Instant Rice, Instant Buddha Part 2 of 2

Ayumu laid still awhile as the world reeled slowly around him. He wondered if emptying himself of the self for his Ascension would be similar to the feeling that overwhelmed him while in the monk’s serpentine embrace. No, he decided. Hers was a negation that brimmed with nerve-spindled exuberance, whereas what he knew of the Buddha told him that the negation was one of hollow gulfs opening unto expanded awareness. Or some such summation. He was not entirely certain on the particulars. No one really was, and that was the point of his Ascension, among other purposes.
Eventually Ayumu’s strength returned to him, though his head felt as if it hung upon the stalk of his neck like a sunflower overburdened with seeds. Standing, he went to the pool once again and bent down, cupping mouthfuls of water to cure his thirst. The ache, however, did not abate, nor the stickiness in his loins. He dressed himself and continued up the mountainside, limping slowly upon his march, encumbered now more than ever by the buckets he took with him.
Fatigue hung heavy upon Ayumu. It was like a weighted fishnet draped over his body, and it ached as if all of the fishhooks had snagged in him, obstinately digging into the soft spaces of his body. He slipped on a mossy stone, dropping both buckets and almost dumping them. Growling in frustration, he kicked the treacherous stone and, consequently, hurt his toe. Amidst his shouts of fury there echoed the tittering laughter of someone else in the woods. Disquieted now, Ayumu searched the tree-columned slopes for the interloper. He saw no one. The laughter echoed all around him, as if in utter dislocation, reverberating chaotically from his left and right and above and below him. Raising his fists to the heavens, Ayumu opened his mouth to utter a profane prayer that would see the whole mountainside an inferno of vengeful fire. But before he could utter a single word he saw the old man in the red robe again. The spiteful geriatric was squatting upon a branch some thirty feet up in the crown of a tree. How the old man had climbed so high, when there were no branches rising along the trunk to provide for him a ladder, Ayumu could not fathom. And the old man crouched with an easy agility rare in most men even half his age; a temerity unknown to nearly all.
“You are a strange one for an aspiring Buddha,” the old man said, grinning. “I was not aware that lovemaking was a crucial step upon the Path.”
Ayumu said nothing. Silent, Ayumu pressed upward along the mountain slope, leaving the old man behind.
“And how rude you are, too!” the old man said, perching now upon a different tree. “Most other Buddha aspirants had manners, at least, even if they utterly failed the Path.”
Ayumu glanced back at the great span of clearing from the first tree the old man had been perching in and this second one. It was impossible that the old man had descended, overtaken Ayumu, and climbed this other tree. A few leaves drifted down from above, twisting and swaying slowly. They fell in ease, twirling, whereas Ayumu felt nothing except unease in his twirling stomach.
He feared the old man.
“What are you?” Ayumu asked.
“A devout Buddhist,” the old man said, his arms hanging heavily at his sides as he crouched upon the narrow tree branch. He watched Ayumu like a buzzard. “More devout than even yourself.”
“You are a demon,” Ayumu whispered.
The old man cawed with laughter. “So much venom in you! It is no wonder she was so adamant to couple with you. Her new brood will be strong.” The old man suddenly tipped backwards, as if to fall freely from the branch. Instead of plummeting to his certain death, he caught himself with his calves, hanging upside-down from the branch, and still grinning as his red robe puffed out with gravity’s pull. “You should stay here with her rather than Ascending. I know your mettle, and you would make a better lover than a Buddha.”
Ayumu’s temper flared and he forgot to be afraid.
“You do not know me. I will become a sokushinbutsu! It has not been achieved in hundreds of years, but I will do it!”
The old man laughed more loudly than ever before, his arms dangling below him and his black eboshi falling off his gleaming red head. He reminded Ayumu of his supervisor at the Mezame Instant Rice office building. That supervisor— like this old man—was dismissive, conceited, and mocked Ayumu for his ideas. And much like his supervisor, the old man inspired rage and resentment with every condescending word he spoke.
And fear.
