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  • Writer's pictureStone Bridge Press

What is David Joiner's The Heron Catchers about?

Updated: Apr 25


Escape to Japan's fabled Kanazawa in a tale of love, loss, and redemption in The Heron Catchers by David Joiner.


After Nozomi abandons Sedge and their whatmarriage, taking all their money and leaving him with a ceramics shop he can’t manage alone, her brother and his wife offer him a lifeline at their Japanese hot spring inn until he can get back on his feet. As he proceeds forward from this devastation in his life, he becomes involved with the wife of the man Nozomi ran off with as well as her stepson, a troubled 16-year-old whose jealousy and potential for violence contrasts with his interest in birds, origami, and the haiku of Matsuo Basho. What unfolds in the shadow of “the immortal mountain of cranes” will change their lives forever.


Kanazawa by David Joiner cover art
Kanazawa by David Joiner

Set in Kanazawa and Yamanaka Onsen near the Sea of Japan, The Heron Catchers explores the importance of recognizing suffering both in others and in oneself, of being compassionate, and of trusting those who offer love in the shattering wake of loss.


The Heron Catchers by David Joiner is now available in both print and digital everywhere. Order your copy here.


Joiner's previous novel, Kanazawa, details the clash between Emmitt and his wife Mirai over how to pursue their future together until a 30-year-old mystery reveals a way forward. Learn more about Kanazawa here.


Read a sample of David Joiner's The Heron Catchers below.


 

1

Sedge stumbled up Mayumizaka slope into Kenrokuen garden, yawning loudly enough almost to hasten the full blossoming of its cherry trees. For the last two weeks, since permanently closing the ceramics shop that he and his wife Nozomi had run, Sedge had started each day increasingly late, sometimes even past lunchtime. He was grateful for a reason to wake up early today, though it had been a trial to get here.

Taking his ticket and a map from the attendant at Kenrokuen’s entrance booth, he was keen to walk off more of his anxiety. In fifteen minutes he would meet the wife of the man Nozomi had run away with.

The woman’s name was Mariko. She’d asked him to meet her on the west side of Kasumigaike pond, with its view toward Mt. Utatsu. She had included directions on where to sit and described what she would be wearing. Sedge’s brother-in-law, Takahashi, at whose ryokan inn Mariko worked in the hot spring town of Yamanaka Onsen, had forwarded him her email.

Sedge hadn’t expected her invitation. After all, nine months had passed since their spouses had disappeared. But he had welcomed her suggestion that they “compare notes” about what had happened and try to help each other through this difficult time. He hadn’t bothered himself with her situation—had hardly even considered it—but it made sense that she’d be struggling, too. He wasn’t hopeful that talking to her would change anything, however.

The tourist crowds at Kanazawa’s famous landscape garden were small that morning, and the mild, late-March weather was perfect for strolling. He hadn’t visited Kenrokuen since last May, when he and Nozomi had come to see the garden’s celebrated irises. Afterward they had wandered to Kanazawa Castle Park to birdwatch, a tradition they’d started after moving to the city.

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 into the air.

Unaffected by the collision, the boar charged into an open space before rushing toward the opposite end of the garden. The tourists there swept themselves into a tight, terrified circle and watched the animal dash past them. After several attempts, it clambered over a low wall.

Sedge edged toward the heron. It lay sprawled in the shallow water, long and grayish white. The current swept into it, billowing its plumage, and where the stream soaked its body it appeared half-melted. Before he reached it, the heron stood unsteadily and shook itself dry.

He noted the gray body and wings; the black nuchal markings; the dark crests on either side of its crown, like long painted eyebrows; and the drooping black topknot—an Asian gray heron.

One wing hung awkwardly against its body, no doubt broken.

A college-aged gardener in a light blue uniform, who had been sweeping fallen leaves into a burlap sack, stood before Sedge staring at the heron. Sedge tugged the man’s arm to get his attention.

“Can’t you call in the bird’s injury to a supervisor?” Sedge asked him.

The gardener’s eyes widened at his Japanese. He dug in a pocket for his phone and did what Sedge suggested. After hanging up, he shyly nodded his thanks.

“Hand me your bag,” Sedge told him as he took off his own jacket.

“What did you say?”

Sedge repeated himself more forcefully.

“What do you want it for?”

“To catch the heron with. It’ll hurt itself more if it tries to fly.”

“You want to put it in this sack?”

“No, I want to wrap its body with it.”

The gardener looked at the jacket in Sedge’s hand. “Can’t you use that?”

“That’s to drape over its head. If it can’t see, it won’t be as frightened. Your bag would catch on its beak.”

