The next morning the sun rose pale through heavy mists. It inspired me to compose a poem for that phantom dawn.
“The world was aglow
with dreams of white, chilly fire;
hot sun in cold mists.”
There was another Noh mask above the screen door leading out into the garden. It was of a madwoman’s smile, her eyes red and her lips increscent overmuch, as if to wring her face of blood and tears. I took it down and gave it to one of Lord Gou’s servants. Shortly afterward I was brought some fruits and rice for breakfast. Lord Gou was holding a meeting between himself, the minister, and the head of a clan to the South. I was granted liberty of the garden, but was to remain outside of the Main Hall. I decided to sit on the veranda and continue copying the Lotus Sutra. It was a productive morning. The hours flowed like the ink— smooth, serene, perfect. The mists remained, however, and I welcomed them. It was not hot. The earth was overcast with the bosom of the sky. Eventually I realized that someone was sitting near me.
“Lady Utano,” I said, my brush still dancing in my hand. “How does the day find you?”
“Willingly,” she said, “unlike yourself.”
Her voice was calm and level, as usual, yet the words themselves smacked of bitterness.
“I have been very busy,” I said. “As you can see, the Lotus Sutra requires much time and concentration. It is a holy enterprise.”
“To balance your decadent lifestyle,” she said. “Are you atoning for my uncle or for yourself?”
“I write the Lotus Sutra to save souls,” I said. “To raise them to a higher realm upon death. What I do between my work is of little consequence to Buddha.”
“Perhaps you should cut your topknot and shave your hair,” she said, “and take residence in a temple as a monk. It would be a better means for you to serve the Buddha than through whoring and drinking.”
“There are not enough women in a monastery to make me stay,” I said, “otherwise I would gladly join.”
It was a jest…mostly…but she did not take it so.
“You should take care in the company you keep,” she said. “I asked only for your topknot. Another may seek to cut off more above your shoulders.”
“Then I would gladly retire to Neko-no-Shima,” I said, “and live among the cats there. They would not judge me. Cats are divine creatures, you know.”
“No,” she said. “Cats would not judge you. So long as you give them food, they are happy. But Woman needs more than food to be happy. She needs warmth and welcome. She needs a constant heart to match her own. And Woman judges often, and judges severely. Izanami will give her verdict, given time, and her demons will follow.”
I looked up from my work, at last, to behold Lady Utano, but she had gone.
“And Woman is as sneaky as a cat when she wishes to be,” I muttered. “Her claws hidden within soft paws.”
“And what of the clans to the Southwest?”
“They are at it again like snakes and centipedes,” the minister said.
Lord Gou frowned with displeasure. His meeting had ended and now he was walking the garden with the minister, the diviner, and the hapless musician. I listened to them as I continued my work.
“It is a shame,” he said, “that the Emperor’s subjects should dishonor him with such petty infighting.”
“It is the famine, my lord,” the minister said. “It stokes the flames of discontent. When even the nobles starve, blood will suffice.”
“I would never stoop to such bestial disorder,” Lord Gou vowed. “Order must be maintained. What good is a provincial leader if he cannot rein in his own people?”
“My lord,” the minister said, “your home is untouched by the famine that hurts the rest of the Emperor’s lands. I have been to see them, and they could but offer me rice and bits of soy-spiced fish to flavor it. Such small fare cannot pacify for long in such small portions.”
“It is true, then, that we have been fortunate,” Lord Gou admitted with great pride. “Not only are our stores plentiful, but the sea and the gardens yield great offerings to my household. The Buddha is with us, it seems.”
The minister smiled. “Are you sure you have not sacrificed to bloodthirsty monkey gods?”
He laughed, for it was a jest to be taken lightly. Lord Gou, however, was in temperament like his niece. He did not take anything so lightly.
“Never,” Lord Gou growled. “I would disembowel such gods if they ever demanded my obedience.”
The musician, being more clueless than Lord Gou, laughed lightly. “I would tie the monkey gods by the neck with cords and teach them to dance to my music.”
“Only an idiotic monkey would dance to your music,” Lord Gou retorted.
The musician, downcast, stared at his hichiriki sadly. He pressed it to his lips, as if to play a song absently, but realized what he was ready to do and thought better of it. He fell farther behind them, like a rejected dog.
Lord Gou called to me. “Toshiyuki!” he said. “Enough work for today! Come walk with us. We need a poet’s wisdom in this conversation.”
Dutifully, I set aside my brush and joined my host and his flock.
“What is your opinion on the state of things in the Emperor’s lands?” he asked me. “What thoughts does it provoke in you?”
“I cannot speak on behalf of the Emperor’s lands,” I said. “For my mind is not so expansive to encompass them all. What I can say concerns my own little part of the world. And that part is blissful at the moment. My lord, your province is a paradise. Others are indeed not so fortunate.”
“And so you should like to stay here forever, naturally,” Lord Gou said, more pleased than ever with himself.