The old man licked his thin lips obscenely. “It would be prudent, young man, that you cleanse yourself of your spilt seed before you defile the sacred temple. Why, the other sokushinbutsu would rouse from their arid dreams to reprimand you if you were to arrive with your loins bedewed with your lust.”
Ayumu started to walk again, with renewed vigor, trying to ignore the old man. He came to another copse of trees, and the old man awaited him there, grinning from atop his perch.
“Leave me in peace,” Ayumu said, “or I will invoke the Lotus Sutra against you.”
“Oh please do,” the old man said. “I should like to hear your recitation. It is bound to be amusing. Like a frog attempting a holy prayer.”
“I warned you,” Ayumu said. He slammed the two buckets down—sending red centipedes scattering from the leaves—and proceeded to make a flurry of impressive hand movements, as if prayer required such extravagances. Galvanized by his own gesticulations, he heatedly began to recite the Lotus Sutra, stumbling his way through it and misplacing the order of words, forgetting whole parts, and generally fumbling the proper gravitas as he became shamefully self-conscious while his flame of self-righteousness faded under his own scrutiny. By the time he fell to silence— beneath the uproarious laughter of the old man— Ayumu was wet with sweat from frustration and his cheeks were christened with tears of despair, his lips trembling at their own impotence.
The old man sat on the branch of the tree, kicking his feet in delight. One of his sandals fell, revealing a sharp-toed foot.
“It would be a shame for you to become like one of those old, shriveled fools in the temple,” the old man said. “You are much too entertaining to fall into their eternal silence.”
“Begone, demon!” Ayumu shouted.
The old man smiled at him, bemused. “You refer to me as a demon, but you seem more a demon than I. A kappa demon, I should think. Has someone turned you upside-down, spilling your brains from the top of your head?”
“I haven’t time for this,”Ayumu growled, lifting the buckets again. “If a demon is attempting to thwart me, then that must mean I am truly destined to be a great buddha.” He continued up the mountain, crushing centipedes beneath him as they stung his feet.
“If you say so!” the old man called after him. “But when next she returns to you, perhaps you might try hiding in a prayer bell! No man ever became a Buddha after becoming domesticated! Except for the Buddha, of course! And you are not him! Ha ha ha!”

Ayumu had worked at the Mezame Instant Rice Company for two years after graduating from his University. The office floor he worked on focused primarily on international shipments and logistics. It was Ayumu’s job— among a handful of others—to verify that the shipments around the world had been delivered on schedule, safely, and to the correct shipping yards, then to track them to their distribution points and verify the delivery through bills of lading. It was mind-deadening, thankless work. He input data fed to him by the computer, then fed it out and down the line. Spreadsheets, shipping routes, container summaries, and bills of lading were his life. It was bland, numbing work. It sustained him, financially, but it dispirited him, too. His life had become instant rice. It filled the belly, but had no love in its preparation or its consumption. And instant rice was an appalling thing to devote one’s life to, especially in Japan where tradition and mastery and mindfulness of one’s devotions were tantamount. But everything was “instant” nowadays, even in Japan. Instant rice. Instant noodles. Instant gratification.
And soon, hopefully, Ayumu would be an Instant Buddha.

He heard the soft susurration of rain upon the lofty canopy. Though it fell with musical insistence, not one drop dripped down to fall freely to the forest floor below. It was as if the rain struck some other sphere and remained there, on the other side of a veil. Ayumu could smell the scent of the rain in his nostrils, and he could hear its whispers in his ears, and he could even feel the coolness of it in the air, but the shower did not touch him.
She, however, did touch him.
“Hello,” she said, her hand slipping over his.
He refused to set the buckets down, and tried to continue his walk, but she stood in his way. He sneered at her nakedness, shaking his head ruefully.
“What is wrong?” she asked. The smirk in her eyes belied the wounded tone with which she spoke. “Do you not want my company?”
“You are a serpent demon,” he said.
“Am I?” she said. She took the bucket from his hand— with a powerful grip he could not deny— and then she placed his hand upon her bare breast. “Does not my heart beat warmly with love for you?”
Her chest was hot, actually; feverishly hot. Hot as desire itself. And yet her body was hairless from head to tail.
“Leave me be,” he said, his breath quickening with both fury and desire and despair. “I am set upon the Path.”
