Autumn Imperfection

Photo of Nagano Hills by Robert Jarrell

Sugoi! Miyuki says. What a nice library.

It’s a small, guest library, a place to get away from the main ryokan and relax and read. There are two bookshelves, a small kitchenette, a fireplace, and four tables, each with a pair of chairs.

Nice, Tom says, stepping across the tatami floor in slippers too small for his feet. Through the large windows he sees the Nagano mountains. They remind him of pears.

Miyuki says the library is a nice place for guests to read if they want to get away from their room or the hot baths.

Tom goes over to the stone fireplace and says it sure would be nice to make a fire.

They sit on a pair of zabuton, facing each other, a writing desk between them. Tom flips through a Japanese architecture book he pulled from the bookshelf and Miyuki gets ideas from a pottery magazine.

An old woman comes into the library. She says it is cold today and puts two logs in the fireplace. She points outside through the large windows at the distant sky and says it is snowing there.

Miyuki translates this for Tom and they both look through the large windows into the distance and see a gray formless sky beyond the autumn mountains. The yellow, orange, and burgundy trees clashing against the gray sky intrigues Miyuki. Tom is amazed the old woman knows it is snowing even though one can’t see the snow.

Tomorrow, the old woman says, the snow will come and fall over the ryokan.

Miyuki translates for Tom.

The old woman goes outside and gathers more logs stacked in a pile near the door and comes back in and puts them in the fireplace. She places kindle around the logs and lights a match and starts the fire. The old woman says the fire will heat the library and then she makes tea for Miyuki and Tom. They sip the tea, say arigato, and the old woman leaves.

Tom and Miyuki did not plan to stay at the library long, but now that there is a warm fire and tea Tom leaves and goes to his room to fetch a novel he has been reading. Upon his return along a garden path he sees a macaque, a Japanese snow monkey. It has a peculiar pink face with humanlike features and mottled gray and brown fur. Tom watches it descend the mountainside just a short way beyond the other side of the library.

Inside the library Tom notices smoke coming from the fireplace and a Japanese man adjusting the logs with iron tongs. Miyuki stands nearby, observing the Japanese man. Tom goes to the large window and tells Miyuki he saw a macaque. Miyuki translates to the Japanese man and she moves to the window too. The Japanese man doesn’t look up or move from the fireplace. Miyuki says that during winter the macaque come down from the mountainside to bathe in the natural hot springs to keep warm. The Japanese man moves the logs around and says something to Miyuki in Japanese and then she translates to Tom that moist wood burns smoke rather than fire. Tom tells Miyuki that the logs the old woman gathered from outside were moist, but she doesn’t translate this to the Japanese man.

The macaque can’t be seen so Miyuki goes back to the fireplace and watches the Japanese man adjust the logs. The Japanese man starts a conversation with her and since Tom can only understand basic Japanese he continues to search for the macaque. There is a river below that he can hear, but not see. He notices an old collapsed footbridge on the far side of the mountain. The ryokan is the most beautiful place he has ever visited—beautiful because of the natural scenery, hotel architecture, and the staff’s etiquette—but he knows nothing can be perfect. The collapsed bridge is a sign of imperfection and the Japanese would probably argue it is wabi sabi, the perfect imperfection. He goes back to the writing desk and sits cross-legged on the zabuton and reads the novel he brought from his room.

When the Japanese man finishes moving the logs in the fireplace he leaves. Miyuki tells Tom that the Japanese man is a pharmacist and that he left to get her some medicine because she has a sore throat. Tom tells Miyuki how fortunate it is she met someone who can help her and he moves to a writing desk closer to the fireplace because he felt cold where he was sitting before. The fireplace still burns smoke rather than fire so Tom gets up and moves the logs around with the iron tongs and then the smoke clears and the logs burn cleanly. Tom sits down on the zabuton again and drinks tea and reads the novel.

