Poetic Justice (Rough Part 4)

The mists took me once again, and the shadows and their whispers. I wrote poems intended to honor Lord Gou and his household, yet I am baffled by their meaning. Even as my hand hovered and circled above the scroll— dragging my brush to reveal their mysteries— it was a thing detached from my control; a bird circling from afar and in its own manner. I dreamt awake, or so it seemed, and watched the poems birth themselves in ink, a baffled bystander wondering if he ever had true possession of the poems, or if the poems merely possessed him for a time. Perhaps I was a prideful imbecile deluded by a conceit I willfully welcomed, thinking myself a master while overmastered by an Art beyond my true measure. Perhaps it was that a nine-tail kitsune exerted its powers over my hand, granting my hopes and desires like a Wishing Jewel without true, meted merit. I did not know. All seemed insubstantial and dreamlike. All seemed surreal in the drifting mists and the waxing moon.
I must have drifted with the mists. When I roused it was still dark— the night only half over— and I nodded at the table. The brush in my hand had long gone dry. Setting it aside, I laid myself back upon the floor, preparing to sleep more properly. It was then that I heard them, and wondered how I had not heard them before. It was a rowdy procession upon the veranda, bustling with many among their multitude. They laughed and sang and danced to the piping of hichiriki flutes played wildly, as if by the winds themselves. I marveled that they should not wake the entire manor. Then again, perhaps they were the entire manor, all taken away in the frenzy of sake and moonlight and music. The procession passed by my screen door and I saw their silhouettes through the paper and the slats. They were a motley of shadows of various sizes and figures and movements, and their voices seemed to slur and shriek and caterwaul, and so I suddenly found myself afraid. There was something unnatural about their figures and movements. Whereas a moment before I thought them merely servants drunk on stolen sake, now they seemed something more ominous. From their inchoate voices there rose a song, as there is a rhythm among a storm and its crackling lightning and drumming thunder. They sang thus:

“Wild nights, wild days!
Blood and sake,
mist and haze!
Till the earth is all afire,
famine, flesh,
sword and pyre!
The way of things,
the way of Springs,
blossoms fade,
all things unmade!
Petals die,
branches splinter,
avert the eye
but feel the Winter!”

This song continued for some time, and I found myself listening at the door, crouching like some beggar at the threshold of a temple. I peered through the slats, but the moon was at the procession’s backs. Fearful, and yet compelled, I took hold of the door and, with fateful surrender, flung it open to witness whatever grotesqueries awaited me in that misty, moonlit world.
Nothing. No one cavorted there. The veranda was empty and I stood alone. Shivering with fright and exhaustion, I returned indoors and laid myself down, clutching myself to still the trembling of my limbs. When I finally fell asleep it was with a rattling sigh that loosened, at last, the icicles of my bones.

***

“Every woman is a jorogumo,” Lord Gou said, “given time. They cocoon you into marriage and feed from your essence.”
We walked about his garden— Lord Gou, the musician, myself, and a retinue of household servants.
“My wife was much the same,” he continued to say. “Lady Utano’s aunt. She provided me a son, strong and handsome. But the war claimed him— a great honor, truly, in service of the Emperor against his enemies— and my wife betrayed me to the last, an heir not forthcoming. Yet, I am a man of faithfulness, even unto the treachery of his wife, and so I have not remarried, but pursue the Buddha’s salvation in the meantime.”
“There was no other woman to strike your fancy, my lord?” I asked.
The servants glanced amongst themselves, and worriedly to their lord, but Lord Gou did not seem to begrudge the question.
“A few here and there, to be sure,” he said, “but none worthy of the honor of serving me as the soil for my dynasty.”
Lord Gou suddenly stared at the moon bridge, and there seemed some great displeasure in his fiery eyes.
“The diviners have not arrived,” he remarked. “And so the corruption remains.”
“We have sent for them, my lord,” an elder servant said in an obsequious tone. “I cannot explain their absences. They vowed to come at once.”
“I am their patron,” Lord Gou said, the bones of his jaw creaking with anger. “And yet they cannot condescend to assist me in my time of need. It is a shame. I am of a mind to turn them out of their temples and replace them with the riffraff polluting the edges of my province. The riffraff might repay me with some gratitude, at least.”
I thought this an excellent idea, but did not say so.
“And now the diviner that I have on my grounds is absent,” he continued to say. “Where is Karasu? Is he feeling better?”
“His stomach illness still plagues him, my lord,” the servant said.
His master snorted. “Who do you have care for your healer when your healer is ill?”
“I do not know, my lord.”
“Of course not!” he barked. “It was a rhetorical question, you imbecile.”
The musician blew a few notes on his hichiriki. It reminded me of the evening prior, with its shadowy visitors and their mad dance, and so I spoke to distract myself from the dread such memories inspired.
“To think that a holy man can become sick,” I said. “It stokes fear for your own well-being against evil spirits. What can mortals do against such forces if they are so inclined to make sport of us?”
“You doubt Karasu’s abilities,” Lord Gou said. His tone was not one of displeasure. “I admit doubts, also. A holy man with a sick stomach is a blasphemous thing. Yet, he is the only diviner in my employ. All others have failed to manifest. I grow impatient. An unnatural cloud besmirches my household and I wish to be rid of it.” He halted by the willow tree, its head hanging dolorously over the moon pond. He gazed at it for a very long time, his eyebrows knitted hatefully. “As for what mortals might do, we might trust in the Buddha. We might beseech his mercy. That is all he is good for, after all. This world is a willful place, and so willfulness prevails. But Order must prevail, too, and be obeyed. Where willfulness arises, it must be contained. It must be stamped out, like a fire at the doorstep.” He turned away from the willow, and the pond and the bridge. “And if a foot catches fire, so be it!”