“The Path is a fool’s errand,” she hissed. “It is for those already dead inside. But you are not dead inside. I have felt you inside me, and I have sensed the warmth of you—the want within you that you hopelessly deny. You were never meant to walk the Path. That is a fool’s conclusion to the problems in your life. You wanted the wrong things in life, and that was why you were unhappy, whereas now I may guide you to want the right things in life. You will be happy with me. I promise.”
“You do not know what you want,” Ayumu said, pulling away from her, “except want itself. You are blinded by want, and so want is all you see.”
“And what is it you want?” she countered. “To want nothing? That is to be dead! Do you wish to be dead? To not have a heart pounding with life within you?” She struck her bare bosom with her fist. “Let the world testify that I am alive. With every breath and kiss and coital resonance, I am alive.”
“You are enthralled to the flesh,” Ayumu said, disgusted.
“And you are enchanted by the thought of your demise,” she snarled.
“You know nothing, you Naga witch!”
He lifted the bucket of pine needles and hurried past her. He did not know if it was the hiss of the rain he heard or the hiss of the monk woman behind him.

His heart had been pounding fast since he had lost sight of the monk woman. Now he could hear it echoing in the trees all around him. Or so he thought. As he rose higher up the mountain he caught glimpses of light within the distant trees. The pounding of his heart became louder, and shrill notes wailed in his ears. Was he having another panic attack? He used to have them all of the time when he first moved to Tokyo. Sometimes he did not go to class because the panic attacks were so relentless and debilitating. And even when he managed to force himself to attend classes he had to sedate himself with medication. During such instances his spirit seemed to float above him while his body lolled listlessly in his seat. His professors’ lectures washed over him like ocean waves, saturating him briefly before ebbing away, leaving nothing more than a damp spot at the back of his mind.
The drumbeat of his heart heightened, as did the shrill wail in his ears. The lights in the trees glowed brighter until they hurt his eyes to look at them. Dropping his eyes to the forest floor, he stumbled onward, not knowing if he would crumble to the ground at any moment, coiled in a fetal position.
Staggering into the ring of glowing trees, he found something strange. There were lanterns hanging from the boughs of the trees. They were big as pumpkins and glowed orange and red and yellow, lighting the sylvan hall as brightly as a Lantern Festival in Nagasaki. Ayumu winced from the radiance, the twilight now bright as midday. The drumbeat of his heart was deafening, as was the trilling in his ears.
Glancing up again, he saw a ring of mushrooms, and laying within that ring of mushrooms was the fat monk in the tengai. He was playing a hichiriki with one fluttering hand while slapping his fat, hairy belly with the other. Thus, Ayumu realized that the shrillness in his ears and the pounding of his heart was nothing more than the booming music of the monk.
Rather than speaking a greeting, Ayumu tried to hurry past the fat monk. But it was too late. The monk stopped beating his belly and took the flute away from his lips.
“Hello, friend,” the monk said. “Come to appreciate my festivities, have you?”
Ayumu sighed and, in resignation, set down the two buckets he was carrying.
“I was curious about the lanterns,” Ayumu said. He still could not look up at them, for they were too bright. The lanterns’ glow, and the music, reminded him of all of the festivals he had avoided when in Tokyo. They were too noisy, and not quiet enough, for him to listen to the music that they played live. The one time he went to a festival— to listen to an acclaimed koto player— he could not hear her over the sound of two ecstatic Americans talking loudly about how much they loved Japanese music while taking selfies and videos for their online fans. It ruined the one thing he had braved the overcrowded streets to appreciate.
“The lanterns glow with heavenly radiance,” the fat monk said. “Or near enough to it to not matter. Who needs Paradise when there is so much beauty here on earth?”
“The Buddha would disagree with you,” Ayumu said, though as friendly as possible. The fat monk was, if anything, friendly, and Ayumu did not wish to be rude.
“The Buddha was a spoiled brat,” the monk said, “who had everything and valued nothing.”
The audacity of the monk’s words provoked Ayumu beyond measure.
