never forget how she felt—
cold curves, icy slopes.
never forget how she felt—
cold curves, icy slopes.
More useless than coins
placed upon eyes of a corpse,
his posthumous fame.
Spooled gossamer moon
a spider egg soon to hatch
nightmares for dreamers.
A messenger came to Lord Gou as he and his guests sat in the Main Hall. The refugees were rioting in town, taking whatever food they desired from the stores and the merchants. Lord Gou was furious. His face burned bright red and the sweat of his wrath wet his black beard like sesame oil. He was a candle ripe for flame. Clutching his tanto in his hand, he brandished it at the messenger, telling him to seek all of his samurai and inform them to leave, immediately. No mercy was to be granted to anyone—man, woman, or child— until the mob was expelled and sent fleeing into the wilderness.
“And have the leaders and the instigators brought to me!” he said. “Alive, if possible. There are a myriad of ways I wish to inflict upon them punishment for their willfulness.”
The messenger went at once to inform the samurai beyond the manor. All of the samurai already stationed within Lord Gou’s household emptied, walking with grim purpose into town. Seeing the aquiline look in their eyes, I hoped the mother and her two children had not engaged in the riot. I hoped they were well away from such carnage that was soon to ensue.
“It is good that you have so many samurai in your service,” the musician observed.
Lord Gou snorted, sitting down again and sheathing his tanto. “It is good for them, you mean. They do little to earn their food and land. This is, if anything, the opportunity whereby they may prove their worth to their Master.”
“But what if the malcontent overwhelm the samurai?” one of the newly arrived diviners asked.
“My samurai will not hesitate and are not fools,” Lord Gou said. “They will be as cats among the mice, and they will feast to surfeit.”
“But the karmic toll!” remarked another diviner. “It may well be high, my lord.”
Once again, Lord Gou snorted like a bull. He took a swig of sake— for we had been drinking well that evening— and then slammed the cup on the table “So long as they quell the riot and bring me the petulant leaders, I will be satisfied.” He smiled mirthlessly. “Perhaps I should employ my samurai in ridding my house of these accursed spirits. They would do as well as you charlatans have done thus far.”
The old diviner, Karasu, smirked like a crow with a beak rimmed with viscera. “Samurai against spirits?” He laughed— a cackling laugh that silenced the Main Hall. “Those molting cherry blossoms. What good is there in any of them but a mess to trample along the way? Spirits do not fear blades, nor demons that melt sword hilts with a fiery word.”
After a long moment of silence, Lord Gou cleared his throat. “You are right, of course,” he said. “To each agent of Order his expertise. Samurai for Man. Diviners for spirits.” Lord Gou’s fury subsided, strangely, into an uncharacteristic deference and humility. “I am just…so tired of these trespasses, Karasu. Sleep comes so uneasy now to me. I…I see her face. And I see his face. I see so much that I wish to expunge from my mind. These pollutants…they cling to me and…”
Lord Gou shook his head and fell to silence. The diviners nodded sympathetically— all except myself and the crow-capped Karasu. He observed that I was observing him, and he grinned at me in a most unsettling way.
As for Lord Gou’s fondness for Order, I understood it well. What was poetry but the ordering of the world into words? What was calligraphy but an art of discipline and control as ink and paper exerted their own wills against your own? I could not abide drips. I could not abide wrinkles in the paper. And yet I was of the Floating World, seeking salve from the rigors of everyday society and its endless rules that imprisoned willfulness. And I could not but remember that great poet Batsuo Masho who traveled the wilds, away from society, to appreciate Chaos and Disorder, finding in them the harmony whereby his masterful poems were extracted. But I was yet too afraid of Disorder. I was too cowardly to go roaming as he had. One day I would need to surrender myself to the wilderness beyond cities if I ever hoped to master the Disorder of the cosmos.
The door slid open and Lady Utano burst in, standing at the threshold uneasily at first, but then mustering her courage and addressing her uncle openly in front of all of his guests.
“Uncle, I have heard that you have sent samurai into the town to kill hungry children,” she said. “Is this true?”
“You will not address me in this manner!” her uncle roared.
“And you will not have children slaughtered on the streets!” she said, as equal a dragon as him. “I do not care if you damn your own soul, but to inflict such…barbarism upon starving people is to offend the Buddha and all of his teachings of passivity!”
Lord Gou’s face quivered and frothed with fury. Before he could say anything, however, the diviner, Karasu, surprised us all by rising to his feet and addressing Lady Utano directly.
“That is very true, my lady,” he said. “Buddha frowns terribly upon such needless suffering and sorrow. But there is a famine upon the whole of the earth now, and so, it seems to me, that the Buddha has not granted a reprieve for these refugees; not as we has this wondrous province so blessed by his love and mercy.” He began to pace up and down the Main Hall, his fingers clamped together behind his back, his back bent slightly forward, his neck hooked upward and his head bobbing as he walked. His posture reminded me of a bird.
“The Buddha works in mysterious ways,” he said, “but his blessings and his curses are apparent to all willing to see them. The refugees were welcomed into this province, and invited to fish the rivers for food, if they so desired. But they spat upon your uncle’s hospitality. They would rather be pampered and served and fed as any lord in his household. But they transgress your uncle’s charity. They overstep themselves. Ungrateful, they demand more and more, and now they take, their perfidious natures revealed at last. It reminds me of someone else,” he said, abruptly wheeling about and staring at Lady Utano. “It reminds me of someone for whom hospitality is repaid in ingratitude, and disobedience, and contumely.” He affixed his dark eyes upon her, his back still bent forward and his neck raise in that avian stance. He smirked with the confidence of Death itself.
Lady Utano appeared shocked, unable to counter his smugness with equal defiance. The rotten-scalped diviner continued, turning about and pacing again.
“And, what’s more, my lord,” he said to Lord Gou, “this seems an excellent opportunity for the reckoning of accounts on all sides. Indeed, there is much profligacy to be atoned for, and penance to be had. Like yesterday’s battlefield beneath the rising sun, truths must be revealed, however ugly.”
The diviner stood solemnly, head bowed and his sharp fingers clasped before him, as if in prayer.
“My lord,” he said, “it will give you no pleasure in the revelations I now present, for while you certainly have apparitions unwanted in your home, another sin impugns your honor, and, I must say, more brazenly than mere specters.”
All expressions were quizzical, from host to guest to servant to niece. Even the diviners appeared confused by Karasu’s words. He paid them no mind. In fact, I had observed a certain contempt in his manner toward the other diviners; contempt and amusement.
“Indeed, my lord,” the corvine diviner said, “all is not as it seems. While you have unrest in your town, there is, unfortunately, a greater unrest brewing in your household— an unrest that may well upset the Emperor and the Shogun as well. It is one of betrayal and lust and sin. It is a sin of willfulness. And that sin begins in your most wanton niece!”
All eyes flew at once to Lady Utano— all eyes save for my own. No, my eyes knew no rest or refuge, like beetles in chaotic winds, searching for sanctuary from the storm. Dawn’s dew was not half so profuse as was the sweat that drenched me in that moment, and I feared the light of the lanterns would betray the dew of my indiscretions, for I could not withdraw the flow, nor feign a calmer visage.
Lord Gou rose like a monsoon— loud, spraying showers of spittle and flinging his sake in the gale of his fury.
“What is the meaning of this?!” he roared. “You insolent old man! You dare question the honor of my household?!”
“I do not question your household, my lord,” Karasu said with a bow, “only a man blessed by your hospitality.”
Lord Gou’s blazing eyes went from the diviner to his niece. “Niece, do you deny it?!”
Lady Utano stepped forward, bowing low. “No, uncle,” she said. “I do not deny it.”
Lord Gou’s mouth gnarled and gnashed. “I will have his blood! Tell me his name so I may flay him and use his skin for the Lotus Sutra!”
My robe was of flame, it seemed. I could not breathe, and I dared not look at Lady Utano for too long, nor her uncle.
“Lady Utano is with child,” Karasu said, shocking me furthermore. “I can sense the growing seed of her bastard even now.”
“Who is he, you willful harlot?!” Lord Gou demanded, more apoplectic than before. He struck the table and everyone’s cup leapt and spilled.
“He is only a coward,” she said, her eyes fallen to her feet. “A shadow through a screen, soon gone and unmourned.”
“Gone, indeed!” Lord Gou vowed. “Gone and unmourned, for soon death comes to him, as it comes for you, you vile whore!!!”
He drew his tanto and rushed forward, to avenge himself upon his niece. She welcomed the blade without struggle. To my great surprise, I found myself kicking the table. Its long body slid and struck Lord Gou’s foot. A great tumult followed with Lord Gou tumbling over the table and falling upon the floor. The blade kissed his cheek and blood spilled. Lady Utano, seeing the blood, woke to her instinct for self-preservation, fleeing from the room while several servants gathered around Lord Gou to see to his wound. Yet, he shoved them aside and rose again, his face red as much from rage as from blood. Still grasping the tanto in his hand, he screamed an unearthly, terrible scream and readied to hunt down his niece.
It was at that moment that the lanterns extinguished, leaving the Main Hall drenched in a darkness that dowsed Lord Gou’s rage. When the lanterns flared again they glowed crimson and shadows appeared upon the walls, receating in silhouette a scene now familiar to the guests of Lord Gou’s home. It was the same scene played out with puppets: two lovers meeting, walking together in sweet serenity, and then a portly lord taking her, abusing her, and her lover being struck down by swordsmen.
Lord Gou screamed in horror and rage.
“It was my right! She had rebuffed me, her master, and then that whelp attempted violence against me! It was not a sin!”
Shrieking, he attacked the shadows upon the walls, slicing the paper apart and leaving it in tattered shreds and broken bamboo.
The household was all frenzy and disarray. People clambered over each other to flee. Even the diviners were panicked unto a stampede. I slipped away, unnoticed, to the garden, seeking silence and solace from the madness of the evening.
It was a clear night, scintillating with stars, and the moon was high. As I approached the pond I saw shooting stars streaking across the heavens. A heron, hitherto unseen next to the weeping willow, shrieked and flew away. Watching it, I composed a poem. Sometimes I wondered if I composed poems to cope with life’s disappointments and tragedies.
“The gray heron shrieks
as a star flies and burns out,
knowing its life now.”
The figure on the bridge leaned upon the railing, gazing evermore into the pond below.
“It is time, now,” he said. “Justice will be served. As below so above, as above so below.”
A woman smiled up at him from the pond, sadly and beautifully, among the Lotuses. When I looked upon her directly, however, she had vanished beneath still waters, as had the faceless man upon the bridge. Things at last became clear in the fog and moonlight. The man upon the bridge had been cut down and his lover had drowned herself in the moon pond. It would have made for a beautiful poem had I not wearied of such rigors of emotions already.
Tired of spirits and of people, I walked toward my room, intent on sleeping until the world reemerged from the dissolving mists. I hoped that Lady Utano had escaped her uncle’s wrath. Perhaps I would be awakened later, with his tanto in my throat. Perhaps we were all ghosts already and did not yet know it.
Suddenly I heard growling, and shouting, and pleading. Lord Gou came stomping into the garden, flanked by his servants and his consorts. They tried to soothe him, but he would accept no solace or appeasement. He scattered them with an upraised tanto.
“Out, you sycophants! You whores! Harlots! Snake women! Or my rage will burn all of you, too!”
He carried a torch and his eyes flared within its angry light. The diviners attempted to persuade him from his fury, but were quickly silenced. The old diviner, Karasu, stood by, smirking with strange anticipation. Lord Gou paid him no mind at all, seemingly unaware of the rotten-headed man’s eager countenance.
I stepped aside—for the angry bull of a man nearly trammeled me in his wrathful single-mindedness— and glanced about, wondering if Lady Utano was nearby. I found that the manor’s screen doors had been opened and all of the household’s many occupants stood now upon the veranda, facing the courtyard garden. They stared in disbelief and fear as Lord Gou approached the moon bridge. His shadow was a wild, flailing demon as the torch flame flickered and writhed with hunger.
“I will abide this taint upon my house no longer!” Lord Gou roared. “His stain will be lifted, even if it means I have to burn down this damned bridge!”
One of Lord Gou’s eldest servants attempted to intervene, and was struck aside for his efforts. Other servants helped the incautious man to his feet, all while cowering from their vengeful master.
“I will do what these worthless diviners could not!” Lord Gou continued, sneering at the diviners. His beard shimmered wetly with sake. “I will purge my house, and my soul, of this corruption!”
Forthwith, Lord Gou set light to the beautiful moon bridge. The torch’s flame was hungry and unhesitating, enveloping the bridge quickly. Yet, the flames were not satisfied. As we all looked on in horror, the flames caught upon Lord Gou’s beard, setting it alight. He roared in agony, yet did not try to extinguish the flames. Rather, his roars heightened to exultant laughter— devilish laughter. The shadow became the man and he transformed amidst flame and fury. Where Lord Gou once stood there now stood a large, flame-haired oni with a bull’s horns and a fiery beard. Teeth as sharp and as long as tanto blades flashed within his grin, yet his grin was all mirthless wrath. Those servants near at hand fled, screaming.
“I did not dismiss you!” he proclaimed, snatching at a nearby servant attempting to flee. “I will teach you for your presumptuous impudence!” He raised the hapless servant until they were face to face, and then he breathed upon him, burning the man’s head alive. He then cast the corpse down, its face blackened and smoking like a used incense stick.
“The flames!” Lord Gou cried. “The flames! Do you not see that the purge me of my corruption?! I shall purge all of vile corruption!”
The demon that was once Lord Gou stomped about the garden, setting fire to the chrysanthemums and the plum trees and the cherry blossoms. The willow tree was as a weeping widow aflame above her husband’s grave. The courtyard was now a fiery pit of Jigoku, and all who witnessed it screamed in horror.
Only the lotuses in the moon pond remained untouched. Soon the flames greedily pounced upon the veranda, and then everyone screamed and fled, myself included. Panic was contagious as the flames. I went inside to gather up my scrolls and brush and ink. My heart ached to think of the Lotus Sutras I had already given to Lord Gou, wanting to retrieve them before they could burn, but I knew not where he had kept them in the meantime. They were my finest works!
How fast the fire worked its masterful destruction! What was once dreaming midnight mist was now wakeful smoke and flame. I fled through the manor as the flames rapaciously ate the paper walls and the wooden beams and floors. The ofudas which the diviners had hung all over the interior halls were quickly eaten up with contemptuous fire. It was as I emerged from the front of the manor that I saw him standing upon the street leading into town. The yin-yang diviner grinned—a devilish grin that sent chills cascading through my body like an icy waterfall. He had such a long nose now, and wore a black-crested cap atop his bald, rotten egg head. Black wings spread from behind his back, flapping up great gusts of air that fanned the flames and spread their riot ever the more wildly.
The diviner rose on his black wings. He croaked a laugh of glee, like a crow.
“I sensed innocent blood had been spilled here and was not disappointed!” Karasu exclaimed. “Rot and ruin make for wonderful meals. All the demons of the pits shall feast well tonight!”
He rose and rose up into the air, soaring so high as to surmount the Great Pagoda, flying toward the Western horizon with a caterwauling chorus of attendant crows. At his cry the demons sprouted upward from every impure heart. A legion of demons reared their heads through the town and beyond.
Lord Gou rampaged through his household, exploding through a wall and out onto the street. He snorted and fumed within the flames, his body grotesquely large and his beard flaring wisps of fire. His head was crowned with the long horns of a bull and where he stomped and clawed there erupted flames riotously. He smashed into his household again, charging through the corridors and walls and rooms, destroying all in his wake. Nothing was spared his fury.
I called for Lady Utano. I truly did. Do not doubt me in this. I went searching for her among the consumed household and the flames. I found only servants fleeing in terror, or screaming as they burned alive. The flames of Jigoku had come for Lord Gou and all of his household. They were inescapable.
I walked the long road leading to Kyoto. All behind me was flaming fear and smoky confusion, but I floated along easily through the mists. Giants walked the outskirts of the province, their skulls gleaming in the luminous moon. Tengu flew through the air near them, or perched upon their collar bones, cawing with laughter and proclaiming blasphemies upon the land. Lord Gou’s bellows resounded throughout, deafening the screams of his dying servants and subjects. It was a grand feast of death and destruction. I wondered what happened to that mother and her two children that were among the refugees. I wondered what happened to Lady Utano.
I did not look back, but walked forward with my heart and mind upon Kyoto. Everything was clearer out here, in the country, even as the mists rose along the nocturnal border between the living and the dead. It was quieter. No raging infernos. No demons to terrorize the earth. Not even a breeze shivered the trees. All was silent. All was still.
I recalled seeing the Chrysanthemums burning, and was not in the least sorrowful for them. Why should they not burn? All else had. Part of me wished that the flames would march to complacent Kyoto and roost all Winter long. It only seemed right and just, for there was a harmony in Chaos. I had realized it while the flames gathered around me. They were beautiful, in their own way.
The musician— of all people— suddenly appeared upon the road. He ran past me, gasping and weeping in turns. He was pale and his robe was coming undone with the rigors of his frantic motions. He did not seem to care, however, until the belt loosened and his pants slipped down, tripping him and dropping him into a roll. He sprawled out in the dirt, tears on his cheeks and his eyes wide to the whites. Calmly standing over him, I offered my hand to help him stand. He did not see me at first. Rather, he glanced around the mists with fright, trembling. His chest rose and fell as if to shed the upper swaths of his robe. Suddenly, he looked at me, as if seeing me for the first time. His face contorted with great horror. Scrambling like a beast, and screaming wildly, he fled farther down the moonlit road, never looking back. His pants remained behind, trodden in the dirt.
Lord Gou had been correct. The musician was an idiot.
I walked on for some time before coming upon anyone else. When I turned a bend in the road I saw two figures ahead of me: a man and woman walking, arm-in-arm beneath the moonlight. I called out to them and they paused, looking back at me. I could see their faces clearly, and they appeared contented: a beautiful young woman and a handsome young man. I realized they shared a name, though I did not understand how I knew this. They were Ren and Ren. They walked arm in arm toward a lake of lotuses. They soon disappeared. I continued upon my path, coming to a large field. Fireflies were as stars above the wild grasses. A figure waited there, playing a song among the moonlight. I knew who she was, and I nearly walked away, thinking I might escape as if having not seen her. But the despondency in her song gave me pause, and soon I found myself compelled toward her.
She played until I was within arm’s reach of her, then she ceased. She wore a kijo’s face, its snarling grin full of wooden fangs.
“You tried to leave without saying goodbye,” she said.
“I have many roads to walk,” I said, “and many Sutras to write.”
“And many women to woo?” she said, the notes of her scorn like a snapping shamisen string.
I held my tongue, for I had never heard her so angry before; nor any woman. It was…beautiful, in its own way. It had an appealing novelty and music akin to passion within the moonlight. I wished to embrace her, if only to absolve myself of her fury, or transform her fury into ardor once again.
“The spirits are on their way, then,” she said, gesturing toward the ghosts. “That is good. They shall find peace together.”
“You can see them?” I said, surprised.
“I have known of them for a long time,” she said. “I have commiserated with them in moonlight. It was I who asked them to seek their revenge through you, and the others. It was a selfish suggestion. I knew what kind of man you are, and wished them to influence you with their truer love.”
I only grunted, baffled by the revelations.
“You do not seem to realize it,” she said, “but you are as the blacksmith, and you are as my uncle. You condemn yourself to die by condemning the love you harbor for me. You will condemn both of us to terrible fates if you abandon me. As for myself, I am like that girl, drowning in the love of you.”
I attempted a laugh, but the stillness and the silence behind her Noh mask disquieted me quickly.
“Only a fool laughs where hearts are concerned,” she said. “Whereas the spirits of the lovers have been reconciled, you and I will be as Izanagi and Izanami. And I will relish tormenting you for eternity.”
“You have a dragon’s tongue,” I said. “But you breathe more smoke than fire.”
“I will have more fire to quell than that if you leave me,” she said. “I will return to you as a demon if you . I will haunt you for the rest of eternity, and beyond. My uncle is not the only heart that knows terrible flames.”
She doffed the demon mask, yet there still seemed a demoness in her visage. There was darkness in her eyes, and a twinkling flame. She was in earnest, as is a monsoon against the unwary shore. It was a novel passion, and I cherished it. Her hair had been undone with grief and framed her pale face with its black silk. Smoke wafted from her kimono, as it wafted from me.
“You haunt me even now,” I said. I thought of the ghosts, then, and of Lord Gou, and I realized that to allow another greedy man to separate two lovers again would only lead to more tragedy. I went to her. “Come,” I said. “Haunt me forever, if you must.”
I entwined her with my arm. The moon was underlined by the single stroke of a cloud— a diaphanous mark as if to underline the meaning of the moon. We began to walk together, following the firefly field. A terrible scream rose in the distance, and we paused.
“They are oni,” I said.
“Of course,” she said.
“You must be a diviner, too, I said, “to behold them.”
“Like can spot like,” she said, black smoke rising from her black hair.
I patted the flames off of my robe, and waved away the smoke from before my eyes. Just then, from down the road, came a procession extraordinary in its size and assortment. Seeing it should have frightened me, yet I felt a keen need to join them as they proceeded along the road toward Kyoto. Foremost among them was a mother and her boy and girl, and they struck me as familiar, only happier now, and more colorful than they had ever been in life. They danced and chanted together, making motley merriment along the road.
“What a bustling group!” I remarked.
“Indeed,” Lady Utano said.
“Should we join them?” I said.
“I will follow wherever you go,” she said.
Lady Utano and I joined the procession, she and I walking together, hand in hand, surrounded by hundreds of creatures in wildly colorful robes and kimonos; singing willful songs. And why would we not? We were of the Floating World! We chanted and danced all the way to Kyoto, and then all the way to the Emperor’s palace, for we would be heard, and not even the Buddha would know rest in the meantime.
“Free as hot embers
we were, dancing on wild winds
to burn paper walls.”
The next morning the sun rose pale through heavy mists. It inspired me to compose a poem for that phantom dawn.
“The world was aglow
with dreams of white, chilly fire;
hot sun in cold mists.”
There was another Noh mask above the screen door leading out into the garden. It was of a madwoman’s smile, her eyes red and her lips increscent overmuch, as if to wring her face of blood and tears. I took it down and gave it to one of Lord Gou’s servants. Shortly afterward I was brought some fruits and rice for breakfast. Lord Gou was holding a meeting between himself, the minister, and the head of a clan to the South. I was granted liberty of the garden, but was to remain outside of the Main Hall. I decided to sit on the veranda and continue copying the Lotus Sutra. It was a productive morning. The hours flowed like the ink— smooth, serene, perfect. The mists remained, however, and I welcomed them. It was not hot. The earth was overcast with the bosom of the sky. Eventually I realized that someone was sitting near me.
“Lady Utano,” I said, my brush still dancing in my hand. “How does the day find you?”
“Willingly,” she said, “unlike yourself.”
Her voice was calm and level, as usual, yet the words themselves smacked of bitterness.
“I have been very busy,” I said. “As you can see, the Lotus Sutra requires much time and concentration. It is a holy enterprise.”
“To balance your decadent lifestyle,” she said. “Are you atoning for my uncle or for yourself?”
“I write the Lotus Sutra to save souls,” I said. “To raise them to a higher realm upon death. What I do between my work is of little consequence to Buddha.”
“Perhaps you should cut your topknot and shave your hair,” she said, “and take residence in a temple as a monk. It would be a better means for you to serve the Buddha than through whoring and drinking.”
“There are not enough women in a monastery to make me stay,” I said, “otherwise I would gladly join.”
It was a jest…mostly…but she did not take it so.
“You should take care in the company you keep,” she said. “I asked only for your topknot. Another may seek to cut off more above your shoulders.”
“Then I would gladly retire to Neko-no-Shima,” I said, “and live among the cats there. They would not judge me. Cats are divine creatures, you know.”
“No,” she said. “Cats would not judge you. So long as you give them food, they are happy. But Woman needs more than food to be happy. She needs warmth and welcome. She needs a constant heart to match her own. And Woman judges often, and judges severely. Izanami will give her verdict, given time, and her demons will follow.”
I looked up from my work, at last, to behold Lady Utano, but she had gone.
“And Woman is as sneaky as a cat when she wishes to be,” I muttered. “Her claws hidden within soft paws.”
“And what of the clans to the Southwest?”
“They are at it again like snakes and centipedes,” the minister said.
Lord Gou frowned with displeasure. His meeting had ended and now he was walking the garden with the minister, the diviner, and the hapless musician. I listened to them as I continued my work.
“It is a shame,” he said, “that the Emperor’s subjects should dishonor him with such petty infighting.”
“It is the famine, my lord,” the minister said. “It stokes the flames of discontent. When even the nobles starve, blood will suffice.”
“I would never stoop to such bestial disorder,” Lord Gou vowed. “Order must be maintained. What good is a provincial leader if he cannot rein in his own people?”
“My lord,” the minister said, “your home is untouched by the famine that hurts the rest of the Emperor’s lands. I have been to see them, and they could but offer me rice and bits of soy-spiced fish to flavor it. Such small fare cannot pacify for long in such small portions.”
“It is true, then, that we have been fortunate,” Lord Gou admitted with great pride. “Not only are our stores plentiful, but the sea and the gardens yield great offerings to my household. The Buddha is with us, it seems.”
The minister smiled. “Are you sure you have not sacrificed to bloodthirsty monkey gods?”
He laughed, for it was a jest to be taken lightly. Lord Gou, however, was in temperament like his niece. He did not take anything so lightly.
“Never,” Lord Gou growled. “I would disembowel such gods if they ever demanded my obedience.”
The musician, being more clueless than Lord Gou, laughed lightly. “I would tie the monkey gods by the neck with cords and teach them to dance to my music.”
“Only an idiotic monkey would dance to your music,” Lord Gou retorted.
The musician, downcast, stared at his hichiriki sadly. He pressed it to his lips, as if to play a song absently, but realized what he was ready to do and thought better of it. He fell farther behind them, like a rejected dog.
Lord Gou called to me. “Toshiyuki!” he said. “Enough work for today! Come walk with us. We need a poet’s wisdom in this conversation.”
Dutifully, I set aside my brush and joined my host and his flock.
“What is your opinion on the state of things in the Emperor’s lands?” he asked me. “What thoughts does it provoke in you?”
“I cannot speak on behalf of the Emperor’s lands,” I said. “For my mind is not so expansive to encompass them all. What I can say concerns my own little part of the world. And that part is blissful at the moment. My lord, your province is a paradise. Others are indeed not so fortunate.”
“And so you should like to stay here forever, naturally,” Lord Gou said, more pleased than ever with himself.
“I would not impose upon your hospitality forever,” I said. “I must eventually venture to Kyoto and ply myself there, in court. Then…well, who knows? There are times when I wish to settle upon an island and focus solely on writing poetry and Sutras. Perhaps an island to the Southwest of Kyushu.”
“Tora island,” the diviner said with a strange grin. He wore a black eboshi cap atop his rotten egg scalp. It looked like a raven’s crest. “That is a delightful island. I have been there. They have excellent tastes.”
“They?” I said. “I wish to live away from other human beings.”
“And so you would, there,” he said. His lips smiled, but his eyes did not.
“I once heard that there were cannibals upon that island,” the musician said. “Or demons. I forget which.”
“That is because you are an idiot,” Lord Gou said. “Now shut up and play your idiotic monkey music.”
Forthwith, the musician began to play on his hichiriki as we walked. It was a dolorous song of self-pity and reproach.
“Something livelier,” Lord Gou commanded, slamming his fist in his palm, “or I shall have your skin flayed and fitted for a drum!”
The musician’s hichiriki piped like a dawn-crazed bird. I could not tolerate the sound for too long, nor Lord Gou. He ordered the musician to be quiet and then invited all of us inside for an afternoon snack. We had candied yams. They had been gathered from last year’s copious harvest. They were delicious and reminded me that Lord Gou’s province was one of prosperity and plenty. Yet, Lord Gou did not seem so happy as he should have been. When a servant spilled tea upon the table Lord Gou grabbed the young man by the hem of his robe and flogged the back of his head savagely. It was as I watched this horrific display that I noticed the sweat pouring from Lord Gou’s face. It was like sesame oil longing for flame, his face so red that I bethought him soon to transform, a demon emerging from his wrath-wrinkled visage. I felt it incumbent upon me to intervene, yet I dared not. Silence is often wisdom.
After the young man had been sufficiently beaten, he staggered away. An older servant helped him down the hall and tended to his knotted head. Despite doling out punishment, Lord Gou was not pleased. His breathing had become labored— his bullock neck pulsating as his chest heaved and his eyes flashed fire—and his mood had soured. Instead of drinking sake until nightfall he dismissed all of us and retired to his private chambers. Relieved to be on my own, I gladly returned to my room to work.
And yet, I became restless. The clouds lifted and the sun burned hot upon the manor. No winds allayed the heat, nor could I find a fan to cool myself. My room now stuffy, I walked upon the veranda, beneath the shade of the eaves. It was not cool, but it was not so hot as being baked by unshielded sunlight. The air, too, was fresh and fragrant with flowers. It made me think of Lady Utano and her cool, pale thighs. She was moonlight itself, and I wished to lay my cheek upon her legs.
I was admiring the Zen rock garden in the inner courtyard when one of the stones surprised me by hopping forward. Startled, I realized it was a fat, round toad; and it was an omen. Nothing was as it seemed in Lord Gou’s home. I composed a poem upon the spot.
“A quiet garden
with a toad hidden in stones—
heart leaping likewise!”
The toad hunkered down next to another rock, fidgeting restlessly. It almost seemed to shiver, but why? It was not cold. To the contrary, the dreadful heat of that day caused the air to drink every drop of sweat my body offered.
“Tsunade is not here,” I told the toad. A shadow passed over us, briefly, and was gone. “Is that thunder I hear?” I looked to the sky, but it was clear. No clouds. No birds. Then I felt my stomach rumble. “No, it is my belly,” I said. “I am hungry, fat toad. But I do not eat insects as you do. Nor slugs. Perhaps you are hungry for something more. Fame? Fortune? But toads do not envy other toads. Perhaps you do hunger for your Tsunade, as I do for my mistress of the moontime…”
A voice leapt out of nowhere, like the toad, and my heart leapt again, startled.
“It would be best not to speak to animal spirits.”
Standing beside me was the yin-yang diviner, having manifested, ostensibly, from thin, hot air. I could only gawp at him. A smile of wry amusement carved his cheeks into bright red persimmons.
“Indeed,” he said, “I would advise against it, otherwise they may speak in turn and curse you.”
Irritation found me my tongue at last.
“I do not fear curses,” I said, angry that I had been startled by both a toad and an old man. “I write Sutras for many esteemed patrons. I am untouchable.”
It was as unmerited a boast as it was sincere.
“No heart is untouchable,” he said. “Neither poet’s or lord’s or…” He gave me a meaningful look. “…or Lady’s.”
The old man said no more. He turned and walked away, leaving me, and the toad, in the Zen garden, among the water-smoothed stones. I looked to the toad for comfort of company, for I was shaken.
“Jiraiya,” I said to the toad, “there is more that I do not understand than I do. I will dedicate a Lotus Sutra to you, little toad, if you watch over me.”
I wrote part of the Lotus Sutra to the toad later, but I did not write the poem I composed. I felt disturbed and wished for no memento of that encounter. The shock gradually subsided.
Day’s fever was cooled in the dark robes of night, relinquishing its frets in exchange for star-shored dreams. I walked through the manor, seeking a servant to give me more sesame oil for my late hour work. I came upon a servant to Lord Gou fixing a wall in a hallway. The paper had been torn between the bamboo lattice and now lay open, a wound in the adjacent room’s privacy. I marveled, suddenly, at how bold and unthinking I had been in my lust for Lady Utano. I had made love to Lord Gou’s niece with nothing to shield the indiscretion but thin paper veils. How absurd. Then again, what protection was afforded many of us in karma after death except the paper of the Lotus Sutra dedicated to endearing us to the Buddha? Perchance it was merely a sliver of paper that was all standing between us and the sixteen terrible pits of Jigoku? I could see myself scrambling up sharp-leaved trees to reach beautiful women beckoning me, gutting myself while demons clamored to devour my entrails. Sweat suddenly drenched my brow as if the sun was baring down upon me.
I had not much faith in paper, it seemed.
The next morning Lord Gou insisted that he be carried within his palanquin. But being such a large man made it slow-going for the servants, and often as not they nearly fumbled him and his unwieldy weight, their master cursing them meanwhile and tallying the punishments awaiting them upon return to his estate. So, I broke from his entourage and quickly entered the town ahead of the others. It was a busy, crowded town, even with the peasants out in the rice paddies, and there was much to be seen. Merchants of many varieties displayed their wares and foods for the people crowding the streets. It was a drastically different scene from what I had witnessed in other provinces. Lord Gou’s people were truly blessed to be thriving while others could but survive on tree bark and weeds.
But there was a curse in this blessing, too, for survivors from other provinces had come here, seeking salvation and refuge from war and famine. The merchants turned them out, with the flashing teeth of the Samurais’ swords. I passed many of these refugees on the outskirts of the province. Hollow-eyed and haunted, with sunken cheeks and crippled and scarred, they bore their suffering for all to see. Even my heart was moved to see children among them, haggard and hungry. I did not know what to do for them, however, and trusted in Buddha to see them mended in their woes.
I shopped around for a little while. I bought no food, for none of the merchants’ stalls provided fare that could rival what Lord Gou’s household boasted. I did buy a beautiful fan which I knew would serve me well enough during these hot Summer days.
As I was walking along a street I saw a group of men in orange robes. They were bruised, bleeding, and sobbing. When I asked them what was the matter they said they were disciples of a monk and their master had died.
“Master Yuuga was very devout,” said one of the disciples. “He invoked Amida’s name day and night to spirit him away to Paradise.”
I could not help but smile. “And did he spirit him away?”
“Amida came to him a week ago,” he said, “and we all saw him, shining in his fiery glory. But Amida was displeased. He said any fool could invoke his name, but only the worthy could invoke him while underwater.”
My smile disappeared. “I see.”
“Amida told Master Yuuga that if he had faith in him then the river would not drown him. He said his name could repel whole oceans with enough faith when spoken. Our Master had great faith and so he went to the river. Many townsfolk and the refugees heard about what he was doing and followed him to the river, wishing to see Amida themselves.”
“And Master did as he was told!” another disciple said. “He walked out into the river until he disappeared in the flow. We saw a few bubbles break upward, flowing downstream, now and then, but the river flowed on as normal and we never saw Yuuga again. Fearing for his well-being, we went in to retrieve him, but he was gone!”
I frowned. “But he was not spirited away,” I said skeptically.
“We thought he was,” another disciple said, “and so did the spectators. We all fell on our hands and knees and prayed to Amida to take us away to Paradise, too, but he did not. Several of the refugees clambered into the water and did as our Master had done. They, too, disappeared. So many disappeared…”
Looks of abject horror beset their bruised, bleeding faces. I felt a chill up my spine.
“What truly happened?” I asked.
“We went home and continued upon the Path. But today we came into town and were ambushed by the townsfolk. They called us murderers and liars and they stoned us and beat us with sticks. The Samurai had to protect us, cutting many of the refugees down with their blades.” He tried to elaborate, but was at a loss for words, gawping in disbelief.
“A fisherman found the bodies of the refugees downstream,” another disciple said through tears. “And among them was Master Yuuga. They were dead and bloated and kappa demons had eaten their souls. The fisherman told the townsfolk, and the refugees were told also, and so we were attacked as charlatans.”
“But we did see Lord Amida!” another disciple said. “We heard his majestic voice and saw his fiery halo!”
“It had to be a tengu!” another disciple said. “Oh, how could we all be so foolish!”
They walked away, weeping and hobbling. I wondered how someone could fall for such tricks. I would have never been fooled so easily. Monks were supposed to be wise, but all I ever heard was that they were fooled time and time again. Ibuki mountain was haunted by many tengu who endlessly tormented monks and their disciples, as was Mount Heini.
It was at that time that Lord Gou’s entourage overtook me. The musician and the diviner walked obediently beside his palanquin. His servants set the palanquin down and Lord Gou— after a few strenuous attempts— got out and stood up.
“What did those monks want?” he demanded. “I give to their temple enough that they should not be begging alms.”
I recounted the monks’ story to Lord Gou and his entourage. When I had finished, the diviner smiled.
“All holy men are marked,” he said. “And tengu aim true if a heart is not shielded with the Buddha’s teachings.”
“But should they not fear holy men above all others?” the musician asked.
“Demons fear little,” the diviner said. “The oldest temple in Uzumasa has been burned down many times. They rebuild it again and again, and the demons seek much mirth in this.” He leaned upon his walking staff, and licked his lips. “So, too, may demons burn a man from within, only for him to be rebuilt again and again. That is how demons are born.”
“Or perhaps they should just cease lighting fires in the temples,” Lord Gou said. “That might stop the fools from burning their temple down.”
A poem, unbidden, sprang forth in my mind.
in honor of the Buddha—
burns down his temple.”
Lord Gou growled. “I am of a mind that this squalidly tide of riffraff should and shall be expunged from my glorious province. They bring corruption with them. Disease and filth.” His eyes hardened, like flint, and flared upon the strike. “Perhaps a blood moon may call their flotsam tide out to sea again.”
“My lord,” the diviner said, “Buddha would not smile upon so…uncharitable a measure. No, we must let them remain—on the outskirts, of course—so that a great feast of mercy may be enjoined by all.”
The diviner’s words brooked mercy, yet his smile bled something contrary. It made me uneasy. I felt as a man standing upon a battlefield as many bodies lay strewn about him, peace gained at long last, but at the cost of all warriors thereon gathered, the crows descending for their celebratory feast. Laughing.
“I must return to Kyoto eventually,”I said, nervously, “though part of me aches to see Mount Atago.”
“There are plenty of mountains to adore in Kyoto itself,” Lord Gou said, leering. “Twin peaks around every corner, concealed in shadow, but scaled for the right price.”
We all laughed, as any man would. Lord Gou’s jape inspired a poem in that moment, born fully formed in the forge of my mind.
“Morning mountain peaks
within sleepy robes of mist—
hear the valley drum?”
Unbidden, the image of Lady Utano’s breasts called to me. I had rested between many bosoms in my life, yet hers beckoned to me still, whereas the others were as unappealing as old, cold rice. I shook my head and attempted to dispel the enchantment she had placed upon me. Was she a fox spirit? But she claimed I was the same. Were we wed, would the sun showers drown the earth in rain and sunshine?
Lord Gou returned to his estate early, alongside his throng of guests, servants, and sycophants. I remained in town for a while longer, walking. I looked upon the refugees gathered at the outskirts of town, beneath the tumult of verdure and crimson from the trees, and wondered what they would do in the coming Autumn. More frightening was the thought of the coming Winter. Many would die of cold and hunger here. Many would also riot, and so die of blade and arrow. I had seen such things before, or the aftermath of such things at least. It was a carrion banquet for crows and worms. As I passed a mother with her two children I saw in their mournful glances the sorrows of a world yet unsaved. The boy and the girl were thin, their rounded cheeks sunken with starvation and blackened with grime. I ventured to a merchant and bought rice and fish, then gave these things to the mother and her children. They were grateful, but as they ate I saw envious eyes fixed upon them from among the other refugees. Envious and hateful. I wondered if I had made a mistake of such charity, for surely it appointed them as foremost targets in the minds of that group of wretches. A kindness done exclusively for a few is always begrudged by the many. I hoped I did not doom them with kindness.
It was midday when I returned to Lord Gou’s estate. I found his lordship well into his sake cups, drunk and chasing servants away while brandishing his tanto blade. Lady Utano attempted to coax him into releasing a young servant by the throat. When he saw me, however, the servant boy was forgotten, released, and so fled into the manor. Lord Gou grinned broadly, and sheathed the tanto. His black beard was wet with sake.
“I forget myself sometimes,” he said, swaying with his own sloshing belly. “Toshiyuki, have you been acquainted with my lovely niece, Utano?”
“I have had the pleasure,” I said.
“And how did that come about?” he demanded. His grin hardened, like an angry monkey’s. “I do not remember introducing you to one another.”
“It was a love that introduced us,” I said, aghast at my own words. I sputtered idiotically. “A love of poetry and calligraphy, my lord. Your niece writes very well.”
To my relief, Lord Gou accepted this explanation. Yet, he had not had his full say upon the matter. He peered at me closely, then at his niece.
“You are taken with her beauty, no doubt,” he said. “All men are. But you would do well to remember that I cannot give her to you, however a dear friend you are. She is promised to another. Nothing strengthens alliances like children.” He smiled again, drunkenly, at his niece, but his words were a grim promise. “If she fails in this endeavor, not even the convent will save her from my wrath. Her aunt can attest to that.” He turned away and headed inside his manor. He paused at the door. “Which is to say, she cannot attest to anything.” He glanced over his shoulder at me. “And as for any man inclined to defy my honor, he shall know suffering which not even the Buddha can alleviate.”
He went inside, leaving Lady Utano and I in a stern silence. She looked sad, and beautiful. Beautifully sad. Sadly beautiful. Yet, I could not let her enshrine her influence upon my heart. I turned to leave. She called out to me.
“Lord Gou divorced my aunt,” she said. “She had given him one son, Shinji, but he died in battle with another clan. My aunt was unable to provide anymore heirs in her old age. She fled to the convent, but died before reaching it. My uncle felt dishonored by her…infertility.”
“I see,” I said. I stepped toward her, involuntarily. I spoke in a whisper. “Why do you stay here, Lady Utano? Why not return home?”
“I have no home,” she said. “My father died recently, and my mother died giving birth to me. My uncle controls his estate now and will not allow me to return to it. He does not trust me. He believes I would marry for affection when I should marry for power.”
“He is wise in that, at least,” I said.
“Is he?” she said, her dark eyes bright with fire. “Perhaps. I welcomed a man into my heart once for affection, and it has brought me nothing but grief and heartbreak.”
“I did love you for a night,” I said. “But does not the river rush on? It does not return. All is evanescent. Buddha admonishes us to let go of the past. It is a shadow that stretches behind us, insubstantial and distracting only those foolish who heed it as if it was of consequence.”
Yet, even as I said such things I admired the Lady before me. Lady Utano was a refulgent, lissome mistress. As the moon gazing lonely in waters, she shone brightly in such dark times.
I intended to step away from her, but my feet refused. I stepped toward her again, somehow forgetting myself and the dangers of such indescritions at the doorstep of my host. My mouth opened as if longing for her own, and spoke quietly of things that should not be said.
“But a shadow such as yours is an enchanting sight,” I said.
It seemed my tongue wished to betray me as well as my feet. Perhaps some mischievous kami had asserted its power over my mouth. I would have rather Raijin strike me dead with a lightning bolt from a clear sky than have Lord Gou discover the tryst betwixt myself and his niece. It would have been a far easier death than whatever torture Gou might invent for my indiscretion.
“You have a tongue promiscuous with many meanings,” she said, “and many hearts.”
She left me to my confusion, disappearing into her uncle’s manor. What remained of her was her fragrance, and the hastened hammering of my heart at her absence. I was treading the wet rocks of a waterfall, it seemed. How strange that I should wish to plunge headlong with reckless abandon. Yet, if it meant chasing her figure among the violent froth, so be it!
That night was rife with entertainments. A troupe of dancers performed for us, and many sweets and fish dishes were served. Sake flowed like flooded rice paddies and we drank ourselves silly into the late hours. When it was time to retire to bed, I took a walk about the garden. There I saw the man upon the moon bridge, staring as ever into the moon pond below. Bold as mountains, I addressed the shadow-faced stranger, demanding to know— in my drunkenness— why he refused to attend his host’s festivities.
“I am most unwelcome here,” he said.
“And yet you are here,” I said.
“An intruder,” he said. “And yet I am not permitted to leave.”
“A prisoner, then!” I said, hiccuping. I then fell to silence, thinking of the implications. “I do not understand. You are an intruder and a prisoner? Are you a thief that was caught and must stay here? But you are not shackled.”
“Shackled by the greatest shackles,” he said. “Love.”
I grew angry. “If you seek the heart of Lady Utano then you should do well to abandon such hopelessness! She is promised to another, no matter how much we might wish it otherwise!” My cheeks were wet and my eyes burned. I wiped them absently on my sleeves, and swayed uneasily on my feet.
“She is not my concern,” the stranger said, unmoved by either my anger or my sorrow. “My love remains here, though she has gone away, as I have myself.”
My head reeled with bafflement. “You are drunker than I am,” I slurred. “You make no sense.”
“Very little does,” he said, “except what is most important. But it becomes clouded by things that are petty and unimportant. Love, for instance, is as solid as Mt. Fuji, yet is dissolved by mists of duty and authority. How strong and lasting the mountain. How insubstantial and fleeting the mists.”
I caught myself against the willow tree, almost passing out into the pond. “What?” I said, rousing again.
“It is no matter,” the man said. “But let me ask you this: Have you seen the tanto that your host wears ever at his side?”
Recalling Lord Gou, I did seem to remember him wearing a tanto on his belt. He tended to finger it whenever he was annoyed. He tended to brandish it when he was enraged. I told the drunkard that I knew of such a blade.
“I forged that blade for another,” he said, “hoping she might use it against the wolves that haunt this world. But he took it from her, along with something even more precious. Now I must forge something more subtle than any blade. I must forge his guilt. I must mold his madness. For he is the mists that blind this world to the truth, and soon the mountain will erupt with fire.”
Being a poet, I have prided myself on clarity of thought and exactness of expression, yet I was shamed to find myself more and more dispossessed of such virtues as I spent more days as Lord Gou’s guest. Perhaps it was a result of the idle comforts and entertainments of my host. Perhaps it was the sake. Perhaps it was that bewitching distraction that taunted me in the much-favored figure of Lady Utano. Regardless of origin, the mists remained, thickening as days progressed to nights, nights to days. Yet, it was not that I was altogether impaired beyond writing poetry, but rather the poems which came to me came as foreigners from far shores, mysterious in meaning and custom even to me, the dutiful laborer who traced their magic in ink. Like dreams, they were, from my own mind and yet deeper in that mind than I had ever consciously delved. Though I was a habitual denizen of the Floating World— wherein the strict chains of society were dissolved in opium clouds and drink and laughter—the mistiness and insubstantiality was more insistent, frightening; as if it meant to dissolve the prison of society and Order altogether and free the agents of Chaos from the shackles of pretense and tradition. The mists were dissolution and liberation, entrancing and horrifying, like the naked body of Lady Utano: luminous with moonlight and the dew of passionate sweat.
Upon waking the first thing I saw within the late morning light was another Noh mask hanging from my door. It was of a kijo, her face split horizontally along her fanged mouth. She had rudimentary horns and a red face that shimmered like blood. Taking it down, I threw it out into the garden. Where it went, I did not know, nor did I care. Grumpy, and suffering from the agony of sake-sickness, I dressed myself and went, uninvited, into the Main Hall. Lord Gou and the diviner were already seated. Sitting down, I nearly fell face-first into the table, catching myself with my hands. Lord Gou nodded to a servant and the servant left, returning with a bowl of rice and hot tea. These things I partook of halfheartedly. The long room seemed to sway as a ship on the sea.
“So little sake for so miserable a face,” Lord Gou remarked, laughing. “Toshiyuki, are all poets so weak of stomach as you?”
“Weak of stomach and weak of mind,” I said, “otherwise I would never let my belly brim with what it cannot tolerate.”
The musician arrived shortly after me, swaying to the music of his own sickness. Had I appeared so foolish upon my entrance? No. No one could be so foolish as the musician. He tripped over his own feet and struck his shins against the table, yelping.
“Silence, you fool!” Lord Gou growled. “Your cries are almost as terrible as your singing!”
The musician was too preoccupied with the pain in his bruised legs to be properly ashamed of his clumsiness. When the servant brought the musician his rice and tea, the musician looked at it as if it was a severed head. He rushed out of the Main Hall abruptly, hand clutched over the floodgates of his mouth.
A servant went to check on the musician, but returned shortly afterward with the mask I had discarded into the garden. He presented it to Lord Gou.
“This was found in the garden, my lord,” the servant said.
Lord Gou took the mask and stared down at its grim visage. “How had it come to rest there?” he asked.
I proffered my explanation, alongside my confusion as to why such masks were being hung in my room.
“That is strange,” the diviner said. “And you never hear the miscreant as they enter or exit your room?”
“Never,” I said.
“I enjoy mischief,” Lord Gou said gruffly, “but mischief of this nature in my own house I cannot abide. I will discover this imp and have him flogged for his impudence. Do you suspect anyone in particular? Anyone who might begrudge you some offense?”
I dared not answer with the foremost figure among my thoughts. “Perhaps it is that mischief-maker upon the bridge.”
“Who?” the diviner asked, genuine in his curiosity.
“A drunkard in the middle of the night,” I said. “He speaks all nonsense, exhausting the whorl of my ear. I have spoken to him a few times, but I have never seen him during the day.”
“Describe him to me,” Lord Gou demanded, “so I might know the man that dishonors my guests.”
“I have never seen his face,” I said. “He is always upon the moon bridge, staring into the pond. He hardly makes sense, which is why I believe he is toying with me for the sake of mischief…”
The musician stumbled in, then, his face greenish and his robe fouled with the sake-sickness. Lord Gou rose to his feet in a fury, his hand going to the tanto in his belt.
“Take that idiot away!” he commanded, pointing. “Toss him in the river if you have to! I will not abide a fool fouling my manor!”
Two servants obediently rushed to escort the musician out. Lord Gou then pointed to another servant.
“You! Send messengers out to the local monasteries. I want their best priests sent here for a mass exorcism. We are obviously not free from the specters that haunt this place.”
“But, my lord…” the diviner said.
“Silence!” Lord Gou erupted. “You have had your chance. The evil spirits still remain. Can you not see? They will not let me or my guests be, and so I must expunge them in full force.”
“I do not understand,” I said. “The evil spirits made the musician sick?”
“No, you idiot!” Lord Gou said. “Your mischief-maker on the bridge! He is the wicked spirit that corrupts my home!”
A woman’s love warms, like sake, but if given too much it aches in the head and makes a man’s mind sluggish, foolish, weak. All becomes cloudy. Poetic insight is sacrificed. Despite this knowledge, I hungered for a woman. Normally any willing maid or prostitute would suffice when charm or money was abundant, yet I was astonished to find myself fixated singularly upon the Lady Utano. Thus thought, thus sought. I went to her— while Lord Gou’s household was bustling with preparations for the many diviners to arrive in the coming days—and I found her amidst the sakaki trees. Sakaki trees. The trunks twined like the slender, strong flanks of serpents and dragons. They were the trees of the gods, after all, and their white flowers were in full bloom. Lady Utano sat in the cool purple shade of leaf and blossom.
“My lady,” I said, bowing to her. “I languish away from your presence.”
Her tone was flat and unwelcoming, yet her husky voice still enchanted. “One wonders how you will survive in Kyoto, then, when you will be so far from me.”
“It is not a desire I yearn for,” I said, “but a necessity. Fate commands me upon my path. Matsuo Basho knew the same heartache, I do not doubt.”
“Then your poetry shall keep you company,” she said. “Kiss it each night. Make love to it. It will suffice.”
“Never so much as your touch,” I said. I knew her mockery was born of bitterness, and her bitterness born of love. “I find myself cold by night. If you would only join me then I would need neither poetry nor sake to keep me company in those lonely hours.”
“To join me by moonlight,” she said, “you must first join me by daylight. As husband and wife.”
“Do not be cold and distant, my moon,” I said. “Do not leave me in the abject darkness of night.”
She turned away from me. Her black hair was tied up tightly above her brow, restrained with a severe comb. My heart ached to see her tresses free, like black ink strokes upon scroll whiteness, as they were in the morning silence of our night spent together. Birdsong celebrated all around us, and I wished them silent. The only music I wished to hear was her rapid breath. Her husky moans.
“You think of me only in dark hours,” she said, “but who should wish to commit oneself to someone who thinks of you as a pillow for his dreams? Am I so easily set aside and taken up as it conveniences you? Like the moon with its tides? Love, for me, is not such an easy need, but compels through day and night.”
“But my destiny is beyond my making, my moon,” I said. “The stars cannot be rewritten in the sky.”