***

The diviners never arrived, and Karasu eventually returned to the company of Lord Gou. He sat in the Main Hall with the rest of us and complained of an upset stomach, belching as loudly as anyone, though never touching any of the food served to us all.
“I am afraid I ate a little too well last night,” he said. “It was too great a feast in such a short time for proper digestion.”
“You ate no more than usual,” the musician observed.
“Have a care to respect your elders, little pup,” Lord Gou said. “Or you will never live long enough to become an elder yourself.”
The musician threw his eyes to his lap, whereas I surveyed the diviner for signs of sickness. He did not look so pallid or sickly as he looked well-fed and hale. While the cords of his ancient, thin neck were etched sharply as ever, the stomach beneath his white robe seemed bloated to bursting. He had not eaten nearly so much the day before to justify such a drastic change in his belly and bowels. I wondered where he had engorged so much fare. It was a mystery. He did not even touch his herbal tea, though his host had commanded his servants prepare the tea especially for the diviner to allay his digestive discontent.
Lord Gou stood, suddenly, and addressed the Main Hall.
“I am the ruler of this province,” he said, “and soon even the Emperor shall esteem me above all others. It will be known that I am a powerful man of means and blessings. A propitious marriage ensues, my friends, and with it the greatest blooming of a garden ever known in this or any other kingdom!”
We voiced our support, naturally, and let our host continue.
“To mark this occasion,” he said, “I ask a boon from each of you. From you, Toshiyuki, I should require some additional poems written in honor of my province. I know I have burdened you with much already, but the Sutras can wait. I am of a heart inclined to poetry now, for it is a heart raised with expectation.”
“I will gladly compose in your honor,” I said.
“Excellent,” he said. He then rolled his eyes upon the musician, his gaze a mixture of sardonic resignation. “And you, reed-spitter, I demand an original song. It need not be grand or complex. A simple song will suffice.”
The musician looked up from his lap, his face beaming with hope and joy.
“And if you fumble this with terrible crowing then I will cut you up like a chicken and feed you to the riffraff!” Lord Gou said.
The musician looked again at his lap, dejected as ever.
“And for you, Karasu-san, I require another cleansing of my home.”
“At once,” the diviner said. With great effort the diviner stood, the contents of his bulging belly sloshing about as he teetered. “I am readied as ever, my person now ten times the holy man I once was.” He tottered toward the door, leering surreptitiously at some mirth only he was purview to.

***

So forceful was my inspiration that night that I could not but think of myself as a puppet whose words were being chosen by someone else. I wrote for several hours without ceasing, the words seemingly born of my brush rather than my brain. Wherefrom this mutiny of imagery and compulsion? Perhaps my hands were frenzied with foreplay better served on Lady Utano, and lacking that bettered medium, exorcized their carnal madness on brush and ink and scroll.

“How leaves scatter far
over the bridge of heaven;
yellow, wet, and red.”

“Cherry blossoms felled
by a burrowing beetle
will mingle beneath.”

“Lips of the lotus
part to kiss the mirrored moon,
only to then drown.”

“The prideful carp swims
where the lotuses entwine,
tearing them apart.”