“I would not impose upon your hospitality forever,” I said. “I must eventually venture to Kyoto and ply myself there, in court. Then…well, who knows? There are times when I wish to settle upon an island and focus solely on writing poetry and Sutras. Perhaps an island to the Southwest of Kyushu.”
“Tora island,” the diviner said with a strange grin. He wore a black eboshi cap atop his rotten egg scalp. It looked like a raven’s crest. “That is a delightful island. I have been there. They have excellent tastes.”
“They?” I said. “I wish to live away from other human beings.”
“And so you would, there,” he said. His lips smiled, but his eyes did not.
“I once heard that there were cannibals upon that island,” the musician said. “Or demons. I forget which.”
“That is because you are an idiot,” Lord Gou said. “Now shut up and play your idiotic monkey music.”
Forthwith, the musician began to play on his hichiriki as we walked. It was a dolorous song of self-pity and reproach.
“Something livelier,” Lord Gou commanded, slamming his fist in his palm, “or I shall have your skin flayed and fitted for a drum!”
The musician’s hichiriki piped like a dawn-crazed bird. I could not tolerate the sound for too long, nor Lord Gou. He ordered the musician to be quiet and then invited all of us inside for an afternoon snack. We had candied yams. They had been gathered from last year’s copious harvest. They were delicious and reminded me that Lord Gou’s province was one of prosperity and plenty. Yet, Lord Gou did not seem so happy as he should have been. When a servant spilled tea upon the table Lord Gou grabbed the young man by the hem of his robe and flogged the back of his head savagely. It was as I watched this horrific display that I noticed the sweat pouring from Lord Gou’s face. It was like sesame oil longing for flame, his face so red that I bethought him soon to transform, a demon emerging from his wrath-wrinkled visage. I felt it incumbent upon me to intervene, yet I dared not. Silence is often wisdom.
After the young man had been sufficiently beaten, he staggered away. An older servant helped him down the hall and tended to his knotted head. Despite doling out punishment, Lord Gou was not pleased. His breathing had become labored— his bullock neck pulsating as his chest heaved and his eyes flashed fire—and his mood had soured. Instead of drinking sake until nightfall he dismissed all of us and retired to his private chambers. Relieved to be on my own, I gladly returned to my room to work.
And yet, I became restless. The clouds lifted and the sun burned hot upon the manor. No winds allayed the heat, nor could I find a fan to cool myself. My room now stuffy, I walked upon the veranda, beneath the shade of the eaves. It was not cool, but it was not so hot as being baked by unshielded sunlight. The air, too, was fresh and fragrant with flowers. It made me think of Lady Utano and her cool, pale thighs. She was moonlight itself, and I wished to lay my cheek upon her legs.
I was admiring the Zen rock garden in the inner courtyard when one of the stones surprised me by hopping forward. Startled, I realized it was a fat, round toad; and it was an omen. Nothing was as it seemed in Lord Gou’s home. I composed a poem upon the spot.
“A quiet garden
with a toad hidden in stones—
heart leaping likewise!”
The toad hunkered down next to another rock, fidgeting restlessly. It almost seemed to shiver, but why? It was not cold. To the contrary, the dreadful heat of that day caused the air to drink every drop of sweat my body offered.
“Tsunade is not here,” I told the toad. A shadow passed over us, briefly, and was gone. “Is that thunder I hear?” I looked to the sky, but it was clear. No clouds. No birds. Then I felt my stomach rumble. “No, it is my belly,” I said. “I am hungry, fat toad. But I do not eat insects as you do. Nor slugs. Perhaps you are hungry for something more. Fame? Fortune? But toads do not envy other toads. Perhaps you do hunger for your Tsunade, as I do for my mistress of the moontime…”
A voice leapt out of nowhere, like the toad, and my heart leapt again, startled.
“It would be best not to speak to animal spirits.”
Standing beside me was the yin-yang diviner, having manifested, ostensibly, from thin, hot air. I could only gawp at him. A smile of wry amusement carved his cheeks into bright red persimmons.
“Indeed,” he said, “I would advise against it, otherwise they may speak in turn and curse you.”
Irritation found me my tongue at last.
“I do not fear curses,” I said, angry that I had been startled by both a toad and an old man. “I write Sutras for many esteemed patrons. I am untouchable.”
It was as unmerited a boast as it was sincere.
“No heart is untouchable,” he said. “Neither poet’s or lord’s or…” He gave me a meaningful look. “…or Lady’s.”
The old man said no more. He turned and walked away, leaving me, and the toad, in the Zen garden, among the water-smoothed stones. I looked to the toad for comfort of company, for I was shaken.
“Jiraiya,” I said to the toad, “there is more that I do not understand than I do. I will dedicate a Lotus Sutra to you, little toad, if you watch over me.”
I wrote part of the Lotus Sutra to the toad later, but I did not write the poem I composed. I felt disturbed and wished for no memento of that encounter. The shock gradually subsided.
