Tony Takitani was by no means a remarkable man from his outwardly appearance. He lived simply, ate simply, dressed simply. It was his choice of dwelling that usually raised eyebrows whenever his name passed through the lips of villagers. Not that they knew his full name to begin with. There’s too much mystery surrounding himself. He didn’t need to add another one or he’d have to keep explaining why he had an English first name despite being completely Japanese. They simply knew him as Taki-san.
Tony Takitani lived on his own on a hill above the village. His simple wooden dwelling stood in a large clearing. He had found it abandoned some time back on one of his explorations. After a round of investigations in the village he concluded that noone had lived in it for a while, and due to its inconvenient location, noone had desired to inhabit it. He asked the head of the village for permission to take over it. No objection would be raised as long as he promised to keep the grounds tidy. Not a difficult promise to deliver since Tony Takitani just wanted to build a secluded home away from people. He then proceeded to fix the crumbling wooden structure and its various sheds.
Tony Takitani was a sharp, logical man. Combine that with the technical nature of his previous profession, he had the knowledge and skills for carpentry that would impress an Amish. Slowly but surely, he rebuilt the wooden house and furnished it simply. A single bed, a portable gas stove, a record player, and a shelf for his books. He hired a contractor to rehaul the plumbing in the outhouse. Though he desired to be a hermit, Tony Takitani would like to maintain a basic level of hygiene. As they worked, he asked the contractor some questions so he could fix simple plumbing issues that might surface.
Tony Takitani also had the foresight to grow a vegetable garden before moving in so he would be less reliant on village supplies over time. He even bought two chestnut trees - yes two, any gardening enthusiast will tell you no nuts will bear from a single chestnut tree - from a nursery not too far outside the village. He loved chestnuts dearly and thought he might give himself the little bit of luxury of watching his favourite trees grow and bear him sweet chestnuts as he got older.
For the most part, Tony Takitani’s hermit life went on uneventfully, just the way he had planned it. Ever since his wife’s unfortunate sudden death, and his father’s passing soon after, he didn’t have anyone tying him back to the city life. If anything, he felt repulsed by it. He had no energy left to form new friendships nor relationships. Besides, he had always been alone most of his life, with a brief punctuation of his marriage with a woman he had loved dearly.
Every morning at sunrise, Tony Takitani would don a simple tunic and wide leg trousers to tend to his vegetable garden. Once done, he would go on an hour-long uphill run. It was his chosen method to empty his mind and focus on his physical self. He enjoyed the simple meals he cooked with the ingredients he had grown himself. In the evening, he would retire listening to old jazz records, the only influence from his estranged dead father . You and I might feel that this is the most boring life anyone can ever lead, but that was exactly the way he wanted to live the rest of his life.
Tony Takitani’s routine passed seamlessly, day after day, with the exception of occasional phone calls from the villagers seeking his help. His old school Nokia brick was the only form of communication with the outside world he had retained, just in case there was an emergency. But over time he found it ringing a little more often than he would like as fellow villagers wanted to make appointments with him to see them over the weekend. Ever since they found out he was good with his hands, he became the village’s favourite odd-jobber. It all started when he helped to fix a car that had stalled down the hills as he was heading towards the village. Soon after he started receiving calls for help. One or two at first, usually during the weekend when the village’s car repair workshop was closed. Then they started to ask for gardening advice, woodworking, and even ikebana - something he had to profess ignorance for it was verging on the creative arts. As long as the task involved concrete technical process, he could logically deduce the problems and find a solution.
Although Tony Takitani lived his life mostly as a hermit, he didn’t mind his weekly expedition to the village, especially since he had to procure supplies for himself. He also thought it might be better this way than being known as a complete recluse that everyone would speak of in hushed tones. The less mystery surrounding himself, the better, though he would never really reveal much of his past to the villagers no matter how nosy they could get. Besides, he was a kindly man who loved to offer assistance. Every Saturday morning he would put on his faded grey jumpsuit ready to help a villager in need, before picking up some rice and gas canisters at the supermarket.
As I’ve said before, Tony Takitani was an exceptionally sharp man. Even if he didn’t possess all the necessary technical knowledge in his head, he could easily comprehend complicated instructions available on the Internet, accessed through his old brick of a phone. Ever since he moved into his new dwelling years ago, the lights in his house never flickered, the plumbing never clogged, the garden flourished. But there was one thing that he was still not able to do.