“A Summer’s warm love
cut short by Autumn’s cold winds;
too soon Winter comes.”
At last, my hand ceased. The brush was abandoned and the scrolls left on table and floor to dry. My legs ached with restlessness and want of exercise. Thus, I left for a walk through the garden, having completely forgotten about the disturbing entourage from the night before.
The moon was high and pale as a pearl. It illuminated the garden well, despite the mists that dissolved the harsher edges of the world. I found myself quite at peace. True, I still longed for Lady Utano’s embrace, but I was placidly resigned to my lonely stroll through the clouds. It was not long before I came upon the moon bridge, manifested like a dream from the chilly whiteness. The figure leaned upon the railing, as was his custom, and stared into the pond below.
“Are you the source of the curse here?” I asked him.
“No,” he said, “I am merely a victim.”
“You told me that I was a diviner,” I said. “How do I rid Lord Gou of his curse?”
I could not see the man’s eyes, veiled in shadow, but I knew he was now staring at me, and into my soul.
“Lord Gou is the curse here,” he said.
All was dreaminess, but perplexity had its place. “In what way?” I said.
“All living are cursed in some way. You are cursed with lust and pride. He is cursed with something worse.”
“Rage,” I said, knowing the answer. “I suppose you are correct. We are defined by our curses as much as by our gifts.”
“And yet Buddha expects you to empty your vessel of the self to find peace.” The man did not sigh— he did not even seem to breathe— but there was an exhalation of some kind that was unearthly and made me sad. “Some of us never find peace. Some of us do not wish to. We cling to our curse and our corruption, for they are what we are. We are afraid to disappear.”
I thought on this and wondered if I truly would ever wish to abandon my lecherous ways, or the pride in my poetry. They defined me as much as any virtue I possessed.
“It reminds me of a man,” he said, “of a sinner named Gendayu. He was a thief, a blasphemer, and a murderer. Any of these such crimes would see him tortured in the realms of Jigoku. Yet, he repented and sought the Buddha’s path—selfishly, of course—and died with a Lotus of Amida blossoming from his mouth.”
I would have shaken my head at such nonsense, but the mists made me drowsy; numbed my body to the compulsions of gestures. “I feel as if such stories are told to convince monsters yet living to behave themselves until they properly die and are taken off to the depths.”
“There is no cure for a man set in his ways,” the man agreed. “The self consumes them, imprisoning them with their own karma. We are all imprisoned by the self and its karma. Some reluctantly. Some gleefully. Oni embrace their flaws openly and without remorse. They are freed by their cages.”
This all seemed very true, but it provoked more questions. The mists without bled within, and I felt dizzy. I saw the man’s robe, then, and knew it was brown, yet it glistened red as if the mists that surrounded him and the bridge and pond had bedewed the modest fabric.
“Who are you?” I asked. “How do you know so much about such things? Are you a diviner, also?”
“I am a simple blacksmith,” he said. “But my eyes have been opened to the ways of the world. Sharply opened.”
A pain beset my eyes and I closed them, massaging them with my fingers. When the pain subsided and I opened them again, the man on the bridge was gone. Only the mists remained.

***

“I have sent for more diviners,” Lord Gou said. “From Kyoto, and beyond.”
We sat in the Main Hall, Lord Gou at the head of his table. To my surprise, Lady Utano sat to his left side, whereas the diviner, Karasu, sat to his right.
“That is an excellent idea, my lord,” the diviner said.
Lord Gou turned toward the old man with eyes agape. “You approve? I thought your pride would be wounded.”
“If it benefits you, my lord, it benefits all.”
His stomach was not so pronounced as the day before. To the contrary, he drank his tea readily and with motions swifter than most men his age.
Lord Gou nodded, then gestured to the musician with a hand. “I will have your song now,” he said. “And I may have your tongue ere the song is over.”
The musician swallowed hard, then sat up straight, hardening his spine with whatever courage remained to him. He did not use his hichiriki, but instead had in his hands a biwa and its triangular pick. He angled the biwa’s neck toward the ceiling, its paddle-like bottom in his lap. He then strummed the strings with the pick, his other hand strangling the fretted neck with his frenetic fingers. He sang a song, surprisingly, as he strummed and slapped the strings like a madman. His singing was of a madman, too, his eyes closed and the sweat dripping down his forehead. The words were original, insofar as my limited knowledge proved, and he likely spent all night warring with the instrument to create the song. Black bags circled his young eyes.
“The nightengale shrieks,” the musician sang, “and the heron coos. It is a tumbling night when floor is clouds and sky is stone. Upside-down waters full of stars. The carp mouths words without meaning. I cannot breathe when you kiss my mouth. Rice falls like rain in my heart. ”
He strummed the biwa in a flourish, then let it fade to silence. He dared not open his eyes. His words made no sense and his strumming failed to harmonize with the lilt of his voice, punctuating at the wrong moments. Yet, it was not unpleasant. It was entertaining, at least, as seeing a graceful crane fly into a tree and get tangled in its branches.
Lord Gou stood, his face grave. The Main Hall was deathly silent.
“That…was interesting,” he said. “It was neither good nor bad, but…uniquely incompetent. And you have used a biwa, which is so rare a thing that I cannot fault your inability to play it. It was idiotic to use it, which was to be expected from you, but also bold, and in that I can respect it, even if you fumble at it like a virgin maiden at a cock.” He flung a gold piece at the musician, striking him at the chest. “Here. Your music is like a wanton. It is cheap, but it has its delights.”
The musician took the gold, stood, and bowed very low to his host. Joining the sweat on his face were tears of gratitude, or perhaps tears of relief.
Lord Gou gestured that the musician be seated— peevishly—and then his dark eyes fell upon me.
“Toshiyuki,” he said. “I expect more things from you than middling music.”
I nodded. My scrolls were stacked beside me, upon the floor, and I took them up in my hands. One by one I read them, then held them out so all could see my perfected calligraphy. All seemed pleased by my work…all except Lord Gou. His face grew livid, reddening a darker shade with each scroll revealed. His expression changed from amusement to confusion, and finally fury. I continued to read, even as I felt the heat of his wrath from across the table. Confused, I stuttered on.
“How hard the hammer
of the blacksmith on the bridge—
two heartbeats as one.”
“A fish big of tail
as he circles the moon pond
is small in the sea.”

