Fiction · 12/30/2009

The Plantain

The silk merchant slid open the side panel on his palanquin. Has it come yet?

Ohasu nodded, shivering from the cold, and she fell in at the rear of the file of attendants as the silk merchant was carried up the snow-covered hill to the gate.

Kichiji had purchased this cottage for Old Master Basho, judging it large enough for linked poetry sessions but not so large as to jeopardize the old man’s reputation for austerity; and he had outfitted it with all the cushions and quilts and crockery and trays required for domestic life. The silk merchant was a large and fleshy man, much troubled by chilblains in winter; and he waited for his chock-bearer to prepare an easy place for him to dismount.

So there it is, said the silk merchant; and Ohasu nodded, her single gaudy robe and satin cloak providing no protection against the icy day.

I said, there it is.

Yes! said Ohasu quickly. That is indeed it.

A large plantain rested on a bullock dray. Its fronds were bundled up and tied with rice-straw ropes, and its root-ball was wound around and around with another rope and decorated with a few celebratory sprigs of fern fronds and strips of white blessing paper cunningly folded. The bullock stood with his head down, his breath issuing from wet black nostrils in vaporous bursts that seemed incongruous for such a massive and torpid beast.

It seems like a good one, said Ohasu, but the silk merchant made no reply.

The gardeners had scraped away the snow just inside the front gate and built a bonfire to cover an area slightly wider than they would need. The head gardener told the silk merchant that although his request was peculiar, it did provide an opportunity to instruct apprentices in the method of setting large plants in winter. You can tell them in words. But they are useless until they’ve done it with their own hands.

Kichiji smiled benignly but said nothing.

The gardeners had a reed-mat to sit on; but the afternoon was too cold so they stood beside the fire flapping their arms and stomping their feet as they waited for the frozen earth to loosen.

Is the old man not here?

He’s still inside, said Ohasu. She was a scrawny little pleasure provider prone to moments of melancholy and so not sought after by the spendthrifts and gallants and easy-way boys whose lurid exploits set the pace in the New Nightless City of Yoshiwara. Ohasu was, however, clever with words, and this made her a suitable choice for the less demanding social requirements of haikai poets. He asked me to watch for you, she said, and stuffed her hands more deeply into her sleeves.

The gardeners had brought iron thrust-bars for cracking open the frozen soil, and a pair of heavy adzes with flat steel blades. They studied the low white sky like discomfort connoisseurs and speculated on how long the snow would hold off. The gardeners had a cask of liquid manure mixed with leaf mold, and beside it was a smaller cask of rice wine, and much of the humor of their banter involved variations on the dismay they would feel should one container be mistaken for the other.

Old Master Basho spotted the silk merchant and came outside. He was draped with an additional padded robe and wore a scholar’s cap on his bald skull. It’s good of you to come, said the old poet. Kichiji had also funded the recent publication of a compendium of the group’s linked poetry that included one of his own modest efforts, albeit in a form heavily rewritten by the Old Master. And on such a frigid day. The little pleasure provider stood between the two men, looking from one to the other, her teeth chattering in confirmation of the cold.

The gardeners had put together a smaller fire near the ground mat and arranged rocks beside it to support their wine kettle. It takes the chill off, said the head gardener. His apprentices prepared the wine and warmed the drinking cups too. Working in the cold season requires preparations.

Across the river, Edo lay blanketed under the fresh snowfall, pale umbilicals of smoke from ten thousand kitchen fires rising straight up into the white sky that lowered over the city like an immense medusa; and in the far distance glowed the massive cone of Mount Fuji, a slender banner of cloud trailing away from the peak.

They poured out the wine when it was ready, and the Old Master and Kichiji each accepted a cup.

With all respect, said the head gardener, I was surprised to hear that such a plant as this had been requested. You would have been better off with a plum there or a peach. The climate’s too cold for a plantain. It won’t fruit. And the winds off the river will tear the leaves.

