#29 Pine Trees
Welcome to the 29th Story Press! This week, we are transported to the northern mountain towns of Japan as a painting reminds our protagonist of a scene from his childhood.
#29 Pine Trees
Six panels. A milky brown colour like the paper we tea-stained at school reproducing ancient texts. Half of the panels have barely anything on at all. The first, on the far left, has a smattering of charcoal in the top-right quadrant. And though there is nothing below, beside or above that smattering, I know somehow that it is a faded sketch of a pine tree. It has two branches stretching out either side with pine needles scattered in every direction. That the brain makes that conclusion, looking at what may in other circumstances be considered a spilled drink, never ceases to amaze me. That we can look at a part of something, a really miniscule, irrelevant thing on its own, and construct a whole world around it, and make something of it. That is beautiful.
Elsewhere across the piece there are odd, faded sketches of pine trees of different shapes and sizes. In the second panel, to the right of the first tree we looked at, is one sketched from top to bottom, but in its entirety it doesn’t scale nearly half the height of the first tree we looked at, despite that first sketch only revealing the very top of a tree. It’s as though we’re looking at this second tree from miles and miles away, where the first is much closer.
And beyond that, where your eyes are first drawn, are two dark trees, black with the blackest of charcoal, aggressive, tall and dominating. One, on the furthest right panel, sways to the left, its branches bending round in a whipping motion, like it’s fighting against force ten winds. At the foot of the trees are discombobulated piles of rocks and dirt.
Fifty-five years ago, my father took me to where he grew up, a city called Kōriyama in the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan. It was my first time on a plane, flying from the west to the east for what seemed an eternity. We had to change planes and then drive. And by the time we got there I felt as though I were another year older.
The purpose of the trip was for my father to introduce me to my grandmother, who lived in a small town called Motomiya. I had never met her before. However, once we were there, we didn’t spend nearly as much time with her as I thought we would. We saw her for all but an hour each day, and the rest of the time he took me out to show me around the local area. Firstly, we went to see where my grandfather was buried. Then, my father showed me where he went to school, the park he went to to play games with his friends, and the library where he stole books to keep under his bed. He showed me where he first kissed a girl.
My father was a quiet man. He rarely talked unless he had to. He was a serious man, too. But I remember him smiling an awful lot on this trip. I thought it was for seeing his mother, but now I think it was for seeing his town.
One day, after visiting my grandmother in the morning, he took me to Lake Inawashiro, with the vast Mount Adatara in the distance. He stood beside the lake and looked out for a long time. It was a very interesting view, of course, but he looked out for so long I began to get restless and bored. I started to kick the stones from under my feet and throw things into the water.
‘Stop that!’ he barked. And when I stopped, he said nothing. He stared out for longer. Occasionally, he’d mutter, ‘Sit down’, ‘Behave yourself.’
But he never stopped staring out.
I wanted to know what he was thinking, but I didn’t want to disturb him either. It was as though, if I’d said something, it would break a spell and some great thing would be undone.
And so he stared and stared and I fell asleep. And then in one moment, as though waking from hypnosis, he said: ‘Let’s go.’
He drove me away from the lake and back to our hotel where we picked up our bags. My father said that he had had enough of being here and that we had to leave. We stopped by my grandmother’s. He told me to wait in the car. He went in and said goodbye and was with her for about ten minutes.
As we drove away, towards Tokyo, we stopped about half way in the Nikko National Park. I thought my father needed to go to the loo, but he got out of the car and ran away from the car park and into the woods. I opened the door and ran after him. He had run very quickly, down a slope, through the brambles, into an opening beneath the trees. It was sunny, but cold, and the dirt was frozen. He came to a skidding stop and sat down at the foot of a pine tree and stared up at the sky.
I watched from a distance, unsure what was going on. He swiped a hand through his hair and rubbed his face a lot. My feet were glued to the spot. Heavy as anything. It was my turn to stare, but rather than staring at a landscape, I stared at him. What had come over him? What was he doing here, in this otherwise random wood? Why was he sat down on the floor crying like a kid bullied in the playground?
I didn’t know what to do until I did. After several minutes, I walked slowly towards him, waiting for a sign. He did not usher me away, he did not say anything.
I sat down next to him, just a boy, and put my hand on his shoulder. I thought he might tell me to go back to the car, or to stop that! But instead he lifted his hand and took mine in his, and held it to his forehead, like it would cure some pain there.
We stayed like this for a long time. He wept as though he’d been hit by the saddest news. Though, of course, nothing had happened as far as I know.
A short while later, he wiped away his tears, stood, and led me back to the car.
We drove back to Tokyo and flew home the next morning.
We never spoke of it again and I never remembered that until now, as I stand in front of this charcoal sketch in the Tokyo National Museum, with my wife and our pregnant daughter beside me.