Was that the snap of a twig? A stealthy stirring in the undergrowth?
There, by the base of the birch, in the shadow, deep. Next to the shattered log, was that not the moon reflected in a predatory eye? Did you not feel the evening mist writhe, ambiguous anatomy masked in its swirls?
Do we not cherish these, our woods at night.
The word might bring to mind the warm feel of near-family, of summer barbecues and shared trips to the beach, of sleepovers and impromptu ball games. Some neighbors might be cherished even more than our own kin; close friendships forged through experiences we couldn’t or wouldn’t share with siblings or parents.
The word might bring to mind the rage of being trespassed against. The impotency that comes when, by dumb lucklessness, by pure proximity, we are thrown together with a person who embodies everything we despise. The growing mundane dread that makes us skulk out of our own house just to avoid bumping into the obnoxious, the annoying, the disrespectful.
Growing up, my human neighbors were easy to avoid, if I had wanted to do so.
Luckily, I didn’t. My true neighbor was the woods. Our small family farm backed onto a massive State Park. It’s denizens lived in the lakes, in burrows, in the caves I unwisely stuck my head into.
Most of these were good neighbors, or at least fairly neutral. The deer and rabbits would nibble in our garden, but there was usually plenty left over. Other relationships were more tense. The (unfortunately overpopulated) bears would eye us warily, and we were both happy to keep some distance between us. Even the rattlesnake who came visiting one especially dry summer were polite enough to warn me away before I overstepped my bounds. And then, there were those guys, the horrible ones. The coyotes who made the kittens disappear and once attacked a cow. The rats who chewed through barn walls and bags of feed. Every neighborhood has those guys*.
After moving to Japan, I realized that living with human neighbors was even more complicated.
With animals, the rules are fairly simple. Humans, however, have complications, emotions, prejudices, imagined slights.
Especially in cities where the population is as dense as Tokyo, and everyone has a very tight, invisible self-preservation privacy bubble around them.
Most importantly, I realized that I might need to put some hefty effort into not becoming that guy. Inadvertently, or otherwise. A child of the wide-open country, of an American, or at least western disposition; it would be all too easy for my habits, uncontrolled, to turn into assaults on my neighbors.
Meeting the Neighbors (aka Always One in the Neighborhood) is the 5th print to return to the shop, and contemplates both the mysteriousness of the woods and the stumbling blocks of living in close quarters.
*not necessarily guys