“How dare you say such blasphemies!” he shouted. “You are the spoiled brat! Lounging in the woods, playing music and eating stew and pretending as if you know what is beautiful in this world! This world is misery! It is sorrow! The only cure is liberation! Ascension! Moksha!”
The fat monk sat up with greater ease than Ayumu would have assumed. In one quick motion he was on his feet. For a moment Ayumu flinched, thinking the large beast of a man would resort to violence. Instead, the fat monk held the hichiriki in both of his hands, angling it under the rice straw dome of his tengai, and blew a sweet melody that was as gentle and calming as the a Summer wind at dusk. The world fell to silence and, much to Ayumu’s surprise, there were tears rolling down his cheeks.
When the fat monk had finished, he lowered the flute.
“That is the beauty I have found in this world,” he said. “Or a small scrap of it, anyway. Why would anyone need Paradise when a mere scrap of earthly beauty can transform the life into a more resplendent thing? There is a chrysalis in every corner of the world, waiting to rebirth the world anew in your awareness. You need only see it for what it is.”
Ayumu was quiet for a long time, overcome with awe and emotions that had been dormant, if not dead, within him. Yet, he shook his head in doubt.
“And who do I know you are not some demon sent to lead me astray?” he said quietly. “How do I know you are not trying to trick me from the Path?”
The large monk sighed from within the withe helmet he wore. “Because I told you sincerely that I do not believe in the Path, and so there is no trick to it. I am being forthright. The Eightfold Path is a sham. It is falser than tofu hamburgers.” He shook his head and growled like a beast. “Oh, but the glorious Shinto days! My friend, if only you could have seen them then! Many believe Buddhism abided and even complemented the Shinto Way, like the Tao did! But Buddhism subjugated it, and impoverished it. Eating meat is a sin? Preposterous! I knew Lao Tzu, and she loved to be filled with meat— in more ways than one.”
The fat monk laughed and adjusted his belly in an obscene manner. It was then that Ayumu realized that the hairy man’s gut was not, in fact, wholly a gut. The swollen droop between his legs was gratuitously overlarge.
“But then the beautiful prophetess ate the wrong mushrooms and fell asleep for eternity. Similar to Buddha, I suppose, with his mushroom dish. But that begs the question as to whether she was truly a prophetess or not. Doesn’t it? Either she willfully ate the Eternal-Sleep mushrooms or she was not such a prophetess after all. I believe she knew what she was doing, and knew that her glory days were soon to be over. Buddha had seen to that. She was not a dumb one. She was the arbiter of her own fate. Or at least one reconciled with fate. She leapt upon me readily enough, and with unbridled passion, I must confess. Mortals are often so conflicted, as you well know. What they desire they also dread. Desire and dread leap in your hearts. A strong dichotomy of spices, I suppose. Much as you are with your lover.”
The monk’s face remained unseen, and yet Ayumu could sense that the strange beast was looking upon him with empathy. The yokai felt sorry for Ayumu! That was not something Ayumu could abide. Lifting the buckets once more, he stomped up the slope, squinting as the lanterns burned brightly overhead.
The chubby monk called after him.
“That one in the trees wishes to taunt you! Be wary of him!”
“He fears that I will become a Buddha,” Ayumu said, pridefully. He stopped and turned about, as if to gloat. Yet, something in the monk’s demeanor deflated Ayumu’s pride.
The fat monk shook his head. “No, he taunts you toward the Path. He wishes you to succeed. Do not mistake his mockery for discouragement. It is a ruse. More Buddhas in the temple would please him.”
Ayumu gawked in disbelief. “That is not possible,” he said. “He is a demon. Demons do not want more Buddhas.”
The large man shrugged. “He delights in plucking out eyes as a delicacy. Third eyes, especially. He is misleading you with his insults and dissuasions. He speaks as a contrarian to his own intentions. It is a game to him. And he is winning when you believe you are winning.”
Ayumu shook his head furiously. “None of you make sense,” he growled. “You’re all wicked spirits seeking to thwart me.”
Turning away from the large man, he continued upward. In his periphery vision the large fat man lifted his tengai, and watched him with black-rimmed eyes within a furry face.