Looking around for help but finding none, the gardener shook the leaves from his burlap sack and reluctantly handed it to Sedge. Behind them, a crowd of people had gathered.

“Maybe we should wait for someone to come with a net,” the gardener said. “I’m not keen on getting injured.”

“A net would make things worse,” Sedge said. “A heron’s beak is like a weapon. And because it’s probably scared, it may lash out. What we have is better protection.”

The gardener grudgingly followed Sedge.

They reached the stream at the same time a middle-aged man from the crowd crouched before the heron to videotape it with his phone. He was much closer to it than Sedge would have been.

Sedge told the gardener where to place himself and what to do. The young man, finding his voice, barked at the man with the cell phone to back away.

The heron had been squawking since it regained its footing, and it now shook its long beak at them and released what could only be described as a warning cry.

Sedge moved slowly toward the bird, shielding himself from it with his jacket and the gardener’s burlap sack pinched together. He jumped behind it before it could turn completely to face him. The burlap sack fell to the ground as he draped his jacket over the bird’s head. He had covered its eyes, but its beak peeked out.

“I need the sack,” he yelled at the gardener.

He ran over to hand it to Sedge.

“You do it.” He looked down at the bird as it squirmed beneath his hands. “Wrap it around its body. Gently so as not to aggravate its broken wing, but firmly enough to immobilize it.”

The gardener kneeled beside him and wrapped the burlap sack around the bird, encircling its thin body. Beneath the light pressure he applied, the heron resisted. Its strength seemed to jolt him, and he lost his balance. The sack fell to the ground again, and the bird took advantage of its freedom to raise its one good wing and try to escape.

The man with the phone continued to videotape, and he came closer again only for the heron, which somehow sensed his presence, to stab at him with its beak. The bird aimed well, striking his thigh. The man fell to the ground and, shrieking in pain, rolled to where the heron couldn’t strike him a second time.

Sedge used one hand to help the gardener wrap the sack around the heron again. And though it thrashed beneath the young man’s arms, it soon stopped struggling.

“Now what?” the gardener said.

Slightly unsure of himself, Sedge said, “We wait for the people you called to arrive.”

Two groundskeepers finally approached them, while two others set up a barrier around the bird with ropes and metal poles. Because the heron had stopped resisting, it was a simple task to transfer it to these men.

“Thank you for what you did,” one of the groundskeepers told Sedge, ignoring the gardener. “We’re sorry to have put you to the trouble. Are you hurt?”

Sedge assured him that he was fine. The groundskeeper apologized once more, this time about the boar, which he said had made its way into the garden several times in the last few months, though always after hours. This was the first time it had been in the garden when it was open to tourists.

He walked away, coming back a moment later holding Sedge’s jacket. He asked Sedge for his name and phone number, saying that the garden might need to contact him later about what had happened. When Sedge spoke his name, a woman broke off from the gathered crowd, a hand over her mouth as if surprised by something.

“You’re Sedge?” she asked. When he nodded at her, she laughed in disbelief. “I’m Mariko.”

. . .

She appeared to be in her early thirties. Her face—the over-large eyes and slightly aquiline nose, the dimples that emerged in her cheeks when she spoke, and the messy bob that swept her forehead—was somehow different from what he had imagined. But what had he imagined? Until now, when he thought of her, the face that came to mind was her husband’s.

The groundskeeper led him past the barrier they had erected. Mariko came up to him there.

“Sorry,” Sedge said. “We were supposed to meet at the pond, not here.”

She laughed again and said, “Are you all right?”

“As far as I know.”

They walked toward a refreshment stand. He ordered coffees and brought them to a bench under a cherry tree, whose pink blossoms were on the verge of escaping from their buds. In front of them, the pond’s black surface rippled where a family of spotbill ducks swam by.

“Thank you,” she said, pulling her coffee closer. “You know, I’ve also helped rescue herons before. There are many of them in Yamanaka Onsen. And many bad drivers, too, unfortunately.”

He looked at her incredulously. “You should have come forward to help me. I hardly knew what I was doing.”

“I’m sure I would have only got in the way.”

“Anyway, I’m glad it didn’t end worse.”

She glanced at her watch. “We have a lot to talk about, but I’m afraid I only have thirty minutes.”

“Do you have to get back to the ryokan already?”

“No,” she said. “I have to prepare for an exhibition.”

“You’re an artist, too?”

“It’s Kōichi’s exhibition.”

Sedge started at hearing her husband’s name.

“Will he be there?” he said, confused.

