Counting swans.

Moat at the Imperial Palace, Tokyo, Japan

We crossed the bridge every day that week. It was an old stone bridge going over the moat next to the Imperial Palace in Tokyo with a grand arch, thick stone rails and aging metal lanterns. Underneath ran a moat, or maybe one of the little tributaries of the Sumida River. The water was relatively clear, very quiet and neatly contained in the concrete and stone channel.

We always looked forward to crossing the bridge, it was bordered by parkland and this particular stretch of water contained enormous dark gray fish. Koi we assumed, if koi get 4 feet long. And a family of swans: two adult birds and about a dozen just-hatched fluffy light gray cygnets. My cousins were instantly in love. They had never seen such cute little birds! One cousin made it a point every time she crossed to count the babies. My sister and I looked at the fish and wondered if swimmers would be eaten. An anti-trespassing measure perhaps?

It was a minor entertainment at first but it only took a day or so for trouble to develop. It was on the second day that my cousin noticed that there were now two fewer baby swans. My sister and I looked at the fish as they sucked on the feet of the adult swans and actually pulled them halfway underwater…. Neither of us wanted to tell my cousin (who lived in the city and was entirely unfamiliar with the concept of “food chains”) what we thought. We insisted that she had to do a better job of counting and moved on.

The following afternoon she stopped to count again and the swan parents were down to 4 hapless babies bobbing after them in the lee of the bridge. Maybe the cygnets that swim the fastest? My cousin insisted on stopping while she looked for the rest of the babies. The rest of our relatives continued onward ignoring my cousin, apparently they were over both swans and fish (and quite possibly my cousin as well). My sister and I stood there and watched her. We weren’t sure what to do now: explaining where the cygnets had gone would make her distraught, lying about it seemed mean (and we are terrible liars), and distraction had already failed.

When scanning the lawn and up and down stream did not yield sightings of the missing babies she leaned over the high, thick stone parapet. She is a very short woman and couldn’t see. So she climbed up farther until she was balanced with her feet and butt suspended in air, draped over the edge like a see-saw. We wondered if, when she fell in, she would be able to get out before the fish ate her too.

She teetered, and flapped her legs as a counterweight, yelling to us asking if we could see the rest of the babies yet. We looked at each other, it was getting awkward. More so because she was wearing a miniskirt and compression shorts in neon colors that were attracting attention as she bobbed. As we stood frozen in horrified fascination a group of young men walked up the sidewalk. They looked at my cousin’s butt, got wide smiles and began an entire dialogue in French. Finally, they came to decisions and took turns posing next to my cousin’s butt for pictures. Before we had decided on the correct reaction, they were done and had strolled away.

Concluding that we needed to get her OFF the rail before she either fell in or was arrested for indecent exposure, we stepped up to the rail. She asked us again where we thought the swan babies had gone. Thinking fast, my sister blurted, “Daycare!” My cousin climbed down, satisfied with the answer. We never did tell her about the Frenchmen.

#Japan #stories