This is a story that flitted into my mind one morning a couple of weeks ago, and reminded me of stories I’ve read in The New Yorker magazine written by Japanese writers and translated into English, which gives them their own peculiar, non-American narrative style. Like a lot of things, it came to me almost fully formed. I hope you enjoy it.
The Mulberry Tree
English translation by Jim Meskimen
When Nobu, a man of thirty living in the city of Matsuyama, heard his dead father’s voice coming out of a Mulberry tree near the park, he was startled, but not astonished.
He had felt a kind of tug coming from his father’s spirit many times since his passing, like a tiny child trying to get attention by tugging on one’s garment.
After this initial contact, he peered at the leaves of the enormous tree, of the Hua Sang variety, undulating in the late spring breeze, and he could recognize in it some of his father’s character, his sternness, but also an anxiety that surprised him; he always expected the dead to be composed and serene, absent from the concerns of earthly life.
This restless spirit in the mulberry tree seemed distrait and perturbed.
The tree stood at the entrance to a dog-walking park in the city, not far from the old castle, where his father had often walked his small brown dog. Even now there was a steady flow of people and animals coming in and out of it. Nobu was slightly self-conscious as he spoke to the tree.
“Yes?” he said, quietly.
“Nobu,” said the tree, “I am your father. I need you to do something for me.”
“What is it you wish me to do?” said Nobu to the tree.
The tree said, “My brother, your uncle, lives outside of the city. I could not speak to him before my passing. I need you to take me to him.”
Nobu laughed in spite of himself.
“You need me to take a mulberry tree? How am I to do that?”
The leaves undulating like seagrass under the surface of a river took on an impatient aspect.
“No, no,” the voice said, sounding to Nobu like the susurration of a broom sweeping sand from an oak floor, “don’t be foolish. You’re always jumping to conclusions before you hear the whole explanation.”
Nobu sobered, and suddenly felt again like a little boy who had been caught out for stealing, or breaking something in his parent’s well-appointed apartment.
His father had been a magistrate and could be very commanding when he wanted to be, and wasn’t above frightening children if he considered it helpful in molding them into proper behavior.
“Take a branch from this tree, go on the train, find my brother. I need to speak with him.”
Nobu, perplexed, asked, “Father, why don’t you just go yourself? As a… spirit? With respect,” he added.
“It’s too complicated to explain to you,” said the tree. “It’s much easier this way. There are advantages you wouldn’t understand.”
He said, ”I’ll be back.”
Since he had nothing with him to cut the branch, it was necessary for Nobu to go to a sporting goods store nearby; there were things there he knew were sold for the outdoors.
When he was waiting to pay for a small pocket knife at the register, he realized he could have simply tried to borrow a pair of scissors from a street vendor, or a sharp knife from one of the men selling sausages in the park.
The pretty girl at the register said, “Are you going camping?”
“No,” said Nobu. I have to cut a sprig off a mulberry tree. I think my father’s spirit might be in it.”
“Oh,” she said. “Do you want a receipt?”
After he had cut a small branch from the mulberry tree as his father had instructed him, Nobu quickly carried it up to his apartment.
It was early evening by then, so his girlfriend and her six year old son were active. The young boy was taking apart a toy truck with a screwdriver. He wore round glasses with red plastic frames. He was quite handy at fixing things and figuring out how mechanical things operated.
Nobu thought, “When he is a little older, I will give him this pocket knife.”
His girlfriend looked at the mulberry clipping and said, “What’s that in your hand?
“A mulberry branch,” said Nobu. “I have to take it tomorrow on the train.”
“What for?” she asked.
Nobu wasn’t sure he wanted to go into it with her, but after having mentioned it so casually to the girl behind the cash register, it seemed natural to just tell her.
“My father’s spirit contacted me from inside the mulberry tree He requires that I take him on the train tomorrow to speak to his brother, whom he didn’t get to speak to before he passed. So, that’s what I’m doing.”
“Ah, yes” said his girlfriend, who had recently dyed her hair blond and looked a little pale in Nobu’s eyes, “the same thing happened to my grandmother.”
“Really?” said Nobu.
“Yes. She said when she was a girl, her dead mother lived in a rose bush near a shrine that she passed by every day. She would take care of it– water it, you know? Prune it, remove the dead blossoms. She cared for it for years. She said the rose bush would give her all sorts of advice. Some of it was good.”
“Interesting,” said Nobu.
“Yes,” she went on,”and then when my grandmother herself died, I was walking in a nearby park, not the dog park, but that one closer to the river? And I thought I heard her voice coming from a monument down there. And for a second I thought, ‘Ah! She has occupied the statue!’ And it made sense, too–the figure was of a warrior. She was a very tough woman.”