“Enough!” he suddenly shouted. “All of you, leave! I am tired. I have no patience for silly words and silly men!”
Lady Utano attempted to inquire after her uncle’s well-being, but he turned upon her with a vengeance.
“Know your place, niece!” he shouted. “Silence is your sex’s virtue. Return to your room unless you provoke my anger beyond my tempering!”
Confounded, we all left the Main Hall. I retired to my room, taking my scrolls with me. I did not understand them myself. They had written themselves, and in some way I felt as if I had presented someone else’s work as my own. Nor could I understand Lord Gou’s anger. I read over the poems again and again, yet the mist-muddled obliquity remained.

***

A few yin-yang diviners arrived to exorcise his household of supposed spirits. Many that were expected, however, did not arrive, and Karasu was as bloated as before. Many feats of magic and rituals did the diviners perform upon the house, and yet Lord Gou seemed unappeased by their purifications. It seemed to me that the man upon the bridge was correct in his assessment: Lord Gou was possessed of no spirits or pollutants, except, perhaps, those of his natural excesses. For instance, Lord Gou took great pleasure in smoking tobacco. It was forbidden by royal decree, but that did not stop many among my people from luxuriating in that barbaric vice.
As to my well-being, my calligraphy brush still slid smoothly as ever across parchment, the ink strokes as fluid and perfected as ever before. However, the poems and the Lotus Sutra were, in meaning and theme, twisted and disfigured by some inexplicable malice not of my own volition. My art had thus become as a Ronin with peerless skills at hilt and blade, yet serving no master as he slashed and bled a chaotic meaning upon the battlefield. It shamed me, but the ink still poured from me without stoppage. When Lord Gou’s servants refused to provide me parchment I found myself compelled to write upon the floors and the walls of my room. When they removed my ink and brushes my hands took up a blade and carved into the finely lacquered wood in the veranda. The poems bubbled up from my mind like demons from Mt. Asama.
It was during a moment of respite that Lady Utano visited me. She looked upon my room with concern, her eyes rimmed with their whites.
“You are unwell,” she said. “This whole house is unwell, though. There is something terrible at work here. A malevolence.”
“It will pass,” I said, counterfeiting confidence. “All storms do.”
“And what of the storm between us?” she asked. “It must tax you as it taxes me.”
“As I said, all storms pass.”
She gazed at me a long time, her face illegible as a mask. When she spoke, her words were as the quiet in the eye of a storm.
“Do you not fear that I will become a demon?” she said.
“No,” I said. “I fear that matrimony may lead one to become a demon, for I am, like your uncle, a jaded soul bored with being served the same cup of tea everyday.”
I spoke in bitterness, for I did desperately want her. But destiny determined my path elsewhere. Why could she not understand? The suffering in both our hearts was of her making. She fingered the wound and disallowed it to heal.
“The storm remains,” she said.
“So be it,” I said, losing my patience as she walked around my room. Did she not understand how she taunted me with temptation? “But remember that I prayed only for rain. You brought the lightning and the thunder.”
She opened my door and stepped out onto the veranda. She began to walk away, but then paused beneath the parasol shade of a plum tree. She glanced back at me, and diamonds sparkled on her cheeks.
“When you pray for rain at a dragon’s cave do not be surprised when blood spills. It is your prayer granted.”

Poetic Justice (Part 3 Rough)

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.

“Mischievous incense
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.

Poetic Justice (Part 2 Rough)

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.

Poetic Justice (Part 1 Rough)

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.”
I grunted.
“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.

