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The Buddhist nun had lived on Black Bamboo Mountain for over twenty years. She shaved her head after leaving a marriage she could only describe as tasteless. The priest who ordained her thought it might be convenient to have a live-in disciple for various chores and delights, but Koen had other aspirations. After a few wranglings and gropings through morning and evening sutra services, she convinced her ordination master to find a position for her in a remote village temple. And so she had come to Black Bamboo Mountain to live alone and perform the occasional funeral and memorial rites needed by the villagers at the foot of the mountain. In return they brought yen notes in red-bordered envelopes and wheelbarrows with vegetables and sacks of rice eked out from a life on rocky soil. When Koen was off in the mountains gathering wild herbs or meditating up in the stone hut next to the temple graveyard, they would leave their offerings just inside the entryway. The temple had been abandoned for over forty years before Koen came. The villagers held Black Bamboo Mountain in awe. They found some solace now in having their own village priestess living there, consecrating by her presence a haunted, ominous place full of poisonous mamushi snakes and damp clinging spirits. They sensed that the physical placement of the temple buildings, a stone and wood enclave nestled up against a cliff face where a spring charged from underground, somehow gripped unhealthy vapors and unresolved spirits close to earth, a dank torpor invading the grounds. Tales of the exceptional fervor of long-past abbots had been passed down and embellished through generations; village mythology had transformed ardent misanthropes into revered ascetics. The village could only offer meager subsistence to the temple priest and before Koen there had been no one willing to give up the more lucrative congregations farther down the valley, where the rocky soil eroded into broad fertile rice paddies and lush vegetable gardens.

Every morning at four Koen rose from her bedding on the straw-matted floor, dressed in her black monk's robes, lit a stick of incense in front of the memorial plaque dedicated to her aborted baby (her husband had convinced her that the threat of deformity was great since she had contracted mumps during her pregnancy), whispered a short sutra, and climbed the rocky path to the meditation hut. Her feet knew the bumps and turns of the trail even on the darkest of nights, though others found the leaf and moss-covered rocks treacherous. At the top of the path, the meditation hut nestled at the end of a small well-tended graveyard. Lofty cedars cast perpetual shadows on the five monuments marking the remains of the temple's previous abbots. Koen tended the graves with care, sweeping the leaves daily, changing the water in the bamboo vases every other day and replacing the shikimi greenery and flowers of the season weekly. She gathered the greenery herself from the surrounding woods and grew some of the flowers--chrysanthemums, godetia, peonies --in pots in the few spots of the temple yard that received sufficient sunlight.

Koen lit a candle and a stick of incense in front of the serene Buddha on the tiny hut's altar, then bowed and seated herself in lotus position on her meditation cushion. She gazed out the screen door at the neatly swept moss carpet of the graveyard before beginning her meditation. A sense of profound settledness engulfed her, a feeling of place and connectedness, roots reaching deep into the moss-covered soil and branches reaching high up toward the sunlight and beyond. She struck a brass bell three times to invite the beginning of meditation, each ring of the bell fading into the soulful silence of Black Bamboo Mountain at dawn.

After dinner throughout the harsh winter months Koen gathered up leftover rice and vegetables stewed in soy sauce and scooped them into a tin pan. She pushed open the kitchen door with her elbow and with a loud rising and falling whistle and a clicking of her tongue, called to the tanuki and other needy creatures. Setting the pan at the base of a cliff of red soil, she walked back to the kitchen, slipped her wooden geta off outside the door, and took up her post over a sink doing dishes and watching for evening visitors. Sometimes a greedy gargling and oily flapping of wings would signal that the ravens had caught the scent, their inky shapes almost indiscernible in the waning light. But most often a pair of tanuki, badgerlike animals, would cautiously wend their way toward the pan, one of them making a nervous pass at the food before the smaller tanuki would steal from the shadows and join her mate. Any unexpected noise or disturbance would send the two of them skittering back into the blackness, sometimes attempting to drag the pan with them.

The tanuki of Black Bamboo Mountain lacked the distended stomach of the typical pottery version, like the one appealing to guests in front of the village inn. In the depths of winter though their rust and chestnut coats grew thick and fluffy, their earnestness in gulping down the treats Koen left betrayed their inability to gather sufficient food on their own. The tanuki so popular in folklore often clutch a jug of sake and wear a hat fashioned from a lotus leaf. Dressed in priest's robes, the tanuki is seen as the essence of gratitude, while stories abound of the tanuki as a trickster, a fool, a grateful friend or a malicious nuisance.