Day’s fever was cooled in the dark robes of night, relinquishing its frets in exchange for star-shored dreams. I walked through the manor, seeking a servant to give me more sesame oil for my late hour work. I came upon a servant to Lord Gou fixing a wall in a hallway. The paper had been torn between the bamboo lattice and now lay open, a wound in the adjacent room’s privacy. I marveled, suddenly, at how bold and unthinking I had been in my lust for Lady Utano. I had made love to Lord Gou’s niece with nothing to shield the indiscretion but thin paper veils. How absurd. Then again, what protection was afforded many of us in karma after death except the paper of the Lotus Sutra dedicated to endearing us to the Buddha? Perchance it was merely a sliver of paper that was all standing between us and the sixteen terrible pits of Jigoku? I could see myself scrambling up sharp-leaved trees to reach beautiful women beckoning me, gutting myself while demons clamored to devour my entrails. Sweat suddenly drenched my brow as if the sun was baring down upon me.
I had not much faith in paper, it seemed.
The next morning Lord Gou insisted that he be carried within his palanquin. But being such a large man made it slow-going for the servants, and often as not they nearly fumbled him and his unwieldy weight, their master cursing them meanwhile and tallying the punishments awaiting them upon return to his estate. So, I broke from his entourage and quickly entered the town ahead of the others. It was a busy, crowded town, even with the peasants out in the rice paddies, and there was much to be seen. Merchants of many varieties displayed their wares and foods for the people crowding the streets. It was a drastically different scene from what I had witnessed in other provinces. Lord Gou’s people were truly blessed to be thriving while others could but survive on tree bark and weeds.
But there was a curse in this blessing, too, for survivors from other provinces had come here, seeking salvation and refuge from war and famine. The merchants turned them out, with the flashing teeth of the Samurais’ swords. I passed many of these refugees on the outskirts of the province. Hollow-eyed and haunted, with sunken cheeks and crippled and scarred, they bore their suffering for all to see. Even my heart was moved to see children among them, haggard and hungry. I did not know what to do for them, however, and trusted in Buddha to see them mended in their woes.
I shopped around for a little while. I bought no food, for none of the merchants’ stalls provided fare that could rival what Lord Gou’s household boasted. I did buy a beautiful fan which I knew would serve me well enough during these hot Summer days.
As I was walking along a street I saw a group of men in orange robes. They were bruised, bleeding, and sobbing. When I asked them what was the matter they said they were disciples of a monk and their master had died.
“Master Yuuga was very devout,” said one of the disciples. “He invoked Amida’s name day and night to spirit him away to Paradise.”
I could not help but smile. “And did he spirit him away?”
“Amida came to him a week ago,” he said, “and we all saw him, shining in his fiery glory. But Amida was displeased. He said any fool could invoke his name, but only the worthy could invoke him while underwater.”
My smile disappeared. “I see.”
“Amida told Master Yuuga that if he had faith in him then the river would not drown him. He said his name could repel whole oceans with enough faith when spoken. Our Master had great faith and so he went to the river. Many townsfolk and the refugees heard about what he was doing and followed him to the river, wishing to see Amida themselves.”
“And Master did as he was told!” another disciple said. “He walked out into the river until he disappeared in the flow. We saw a few bubbles break upward, flowing downstream, now and then, but the river flowed on as normal and we never saw Yuuga again. Fearing for his well-being, we went in to retrieve him, but he was gone!”
I frowned. “But he was not spirited away,” I said skeptically.
“We thought he was,” another disciple said, “and so did the spectators. We all fell on our hands and knees and prayed to Amida to take us away to Paradise, too, but he did not. Several of the refugees clambered into the water and did as our Master had done. They, too, disappeared. So many disappeared…”
Looks of abject horror beset their bruised, bleeding faces. I felt a chill up my spine.
“What truly happened?” I asked.
“We went home and continued upon the Path. But today we came into town and were ambushed by the townsfolk. They called us murderers and liars and they stoned us and beat us with sticks. The Samurai had to protect us, cutting many of the refugees down with their blades.” He tried to elaborate, but was at a loss for words, gawping in disbelief.
“A fisherman found the bodies of the refugees downstream,” another disciple said through tears. “And among them was Master Yuuga. They were dead and bloated and kappa demons had eaten their souls. The fisherman told the townsfolk, and the refugees were told also, and so we were attacked as charlatans.”
“But we did see Lord Amida!” another disciple said. “We heard his majestic voice and saw his fiery halo!”
“It had to be a tengu!” another disciple said. “Oh, how could we all be so foolish!”
They walked away, weeping and hobbling. I wondered how someone could fall for such tricks. I would have never been fooled so easily. Monks were supposed to be wise, but all I ever heard was that they were fooled time and time again. Ibuki mountain was haunted by many tengu who endlessly tormented monks and their disciples, as was Mount Heini.
