Hateful blades seek blood
as do crows their charnel nests—
many eggs will hatch.
I saw, too, that her hands clenched her flowery robe among her trembling fingers. I thought her fingers restless. Their lissome loveliness provoked much mischief in my heart.
“Should your fingers be restless for further play,” I said, “I should like to volunteer myself as the instrument of your joy.”
“My fingers are taloned,” she said, fluttering her fingers so that I might see their nails. “They will not stop for blood or bone or scream or plea.” She sighed. “Should you take them as wives to your fingers, however, they would serve as ever it might please you.”
“But I will not sell a false hope for such a delightful service,” I said, “no more than a kappa will sell his water to a thirsty man. I cannot marry you, as I have said before. Should not my honesty attest to some honor in my soul? I have ever been a servant of the truth, even when concerning you.”
“A poet’s truth always implies promises never fulfilled,” she said, “even when speaking of honor.”
I watched her leave, and not solely to look for a fox’s tail hidden beneath her kimono. Her stride beguiled, too, as did so many other aspects of her. Yet, I knew that wherever she walked, and however graceful, it was a path not my own. I walked a path plotted on paper and shadowed by ink. How else would I rival or surpass that famous poet, Matsuo Basho? His inky shadow obscured me from the fame I deserved.
I could not escape Lady Utano’s song. It was as a small centipede spiraling in my ear, gnawing at my mind. Thus I welcomed the distraction that Lord Gou offered later that evening.
“Come, let us think of other things,” he said. “We have more entertainment for tonight. Something special! Something enchanting!”
Lord Gou seemed quite pleased and excited. Perhaps the entertainment awaiting us was special, or perhaps he was merely relieved at having his house purified. Perhaps both. I followed his entourage into the main hall where his long, low table resided. At the head of the room was something new: a booth of lacquered wood, a red curtain drawn about it. It seemed we were to be audience to a Bunraku show. This diversion was at least worthwhile, I thought.
Lord Gou bid us sit. The musician took up a shamisen. Evidently he would be providing the dramatic atmosphere for the performance.
“Seat yourselves, my friends,” Lord Gou said. “The show begins soon!”
The show began immediately, and without further ado. Two puppets rose from below the curtained booth. One was a man and one was a woman. The man greeted the woman with a bow, and she bowed to him. He then came forward as the shamisen was struck affectionately. She tried to turn away, but the man bowed to her again and she simply demurred, then invited him to walk beside her. They strolled together as the music was struck placidly, like the falling of easy rain on a lake. The two puppets turned to one another and seemingly kissed. A beautiful note sounded, punctuating their moment with the grace of Heaven.
Suddenly, another puppet appeared. He wore a lavish kimono and a dark beard. A harsh note was struck upon the shamisen and several other puppets appeared with swords. There were so many that I marveled that so many puppeteers should not only inhabit such a small booth, but that they should do so while so adroitly manipulating their puppets. I fain believed that Thousand-Armed Kannon himself had to be squatting in that booth, arraying the simulacra of life.
The puppet woman was taken to the puppet man with the beard and he pressed himself unwantedly upon her. Her lover attempted to intervene, but was cut down by the warriors amidst discordant twanging of the shamisen. I looked at the musician, wondering if he was suffering a malady or paroxysm of the fingers. But his hands moved not at all, gnarled with terror as the shamisen’s strings trembled and shook of their own accord. I then noticed that Lord Gou had risen to his feet, livid with confounded rage.
“How dare you mock me in my own home!” he roared. “How dare you question my authority!”
He rushed forward and tore aside the puppet curtain. The puppets collapsed immediately through the air and fell limp upon the floor, the booth empty. Upon seeing this, Lord Gou fell back with a startled cry and the diviner rushed forward. Lord Gou quivered upon the floor, clutching at the diviner’s robe.
“Deliver me from these foul spirits!” our host pleaded.
The commotion drew the servants of the household into the main hall, followed by the true puppeteers. All were baffled and confused, including myself. Upon seeing the puppeteers, Lord Gou rose to his feet, the wrath in his face blazing and his teeth gnashing within his beard.
“You! You seek to make a fool of me!” He drew his tanto, ready to spill blood. “I will castrate the lot of you and throw your manhoods to the crows!”
The puppeteers ran from the room in a clumsy rush. Lady Utano intervened on their behalf, gliding forward into a low bow. She was like a prayer hushing a violent storm.
“My lord,” she said, “they are not the source of this mischief. They have been telling me of their travel from Kyoto.”
“I agree with the Lady,” the yin-yang diviner said. “This is the work of spirits. Yokai, possibly.”
Lord Gou sheathed his blade once again, turning upon the diviner with a snarl.
“And whose fault is that?” he said. “You were supposed to purify my home!”
“There is a darker stain on this estate than I realized,” he said. “I will resume my rituals immediately.”
Lord Gou merely grunted, then turned upon the musician. “Cease your noise, imbecile or I will have your fingers severed one by one and your tongue…” He did not elaborate on the punishment, for his last word fell from his gawping mouth like a dead bird. He saw that the musician had tossed the shamisen from himself and that the instrument played itself as it lay untouched on the floor. It played a dreadful discord before its noise died abruptly with the snapping of its strings.
I had a terrible dream about puppets. They pirouetted without hands in a great darkness. Men, women, children— all dancing as they floated in the air. Then, gradually, I realized they did have a master that manipulated them all, and that master gradually formed from moonlight within the darkness.
But before I could see the master I woke. It was late in the night, or perhaps early in the morning, just before the dew could form. The room seemed crowded with invisible specters, all watching me. I told myself it was a ridiculous sensation born of childish fears, but could not slip from its clammy control. Rising, I went outdoors, into the garden, to pace a bit and to breathe the calming open air.
The man was on the moon bridge again, staring into the moon pond. He waved to me and I went to him, not really knowing why.
“Unable to sleep,” he said. “We share the same affliction. Doomed without rest and without end.”
His back was to the moonlight, and so his face was black shadow. His robe was richly red. It must have cost him much to have such a robe.
“Perhaps we should drink more,” I suggested, “or perhaps we should drink less.”
“Diviner,” he said, “you are not enjoying your stay in Lord Gou’s hospitality. Most would question why the navel of paradise should chafe so.”
“I am not a diviner,” I said, without much feeling. “There are kami haunting this place. But it is no matter. The diviner— the true diviner—is working to purify these grounds.”
The ghost was silent a while, staring into the moon pond. “Do not trust that diviner,” he said. “He is not what he seems.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
Before the man could answer me I heard a great flapping of wings near the roof of the manor. I turned and glimpsed a shadowy bird passing astride the air. I could not tell what kind of bird it was, nor its size. It plunged out of sight. Returning my attention to the man on the bridge, I found that he had gone. I dropped my eyes to the moon pond, among the moon and carp and lotuses. I saw no one there, either. Feeling even more greatly unnerved, I returned to my room and attempted sleep once again. It did not come willingly, but had to be wrestled for obedience. It was a losing battle for me, as well as it.
I had not slept well. My grogginess clung to me like a goblin. I tried to shake it only to find that it had crawled in behind my eyes. I did not attempt any of the Lotus Sutra that day, knowing such an endeavor was doomed from the start. Instead, I drank tea and sat beneath a red flowering plum tree, away from everyone. Lord Gou’s servants sought to better my health with remedial herbs and honey. I was informed that Lord Gou himself had suffered a bout of ill health also and was now resting in his room, tended by the yin-yang diviner. The musician and the minister seemed of adequate haleness, for the former played his music incessantly near the moon pond and the latter enjoyed the company of many prostitutes. I did not know which — the imbecilically joyful music or the oleaginous laughter of the minister while the whores giggled indulgently. I swooned with fatigue and what grew to become a fever.