Miyuki tells Tom that the Japanese man’s wife is getting a two-hour massage at the ryokan salon and the Japanese man was bored so that’s why he decided to come to the library.

Two hours! Tom says. He’s surprised.

Expensive, Miyuki says as she moves around the library room, looking out the windows.

When the Japanese man returns he gives Miyuki the medicine and they talk some more. Tom looks up from the novel he is reading and notices the Japanese man is well dressed in wool slacks, turtleneck and blazer. He is in his late forties, about ten years older than Tom and his wife. He talks smoothly, calmly, and rarely looks over at Tom. The Japanese man’s gaze, as are his words, remain fixed on Miyuki who listens to the man and often agrees with him. Tom picks out basic parts of their conversation, but he doesn’t really pay much attention and instead looks at the burning logs. One log, burning in the center, breaks in half and one end rolls out of the fireplace onto the stone base, nearly rolling onto the tatami mat. Tom doesn’t bother to pick it up and throw it back in. The Japanese man and Miyuki don’t seem to notice. Tom watches the stray log burn weakly.

Ten minutes pass and Tom tries to ignore the Japanese man and Miyuki’s conversation, but it swarms around him like an annoying mosquito. To calm his irritation he ponders the macaque and where it might be now and what kind of life a monkey might have in Japan, but the Japanese man’s conversation with Miyuki irritates him so much he glances over at his wife several times. Miyuki notices Tom’s glances, but she doesn’t stop the conversation.

Tom finishes drinking his tea and without subtlety puts the ceramic cup on the writing desk. The Japanese man notices, abruptly stops talking, and gives Miyuki three business cards and a brochure about party boats. Miyuki tells Tom that the Japanese man has three successful businesses and Tom says that is wonderful, but thinks what does it have to do with him or his wife or their vacation. Then Miyuki says the Japanese man wants to take a photo of them. The Japanese man takes a camera out of a leather bag and Tom thinks it is strange that the man wants to take a photo of them, yet they will never see the photo, only the Japanese man will because it is his camera. In any other situation, if some stranger wanted to take a photo of him and his wife, he would never agree. Actually, he can’t think of any time in his entire life when some stranger wanted to take a photo of him. But since Miyuki thinks it is okay and it is all happening so fast—the Japanese man already has his camera out and is pointing it at him—he has no time to react or think it through. The Japanese man snaps the photo, bows, says arigato, and leaves.

Tom gets up and tosses the stray log back into the fireplace. It catches fire immediately. He moves to the window and looks for the macaque again but it is almost dark now and he only sees his reflection in the glass with Miyuki behind him, looking away. Tom wonders if behind the perfection—the etiquette and sublime presentation of time and space—there exist an invisible prison that confines people’s spirits and bodies. The Japanese, for instance, have developed and refined perfection to a degree beyond the capabilities of average human beings. Tom appreciates the idea that although perfection can never absolutely be obtained it can at least be attempted for the sake of beauty. But perfection can wear people out. During this trip Tom noticed how tired and dissatisfied Japanese people seemed, especially on the trains, and thought that maybe, after all, perfection is a burden. Miyuki had broken perfection’s spell and come to America, the great mediocre country with mediocre culture and mediocre Tom, but she seems different now in her native country; she seems pure Japanese again. Tom thinks maybe she wants perfection back in her life and listened to the Japanese man as if his words were perfect.

Tom and Miyuki leave the library and walk back to their room. Halfway along the garden path Miyuki stops and gazes at a quarter moon on the other side of the sky opposite where it is snowing. Tom stops alongside her. He makes the observation that no one ever sees the moon the same way twice and tonight it is like a magnet drawing Miyuki’s love away from him.

The Japanese man must have a nice life, Miyuki says to herself, but loud enough for Tom to hear.

He remains silent, considering her words, feeling that maybe things can still work out.

Clouds pass in front of the moon and Tom and Miyuki watch it vanish for a moment.