It was at that time that Lord Gou’s entourage overtook me. The musician and the diviner walked obediently beside his palanquin. His servants set the palanquin down and Lord Gou— after a few strenuous attempts— got out and stood up.
“What did those monks want?” he demanded. “I give to their temple enough that they should not be begging alms.”
I recounted the monks’ story to Lord Gou and his entourage. When I had finished, the diviner smiled.
“All holy men are marked,” he said. “And tengu aim true if a heart is not shielded with the Buddha’s teachings.”
“But should they not fear holy men above all others?” the musician asked.
“Demons fear little,” the diviner said. “The oldest temple in Uzumasa has been burned down many times. They rebuild it again and again, and the demons seek much mirth in this.” He leaned upon his walking staff, and licked his lips. “So, too, may demons burn a man from within, only for him to be rebuilt again and again. That is how demons are born.”
“Or perhaps they should just cease lighting fires in the temples,” Lord Gou said. “That might stop the fools from burning their temple down.”
A poem, unbidden, sprang forth in my mind.
in honor of the Buddha—
burns down his temple.”
Lord Gou growled. “I am of a mind that this squalidly tide of riffraff should and shall be expunged from my glorious province. They bring corruption with them. Disease and filth.” His eyes hardened, like flint, and flared upon the strike. “Perhaps a blood moon may call their flotsam tide out to sea again.”
“My lord,” the diviner said, “Buddha would not smile upon so…uncharitable a measure. No, we must let them remain—on the outskirts, of course—so that a great feast of mercy may be enjoined by all.”
The diviner’s words brooked mercy, yet his smile bled something contrary. It made me uneasy. I felt as a man standing upon a battlefield as many bodies lay strewn about him, peace gained at long last, but at the cost of all warriors thereon gathered, the crows descending for their celebratory feast. Laughing.
“I must return to Kyoto eventually,”I said, nervously, “though part of me aches to see Mount Atago.”
“There are plenty of mountains to adore in Kyoto itself,” Lord Gou said, leering. “Twin peaks around every corner, concealed in shadow, but scaled for the right price.”
We all laughed, as any man would. Lord Gou’s jape inspired a poem in that moment, born fully formed in the forge of my mind.
“Morning mountain peaks
within sleepy robes of mist—
hear the valley drum?”
Unbidden, the image of Lady Utano’s breasts called to me. I had rested between many bosoms in my life, yet hers beckoned to me still, whereas the others were as unappealing as old, cold rice. I shook my head and attempted to dispel the enchantment she had placed upon me. Was she a fox spirit? But she claimed I was the same. Were we wed, would the sun showers drown the earth in rain and sunshine?
Lord Gou returned to his estate early, alongside his throng of guests, servants, and sycophants. I remained in town for a while longer, walking. I looked upon the refugees gathered at the outskirts of town, beneath the tumult of verdure and crimson from the trees, and wondered what they would do in the coming Autumn. More frightening was the thought of the coming Winter. Many would die of cold and hunger here. Many would also riot, and so die of blade and arrow. I had seen such things before, or the aftermath of such things at least. It was a carrion banquet for crows and worms. As I passed a mother with her two children I saw in their mournful glances the sorrows of a world yet unsaved. The boy and the girl were thin, their rounded cheeks sunken with starvation and blackened with grime. I ventured to a merchant and bought rice and fish, then gave these things to the mother and her children. They were grateful, but as they ate I saw envious eyes fixed upon them from among the other refugees. Envious and hateful. I wondered if I had made a mistake of such charity, for surely it appointed them as foremost targets in the minds of that group of wretches. A kindness done exclusively for a few is always begrudged by the many. I hoped I did not doom them with kindness.
It was midday when I returned to Lord Gou’s estate. I found his lordship well into his sake cups, drunk and chasing servants away while brandishing his tanto blade. Lady Utano attempted to coax him into releasing a young servant by the throat. When he saw me, however, the servant boy was forgotten, released, and so fled into the manor. Lord Gou grinned broadly, and sheathed the tanto. His black beard was wet with sake.
“I forget myself sometimes,” he said, swaying with his own sloshing belly. “Toshiyuki, have you been acquainted with my lovely niece, Utano?”
“I have had the pleasure,” I said.
“And how did that come about?” he demanded. His grin hardened, like an angry monkey’s. “I do not remember introducing you to one another.”
“It was a love that introduced us,” I said, aghast at my own words. I sputtered idiotically. “A love of poetry and calligraphy, my lord. Your niece writes very well.”
To my relief, Lord Gou accepted this explanation. Yet, he had not had his full say upon the matter. He peered at me closely, then at his niece.
“You are taken with her beauty, no doubt,” he said. “All men are. But you would do well to remember that I cannot give her to you, however a dear friend you are. She is promised to another. Nothing strengthens alliances like children.” He smiled again, drunkenly, at his niece, but his words were a grim promise. “If she fails in this endeavor, not even the convent will save her from my wrath. Her aunt can attest to that.” He turned away and headed inside his manor. He paused at the door. “Which is to say, she cannot attest to anything.” He glanced over his shoulder at me. “And as for any man inclined to defy my honor, he shall know suffering which not even the Buddha can alleviate.”