I did not remember coming to my room, but there I lay, on the floor with a pillow under my head and a kimono draped over me. The silk was soft, but it burned like fire. Someone knelt next to me, my eyes too blurry to see their face clearly. To see was to hurt. To think was to hurt. To exist was to hurt. The Buddha was right: existence is pain and sorrow.
A breath passed across my face, sweet as plums.
“The flames of Hell can be felt in this life,” she said, placing a cool hand over my hot forehead. “We must not fan them with sin and vice or Hell will come for us before we can atone.”
“Utano,” I said.
“Rest,” she said. She laid a moist cloth over my brow and then sang a song. Even in my agony her song was beautiful. Her song was restive sleep after a grievous journey.
“The Wishing Jewel you gave to me
was as dew upon the tree
and it shines with a light all its own,
but now I walk alone—alone.
“The Jewel you gave fell with the wind
through leaves at our Summer’s end,
and though I hold it, the winds still moan
while I walk on, alone—alone.
“Foxes laugh among sunshowers,
haunting pagoda towers,
and while my heart becomes as a stone
I walk this night alone— alone.
“The Jewel is hot as a fresh tear,
yet, lover, you come not near.
Willful fox! You refuse to atone,
so I walk forever alone…”
I fell asleep in the lull of her lilting voice.
I heard wings—huge wings—thrashing the air. Something heavy landed upon the roof, and then leapt down into the gardens. A large shadow, like a bird, stalked the screen door, pacing restlessly.
“I smell death,” it said with a raspy voice. “So much delicious death in this estate. My brethren will wish to roost here, in time. But they indulge the great feast of the famine. So many starved dead— what good is picking their bones? Better for fat, juicy souls glutted on decadence. No piety. No blessings to choke you.”
The creature laughed, squawking like a crow, and then walked away. I was overcome with fear and fever and fainted beneath my fatigue.
Breath wafted over me like charnel smoke over a battlefield. It stank of death and hopelessness. I dared not open my eyes.
“I will attend the poet,” said a voice.
“I am attending him,” Lady Utano said.
“But my lady, it is not proper,” the diviner said. “Your uncle objects mightily…”
“He would object more mightily to a death in his home,” Lady Utano said. “And he has improved greatly in my care.”
“A sick man must be tended by one who knows the spirit realm and who can defend him from its malicious forces.”
“I am the only malicious force this man needs to fear,” Lady Utano said.
“I…see,” said the diviner.
I succumbed to sleep once more.
My fever broke, in time, and a new day was heralded by birdsong. Drenched in sweat, I sat up. Lady Utano’s kimono still remained upon me. The Lady herself sipped tea at my table. She wore only her white undergarments. My hand reached for her, unconsciously, and she offered me a cup of tea instead. I took it tenderly and sipped as if it was her bare breast. My thirst did not abate for many cups.
“You are so false, Toshiyuki,” she said. “I wonder if you also keep a little bottle of tears up your sleeves when encountering wiser women who are warier of a man’s sweet lies.”
“Only a bottle of ink,” I said flippantly.
“Then perhaps you should mark your face as becomes you: with whiskers of a dishonest kitsune. Your shadow is vulpine, Toshiyuki. Either you are possessed by a yako or you are a fox.”
“I have been told that I am a diviner,” I said. I laughed weakly, and it hurt as it rattled out of my chest. “Perhaps my mother was a tenko. I am of a vulpine nature, admittedly.”
“And my uncle is like the ocean,” she said. “Often even when calm there is a legion of sea giants warring below the surface. Imagine what might happen if he were to learn of our love?”
“This is not love,” I said. “It is a delightful dalliance. Nothing more. Nor did I promise more.”
Sometimes I felt as a Bunraku puppet in a theater, performing in accordance with the will of other forces. When Lord Gou summoned me to the main hall I thought it was to congratulate me on my recovery. Instead, he did not seem to know of my illness, but rather had invited me to witness a troupe of dancers from Kyoto that had come to perform for his patronage.
“Come, Toshiyuki!” he said, hailing me as I entered. “We have been awaiting you! A fine entertainment awaits us tonight!”
I took my seat at my host’s long, low table. There awaited me— as there awaited everyone at the table—a cup which smelled of strange earthly odors. I lifted the cup tenderly, for it was a cup of some fine resplendence. Made of smooth porcelain, it was white and had kanji upon its sides which read “remember”. I believed it was of the saikai type of pottery. Saikai meant “reunion”, but why such exquisite cups were called by such a name I did not know. As for the liquid within it, I knew even less.
“What is this?” I asked. “It is not sake.”
“No, it is not sake,” said the diviner, smiling. His rotten-egg face wrinkled terribly and his voice croaked harshly. No doubt the many prayers and cleansing rituals had strained it hoarse. “It is a special drink made from maitake mushrooms. I made it for this occasion. It seemed fitting, for why should we not partake of the ‘dancing’ mushrooms while watching lovely creatures engage in dance?”
“Exactly so!” Lord Gou said, raising his cup and draining it to the dregs. “Let us enjoy in all senses this entertainment I have arranged this night!”
The minister raised his own cup in agreement, though he could not drain his own cup as well as Lord Gou. He choked and coughed halfway through the quaffing of it. The musician drank his steadily, playing his hichiriki between sips.
Merriment was all well and good, but nobler works required my attention now that I had recovered my health. Kabukimono I was, but decadence chafes without hard work and sweat to lubricate the leisure. I resented the squandering of this time.
Yet, I knew better than to be an ungrateful guest, insomuch as could be perceived. So, I sipped at the maitake drink. It was not so sweet as it was salty. I managed to drink half of the cup before the dancers gathered at the head of the main hall, preparing to showcase their talents. They wore yukatas, for to dance in this Summer heat was to invite suffering. The women also held pretty little fans in their hands, masking themselves occasionally with them as they spun and gestured to the piping of flutes and the beating of drums.
And they danced well. As I drank I watched the robed figures perform. It seemed to be a Bon Odori dance. I had seen it performed once during the Obon festival in the Ugo province.
Lord Gou growled suddenly, and slammed his fist upon the table. “I did what was within my right!” he said. “The two of them belonged to me! I am the governor of this region!”
The minister swooned, smiling laxly like a drunkard. “I knew you were a kitsune, my love, but I do not care. I love you as deeply as the cherry blossoms love the winds. I tremble at your merest movement, your gentlest sigh…”
The musician had abandoned playing his hichiriki, and was instead arguing with someone who was not present beside him. “You may have taught me the song, but I brought it to life. What good is a thought of music until you breathe life into it? I breathe life into all of the songs you killed with your ineptness…”
It was all so bizarre. They sat at the table, yet seemed to be far away with their souls. Suddenly, the others vanished— as did the main hall, the table, and the dancers. I was standing in a hall, slowly walking down its corridor. I saw my father. He looked sad and he shook his head. I tried to ask him what was wrong, why he was ashamed, and he gestured to the hall beyond him. I followed it, coming to a lover of mine. She looked brokenhearted. I tried to explain to her that I was fated for things greater than being a husband to a courtesan. Many other lovers came, one after the other. They were a hall of Noh masks— some sad, some demonic. They accused me silently with their eyes. Flames spewed from their mouths and the vision lifted.
I was once again in the main hall, and I saw the dancers spinning in harmony with each other like Karakuri machines. The drums continued to beat and the flutes continued to pipe. The old diviner was staring at me with his beady eyes. A faint smile touched his lips and I felt angry, and afraid.
Lord Gou stood, then, and went to the dancers, joining them.
“Let us all dance!” he exclaimed, mimicking the graceful movements of the dancers with his own clumsy, heavy-footed parody. “Dance for your ancestors! Dance with a light soul and a full belly!”
