Excerpt from The Gardens of Kyoto by Kate Walbert, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Gardens of Kyoto

A Novel

By Kate Walbert

The Gardens of Kyoto
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  • Hardcover: Apr 2001,
    288 pages.
    Paperback: Mar 2002,
    288 pages.

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It became our habit to write letters. Randall wrote every first Sunday of the month. He would tell me what new book he was reading, what he'd marked to show me. I might describe a particular day, such as the time Daddy filled the backyard with water to make an ice skating pond, though we told Mother the pump had broken and it was all we could do to turn the thing off before the rain cellar flooded. Of course, once the sun wore down our imagined rink and we found ourselves blade-sunk and stranded in your grandmother's peony bed, Daddy had to tell her the truth.

She loved her peonies and fretted all that winter that we had somehow damaged the roots, that spring would come and the pinks she had ordered, the ones with the name that rhymed with Frank Sinatra, would have no company. But everything grew and blossomed on schedule, and we ended up calling the peony bed our lake and threatening to flood it every winter.

Randall sent me back a letter about a book he had recently read on the gardens of Kyoto, how the gardens were made of sand, gravel, and rock. No flowers, he said. No pinks. Once in a while they use moss, but even their moss isn't green like we know green. No grass green or leaf green but a kind of grayish, he wrote. You can't even walk in these gardens because they're more like paintings. You view them from a distance, he wrote, their fragments in relation.

The line I can still recall, though at the time I was baffled. I knew we were now at war with the Japanese; we were repeatedly given classroom instruction on the failings of the Japanese character. We had learned of crucifixions and tortures; we understood the Japanese to be evil -- not only did they speak a language no one could decipher, but they engaged in acts of moral deprivation our teachers deemed too shocking to repeat. I understood them to be a secret, somehow, a secret we shouldn't hear. Now, oddly, I knew something of their gardens.

The last time I saw him was the Easter of 1944. He was not yet seventeen -- can you imagine? the age of enlistment -- but would soon be, and he understood that it would be best if he went to war, that Sterling expected him to, that there were certain things that boys did without question. He never spoke of this to me; I learned it all later. Instead, his letters that winter were filled with some tremendous discovery he had made, a surprise he intended to share at Easter, not beforehand. You can imagine my guesses. Daddy had barely shut off the engine when I opened the door and sprung out. I might have bypassed all those narrow rooms and passageways altogether, scaled the tree and banged on one of those filthy windows, but I could feel Mother's eyes. She wanted me to slow down, to stay a part of them. In truth, the drive had been a sad one -- Rita newly married and stationed with Roger in California, Betty oddly silent. Our first visit seemed light-years past, an adventure far more pleasant than it had actually been, a family outing when we were still family. We had grown into something altogether different: guests at a party with little in common.

I stood, waiting for everyone to get out of the car, waiting until Mother opened the door and yelled, Hello. Then I ran to Randall's room. I knew the way, could find it blindfolded -- through the passageways and up the flights of stairs. I touched the countries in the Gallery of Maps, the danger spots, the capital cities. I picked up the mouthpiece and recited my Roosevelt impression -- "I hate war, Eleanor hates war, and our dog, Fala, hates war" -- just in case anyone was listening.

When I got to Randall's door I saw that it was ajar, so I went in without knocking. He stood facing the line of dormers, his back to me, his stance so entirely unfamiliar, so adult, that for an instant I thought I might have barged in to the wrong room, that for all this time a second, older Randall had lived just next door.

Copyright © 2001 by Kate Walbert

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