He went inside, leaving Lady Utano and I in a stern silence. She looked sad, and beautiful. Beautifully sad. Sadly beautiful. Yet, I could not let her enshrine her influence upon my heart. I turned to leave. She called out to me.
“Lord Gou divorced my aunt,” she said. “She had given him one son, Shinji, but he died in battle with another clan. My aunt was unable to provide anymore heirs in her old age. She fled to the convent, but died before reaching it. My uncle felt dishonored by her…infertility.”
“I see,” I said. I stepped toward her, involuntarily. I spoke in a whisper. “Why do you stay here, Lady Utano? Why not return home?”
“I have no home,” she said. “My father died recently, and my mother died giving birth to me. My uncle controls his estate now and will not allow me to return to it. He does not trust me. He believes I would marry for affection when I should marry for power.”
“He is wise in that, at least,” I said.
“Is he?” she said, her dark eyes bright with fire. “Perhaps. I welcomed a man into my heart once for affection, and it has brought me nothing but grief and heartbreak.”
“I did love you for a night,” I said. “But does not the river rush on? It does not return. All is evanescent. Buddha admonishes us to let go of the past. It is a shadow that stretches behind us, insubstantial and distracting only those foolish who heed it as if it was of consequence.”
Yet, even as I said such things I admired the Lady before me. Lady Utano was a refulgent, lissome mistress. As the moon gazing lonely in waters, she shone brightly in such dark times.
I intended to step away from her, but my feet refused. I stepped toward her again, somehow forgetting myself and the dangers of such indescritions at the doorstep of my host. My mouth opened as if longing for her own, and spoke quietly of things that should not be said.
“But a shadow such as yours is an enchanting sight,” I said.
It seemed my tongue wished to betray me as well as my feet. Perhaps some mischievous kami had asserted its power over my mouth. I would have rather Raijin strike me dead with a lightning bolt from a clear sky than have Lord Gou discover the tryst betwixt myself and his niece. It would have been a far easier death than whatever torture Gou might invent for my indiscretion.
“You have a tongue promiscuous with many meanings,” she said, “and many hearts.”
She left me to my confusion, disappearing into her uncle’s manor. What remained of her was her fragrance, and the hastened hammering of my heart at her absence. I was treading the wet rocks of a waterfall, it seemed. How strange that I should wish to plunge headlong with reckless abandon. Yet, if it meant chasing her figure among the violent froth, so be it!
That night was rife with entertainments. A troupe of dancers performed for us, and many sweets and fish dishes were served. Sake flowed like flooded rice paddies and we drank ourselves silly into the late hours. When it was time to retire to bed, I took a walk about the garden. There I saw the man upon the moon bridge, staring as ever into the moon pond below. Bold as mountains, I addressed the shadow-faced stranger, demanding to know— in my drunkenness— why he refused to attend his host’s festivities.
“I am most unwelcome here,” he said.
“And yet you are here,” I said.
“An intruder,” he said. “And yet I am not permitted to leave.”
“A prisoner, then!” I said, hiccuping. I then fell to silence, thinking of the implications. “I do not understand. You are an intruder and a prisoner? Are you a thief that was caught and must stay here? But you are not shackled.”
“Shackled by the greatest shackles,” he said. “Love.”
I grew angry. “If you seek the heart of Lady Utano then you should do well to abandon such hopelessness! She is promised to another, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise!” My cheeks were wet and my eyes burned. I wiped them absently on my sleeves, and swayed uneasily on my feet.
“She is not my concern,” the stranger said, unmoved by either my anger or my sorrow. “My love remains here, though she has gone away, as I have myself.”
My head reeled with bafflement. “You are drunker than I am,” I slurred. “You make no sense.”
“Very little does,” he said, “except what is most important. But it becomes clouded by things that are petty and unimportant. Love, for instance, is as solid as Mt. Fuji, yet is dissolved by mists of duty and authority. How strong and lasting the mountain. How insubstantial and fleeting the mists.”
I caught myself against the willow tree, almost passing out into the pond. “What?” I said, rousing again.
“It is no matter,” the man said. “But let me ask you this: Have you seen the tanto that your host wears ever at his side?”
Recalling Lord Gou, I did seem to remember him wearing a tanto on his belt. He tended to finger it whenever he was annoyed. He tended to brandish it when he was enraged. I told the drunkard that I knew of such a blade.
“I forged that blade for another,” he said, “hoping she might use it against the wolves that haunt this world. But he took it from her, along with something even more precious. Now I must forge something more subtle than any blade. I must forge his guilt. I must mold his madness. For he is the mists that blind this world to the truth, and soon the mountain will erupt with fire.”
