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:

Uncertain shapes, visitors from the past
At whom I darkly gazed so long ago,
My heart’s mad fleeting visions—now at last
Shall I embrace you, must I let you go?

It wasn’t until he read the words aloud that their meaning began to come clear to him, for though it was in Japanese, he hadn’t expected to understand. Now it was not only clear, however, but deeply moving and familiar, as if he’d known it once and had forgotten it.

He looked at Michi, to see what she might say, but she was busy with the dirty clothes.

. . .

Uncertain shapes, visitors from the past
At whom I darkly gazed so long ago…

When Wilhelm heard the opening lines of his translation he hurried around the corner of his house, sweating under the weight of his newly filled buckets.

Okaerinasai!” said Michi. “I know we should have waited outside, but it’s raining again and we had no idea where you’d gone.”

Ken stood behind her, his head obscured by Wilhelm’s dirty clothes.

“Who was reading just now?” asked Wilhelm.

This seemed the worse violation, no Manjiro here and a stranger reading his translation.

“That would be me,” said Kyuzo, “My, how descriptive it is and how beautiful! I love its pensive quality and the closeness of its rhyme! Tell me, is it your own?”

“No it’s not mine! The original belongs to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe…. The Japanese is mine, though.”

“Well it’s the Japanese that moves me!” Kyuzo said, “For it’s the only language I know.”

A smile came to Wilhelm’s face despite himself. The open door let light from a crack in the clouds come across the nearest corner of the table, making it seem, however oddly, that the food had been prepared for these very visitors, though it was as cold as the slab of stone under the house. “This food and the writing are both from Germany,” Wilhelm said, “Since you’ve already read one, you might as well eat the other. It won’t take long to heat it up.”

His kitchen sat under a lean-to off his study, its fire constantly hot, so when Wilhelm picked up the potatoes, Ken followed with the sausage. At first the others paused, but then, as if staying alone in any part of this house, now that its occupant had returned to catch them at it, were a violation of protocol, first the twins and then Kyuzo joined them. Rain pushed into the lean-to horizontally, like in a Hiroshige print, hissing into the sausage pan and rolling amongst the slowly warming potatoes.

When the sausage was hot again Ken returned it to the table while Gorobei tried to secure the poorly-latched front door. The rain was worse toward the front of the house and, aided by a rising wind, thudded into Wilhelm’s recently planted tomatoes like bullets. What’s more, his scarecrow leaned at such a radical angle that it looked like it had ridden out of the sky on a spear, thrown across the bay by the Americans. At first Gorobei thought to go get Wilhelm, but then on impulse he wriggled out of his kimono, grabbed the umbrellas he and his sister had brought, and ran outside in his loincloth. If he could be of help to this man in saving his vegetables maybe they could garner more information. There were only two rows of tomatoes, but he could not cover even half of them and the rain on his legs was sharp and cold. It soon leaked under his loincloth, creeping into the creases of his sagging buttocks and scrotum.

He called for help but minutes passed, his feet sinking deeper in the soil, before his cries were heard, not by anyone in his house, but by the priest’s widow, who was sorting some newly cut flowers in the rear of the temple. At first she thought he was Wilhelm, crazed by too much loneliness. “I warned you and warned you!” she said, running out to help, but Gorobei’s liver-spotted face stopped her.

“Get the others,” he hissed. “We can’t do this alone!”

She had had to fight the wind to reach him and she fought it again, all the way up to Wilhelm’s door. Her yukata was soaked and clinging to her breasts, but she stepped inside anyway, to shout, “There’s a stranger out here trying to rescue your garden.”

Wilhelm had been soaking his sauerkraut, stirring it with juices from the bottom of the bowl, but he dropped his fork and hurried into his living room, closely followed by the two samurai. As Gorobei had done before them, the samurai undressed quickly and went outside in their loincloths, but because of the priest’s widow’s presence Wilhelm followed fully clothed, though he did carry two more umbrellas. The wind had lessened by then, gusting off toward the harbor, but that only let the rain come straight down, unrelenting in its assault on the tomatoes. Wilhelm opened his umbrellas, and when Ken took one from him Kyuzo grabbed both of Gorobei’s, letting the old man slump against the priest’s widow, who had come outside again, too, and now led him back toward the house.

