The Samurai's Garden: A Novel

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9780312144074: The Samurai's Garden: A Novel

The daughter of a Chinese mother and a Japanese father, Tsukiyama uses the Japanese invasion of China during the late 1930s as a somber backdrop for her unusual story about a 20-year-old Chinese painter named Stephen who is sent to his family's summer home in a Japanese coastal village to recover from a bout with tuberculosis. Here he is cared for by Matsu, a reticent housekeeper and a master gardener. Over the course of a remarkable year, Stephen learns Matsu's secret and gains not only physical strength, but also profound spiritual insight. Matsu is a samurai of the soul, a man devoted to doing good and finding beauty in a cruel and arbitrary world, and Stephen is a noble student, learning to appreciate Matsu's generous and nurturing way of life and to love Matsu's soulmate, gentle Sachi, a woman afflicted with leprosy.

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About the Author:

Born to a Chinese mother and a Japanese father in San Francisco, Gail Tsukiyama now lives in El Cerrito, California. Her novels include Dreaming Water, Women of the Silk, The Language of Threads, and Night of Many Dreams.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Samurai's Garden
AUTUMN TARUMI, JAPAN SEPTEMBER 15, 1937 I wanted to find my own way, so this morning I persuaded may father to let me travel alone from his apartment in Kobe to my grandfather's beach house in Tarumi. It had taken me nearly two weeks to convince him--you would think I was a child, not a young man of twenty. It seems a small victory, but I've won so few in the past months that it means everything to me--perhaps even the beginning of my recovery. Just before leaving, I bought this book of Japanese parchment paper to record any other prizes I might be lucky enough to capture. It opens before me now, thin sheets of sand-colored paper, empty and quiet as the beach below the village. Since I became ill last spring in Canton, I've had no time to myself. When I was too weak to continue studying, my instructors at Lingnan University ordered me home. My friend King accompanied me on the train, and hovered over me all the way home to Hong Kong. I'll never forget the frightened look in my mother's eyes the day I returned. It was like an animal's fear for her young. I couldn't stop coughing long enough to catch my breath. When King and a manservant carried me up the concrete steps of our house, my mother stood in her green silk cheungsam, lips pressed tightly together in a straight line as if she were holding back a scream. Once home I was constantly under her cautious eyes, and those of our old servant Ching. The two women monitored my every move, as if I might wilt away right before their eyes. That's how they looked at me sometimes, as though I were already a memory. I can understand their concern. My days were still punctuated by fevers in the late afternoon and a persistent dry cough. All through the thick, sticky summer, the heat made things worse. When my illness was diagnosed as tuberculosis by an English doctor, my mother sent a telegram to my father in Kobe. Her concernturned to dread and she forbade my younger sister Penelope, whom I've called Pie ever since she was born, to enter my room. Every morning Pie balanced on the threshold and smiled at me, looking smaller than her twelve years. There are four of us children in all. My older sister Anne and my younger brother Henry are now back at school in Macao. My parents gave us all Christian names at birth, since my father believes it an asset in the business world to be addressed with ease by Westerners. His import-export business thrives on such progressive ideas. It seems the apartment he keeps in Japan is more his home than our family house in Hong Kong. He makes his life in both places and the way he bows low with eyes averted seems at times more Japanese than Chinese to me. By late July, the heat had settled in on Hong Kong, while my fevers advanced and retreated. A heavy stillness had descended on our house, as if everyone was moving in slow motion. My mother was even more nervous than usual. Two days later, the news came over the radio that the Japanese had captured Tientsin and surrounded Peking. Hong Kong was stifling in August. Some afternoons I could barely breathe. My father wrote: "Send Stephen to me in Kobe, I will take him to Tarumi. The climate is drier there, and the air is much fresher than in Hong Kong." My mother ordered Ching to prepare for my journey to Japan, while the Japanese occupied Peking and sent their warships to Shanghai. I hated to leave my family and friends, even though I hadn't been allowed to see them. I felt lonelier than ever.  
 
In some ways I can't help thinking my time in Tarumi will be a quiet resembling death. At least the sea breezes are much more soothing than the hot, humid heat of Hong Kong. Late in August, the Japanese invaded Shanghai where a bloody standoff continues. Thousands of refugees have fled China and have built their makeshift homes in the crowded streets of Hong Kong. On the way to the harbor, we smelled their greasy street cooking and saw their gaunt, desolate faces begging for money and understanding. Then, at the pier in Kowloon, my mother and Pie looked bereft, too, as they waved good-bye to Ching and me.Only after she thought I had disappeared into the crowds did my mother lift her white lace handkerchief to her eyes. All the way to Japan on board the President Wilson, Ching refused to let me sit on the sun-drenched deck without wearing at least three sweaters. When we finally arrived in Kobe, she clung to me whispering and hissing, "These are the Japanese devils who have driven our Chinese out of their homes." I looked out through the taxi window at the bustling crowds, but except for small groups of soldiers loitering in public places, rifles slung on their shoulders, these Japanese appeared harmless to me. I was relieved when Ching left me with my father and hurried home to Hong Kong. My father had been waiting for us at his apartment. I could tell by the way his body tensed that he was shocked at my appearance, but he tried not to show it. "Stephen," he said, "it's good to see you." His eyes surveyed my feverish face and too-thin body before he hugged me and touched my wavy hair. My hair has always delighted him, because it isn't straight like most Chinese. Then he stepped back and said softly, "We will see that Michiyo makes her sukiyaki tonight." Kobe was only slightly cooler than Hong Kong, and Michiyo watched over me as closely as Ching. My father worked long hours and couldn't get away to take me to Tarumi as he had hoped. Transportation had been interrupted all over China, and his business was hanging in the balance. The more Michiyo fussed at me to rest, to eat, the less I was able to do either. It was then I realized there wasn't any reason why I couldn't find my own way to the village of Tarumi.  
 
This morning in Kobe, I rose early, dressed, and had finished packing before my father knocked gently on the door to awaken me. I packed lightly, bringing only one suit, comfortable clothes, several books, my oil paints, and two tablets of paper. My father promised to send me some canvases shortly. The drive to the train station was quiet, my father asking only twice if I was feeling well enough to travel. Even my coughing had eased. When we arrived at the station, he suddenly turned around and asked, "Do you have enough money?" "Yes, you've given me more than enough," I answered, my hand instantly feeling for my wallet in my jacket pocket. "You know you can always reach me at the downtown number." "I know, Ba-ba, I know," I said. It was something he had been telling me for the past two weeks. "The most important thing is that you take care of yourself, rest, and don't tire yourself out with your painting." My father looked away as he said this, always awkward when it came to the subject of my painting, which he saw as a time-consuming hobby. "I won't," I answered, knowing that my only solace in being exiled to Tarumi was that I would have more time for my painting. My father excused himself to make sure my luggage was safely aboard the train. He had agreed to let me go alone only after he wired the servant at the beach house to be waiting for me at the station. I saw him slip a Japanese porter extra money to watch me on this short journey. He returned through the crowd, telling me to board and get settled. He grasped my hand tightly. "I'll see you in a week or two," he said. "You don't have to worry about me," I reassured him as I boarded the train. "I'll be fine." I watched my father from the train window, a small man in his dark double-breasted suit and thin, rimless glasses, standing next to a group of Japanese children. My father usually seemed so short, but as the train pulled out and he lifted his arm to wave, I thought he looked tall in the fading light.  
 
The train was half-filled with elderly Japanese men and women, and mothers with small children who exchanged conversation with one another in hurried whispers. They mostly spoke of their children from what I could understand, and I was relieved when we finally left the outskirts of the city and I could focus my attention on the fleeting landscape outside the window. It was greener than I remembered, with large pine trees waving against a sky so sharp and clear that I felt as if I could almost reach out and grab one of their long, spiny arms. My mother had taken us to Tarumi for two summers of our childhood. I still remember her complaintsabout the heat, and her elaborate silk-painted fan, as she moved the thick air in front of her in quick, short strokes. After a while, I was hypnotized by the passing scene. My eyes felt hot and tired. It was the first time since leaving my family in Hong Kong that I had thought about being completely alone. With my father only a few hours away in Kobe, and my mother planning to visit me in a matter of months, I could only breathe in both the fear and attraction of facing the unknown. A little girl walked down the aisle of the train staring in my direction. When I looked up at her and smiled, she bowed her head shyly, then rushed back to her mother. She reminded me of Pie, though Pie might have stopped and spoken to a stranger to satisfy her curiosity. She has always been my favorite, with her large round eyes and pigtails. Part of the reason I was sent to Tarumi was to avoid infecting Pie. As a small child, she was the one who was always sick. Her frailty was equalled only by her quick, sharp eye and teasing nature. She and Henry were constantly entangled in something, often leading to violent fights. It worried me at first, until I realized Pie was always intelligent enough to know when to stop. After my illness was diagnosed, Ching tried not to let Pie get too near, but Pie refused to listen, poking her head into my room whenever she could. When Pie found out I was leaving for Japan, she slyly slipped into my room after everyone had gone to sleep. Ching always left a small light in the entryway for anyone who had to make a trip to the water closet during the night. In the stillness, Pie entered and whispered my name until I awakened. I knew immediately it was she by the smell of mothballs on her sleeveless, yellow silk pajamas with flowers embroidered on the front. "What are you doing here? I asked, rubbing the sleep from my eyes and sitting up. I coughed, and was quick to cover my mouth. "You're leaving with Ching tomorrow to see Ba-ba, so I've come to say good-bye," she answered. "I'll miss your handsome face." "You shouldn't be in here, you might get sick," was all I could say. I could see Pie smile in the muted light from the hall. She threw her thin, pale arms around my neck and kissed me on the cheek. Her lips felt cool against my warmth. "Go now," I said. "I'll see you soon." Pie reluctantly withdrew her arms and ran to the door. "I'll write to you," she said, closing the door and leaving me in darkness.  
 
When the train blew its whistle and slowed down for the Tarumi station this afternoon, I waited until it came to a complete stop. All around me were the anxious movements of others gathering their belongings. The station itself was just a one-room wooden building set on a wooden platform. I looked about and saw several Japanese women in kimonos, waiting along with a couple of older men. I leaned back uneasily and searched my mind, unable to remember how Matsu, the caretaker of the beach house, looked. Our last visit had been years ago, and I only remembered catching glimpses of him as he went about his duties. I was afraid of him. Matsu had seemed old to me then, so I was surprised when my father said he would be the one waiting for me at the station today. I waited, letting the others disembark first, then followed behind them. Some were greeted at once, while others scrambled off by themselves in different directions. I walked to the middle of the platform, put down my suitcase, and watched for any sign of Matsu, already preparing myself to find the beach house on my own. It was a warm afternoon and my shirt was wet down the length of my back. I tried to remember which direction the house was, but every road appeared vaguely familiar. The crowd was beginning to thin when out of the building came a heavyset man with close-cropped gray hair. Nervously, I watched him approach. "Pao-Lin Chan's grandson?" he asked, stopping a few feet from me. He was dressed in baggy khaki trousers and a gray sweater. I felt skinny and small next to him, though I was a good foot taller. "Yes, and you're Matsu- san?" I asked. He gave me several stiff bows, which I returned. Before I could say anything else, Matsu had taken my suitcase and begun to walk to the station. At the door of the shabby building, he stopped and stared impatiently, waiting for me to pass through first. My father told me Matsu has lived alone and taken care of mygrandfather's beach house for the past thirty years. After his parents died, he was given the choice either to join my grandfather's Hong Kong household, or stay in Japan by himself to care for the beach house. Matsu has worked for our family since he was a boy, and his parents worked for my grandfather before that. He appears about sixty, with weathered, umber colored skin and a remote, impatient manner. He seems the type of man who's more comfortable alone, and it's not hard to figure out that he must be annoyed at my disturbing his tranquil world. The road to the beach house was powdered with white sand and felt stifling in the hazy heat. It was late afternoon and the sun exerted its last burst of energy before disappearing into evening. We walked past a few bamboo-fenced houses, which increased in number as we continued down the road. I was sweating heavily by then. Matsu silently walked in his quick gait a few steps ahead of me, as if he were all by himself. I increased my pace, pushing myself to keep up. The farther we walked, the more fine sand lined the road. The salty sea air filled my head, and from beyond the dune came the steady surge of waves. In between, I felt consumed by the quiet, so different from the summers I had spent here surrounded by my family and the noise of playful children. This early autumn there didn't seem to be anyone else here, just me, Matsu, and a complete, white silence.  
 
I was exhausted by the time Matsu stopped in front of one of the many bamboo-fenced houses and cleared his throat to get my attention. My lungs were burning and my legs weak. Matsu wasn't about to treat me like an invalid. Never once had he stopped, or even asked to see if I was all right. My mother and Ching would have fussed over me, made me rest every five minutes. "Stephen, you mustn't tire yourself out, rest, rest, go slowly," they would say, as their high-pitched voices pierced the air. I watched Matsu put down the suitcase and proceed to unlock the gate. My grandfather's house stood on the right side of the road on the slight slope of a hill. Across the road was the path down to the beach. I remembered how Henry and I used to race down it during our stay here. Matsu gestured for me to enter first. Stepping through thebamboo gate, I found myself in the garden. The sweet perfumes were immediately intoxicating. A silk tree, still heavy with summer blossoms, and two large black pine trees shaded the house. An oval-shaped pond, with hints of movement that flashed orange and silver beneath its surface, dominated one side of the garden. It was surrounded by pale green moss. A wooden bridge arched across its width, and lin...

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