Back in the last days of the samurai, some years before the Meiji Restoration pushed Japan into the modern world, a German ex-priest named Wilhelm Mundt lived for seven years at Gyokusenji Temple at the northeast part of Shimoda Bay, on the tip of the Izu Peninsula. How he came to live there during Japan’s great period of isolation, and not in Nagasaki where some few other foreigners were allowed to reside… well, even when a country bars outsiders there are exceptions, and the exception made for this ex-priest was that he could speak English as well as German, and had been secreted away in order to teach that language to the son of a local nobleman, whom he had learned to love and wait for, though he hadn’t laid eyes on him in months.
Wilhelm used his time well, studying Japanese—he finished a translation of the immortal Goethe—and otherwise tending his garden in solitude, except for occasional visits from the widow of a temple monk, who wanted him to notice her and brought him treats. The rest of the local citizenry knew of him, of course, but had long since stopped giving him much thought, until the day the American fleet sailed into harbor with its thuggish attempts at “gunboat diplomacy.” That made them wonder, on the one hand, “What can this German tell us about America?” and on the other, “What if he’s a spy? What if he is one of them?” So they sent a delegation, two delegations, actually, each unknown to the other, one to ask his advice, the other to bring him in for questioning.
The first delegation, from something called “The Merchants’ Association,” was comprised of a brother and sister who believed the ex-priest would know whether they should aggressively press for American patronage, as was the brother and sister’s inclination, or, as most of their colleagues were inclined to do, not only eschew it but ask for government protection. They were, in fact, sixty-year-old twins, this brother and sister, who owned a line of geisha bars and a Chinese apothecary. The elder, by thirty minutes, was Michi, her brother, Gorobei. Gorobei ran the apothecary, Michi the geisha bars, but it was Michi who ruled the roost, Michi who leaned more aggressively toward foreign commerce, and, on this day when everyone crowded the port, watching the American ships ride at anchor, Michi who urged her brother toward Gyokusenji Temple, where the ex-priest lived. They carried lacquered rice bowls, sets of expensive chopsticks, and a giant bottle of excellent saké as gifts. Gorobei had wanted to offer less elaborate gifts, but Michi told him that knowledge cheaply bought would be cheap in nature. It was raining but the twins wore expensive kimonos, a frothy green seascape on Michi’s, while Gorobei’s was russet and depicted an autumnal forest.
While Michi and Gorobei were walking toward him, Wilhelm Mundt, because he had spent the whole of the previous day watching the arrival of the American fleet, was outside busily planting his garden. It seemed to him that besides those of the Americans, hundreds of Japanese ships were down from Edo, and every few minutes he looked through the drizzle to see if he could detect the nobleman’s son, Manjiro was his name, walking through the temple gate. He bent to spike his hoe into the dirt, dragging it along its furrow, his yukata sleeve tied back with hemp rope. The temple’s soil was too old for the more delicate vegetables he wanted to grow, too ready to surrender to encroaching clay. Last year he had tried for tomatoes, using most of his seed supply for nothing but nine inches of the palest greenery, and he had had an even more hopeless crop of asparagus, weak little fingerlings that grew along the ground as if mocking him. He had good luck with radishes and squash, anything tuberous would grow despite the loam, but this year’s early rain made him determined to try tomatoes again, and to that end he had hiked into the mountains daily, in order to bring back buckets of rich virgin soil.
Wilhelm lived in a building behind the temple, just at the edge of the forest. When Manjiro first brought him here the rooms had been unlivable, but together they had put in tatami floors, cut windows for shoji, and redone the ceilings and walls. And though he had no tokunoma in which to hang scrolls he had five tables—five!—on which the priest’s widow displayed her flower arrangements.
By the time Wilhelm finished preparing his garden it was noon, but he wanted to plant the tomatoes before going up the mountain again for more topsoil. Lined along the front of his house were twenty-four cracked tea cups, collected from an abandoned potter’s kiln, each bearing the beginnings of a tomato plant. These plants were something to be proud of, stretching green and thick as a baby’s finger out of pure mountain soil. He had sprouted the seeds in water then pushed them into the dirt-filled cups, carrying them around on slabs of wood, searching out the bits of sunlight. In the beginning he’d had fifty cups, so he calculated his germination success rate at forty-eight percent. That was the percentage of success he had had in life thus far, as well.
Wilhelm carried his cups to his garden, the tops of each plant dancing in the wind. This was to have been a festive moment, and to that end he’d prepared a feast: potato salad made from the remainder of last year’s potatoes; a wonderful sauerkraut from an old family recipe; and even a rudimentary German sausage, a soybean and chicken combination that wasn’t as bad as it looked. He should invite the priest’s widow, he supposed, but how could he eat and drink, how could he find a festive spirit, without Manjiro? For days he had tried to remember when the young lord had said he would return, but try as he might, he couldn’t come up with a specific date. He knew Manjiro had told him something about his plans, of course, but he had chosen the wrong time to do it, when Wilhelm was concentrating on his translation—and now he could more easily remember the words he’d been writing, than the ones Manjiro spoke. “If ever I lay down in sloth and base inaction, then let that moment be my end.” Yes, those were the ones.
