The last refuge of the gods

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Baraki-san Myogyoji

Here is an oasis in time, the last refuge of the gods. They speak in every rustle of leaves, every chitter of insects and squawk of birds, in the steady thrum of crickets. Here, earth surprises you, soft underfoot and clean-scented from yesterday’s rain. Here, and only here, the city is but a dull, distant roar.

In late afternoon, shade reaches long fingers across scrubby grass, yearning to reclaim it from the light. I sit on a hard wooden bench beneath an immense spreading cherry tree, its elderly limbs buoyed up on crutches of mortal construction. Oh, the indignity, it groans, in some realm beyond human hearing.

Two children clatter by on elderly bicycles. Girls, around eleven or twelve. They find a squirrel, but fail to entice it closer. Clap, clap, clap; nature scatters, and the girls ride away. An elderly man, propelled by two wolves on a string, glances up for just long enough to give the world a scowl.

We are alone now, me and the tree, though hemmed in by spirits. The dead abide in neat rows of carved marble, squat and square yet overgrown with jutting wooden votive plaques that chatter like teeth in the wind. Here and there, a thoughtful family member has left the ghost of a favourite thing, and on this hot day the fading flowers and empty sake bottles are baking to a bittersweet haze so sharp you can probably taste it in the afterlife.

My eye is drawn, as always, to the largest of the gravestones. Though seemingly demure in jet-black marble, it’s the only one to depict its inhabitants, an elderly couple frozen in bronze. Seated, stiff, the requisite distance apart, he wears a three-piece suit with a five-button waistcoat, she a kimono that fairly crackles with starch, so tight about the neck you can’t help wondering if that wasn’t what did for her. Cold, inanimate, distant, in death as in life, as they wished to be remembered.

The seven storeys of the pagoda carve triangles of darkness into the light, a stairway to heaven. I shiver a little, as the sun slowly withdraws. It is time to return to my world, and leave the spirits to theirs.

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