Things You Dreamed of and Things You Didn't


Ann Tashi Slater

     What's hard to understand is how life slips past like a river, like the great Ganges carrying dead bodies to the sea. She took her son to Varanasi once, when he was twelve. The two of them went to the river at dawn and, wrapped in heavy shawls, watched an old man in a wooden boat drift into the mist. What happens to people when they die? her son had asked.

     They say that when you think about someone you've loved, the years distill down to one or two moments, everything else falling away. With her son, it's that morning by the Ganges. The years have passed too quickly, her son now grown, carried away as inexorably as the old man in the boat. The boy she held for nine months under her heart now somewhere out in the world, his face in sleep the face she knew like her own. How full of promise life had seemed when she was young, as if some lasting truth or happiness were always just around the next bend. But life had only flowed from thing to thing: moving to Tokyo, working as a translator, falling in love, their son's birth, her husband's death. She'd held on to her son, too much maybe, as the one constant in a world devised to sadden.

     She's left New York and moved back to the Tokyo neighborhood where she and her husband lived, where she raised their son alone. The house she's found isn't really a house, just a converted rickety wooden teahouse off an alleyway. Though it's winter, she doesn't use a heater, wanting to be only another element in the landscape of bare trees and frozen ground. She sleeps on an old futon under the window, waking to gaze at the pinpricks of starlight, tiny rips in the velvety firmament. Snow falls, seems to be falling all the time, and the stars too, blanketing the scarred roof tiles, the stones around the pond in the garden.

     One morning she wakes and eats a few bites of grilled fish, feeding the rest to a gray cat whose paw prints mark trails through the snow. Icicles hang from the eaves. Something a holy man told her in Varanasi pushes at the edges of her memory. Housekeeping in a dream. Most of us, he'd said, keep house in a dream, borne along by everyday tasks and preoccupations, never understanding what really brings happiness. Is this what her life has been?

     She dresses and hurries to the train station. Unsure of what to do, she ends up in Kamakura, where she came with her son 40 years ago. He'd been learning in nursery school about the Big Buddha and wanted to see it.

     The grounds of Kotoku-in Temple are deserted. Crows perch on the low, tiled roofs of the temple buildings and pink-red camellia petals swirl in the cold wind, settle like small hearts on the snow. She walks up to the ancient 13-meter tall Buddha, gazes at the greenish bronze body, the great head rising above the wooded hills beyond.

     "Where's the Big Buddha?" her son had asked all those years ago as he wandered around the base of the statue.
     "It's here, we're here," she'd told him, pointing up at the Buddha's face.
     He nodded. "But where's the Big Buddha?"
     "Just look and you'll see."
     He wandered around some more, then came back to her. "No, it's not here."
     They went for ramen on the Komachi-dori shopping street and he seemed oddly at peace, thanking her for bringing him to Kamakura even though they hadn't been able to see the Big Buddha after all.

     Now, the light of day fading to purple, bats dipping and twirling over the trees, she stands alone in front of the Buddha, looking up at the serene face that seems to incline towards her. Things happened, things you dreamed of and things you didn't. This she now understands. She hugs herself against the cold and turns in a slow circle, grateful for the blue-black crows, the whiteness of the snow on the green trees, the smell of burning wood, a single planet hanging low in the sky, this unexpected apprehension of the heart of the changing universe.