Being a poet, I have prided myself on clarity of thought and exactness of expression, yet I was shamed to find myself more and more dispossessed of such virtues as I spent more days as Lord Gou’s guest. Perhaps it was a result of the idle comforts and entertainments of my host. Perhaps it was the sake. Perhaps it was that bewitching distraction that taunted me in the much-favored figure of Lady Utano. Regardless of origin, the mists remained, thickening as days progressed to nights, nights to days. Yet, it was not that I was altogether impaired beyond writing poetry, but rather the poems which came to me came as foreigners from far shores, mysterious in meaning and custom even to me, the dutiful laborer who traced their magic in ink. Like dreams, they were, from my own mind and yet deeper in that mind than I had ever consciously delved. Though I was a habitual denizen of the Floating World— wherein the strict chains of society were dissolved in opium clouds and drink and laughter—the mistiness and insubstantiality was more insistent, frightening; as if it meant to dissolve the prison of society and Order altogether and free the agents of Chaos from the shackles of pretense and tradition. The mists were dissolution and liberation, entrancing and horrifying, like the naked body of Lady Utano: luminous with moonlight and the dew of passionate sweat.
Upon waking the first thing I saw within the late morning light was another Noh mask hanging from my door. It was of a kijo, her face split horizontally along her fanged mouth. She had rudimentary horns and a red face that shimmered like blood. Taking it down, I threw it out into the garden. Where it went, I did not know, nor did I care. Grumpy, and suffering from the agony of sake-sickness, I dressed myself and went, uninvited, into the Main Hall. Lord Gou and the diviner were already seated. Sitting down, I nearly fell face-first into the table, catching myself with my hands. Lord Gou nodded to a servant and the servant left, returning with a bowl of rice and hot tea. These things I partook of halfheartedly. The long room seemed to sway as a ship on the sea.
“So little sake for so miserable a face,” Lord Gou remarked, laughing. “Toshiyuki, are all poets so weak of stomach as you?”
“Weak of stomach and weak of mind,” I said, “otherwise I would never let my belly brim with what it cannot tolerate.”
The musician arrived shortly after me, swaying to the music of his own sickness. Had I appeared so foolish upon my entrance? No. No one could be so foolish as the musician. He tripped over his own feet and struck his shins against the table, yelping.
“Silence, you fool!” Lord Gou growled. “Your cries are almost as terrible as your singing!”
The musician was too preoccupied with the pain in his bruised legs to be properly ashamed of his clumsiness. When the servant brought the musician his rice and tea, the musician looked at it as if it was a severed head. He rushed out of the Main Hall abruptly, hand clutched over the floodgates of his mouth.
A servant went to check on the musician, but returned shortly afterward with the mask I had discarded into the garden. He presented it to Lord Gou.
“This was found in the garden, my lord,” the servant said.
Lord Gou took the mask and stared down at its grim visage. “How had it come to rest there?” he asked.
I proffered my explanation, alongside my confusion as to why such masks were being hung in my room.
“That is strange,” the diviner said. “And you never hear the miscreant as they enter or exit your room?”
“Never,” I said.
“I enjoy mischief,” Lord Gou said gruffly, “but mischief of this nature in my own house I cannot abide. I will discover this imp and have him flogged for his impudence. Do you suspect anyone in particular? Anyone who might begrudge you some offense?”
I dared not answer with the foremost figure among my thoughts. “Perhaps it is that mischief-maker upon the bridge.”
“Who?” the diviner asked, genuine in his curiosity.
“A drunkard in the middle of the night,” I said. “He speaks all nonsense, exhausting the whorl of my ear. I have spoken to him a few times, but I have never seen him during the day.”
“Describe him to me,” Lord Gou demanded, “so I might know the man that dishonors my guests.”
“I have never seen his face,” I said. “He is always upon the moon bridge, staring into the pond. He hardly makes sense, which is why I believe he is toying with me for the sake of mischief…”
The musician stumbled in, then, his face greenish and his robe fouled with the sake-sickness. Lord Gou rose to his feet in a fury, his hand going to the tanto in his belt.
“Take that idiot away!” he commanded, pointing. “Toss him in the river if you have to! I will not abide a fool fouling my manor!”
Two servants obediently rushed to escort the musician out. Lord Gou then pointed to another servant.
“You! Send messengers out to the local monasteries. I want their best priests sent here for a mass exorcism. We are obviously not free from the specters that haunt this place.”
“But, my lord…” the diviner said.
“Silence!” Lord Gou erupted. “You have had your chance. The evil spirits still remain. Can you not see? They will not let me or my guests be, and so I must expunge them in full force.”
“I do not understand,” I said. “The evil spirits made the musician sick?”
“No, you idiot!” Lord Gou said. “Your mischief-maker on the bridge! He is the wicked spirit that corrupts my home!”
