall why or how he had ended up here. There was no rationale to explain his presence before the bonsai he had planted. He was just here.
The garden was in a sorry state. The rubber plant had reverted to a wild confusion of dead and living fronds, spread in all directions. Weeds and the debris of Winter cluttered the ground. The bonsai themselves looked derelict and withered.
Listlessly, he began to pull weeds and gather up the fallen twigs and leaves. He made no conscious decision to do so; it seemed almost as though he were operating on automatic pilot. He felt a sense of deep dissociation: he wasn’t really here, those weren’t his hands reaching out to pull up weeds or clear the clutter from around the bonsai pots.
It was all just a dream, just another disconnected sequence to which he bore no relation.
And then he saw the dead miniature pine tree. For a moment, his conscious mind failed to register what his eyes were seeing. It looked just as dead as the last time he had seen it, the needles brown and withered. Absurdly, they clung to the trunk as though they hadn’t realised that, being dead, they were meant to fall. It looked just as dispiriting as it had before.
Except for one needle right at the top. He could not tell if it was one of the original needles, or was new. Slowly, however, through the cloying numbness of his grief, one single fact registered.
The needle was green.
Suddenly, he felt a great upsurge of emotion. It rushed up in his throat like a rising tide of vomit, and burst from his mouth in a great, gorging explosion of grief. The sound that emerged from him resembled an animal’s howl of rage and pain; a primeval, guttural explosion that dragged itself up from deep within his gut. All of a sudden he felt exhausted, wrung out, stripped clean of every single feeling he had ever possessed. There was only the endless, aching sorrow, the sense of loss that he knew he would never be able to replace.
Uncontrollably, in deep, wracking sobs, face in his hands, he wept over the single green needle on the dead miniature pine tree.
He healed only slowly, aware that his recovery could never truly be complete. There was no such thing as closure. You had to carry your sorrows because they were part of your self. They did not detract from your totality but added to it. They were a burden but also a necessity. Incompletion came, not with what one lost through death or departure, but by what one failed to recognise as truly one’s own. He had loved his friend and now his friend was dead. Beyond the bald, stark reality of those facts lay the true depth of his humanity.
Spring unfolded into Summer, the days long and hot. He tended the garden diligently, watering the plants and keeping the white pebbles clear of weeds and other detritus. More green needles appeared on the miniature pine tree. He could never tell if they were new shoots, or old dead needles that had somehow regenerated.
Not all the brown needles turned green. He took that to be a totem: not only were things not perfect, they were not meant to be perfect. It was only in the seams and cracks and broken places that true beauty resided.
The bonsai garden no longer gave him the same pleasure as before. That pleasure had been the pride of creation, of making something beautiful. But that beauty had been sterile, pristine. Now his heart glowed with the small intensity of tending something that lived, something that was flawed and which could never meet his expectations – but which also had no need to do so.
Summer flowed into Autumn. The oaks and elms and Japanese maples began to glow with their last, dying intensity. One day, he knelt before the miniature pine tree and knew the deep trough of his grief had passed. There would always be sorrow, but alongside the heartache and sense of absence there would now travel something new: hope. He had no idea how or when or whether this hope might be realised; only that it was now an indelible part of his true self, part of his being he must never forget.
He picked a red-gold leaf off the white pebbles. Felt its rough, brittle texture. It felt like a gift. For the first time since his best friend’s death, he smiled with a smile that reached his eyes. And for a long time afterwards, he knelt there, smiling in the benevolent presence of his imperfect, beautiful bonsai garden.