Our teacher had a plantain near the gate of his previous cottage, said Kichiji. It is how our linked poetry group is known.

That may be so. The head gardener sipped at his wine, pleased with the opportunity to display his expertise. Nevertheless, you’ll get no shade, the wood’s useless, and the flowers are just little green knots. No one will even notice them.

Probably the poets will, said Ohasu.

But couldn’t you just as well be known as the peach tree group? That way you’d get a good name plus fruit in summer.

Once the fire had died away, the gardeners began cracking down through the soil, prying up frozen clods and breaking them apart until they had reached below the frost line and could dig more freely. They allowed ash from the fire to mix in with the loose dirt at the bottom of the hole then poured in a layer of the compost mixture.

Don’t put the wine in! one cautioned, and the others all laughed heartily.

+

The first snowfall, what happiness to be in my own house.

+

Kichiji joined Old Master Basho beside his brazier. Ohasu placed a water basin on the iron trivet and heated a flask of rice wine. There were tidbits in a stacking-box in the pantry, and she arranged the best ones nicely on a platter. She had thought they might attempt a three-poet winter sequence together and had sat up the night before preparing a few ideas of her own, but neither man mentioned such an undertaking and she couldn’t suggest it herself.

The silk merchant and the old poet talked of various things, the warmth and the wine creating a pleasant mood; and in a burst of enthusiasm that seemed spontaneous but wasn’t, the silk merchant recommended that the Old Master keep Ohasu permanently.

The Old Master’s cheeks were pink and his small eyes were closed to slits. She has her own life in the pleasure quarters.

No kind of life at all, said Kichiji. She would be more useful here. He finished his cup and Ohasu poured it full for him then turned with the flask to wait for the Old Master to finish his.

This cottage is very small.

She is small herself, declared Kichiji cheerfully. Just look at her.

Neither man did.

That two-mat room off the scullery could be cleaned out. Her bedding would fit in the cubby there, and her robes could be hung from hooks embedded in the wall. Places could be found for her decorations and cosmetics and whatever other little things she has.

The old haikai poet held up his cup to be refilled. What he wanted was to make statements of his own that could be placed beside those made by the poets of the past and deserve to be there with them. He went on long journeys that were like pilgrimages to him, wandering through the forests and hills of remote provinces in order to perfect his manner by testing himself against the austerities of foot travel. He visited places where his precursors had gone and tried to see the world as they’d seen it; but his celebrity preceded him wherever he went, and access to men of the past became buried beneath the importuning of those living in the present. Rustic magnates would insist on entertaining him for as long as he could be persuaded to stay. They would invite fellow aesthetes; and after a sequence had been completed and each participant written out his own fair copy for the glory of his name and the edification of his heirs, they would fill the afternoons and evenings with feasting and singing so that the holy silence of the mountains rang loudly with their praise of it.

We worry that you’re too lonely, the silk merchant said. The teahouse that holds her contract is in my debt. Reaching an agreement would be a simple matter.

We’re all alone, said Old Master Basho, but he agreed to consider taking possession of Ohasu; and after the silk merchant and the little pleasure provider had finally departed, he went outside again to view his new acquisition.

The plantain’s long fronds shone gray-green in the gathering twilight. Snow crystals had collected already in central rosette of the plant; and as he stood with it, bits of ice arrived skittering down the broad fleshy leaves with a sound like mice scampering across a dry ceiling. The sour tang of liquid manure rising coldly to his nostrils was also part of it for him, of what he wished from it; and the old poet waited with the plant then walked out through his brushwood gate and stood looking down the empty road. No traffic in either direction. He would wait for a couple of days before refusing the silk merchant’s offer.

+

On an old gilt screen, the image of an ancient pine: winter seclusion.

+

Ohasu spent that night with a visitor who had not requested her. He was a rice broker from Sakai City come to Edo to track down his son, who had absconded after looting the family strongbox. The rice broker did not want entertainment. But he also didn’t want to be alone, and he purchased a night at the House of the Lesser Tada on the understanding it would be shared but without stipulating with whom.