Koen knew that most villagers considered tanuki to be troublesome or even malevolent. Farmers cited examples of raided chicken coops and dug-up sweet potatoes as evidence of their wayward ways. Koen was careful to wait until dark to set out her offerings, knowing that the villagers' uneasiness with the spirits of Black Bamboo Mountain increased with deepening nightfall. Only when there was an unexpected death among the parishioners was it customary for anyone to ascend the darkened steps of the temple gate.

One evening as Koen turned back toward the house after placing a pan of treats in the usual place, she caught the sound of someone walking on the gravel path leading from the temple gate. As she debated whether to hide the pan of food, old widow Kinoshita with the toothless grin waved and called out, "Abbess! Good evening! I've just finished my pickled turnips for New Year's and here's a jar for you!"

Kinoshita-san's husband had been a hard-working farmer, with an unquenchable thirst for sake. He died in a fiery car crash and left a widow of forty-three and two sons. There were many good-natured jokes about widow Kinoshita's husband hunting, even in her present toothless state. She was one of the more frequent visitors to Black Bamboo Mountain, bringing bunches of long white radishes from her garden or a freshly-cooked delicacy like the pickled turnips. On her way back down to the village, she'd encounter other women, shake her head and say with a mixture of satisfaction and puzzlement, "Such a lonely life in such a desolate place. A little hair and she'd still have a chance." Koen usually enjoyed these visits, but this night she was concerned about what widow Kinoshita would say when she saw her feeding the tanuki. "Pardon me, I had some scraps and thought I'd leave them for the 'hungry ghosts,'" Koen said.

Widow Kinoshita clucked disapprovingly, and said, "Everyone knows you feed those damn tanuki. If you ever saw what they can do to a field of sweet potatoes, you'd think twice, but I guess I can't blame you for wanting some company. They're a little furry for my tastes, but Lord Buddha knows I wouldn't mind a pal of my own. Eeeee-heeeee!" Widow Kinoshita gave a wide-mouthed cackle and bent over in two with her own joke. Koen enjoyed a laugh, too, and the matter was forgotten.

When the winter winds abated and there was no longer a threat of snow, Koen ceased the nightly ritual, fearful that the animals would become completely dependent on her offerings and forget how to fend for themselves. For the first couple nights that she left off feeding them, she thought she caught a glimpse of the larger tanuki hanging around her kitchen door, and once at dawn she had seen him again scrambling up the path to the hut behind her, but now it had been several weeks since she had seen a sign of them.

On a moonlit dawn in April Koen rose and threw open the shutters to her sleeping room window. For a moment she thought it had snowed during the night, the flash of white on the ground dazzling her eyes. Then she remembered a breeze insinuating itself into her dreams, rattling the shutters, and realized she was gazing on a carpet of freshly fallen cherry blossoms. The dark silhouette of the immense branching cherry tree stood in stark contrast to its blossom-illuminated splendor just the day before. Koen put on her meditation robes, tied the cording around her waist and, upon lighting the stick of incense in front of the memorial plaque for her lost baby, was filled with a perplexity of anguish and gratitude, a deep recognition of the evanescence of life.

The moon was sinking into the pine-topped hill as she ascended the stone path. The hut seemed to embrace her in her state of deep sensitivity, and lighting another stick of incense before the simple altar, the wafting smoke again spoke to her of impermanence. She thought of a great Japanese Zen master who made the vow to become a monk upon seeing the curl of incense smoke at his mother's funeral. As she bowed toward her cushion, she glanced outside and noticed that even in this season there were needles and leaves and a few twigs scattered over the graveyard moss. She sensed her meditation practice as just this- sweeping, sweeping, sweeping. She sat and breathed deeply, inhaling the smoke and the smell of the woods.

At the first striking of the bell, she thought she heard an answering squeak, an almost imperceptible animal sound from somewhere that felt like deep inside her. With the second ring, there was most certainly a louder high-pitched whimper, a muffled answer to the bell. Koen deepened her concentration and hesitated before the final strike of the bell. Her hand strained in midmotion over the brass bowl, she drew in a breath scented with cloves and sandalwood and expectation. As she tapped the bell for the final ring, quieter than usual, she felt her breath enveloping the little hut. Immediately a jumble of squeakings and squawkings broke out from somewhere under the hut's floor, and Koen joined the clamor with a tumble of merry laughter.

So that's what her tanuki friends had been up to lately! The tiny voices were silenced with a lower growl, and Koen, too, feeling chastised, returned to the source of her sitting with renewed vigor. She intuited rather than felt the motion beneath her, could sense the huddle of warm bodies settle into a collective calm that she, too, was part of.