Wilhelm ran his hoe along the garden again. As it happened the garden was twenty-four feet square, so with a two-foot gap between each plant, an optimistic distance, he calculated he would need only two rows to accommodate the tomatoes. He stuck his trowel into the dirt, lifted it out, then reached over to the board on which the tea cups sat, to pick up a bottle of saké. He poured a bit of it into the hole, said, “Bless this garden in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” inserted a plant, and put the bottle to his lips and drank. He hadn’t exactly intended it, but after twenty-four such plantings he was somewhat drunk and it was late and he had to hurry to retrieve a scarecrow that the priest’s widow had made for him, before going into the mountains for more soil. It was nearly as big as he was, the scarecrow, and looked like nothing so much as Jesus on the cross, defeated with His hands out. When he pushed it into the dirt he shut his eyes. “No birds,” he said, “and please, a day or two without too much rain.”
Wilhelm kept his buckets at the edge of the forest, and though he sighed at the thought of lugging more dirt down the mountain, as he hurried up the trail he thought of Christ again, surely as unclean during His wanderings as Wilhelm was now. He also thought of the sausage and potato salad. He used his pole as a cane and held the buckets together in his free hand, and as he walked he decided to believe that Manjiro would be there upon his return. The thought made him quicken his pace.
It was ironic, for if he hadn’t hurried he would have heard the twin merchants, stepping to the back of the temple and calling, “Hello?”
At just this time two samurai came strolling along the shore, the younger one, Ken, with his swords slung over his shoulder in a style so perennially fashionable that the older one, Kyuzo, could remember doing it himself, three decades earlier. These men were sent by the local constabulary to take Wilhelm into custody, but instead of proceeding directly to the temple and arresting him they sashayed along the edge of the bay, where Ken, had it not been for the good condition of his hair—he had just had it fixed that morning—would have given in to an impulse to run. His muscles certainly wanted to do so, and his sense of well-being resided in those muscles far more than anywhere else. There were cormorants fishing nearby and boats by the hundreds bearing colorful banners and crowded with curious onlookers dotted the bay. The American fleet stood two hundred yards off shore, with a majesty more like a visiting city than any of the ships the Japanese were used to. But though voices carried across the water in nervous celebration, by the time the two men finally reached the edges of Gyokusenji temple, their destination, even Ken grew quiet. To arrest a foreigner was a first for both of them, and Ken had never arrested anybody. The temple was humbler than they expected, with a ramshackle gate, a roof in grave disrepair, and, in stark opposition to the obvious poverty, as still as two statues, Michi and Gorobei, stood at its entrance under twin umbrellas.
“We are looking for the foreigner,” said Kyuzo. “Is this not where he resides?”
“It is,” whispered Michi, “At least out in the back there is evidence of it. But the foreigner himself is missing, and has left a terrible mound of uneaten food on his table.”
“Who can live by himself yet eat so much?” asked Gorobei.
The twins were of identical height and had come to look as if they were identical in everything else, as well. They had round heads and thinning hair, soft puffy cheeks and liver-spotted complexions. Had it been the age of advanced photography the entire scene at the temple’s gate would have looked like a color photograph melding into black and white.
The twins came up to the samurai, offering them space under their umbrellas. They would not have done so under normal circumstances, since the merchant classes were fast outpacing the last of these unnecessary warriors, but they’d been discussing the missing foreigner and had talked themselves into believing that any explanation for his absence had to have to do with foul play. That he’d expected guests was evident, never mind what Gorobei said about the food, but instead of eating what he had prepared for them, his guests had taken him off somewhere and killed him. The twins held their umbrellas high, Michi’s over Ken, Gorobei’s over Kyuzo. “The condition of this place is disgraceful,” said Kyuzo, and when they got to Wilhelm’s rooms Michi said, “What did we tell you? He’s even left the door open.”
It was her brother, Gorobei, who had left the door open. When Wilhelm hadn’t answered their earlier knocks they had simply gone inside, and he’d forgotten to close it when they’d come back out. Ken coughed, by way of announcement, but Michi led them all inside. “Look,” she said, “What did we tell you? Mountains of uneaten foreign food! It certainly doesn’t have much delicacy to it.”
“Those are potatoes and those other things look like oden,” said her brother. “It seems to have been here for a while but I wouldn’t mind giving it a taste.”
“Did you check in back?” Kyuzo asked. “Maybe he is sleeping.”
But Michi assured him, “Like a man’s thoughts and actions, his inner room is his outer room’s antithesis. It’s terribly cluttered, as if it’s been ransacked by marauders.”
When she opened a second door the others could easily see that while, indeed, the front room was presentable, the back one was not. A table was stacked with books and half-written manuscripts, the floor strewn with dishes and clothing. The room had a window giving it light, but the front room’s food odor was here replaced by that of a man who didn’t bathe.
“Do you think we should clean it?” asked Michi. “If he really had been killed his rooms should present a better face than this to the investigators.”
She stepped inside and picked up some soiled and rumpled underwear, moving it up and down. It felt heavy yet not particularly foreign since to Michi the stink of man was universal, so she bent to the job of collecting the rest of the clothes. It was strange to see an elegantly dressed woman do such a thing, but though Ken hurried to help her, Kyuzo was old school and could not. So in order to make himself look busy he went to Wilhelm’s table and sat down. “I could have been a scholar,” he said. “I often think, in fact, that in some past life I was one. A scholar or an intellectual, maybe even a poet.”
He looked at the manuscript before him. The top page bore only a title in some foreign tongue, but from the second page on the Japanese was legible and straight, with even the marginal corrections done carefully. He read the first lines to himself and then he read them aloud: