Herons are lithe, elegant birds. Gliding over water, nesting in fields, or soaring through the air, the heron’s perceived ability to transcend the elements has led to fabulous fairytales, stately dances, and sublime paintings. Haiku poet Matsuo Bashō wrote verses about the heron and artist Ohara Koson immortalized the bird in woodblock prints. Now novelist David Joiner adds to our collection of heron lore and love with his hauntingly beautiful The Heron Catchers, to be published soon by Stone Bridge Press.
Set within the quiet green abundance of the Yamanaka Onsen village, some distance from the picturesque castle city of Kanazawa, The Heron Catchers promises a lovely idyll of rural life. As charming as rural life may appear from a distance, however, it too is rife with conflict and pain. Shortly after the novel opens, readers are confronted with treachery. Here, main character Sedge visits the famous Kenrokuen garden, at the heart of Kanazawa, to meet a woman:
He stood on a short wooden bridge over a stream winding away from Kasumagaike pond, admiring a newly blossoming cherry tree, and pines here and there recently freed from their protective winter yukitsuri ropes, when a snapping of branches made him spin around. To his astonishment, a wild boar burst from a bush, colliding with a heron upstream and sending a cloud of feathers in the air (10).
Sedge springs into action, covering the injured heron’s head with his jacket to both calm the bird as he attempts to rescue it while simultaneously protecting himself from its razor-sharp beak.
Treachery comes in other forms, too. Soon we learn that Sedge has been deeply wounded by his wife’s infidelity. Nozomi, has run off with the talented but volatile potter, Kōichi,—taking with her all of Sedge’s savings—and leaving Sedge the impossible task of running their Kanazawa craft store with no capital. Nozomi’s brother, mostly in an effort to protect the family name, invites Sedge to spend time at the inn he owns not far away in Yamanaka Onsen. Sedge can teach the employees English for room and board. It turns out that one of the inn’s employees, Mariko, is married to Kōichi, the man who ran off with Sedge’s wife.
When the rules at the inn become too oppressive—particularly those that prevent Sedge from seeing Mariko romantically—Sedge decides to strike out on his own. Or rather, he moves in with Mariko. The comfort their strange alliance offers is threatened by the presence of Kōichi’s teenage son, Riku, who lives with Mariko. He, more so than the adults, has been hurt by life’s cruelties. Like the injured heron, he is frightened and dangerous, lashing out at any who try to approach him.
Will Sedge and Mariko be able to find the solace they need to heal their own damaged hearts? Will they be able to rescue Riku? What has happened to Nozomi, Kōichi, and the money? These and other questions propel the narrative forward. But more than the trace of a plot, readers are captivated by the understated beauty of the prose and its shimmery profundity. There are truths buried here, truths about the fragile persistence of sorrow and love and hope. We brush up against them as we read but hardly notice.
When they reached the shrine, Mariko waved him to a narrower path he hadn’t noticed, which wound behind the shrine and through a copse of sugi trees. In a minute they emerged on the opposite side of the mountain, lower than where they’d been. Here the view opened even more. Despite the highway near the ocean, where cars were small as ants, he sensed that no one in the world could find them here (95).
We follow the characters as they travel deeper in their journey towards healing, a journey that takes them deeper into the mysteries and beauty of nature. There are missteps along the way. We watch as the characters stumble, uncertain in their pain. And, we celebrate with them, too, when they learn to staunch their hurts as surely as they bind a heron’s broken wing.
Given my background in Japanese literature, I could not help but think of the folk-tale of the heron wife while reading the pairing of Mariko and Sedge.
In the Japanese folk-tale, a young man comes across a wounded heron, and he takes it in and nurses it back to health. When the heron has regained the use of its wings, he releases it, and the heron flies away.
Time passes and the young man meets a beautiful woman with whom he falls in love. They marry and live happily together. The young wife weaves cloth, which the man sells, and the two are able to support themselves.
But the wife places a constraint upon the man: He must never observe her while she is weaving. Of course, the young man cannot resist the temptation to look, and when he does he sees a heron at the loom.
Now that her secret has been exposed, the heron wife can no longer remain in the human world. She returns to her flock, leaving the man bereft.
In The Heron Catchers as well there is an importance placed on seeing, control, and the power of knowing. In one scene, Sedge’s desire to see Mariko’s naked body in the moonlight reads with mythic overtones.
She led him into her bedroom. Of the three curtained windows along her walls, only the one behind her futon had been left open for the sky to pour its light inside. It was enough to see her figure when she slid her yukata off, light and darkness moving over her body: her nipples, her navel, the space beneath her armpits, the barely visible bars of shadow between her ribs, the constellation of scars—the sea of skin that surrounded these things like water keeping islands afloat (172).
Unexpectedly, this romantic scene leads to tragic results that threaten to unravel the domestic happiness the two have struggled to achieve. This scene, and the one cited above, suggest the tug at work in the novel to get to the heart of some hidden meaning—to understand, to know, to read “the constellation of scars.” Much of the novel, therefore, carries readers into the characters’ inner worlds where time swirls round and round unanswered questions.
In an online interview between publisher Peter Goodman and author David Joiner, Goodman observes that David’s American characters do not walk through his narratives like the questioning outsider. The story does not draw attention to their otherness or make it the point of conflict but rather integrates them within their landscapes in a very natural way. The comment is astute. Readers know that Sedge is American, but we are never told what he looks like, what race, what religion, or any other identifiers. Rather, we identify with Sedge in a much more universal way, as a human being on a quest. “I want my characters to be on equal footing linguistically and even in some respects culturally,” Joiner noted to Goodman in response, “that allows me to go a lot deeper in their interactions with each other.”
And, deeper we go.
Part of the cultural landscape that Joiner’s characters explore is shared with haiku poet Matsuo Bashō, who traveled through Yamanaka Onsen and Kanazawa on his celebrated journey into “the deep north.” For all his barbs and hard edges, the boy Riku is drawn to Bashō and his poetry. When Sedge asks him why Bashō made the trip, Riku replies that he did it to “escape the pain and sorrow of this world” (169). For Riku, haiku is an escape. For The Heron Catchers, Bashō’s journey offers the characters a model for the momentary epiphanies life offers. In the space between these sudden realizations, Sedge, Mariko, and even Riku take their own journeys deep into the interior where they are able to bind their wounds, meditate, and return.
Matsuo Bashō wrote a few poems on the heron. This one seems most appropriate to this novel:
yami no kata yuku
goi no koe
a flash of lightning
into the gloom
goes the heron’s cry
Translated by Geoffrey Anthony Thwaite
Author David Joiner was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, but now makes his home in Kanazawa. The Heron Catchers is his third novel and will be available from Stone Bridge Press and other online outlets from November 21, 2023.
Joiner’s second novel Kanazawa, also published by Stone Bridge Press (2022), was named as a Foreword Reviews Indie Finalist for multicultural novels.