The minister rose and joined the dance, grinning as if he was dancing with his kitsune bride amidst sun-showers. The musician staggered upright and stumbled into the troupe also, dancing vengefully as if to spite the apparition with which he was formerly arguing. The last to join in the dancing was the yin-yang diviner, cawing with laughter. I watched them all dance, wanting to quit their company and retire to my quiet room. As I stood to leave I noticed that there was something wrong with the shadows of those dancing. The dancers had shadows shaped like small animals spread upon the floor. Badgers and raccoons and monkeys. Lord Gou’s shadow, meanwhile, reeled in the form of a great bull as he twirled and gestured. But I had had too much maitake to drink, and still felt the weakness of the fever. Discreetly I returned to my room while my host danced a madness among his honored guests. The festivities disagreed with me.
I dreamt that night of Mt. Asama erupting into the sky. Its mouth expelled a fire-froth that spilled over all lands, from sea to sea, and the black smoke became a million crows while the liquid-fire marched forth as red-faced Onis. They conquered the world, stamping underfoot all beauty there was to behold. It was an army of land and air come to blight the earth with death and corruption.
I, Toshiyuki, renowned poet and famed calligrapher of the Lotus Sutra, whose works had assured the succession of many lords, ladies, and even the Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu into Heaven, and for whose esteemed accomplishments came recognition in the Far West of Mystical China and subsequent benedictions by the Buddha with Enlightenment and prosperity, needed to piss. My loins burned with an excess of drink from the festive evening prior, and the weight of my Lady Utano’s slender, pale legs as they laid athwart my abdomen. Thus, yawning, I gently pushed aside her legs and rose from the tatami-spread floor of my host’s guest room, generously provided by my most recent patron, Lord Gou. Rising unsteadily— for my head swam with sake and my back ached with my Lady’s passions— I walked to the sliding screen that led out into the courtyard and slid the screen quietly, stumbling onto the veranda. I glanced over my shoulder as I heard Utano stir, then sigh, softly as a paintbrush across a scroll, and then settle again into her dreams. I wondered if she dreamt of me. I had dreamt of her, and I dreamt of the many women whose embrace I had known.
The courtyard garden was a ghostly affair of mist, moonlight, and chrysanthemums. I stumbled out into the garden, toward a weeping willow whose mournful height begged at the edge of a moon pond. While I relieved myself I watched the orange carp float lethargically in the water, and my thoughts moved as the carp moved among the lotus blooms. I hoped no one saw me, for the garden was illuminated brightly with the on-looking moon. Most of my host’s guests were asleep, for sake had gushed generously during yesterday’s celebration. I heard one guest yet awake— an official sent by the shogun, I believed— indulging a maid in Lord Gou’s household. This noise soon ended with a porcine snort and groan so that thereafter only the chirping song of crickets remained. As I shook myself dry I composed a haiku, compulsively, for that choral moment of solitude and peace.
“Carps float silently,
heeding cricket garden song—
legs shiver in mist.”
It was not a truly lovely poem, but my mind still ached from the happy thunder of yesterday evening. My mouth was parched, also, my tongue dry and rough as scroll parchment. I was foggy-headed, you see, from drink and grogginess, and the garden was likewise dreamy with mists.
Lord Gou had been quite fortunate in his karma, for his province had yet to starve as other provinces had. The famine reigned, as did the bleeding disease. Some believed that Oni, released from the hellfire of Mt. Asama, had cursed the world. Yet, no such demons claimed Lord Gou’s household. To the contrary, the Buddha seemed to have granted his blessings to all that Gou owned, including this lovely chrysanthemum garden. Their white petals reminded me of the moon above, and both moon and chrysanthemum seemed to glow as if calling to one another, mother to child. Indeed, all evidence I had seen of Lord Gou’s province suggested prosperity and good fortunes. The merchants thrived with their trade, and the samurai were without war, restless and idle. This I thought good, of course, for the Buddha favored harmony and nonviolence.
I had finished my cleansing and was soon to return to my Lady Utano, but I happened to glance up at the moon bridge that arched over the moon pond. To my chagrin I saw a man upon the bridge, leaning over the railing as if in contemplation of the lotus-dotted water. I could not see his face, for the moon was at his back and the mists rose around him thickly. Thinking I had shamed myself, I hurriedly tucked myself away and attempted to flee, but he called out to me.
“It is a mischief we all do by moonlight,” he said.
Thinking him one of Lord Gou’s men, I surrendered myself to my shame and hoped for mercy.
“We can only ask forgiveness from the Buddha,” I said.
The man remained silent a moment. His face was nothing but shadows and mist.
“And we must strive to be worthy of his forgiveness,” he said.
Having thus engaged me in conversation, he beckoned to me and I— fool that I was— approached him, circling round the pond and coming to the edge of the moon bridge. I did not step upon it, however, for it felt as if I was trespassing. Instead, I lingered at its edge, watching the faceless man as he leaned over the railing. He was attired in what would have been a very modest robe if not the for rich dye of dark redness that colored it. As he spoke he continued staring into the moon pond.
“There are demons about,” he said. “They can be very hospitable, and very mannerly as they devour your soul.”
I did not understand his meaning, but my body seemed to. My skin was as gooseflesh, a clammy coldness stealing over me despite the Summertime heat.
“I have had too much to drink,” I said, “and too little sleep for talk of demons. It is a late hour, and the only reasonable people to linger by moonlight are lovers and diviners.”
“That is true,” the man said. “And I am a lover. You, in your own way, are a diviner. So here we meet and linger by the will of the Buddha.”
“I am no diviner,” I said. “I am a poet and calligrapher. Toshiyuki. You have heard of me, no doubt. They call me Ink-Between-Stars and Rainbow-Within-Black. I paint the truths of this world with ink on parchment.”
“I have not heard of you,” the man said, unassuming and unforceful in his impudence. “I have no need of a poet or calligrapher. But a diviner, such as you, will do.”
I was now impatient to be done with this man. Lady Utano’s legs awaited me, as did her cherry blossom breath and her milky breasts. Moreover, this misty sojourn upset me, and not only my impatience. I was afraid. His talk of demons, and his facelessness, and the chill silence of the garden frightened me. Even the crickets had ceased their song. Now only this man’s voice broke the silence, and though he was atop the bridge I felt his voice at my ear. My own voice startled me. All was jumpy anticipation.
“Enough from madmen,” I said. “If I am going to postpone sleep, it will be for the lotus lips of my Lady Utano, not the words of a drunkard.”
“Neither drunkard nor madman,” the man said faintly. “Only Ren, lover of Ren, met by moonlight and cold steel to separate destined hearts…”
As I turned away I skimmed the moon pond with my eyes, glimpsing a woman’s face in the undisturbed waters. She appeared mournful as she looked up at the moon bridge. I, too, looked up at the bridge, and saw that the drunkard had vanished. Looking down at the waters, the woman had vanished as well. Yet, the man…Ren…his words haunted me into the depths of sleep.
The next morning I knelt at the low table in my guest room, my brush in hand as I wrote a poem upon a sheet of parchment. Lady Utano stood behind me, eagerly watching my hand as it dragged the ink-kissed brush here and there.
“How sad the lotus
plucked from its native waters—
withers without love.”
“Lovely,” she remarked. “Your kanji is so lovely.”
“Is it about me?” she said, her tone suddenly sad. “Are you to leave soon?”
I grunted again. I never liked these discussions. She knew, before our night together that we were cranes at the same pond for a brief sojourn; nothing more.