Try as he might, he could not coax the chestnut trees to bear fruit. Both had refused to show any signs of the green spiky burrs, despite the fact that he had followed instructions religiously. Well-spaced trees, check; blight-free, check; patience, check. Still, the chestnuts refused to give him what he had hoped for. Being a magnanimous man, he did not hold any grudge towards the trees. After all, life had hurled giant lemons at him. Two barren chestnut trees could barely compare against the tragedies that had befallen him. Perhaps he was simply unfortunate to have picked these infertile trees. Slowly, he let go of his wish for chestnuts and remained grateful for the leafy foliage that provided shade for him in warmer months.
On the eighth day of the eighth month of the eighth year of his semi-hermit life, Tony Takitani took a rest under the foliage of the chestnut tree nearest to his vegetable garden. He tilted his head upwards to admire the sunny blue sky through the leaves, when suddenly he spotted a small bunch of prickly green burrs. He stood up to get a closer look, not daring to hope, but sure enough, there were two clusters of chestnut burrs hanging from a branch.
Now Tony Takitani was not the sort of man who got excited too easily. But this was not the sort of occasion in which one should remain reserved. He could feel the elation swelling up faster than the summer heat rising from the ground. He entertained all the myriad of possibilities he could do with these precious chestnuts. He didn’t see too many burrs - two at most - which meant there were less than ten chestnuts. No matter. One could do plenty with that amount, especially for one self. Perhaps two to make a kuri gohan, two more in a wagashi, and the rest roasted over a fire. Just imagining its fragrance alone put a smile on his face.
As the summer heat gave way to the cool breeze of autumn, Tony Takitani grew more eager every day. Perhaps it wasn’t an exaggeration if I were to describe his high spirits as one that an expectant mother would have towards the birth of her child. Every morning he would wake up and look out of the window to see if there was any progress. Any fine gardener would tell you that chestnuts are only ready to be harvested when the burrs have fallen off the tree.
Though the trees around Tony Takitani’s dwelling had turned red, the spikes of the burrs remained stubbornly closed, and most importantly, still hanging on the branch. There was nothing he could do but to wait patiently. His excitement was not eased by the fact that his other chestnut tree had remained barren. He could not remember any other occasion when he felt this surge of strong emotions, other than the first time he laid eyes on the only woman he had ever fallen in love with.
Many years had passed, yet he was still able to recall the first time she visited his office. He could feel his heart beating faster and the small beads of sweat forming on his temples. It was a perpetual adrenaline rush involving trips to hell and back that barely subsided through the subsequent dates and eventual wedding. That rush evolved into contentment as the couple settled into their marital bliss. Even when he was disturbed by her clothing addiction, he loved her so much that he built a new wing in their house to make room for her ever-growing collection. He still blamed himself for talking her into dealing with her addiction - she had enough dresses to change outfits twice a day and still not repeat herself for two years - though any one would be able to see that her behaviour was not normal. He had always been alone for most of his life - his mother had died giving birth to him, his dad was perpetually absent - but he never knew loneliness until she came into his life. If he had known of the crippling sorrow that would befall him like the everlasting mists of Sleepy Hollow, he would have built a new mansion just to house her clothes. He would have done anything to prevent that single moment in time from happening. But he also knew life does not work like that.
Tony Takitani was putting on his trusted grey jumpsuit for his usual weekend trip when the phone rang. A villager was at the other end of the line, distraught while spewing a torrent of earnest apologies before begging him to come to his house urgently. It seemed that his pregnant wife was on the verge of giving birth - a few weeks earlier than expected - but his car had refused to start. The workshop was closed and the ambulance would take some time to come. He could not think of anything else but to call up Taki-san who had been so kind to the villagers. Naturally the reliable hermit-slash-odd-jobber was already in his car before the man hung up.
As Tony Takitani pulled out of the gravel path on to the tarmac road, he gave his chestnut tree a quick glance out of habit, not expecting further developments from the tree.
This time however, he spotted the burrs on the ground. He wasn’t sure whether his eyes were playing tricks on him. In the split second between wishing to get out of the car to pick up the precious chestnuts, and helping out villagers in dire need, he decided that he could get back to his chestnuts later. His compassionate spirit urged him to get to the distressed family as quickly as possible. And it was also this compassionate spirit that kept him in the car, on the verge of stepping on the accelerator, when a squirrel scampered in and stole the chestnuts away.
Tony Takitani’s feet met the pedal. As he drove away, watching the squirrel run off with his long-awaited fruits of labour, he could only muster a bittersweet smile.