The Garden of Mono No Aware

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by Brett Milam

Kento tended to his small garden with no gloves over his wrinkled hands. He preferred it that way. While his eyesight and hearing had eroded over the years, he could still feel the dirt on his fingertips.

At the start of the 20th century and after the war with the “winter soldiers,” Kento worked in a cotton mill. He started as a bagger, bagging bales of raw cotton. Then he became a picker, cleaning the cotton and organizing it into sheets.

While decades of machines and the vacuum system used to transport the cotton from one room to the next took his ears, it did give him the modest means to acquire a wooden bungalow near the Motoyasu River.

He learned gardening as a boy from his grandmother, Akira, although he called her Aki because he couldn’t quite get the rest of it.

Like her, he enjoyed planting moss because it caught the moisture off the river like a nascent bird feeding from its mother, and it grew year-round. This was especially helpful in August, the hottest month of the year.

Moss also had a velveteen texture gentler on the fingertips than cotton ever was.

Aki used to tell Kento, as she knelt over her own garden to inspect it, “花鳥風月.” Or “kachou fuugetsu.” That meant flower, bird, wind and moon.

“Through the beauty of nature, we learn about oneself,” she explained.

On the morning Kento was tending to his garden, he saw the schoolgirls walking to their classrooms in their sailor outfits, dark blue with white around the collar and cuffs. Two of the girls at the back of the line giggled about something Kento couldn’t hear. He assumed it was about another classmate or a younger brother’s silliness.

He’d heard things about what the girls were being lectured on, like duty and loyalty. Such things Kento had grown too old and tired to put his mind toward. A long time ago, he too wore such thoughts in his heart like a uniform.

That’s what took his eyes.

Sometimes, when he’s down at the garden on his knees with the dirt cupping them gently, he remembers being in that same position and his kyū guntō at the feet of the winter soldier. Fear encased his body then like moss upon a tree.

As he added water to the drier spots of the garden, Kento also thought about the other side of “花鳥風月.” Wind turbulence. Nature had a way of expressing its displeasure. Kento knew that from cuts he’d accrued digging in his moss plants.

Moss would outlive all this madness, Kento thought; it’d been here for millions of years, after all.

But on August 6, 1945, just after 8 a.m., nature turned at once bright white and then dark. The moss garden, with its many shades of green, turned fiery orange.

Kento never heard or saw it coming. And it was over quicker than his tea could turn cold.

The turbulent winds were of a different kind then.


Brett Milam is a writer and journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio. He enjoys coffee so much, he keeps a Keurig next to his bed (true story), and is macabre enough, he keeps a Michael Myers poster on the opposite wall. You can find him on Twitter @brett_milam and his blog at brettmilam.com.