She knelt down beside me, quietly. Her movements were always graceful and unhurried; silent and smooth as the silk kimono she wore. Her black hair lay laxly about her shoulders. She had not yet done it up with her comb, the tresses hanging over her brow. I preferred her to look this way— this dawn look after a night of passions— as I had preferred it in all of my lovers. Her black hair framed her pale, rounded face perfectly. Lady Utano was doubtlessly beautiful. I only ever courted beautiful women. Yet, her lips were longer than most women’s, and hung down mournfully, even when she smiled. It gave her a uniqueness that summoned her often among my forethoughts, whereas other men valued small, rosebud lips. Her lips should have been disagreeable, but they were not; not unless she used them to speak what should have been left unspoken.
“I will always await your return,” she said, sadly. When I did not respond, she rose and went to the sliding screen. “We have become as intimate as husband and wife,” she said. “Yet, you behave as if there is still a screen between us.”
“There must always be a screen between us,” I said. “Even when we embrace. And, sooner or later, there will be more than a mere screen between us. There will be many lands between us, for that is my destiny.”
She said no more, but withdrew discreetly into the courtyard garden. I sighed and set aside the brush, taking up the parchment. The ink strokes were smooth and the characters perfect, but the abrupt change in position caused the ink to run, like tears, down the page.
It was at this time that a servant of Lord Gou called from the corridor.
“Our Lord requests your presence,” the servant said.
“I will arrive shortly,” I said.
I was of two minds, however: one, to go attend Lord Gou, and the other, to seek Lady Utano. No good would come of the latter, I decided, so I pursued the former.
The servant led me to the main hall with its long, low table. Lord Gou was seated at the head of the table, as were his other guests. I will not recall names here, but there was a famous musician known for his skill with a hichiriki, as well as a famous yin-yang diviner, and a servant of Emperor Kokaku. They had already eaten and were talking politely amongst themselves. My plate of food awaited me and I sat to partake of it, for I was famished. As with all of Lord Gou’s hospitalities, the fish and rice and fruit were all very excellent and generous of portion.
“Toshiyuki has quite the appetite this morning,” Lord Gou remarked, grinning through his black beard. His lips were already wet with sake, though the sun had yet to rise above the first tier of the Western pagoda. “Was it yesterday’s festivities that provoked such a hunger, or was it a hunger in the night?”
“Hunger can beget hunger,” the diviner said, stealing furtive glances around the room, “or so they say.”
“I dreamt of many sweet things,” I said warily. I began to eat, staring down at my food in the hope that they would abandon this conversation.
“And what form did your dreams take?” the musician said, smirking with mischief at Lord Gou, for the musician was a sycophant if ever there was one.
“Mist and shadow and moonlight,” I said. “Ink and parchment and hard work. Nothing more.”
The four men chuckled knowingly and drank from their sake cups. They had been drinking for the last three days, halting only for sleep and laughter. I, too, had been drinking similarly, though I restrained myself from equal measure for the sake of clarity. After all, I had a purpose here, as did the diviner and the musician. We were guests, and so had functions to serve. I was to copy the Lotus Sutra for Lord Gou, and to write original poetry in honor of his esteemed personage. The musician was to provide music, naturally. As for the diviner, I knew not what his purpose was. Perhaps Lord Gou feared that the Oni of Mt. Asami might eventually reach his province and, so, the diviner would be employed to march them out of this hitherto untainted region. He was a very renowned diviner, and wrinkled with age and experience. His bald head elicited respect among many, but it merely reminded me of a peeled, rotten egg.
I composed a poem in his honor.
“Jealous blades seek blood
as does the swallow its nest,
yet eggs do not hatch.”
Lord Gou believed I had indulged in the concubine he had selected for me. She had been a lovely woman, but Lady Utano had beguiled my eye with a greater light. Thus, I sent the prostitute away and had, instead, dared the courtship of Lady Utano instead. She was his niece, though he cared little for her as much as he had for his concubines.
“How go my scrolls?” Lord Gou asked, leaving off the former subject at last. “I expect my Lotus Sutras to be peerless, for my sins have been peerless indeed.” He laughed, and so, too, did the musician. He then stopped laughing, glowering at the musician until the latter’s voice died like a mouse in a fox’s teeth.
“There is nothing funny in it, boy,” he remarked. “You would do well to hold your tongue or else you will never work song upon it again.”
The musician stared at his lap, his head bowed. Lord Gou scowled at him a moment longer, then turned to me again, smiling. His smile was without humor.
“How have you progressed with my Lotus Sutras?” he asked.
“They go well,” I said. “They are some of the best I have ever made.”
“That is good,” he said, “for your sake as well as my own. I am paying you handsomely for them, and so I demand that they be of extraordinary beauty.”
“This version of the Namu Myoho Renge Kyo shall be my finest version,” I promised. “When I write it the very sight shall absolve you of whatever negative karma you have collected. Like water carrying away tea leaves, you shall be poured out as a cup and cleansed.”
“That reminds me,” said Lord Gou said, motioning toward his servants. “The Tea Ceremony. We have much entertainment arranged for today, but we must also observe tradition.”
Sweets were brought forth, as were the Lord’s personal porcelain water kettle and his silver ladle. Cups were distributed as well, each filled with water and matcha, stirred to perfection. Lord Gou did not prepare the tea himself, but had his servants do it. This was not true to the ceremony, but none of us dared say so. Having our own cup, too, was not in keeping with the ceremony. In truth, none of it was really in keeping with tradition, but then again neither was I. I was, after all, a kabukimono of the floating world. I wrote the Lotus Sutra for a living and spent many of my days practicing it for my own vanity and pride rather than the call of the Buddha.
We drank of our tea slowly, to show appreciation of the tea and of our host. I did not eat the sweets, however, for I had yet to finish the food already provided to me. Soon sake was offered, and readily accepted, and we all drank ourselves silly throughout the day and night.
The next morning I awoke, alone, in the dimness of a predawn murk. Groggy with sake, I stood unsteadily, walking toward the sliding screen door that led out into the garden. I reached for it, then halted, gasping in fright. Above the door, hanging by a piece of thread, was a Noh mask. I reached and took it down, looking over it. It was like most Noh masks. It was made of wood, fashioned in the visage of a smiling woman and painted white with red lips. Her eyes were black. Thinking I must have somehow hung it while in my drunken stupor, I laughed at myself and set it on my table, beside my parchment and ink well.
It was a hot, sweltering sort of day. The sun lacquered the world with its hot resin. My host and all of his guests retreated indoors, to the main hall, where his servants fanned us until the cooler evening hours when the sun could set, the moon could rise, and the shadows could steal over the courtyard. We then went to the garden to walk among the Chrysanthemums and the cherry blossoms. Lord Gou spoke to the minister sent by the Emperor while the musician played his hichiriki. The yin-yang diviner performed some rituals and put ofudas here and there, over every screen door on the veranda. I stared into the moon pond, wondering if I would see a woman’s face in among the lotuses and the carp. I saw no woman. And then I did. It was Lady Utano. She said nothing, but stared into the water, much as I did. When I opened my mouth to say something, however, she walked away, leaving me to my reflection in the still water; looking lonely and sad. I turned away from it in self-disapproval.
Rain fell for three days, washing away the ofudas. It cooled Lord Gou’s house, though, the wet breath of the persistent storm both refreshing and inspiriting. Many poems did I write, and many passages from the Lotus Sutra did I copy; and quite beautifully, I must add.
Yet, it was not altogether pleasant. A melancholy fell upon the others, including Gou and Lady Utano. Gou brooded, listening to the musician’s incessant songs. Lady Utano avoided me whenever she could. But we were trapped indoors by the rain. When we passed in the halls she often paused and gave me a despondent frown that instantly darkened the day more sadly than any storm cloud.