Ohasu poured his wine and served his food and ate and drank with him. The rice broker didn’t want to talk about his son’s betrayal, and he didn’t want to talk about anything else; but he also didn’t want to just sit there and brood so Ohasu chatted away, avoiding the usual pleasure-quarters gossip about heroic tales of concupiscent audacity for fear that his son’s motives might be linked to such adventures; and as the rice broker showed no interest in finger games or smutty tunes or comic dances, she soon exhausted familiar topics and blurted out that he might be her last visitor.

So you would leave this life willingly? And did you also find it easy to abandon your parents’ home and come here?

She said she might have an opportunity to become the housekeeper for a famous haikai poet. It was a world of words that she had long wished to –

Not what I asked, declared the rice broker harshly.

I did leave my home. And it was not easy for me. Ohasu told him she had been lonely as a child because her family was even poorer than the others in their village, and it was poverty that had resulted in her being sold to the pleasure quarters. She was small for her age, and she had been mocked in her village because of her fondness for insects. Beetles, butterflies, crickets, any little being that crawled or fluttered had pleased her. Even the giant stag beetles village boys collected and pitted against each other in bug sumo bouts found favor in her eyes; and she would keep her own specimens in cages formed from bamboo twigs, bringing them out when no one else was around for the pleasure of watching as they went about their affairs.

She told him how she had loved the sound of bell crickets in autumn, how she had followed butterflies in spring and cicadas in summer, and how she had searched for winter spiders clinging to life under the frozen eaves of their poor dwelling. But what I loved best were caterpillars, the fuzzy green ones with tufts of yellow and white bristles on their backs. She told him how she used to sit near the bushes her favorites chose for their cocoons and watch them spinning the protection they created for themselves.

The rice broker drank and held his cup out to be filled.

Ohasu told him that her family was too poor to afford hina dolls for the girls’ festival so she had made her own out of flowers and twigs and bits of moss, and set them up on a rock shelf in a forest dell. She had invited insect guests to view her dolls, selecting beetles or mantises that could be compelled to respond in an orderly manner and marching them past her display using twigs to guide them.

The rice broker from Sakai sat listening to Ohasu’s chatter without comment. The wine was making him increasingly morose, for his son’s betrayal felt like the stab of a sneak assassin.

Ohasu poured his wine cup full then filled her own. It was rude of me to go on and on about myself, she said, I apologize.

The rice broker nodded then emptied his cup. Who are you to become a housekeeper for a poet? he demanded; and when Ohasu started to explain her hopes again, he leaned forward and slapped her sharply across the face, not so hard as to leave a mark but hard enough to cause pain. Such selfishness, he muttered, and held out his wine cup to be refilled.

+++

Notes:
“The first snowfall, what happiness to be in my own house.” The author’s translation of Basho’s Hatsuyuki ya saiwai an ni makariaru. (1686)
“On a gold screen, the image of an ancient pine: winter seclusion.” The author’s translation of Basho’s Kinby no matsu no furusa yo fuyugomori. (1694)

John Givens was born in Northern California, got his BA in English literature at the California State University Fresno and his MFA in creative writing at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, University of Iowa, where he was a Teaching/Writing Fellow. He was a U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea for two years; he studied language and art in Kyoto for four years; and he worked as a writer & editor in Tokyo for eight years. For fifteen years, Givens was a creative director and branding consultant for advertising agencies in New York then San Francisco. He has published three novels in the US: Sons of the Pioneers, A Friend in the Police, and Living Alone; short stories have appeared in various journals. His non-fiction publications include A Guide to Dublin Bay: Mirror to the City and Irish Walled Towns, both published by The Liffey Press in Dublin. He is currently finishing The Plantain Manner, a long novel set in seventeenth-century Japan.