The Layover

The only sounds were those of the piano, kneading the silence of the lounge gently like a sleepy cat ready to lay down on its pillow. Her fingers were unnaturally long and thin as they scuttled across the piano keys like deep sea crabs across the white sands on the ocean floor. Watching them move disturbed Ben, and yet he was mesmerized. He slouched on his bar stool, nursing a ceramic cup of saki while listening to the overly tall, middle-aged pianist ply her talents in a room so empty it was not only sad, but sleepy and in need of bed. It could have been the saki— hot, strong, overpowering—or it could have been the insomnia, or even the loneliness at long last taking its toll, but as he spent more time watching her abnormal fingers the more he wondered what they would have felt like scuttling across his arms and chest. She was not too many years older than himself.
Behind Ben, the bartender polished a beer glass. He was a silent man in a white collared shirt and a black vest. He was backlit by the bar’s cool blue lights— all of Hong Kong was lit in cool blue lights at this late hour. Shelves of booze lined the mirrored wall, the glass gleaming darkly like the skyscraper glass beyond this hotel’s windows. Ben saw his reflection in the mirrors as he turned toward the bartender. His eyes were rimmed blackly as if the four hour flight and the incessant itinerary of cities had suckerpunched him good, left and right.
And yet he was not knocked out for the count. He wished he had been. The incessant travel wore on him, fraying his senses while simultaneously denying him the relaxation and rest necessary to recuperate. He felt like a fish being taken out from one expensive aquarium sprawl and dumped in another, each one empty of water while he floundered and slowly died, breathless.
But at least the music was good. The pianist’s songs were beautiful arrangements of notes and silence, like stars punctuating the outer gulfs and their empty spaces. He had never been a student of music, or any other art, but he knew that space was needful for pretty forms to be realized.
“She’s really good,” he said to the bartender.
The bartender grunted, and then continued cleaning glasses. His face was marked with Chinese symbols that Ben did not understand. Tattoos, maybe. They extended down his neck as well and covered his hands and fingers.
The pianist wore a teal dress with a plunging slit down her back. Her sharp spine was knotched like knuckles through her pale skin, and her shoulderblades were sharp as they flexed and moved with the movement of her arms as she played. Her black hair was short to the nape— a common cut for women of a certain age—and her bangs were long to one side. Ben saw her face in profile, her eyes large, round, as if always agog, and her slight overbite always leaving her mouth open beneath the rounded nub of her nose; her lips full and puckered, yet a little flat against her face— too flat to be sensuous. She did not sing as she played, but Ben thought her someone who spoke through their nose and breathed through their gawping mouth. She looked at him, occasionally, with a glancing sidelong roll of her eyes, and he saw that she had a gap between her front teeth, though her teeth were otherwise straight and white. Her bare shoulders were so bony that he wondered if she had any flesh between skin and bones at all. Her eyelids bulged around her large eyes, as if desperate to keep the latter from slipping out of her eye sockets. She was emaciated, it seemed, but her fingers had great vigor and discipline.
Ben was the only visitor in the lounge. It was 3 AM on a Wednesday morning in a hotel in Hong Kong. Hong Kong never slept— it was true—but even its most money-mad twenty-somethings had better things to do on a worknight than visit an obscure lounge in a hotel booked at the last minute due to a layover. They had parties to go to, probably, and strip clubs. Ben stayed up because of stress. His prime was nearly behind him, taunting him like an athlete from a rival sports team. In the sleepy gloom of the lounge he could have passed for a twenty-something, but in the wide-awake world of daylight and deadlines his near-forty years betrayed itself with crow’s feet and the sneaky stray gray hair here and there. His body, too, had started its slump. Where he was once taut and strong there came an idle laxity to his muscles and their responsiveness. He was not overweight, but he could see the nascent depreciation in value already in his aging body.
“Another saki, please,” he said to the bartender.
The bartender took Ben’s ceramic cup and poured from an oddly shaped, obsidian-black glass bottle. There was a microwave in the corner of the bar. The bartender opened it and put the cup in, heating the saki for about two minutes. The hum of the microwave did not intrude overmuch on the pianist’s song, no more than the distant hum of Hong Kong beyond the windows. When the bartender gave Ben his saki, Ben gave him, in turn, a five dollar bill. The bartender grunted. Ben had no other form of currency, but the bartender did not refuse it.
“To lives lost, and lives worth losing,” Ben said. He tried to drink to his own toast, but the saki burned his tongue and he spit it back into the cup. He blew on the cup for a while, hoping his tongue would stop stinging soon. He hated burning his tongue. Food was one of the few pleasures in his life, now, and a burnt tongue ruined it.
But at least it meant he felt something.
“My wife…” he began to say, then corrected himself with a shake of the head. “My exwife, I mean—she hated saki. But I like it. It warms you up.”
The bartender said nothing in reply, his tattooed face sealed in the impassive expression of the Buddha. Ben turned his attention back to the pianist.
The piano was large, black and polished, its sheen a kaleidoscopic refraction of Hong Kong’s lights as they bombarded the gloom through the windows. The pianist did not have a glass for collecting tips, as he had often seen in other lounges around the world. Instead, she had a hefty wooden Buddha statue in whose lap was a porcelain bowl. The mouth of the bowl was sadly empty. Seeing this, Ben stood up and took out a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet. Walking over to her, and feeling very self-conscious as he did so, he laid the bill in the bowl. He felt embarrassed and somehow wrong when she suddenly looked up at him, stopping dead in the middle of her song. He felt as if he had been caught taking from the bowl rather than giving to it. Her expression was of wary confusion. He stared at the gap between her teeth, somewhat transfixed. Suddenly shaking his head, he hurried back to the bar, feeling as if he had broken some unspoken taboo. She started playing once again, more slowly than before, the notes accenting the slow, ponderous spaces between the melody—as if the song itself was dying in her.
Maybe it was the currency. In some parts of the world Ben had found that they preferred dollars to their own currency. Other parts resented the sudden appearance of American bills. It represented for them an imperial presence, or an arrogance, or simply a tackiness which did not reconcile well with their sense of propriety.