Upon the second day of rain I sat on the veranda and sipped tea, enjoying the sweetness of the rain and the bitterness of the tea leaves. The garden was fragrant with flowers. They welcomed the showers as a leper a balm. I saw that drunkard upon the bridge again, seemingly unmindful of the downpour. He brooded worse than Lord Gou, staring as always into the moon pond to see— I could only surmise—his rain-shattered reflection.
A servant to Lord Gou’s household arrived, just then, bringing more tea.
“The fool is at it again,” I said to him.
“Fool?” he said, apparently afraid that an honored guest had spoken ill of Lord Gou.
“On the bridge,” I said, pointing…and nearly spilling my new cup of tea in my lap.
“I see no one,” the old man said.
“That is because you are drunk, too!” I said, scolding him before sending him on his way. As I blew upon the hot cup of tea, I stared at the man on the bridge. He was a puzzle demanding that I solve it, and yet there may have been little mystery to him after all. He seemed such a hopeless soul, and I did not pity him.
“He will catch his death in the rain,” I remarked aloud to myself.
“Tears earn as many deaths.”
I was surprised to find Lady Utano standing beside me, behind a screen. She stood quite properly, and at a distance, for the sake of propriety. It was absurd to see her this way, stiffened with formality and manners, for we both knew each other’s bodies and pleasures and neither screen nor pretense should ever hope to undo such strongly established intimacy.
“Your presence is as refreshing as Spring rain,” I said.
“That is too obvious a compliment for a poet of your renown,” she said, rather flatly. “Perhaps you should apply more skill.”
“As I applied skill to you as I had you in my arms,” I said, rather boldly.
She did not seem taken aback, her husky voice rolling smoothly as honey down a Zen garden rock. “Do not credit yourself with all of that night’s pleasures,” she said. “What good is a brush without a satisfying well of ink? It will run ragged and dry on the page without a proper dip.”
I could not help but smile. “Indeed,” I said. “You deserve as much credit.” My smile faded, however. “And yet I know that you are not as satisfied by that night as I was. You feel I have abused your heart. For that…I can only say that it was a pleasure between a man and a woman of their own minds. Just as you cannot credit me solely for the pleasure, you can neither credit me solely for the pain. That we must depart was well known to you prior to your having come into my room.”
Lady Utano was quiet for a long time.
“Things are always more rapturous by moonlight,” she said. “And how often we find the flaws by dawn’s lantern. Yet, I should like to be at your side, despite the flaws that come to light.”
“Perhaps you know that wayward man,” I said, seeking to steer this conversation elsewhere. I pointed to the figure on the bridge. He looked almost as if made of mist, so awash was he in rain. “Perhaps it is you for whom he swoons like a waterlogged rat.”
“I do not know whom you mean,” she said, “unles you speak of yourself.”
I laughed once—a short, hearty guffaw. “I would never mope as he does. Not for love lost. For my life’s work, perhaps, but never a broken heart.”
Lady Utano was quiet, again, for a long time. When she became so quiet it was as if the world was biding as she gathered her thoughts.
“Perhaps I shall become a demon,” she said, offhandedly. “Then I could gather bones and saikai cups and ash and make a man like yourself to be my husband. Or perhaps I will simply torture him for eternity.” She turned away, her tone soft as rain on Chrysanthemum petals. “No, that would not be right, or satisfying, for I would always know he was not you.”
She sounded as if she had quietly gone mad, and it struck me keenly. I tried to explain to her, as evenly as possible, the impossibility of a conjoint life.
“Lady Utano,” I said “I am of the floating world. I am a kabukimono. You do not belong in my world. No respectable woman does.”
“And yet you have invited me in for a moon,” she said.
“What is dared by moonlight may never be dared by daylight,” I said. “You know this. The Shining Lord of Letters must seek the Sutras with a hand unencumbered by another, no matter how graceful or dainty.”
“You are no Genji,” she said. “Your luster dims upon repeated viewing, and closer inspection.”
She abruptly left. I tried to rise to follow her, but then spilled my tea on my sleeves. What a shame! It would stain, no doubt.
The next morning I woke to another surprise. It was another Noh mask, this one’s smile strained more greatly than the first. The ruts of its cheeks were deep, painful at the edges of the woman’s mouth, and there was a desperation in the brow around the eyes of the mask. It was as if the mask was being tortured, and still trying to smile. I had not drank enough the prior evening to forget myself, and I knew that I had not hung the mask in my room. Someone else was taunting me. Perhaps it was that mischief-maker upon the bridge. If I ever caught him out there again I would flog him. I promised myself thus as I gave the mask to a servant to do with as he pleased.
The rains departed, leaving in their wake an effusive envelopment of mist. It made the manor seem a haunted, lonely place upon cloud-wreathed mountaintops. Sometimes it seemed that I walked through the halls without ever coming upon any other person. The mists seeped into the house, and isolated us all. My calligraphy failed me often while the chilly mists clung to my hands and I felt as if there were hands in the mist tickling me, distracting me, fiddling at my ear to ruin all my enterprise.
When the mists finally lifted, Lord Gou summoned all of his guests to the garden. We sat upon the veranda, near the moon pond, and basked in the sun finally woken from its long slumber. Lord Gou appeared tardy, however, carrying with him a tea pot and ladle. His servants presented to each of us cup. Lord Gou addressed us.
“The rains now gone,” he said, “and the sun risen and brightening my home, I should like to properly perform the Tea Ceremony for you all. My melancholy has not allowed me to be a good host as of late and this, I hope, will make amends.”
The musician and diviner attempted to explain away Lord Gou’s inattendance, offering excuses and pardons for him in turn.
“No!” he said, nearly stomping. “I will not hear it! I have been disgraceful, and so allow me this small atonement.”
Lord Gou then proceeded to perform the Tea Ceremony— precisely, methodically, almost humbly. It took some time, for he seemed obsessed with observing all of the protocols of the ritual exactly, and the rest of us waited as patiently as possible. However, I could not loosen the irritation I felt at this protracted waste of time. I had the Sutra to write; I did not wish to squander time on tea or pretense.
The sun was at its zenith, blasting the garden with its heat, when Lord Gou had served us all so that we might finally drink. The yin-yang diviner was the first to sip thoughtfully at his tea, for he had been enraptured by Lord Gou’s gesture and wished to reciprocate immediately in gratitude to his host. I was hesitant, being distracted by another poem that wove and unwound itself in my mind, and so was slower in partaking. I never did partake, in truth. Instead, the diviner sipped, then spat the tea back into his cup, his sleepy eyes suddenly agog with fear and disgust. The musician was less subtle. He gulped at his cup, then sputtered it out all over himself, gagging and coughing and then finally scooping up water from the moon pond to rinse out his mouth.
Lord Gou was outraged.
“What is the meaning of this insolence!” he screamed, drawing a tanto he kept ever at his belt. Its blade gleamed, but not so fiercely as the fury in his eyes. “I will have you two gutted like fish and thrown to the dogs!”
The musician and the diviner begged mercy. Meanwhile, I raised the tea to my nose, sniffing. It was much bitterer than matcha ever had right to be. But what was wrong with it? I sniffed at it some more and realized that it smelled of iron, and of blood.
“Lord Gou,” I said, rising to my feet. “There is something wrong with the water. It smells of…corruption.”
Lord Gou turned upon me, his apoplectic rage not unlike an Oni’s. “Corruption? What nonsense is this?!”
“It tastes of blood!” the musician wailed, prostrating himself on the veranda to beg mercy for his mouth. “There is a curse upon the tea leaves!”
“Or upon the water,” the diviner said, struggling to stand and rally to explain. “Wherefrom did you retrieve the water, my lord?”
Lord Gou turned upon one of his servants, grabbing the young man by the collar of his robe and brandishing the tanto. “Where did the water come from, little whelp?”