“I’ll go get some stakes,” she said, “We have to make a proper cover.”

Michi received her brother while the priest’s widow ran to the back of the temple again to bring back various lengths of stakes and a roll of stiff paper. She drove her shorter stakes along the garden’s sides, the longer ones at its ends. “Help me!” she told the samurai. “Hold the paper tightly so it doesn’t fly away!”

She had loops of twine strung through her obi, and while they held the paper taut she tied it well, making Kyuzo think that the makeshift structures of man so often made it seem as if man and nature weren’t one. He resolved to write a poem about it later, and recite the poem to young Ken.

The men were wet and tired by the time she finished, intent on going back inside, but when the priest’s widow took a leftover stake and began to dig a drainage trench they all at least tried to appear to help. The samurai brought pebbles for the trench, then stood by watching as the rainwater went off toward the cemetery, while Wilhelm bobbed his head up and down in imitation misery, like the sorely beaten tomato plants.

Wilhelm’s door had been closed all this time, but when she saw them returning to the house Michi opened it. She had used some of Wilhelm’s dirty clothes to dry her brother, and had spread the rest across the floor to keep them from dragging the storm inside. Gorobei, meanwhile, still in his loincloth, had lit a fire in a brazier in the center of Wilhelm’s dinner table. He said, “Everyone sit down over here where it’s warm.”

Because the samurai were also in loincloths they were able to dry themselves quickly, but Wilhelm and the priest’s widow were trapped in soggy clothing. When Michi ordered them to undress, the priest’s widow did so without hesitation, letting one cold breast touch Wilhelm’s arm, and when she picked up his old bathrobe from the floor, slipping easily into it, that left only Wilhelm, naked beneath his yukata and with no desire to show himself to everyone else while he still didn’t know who “everyone else” was. He decided simply to ask, to bring things into the open, when Michi, who had seen his shyness, came from his study with trousers and a sweater and thick wool socks. Gorobei, meanwhile, brought recently heated saké from the kitchen, the best of his gifts from town.

Wilhelm had an ancient cuckoo clock, no larger than his two unfolded hands, that had once belonged to his grandmother in Dusseldorf. The clock no longer cuckooed, but hung on a beam above his table, the small blue bird peering out with its beak hinged open. That was how he felt as he shed his yukata and dressed in his old German clothes.

When they were all finally seated at the dining table Gorobei poured the saké. Having food and drink in front of him, however, made Kyuzo remember himself, growing suddenly ashamed that he had let the reasons for his visit go unstated for so long. He was about to speak, to simply say that he was taking Wilhelm into custody—“arresting” was a word he would stay away from—when Michi began talking. “My brother and I have been merchants in Shimoda for many decades,” she said. “But to speak frankly, young man, we have come here today in the hope that you might tell us something that will give us an advantage over others like ourselves when it comes to doing business with the Americans. You come from their part of the world and…”

She stopped and looked at Gorobei, who recognized his cue. “And do you think the Americans will be reliable trading partners?” he asked.

Wilhelm put a hand on the side of the potato bowl, feeling its warmth. He was suddenly hungry, so instead of answering Michi and Gorobei’s questions he said, “Let’s eat now and talk later. Or pretend we’re in Germany and do both at the same time.”

He took food from each serving dish and set it on Michi’s plate, European style, then he gave Kyuzo an equal portion. At the other end of the table the priest’s widow followed his lead and served Gorobei and Ken, but she took almost nothing for herself. The twins and Kyuzo wanted to get down to business, but now each quite separately supposed they should eat something first, out of politeness. That the food had maintained its heat was in its favor, but when they actually picked small bits of it up it lost its appetizing aspect. To look at foreign food was one thing, to eat it quite another. Gorobei even thought there might be a parallel in that, a similar equation to be made between considering foreign trade and actually trading.

Though in his heart he had known that Manjiro would not come, Wilhelm had worked hard on the meal, and as he watched these unexpected guests of his now he couldn’t help hoping for compliments. He didn’t get them, though, except a mild one from Ken, who said, “There’s a sharp flavor to the sausage and a satisfying calmness beneath the initial blandness of the potatoes. It would be useful for feeding armies after a battle.”

