A Tale of Two Gardens

by omi

Once there was a garden, in a town tucked between two mountains. It was renowned throughout the land for being one of the fairest garden in the entire country. A gentle brook meandered through it, soft reeds rustled along its banks. There were birch trees, tall and graceful; there were flowers, delicate sweet-smelling ones nestled in the shade, bright sun-loving ones in vivid splashes of colour. A tiny cobblestone walkway led from the house to a small bamboo pavilion by the brook, where a person could sit and take his ease.

Birds came and made their nests in the trees and bushes and lent the garden their voices. Insects and butterflies thrived, flying, hopping, crawling from bloom to plant to brook.

Every season brought a fresh sense of beauty to the garden. Every glance uncovered something new and beautiful to admire.

The owner of the garden was happy. He had no children or family, and so the garden became his one pride and joy. He tended to his garden, as lovingly as if it was his child. And like any proud parent, he was generous with the garden's beauty, and opened it to everyone who would come to enjoy it.

But one year, on a fine breezy spring day, the owner suddenly closed the garden gates and turned everyone away. People were disappointed. Some got angry. Some tried to break in. But the owner remained resolute. The garden was closed, its pine wood gates locked and barred, day after day after day.

The days grew longer, and the nights warmer, and spring gradually melted into summer.

It was one hot summer evening, that the stranger appeared. A man with white hair, even through he had a young face, and a single green eye. He carried a travelling chest on his back and the dust of the road lied heavily all over his coat and shoes.

He knocked at the garden gate. "Hoy, I am Ginko, the mushishi. I've been asked to come to take a look at your garden," he called out.

There was a long silence, and slowly, the door creaked opened. A old man looked out, hair disheveled and his eyes were slightly wild. "The mushishi...?" His voice broke slightly. "Come in, come in. I've been waiting for you."

The old man -- the owner -- hurried Ginko along the path, across the garden and towards the house, looking nervously over his shoulder as they went. The light from his lantern spilled a thin golden glow across their path, casting strange shadows that shifted as they walked. "I... don't like to come out... at night," the old man said as they entered the house, and he was quick to shut the door tightly and pulled the lock.

The old man shared his meal with the mushishi, and showed him to his room, brushing his questions with just a shake of his head and a cryptic "You will see it in the morning."

Later that night, after dinner, Ginko sat in the room, and laid down on the futon and waited. Sure enough, a tiny scritching sound sounded as soon as the last light went off. There was a flicker of movement, just out of the corner of his eye, a swirl of faint light that slinked closer and closer to Ginko.

And then, a second light appeared. The two lights prowled warily around each other for a moment, before vanishing again.

"Huh," muttered Ginko as he took out a cigarette and lighted it. The smell of acrid smoke lingered long in the night air.

The next morning, Ginko awoke just after dawn, and made his way to the garden.

Chaos greeted his eye. Spikey thorn bushes fought to a standstill at the porch, the brook meandered in knots that started and ended nowhere. The trees were scattered, as if carelessly transplanted by some giant's hand; one blocked the entrance of the pavilion, another stood in the brook. The flowers fared scantly better.

It was as far from beauty as a garden could get.

Ginko lit his cigarette, and ventured cautiously into the garden. He stopped for a long while at the birch tree in the centre of the brook, and then at the other end of the garden, where a grove of white hyacinths grew. Then, he tramped back, through the plants and crossing the brooke twice -- getting his feet wet along the way -- and back to the house.

The old man was standing there, waiting. "Can you fix it?" the old man asked slowly, his heart in his eyes. "Can you make it go back to the way it was?"

Ginko sighed and got out another cigarette. "Tell me everything," he said.

The old man knew nothing. Merely the fact that one spring day, he rose from his bed only to find his beloved garden changed beyond recognition. The elements of his garden were all there, they were just... changed. As if in a single night, someone had uprooted the entire garden and replanted it at their whim.