The hapless servant stuttered and yelped like a dog being throttled. “From the rainwater, your esteemed glory!”
“I see,” said the diviner. “So what I sensed was amiss after all.”
Lord Gou released the young servant— with a violent shove that sent him sprawling upon the veranda— then addressed the diviner. “What did you sense?”
“There is a curse upon your house, my lord,” the diviner said, bowing. “There is a matter unresolved among spirits here. They seek a toll. They seek revenge.”
Lord Gou’s face paled but a moment, then darkened with redoubled rage. “That is ridiculous,” he said, sheathing his tanto. “I have no sins with shadows to fear. This is a house of honor! A house of nobility and pride! Spirits would do well to flee here or else be cast out by the Buddha from all realms but the most infernal.”
“I do not doubt you, my lord,” the diviner said. “But I sense something terribly wrong here. My talismans have all been repelled by an evil force. I cannot even prepare new ones no without the paper catching fire in my hands.”
He proceeded to demonstrate, setting a paper talisman upon the table and using a stick of charcoal to write a benediction. No sooner than charcoal finished the characters for blessing the talisman flared and dissolved into ash and smoke.
All stood and stared, amazed, including myself. Why had my Sutras been spared by this malevolent presence?
“Worry not, my lord,” the diviner said. “I will exorcize these spirits soon enough. Wherever they lurk, they shall be expunged.”
The Emperor’s minster comforted Lord Gou with promises to seek more diviners to help the one already in his employ. Thus, he wrote a letter and had it dispatched to Kyoto. In the meantime, the diviner set about Lord Gou’s household, performing cleansing rituals. The musician stayed with them, and most of the servants attended them, as they attended Lord Gou. As for myself, I retired to the garden, for I felt that I would only intrude.
I saw Lady Utano playing a shamisen beneath a red flowering plum tree. She did not see me, for she was turned away, looking out over the moon pond as she played in the purple shadows of the tree. Her profile was lovely and forlorn, her fingers gingerly striking with their pick upon the taut strings of the shamisen. The chrysanthemums were by daylight no longer pale white bulbs, but glowed brilliantly in many colors. Yellow, orange, purple, red.
I would never attain the same status as Matsuo Basho if I took a wife. Rather, I would need to renounce urban life and venture into the countryside, heading wherever poetic inspiration might greet me. Yet, I was too enamored of city life and its easy pleasures. And I was too enamored of women. Especially Lady Utano. I could see, even then, her black hair flowing like ink upon the pale, smooth silk of her body, the latter gleaming and lustrous as the dreaming moon. Her skin was immaculate, with neither an inky droplet of a mole nor the obscene crease of a wrinkle. Her eyes were dark and hot like burning incense. What was her fragrance if not plum petals cloyed with dew? Her voice— which I loved most of all—was husky and heady, lacking the childish squeak of so many other women when in the throes of passion. She had a heavy breath, and her voice was a primal spirit echoing from deep within the cave of her mountainous bosom.
This was her song:
“Lotus, fair, upon the water,
so lonely now, at the midday hour,
my unmarried daughter;
Lotus, fair, in the silken shade,
such a lonely flower
to do as you are bade…”
She saw me, and pretended to ignore me. I did not mind, for she continued her song, and I yearned for nothing half so much as her song.
“Lotus, fair, in the vase,
taken by a giant’s greedy fist,
O you weep in this dry place;
Lotus, fair, in the dust,
saved not when kissed
by the dew of lust…”
Abruptly— almost violently— she shoved aside the shamisen against the trunk of the tree and turned her back to me. Yet, I would not be put off so easily as a musical instrument.
“I think you could play a fine song upon most anything,” I said, “even a blade of grass, if need be.”
She remained with her back to me, yet there was a coquettishness to her posture that seemed to invite me. Perhaps it was the serpentine curves of the spine beneath the robe— .
“Yes,” she said, “but crude, lowly things often presume that they make that music alone, and so we must be selective of the instruments we play.”
Doubtlessly, she was speaking thorns at me. It did not matter, though, for they delighted me as much as her petals might. Her mind was a delicious dish, too.
He walked with his eyes toward the moon
and his hand upon the knife in his pocket,
thinking of his wife, who left him much too soon,
now embosomed in his heart, like a photo in a locket.
Out beyond the farmhouse and barn,
where the cows had laid in their straw bed
and the crows nestled among stolen strands of yarn,
in the field, she lay, three weeks dead.
He struck a flint to light a putrid candle
made of boiled fat from a black hound
and held his knife by its deer antler handle,
and slit one wrist above her unsettled mound.
The wind died and a silence befell the field
while the black earth blackened darker to soot
and stars and the moon and the clouds reeled
with the mania of such a diabolic ritual afoot.
He stayed in the candle’s light as the voices rose
all around him, in the dark of the isolated field;
groans and moans, shrieks, screams, and bellows,
but among them one cut clean through, shrilled.
She spoke to him: “You will lose your soul.”
Her voice tolled sharply like a funeral bell,
and he spoke: “Without you there’s nothin’ but a hole
worse than anything waiting for me in Hell.”
The many voices spoke as a choir together:
“If you wish to save her from the inferno
then you must willingly cut your final tether
and open your heart completely—then she may go.”
He heard the swelling of those bestial voices
like goats and cows, pigs and donkeys that brayed,
and he thought of his life, and all of his bad choices,
and with a simple slash he welcomed the trade.
She laughed, then, caterwauling into the night,
and the earth quaked, the grass burned,
a portal opened that eclipsed his tear-blurred sight
while a great fire rose in a pillar that gyred and churned.
The moon and the stars flickered and faded,
leaving all as tomblike darkness—all except
the blazing gate, like hellish flames braided
and toward which he was irresistibly swept.
His father found him at sunrise the next day,
limp and pale upon the scorched grave site.
Stooping, he picked his son up, looking with dismay
at the hoofprints, still burning bright.
Disclaimer: This story is rife with sordid things meant for an adult mind…and likely a puerile mind, too. Manners are herein detailed, as well as etiquette, and many a Victorian pretense. And nudity. There is nudity, both textual and illustrated, though mostly for comedic effect. This is a short story concerning juxtaposition and contrasts between overt behavior and latent compulsion. Consequently, it is a story about Freudian suppression and the “return of the repressed”.
The rain fell heavy and the Thames breathed its fog in heady sighs through the glistening gaslight murk of London. Despite the dark, misty labyrinthine streets, her red dress and overtopping hat exploded with colorful distinction like a crimson carnation bountiful with bloom in a wet grotto. She was a walking fire embodied and emboldened by her own self-regard. The rain itself struck her umbrella but apologetically. Perhaps it knew better than to provoke the grudge of Jane Augusta Petticue. Most Londoners seemed to know such things.
Jane entered the restaurant with her hoopskirt swishing left and right, such was her haste to meet Sarah at the dining table. Brusquely, she shoved her small umbrella into the unprepared arms of the nearest waiter, ignoring the waiter’s protests and bounding buoyantly toward the usual corner of the restaurant where she and Sarah exchanged their fruitful gossip. Her demoness stood upon her shoulder; a small, impish pinkish creature with a large-lipped mouth, always puckered in relish of wry mischief. At that moment the demoness was wringing her taloned hands in excitement, eagerly eyeing Sarah as Jane navigated the other tables in the crowded restaurant— tables clustered with patrons and their own demons— and sat down in her habitual chair. Her cup of tea awaited her obediently, its steam swaying as if a cobra mesmerized by the piping of a flute.
Jane’s eyes, and the eyes of her demoness, glimmered with glee. A very fine, thin, and long silken thread laced the demoness’s neck, tying her to Jane. Diamonds gleamed there, studded like stars.