The others really hated the food. Kyuzo put a bit of potato on his tongue, but when he saw his opening he palmed it, while at the same time touching Wilhelm’s forearm, nearly dropping the potato on it.

“Speaking of armies, there will be one coming here soon,” he said. “A small one, maybe, but the size of an army doesn’t always dictate the level of its hostility.”

“I think the Americans call it a navy,” said Wilhelm. “And however things go I don’t think there will be hostilities.”

“Me neither,” said Michi, “but will they be considerate customers?”

Kyuzo frowned at her fiercely, furious over having the focus of the conversation usurped once again, but before he could retrieve it the priest’s widow spoke. She was wearing the foreigner’s bathrobe loosely, as if about to drop it from her shoulders.

“I don’t think there will be anything like hostilities,” she said. “I think that dealing with the foreigners will be fun.”

She hadn’t eaten anything but had drained three cups of saké, and bowed toward Wilhelm as if to say, “like dealing with this dear man has been,” and when Gorobei refilled her cup she finally took a piece of sausage. “When first we taste something new we are cautious,” she said. “It has an unfortunate smell, or it’s too thick, or just so consummately odd. But however strange something new might seem, we must remember that it is only a first impression. Knowledge breeds familiarity, and familiarity breeds affection.”

She let the piece of sausage sit upon her tongue.

“That’s precisely what my sister and I have been trying to tell those cowards at the Merchants’ Association,” Gorobei said. “If we can trade with those Edo idiots why can’t we trade with the Americans?”

“There is something of the Bushido in it, too,” said Ken, but his mouth was full and, in any case, he couldn’t remember what it was.

“Wait a minute!” said Kyuzo, staring at the priest’s widow. “You’re surely not saying that there are no real differences between peoples, are you? That this tension between Japan and America boils down to some misunderstanding, like between us and the people from Edo?”

Though it was her brother who had said the “Edo” part, Michi said, “That’s what she seems to be saying,” while Ken bowed deeply to Kyuzo, seeing his mentor’s point. “Sometimes when things are perfectly clear we still hate each other,” he said.

Gorobei got to his knees to pour more saké for those at the far end of the table.

“I’m only saying that after our suspicions are defeated we will end up trading anyway,” he said. “So why not do it now, get the jump on everyone?”

“After our suspicions are defeated we will discover that men are men and women are women, you mean,” the priest’s widow said. “That everywhere in the world, even though we might look different, we all want the same things.”

She had tears in her eyes, but only because she had finally been forced to swallow the sausage.

“Really?” asked Kyuzo. “What do you think it is, then, that everyone wants?”

“Children,” said Wilhelm, greatly surprising himself. “A man wants his name to continue.”

He looked around, then peered sharply at his cuckoo clock, as if maybe those words had come from it.

“When you’re right you’re right!” said Ken, but the others, all of whom were childless, ignored him.

“Well, I think everyone wants success,” said Gorobei. “To be respected in his community, to be looked up to while at the same time having a large pool of others to look down upon.”

“You’re all talking nonsense!” said his sister. “The unfortunate truth is that people want things to stay the same. They fear nothing so much as change. They want to wake up tomorrow like they woke up today!”

“Hmm,” said Kyuzo. “Did I not read a line on that very subject back in your study, Sir? ‘If ever I something something… ’ Change was in it, am I right?”

He was determined to tell Wilhelm that the change he would face, right after dinner, was that he was under arrest. Without using the term “arrest,” of course.

“Ah, the immortal Goethe,” cried Wilhelm. “In the master’s work there are gems on every subject. But I think you mean the part that warns against the common wish to leave things alone.”

He knew precisely which lines Kyuzo was referring to and was sorry for his own disingenuousness. This was what he had waited for, what he had wanted from Manjiro upon his return, and he spoke the lines now in as clear a voice as he could muster:

If ever to the moment I shall say:
Beautiful moment, do not pass away!
Then you may forge your chains to bind me,
Then I will put my life behind me,
Then let them hear my death-knell toll,
Then from your labors you’ll be free,
The clock may stop, the clock-hands fall,
And time come to an end for me!