This was a relatively cheap hotel, however, with cheap booze and cheap thrills just down its streets. Ben worried that he had unwittingly insinuated something more nefarious than a simple tip to show some appreciation to a musician. Maybe he had ignorantly committed a faux pas. He had committed plenty of them in the past as he gallivanted around the world, soliciting supply and service arrangements between companies. It was ironic that his job entailed creating connections between people, because he often felt as if he had no connections of his own. He often said of himself that he had been dubbed “Has-Ben” by his friends, but he had no friends and the only person who called him that sardonic moniker was himself.
Sitting at the bar again, he turned away from the piano and stared at himself in the mirror. When the music stopped, he did not glance back at her, but he did see her leave the lounge, her tall, lithe figure floating by like a ghost in his periphery.
“Another saki, please,” he told the bartender. The bartender obliged, and received another five dollar bill for his trouble. The strangely tattooed man did not baulk at the American tender, hastily putting it in his pocket as if it might be snatched away at any moment.
The lights of Hong Kong flared blue and otherworldly in the mirrored wall. They looked like swamp gases floating about the lounge, or orbs of blue flames upon hovering braziers. When Ben looked back at them directly, however, he saw only the neon lights through the large windowpanes—nothing so intense as he had wrongly seen in the reflections of the room. He shook his head.
“Saki and insomnia do not mix well,” he said.
He looked at his watch, and despaired at the hour. Suddenly a figure loomed behind the bar. The bartender nodded to the new arrival and then promptly left the lounge. Ben could feel the person intently staring at him. He glanced up, as surreptitiously as possible, and was surprised to see the pianist looming from behind the counter. She was taller than he had previously thought. She pushed his twenty-dollar bill forward on the counter.
“I cannot be bought,” she said.
Ben was taken aback. “I only liked your songs,” he said, feeling a heat beneath his collar that did not originate in saki. “I wasn’t wanting…um…other services…”
She was not glaring at him—she was too goggled-eyed to glare— but her tone was not friendly.
“I play for myself. Not for you.”
“Okay,” he said, reaching for the bill. Her long fingers snatched his wrist as his hand took the bill. Her hands were even more elongated and slender than he had realized. They were cold, too, as if the bones were icicles beneath the skin.
“I play because I need to play,” she said, keeping eye contact as her grip tightened. “I play to distract from other needs. Not for any man.”
“I understand,” Ben said, as evenly as he could. He was embarrassed and wanted to leave. But she would not release his hand.
“No, you don’t,” she said. “No man does.”
“Well,” he said, “I apologize. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
She did not relinquish her grip, nor even relax it.
“How did you come to be at this hotel?” she said.
Ben frowned, thinking. He had been so tired when he had left the airport. The layover had upset him for some reason. He had encountered many layovers through the last few years, but this one exacted a terrible toll. He resented it. He bemoaned it. It grieved him, though he did not know why. Moreover, it exhausted him. He had no time to book a hotel in the area in advance. He remembered riding a taxi until he saw this hotel. When he saw it he told the driver to drop him off. The taxi driver had given Ben an odd look, but then accepted the money and left Ben at the curb in front of the hotel. Ben could not remember checking in, nor the clerk or even what the hotel looked like from the outside. He had been so exhausted that he simply wandered up, with his hotel key in his pocket, and came into this lounge, buying a drink and feeling sorry for himself. And then he heard the pianist’s song and decided to sit a while and listen to her play.
“I heard your song,” he said, confused. “I wanted to give you something for your song.” “I own this hotel,” she said. “I do not need anyone’s money for my songs. My songs are my own.”
Her eyes were bottomless blackness, no light reflecting in them whatsoever. Ben’s alarm increased as he tried to force his most casual, friendly smile. This was an impossible feat for him since he had not had the practice of smiling in years now. He felt like a trespasser, or a thief. He felt as if he had stolen something very precious, but he did not know what it was or how he had done so.
“Do you…do you ever sing when you play?” he asked her.
She did not say anything for a long time, but her expression was meaningful and intense. “Only for last rites,” she said.
Her expression did not betray anything of humor. It was not a joke, then. Her unblinking stare made him nervous, and so his eyes drifted down her face and her long neck, to the flat expanse of her chest. She had a shallow chest, with the slightest suggestion of cleavage. He looked at her throat, and did not see a pronounced Adam’s Apple. For a moment he feared that she was like one of those lady-boys in Taiwan that tried to hit on him in the bar. But her hips were wide in her teal dress, and her throat was slender and smooth. She was a woman, so far as he could tell, though her curves had been starved shallow by what must have been a ruthlessly ascetic diet. Her bones were too slender and narrow to be a man’s.
When Ben’s gaze returned to her eyes he felt even more embarrassed. He had not meant to stare at her chest while she was staring at him. He had not had much interaction with women for a long time; not since his divorce four years ago. And, much like the day of the divorce, he wanted nothing more right now than to hop a plane to some other place in the world.
“I…uh…should be going to my room,” he said. “I need some sleep.”
The pianist said nothing. Her gaze did not falter, nor her grip. She leaned over the bar, and was so tall that it did not seem that that bar impeded her proximity at all. She was within an inch of his face.
“Sleep well,” she said. “Do not let the spirits bother you.” She tightened her grip one final time before releasing him. “And do not bother the spirits.”
She returned to her piano, then, and began playing once again. Ben did not stay to listen. Her songs sounded somewhat uninviting now; unwelcoming, as if their slow cadences creeped along his back like spiders hostile to his presence.
The bartender returned to the bar. He had prayer beads encircling the collar of his shirt— large wooden balls that clashed with his more modern attire. Ben glanced at them as he left, and noticed the bartender’s tattoos faded from his skin. Where they faded, red hair grew thick and fiery.
Before Ben left the lounge he thought he saw, in his periphery, several people sitting in booths and at the tables in the lounge. He glanced back over his shoulder, and saw an empty room as before. Yet, the chill of their collective gazes lingered on him as he went to his room.