A woman’s love warms, like sake, but if given too much it aches in the head and makes a man’s mind sluggish, foolish, weak. All becomes cloudy. Poetic insight is sacrificed. Despite this knowledge, I hungered for a woman. Normally any willing maid or prostitute would suffice when charm or money was abundant, yet I was astonished to find myself fixated singularly upon the Lady Utano. Thus thought, thus sought. I went to her— while Lord Gou’s household was bustling with preparations for the many diviners to arrive in the coming days—and I found her amidst the sakaki trees. Sakaki trees. The trunks twined like the slender, strong flanks of serpents and dragons. They were the trees of the gods, after all, and their white flowers were in full bloom. Lady Utano sat in the cool purple shade of leaf and blossom.
“My lady,” I said, bowing to her. “I languish away from your presence.”
Her tone was flat and unwelcoming, yet her husky voice still enchanted. “One wonders how you will survive in Kyoto, then, when you will be so far from me.”
“It is not a desire I yearn for,” I said, “but a necessity. Fate commands me upon my path. Matsuo Basho knew the same heartache, I do not doubt.”
“Then your poetry shall keep you company,” she said. “Kiss it each night. Make love to it. It will suffice.”
“Never so much as your touch,” I said. I knew her mockery was born of bitterness, and her bitterness born of love. “I find myself cold by night. If you would only join me then I would need neither poetry nor sake to keep me company in those lonely hours.”
“To join me by moonlight,” she said, “you must first join me by daylight. As husband and wife.”
“Do not be cold and distant, my moon,” I said. “Do not leave me in the abject darkness of night.”
She turned away from me. Her black hair was tied up tightly above her brow, restrained with a severe comb. My heart ached to see her tresses free, like black ink strokes upon scroll whiteness, as they were in the morning silence of our night spent together. Birdsong celebrated all around us, and I wished them silent. The only music I wished to hear was her rapid breath. Her husky moans.
“You think of me only in dark hours,” she said, “but who should wish to commit oneself to someone who thinks of you as a pillow for his dreams? Am I so easily set aside and taken up as it conveniences you? Like the moon with its tides? Love, for me, is not such an easy need, but compels through day and night.”
“But my destiny is beyond my making, my moon,” I said. “The stars cannot be rewritten in the sky.”
“Then join your destiny, unchanged, to me in the proper way,” she said. “Where you go, I will follow. But if you would divide our lives together, then you would slay it, certain as an ax upon the tree. I will not live divided, for I would not live at all. It would be a death for both of us.”
“Cranes go their separate ways,” I said, “yet return always to the single heart. How can it not be the same for man and woman? Steadfast hearts may fly far apart, but share the same flapping song.”
“The wingstroke falters where winds grow fiercer,” she said. “A crane shelters wherever he mays as weather changes rhythm. The other song is forgotten beneath the roar of the thunderstorm, and the song of another heart.”
I reached out and touched her shoulder. Her pink kimono was soft and slick, but never so satisfying as her bare shoulder was that night of our moonlit union.
“I knew a painter once,” I said. “He was a man named Yoshihide and he was as devout in painting as he was in serving Buddha. Happily for him he painted Buddhas, and so knew his two devotions in one practice. He did quite well. Indeed, he painted Fudo, for Fudo was Yoshihide’s favorite Buddha figure. But his passion and skill seemed to fail him when rendering Fudo’s halo. The flames never looked quite right and undermined his otherwise flawless efforts. Then one day his home caught fire, devouring his wife and his children. Yoshihide looked upon the flames and wept. ‘He weeps for his family,’ someone said. But I knew the truth. He wept because he saw flames as they should be, realizing his life’s works were but amateurish failures in comparison.”
Lady Utano was no fool. I did not doubt that she could understand the meaning in my story. Even so, I felt compelled to articulate more clearly my meaning.
“What I mean to say is that I have only one wife in my life, and that is my brush, and my children are my poems and Sutras. This it he only conceivable arrangement for my happiness. Anything otherwise would be misery for myself and for the people who shared in such misery.”
She looked at me for a long time, her ever-frown silent.
“I am already in a burning house,” she said.
She stood, then, and walked away, her sandaled feet not making the least whisper at the tread. She joined the company of her uncle where she knew I would not dare press my affections. Yet, that she did not inform him upon me was, I believed, evidence of her continued affection toward me. The crane was carried with the same wingstroke, yet.
I feared, as most artisans do, the mind-deadening drudgery of the lower classes. I was up all night composing original poems for Lord Gou. Lady Utano did not visit me. I had jilted her, and no entreaties restored her favor. Yet, I had not the time or focus for such worries. I burned away thoughts, and sesame oil, in pursuit of midnight poems. As I worked I felt a presence in the room; perhaps more than one presence. Several times did I look up from the parchment and ink, expecting someone to be looming over me— Lady Utano, or so I wished—only to be greeted by flickering shadows that fluttered about like crow demons. Though I never saw my visitors, I knew they were there, near me. Perhaps they were whispers upon that windless night, ensorcelling the whorls of my ears with poetic inspiration.