Kyuzo was deeply, even profoundly, impressed. The Japanese was excellent, the meaning as clear as any haiku. He repeated the first line quickly, lest someone else pipe up and change the subject. ‘“If ever to the moment I shall say, beautiful moment, do not pass away!’ Now that is something that does speak to everyone. And Germans believe it too, you say?”

He didn’t want to diminish his appreciation of the line, but he also saw in it a way to finally tell this man that his own “beautiful moment” was about to come to an end. “Do you think…” he began, but the priest’s widow once more started talking.

“It is certainly correct to let a fine moment pass away naturally,” she said, “for to do otherwise will turn the moment artificial and sour, sending its beauty fleeing. But what if a person’s moments aren’t fine to begin with? What if they are dull and repetitive, with unending work and precious little acknowledgement from men? What is she supposed to do then?”

“But that’s how everything got started in the first place!” said Wilhelm. “I mean for Faust in my translation. He was a man of great accomplishment yet was as unfulfilled as he might have been had he never accomplished anything. Listen to what he says the first time we hear him speak.”

He couldn’t help himself, he’d kept his work private for far too long. He leaned toward the priest’s widow, his eyes on his robe where it parted to show him her breasts:

Well, that’s Philosophy I’ve read,
And Law and Medicine, and I fear
Theology too, from A to Zed;
Hard studies all, that have cost me dear.
And so I sit, poor silly man,
No wiser now than when I began.

Oh how easily he could have gone on! The next lines, in fact, were urging themselves up, strumming at his vocal chords like the chorus of a song. But he knew enough to stop now. “So you see,” he said, “Faust was a success, most men are failures, and there’s really very little difference. A sense of futility is not in the special providence of anyone.”

It was a moment of great poignancy for Wilhelm and for the priest’s widow, too, but for Kyuzo it was extraordinary, making him remember the poems he had exchanged years earlier with the only woman he had ever loved, poems from the Basho collection, Empty Chestnut. Until this moment he had believed that only Japanese could know futility so well. “After all it is true!” he cried. “We are closer than I suspected, the Western world and Japan, for all men in both places die alone!”

Gorobei agreed and was ready to seal the agreement with more drink, but Michi glared at him, making him stay his hand.

“Well, I suppose if nonsense is a value shared by everyone it’s a good thing to know,” she said. “But you’re all talking like a pack of scholars at a speech-giving contest. I agree that philosophy has its place, but we’re embarking on an entirely new phase of history here, and we’ve got our trading policies to think about!”

Ken’s eyes were as bright as two candles. His father had told him there would come a time when he might have to forgo the samurai life in order to engage in business, and when he heard this woman’s speech he felt sure that time was now. Samurai and merchants would blend into the future like… well, he was too full of drink himself to think of a proper comparison, but blend they would!

“Harrumph,” said Kyuzo, “To say philosophy has its place and in the same breath deny it, is nothing more than sophistry.”

“No,” said Michi. “It does have its place, but you don’t wage war during a tea ceremony, and look out at that harbor! Open your eyes! You don’t sit around talking philosophy when the American fleet is in town!”

Ken’s smile grew wider—my, how he liked this woman!—but Kyuzo’s eyebrows bunched together like two slugs marching across his face. “Maybe not,” he barked, “But when strangers knock on your door you don’t start right off with a tea ceremony, either! First you get to know their way of thinking. And what else is that but philosophy? Let’s leave sophistry for the sophists!”

Wayward as they might have been toward the end, those words made Wilhelm remember that four of the five people sitting before him now were strangers at his door, and that serving them this meal was as close as he could get to a tea ceremony.

“Well, I have taken to thinking of it this way,” he said. “During the daylight hours, whether at my desk in back or in my garden, I’m always very practical, always lending my energies to some productive activity. But at night, when the curtain of darkness falls, my mind tends to turn philosophical. Basically I guess I think we’re all pawns, pulled this way and that, first by the sun, then by the moon and the stars.”

“Oh, me too!” cried the priest’s widow. “My days are full, but how I hate those unending hours of dark!”

That had not been Wilhelm’s point but everyone nodded anyway, and with the momentary quiet came the realization that the rain had ceased. Gorobei looked at his sister and said, “We’d better take this chance to get going.”

When he went to put on his kimono Michi stood, too, then bent and ran a finger over the fine thick weave of the old German sweater Wilhelm had put on.

“So what do you think?” she asked. “Are we right to push for trade, my brother and me, or should we wait until we have a clear idea of the American character?”

Wilhelm finally understood the crux of the matter, for these two, at least, and was surprised, for he knew more about the character of that deranged cuckoo in his clock than he did about Americans. But she was waiting for an answer so he said something influenced by drink, telling her summarily to follow her heart. She was disappointed by such a vapid response but her brother was back by then, looking as splendid as he if had he been dressed by an attendant, as was his custom every morning, so she sighed and went to find their umbrellas. They had stayed far longer than intended, and this lull in the rain might not last.

Kyuzo, meanwhile, was still in his loincloth, trapped in his own inability to act. Ken, who had also gone off to dress, seemed fine with the fact that though they had come to arrest Wilhelm no arresting had even been mentioned yet, but Kyuzo was of the old school enough to believe that duty trumped willfulness, every time but one. That his one time might soon be upon him made him nod. Unlike Ken, he could never be a businessman.

The night had grown calm, everyone felt it when the twins stepped outside.

“This is not good news,” said Gorobei. “Our storm is merely hiding behind those mountains.”

He pointed at the peaks where Wilhelm trudged daily to collect his soil. In the other direction the bay was bright with lanterns, as busy as it had been during the day. Drunks warbled unintelligibly while geisha sang bawdy refrains.

“Those people!” Michi said. “When the Americans come ashore those same men will disappear and if the geisha sing at all it will be from the farthest corner of the room.”

She took her brother’s arm before he slipped on the leafy ground, falling and ruining his kimono. She walked him past the cemetery and soon they disappeared down the road.

Wilhelm had noted Kyuzo’s remaining nudity and hoped he might stay, that they might read more Goethe together long into the night.

“Why not come back inside?” he asked both men. “I have extra futon.”

His main room seemed larger now, but when he saw its terrible condition he shook his head. Not only were clothes flung everywhere, but potatoes dotted his tabletop like corpses, and sausages lay split-open, bleeding sauerkraut. He said, “I’ve been living like an animal,” and when the priest’s widow enlisted Ken to help her carry the dishes to the kitchen, and Kyuzo went into the back to sit at Wilhelm’s writing table, Wilhelm himself slumped against the nearest wall. He could have slept, letting them do what they would, never mind that he still didn’t know who they were. If ever to the moment I shall say: Beautiful moment, do not pass away! Oh, he’d been a fool these past few years, so close to those words yet also so very far away! Manjiro wasn’t returning, he was chasing his own beautiful moment up in Edo. Wilhelm let tears fill his eyes. The priest’s widow came back carrying tea and a note that Kyuzo had written at his desk just now. As she poured his tea she let him see the slender beauty of her forearms.

Wilhelm took Kyuzo’s note and opened it, seeing immediately that the older samurai had a good clear hand, much more confident than his own, and when he recognized an imitation of his translation, he sat up:

No chains will bind a man who leaves Japan,
When spring is storming high above the ocean,
To cast his lot once more among men,
Who look, but don’t comport themselves like him.
Then by your work alone you will be known,
No longer as a young lord’s hired teacher,
To all who study deeply, and are prone,
To know the world through marvelous translation!

The priest’s widow took the note from him, reading it herself. She had known from the beginning what Kyuzo and Ken had come for.

“I’ll go with you,” she said. “Here, in this very first line, he is giving us our chance.”

“I’ve been in this country fourteen years,” Wilhelm told her. “Seven here and seven in Nagasaki.”

That the image of Nagasaki should come to the priest’s widow then was odd, since she had never been there. But she pictured its castle perfectly, plus a much grander harbor than that which grew out of the sea to form Shimoda. No one had closed the outside door and as she leaned over Wilhelm now to do it she noticed that the rain had come again. “Unlike most people who live around here I was born far away, in the smallest of villages, in the highest of mountains,” she said. “My family was poor, and had I been prettier I would have been sold into training as a geisha.”

It was a good start, a storyteller’s beginning, and when Wilhelm let the tiredness leave his eyes, she took a moment to think how she might proceed, while both of them sipped their tea, and listened to the samurai snore.

Translations of Goethe by David Luke

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