Ben fished in his pocket for his room key. He was surprised to find an old rusty key with Chinese markings along its oxidized metal. Attached to its loop was a paper slip with Roman numbers on it. It told him that his room was on the eighth floor, room 806. He walked up through the hotel, using the stairs in the hope that the physical exhaustion would help cure him of his insomnia. Coming to the eighth floor, he was winded and dizzy. He felt almost delirious. The air was cool and clammy throughout the building. He wondered, briefly, how expensive it was to keep such an old hotel so cool in the Summertime. These old Asian hotels were difficult to renovate affordably.
The eighth floor halls were quiet and still; dim as some half-remembered dream. The doors kept their secrets, but occasionally Ben could not shake the feeling that people were watching him as he passed by. His breath bloomed visibly in front of his face and drifted behind him, like a trail of hookah smoke. Even the distant sounds of Hong Kong were here muted. It was a cold, deaf world, like a graveyard, and yet it was peaceful in a way that Ben appreciated after years of being crammed on airplanes with bellicose passengers, neurotic hypochondriacs, and bawling babies. Part of him wanted to lay down to sleep and never get up again.
Arriving at his room, Ben unlocked his door and entered the chilly room. Most hotels that he stayed in were of the same general style—the American economy style. This hotel was similar in some ways, but different in others. The floor was carpeted in neutral colors and the walls were white. His room was furbished as conveniently as most others. There was a bed, a bathroom, and a run of drawers atop which sat a television. Ben rarely watched television. Having disconnected from it had helped him disconnect from any other thoughts that were painful or discomfiting. Thoughts about his exwife. Thoughts about his widowed father and dead mother. Thoughts about his estranged sister. Thoughts about humanity and normality and life. He lived his work now, spending nearly as much time in the sky as on the ground. Airplanes and skyscrapers made him feel as though he was free from the lows of his life— not living high and happy, but floating above involvement with anyone or anything. He had heard that when skydiving there was a moment when a person hit terminal velocity that he felt as if he was flying rather than falling. Perhaps Ben was falling so fast that he thought he was floating above the messy fray of existence. Perhaps he was a nocturnal phantom existing in parallel to the daylight world of other human beings. Whatever other part of himself that grounded him in the waking world had been taken in the settlement by his exwife. He was glad to let her have it. He would have been glad to let her have everything, including his life.

