From: Oregon, USA
September, 1994: Kyoto, Japan
The study is long and narrow, with cluttered bookshelves lining the walls along both sides. At the far end sits a desk. Behind the desk a window looks out on a rock garden with a small pond at the center. The only really unusual thing about the garden is the large tortoise ambling slowly past the pond.
Inside the study there is a great deal of clutter. In addition to many, many books the shelves hold a variety of objects, some unremarkable, some rather strange. A large stuffed monitor lizard, for instance, looks down upon the scene with dull glass eyes from atop one shelf. Between two others is a polished wooden plaque upon which several snake skins of various sizes and hues are mounted.
There are some boxes in the center of the floor that show signs of recent packing. The desk is the only piece of furniture that is really tidy; a small stack of books stands in one corner and off to the side is a neat little pile of legal documents.
A man of middle years is standing in front of the desk. He has just taken a small box out of one of the drawers and is sorting slowly through its contents, a pensive look on his face. He looks up as the door at the far end of the room opens. A younger man with wire-rim glasses pokes his head in.
“Mr. Oizuma?” he asks. The man at the desk nods. “I am Saito, from the University. Please forgive my intrusion. If this is a bad time…”
“No, not at all,” says the middle-aged man. “Please, come in. I have been expecting you.” He steps around the desk as Saito and bows. Saito bows back.
“Please permit me to extend my condolences on the death of your father,” says Saito. “He will be greatly missed. I myself took classes from him when I was a student. He was a remarkable scholar.”
“Thank you,” murmurs Oizuma. “He loved his work there. Even after he retired he did not stop writing. The books and papers he left to you and your colleagues are here.” He indicates the stack of boxes. “The specimens he left are in the herpetory…the Snake Room, my brothers and I called it when we were growing up.”
“Thank you. I look forward to seeing them.” He hesitates. “I know this is a difficult time,” he says. “And to ask for a favor is unworthy. But if I may interrupt you for just a moment more…”
“Please,” says Oizuma. “You are not interrupting. In truth collecting these things has been a pleasure, a reminder of what my father accomplished in his life.” He lifts a book from the stack on the corner of the desk and looks through it briefly. “’Reptiles of Borneo,’” he says. “In English. It was translated into seven different languages.”
“It is still the standard reference work on the subject,” says Saito. Oizuma walks around behind his father’s desk.
“When you came in,” he says, “I was just looking through this small collection of items from his time in the Great Pacific War. Tell me, did he ever speak of it to his friends at the University?” Saito shakes his head. Oizuma reaches in and takes out a black and white photograph. He looks at it for a moment and hands it across the desk to Saito. Saito takes it and sees a young man in a navy uniform standing in a very narrow metal passageway. Across his shoulders is draped a thick-bodied snake perhaps five feet long. Saito can make out a resemblance between the young man in the photo and the distinguished professor that he knew.
“That is him,” he murmurs. “And the snake…could it be…?”
“It is,” says Oizuma, nodding. “He picked her up in Balikpapan while serving aboard destroyer Hibiki. I know that much, though he almost never spoke of the war otherwise.”
“Remarkable,” says Saito, handing back the photograph. “Actually, that is what I wished to ask you about. I have never met this famous snake.” Oizuma smiles a little.
“Your wish is no trouble and easily granted,” he says. He gestures to a corner where a large and elegantly made wooden cage sits. Saito crosses and kneels to examine it. The cage is beautifully made and carved with scenes of the goddess Benzaiten from mythology. Inside a six foot long python, red and cream banded with a red tail, is draped in folds over a log. Saito looks up at his host.
“You know,” he says, “that no other specimen has ever been recorded as living more than twenty years,” he says.
“I know,” he says. “All my father would ever say about it is that he was not surprised. I cannot remember a time when Benzaiten was not part of the family, though. I am forty-two years old and she was here before I was born.”
“Remarkable,” says Saito. He turns back to his examination of the python, who lifts her head a little and tests the air with her tongue. “She is not part of the bequest to the University.”
“No,” says Oizuma. “My father’s wishes on the subject were explicit. A man named Kuramata – the same man who made this cage, I believe – is to take her to Enoshima, where she will be released.”
“Enoshima!” says Saito. “But that climate will not be good for a tropical snake!” Oizuma smiles and walks over to stand beside Saito and look into the cage.
“And she may cause consternation among unwary tourists,” he says. “But somehow I have the feeling that she will be just fine.” Benzaiten raises her head a little and regards him with her unwinking gaze for a moment before settling back to her nap.