Mrs. Murakami´s Garden

Mrs. Murakami´s Garden

Mario Bellatin

Mrs. Murakami Izu’s garden would be dismantled over the next few days: the large white and black stones that had bordered the garden were to be removed. The water pathways and the central lake, where one could always admire the golden carp, would be drained. Mrs. Murakami used to sit by the lake and watch the reflections of scales and fins for hours on end. She abandoned this pastime only after she became a widow. During the mourning period, the house remained closed. The windows stayed shut. Yet, the garden maintained the same splendor as always. The dwelling was still in the care of Shikibu, the old servant. An old man with plenty of experience was hired by Mrs. Murakami to come and look after the garden twice a week.

Some late afternoons, when the shadows draw distorted silhouettes, Mrs. Murakami sees her husband’s figure on the other side of the pond. Occasionally, she notices that he is waving, as if beckoning to her. Mrs. Murakami usually sits on a stone situated on the esplanade and squints to see the apparition more clearly at the back of the garden. These appearances by her husband occur only when the atmosphere is suitable. Once she saw the ghost descending vertically into one of the water pathways.

Her husband’s death was a painful moment. He spent his last days in a state of constant delirium in which he cried out for Etsuko, his wife’s old servant. He wanted to see her breasts again. At first, Mrs. Murakami pretended not to understand these demands. She turned a deaf ear to his words and always wore a serene mask at her husband’s deathbed. Only Shikibu noticed the flush on her pale cheeks when Mrs. Murakami’s husband talked about Etsuko in front of the doctor.

Mrs. Murakami allowed no one to visit her sick husband. Not even the friends who used to dine with Mr. Murakami once a week were welcomed. To vent the rage caused by her husband’s unusual conduct, she went out into the garden, while the body of the recently deceased was prepared. She pulled out the bamboo stems her husband had planted on the inauguration of the house. They were real bamboos—whose small trunks Mr. Murakami had obtained on the Night of the Illuminated Lanterns when he asked for her hand in marriage. This fit of fury went unnoticed by the funeral parlor employees. Shikibu shut the doors and aluminum windows looking out on the garden. Then she tried to calm her mistress. She suggested she take a bath, scented with wild herbs, and prepared the kimono she would use for the ceremony. It was the lavender-colored kimono Mrs. Murakami had worn at her wedding. On the back it was decorated with two blue herons in flight. The obi chosen was intense red. While the employees took a long time to ready the husband for the funeral, Shikibu carefully combed her mistress’s hair. Her hairdo was complex. To Mrs. Murakami, it seemed pretentious. Having her hair done this way, she thought no one would recognize her, not even her husband’s old friends. She was worried about what they would think. Shikibu consoled her with soothing words, helping her see how she had kept her strength intact despite the circumstances.

The funeral took place on a splendid day. The sun illuminated the garden with a rare intensity. The white stones looked brighter than usual. The black stones absorbed the light until they appeared matte. Before leaving for the service, Mrs. Murakami walked by the water pathways. She saw the small lake out of the corner of her eye. The fins of the carp shone as if giving off their own light. She would have liked to stay there and watch the fish. But outside, the funeral party waited for her in the black car that had belonged to her husband.

* * *

Mr. Murakami had owned a black car manufactured after the war ended. At first it was assigned to a foreign colonel who’d rarely used it before he was suddenly sent abroad. His friends reproached him for such an ostentatious acquisition, considering the country’s economic situation. Likewise they did not approve of his business dealings with the occupying forces. Mr. Murakami laughed off such criticism. He defended himself saying the others would soon follow suit. In fact, in no time at all, his circle of friends had no qualms about displaying their wealth for all to see.

Mrs. Murakami remembered the car with apprehension. When he began courting her, her future husband sent his chauffer to the door of her house with expensive gifts. Mrs. Murakami—at that time just Izu—watched from the window as the car parked outside the iron gate. The first gift was of black orchids, the kind that grew in the islands to the west. At that time her father’s illness worsened. He spent most of his day in bed. It’s true, her suitor was a widower and a bit too old for her—Izu was about to turn twenty-five. Still, her family was not in a position to turn him down. Many people knew her parents were anxious to marry off their daughter. They had asked for her hand on two occasions. But unfortunate incidents had hindered both marriage proposals. The first of her two suitors, Akira, died of rabies. One afternoon he was bitten by a small dog as he was leaving his fiancée’s house. Akira hardly attended to the wound on his right leg. He took no notice of the incident and two months later died from nervous fits. Her second suitor, Tutzio, was never heard from again after taking a trip before their wedding. He was going to America for a short time. He wanted to visit his brothers before the ceremony and explore the possibility of immigrating with his wife once married. In fact, he wanted to apologize for his behavior on a previous trip. One year later Izu heard a rumor that his brothers, before his arrival in San Francisco, had arranged his engagement with the daughter of the man who owned a chain of oriental restaurants.

After those setbacks, Izu decided to forget about any future marriages and dedicate herself to her studies. She studied art theory in one of the most important universities in the city. Her goal was to distinguish herself as a critic. She met Mr. Murakami through her scholarly pursuit. Mr. Murakami had a collection of traditional pieces at home. His collection was not very extensive, but enjoyed great prestige. Many objects dated back to the tenth century. His friends, with whom he met once a week for dinner, were responsible for naming that part of his house the Murakami Museum. He had inherited most of the articles from his father, who had made his fortune in foreign trade the century before. Since he was a young man, his father’s interests had encompassed not only business, but also a variety of works of art. He always found time to attend kabuki performances or spend days in museums and antique shops. He had never studied art, but he seemed to have the faculty of instantly recognizing a valuable piece. His talent soon made his collection the talk of the art specialists. The businessman instilled in his son his passion for accumulating possessions. On his deathbed, he left his son the house and everything in it. Before the father died, the son had promised to expand the collection, to turn it into the most important one in the country. However, he couldn’t keep his word. All was well while his first marriage lasted, with the honorable and sickly Shohatsu, and still during the years as a widower. But after the day he met Izu, nothing was ever the same again.

– Mario Bellatin (México, 1960). He is the author of several novels including Salón de belleza, finalis for the French Médicis Prize for Best Foreign Novel, and Flores, the winner of the 2000 Xavier Villaurrutia Prize. His work has been translated into French, German and English. In the US, Toshiya Kamei is currently translating Mrs. Murakami’s Garden.

Posted: April 7, 2012 at 8:39 pm

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