I am in the grounds of a Buddhist temple. It's 3 o'clock on a long, hot summer day in Kyoto. I am engaging in the second favourite backpacker pass-time in Japan (after getting drunk on cheap vending machine Asahi): temple hopping. I don't go just to tick all of the guidebook boxes, though. It doesn't matter to me which temples are famous in Japan, or famous abroad, or which are World Heritage sites. I go for the moss.
I was a biology student when it started. I was pre-med, which is to say I was doing my bachelor's degree and had told my parents I wanted to be a doctor. It was the path of least resistance, at the time. One rainy day I went for a walk on the fringes of my misty west-coast campus. Right beside the big, new, nameless residence building I was an inmate of, there is an area of relatively wild forest, in the middle of the city but still host to the occasional cougar. It's down a steep, treed slope from the campus proper. I couldn't find the stairs down, so I picked my way over fallen trees and through dew-glazed budding ferns. I think it was March; chilly, but not cold. It was all around me, covering the trees, the ground... it almost seemed, when I looked up into the leafy canopy, that the sky, too, was covered in moss. I was hooked. I dropped Anatomy and spent the summer catching up on plant biology. Now I'm doing my Masters degree. My research is about sphagnum in the tundra of Nunavut. This vacation was a chance to see some new mosses, to gain perspective, remind myself about the limitless beauty of each tiny green filament.
And Japan is certainly the place to see moss. It's cultivated in temples here, treasured. I'm on a quiet path now, in an almost-forgotten corner of this temple. There are no statues in this area, no shrines or other typical attractions. Just the luxuriant ground cover, glistening with this morning's rain in the afternoon's sunlight. It's so beautiful, I can't bear it. I look around casually, and see none of the temple's dedicated horde of moss caretakers. This section has already been swept clean of leaves and other debris. It is green, pristine, oh so soft... the temple is about to close. All of the other tourists, Japanese and foreign, are making their ways to the exit. I step over the low rope barrier to feel the moss under my thin sandles. I relish the sweet comfortable feeling as my feet, one after the other, sink into the luxurious ground cover. It is even deeper than it looked from the path; I can feel it against my ankles. I begin to worry that I will leave footprints, but the moss feels so lovely I can't bear to move...
...and then when I lift my foot to step back over the rope, I find it stuck. I can't shake loose. I suddenly realize the moss is covering my feet entirely now. I am distracted for a moment by the beautiful feeling of it, its delicate fronds soft against my skin... but I have to move. I try to shake my other foot. The moss is climbing up my calves, and I realise I am sinking right into it, growing shorter by the second. It creeps up my thighs, and I gasp, unable to scream in terror, paralysed not only by the moss's clinging grip but by the somehow sensual feeling of it, and by memories of other occasions when my bare legs have touched moss, a vacation with a lover in the Gulf Islands, the quiet forest floor... this moss doesn't grasp or constrict, it caresses me, enfolds me gradually in soft damp green, light of touch but strong, firm, intractable. It climbs up my hips to encircle my waist. I put my hands down to press against it, to try to drag myself up, but they too are sucked in, and I am overwhelmed with tactile sensations. I try to remember why I want to leave, but can't. I am moving downwards faster now, but I have no feeling of being pulled, only of settling into bliss, the moss now all around my chest and brushing my collarbone and shoulders. It does not constrict, it is so soft and gentle, of course I don't want to move. I close my eyes and throw my head back in pleasure, now anticipating the final moment when it will close over my head.
It is four o'clock now, and the temple is closed. An overall-clad gardener strolls through the mossy area at the back of the temple, looking for lost foreigners or belongings. He sweeps up some metal from the bed of moss, a necklace and a silver watch. And from the path, a notebook. He doesn't read much English, but notices among the unintelligible words the scientific names of several types of moss found in the temple grounds. Not this type, though, the special moss he stands on now in carefully designed shoes, too thick-soled for even the most sensitive instrument or beast to feel his pulse, made of unappetizing hardwood. But caution is important; he has been trained in other preventative measures, too. He realises he has been standing still for too long in one place, and hastily moves on, happily thinking that he will not need to feed the garden this evening. Perhaps he will quietly take the beef home, and his wife will make his favourite stew.
For the monsters.