Kenji manoeuvred his bike around the pitch like an expert. The August sun, low and fat in the late afternoon sky, cast long fluid shadows on the baked earth. He often came to the local elementary school on the other side of the park as it was the ideal place to practise some neat tricks on his BMX. Most of his friends, indeed most other ten-year-olds, were inside playing Super Mario, the current craze gripping Japan as BMX bikes once did, but Kenji never cared for computer games. He missed showing off to his friends on the bike, and kind of resented Mario for it.
Undeterred by the heat and heavy cloak of humidity, Kenji persevered until he had mastered a new move, and it was only then that he looked at his watch. Six forty-five. Be home by seven, his mother had said. The last time he disobeyed this instruction she locked his bike away for two weeks.
Normally he followed the flat streets bordering the park, but this would take too long now. Kenji pictured the park’s vast network of pathways that meandered through forests of red pine and oak, up and over grassy knolls and along groves of cherry and plum trees. He quickly calculated the fastest route home, stood up on the pedals and powered across the pitch into the park.
The park was the focal point of the neighbourhood, a place everyone could enjoy all year round. But this evening there were no couples strolling, no families clearing up after a picnic, no dogs running off their leashes. It was still and silent. The sun now hid behind Mt Kongo, and Kenji made out the pointed grey roof of the local temple tucked into the foothills like a nesting scops owl. He felt sluggish as he pedaled up a steep incline, like the air was compressing him from above. Gliding down the other side he passed some lavender bushes, and thought it odd that they remained motionless in his wake.
As he rounded a corner he espied old Mrs Kuroki and some other ladies from the neighbourhood down in a clearing, dressed in their colourful summer yukata and in a circle rehearsing their folk dancing for Obon. In a few days Kenji would come here with his parents and many of the local residents to celebrate Obon, a Buddhist custom to honour the spirits of one’s ancestors. It reminded him that he would have to go to the Mie countryside with the family next weekend to visit the graves of his grandparents, and he outwardly groaned at the thought.
The pathway narrowed as he approached a large mature garden of blood irises. There had always been irises growing on this spot, even before there was a park. They stood in their thousands like serried guards, many of them taller than Kenji. Their purple blooms, like delicate folds of silk, were iridescent even in the wanness of dusk.
Kenji slowed a little as he negotiated the sinuous path through the iris garden. He looked ahead to where the pathway widened and led away from the irises up a hillock towards one of the park exits. He wasn’t far now. He checked his watch. Five minutes left.
At that moment a stringy root sprung out from the undergrowth and coiled tightly around Kenji’s ankle, yanking him abruptly. His head collided with the handlebars on the way down, and the teeth of the sprocket gouged deep into his forearm as he was dragged off the bike and into the irises on his back. Instinctively he forced his palms and heels hard into the ground to brake, but they only ploughed through loose topsoil. Iris blooms flashed by, looking down at him like mocking giants, complicit and unmoving. Searing pain began to course through his body as he was crudely drawn deeper into the iris garden. He looked like a rag doll being dragged along by an ungrateful child. Kenji tried to scream but his voice was gone, ripped from him, rendered a guttural rasp. Suddenly he was still, but the ground underneath was not. Manifold roots erupted through the soil and latched onto him like a jellyfish its prey. Adrenalin surged through his little body as he struggled to free himself, but the roots pulled down harder. He watched helplessly as first his legs vanished beneath the surface, then his arms. A tendril snaked across his neck. It felt coarse on his skin, like his mother’s hessian rug. Tears streamed from his eyes. Kenji’s last memory was the taste of earth: rotten and burning. Then silence and stillness descended once again on the iris garden.
Old Mrs Kuroki led the ladies through one last sequence of steps. If you had looked into her eyes at that moment you would have seen plumes of dark red ink emanating from her dilated pupils and clouding her sclerae. But no sooner had they formed than they vanished, sucked back into unseen recesses like scurrying trapdoor spiders. Invigorated, Mrs Kuroki smiled and made a mental note to take a detour through the iris garden on her way home. The child’s bike would need to be removed.
© Timothy Collard 2011