So, did you hear the one about the scandal surrounding the zombie politician? –He was arrested for corruption. Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk! (That’s an original joke, by the way. It occurred to me this past week. Yes, it was inspired by certain events in the news concerning certain non-zombie governors of certain states who were arrested for similar things.) This is the first joke I’ve come up with since my one about Medusa several years ago: What does Medusa do to her hair at night, to keep it looking nice? –She puts it in coilers.
Anyway — I’m almost sure I encountered a tanuki today. A tanuki is a Japanese animal similar to a raccoon, a badger, or an opossum. The dictionary says it’s a “raccoon dog,” but that doesn’t mean anything to you in the States, does it? I’m not talking about a “dog” of any kind. [Similarly, the dictionary says the Japanese food konnyaku is “devil’s tongue.” Oh, yeah — thanks for clearing that up, huh?]
Back to the tanuki. To see one is fairly rare; I assume they’re nocturnal, like most animals of that sort. I think I’ve glimpsed maybe one or two before in my 20 years here. What made today’s encounter so odd is that it occurred smack in the middle of the university campus.
Again, it’s not too far a stretch. Niigata University’s campus is more-or-less connected to the Matsubayashi, that intriguing, leagues-long strip of pine forest that leans away from the sea winds all along the coastline in this area. The Matsubayashi is undoubtedly home to lots of tanuki. And our campus is very woody. In warmer seasons, little lizards scramble out from under your feet if you take any shortcuts off the pathways (and sometimes even if you don’t) — and we have way more spiders than Mirkwood has, albeit smaller ones.
So, I came out of the humanities building in the very early twilight, and I was drawing near the library to pass it and the main quad, heading back to where my bicycle was parked. Today was a sunny, warm day for December. Just in front of the library’s main entrance, a paved area stretches away to the right, and a grassy yard extends to the left, in which some sapling trees stand. A student was about 20 feet in front of me, walking toward the library.
Just behind him, as if scrambling to get out of his way, a furry gray animal moved through a row of parked bicycles and into the grassy yard. There was still so much daylight, and I was so close to this thing, that I’m quite sure of what I saw. Granted, stray cats live on the campus, but this thing was too big, heavy, and roly-poly to be the typical underfed stray cat — plus, it had a distinct, longish snout — very un-catlike.
What led me to question my senses just a little, though, was how the creature seemed to vanish into thin air. No, I didn’t see it disappear. But I got right over to where it had been, which took me about five or seven seconds. I expected to have a much better look at it. But it just wasn’t to be found. There wasn’t any dense bush cover, and I didn’t see any holes in the ground it might have darted into. The library’s foundation was still some fifteen or twenty feet away — if it somehow got into a space under the building, it certainly moved quickly.
I loitered around there for another long moment, listening for any sounds of furtive movement, looking for holes or suspicious shapes — nothing.
Although the tanuki is a real animal, its folkloric presence is steeped in magic and the supernatural. So maybe this one did just vanish into the air on an early evening at the end of autumn.
Why do I tell this story on a blog about the writing life? Surely you know by now that I’m going to say we’re surrounded by enchantment. William Blake wrote, “. . . to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is imagination itself.”
If the numinous didn’t constantly encroach, where would we be? What would we write about?
In closing: to anyone who’s not playing the latest alphabet game, please see the previous posting on this blog! The more, the merrier — jump in!