The forest fell away, the tall trees receding as small shrubs took their place. The mossy floor became patchwork and the soil thinned to rock, then to snow. The sky opened above him, and it was twilight yet, the sun winking in the West. Beyond the mountain the Sea of Japan rolled calmly. Farther above, he could see the silhouette of the temple with its back to the darkening sky.
Seeing the sea reminded him of the moment he nearly stepped off the roof of a skyscraper in Tokyo. It was New Year’s Eve and the city was awash with a sea of people that overflowed from one street to another. The jubilance of their cheers, and the radiance of the fireworks, overwhelmed him. He felt anger and despair, longing and resentment. They all seemed so happy— the whole city— and yet he felt nought but misery. Could they not see how depressing the world was? How tiring? How meaningless their lives were? Were they all willfully blind to the futility of their own existence?
Even there, atop that skyscraper’s roof, others were watching the fireworks; crowding him in his moment of loneliness. Shoulder to shoulder with strangers, he had to wait until they were distracted by the fireworks before he could climb over the railing and step off the edge. It was when a firework bloomed like a phosphorescent weeping willow that he attempted to kill himself. But he had not fallen. Instead, his salary suit jacket had gotten caught on the railing, holding him up while his feet dangled over one hundred meters of empty air. Before he could slip through his jacket and plummet, several bystanders rushed to grab him and haul him up from the railing. He did not fight them. He was too embarrassed. Dragging him away from the edge, they all gathered around him to chastise him. They told him he was foolish and dumb and that he should not throw his life away. They told him many generic things that would not have been good on a motivation poster, no matter how many kittens or Hello Kitty’s were plastered all around it. The police were called and he was taken to jail. After a brief evaluation, he was assigned to a psychiatrist and was scheduled for a mandatory evaluation on a weekly basis. The psychiatrist was overworked, often rushed Ayumu, had too many patients, and never seemed to really care about Ayumu’s problems. He told Ayumu that Ayumu had a good job, lived in good part of Tokyo, and just needed to get out more and meet friends. Possibly get a girlfriend. Ayumu stopped going to see the psychiatrist after the second appointment. The psychiatrist was always looking at the ticking clock on his wall.

He could see the temple now, its curved, reticulated roof outlined sharply against the twilight sky. It was old, he could tell, and did not boast many ornaments as the other shrines and temples did in other parts of Japan. His stride quickened up the snowy slopes.
And yet, though he was elated to see the temple, he knew his journey had only really begun. Now came the difficult part of his Ascension. What was required now was discipline and faith and devotion. Asceticism. His journey hitherto had been merely the tourist hike, and he did not intend to be a tourist. He was an aspirant. Moreover, he would succeed in becoming more.
He saw her beckoning from the black mouth of a cave. Her body was hairless and sinuous, the pit of her sex like the eye of a viper.
“Come be with me for eternity,” she pleaded. “There is nothing beyond here but dried old husks of skin in the imitation of holy men. Their worth is nothing. Come shed the waste of them with me, and live for lovemaking and pleasure.”
Ayumu merely shook his head and turned away. In his peripheries he could see her sleek, lustrous coils slipping away into the dark bowels of the cave. Sobs echoed deeply. He felt regret, but it deepened his resolve.

The old man perched atop the edge of the temple’s roof, grinning down at Ayumu. Black feathers crowded the interior of his voluminous sleeves.
“You are no sokushinbutsu,” he told him. “You are instant rice. You have the patience of a microwave, and the thoroughness of one, too!”
“I am Ayumu,” Ayumu said. “And I shall be the next Buddha of Japan.”
The old man caterwauled wildly. “You are no better than the foolish unwashed tourists from America, venturing all over to gawp stupidly at that which you cannot and will not ever comprehend. When this season is finished, so will you be, though much sooner. Perhaps by the weekend you will become disillusioned. And bored. And plaintive.”
“I am the next Buddha of Japan!” Ayumu shouted.
“Oh, you are a chittering monkey,” the old man said, grinning with unfaltering assurance. “Restless upon the branch and soon to fling your own poo.”