She shook her head. “It will make things easier on me in the long run if I represent him.”

“But he left you. Why are you still helping him?”

“His son and I could use the money. But this will be the last time.”

“Is he not required to support you?”

She smiled embarrassedly. “We haven’t divorced.”

Sedge didn’t know why this surprised him. He and Nozomi hadn’t yet, either. A divorce was still too much to deal with. Once she disappeared, nobody she knew had been able to communicate with her. If she had left Japan and couldn’t be reached, he was unsure if the Japanese courts could legally issue a divorce. Similarly, he felt paralyzed about the money she had taken, leaving him with much less than he’d need to hire a lawyer.

“Why didn’t you want to meet like this at the ryokan?” he said. “I’ll be moving there in another week. Takahashi suggested it.”

“He told me. But I didn’t know how awkward this would be, and I didn’t want either of us to have to endure that at the ryokan, where my colleagues often gossip. Also, my preparation for the exhibition was a perfect excuse to meet you here.”

He appreciated her considerateness. It was unlikely that Nozomi would have given their circumstances so much thought.

“The exhibition’s over there,” she said. She pointed back toward Mayumizaka Gate, where Sedge had seen posters for an exhibition of kutaniyaki, the same local porcelain ware that he and Nozomi had sold in their shop. It was known for its colorful overglazes and named for the village where it had originated over three hundred sixty years ago. One of the garden’s teahouses, Shigure-tei, was holding the exhibition. “It doesn’t start until tomorrow. But the exhibiting artists have to attend a meeting today before arranging their work.”

“What did you want us to talk about?”

She looked toward the lake. “There’s no rule about what we discuss. I much prefer to know who you are than talk about our spouses’ infidelities.”

Sedge doubted that they could discuss what they’d come here for in only half an hour. Before he could suggest meeting again when she had more time, she went on.

“But I hate thinking that what they did—their selfishness—continues to drag us in their wake. I’m even worse off than I was when they ran away together.” She turned to him again. “Did it shock you when she left?”

“Of course. I had no idea they’d been having an affair. Maybe I was too wrapped up in work to notice anything but that she’d grown distant.”

“Yuki confided in me about the money she took. That must have been a shock, too.”

Sedge nodded, mildly taken aback that Takahashi’s wife had shared this. “She arranged for me to leave town on business, then withdrew most of what we had. She took everything from my personal account but left a bit in the one for our shop. I guess she thought she was being kind.” He tried to laugh.

“You could get the police involved, you know. Maybe that would help you find her. And Kōichi.”

“Takahashi made me promise not to involve the police. Anyway, I don’t care that much about the money. I would have given it to her if she’d asked.”

Mariko turned thoughtful for a moment. “How did your divorce lawyers deal with her if no one knew where she was?”

“We’re not divorced, either.”

“I see.” Mariko leaned back, her arms locked straight behind her, and stared into the crisscrossing branches overhead. “We’ve met before, you know. You look different now, though. Your hair, maybe, or it could be that you’re not wearing your work clothes.”

“Did we? I’m afraid I don’t remember.”

“Kōichi and I came to your shop once.”

On her phone, she showed him her husband’s photo. The face he hadn’t wanted to see stared up at him. It was a handsome face, if somewhat blocky like a boxer’s, and a bit aged and worn. He had to be nearly Nozomi’s age, since they’d been in high school at the same time—that much Sedge knew about him. But it was the very opposite sort of face he would have expected her to fall for.

“In his public photos,” she said, “he looks younger. Most people don’t recognize him in person. He preferred it that way. Do you remember him?”

Takahashi had apologized once for his role in Nozomi’s affair. He had introduced her to Kōichi. Because Kōichi was a well-known ceramicist, and the husband of one of his workers, Takahashi thought Nozomi and Sedge might sell his work at their shop. They had agreed to, but Kōichi never followed through with the arrangement.

“Yes, I remember.” He had entered their shop two-and-a-half years ago. He was highly esteemed by Kutani-ware artists and dealers. Though neither loud nor brash, he acted remarkably confident, and Sedge had failed in his attempts to engage him. He tried to recall Kōichi’s interaction that day with Nozomi, but nothing came to mind. Only that Kōichi had gravitated to her, talking to her for longer than their customers ever did. Because he was an artist, this wasn’t strange. “I don’t recall you coming in with him.”

“His presence usually overshadowed mine.”

Wanting to know who she was and hoping she might shine a light on why Nozomi was gone—and what he might yet do about it—he let her continue.