Sliding the heavy wooden door to the hut closed a couple hours later, she walked to the far side of the structure and noticed a crude tunnel dug precisely under the spot where her meditation cushion sat Koen squatted to peer into the dark cave and a low growl issued from the indistinct depth. She gave a sotto voce version of her rising and falling whistle to reassure the mama, and again sensed rather than saw a relaxing of the brood. Making a mental note to bring an offering of food the next time she came to the hut, Koen started downward toward the temple yard.

Each day of the following week the tanuki under the hut seemed to grow more comfortable with her presence, no longer shushing when she was on her cushion. She followed in her mind's eye the tumblings and cavortings of the little ones beneath her and saw the mama coming and going out the tunnel a few times. One day after an especially deep meditation session, Koen felt a presence over her right shoulder. Upon opening her eyes and turning her head to glance out the screen door, she saw five furry pups crowded around the doorway peering in at the candle on the altar. One of the tanuki shifted its gaze to hers and with two high-pitched squeaks alerted the others and they stumbled over each other toward their tunnel. Koen laughed aloud and clapped her hands in joy, delighted with her new friends.

When she left the hut that morning she saw a few furry faces peeping out of their hole and she bowed respectfully toward them and said in a quiet voice, "Tanuki-sama! Welcome to the celebration!" She reached the bottom of the stairs and looked back up to see a pile of fur rollicking about in the graveyard with squeaks and squawks, like little kittens. The thought came to her that these were the previous abbots revisiting Black Bamboo Mountain in tanuki guise, expressing their gratitude toward the mountain's sanctuary for lives well lived.

That evening as Koen was finishing up the dishes the bell announcing a visitor in the entryway jangled. She wondered if widow Kinoshita could have died. She had complained of a bad cough around New Year's and each successive report indicated that she hadn't recovered. Just as she thought this, Koen heard the dry hacking of the woman, and for a moment she thought she might be perceiving her from the other side. This kind of event wasn't unusual for Koen, who experienced the boundaries between life and death as permeable. As the coughing subsided, Koen dried her hands and removed her apron, and when she came into the hall to see the old woman standing in the entryway, she blinked hard and then gave a laugh of relief.

"Abbess," the widow addressed Koen, "the villagers are having a meeting at the village hall and asked me to come invite you."

"Maaaaaa, such trouble for an aged woman. I'm sorry to put you out," Koen replied in a formalized manner, wondering what the meeting could be about, requiring her presence at this hour.

"No, no, no, no trouble. Please, come as you are and we'll walk together," said the widow.

Koen took her priest's vestment off a hook near the hallway and draped it around her neck, tossed a shawl around her shoulders and slipped on her outdoor shoes, still wondering what this meeting could be. She hoped the old woman would clue her in along the way, though she didn't feel she could inquire directly. But the old woman chattered on about the moon that morning, the state of her garden, how the village kids were growing so quickly, and Koen couldn't catch any sign of what this was about.

When they arrived at the village hall, the widow pushed Koen through the door ahead of her, and Koen took in the village elders kneeling around the glossy lacquer table, chatting amiably while the women scurried about filling sake and beer glasses. Koen bowed formally with her palms together, and in one voice the villagers cried, "Abbotess, welcome!" The men scooted together making a place of honor for Koen and she said, "Maaaaaaa, such trouble you go to! Don't let me interrupt your fun!"

Upon being seated, the village head placed an empty glass in Koen's hand and gestured for a bottle of beer. "Just a sip among friends," he said, as he poured the glass halfway full. Koen was swept along with the scene and forgot to protest as she nodded in greeting to several of the villagers.

Putting the beer bottle down, the village head shouted, "Kampai Cheers! To our illustrious abbotess, guardian of Black Bamboo Mountain!" and all the villagers shouted, "Kampai!" while several of the women rushed to pour themselves a swallow to join in the toast. Koen felt the flush immediately as she sipped the beer, a physical reaction to the concentration of attention fixed on her. The village head cleared his voice in the manner of beginning a formal, memorized speech and said, "Koen-sama. Indeed we are all indebted to you for your years of service as abbotess and protector of Black Bamboo Mountain."

Koen shifted uneasily on her heels, sensing there was something more than just gratitude motivating this meeting and speech.

"For twenty-five years you have faithfully served as our spiritual mentor, performing our memorial rites and funerals in a worthy Buddhist manner, helping our ancestors cross over to the other shore. You have tended Black Bamboo Mountain impeccably, serving the spirits of our departed abbots in an exemplary way, and indeed, have provided us all with a model of Buddhist virtue." The grizzled man lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone and continued, "I might say I was one of those who was somewhat skeptical of having a woman assume the position of abbot, but I have nothing but words of praise and gratitude to offer you after your fine service."