“You will never guess what mayhem I have accomplished today,” Jane said, sipping from her tea. She was an older woman, and graying, whereas Sarah, sitting across the table from her, was to her a protege—young, pretty, unmarried as Jane once was.
“Do tell me it was of the provincial sort,” Sarah said, eyes sparkling in near equal sheen to her idol’s. Her demoness was sitting upon the floor beside her chair, chained to the garter high upon her thigh. Her demoness was voluptuous and tempting, as if following the precedent that was herself, despite horns and naked disregard for convention; which is to say, a literal naked disregard for the convention of clothing. As men glanced toward Sarah, her demoness spread her legs in a most vulgar display while tugging at the lacy hem of Sarah’s petticoats as if to invite them in for a grand show. Several men looked away, talking amongst themselves at their table, yet their own demons sported priapic extravagances, standing in a circle around the table to compare and measure the most manly among the present competition.
“It is mayhem of the lordly sort,” Jane said, smiling broadly with deep satisfaction.
Sarah gasped in pleasant shock. “You do not mean Lord Clovenhill?”
“The very same,” Jane said, her smirk so taut it could hang a man in its noose. “It will come out soon enough, but for now there are only four individuals who are aware of his great misfortune. Him, myself, yourself, and the young lady Anna Lynn Maywell.”
Sarah’s eyes were agape. Even her demoness ceased spreading legs and sat up, listening intently.
“Have you spoiled that courtship through…bold means?” she asked. “I should have liked portion of such a delicious endeavor. Lord Clovenhill, for all of his stuffy and stiff bearing, is a handsome man, and I do not doubt, when coaxed sweetly enough, a beast abed.”
“No, it is not a carnal matter of drama,” Jane said, shaking her head and thinking her protege too hedonistic in some ways to be proficient at true sin. Her graying ringlets brushed against her demoness, who was too pleased with their accomplishments to notice.
“Then did you induce him to take liberties with Lady Maywell? Surely not. The innocent little creature keeps her demoness in a canary cage, feeding it on crackers, instead of vice, and teaching it choir songs. It is the cutest of things, for a demoness, and so…unfailingly harmless. Why, it is almost as small as your demoness, Jane.”
Jane nodded only once, but did not afford her own demoness an appraising glance, knowing the smile on her small face the selfsame smile upon her own.
“Nor is it in that particular area of interest,” Jane said, “though the broad topic is keen to the happenings I have devised and set into motion.”
Before she elaborated she raised a gloved hand, signaling a waiter hereto.
“A bit of crumb cake, please,” she said to the waiter. His demon’s head was bowed, but muttered discourtesies and insolence toward all of the patrons in the room. When the young man turned to inquire after Sarah’s wants, however, and upon seeing the bulging bosom heaving up and down within her bodice, his demon sprouted his own absurd priapism.
“And the young lady?” he said, blushing.
“Nothing so delicious yet, dear sir,” she crooned with a coy smile.
The waiter hesitantly went to fetch the cake. Jane’s demon, taking umbrage at the waiter’s choice of distinguishing Sarah with the pretense “young” and not herself, whispered in Jane’s ear. Jane smiled, less pleasantly than before, and waited until the waiter returned with a plate of her cake, and a fork. She accepted it with a broad, beaming smile and inquired after his name.
“Jonathan, ma’am,” he said.
She nodded, once, dismissing Jonathan from the table, yet her small mouse-sized demoness glared balefully after him until he receded to the other side of the restaurant. Jane began to vengefully eat at the cake, cutting it spitefully with her fork and chewing as if relishing her own vexation.
“Why would you seek such ploys to undermine a pillar of London society?” Sarah asked, hoping to press Jane toward unforthcoming details. “Why, Lord Clovenhill is praised every day for his charities. There has yet to be a philanthropist in measure to him. And the legislation he has put forth in the House of Lords is famous for its social reforms. Truly, even I know of their commendable nature, though I find politics exceedingly tiresome and banal. Moreover, he is neither arrogant nor a boor. I have met him upon multiple occasions, in balls and soirees and such, and never had a disagreeable word with him. True, he is, as I have stated, stiff in his manner, but so are many young men of his rank. He is…”
Sarah fell to a sudden, embarrassed silence, noticing at last Jane’s icy smile of patience, which, like ice, could crack and dunk the unwary traveler at a moment’s glance. Jane set her fork down, next to the half-eaten cake, took a deep breath through her nose and exhaled.
“But that is the precise reason for my plot,” Jane said quietly. “He is praised for so many superficial services to society, and to the Crown, but I know his embosomed secret. I know what poison grows in the bloom of his heart.”
Sarah leaned forward, rapt. Her demoness stood beside her, leaning forward, too, their bosoms swelling against the edge of the table. “Do enlighten me, Jane.”
Jane glanced about the room, seeing that they were unattended by unwanted ear or eye from the overcrowded restaurant. There were too many conversations for eavesdroppers. Even the rain was speaking to itself as it splattered loudly against the windowpane, chatting away in inane elemental jabberwocky. When Jane was satisfied that the dining hall was too clamorous to overhear her, she spoke. Her eyes glittered like a wildfire happily betaken to woodland.
“Lord Clovenhill is beholden to a massive personage,” she said. “Indeed, his demon is positively gargantuan. It is the ugliest, foulest, most infernal creature I have ever seen. Jack the Ripper would give pause to witness it. It is so dangerous in its appetites that he has partitioned half of his countryside estate to imprison it.”
Sarah gawped in incredulity for the longest moment. The men at the nearest table grinned to one another, to see such an expression upon her visage, and their demons scrambled to satisfy themselves to the wanton image.
“But he seems such a fine gentleman!” Sarah remarked. “How does he retain servants in his manor if such a creature resides there?”
“They seem to not fear it,” Jane said with a lax shrug that made her demoness sway indifferently. “I suppose they are foolish enough to believe he can contain it forever, and I suppose they can somehow separate the man they know from the demon they should rightly fear. But I saw in it the truth. However strong the shackles placed upon it, it exists, and so the man is owed needful comeuppance.”
“And how did you manage such divine retribution?”
“By simply calling on him,” she said, her smile broadening again, “while in the company of Lady Maywell.”
Sarah gasped. “Surely you did not.”
“Surely I did. I could see it chafed Lord Clovenhill considerably, that breach of etiquette, but moreover I could see the fear behind his stoic mask while he hastily bid his servants to ‘prepare the house for guests’. As if any preparations could be made to spirit away his unsightly secret! My delight was devilish and deserved, especially when—in the Lord’s fleeting absence to see to a domestic matter—I led Lady Maywell to the secret he so feared in its discovery. The poor delicate girl was a crumpled pile of fright by the time Lord Clovenhill retrieved us. He attempted to console her, and chastise me, but the revelation proved beyond his powers of excuse or explanation. It was a triumphant hour, and my greatest pleasure. All of London knows he has long been courting Lady Maywell in the hopes of ascertaining the childish-minded girl as his bride. She has no fortune, but she has infinite prospects to resettle her to her advantage. After all, where wealth is wanting, beauty and obedience may suffice. Now she will assume the worthier bond of another attachment and all will be happier for it. Except Mr. Clovenhill, of course.”
“Pardon me, Jane,” Sarah said, “but they have been the talk of town of late. The men all wish to be Lord Clovenhill and the women all envy her natural, innocent charms. Nor is he bereft in endowments. She will not overcome the attachment easily. It was only a month ago that he startled the Wickfield Circle by holding Lady Maywell’s demoness in his hands, stroking it affectionately as no one ever has another’s demon. The darling little imp purred in his care. As a cat. No one has ever seen the like!”