The sky above was near-dark. Entering the temple, Ayumu was plunged into full night. He walked on, and seemed to walk for a long time, hesitating here and there in the darkness. The temple seemed to go on forever, like the gulfs of space. Eventually, a light flickered in the dark, and to this light Ayumu was drawn as if a moth. It was a beacon flame, and sitting around it were five hooded monks, their legs crossed and their backs slightly bent forward. They did not move as Ayumu approached them; they did not speak or even breathe. Coming closer, he saw that they sat on simple straw mats. A mat awaited Ayumu, empty, and he set his buckets down beside it, then sat down in similar fashion to the monks. He stared into the flame. He knew it was time to become a sokushinbutsu.
He choked on the pine needles. He gagged on the resin. He could not even keep the nuts down. The dark, silent temple echoed with the discordant sounds of his failure. He waited until the echoes died, then refocused himself. Thinking he would need to be starving, first, before he could partake more fully of the Mokujikigyo diet, he turned his attention to meditation upon the flame. Its billowing light was mesmerizing…until it was not. Rather, the glow illuminated the faces of the monks seated around it. Seeing their faces, Ayumu gasped.
Dried and withered, their skin was morbidly stretched and their faces distorted with age and decay. Shriveled in darkness, their eyes but pitted shadows and their mouths twisted into sneers of morbidity. These were not ascetics of faith and devotion, but victims of self-torture and imprisonment within flesh. Mummified within themselves, they were frozen forever in taut-wrapped masochism; mannequins of bone and skin rigidly inert with calcified creeds. They were scarecrows on the threshold of oblivion, the all-consuming abyss in their unflinching gaze.

Ayumu fled from that place. Stumbling and slipping and falling and scrambling upward again, he fled. From the monks in the dark, and from the snow-capped mountain, from the bare rock summit and the forested slopes, he fled. He realized he would have plenty of time for death when he was dead. To welcome it so soon, and so willfully, was horror made utmost manifest. He did not stop for anyone; not the snake monk and her glistening flesh, nor the ring-eyed fat monk with his food and music and festivities, nor the angrily cawing tengu flapping above him, decrying him as a failure and an apostate and a meal too soon spoiled. Returning to civilization, he took whatever money he had left to him and he went South, journeying to the islands. He went home, to a small town in Nagasaki.
There he bought a modest boat and took up the life of a fisherman. He lived quietly alone, fishing for his meals and occasionally selling his haul for money to buy other necessities. It was a life of silence, and he enjoyed it. The sea lulled him at night to sleep, and the silence of the sea was different than the silence of the mountaintop temple. It was rhythmic and lively. The sun rose upon the waters, gilding the waves with a wondrous beauty wherein it seemed the day was made anew in molten light, his life blessed by Amaterasu. He was less a Buddhist now, and more a worshiper of life. He read from the Kojiki myths sometimes, after a long day of hard work. Death, it said, was the ultimate impurity, and he knew this to be true. Life was beautiful, if a person could only find the right life for them. He ignored the Yamamoto politics in the stories, for he knew politics were just a crude form of religion with life at its center rather than death. He read other books as well; the Tale of Genji and the Kwaidan and other classic tales. Sometimes he did not read at all, but stared at the shimmering water for hours, letting the empty solitude fill him up, subsume him, and inhabit the spaces where his sense of self receded.
It was during the Nagasaki Lantern Festival that he was visited by a beautiful woman who smelled of saltwater. Ayumu had contemplated coming ashore for the Festival, but then felt the stress of the milling people in the glowing lights. They reminded him of centipedes— long lines of centipedes undulating amongst the glowing lights. And so he stayed on his boat that night. The strange woman sat beside him on the deck of his boat, watching with him the moon rise into the night sky. She said she was the Dragon King’s daughter and that she wished to spend time with him, if he would allow her. He did not object. She was quiet and pretty, and when she did speak it was with the music of the waves on the shore. Sometimes he saw her out of the corner of his eye, and she looked like a scaled dragon, or she undulated like the sea itself, sparkling with the sun and the moon on her swells and vales. Sometimes she took his hands in hers and gazed deeply into his eyes as they enjoyed the sweet silence of the sea together. This was a meditation of Life. It was much better than a meditation of Death.

Instant Rice, Instant Buddha Part 1 of 2

The torii gate was faded gray and green between the vines that grew from its poles and lintel. It was not maintained like those on Mount Haguro or Yudono with their fresh red paint and ritualistic upkeep. There were no shrines here for tourists to visit and crowd around, week to week, milling like ants on a hill, bustling about and chasing away whatever peace and sacred silence once inhabited there. Ayumu chose this Northern mountain because it was abandoned to the spirits.
It was dangerous, they said.
Haunted, they said.
Forsaken, they said.
Perfect, he thought.
He had taken a train from the overflow of Tokyo out to these isolated mountains to escape the too-treaded paths of a world overpopulated with people and thoughts and lights and sounds. He could disappear into these mountainside woods, inhabiting the silence and letting the silence inhabit him until his very self disappeared, fading within the foliage and the bushes and the shade where twilight dreamed on, even at midday.
A crow cawed from atop the torii gate as Ayumu walked through it. He glanced up to the lintel from the other side, but the crow had gone, and so he continued slowly up the overgrown trail of the leisurely-rolling incline, the buckets in hs hands not so heavy now that his spirit seemed so lightsome. He was Ascending.
Ayumu had shaved his head. He had abandoned the shelter of his apartment for the mountain, and forewent his salary suit for the robe of a Buddhist monk. It felt good. He felt alive for the first time in a long time. He felt like he had shrugged off the weight of the world and was soon to lighten his spirit even more. For the mountain would shoulder him, and weightless would be his earthly presence forever after.
It was to be a long hike, he knew. The mountain was tall and hard to navigate. That was why the temple crowning it had been abandoned for so long. No tourists came here, nor many holy men. Ayumu might have been the first person to venture its wooded slope in years. Who knew?
But he was not as alone in the woods as he had thought. He came to a clearing beneath tall, slender trees where stones were ringed in a circle. In the center of this circle sat an old man in red priestly robes. Atop his head was an eboshi, its black plume darker than any shadow in the forest.
“Hello,” the old man said.
It was too late for Ayumu to circle around the priest without giving offense. Reluctantly, he approached the old man.
“It is rare to see a pilgrim on this mountain,” the old man said. He sat cross-legged, his eyes closed. He appeared to be meditating, but there was a smirk on his thin-lipped face. His hooked nose overtopped a small cup from which he occasionally sipped.
“I am seeking Ascension,” Ayumu declared. His voice seemed very small in that vast forest, and he felt foolish. He set down his two buckets beyond the ring of stones. “I am to become a sokushinbutsu.”
The old man smirked more broadly, and sipped his drink quietly. He did not open his eyes.
“That is why you carry pine needles and resin,” the old man said. “Mokujikigyo. You will be a tree-eater.” He opened his eyes. They were dark black in the shade of the tall trees. “But there is more to becoming a holy man than shaving one’s head and putting on robes and making a meal of trees.”
“I am prepared to do what is necessary,” Ayumu said, testily.
The old man nodded. “We shall see.” He set aside his own cup and reached behind himself, another cup grasped in his knotted hands. His fingernails were long and sharp as he offered the small cup to Ayumu.
“Habushu,” the old man said. “To celebrate your Ascension.”
Ayumu stared at the cup, and its dark yellow liquid. He had never had habushu before. Drinking alcohol was never something he did. But he knew about habushu, or snake sake, and so he took the cup in hand and stared at it in the overlapping penumbrae of the forest. The small cup appeared bottomless with deep shadows.
“Come, come,” the old man said, impatiently. “Drink up! It is privilege, that wine. Not many will taste of its like.”
Ayumu sighed, then downed the cup in one gulp. The sake burned and he doubled over, coughing and gagging, his hands on his knees as he dropped the cup. The old man laughed loudly, his caws eaten with static like a crackling radio station.
“It burns,” Ayumu said, still coughing.
“Pungency is important,” the old man said. “It reminds us that we are alive.”
Ayumu was angry, and opened his mouth to retort. But through his tears Ayumu saw that he was alone. Still reeling from the drink, he straightened himself up and glanced around the forest. The old man was gone. Only the ring of stones remained.