Ben brushed his teeth, stripped down to his boxers, and prepared for bed. The bed was twin sized modest with a maroon comforter decked with white lotus blossoms. Above the headboard a framed scroll of Buddha stood, his hand in the Mudra position and a mandorla circumscribing his figure.
Ben laid in bed for what seemed like an eternity, waiting for sleep to take him. Beyond the windows of his hotel room, Hong Kong jittered and glittered on like a swarm of fireflies and moths burning bright on a bug-zapper. He looked at its glow like an astronaut on the moon staring at the distant earth. It was bright and beautiful, but distant and unattainable. There was a peace in that hopeless doom of separation, too, much as there was a peace in a coffin when its buried, oblivious to all of the world’s endless ills six feet up.
The lights from Hong Kong spilled over Ben like a phantasmal waterfall. It reminded him of a dream he once had; a dream of a waterfall near a shrine in a bamboo thicket. It had been a peaceful dream, when he had it, but he woke from it in a clammy sweat, afraid. He had not been afraid of the dream, however. He had been afraid of the life he had woken to.
There was a jangling at the door, then the scrape and click of a key in the lock. The door opened and a tall, thin figure stood in the doorway, her silhouette stretched thin in the hall light.
“You do not belong here” she said, leaning under the doorframe as she stepped inside. She was taller and thinner than before; stretched inhumanly.
Ben sat up in bed, watching her willowy figure as she approached him. “If you do not want me here, I will leave.”
“You do not understand,” she said, closing the door behind her. “There has been a mistake.” The room plunged into deep shadow and soft neon lights. Her figure was embossed by the duality. The teal dress was now too big for her slender waist, swaying laxly, and too short to cover anything below her mid-thighs. She loomed over him like a thinned shadow, her eyes blacker than shadow. “You should not be here, and yet you are.” Her face was blue in the Hong Kong lights. Her eyes were without whites, reflecting nothing. “You are living,” she said, “and this is not a place for you. It is a place for the dead.”
Ben’s voice was even; his tone unshaken. “Sometimes I feel like I am dead.”
“That is not the same,” she said. She paused a moment, though, watching him silently as if in thought. At length, she spoke. Her voice was a whisper, yet it silenced all other sounds in Hong Kong with its command. “Are you not afraid? How far gone are you?”
Ben leaned back against the headboard, sighing.
“The first night of my divorce I was in disbelief. I told myself it wasn’t happening. But it happened, and still it seemed unreal. I never went through any stages of anger or grief. I just felt numb, like my brain had shut off all of its emotions. I tried listening to a few Phil Collins songs, just to see if they resonated at all. But I never felt them. I was indifferent to my own heartbreak. Part of me must have…died so completely that I didn’t have the capacity to mourn anything. It was a clean, painless excision. Like a perfect surgery that removed my soul, and I felt…not exactly contented, but empty.” Ben took a deep breath and exhaled, his breath a tumbling mist in the chilly air. “And then four years passed, and now I am here.”
“But you cannot stay here,” she said. “It is sacrilegious.”
“I can pay,” he said.
“You cannot bribe us here,” she said.
“I meant that I can make an offering,” he clarified.
She folded her long, thin arms across her shallow chest. “Our guests pay in spirit tokens, sutras, and beads,” she said. “Money means nothing to us. Only things of real worth. So…what do you have to offer, Ben, that could be of use to us?”
“What do I have to offer?” he said. This was a question Ben had not confronted since his wife left him for another man. “What do I have to offer?”
The truth was that he was not even sure what he had to offer— to himself or anyone else. He had detached himself from life. He had detached himself from family and friends and everything and everyone that had imbued him with the gravity of meaning. He performed his job in rote fashion, traveling here and there not because of duty or loyalty to the company, but because he had nothing else to do except what other people gave him to do. He had no personal motivations; no goals; no drives. He had emptied himself as a vessel and set it out to sea, letting waves take him wherever was their whimsy.
Ben’s head rolled to the side, his eyes gazing out the window at the busy, demanding world of mankind. It all seemed a futile hustle and bustle among which his absence would mean nothing.
“I have nothing to offer you,” he said. “Nothing to offer anyone. Except everything. My life. My existence. My body. My space. I have no reservations. You can have it all. I feel nothing for my life.”
“You feel nothing?” she said, sniffing irritably. “Then you are a fool. Life is a thing of desires. You are living, so there must be something that you desire.”
“I want to stay here,” he said. “I want to stay among this silence. I want to hear you play the piano every night. I want to live here for the rest of my life, and beyond.”
“Is that all?” she asked, reaching for him. Her fingers were longer than before, and slender as tree branches. A soft light flared in her eyes, like candles lighting in the corners of a shrine in the deep, dark bosom of a bamboo forest. As her long fingers slowly extended toward his chest, the soft candlelight glow expanded, filling up her overlarge eyes with a twinned moon luminosity. Her skin was so pale that it was like moonlight touching a waterfall.
“And I want to be touched by your fingers again,” he said.
Her fingers halted, quivering. They withdrew. “In time, perhaps.”
She stood there a while, looming over him. Neither said anything. Neither moved. They existed in a consummate silence that Ben found to be reassuring. And yet, only yesterday, he thought nothing would be reassuring on this fateful day.
“It is our anniversary,” he said suddenly, quietly. “The anniversary of my marriage to my exwife. She is with her new husband right now. Back in New York. I wonder if she thinks about me at all.” He shook his head and forced a smile; it was no more convincing than any of the other smiles he had feigned since the divorce. “How did you come to own this place?”
The pianist sat down on his bed, beside him. Even when sitting she loomed over him, tall and otherworldly. She slouched forward, the grooves of her arched spine sharply etched in the blue light from the city. She looked like some beautiful gargoyle perching atop a church pediment, peering sadly.
“I had sought the Buddha’s peace,” she said. “But I had not done so through piety and discipline. I did not care for Enlightenment, only abatement, and found it in an opium cloud. Everyday day I sought opium for my suffering. I could have been a musician, long ago, but I found less comfort in the piano than I did in a hookah. I had indulged overmuch and drifted beyond the mortal realm. Now I serve the dead here. It is my atonement. My penitence.”
Ben glanced around the room, and then at the pianist. “It is not so bad here,” he said, “is it?”
“No,” she said. “Death has been very generous to me. Perhaps even charitable.”
“It is a very nice place,” he said.
“With nice people,” she said. She turned and looked at him, meaningfully. “We treat our guests very well here.”.
“As we should,” Ben said.
They both nodded in understanding. She stood, then, and went to the door. She opened it and ducked under the doorframe, stepping out into the hallway. She looked at him one more time and closed the door behind her. Her footfalls receded down the hallway, like music in Ben’s ears. He fell asleep shortly afterward, and slept like the dead.

***

Days still pass in the hotel, but the hotel is endless. It is like no time passes at all. The bartender still serves saki to the visitors that stay at the hotel, and the pianist still plays gentle, calming songs for her guests. There is a new bellhop at the hotel. He is affable and industrious, carrying the bags of the guests without complaint or grunt or groan. And no matter how disturbing the guests might be, he never gasps in horror or refuses to serve them.
Every night, after his duties are completed, he retires to the lounge to listen to the pianist play her gently trickling notes along the keys. Then, when the hotel retires to bed, he and she go walking along bamboo paths near an old shrine that has somehow still managed to exist, tucked away between the skyscrapers and the milling streets full of people too hurried to see the ghosts of yesteryears taking their time and enjoying life slowly, happily, as only the dead can.