"I would have thought that it was the prank of some children, or perhaps, someone envious of the garden. But who could dig up whole trees in a single night? Who could divert the course of a brook?" the old man stared out at the land in dispair. "Worse, it kept... changing. Every morning, I wake up to find that something else has changed. It is as if the trees, and flowers and plants are not happy where they were and move in the night to find a new space, every night.

"At first, I tried staying awake, to see if I could tell who was doing it. But nothing. I heard and saw nothing. Just the rustling of plants, the sound of the water. And when the sun came up the next day, everything is different again."

Ginko said reflectively, "There is a type of mushi we call the garden mushi. It exists in a symbotic relationship with the surrounding plants and trees. As it takes nutrients from the plants, so it takes care of the plants it feeds off. Mushi and plants both benefit. But according to the records, it is fiercely territorial. But here..." Ginko nodded at the birch tree in the brook, and the opposite corner of the garden, where the white hyacinth gleamed in the shade. "Here, in your garden, there are two, both fighting for dominance."

"Ah," the old man blinked. "The birch trees, I grew, from small saplings transported from the forest nearby. The hyacinths cuttings were a gift from my friend, as we don't have that plant here."

"I'm afraid your friend brought you a little more than he anticipated," said Ginko dryly. "Still, I could try something, and see if we could work things out."

The old man brightened, and thanked Ginko profusely.

That night, Ginko stubbed out his cigarette, and threw open his window. And then, he did nothing, except wait.

Just like the first night, the mushi came. Ginko waited patiently, until the mushi were nearly touching him, and then, in a blink of an eye, he casted a thin veil over the mushi. Ginko picked the two mushi up by the corners of the veil and emptied them into a large glass box. They tumbled together in a pile, two tiny swirls of light, and then separated in an instant, to opposite ends of the box.

"Oi, oi," said Ginko, and he flicked the glass with a fingernail. "You have to learn to get along, or I'm going to have to remove one of you from the garden. And I can't tell the two of you apart either, so we are talking about the luck of the draw here when it comes to who will stay and who will leave."

The mushi remained resolutely apart.

Ginko sighed. "Well, it's early days yet."

The next morning, the garden had remained unchanged. Which is to say, it looked exactly the way it did as yesterday. Ginko smiled. The old man smiled.

Over the next week, Ginko would place flowers and leaves into the glass box. One of the mushi was active, coiling around the plants that gave it energy, but the other mushi simply curled in the corner and slowly faded into a wisp of its former light.

It was on the sixth day, when the first change occured.

Ginko had placed a fresh bouquet in the glass box, but this time, instead of coiling around the offering, the active mushi pushed it to the corner, where the fading mushi was. Ginko's eyebrow rose into his hair, and he bent over and peered into the corner of the box with interest. "Hmm," he hummed under his breath.

The two mushi were entwined together, so close, Ginko could not tell where one started and the other left off. The corner of his mouth quirked. "Success?" he murmured.

He continued to keep a watch on the mushi for the next three days running. The previously fading mushi had regained all of its former glory, and was constantly brushing up against the first mushi. By the end of the third day, Ginko released the mushi back into the garden. "Now," he told the old man. "We wait."

The next morning, Ginko and the old man woke up to yet another change in the garden. It still did not resemble the original garden, but the old man was estactic. "My garden is happy again!" he said, as he slowly walked about the garden, touching a leaf here, a flower there, with trembling hands. He turned towards Ginko, one hand propped on a sturdy young tree branch. "It is beautiful." He smiled, for the first time, face creasing into a new tangle of wrinkles.

Ginko exhaled a breath of smoke. "Ah," he said, and smiled and soaked in the warmth of the morning summer sun and the sweet sound of birdsong.

Over the years, Ginko would receive postcards from the grateful owner. His garden still shifts occasionally, with changing of the seasons; the backs of the postcards were drawings of the garden.

"... the garden still changes, but I have come to enjoy it. It is as if I had two gardens, hidden one within another. Today, it is a formal garden, all clean lines and boxes. I wonder what tomorrow would bring...?"

- fini -