“So, I started speaking to her, thinking she was in this monument. But then I noticed that the conversation wasn’t coming from the warrior, but from somewhere behind it? So I walked around to the back of the statue, and there was an infant in a carriage with a nursemaid, smiling at me. And I recognized my grandmother’s smile.”
“So,” she said, “she hadn’t really gone into an object at all.”
“Well,” said Nobu, “a baby is a kind of object, I guess.”
“Yes,” said his girlfriend, “But you know what I mean.”
“I do,” said Nobu.
The little boy who had been tinkering with the toy truck looked up and peered through his red framed glasses at Nobu. “Your papa talks to you through a mulberry tree?”
“Yes,” said Nobu, “It’s strange, I know.”
“It’s an antenna,” the boy said. “The branch is an antenna.”
The next morning, while Nobu was boarding the train, an inconvenient thing occurred.
He had placed the mulberry sprig in a small glass bottle and covered it with a plastic bag, but in the jostle and commotion of boarding, the bag was knocked out of his hands and hit the floor of the train platform, breaking the bottle.
Nobu realized he would have to find another container to transport the branch in order for it to endure the trip, which was several hours duration. He rushed aboard the train, holding the branch and the leaking bag. Eventually he made his way through the crush of travelers to the dining car and asked the server behind the tiny counter for a bottle of water.
“We are all out,” the man said.
“You’re all out of water?” said Nobu in disbelief.
“We are out of bottles of water, you can have a cup of water.”
“No, that won’t do, I need a bottle. You sure you don’t have any? There’s a lot of people on this train,” said Nobu.
The barman put on an impatient expression and said, “Sorry, there was a mix up. We usually get a whole palette of water bottles every morning. For some reason it didn’t show up today. You should file a complaint with the transit authority.”
Nobu said, “What are people supposed to do? Just drink beer?”
The barman said, “You’re the first person who’s complained.”
Frustrated, Nobu eased himself down the passageway to his seat. There was an old woman in the seat next to him. She was dressed in a persimmon colored suit, slender and put together. Nobu thought she looked elegant, like an executive. She was holding a small plastic bottle of drinking water, half full.
After rehearsing various options in his mind, he finally asked her, “I wonder if I might buy that bottle of water from you. I need to put this plant in something. Perhaps when you are done drinking, you would permit me to buy it?”
The old woman said, “Oh, no. You can have it. I am getting off at the next stop. I was just going to throw it out, anyway.”
“Thank you,” Nobu said, and then, receiving the bottle, took the mulberry branch out of the dripping bag and sticking the end of it into the bottle, held it gently between his knees.
“What’s that you’ve got there? “ asked the old woman.
“It’s a branch from a mulberry tree.”
“Ah. Mulberry trees are very good luck,” she said. “We had them on the farm where I grew up. The fruit is delicious. And of course you know about the silk worms.”
“Yes,” said Nobu, “They eat the leaves.”
“It’s their favorite,” she said. “We didn’t have silk worms, but a neighbor did. And often I would see white moths flying around our mulberry trees in the afternoons, so many it seemed like a blizzard.”
“That must have been something,” said Nobu.
“It was.” said the old woman.
They were silent for awhile, Nobu watched the countryside whip by outside the window. The city scenes had changed into an agricultural landscape, fields and orchards parading by hurriedly.
He saw some people pulling carts with oxen, just like in the old times.
After a time, he felt comfortable enough to mention to the old woman, “Actually, I’m taking this branch to the countryside. I think my father’s spirit is in it. He asked me to take him to see his brother. He has something to say to him, I think.”
“Ah,” said the old woman, “that’s very common. There was a stand of bamboo near the house my husband and I lived in when he was still alive. I think that’s where he wound up.” She started pulling on a pair of green leather gloves as the train began to slow down for the next stop.
“Really?” said Nobu.
“Oh, yes,” said the old woman. “He loved bamboo, and after he died, whenever I passed by there, I noticed I would start thinking of memories that weren’t mine, but his, of times that I had never witnessed. It was like walking through a cloud of his memories.”
“Wow”, said Nobu.
“Yes. I moved away from that prefecture eventually, but it comforts me to think he’s still there in that stand of bamboo.”
The train had reached her stop. She rose. “Maybe I should have brought some cuttings of bamboo with me from that house? But I didn’t think of it.”
“Ah,” said Nobu.
“I guess we all return to the earth,” said the old woman, as she picked up her bag and moved to the door of the train. She smiled. Nobu smiled back and shifted the bottle containing his father’s branch.
