by Fred Warren -
John Milton’s sandals crunched on fine gravel as he walked with Jiro Sukahara along the meandering path through the chaplain’s expansive private garden. His balance was improving with each step, enough to let him savor the subtle splendor of the flowers and greenery. Feathery blossoms from a giant cherry tree at the garden’s heart filled the air and tumbled across the footpath.
In one corner, a sandy basin was dotted with angular stones arranged in a pattern that, to John, seemed orderly and random at the same time, and the white sand was raked into curving grooves that flowed into a complex spiral. A tiny brook roughly bisected the garden, its murmur punctuated by the slow metronome of a shishi-odoshi, a pivoting bamboo tube that filled and emptied itself at the base of a trickling fountain, making a pleasant wooden thunk with each cycle. Jiro explained the device’s original purpose was to startle wandering deer and discourage them from munching on the foliage.
“But mostly, I enjoy the sound it makes.”
A little bird with dull brown feathers clung to the topmost branch of the cherry tree, warbling and trilling a cascade of brilliant, liquid melody. John thought back to the riotous colors of the birds he’d seen on the tropical island where he’d met the Dreamers for the first time. “Such a beautiful song…I’d never have suspected it from such a plain bird.”
As if insulted, the tiny musician ended its concert with a sharp flourish, then vanished into the tree’s pastel depths.
“It’s called a nightingale.” Jiro sighed. “There’s an old story about a powerful emperor who befriended a nightingale he found in his garden. She perched on his windowsill and lulled him to sleep each night. All was well until the ruler of a neighboring land sent the emperor a mechanical songbird with gilded feathers and jeweled eyes as a birthday present. The emperor was so taken with the beauty of the mechanical bird that he drove the homely nightingale from his garden, only to discover the robot’s song possessed none of the nightingale’s magical charm. He never enjoyed another peaceful night’s sleep, and though he sent messengers to the nightingale with gifts and apologies, she refused to return, and their friendship was forever broken.”
“What a sad story.”
“I keep a nightingale in my garden to remind me that love is fragile, and illusion is no substitute for reality.”
“A strange sentiment from someone who lives in a virtual paradise.”
“I am a man of many contradictions.”