“Yes,” Jane said irritably, “but had his demon been there I assure you he would have devoured her little imp, the Lady herself, and all among that presumptuous gathering. Forgive me, Sarah, but you are ignorant of his truer nature. You have never seen his demon. And I would not allow him the pleasure of parading about, lauded by everyone, while he hides his demon from the light of day.”
“But Jane, even you leash your creature,” Sarah observed. The scowl rewarding this observation was twofold— madam and demoness, both— and Sarah cringed, but yoked her tongue to truth. “I only mean to say that is it not commendable that he should take such precautions? Is that not what we all do?” She lifted the golden chain that bound her demon to her garter. “That his demon is so large and frightful, as you say, should he not be applauded for countering its potential transgressions with such elaborate means? Sometimes to acknowledge one’s foibles is as divine as not possessing them in the first, for you may remedy them with greater exercises of volition.”
“That it exists at all is proof enough of his wickedness,” Jane said, snorting in contempt. “But even so, I should have done as I have done were he not beholden to such a large demon. It passes the time, you know, in this widowed age. Errors and etiquette can only do so much to entertain me in my waning years. At times it requires a bit of mischief to embolden the flavors of life.” She reached down under her petticoat and produced a flask, the contents of which she poured into her tea. The aroma of liquor wafted across the table. “The milk of human kindness cannot spice my tea. It only dulls and dilutes, and produces in me a most awful stomachache.”
She set her teacup down on the saucer abruptly, porcelain biting on porcelain sharply, like teeth clamping shut upon bone. She lifted the plate upon which her half-eaten crumb cake sat.
“Excuse me, Sarah,” she said. “I must do something about this cake. It is…too sweet.”
Rising from the table, she walked the length of the restaurant, navigating the crowded tables with her hoopskirt. The other patrons in the restaurant naturally avoided her gaze, and inched their chairs away from her expansive garments. She came, briskly, to the manager of the restaurant. He was an older gentleman, his demon sitting upon his shoulders, one leg to either side of his head, in piggyback fashion, while its protuberant belly pressed down upon his nape, bowing his head forward under the unwieldy weight of its appetite.
“Sir,” Jane said.
“Mrs. Petticue,” the proprietor said, bowing lower while steadying himself with a hand on a window sill. He always stood next to the window, commanding a view of both his restaurant and the bustling London streets. “How is your evening seeing you?”
“Most inhospitably,” she said, tucking a curly tress behind her hair with the affectation of unrest. She set the cake down “Indeed, one of your waiters has been uncharitable in his service. When I asked him for a slice of cake he saw it a happy mischief to bring me but a small, worn morsel of which he had taken liberty to satisfy his own stomach. As you can well see, there is scarcely a mouthful left.”
The old man reddened instantly upon the charge, his eyes flaring spitefully as if to catch his white whiskers aflame.
“I see,” he said, in a tone belying his ire. “Do tell me the scoundrel’s name.”
“Jonathan,” she said.
The old man nodded once, then took the proffered plate of half-eaten cake from Mrs. Petticue. “I will have a fresher slice brought out to you, my dear, of more generous portions. And Jonathan will be brought out, as well. He shall be made to apologize.”
“Oh no, no!” Jane said, affecting a flight of swooning. “I cannot abide the sight of him, even were he groveling to me as Judas to Christ. He has already abused my good nature with his supercilious airs. When I asked him, begging his forgiveness, what happened to the cake he assumed a derisive tone and told me…” She affected to wipe away a tear. “…told me I was of figure not in want for cake.”
“This is an outrage!” the old gentleman said. “I shall have him flogged through the streets!”
“No, I shan’t have his bruises on my heart,” she said. “Just…just show him to the streets, if you could be so kind, and in the Christian fashion. I should like to forgive him, in time.”
The old man nodded fervently. “You are a dear sweet lady, Mrs. Petticue,” he said. “Such sweetness is rare in this world.”
“Indeed, sir,” she said. “As rare as cake, but not so easily crumbled when engaged.”
He escorted her back to her table, sending another waiter to fetch a larger piece of cake, untouched, and two waiters to fetch Jonathan. Jane sat and ate her new slice of cake silently, relishing the sweetness and the view as she watched the old gentleman reprimand a perplexed Jonathan by the door, shortly before shoving him beyond its threshold and out into the misty, cold, dark London street. Jane’s demoness waved goodbye, a serrated grin between her lips. Sarah, whose back was turned to the whole incident, asked Jane if the cake was truly so good as to have second servings.
“Absolutely, Sarah,” Jane said. “And a third serving, and a fourth, and endless until my time is done and my eyes, and mouth, close forever.”
A tremor abruptly shook the restaurant, rattling plates and teacups and constitutions. In the ensuing silence the patrons at the restaurant gawped toward one another for an explanation, only for another tremor to seize that fine establishment. After its echoing tremble, all visages were nervous, quivery, their demons jumping up and down like disquieted apes in a zoo. Only Jane sat still, and her demoness, too, a self-satisfied smile slowly spreading across her face and giving it dimples such as she had not donned since a young woman.
“No doubt lightning,” the proprietor of the restaurant said, chuckling nervously. His demon nearly tore his whiskers out at the roots in fear.
Another tremor and several patrons stood.
The proprietor raised his hands, trying to calm his patrons. “Just a disgruntled storm,” he tried to reassure them. Another tremor shook him and he steadied himself with a hand on a chair. “My, but they do seem to strike close, do they not?”
The tremors followed one another in rapid succession, drawing closer to the street. The rain had stopped and the windowpanes were rattling themselves dry in the quakes. A decisive concussion to the earth caused the lights in the restaurant to flicker, blinking ominously. Another tremor struck, stronger than the others, and rattled teacups and teeth alike, echoing through the restaurant and the patrons. A few patrons rushed to the door in a frantic crush of struggling bodies, shoving and scrambling out into the misty tumult of night. Others looked to one another, oscillating in indecision and the demands of properly comported etiquette.
“My word,” Sarah whispered. “What is that?”
Jane’s eyebrows arched as the corner of her mouth twisted with wry humor.
“Why, Jane, I do believe that is the true Mr. Clovenhill come to call.”
A roar, like that of a tempest’s gale, rent the uneasy silence, deafening the cries of panic as the patrons in the restaurant fled to the door, crushing together in a struggle to exit and flee down the street. Another tremor shook the clog loose at the door, and so the trickle of patrons became as a gush. Even the waiters and the proprietor joined the exodus. Only Jane and Sarah remained, Jane clutching her demoness in her lap as she watched through their corner’s window, seeing a river of people hastening helter-skelter down the street.
“Do not fret, Sarah,” Jane said calmly. “He would never condescend to visit this establishment. It is, as you know, beneath him.”
The gigantic demon stomped down the street, roaring and rattling the bones of London. It was only as it passed by the window that Sarah realized that there was a bewailing tone to the creature’s roar; as if it was in great pain.
“The poor creature is wounded,” Sarah remarked.
“Quite,” Jane said. “And perhaps it is a mortal wound, though I dare say I would rather it live on, enthralled to its suffering.”
As the demon stomped and moaned, buildings and streets crumbled around it. It was as if another terrible fire was destroying London.
“What devastation!” Sarah said, her face a paler shade than any French makeup could ever accomplish. “What mayhem!”
“Thank you, my dear,” Jane said quietly. “Being the busy socialite that I am, it is my greatest pleasure to introduce London to the true Lord of Philanthropy in his most esteemed form. Mark how destructive he is. Mark how self-conceited with his woes. What an utterly bestial personage. What catastrophe in his wake. What a monstrous demon with which to share a heart.”
But as Sarah looked from the clamorous devastation beyond the windowpane to the quiet satisfaction on Jane’s face—and the selfsame smile imprinted upon her imp—she marveled at how so much mischief and mayhem could be wrought by such a small, petty demon.