“He left me with his son, you know. His real mother doesn’t want him, and he doesn’t want to go back to her anyway. She lives in Osaka with another man. Her son’s no longer welcome in their flat or in the ramen shop they run. After Kōichi left us, I sent him to Fukui to live with his grandparents. I just couldn’t deal with what had happened and with him, too. But now he’s back with me.”

“You mean you’ve recovered enough by now?”

She smiled faintly. “I don’t know about that. But it’s not the first time this has happened. I’ve built up a sort of endurance for it, I suppose.”

Takahashi had told Sedge about these previous times. “It must be traumatic for your stepson.”

“I’m sure it is. Like I said, it’s not the first time his father has run off. But this time it’s different. This time we know he doesn’t mean to come back.”

Sedge couldn’t tell who she blamed for the affair. Perhaps intentionally, she hadn’t said anything about Nozomi.

“Have you had any news about your husband?”

She shook her head. “I wasn’t expecting to. Have you heard anything about your wife?”

“Nothing. I thought one of us would have by now.” He set his coffee down on the bench between them. “Why did you want to meet me?”

“How can I say this politely?”

Sedge attempted a smile. “You can be impolite with me.”

“I wanted to see if there was something wrong with you. Something that explained why your wife left you for a man like Kōichi. But all of it makes even less sense now. Why would she throw away someone like you?”

He could have told her about the arguments he and Nozomi had, the distance between them over their last few months together, and the problems they faced with their shop, but he didn’t see how it would help. He had a feeling Mariko wanted to know about the intimacies they shared, that she guessed this had been the driving force behind Nozomi leaving, but he wouldn’t volunteer it. His answer would have disappointed her, anyway.

“Maybe she left because there’s nothing wrong with you. There was so much wrong with Kōichi that she must have found that quality more attractive.” She looked at Sedge questioningly. “Maybe she had a lot wrong with her, too.”

“Sometimes I thought so. She became despondent about things in the end.”

“Despondent how?”

“I’m not sure how to explain. I think she was suffering from a kind of depression. But she also didn’t want to get better and seemed satisfied being that way. I never understood it.” That he could state this so plainly surprised him.

“And that’s how it was in the end? With your wife, I mean.”

“It was like it always was between us, I suppose. Maybe a little strained at times, but isn’t that normal? I never guessed she had a lover.”

Mariko looked down as if contemplating her coffee, which, like Sedge, she hadn’t touched. “What would you do if she came back to you? Would you give her another chance?”

Sedge shook his head.

“I don’t feel sorry for her,” Mariko said. When he didn’t reply she smiled half-apologetically. She looked at her watch and slowly stood up, giving him the impression that she didn’t want to leave. “What will you do with your shop?”

Sedge stood, too, and shrugged. “It’s closed now. I couldn’t keep it going.”

“You don’t make ceramics yourself?”

“No.”

She nodded a long time, a far-off look on her face. “I have to go. I’m sorry I had so little time today.”

They bowed to each other.

“I’ll be moving to the ryokan soon,” Sedge reminded her.

“Then I suppose we’ll see each other there sometimes. By the way, what will you do in Yamanaka Onsen? Can’t you find work here in the city?”

“I can’t afford to stay.” To cover up his embarrassment he added quickly, “Takahashi promised to introduce me to some ceramics shops near the ryokan. Hopefully one or two will take me on.”

Not wanting to make her late for the exhibition meeting he said, “Maybe we can talk again soon. I’m sure one of us will hear something.”

“Please let me know if you do.” She bowed again and walked away.

A moment later he called out to her. “You said you’d captured herons before.”

She turned around. “Every now and then I find myself in a position to. Usually a car has hit them and I have to bring them to a rehabilitation center. But I’ve never helped one that was assaulted by a boar. I wish they were more grateful. You should see my scars.”

Knowing how dangerous a heron could be, Sedge found it difficult to respond.

“They aren’t particularly disfiguring,” she added, “but I’d rather not suffer those injuries again. I guess that’s why I didn’t try to help you earlier.”

After she left, a breeze lifted through the trees and a cherry blossom fell on the bench where she had sat. In another week the cherries would reach full bloom. He wanted to see them here before moving to Yamanaka Onsen, but he knew this was unlikely.

As he stood to walk home, he felt that summer had eclipsed spring, that the seasons had advanced by some unnatural calamity. And that he was woefully unprepared for the days ahead.

 

The Heron Catchers by David Joiner is now available in both print and digital everywhere. Order your copy here.


Joiner's previous novel, Kanazawa, details the clash between Emmitt and his wife Mirai over how to pursue their future together until a 30-year-old mystery reveals a way forward. Learn more about Kanazawa here.


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