If you look carefully around your house you might see one, possibly under the bed; but most are probably invisible. A baku eats nightmares, human nightmares and all manner of bad dreams. He has a bear’s body, an elephant’s trunk, a tiger’s paws, an ox’s tail and rhinoceros eyes. “Oh! That baku!” you say, and rightly so–none other.
He was first discovered by the Chinese but fully appreciated by the Japanese starting in the Muromachi Era (14th-15th Centuries), and his stylish nose is supposedly inspired by the tapirs of Indochina. But he is a spirit and not overly concerned with appearances. Wooden statues of him stand at the rooftop corners of Japanese temples, warding off evil, but his serious work is in bedrooms. Upon retiring for the night Japanese people, at least their traditionalists, politely ask the baku to eat all of their bad dreams, he obliges and so they sleep peacefully. Having had so few nightmares over the past decade that I can count them on the fingers of one hand, I may not need a baku. Or I may have one already.
Sino-Japanese folklore does not tell us if there is a counter-baku; an evil twin who fell in with bad company, began smoking cigarettes and driving hot-rods, and now generates nightmares. If so, the two may be ever at loggerheads or they may enjoy a symbiotic relationship; rather like the teams of preachers and bootleggers said to coordinate their campaigns to keep Southern counties “dry,” or possibly wannabe terrorists and the Homeland Security agents who entrap them and lobby for bigger budgets. It is a mystery. Either way “our baku”—the good one–must be buying larger clothes after eating all those extra nightmares lately, particularly those of American Liberals who have a lot of bad dreams.
Charlotte, in her sixties, drinks her garlic-and-broccoli smoothie (that alone warns the baku who rolls his eyes), and retires to fond recollections of her youth. Drifting off to sleep she hears The Mommas & The Papas somewhere in the background, crooning “go where you wanna go, do what you wanna do,” and sees the quad full of fellow hippies in The Summer of Love. Her current beau, who calls himself Falcon, speaks in a fake French accent and claims to have known Jim Morrison in Paris, gazes into her eyes and intones, “Be cool! Whatever’s your bag, baby! I can’t tell anyone else what to do!” Meanwhile the baku, who knows what is coming, gulps down a pawful of Maalox tablets and prepares to eat something deeply unappetising.
Charlotte is pleased. Falcon loves her, he respects her freedom, and he gave her a nickel-bag scored from the Canadian bongo-player. Then she glances down from dreamland while snoring gently, but her tie-dyed granny dress has changed. It is now a Gestapo uniform, and she whips her riding crop across the face of an elderly man tied to a chair. “Admit it! You are a global warming denier! Who are your friends! We have ways of making you talk!” The old scientist whimpers miserably, and the baku fights the urge to gag as her nightmare goes down in one slimy gulp. But there will be more and he knows it.
Meanwhile Tom tosses fitfully on the other side of the Sealy Posturepedic. In his dream he is twelve again, opening birthday gifts, and his favourite is a black t-shirt with a huge, white peace sign. Dad, who works for the Ford Foundation, and Mom, whom Dad says cannot take a job because it is 1972, beam adoringly. It is just what Tom wanted, and now he can join the “grown-up” high school kids protesting the Vietnam War. “All we are saying,” chants the chorus in his mind, “is give peace a chance!” If bakus have pockets, ours goes through his looking for the Zantac.
Suddenly Tom looks down and wonders how he got to a costume party; and, anyway, why did he decide to come as a pilot? Just then he hears the machine gunfire and the rotors of the helicopter. “Gottem, Capt’n! Ragheads! Look at ‘em all run! Even the kids!” Tom is confused by the noise and horrified by his helmet and uniform. As he struggles with his pillow, the baku takes a mighty gulp and burps unpleasantly.
So it goes all night. Poor Charlotte’s dreams commute between her permissive youth at UC Berkeley and her present job writing Common Core curricula, but in between she interrogates perpetrators of various “Thought Crimes” and herds scruffy prisoners into the cattle-cars. “But I was just following orders!” she shouts from the Nuremberg dock as young prosecutors look up in disgust and then go back to scribbling notes.
Tom cannot tell if he is marching for peace or mowing down North Vietnamese “gooks,” or in Iraq or Libya or Afghanistan, or back in his real life job writing hawkish foreign policy speeches for the Hillary campaign. All that he knows is he is confused and miserable. Was it supposed to be like this, he wonders. But the answer is always the same, “Gimme more ammo, Cap’n! There’s a whole school bus full of ‘em down yonder!”
Two blocks behind the Wal-Mart stands a neighbourhood bar, empty at dawn; and so there the bakus gather after their long night’s work. “Gosh, Hiroko, you’re hitting it hard, aren‘t you?”asked a new arrival. Our baku ordered more boilermakers, doubles, and his friend understood once he heard the explanation.
“Liberals! What a nightmare assignment!” the friend sympathised, and after a few gulps he mused, “Hey, ever wonder where the nightmares come from? Ever think there may be anti-bakus churning out bad dreams?”
Hiroko sneered, downed his drink and called for another. “Not at my house,” he replied. “My humans did it all to themselves.” Then he asked his companion what he does nowadays. Then he listened and offered condolences, which his friend dismissed.
“Jeb Bush never has nightmares so I don’t have to work at all,” said the other baku. “He never has bad dreams because he has no conscience. None of his relatives do either!”
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.
*Read about Baku here.