Gathering Chestnuts is a Ritual of Autumn
A storybook moon hangs low in the sky as though tethered by a thread to Venus. But only a sliver, its pure light shines unusually bright. These days mist crawls in overnight and morning grasses glisten in the slanting rays of the rising sun. Though summer insects still chatter, they are subdued. Chirps and cricks come from deeper within trees and further under foliage. No longer abundant, heat must be sought in still pockets before a gust shoos it south. The swallows will soon ride that current off to southeast Asia and Australia for the winter. At the height of fall it seems all of us are in a mood to sequester stores for winter. Kuniko walks each day to the end of the driveway where two slight chestnut trees grow. She gathers as many as she can find laying at her feet. But the wild boars who visit at dawn and dusk poach the best of them and she finds only a few at a time. She squirrels them away in her freezer where the meat sweetens until she has enough to make a batch of kuri-an, a sweetened chestnut paste that is shaped back into the form of a chestnut and served as desert. Or she’ll cook nutty yellow bits of chestnuts in rice, a signature taste of autumn.
The year of Kuniko’s stroke runs straight through the middle of a five year diary still tucked away in a drawer. The September pages document nothing more than her daily harvest, twelve small chestnuts on the 8th, six on the 9th. On the 20th two large chestnuts and on the 21st thirteen large ones plus two small ones. Her pace picks up and she collects five large ones and one small one on the first morning following the equinox and sixteen more large ones that evening. Then the entries cease, the pages void of ink recording in their nothingness the heaviest fall, the woman as we knew her and as she knew herself, so utterly altered.
A year later, just a few months after she came home from the hospital, we took her out to gather chestnuts again. We ventured further than the end of the driveway, winding along a country road. We parked the car at a pullout where golden yellow rice fields stretched up the hill and to the right a stately tree reached its branches toward us as if to offer its green urchin-like fruits. But I, the tallest of our trio, could not reach the prickly orbs from where I stood, try as I might, thighs pressed against the metal guardrail. So Hanako swung herself over the rail, and slid down the embankment to collect the fallen chestnuts.
As Hanako filled her bag, I scanned for witnesses to our crime. Crime is a strong word but you see, this stately tree stood at the edge of a field that clearly belonged to someone. Unlike ours, this tree had room to reach wide and the fruits were large and robust with thick brown nuts inside that would make any squirrel quiver with joy. I spotted a car snaking its way up the road toward us. I called to Hanako to stay down on the low side of the tree. I reached my arm high, pointing to insignificant things on the hillside. Kuniko played along beautifully, the local guide explaining the Japanese countryside to her foreign visitor. When the car had passed I called to Hanako and she climbed the steep slope back to us, her bag hanging low and full. She steadied herself with one hand on the guardrail and passed the bag to Kuniko. I took her free hand and helped her back up onto the road. When we turned around Kuniko was gone.
And this is the image so vivid in my mind tonight. Kuniko, her body still so thin and frail, still fighting her way back to this side of life, walking with steady purpose up the hill with the bag of chestnuts nestled in the crook of her arm. By the time we caught up to her she was back in the car, the chestnuts tucked behind her legs in the folds of her skirt. She sat with her hands on her knees and an expression so straight she could win a poker match. We laughed all the way home. There we arranged the chestnuts in a basket on the table. They were regal chestnuts, heavy with shells split open to reveal the glossy golden brown nuts inside. Hanako pulled out the diary and helped her mother record the harvest. Seventy-two sublime chestnuts.