He spoke the fog of war. This was the thought that came to my mind as the diviner spoke to me in the garden. He had invited himself upon my veranda, standing by as I wrote more of the Lotus Sutra for my host. He loomed over me like a carrion bird.
“Punishment is needful rehabilitation of the soul,” the diviner said. “It is what the seven hells were invented to do. To reform the soul anew, as are punishments in this world.” A mock-smile crinkled his lips, and I wondered if such words pleased his mouth.
“True criminals cannot be reformed,” I said, working the ink slowly upon the parchment. “I have seen many such men. Not even death could reform them. They would only be reborn as thieving monkeys or murderous tigers.”
“And what form will you take upon your death?” he said, obviously expecting to be humored by my answer.
“Perhaps a tanuki,” I said, flippantly. “Many women would agree with me.”
“Perhaps,” the diviner said. “Perhaps worse. But I am supposed to grant hope to even the most hopeless, which is why I will relate to you a true story about a true criminal. You see, there was a man, once, whose crimes were innumerable. Murder, theft, rape, blasphemy. In all things wicked and corrupt he delighted. The more sorrow he sowed upon his victims the more joy he reaped from such atrocities. But at last he was captured and an ingenious torture was devised for him. Rather than execute the criminal they locked him away in an old temple. A guard was posted to be always at the door, changing at intervals so as to not drive his keepers mad, and the criminal was fed once a day a ration of rice and water and nothing more. The torture was one of silence and isolation. The guards that were posted was not to say anything to him, nor to heed his words. And thus many seasons passed as the criminal saw nor heard nor spoke to anyone except the shadowy silence of the old temple. Ten years passed and the criminal stopped eating his rice and drinking his water. The governor of the province, curious to know what had become of the criminal, ordered the doors opened. Much to his dismay, and the dismay of the guards, the criminal was no longer in the temple. He had been spirited away by the Buddha, having achieved Enlightenment in the silent solitude of the old temple.”
“Or someone bribed the guard to release him,” I said unimpressed.
“But he was found years later, friend, leading a monastery in the mountains. He had become a quiet legend known to only the most devout disciples. Monks traveled from all provinces to learn the wisdom he had discovered in his solitude and rehabilitation.”
“A lucrative venture, certainly,” I quipped.
The old man smiled, and I felt a cold claw upon the nape of my neck. “As is the writing of Lotus Sutras,” he said. “Are you so sanctimonious as to disagree?”
I found my tongue after only a moment of annoyance. “Do you claim that you are not benefiting from your own holy work? You drink as much sake as I do, if not more.”
“That is true,” the diviner said, his smile never faltering. “But I would never take advantage of my host’s hospitality beyond his liking. How can you hope to raise Lord Gou above his sins if you are sinning against him?”
I stuttered, but only in outrage. “My work consists of the signposts whereby they may, themselves, find their way to higher realms.”
“And have you sought higher realms? You seem preoccupied by sensual decadence to me.”
“Amidst so much sensual decadence I am charged with saving Lord Gou’s soul with the Lotus Sutra. Yet, the Lotus Sutra can only serve those for whom it becomes a mantra. Words can only lift you so far. Actions must help the ascent as well. We all take ultimate responsibility for our fate, as I will when the time comes.”
He grinned, then, and my blood was as cold as icemelt. “The time comes sooner than you would like, little poet.”
Swift as a raven, the diviner turned and left.
I dreamt of Lady Utano. She stood amongst the mists. She wore a pale kimono from which a white snakeskin belt was strapped. Hanging from her belt was a netsuke, and strung from it was an inro. She undid the netsuke and the inro and held them out to me. I accepted them curiously. She said nothing, nor did I speak, and the world of mist was silent all around us. I looked first at the netsuke. It was carved from ivory in perfect imitation of Utano’s maidenhead. I have forgotten most portals of pleasure belonging to the women I have enjoyed, but not Utano’s. It was pure white except for an inlay around her lips, which bled red as rubies. I handled this ornament carefully, tenderly, for I wished no harm to come to it. I tried to return it to her, but she shook her head in silence and pointed to the inro box. It was lacquered wood and displayed a red flowering plum tree. I did not know what was in that foreboding box, but I dreaded opening it.
“No,” I said, though the word was no more than a whisper.
Lady Utano shrugged off her kimono, and was ivory nakedness within the chilly mists. She pointed to the box again. Again I refused. She hissed and fell upon the ground, melting into a great white serpent. I ran and she followed me, undulating as quickly and violently as whitewater. Tripping in my haste, I fell and the inro box spilled open. Within came without. I saw my manhood upon the ground, splayed open, daikon and turnips together. I screamed, knowing I had to either leave them behind and escape or retrieve them and be encoiled. Unable to let go, I stooped and gathered them up to make myself whole once more. As I turned to flee, her white, sinuous body encoiled me and held me forever in her embrace.