“Then join your destiny, unchanged, to me in the proper way,” she said. “Where you go, I will follow. But if you would divide our lives together, then you would slay it, certain as an ax upon the tree. I will not live divided, for I would not live at all. It would be a death for both of us.”
“Cranes go their separate ways,” I said, “yet return always to the single heart. How can it not be the same for man and woman? Steadfast hearts may fly far apart, but share the same flapping song.”
“The wingstroke falters where winds grow fiercer,” she said. “A crane shelters wherever he mays as weather changes rhythm. The other song is forgotten beneath the roar of the thunderstorm, and the song of another heart.”
I reached out and touched her shoulder. Her pink kimono was soft and slick, but never so satisfying as her bare shoulder was that night of our moonlit union.
“I knew a painter once,” I said. “He was a man named Yoshihide and he was as devout in painting as he was in serving Buddha. Happily for him he painted Buddhas, and so knew his two devotions in one practice. He did quite well. Indeed, he painted Fudo, for Fudo was Yoshihide’s favorite Buddha figure. But his passion and skill seemed to fail him when rendering Fudo’s halo. The flames never looked quite right and undermined his otherwise flawless efforts. Then one day his home caught fire, devouring his wife and his children. Yoshihide looked upon the flames and wept. ‘He weeps for his family,’ someone said. But I knew the truth. He wept because he saw flames as they should be, realizing his life’s works were but amateurish failures in comparison.”
Lady Utano was no fool. I did not doubt that she could understand the meaning in my story. Even so, I felt compelled to articulate more clearly my meaning.
“What I mean to say is that I have only one wife in my life, and that is my brush, and my children are my poems and Sutras. This it he only conceivable arrangement for my happiness. Anything otherwise would be misery for myself and for the people who shared in such misery.”
She looked at me for a long time, her ever-frown silent.
“I am already in a burning house,” she said.
She stood, then, and walked away, her sandaled feet not making the least whisper at the tread. She joined the company of her uncle where she knew I would not dare press my affections. Yet, that she did not inform him upon me was, I believed, evidence of her continued affection toward me. The crane was carried with the same wingstroke, yet.
I feared, as most artisans do, the mind-deadening drudgery of the lower classes. I was up all night composing original poems for Lord Gou. Lady Utano did not visit me. I had jilted her, and no entreaties restored her favor. Yet, I had not the time or focus for such worries. I burned away thoughts, and sesame oil, in pursuit of midnight poems. As I worked I felt a presence in the room; perhaps more than one presence. Several times did I look up from the parchment and ink, expecting someone to be looming over me— Lady Utano, or so I wished—only to be greeted by flickering shadows that fluttered about like crow demons. Though I never saw my visitors, I knew they were there, near me. Perhaps they were whispers upon that windless night, ensorcelling the whorls of my ears with poetic inspiration.
He spoke the fog of war. This was the thought that came to my mind as the diviner spoke to me in the garden. He had invited himself upon my veranda, standing by as I wrote more of the Lotus Sutra for my host. He loomed over me like a carrion bird.
“Punishment is needful rehabilitation of the soul,” the diviner said. “It is what the seven hells were invented to do. To reform the soul anew, as are punishments in this world.” A mock-smile crinkled his lips, and I wondered if such words pleased his mouth.
“True criminals cannot be reformed,” I said, working the ink slowly upon the parchment. “I have seen many such men. Not even death could reform them. They would only be reborn as thieving monkeys or murderous tigers.”
“And what form will you take upon your death?” he said, obviously expecting to be humored by my answer.
“Perhaps a tanuki,” I said, flippantly. “Many women would agree with me.”
“Perhaps,” the diviner said. “Perhaps worse. But I am supposed to grant hope to even the most hopeless, which is why I will relate to you a true story about a true criminal. You see, there was a man, once, whose crimes were innumerable. Murder, theft, rape, blasphemy. In all things wicked and corrupt he delighted. The more sorrow he sowed upon his victims the more joy he reaped from such atrocities. But at last he was captured and an ingenious torture was devised for him. Rather than execute the criminal they locked him away in an old temple. A guard was posted to be always at the door, changing at intervals so as to not drive his keepers mad, and the criminal was fed once a day a ration of rice and water and nothing more. The torture was one of silence and isolation. The guards that were posted was not to say anything to him, nor to heed his words. And thus many seasons passed as the criminal saw nor heard nor spoke to anyone except the shadowy silence of the old temple. Ten years passed and the criminal stopped eating his rice and drinking his water. The governor of the province, curious to know what had become of the criminal, ordered the doors opened. Much to his dismay, and the dismay of the guards, the criminal was no longer in the temple. He had been spirited away by the Buddha, having achieved Enlightenment in the silent solitude of the old temple.”
“Or someone bribed the guard to release him,” I said unimpressed.
“But he was found years later, friend, leading a monastery in the mountains. He had become a quiet legend known to only the most devout disciples. Monks traveled from all provinces to learn the wisdom he had discovered in his solitude and rehabilitation.”
“A lucrative venture, certainly,” I quipped.
The old man smiled, and I felt a cold claw upon the nape of my neck. “As is the writing of Lotus Sutras,” he said. “Are you so sanctimonious as to disagree?”
I found my tongue after only a moment of annoyance. “Do you claim that you are not benefiting from your own holy work? You drink as much sake as I do, if not more.”
“That is true,” the diviner said, his smile never faltering. “But I would never take advantage of my host’s hospitality beyond his liking. How can you hope to raise Lord Gou above his sins if you are sinning against him?”
I stuttered, but only in outrage. “My work consists of the signposts whereby they may, themselves, find their way to higher realms.”
“And have you sought higher realms? You seem preoccupied by sensual decadence to me.”
“Amidst so much sensual decadence I am charged with saving Lord Gou’s soul with the Lotus Sutra. Yet, the Lotus Sutra can only serve those for whom it becomes a mantra. Words can only lift you so far. Actions must help the ascent as well. We all take ultimate responsibility for our fate, as I will when the time comes.”
He grinned, then, and my blood was as cold as icemelt. “The time comes sooner than you would like, little poet.”
Swift as a raven, the diviner turned and left.
I dreamt of Lady Utano. She stood amongst the mists. She wore a pale kimono from which a white snakeskin belt was strapped. Hanging from her belt was a netsuke, and strung from it was an inro. She undid the netsuke and the inro and held them out to me. I accepted them curiously. She said nothing, nor did I speak, and the world of mist was silent all around us. I looked first at the netsuke. It was carved from ivory in perfect imitation of Utano’s maidenhead. I have forgotten most portals of pleasure belonging to the women I have enjoyed, but not Utano’s. It was pure white except for an inlay around her lips, which bled red as rubies. I handled this ornament carefully, tenderly, for I wished no harm to come to it. I tried to return it to her, but she shook her head in silence and pointed to the inro box. It was lacquered wood and displayed a red flowering plum tree. I did not know what was in that foreboding box, but I dreaded opening it.
“No,” I said, though the word was no more than a whisper.
Lady Utano shrugged off her kimono, and was ivory nakedness within the chilly mists. She pointed to the box again. Again I refused. She hissed and fell upon the ground, melting into a great white serpent. I ran and she followed me, undulating as quickly and violently as whitewater. Tripping in my haste, I fell and the inro box spilled open. Within came without. I saw my manhood upon the ground, splayed open, daikon and turnips together. I screamed, knowing I had to either leave them behind and escape or retrieve them and be encoiled. Unable to let go, I stooped and gathered them up to make myself whole once more. As I turned to flee, her white, sinuous body encoiled me and held me forever in her embrace.
Hateful blades seek blood
as do crows their charnel nests—
many eggs will hatch.
Morning mountain peaks
within sleepy robes of mist—
hear the valley drum?