He was leaving. His meager belongings tucked into his school backpack, Makoto slipped out of his room and down the hall. The morning sun was creeping silently into the house. Shadows lingered in the living room like quiet storm clouds after a summer rain. He would soon be free.
“Good morning, Makoto.”
Makoto stopped, hoping the shadows would swallow him whole.
“I said, ‘Good morning.’”
It was Grandfather, of course. No one else would have been up this early. Sometimes he wondered if the old man ever slept. “Good morning,” he answered meekly. It sounded like a surrender.
“You’re up early,” remarked Grandfather. “I usually don’t have company at this time of the day. Come sit with me for a moment.”
Makoto sighed and crossed the room. Grandfather sat on the floor, a book leaning against his chest. It occurred to Makoto that it was still too dark to read. He crouched on the floor, expecting the old man to ask him where he was going so early in the day. But Grandfather sat motionless, making Makoto feel very uncomfortable.
“I’m—I’m leaving,” Makoto stammered in confusion.
“Ahhh,” Grandfather acknowledged.
“Leaving. Yes, yes, Makoto, so you are. But it’s not enough that one leaves. One must have somewhere to go. Where are you going, Makoto?”
“It’s boring here in Kyoto,” Makoto blurted out. “I’ve seen everything, done everything. Now I want to see the world.” He wondered if this sounded as silly to Grandfather as it did to him right then—an eleven-year-old boy wanting to see the world.
“Good,” Grandfather replied. “It’s good to see the world. But have you any money with which to see it?”
“Well, it’s expensive to see the world. You’ll need money for trains, food, and places to stay. I could lend you some money.”
Makoto hadn’t expected this. Was Grandfather actually going to assist his escape? “I could use a little more,” he admitted.
“Well then, you shall have it,” Grandfather said, “just as soon as you answer a very simple question for me.”
Makoto winced. He felt as if he were being cleverly pulled into a bargain he could not win. Nevertheless, he did need the money. “All right.”
“It’s about the garden in the center of the house. You know the one I mean?”
Of course he knew. There were small palms and other trees, bamboo, many flowers, massive rocks tucked into corners, and a stone lantern near a pond topped with yellow and purple lotus flowers beneath which swam silver and white carp.
“Well, in the east corner of the garden is a chrysanthemum in a pot. Tell me, what insect makes its home in the leaves but does not consume them?”
Makoto knew the plant. At least he thought he did. He had seen it hundreds of times. “I’m not sure,” he finally admitted. “I mean … I guess I don’t know.”
“Too bad. We can try again tomorrow if you wish. It will be our arrangement.”
The light of day was beginning to scatter the shadows, and Makoto thought he saw Grandfather smile.
He would not be fooled again. For the rest of the day, Makoto scoured the garden, searching for the answers to the questions Grandfather might pose. He memorized every bush and tree, every rock formation, and the location of as many insects as he could find. When dusk ended his day-long study, he confidently left the garden and collapsed into his bed.
It was a new day. Makoto arose silently and dressed. His arms and legs ached, though he wasn’t sure why. Had yesterday’s expedition to the garden done this to him, he wondered. It didn’t matter. He would answer Grandfather’s question, get the money, and leave. The arrangement would come to a very quick end.
“A black beetle,” he stated matter-of-factly a few minutes later.
Grandfather nodded. “Yes, it is the black beetle that makes his home in the chrysanthemum. But that was yesterday’s question. Here is today’s. There is moss on the cherry tree. On which side of the trunk does it grow?”
Moss! He hadn’t noticed any moss. He had been looking at trees and bushes and insects. Was this a trick? Maybe there wasn’t any moss. Maybe there was moss but on a different tree. “I … I’m not sure,” he finally managed. “To tell the truth, I didn’t notice any moss at all.”
He could have guessed, of course. If there really was moss, it would have to be on the east, west, south, or north side. But somehow Makoto didn’t want to risk being wrong.
Grandfather chuckled softly and motioned for him to leave. He kept chuckling as Makoto steered his sore legs in the direction of the garden.
And so the arrangement continued. Makoto, on his hands and knees, scurried through the ferns and aspidistra—studying and memorizing every inch of the terrain. Each morning he had the answer to the previous day’s question. And each morning he would slink away, confounded by his grandfather’s latest query.
Weeks passed. And though it was difficult to pinpoint exactly when it had happened, Makoto found that he began looking forward to the daily quest.
Until one day. Makoto was propped on his elbows, watching two ladybugs wind their way lazily up the stem of a beautiful plantain lily, when the thought struck him like a peal of thunder. He had forgotten to present himself to Grandfather for a question!
That morning Makoto had dressed, quickly consumed some rice cakes, then headed to the tiny garden. He had completely forgotten about the arrangement.
Uneasy, he got to his feet. Feelings of embarrassment, anger, and dismay flooded over him.
Grandfather was sitting nearby on the porch, softly playing a bamboo flute. His eyes were closed.
Makoto quietly approached his mentor. “Are you awake?” he asked, realizing just how ridiculous the question was after he had asked it.
“Very awake,” Grandfather quietly remarked. “And waiting.”
Makoto wanted to ask what his grandfather was waiting for but thought better of it. Our arrangement, he reminded himself.
“I’m here for my question,” he announced finally.
“Hmmm, yes, our arrangement. I’d thought maybe you’d forgotten.”
Makoto shifted uneasily. At least Grandfather wasn’t smiling.
The old man hesitated. “The question is: What insect makes its home in the chrysanthemum but doesn’t eat the leaves?”
Makoto stepped back and almost stumbled. What kind of nonsense was this? Grandfather was asking a question to which he had the answer, a question he had asked before, the very first question he had asked. His heart beat wildly. He could answer the question, get the money, and leave Kyoto to see the world. It was as simple as that. That was the arrangement.
But something prevented him from speaking. His mind spun silken images of the garden before his eyes—the red plum blossoms, the persimmon and mulberry trees, the green waterfalls of moss on the rocks. Why hadn’t Grandfather asked about any of these?
A whole world was in the garden. His world. An exciting, ever-changing world, one he had only just begun to explore. “I—I’m not really sure,” he stammered, not looking at Grandfather. “I mean … I don’t know, Grandfather.”
“No? Well, perhaps the matter requires a bit more study, hmm?”
Makoto glanced at Grandfather, who winked at him. He couldn’t remember his grandfather ever winking at him before. The old man unfolded his legs, rose from the porch, and draped one of his arms over Makoto’s shoulders. “Let’s go to the garden,” he said softly. “There may be a few things that this old man can show you yet.”
Makoto smiled. He was sure that there would be.