Thursday, June 10, 2010

A Snake in the Grass

How can I describe Shibata-san?

One Sunday morning, in a small church near home in Kugayama I noticed sitting on the front row a very tall young man, maybe nineteen or twenty, and from all appearances an ordinary Japanese university student. There were one or two small things which hinted that he might not be as ordinary as appearances suggested. It was hard to miss the enthusiasm he gave to singing hymns. He sang with particular exuberance, but in notes nowhere close to those of everyone else, almost as though he made up his own tune to fit the words. Impossible to find fault with this idiosyncrasy, as he clearly enjoyed singing, and to watch and listen to his song was a joyful thing.

Later, during the pastor’s sermon I sat in my seat several rows back, my eyes for the most part focused on the floor. At one point my look drifted across the floor to catch sight of one particular foot, jiggling in small rapid pumps, toes down and heel raised. Not too uncommon a tic to notice in an assembly of people. But I saw—could hardly miss—something special about this jiggling foot. There was a gaping hole in the sock, laying bare the entire heel, bouncing like a small pale moon within the dark sock of the young man who sang so lustily. He was neatly dressed and very well groomed, looking very in-fashion. Nothing sloppy or unwashed about his clothes, and even his shirt had the look of being fresh from the cleaners wrap.

When the service ended, members of the congregation stood about chatting, greeting those they had missed earlier, and generally doing what people do just after a church service has ended. Though he talked to no one, the well-dressed young man with the hole in his sock stood off to the side with a smile on his face. While others milled about the church talking and putting away Bibles and hymnals, he stood apart looking around almost expectantly, taking a few steps here or there, hesitant, waiting, with almost a frightened look in the eyes.

As I made a move to leave, I caught sight of the young man still near the front, but now looking at me with a shy or frightened expression. I had the impression that he wanted to look at me, but didn’t want to stare, didn’t want to offend. I put it down to a natural curiosity about a non-native who spoke and sang—somewhat at least—in his language, and who chatted freely with the Japanese churchgoers.

I put the too small slippers back in the hamper, retrieved my shoes from the shelf by the door and bent over, grappling with the shoe on my foot. Seems I had been followed to the door. I got the shoe on and walked down the stairs and out onto the street.

Just in front of the church is the Kanda River, one of those odd canyon-like city waterways trapped on both sides by high walls serving as flood barriers. That part of the Kanda flowing past the church bell tower is home to a large school of golden carp and a family of brown ducks. I often stood for long periods leaning over the railing looking down at these fish and ducks, marveling at their indifference to the litter which decorates and clogs their unnatural habitat. On this Sunday I again stood gazing down into the grainy, half clear water, watching the ducks quack about, splashing and hip-hopping up out of the water onto a grassy bank twenty feet or more below where I stood at the railing.

I felt rather than saw a shadow pass and looking up found myself face to face with the young man from church.

“Hello,” I said.

He stared at me, smiling, remaining silent. I sensed that he was afraid to speak. To give him more time, I made some casual remarks about the river, the ducks.

Another moment passed and then, as though suddenly catching on that it was his turn, he spoke. He looked steadily into my face, eyes as unabashed and as curious as a five year old’s.

“I’m Shibata.”

“Mr Shibata, is it?” A wider smile, but no indication beyond that of a coming reply. “So, uhh… do you live in Kugayama, Mr Shibata?”

“No. Mitaka.” This was a small city within the sprawl of Tokyo, about fifteen minutes by express train from Kugayama. “You come to church… Do you like church?” he continued.

I was grateful for his question, if for no other reason than it provided a springboard for our so far stuttering conversation. It was apparent that the young man was not going to be outgoing in this conversation, and I wondered how far I could carry the ball by myself, especially since I knew little or nothing about him. His question at least opened a door.

“Well, yeah, I suppose I like church. It most often gives me a good feeling.”

“Good feeling?”

“Mmm. I like the ceremony, the time talking to my Japanese neighbors. You know what I mean?”

Shibata looked at me for a moment, and with a slowly warming voice, offered an answer.

“Makes me feel good, too.”

“It does? Sometimes I kind of feel like the odd man out here in Japan, but here at the church nobody’s odd, and nobody’s out. I like that.”

I was vaguely hoping this would draw him out a little more, but he chose instead to stand looking down at the fish, as though wondering if the church they lived and swam near made them feel good, too. It gradually became clear that Shibata was one of those simple but good-hearted childlike adults who are able to do many things, yet still unable to venture far from home, to maintain a job or keep track of adult responsibilities. In this sense he was perhaps still a child, his manner and way of looking at me like that of a guileless young innocent.

We stood together watching the lazy carp for five minutes or so, and then I noticed from upstream a fairly large, brown snake swimming straight downstream, headed into the schooled carp just below our railing. Three excited schoolboys on the opposite side ran up and down shouting, looking for rocks to throw at the snake.

“Hey, did you see that! I almost hit ’im on the head!” the oldest of the three screamed with horrible glee.

“No fair, Takeda! That’s too big. You can’t throw that.” One of the boys had dug from beneath the nearby hedge a stone the size of a brick, and now held it overhead, ready to launch it at the snake.

“Oh, yeah? Watch this,” he said, hurling the stone with all his ten-year old might and missing not only the snake, but the water as well. His bomb smashed against the far wall and fell harmlessly onto a small grassy bank jutting out from the wall.

“What an idiot!” the one in the Beavis and Butthead T-shirt jeered.

With that they seemed to give up on throwing rocks and contented themselves with merely watching the snake.

By now it was fast approaching the carp, making a straight line for their gaping mouths. At first I thought the huge fish might try to swallow up the snake, but it was after all, too big for them, and they ignored it as it swam among them, making for another of the slightly protruding grass banks coming out from the stone walls. The snake finally slid out of the oily water and made for a drainage pipe in the wall. Finding that blocked, it settled somewhere in the deep grass, disappearing from sight.

I turned my attention again to Shibata-san and found him gripping the railing, knuckles strained white, and a look of pure horror on his face. In spite of his apparent aversion he hung out over the water, his body bent over, his arms fixed in stiff angles to the railing, eyes churning in their search for the vanished snake.

I held off saying anything, allowing him the time to enjoy his morbid fascination with the scaly creature.

A moment passed and maintaining his posture over the railing, he suddenly turned his head to me and laughed.

“That was something, huh?” I said.

“Did you see the snake? It was a snake. He’s down there in the grass,” Shibata said, wanting to share with me his excitement over the snake.

“Yeah. I hope he doesn’t decide to come to church.”

“Yiiiiiiiii! Don’t say that. Don’t say that!” and he laughed again.

I told him I had to go home, get away from that snake, and that set him to laughing again. Pushing off from the white-painted railing, I made an unhurried move for home, said I’d see him next week.

He said nothing, only smiling and turning his head back and forth from me to the snake down in the grass. With a wave goodbye, I skirted a row of parked bicycles in the next door lot, leaving young Shibata to marvel over a church-going snake.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America