At the train station, Nobu took a taxi to get to the home of his uncle, his father’s brother. A light rain had begun to fall, and the traffic on the busy roads made a hissing noise.
It was an industrial section that Nobu had only visited one other time, when he was small, and soon he was walking up the stairs of a concrete apartment building. He had not seen his uncle in many years, but he recognized him as soon as he opened the front door.
His uncle’s eyes were quizzical, but pleased.
“Nobu!” He said, “come in out of the rain!”
Soon, he and his uncle were seated on the floor at a low table in the modest apartment, drinking tea.
Nobu placed the mulberry branch containing his father’s spirit in a plum-colored vase that his uncle had found for the purpose, and they both sat staring at it as they sipped their tea.
His uncle said, “He said he wanted you to come all the way out here?”
Nobu said, “He insisted. He was very stern about it. He said he had something to tell you.”
“Can you hear him now?” said his uncle.
“No,” said Nobu. “He’s been quiet the whole trip.”
A train whistle moaned faintly in the distance. They regarded the branch.
His uncle finally said, “I wonder if he got separated from it at some point along the way.”
“No, I didn’t,” said Nobu’s father suddenly, speaking through the mulberry leaves. His voice was thinner, more brittle than before, Nobu thought. But he could still be clearly heard.
“Crap!” said his brother. Some tea from his cup sloshed onto the table.
“Leave us now,” said the mulberry branch to Nobu, ”I need to talk with my brother privately.”
“Alright,” said Nobu, and rose from the table. He smiled at his uncle who gave him a vague wave but remained seated, staring at the branch.
Nobu walked down the stairs and meandered around the front of the apartment building for a while. It was a gray day. Clouds belched noiselessly from a tall factory smokestack nearby.
He could hear distant mechanical sounds. A siren went off. Trucks roared past him on the road; despite the light rain, dust rose from their passing and got into his nose, smelling of rubber and oil.
After about a half hour, Nobu heard his name called, and saw his uncle on the balcony of the apartment building, motioning him to return. He went back up the stairs and walked into the apartment.
On the table, lying in pieces, was the mulberry branch. It had been torn into a messy pile of debris.
“What happened?” asked Nobu.
“Ah, your father,” said his uncle, “your father and me, we got into it. He had something to tell me. It was something he had done, something not very nice, long ago. He told a lie to our father about me, which made our father distrust me, and he felt very contrite about it. This was something that happened fifty years ago. He’s been carrying around the burden of it all these years.”
“I told him I already knew about it,” his uncle told Nobu. “which I did. There’s not many secrets you can keep from a twin brother.”
Nobu said, “I’d forgotten you were twins.”
“Yes, fraternal twins. He was born four minutes ahead of me. At any rate, he’s free now.”
“What happened here?” said Nobu, feeling somewhat uneasy, seeing it torn to shreds on the table.
“Oh,” his brother said, “he asked me to do that. I offered to plant it somewhere nice, but he said he didn’t care about it. You know how stubborn he is. He just wanted to move on, I think. He would have it no other way. I’ll clean it up later.”
On the train back, Nobu’s thoughts were of his father, and a recollection came to him of an incident when he was seven. His father had awakened him in the middle of the night, and carried him in his arms outside of the house, out into the cold. It must have been around midnight.
His father had him bundled in a blanket. “What’s happening? Where are we going?” Nobu had asked, but his father was silent.
An unnameable fear gripped Nobu as his father trudged in the moonlight along the road. He thought of his mother fast asleep in her bed back at their home. He remembered fairy tales where parents abandoned their children in the forest.
His father brought him eventually to the banks of a pond, and on the placid surface could be seen a reflection of the full moon, almost a perfect duplicate of the moon that hung in the sky above it like a silver medallion.
The reflection was a nearly perfect mirror image, but for the subtle movement of water which disturbed it almost imperceptibly, like a candle flame in a room with no breeze.
“You see the two moons?” Nobu’s father finally said to him, as they looked at the pond in the chilly night air. His words leaving his mouth made steam.
“Uh huh,” said Nobu.
“One of them is real, and one is just an image.”
“Okay,” said Nobu, still full of uncertainty.
“One of them is perfect,” said his father, “and one of them will always strive to be perfect, but can never be.”
He smelled a strange aroma on his father’s breath. Sake.
“Papa,” the young Nobu had asked, “do they see each other?”
His father had stared at him then for a long time, thinking something very private. Then he had carried Nobu back to the house. Their long shadows on the moonlit road resembled a black Koi fish nosing about on the bottom of a silvery pond, Nobu, seated in the jostling train back to Matsuyama , recalled.