"'After' my service?" Koen thought. So there is some dissatisfaction, some desire to replace me? This thought came to her not with panic or anger, but with a deep sadness. Black Bamboo Mountain was indeed a part of her, and she a part of it. She sensed how the contentment she had striven for in her earlier days had indeed settled upon her in her solitary life on the mountain. But how could she think of leaving? Above the boom of the village head's voice and the hush of the assembly, Koen strained her ears to catch a curious scratching sound from underneath the floor. No one else seemed to notice.

"We of the village have conferred and, knowing what a great amount of work it is to keep the grounds of the temple to the extent that you have, we feel that at your stage of life it is only right that you be provided with relief from such an onerous task. We therefore have drawn up a design for a small cottage for your retirement, and Tanaka-san," he nodded with an ingratiating grin toward one of the village elders, a wealthy widower retired from his sake and wine delivery business, "…has graciously offered a building site at the corner of his property." Again the curious scrabbling of claws on wood focused Koen's attention, a noise that she alone could readily interpret.

"Maaaaa, it has been my duty and, I may say, delight to be a part of Black Bamboo Mountain these twenty years and I most certainly am not complaining about the work involved..." Many of the villagers present also saw through the village head's words immediately, knowing how Koen still roamed the forests each spring digging bamboo shoots, and continued to rise earlier than most of the farmers. "But if it is the village's will to have me step down, well......I don't know what to say. It's certainly a most generous offer and I will consider it carefully..." Her voice became more distant, as if even now she was drifting away from the village. The scratching on the floor had ceased and Koen strained to follow the actions of her invisible companions. What were they up to?

At this point, the broad-shouldered president of the farmer's alliance stood and said, "As a matter of fact, we've consulted with the temple authorities, and it's been arranged for my son, Kazuhiro, to obtain his priest's papers and succeed you as our next abbot. As you may know, the abbot of Tachitani, the next village, plans to step down from his position and Kazuhiro will be taking over the duties of that congregation also."

Koen knew she should be concerned, even alarmed at this turn of events, but even now her attention was concentrated more closely on her five furry companions outside than on the unexpected proceedings unfolding before her.

The old woman who had escorted her to the meeting gave her a nudge, and she realized the villagers were awaiting her response.

"Well, I thank all of you for giving me the opportunity to...." and at this, a great clatter of glasses shattering on the kitchen floor diverted everyone and the village head's wife appeared in the doorway brandishing a broom.

"Tanuki!" she shouted, and everyone laughed and poked each other, some of the farmers vociferously shaking their heads and launching into tales of other furry encounters. Koen, taking advantage of the pandemonium, stood and excused herself, mumbling something about "her children" and the women nearby giggled and made way for her to leave the hall.

Outside in the chilly evening, Koen gave her whistle then clapped her hands in annoyance, shooing the tanuki on home ahead of her. She was joined by widow Kinoshita, who said, "Abbess, I know it's a surprise but the cottage will really be quite fine. Any one of us would be proud of it. You can do your gardening there, join us for our teatimes....." she left off in mid-sentence as she watched Koen hurry toward the temple steps, realizing that though she may have taken her vows out of necessity, the abbess had really been quite content with her life on the mountain. This came as a shock, for it had been Kinoshita who had suggested the plan to the farmers' alliance president when his son lost his job in the nearby town.

"Good-night, grandmother," Koen called down from the gate of the temple. "Take care in the dark."

"Good night, abbess. Think about it. Tomorrow you will see it's a good plan," said the old lady, though she knew now her words were false.

The following day when widow Kinoshita returned to the temple to confess her role in the plan, carrying an offering of bamboo shoots dug by her grandchildren, the abbess was nowhere about. She pushed open the door to the entryway, calling, "Abbess? Koen-sama?" She noticed the place tidied up even more than usual, and in the corner of the entryway was a bundle tied up in a purple scarf with the temple's insignia on it. Resting on top were Koen's vestments. The smell of incense suffused the air and Kinoshita-san, rather than feeling a sense of unease, became aware of a supreme serenity. It was not a new feeling; it was just that her preconceived dread of Black Bamboo Mountain fell away and for once she could appreciate the soulful stillness of the place.

Placing the bamboo shoots next to the bundle clad in purple, widow Kinoshita turned to contemplate ascending the dilapidated steps leading to the meditation hut. Somehow she knew there would be no answer to her calls, and as she closed the door of the entryway and glanced up toward the temple graveyard, she saw amidst the gravestones six tanuki pups peering down at her.


I Say Tomato! | Tanuki
I'm High Maintenance | Tenacity
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