No light penetrated the trees to dapple the forest floor. All was blue shadow and a ceaseless twilight dream. Night never came, nor morning. Ayumu may have been hiking only for a few hours, or for several weeks. Time held no dominion here in the stillness of this sacred land. There were no clocks, no schedules, no deadlines, no expectations.
He did not miss Tokyo. To the contrary, the thought of its loud, bustling heights and depths inspired anxieties in him anew. The silence of the forest assuaged these anxieties and he focused his mind on appreciating Nature as it sprawled around him.
He saw the monk at a distance. The monk wore an orange robe, like a Shaolin, and walked with graceful surety in every step, no matter how treacherous the dirt or the grass or the fallen leaves. Ayumu slowed, afraid he would intrude upon the monk’s solitude, and that the monk would intrude upon his own solitude. To his great disappointment, the monk suddenly stopped and waited. Ayumu slowed, too, and then stopped. The monk looked back at him, hands on hips, and Ayumu knew it was no good to linger longer. He approached the monk reluctantly.
“I am not following you,” Ayumu said. “And I did not wish to interrupt your walk.”
“Was it that you feared interrupting my walk, or that I might interrupt your walk?” the monk said.
To Ayumu’s surprise, the monk was a woman, her head bald and her eyes gleaming in the veiling shadows of the trees. Even bald, she was beautiful.
“I am seeking to Ascend,” he said stupidly.
She looked at the buckets in his hands, filled with pine needles and nuts and resin. “You are a follower of Buddha, then?”
“I aspire to be one of his greatest followers,” Ayumu said as modestly as he could.
The female monk gave him a small, knowing smile, then gestured farther up the trail. “Let us walk together,” she said. “And talk of Buddha and the Path and other such wonderful things.”
Ayumu accepted this offer, walking beside the monk up the lounging mountainside. The air was fresh and clean here, redolent only of earth and grass and wood. They walked in silence for a time, but he could not focus on the hike itself. He was distracted by the female monk. She reminded him of someone, though he could not recall who.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “Would you like a rice cake?”
“Yes,” he said. “But it must be the last earthly food I eat before I commit myself to the diet of the ascetics.”
“Of course,” she said.
Much to Ayumu’s dismay, the monk parted her robe and reached between her surprisingly large breasts, withdrawing a rice cake. Ayumu could see her translucent bra within her robe, and her nipples poking through that thin material, as she handed him the rice cake. She was slow in covering herself once again. The rice cake was warm with the heat of her bosom.
Distracted, Ayumu nibbled the rice cake absentmindedly. His lips and tongue caressed the rice cake as if it was the woman’s breast. Eventually he shook himself out of his sensual stupefaction and ate the cake in a succession of hasty bites.
“The Path is a hard one,” the monk said. She smiled at him sidelong, her dark eyes like black almonds in the shade of the forest. “You must have a vigorous spirit to dare such a destiny. It is not for the weak-willed and the…impotent.”
“I will not be deterred,” he said. “I will be the next Buddha. This I vow.”
Ayumu puffed his chest out, unconsciously, as he continued to walk, holding the buckets up higher than before.
“Yes,” the monk said, eying him steadfastly. “You are quite…virile in your faith. I can see the strength in your spirit…and your body.”
Ayumu’s pride swelled, alongside something else. The heavy robe he wore only partially concealed his manhood and he began to slow his stride, physically uncomfortable and greatly embarrassed by his body’s impudence. Amidst all of this discomfort, he suddenly remembered who the monk reminded him of. There was a young lady in Tokyo who was lovely and kind to him, and he visited her once a week, paying for her attention in the Soapland brothel where she worked. Ayumu had never had a relationship with a woman, but visiting her was quite enough for a salary man such as himself. The bathhouse brothel was quiet, refined, and discreet, but the young woman was the superior personage of that establishment. Within the steamy silence of the private room she would tease out all of the anxieties and stress that knotted into his core, slathering and slithering along his rigidity with her supple manners and motions and manipulations.
It was a marvelous place, mostly. The spa music had trickled on koto strings, and the crushing wall of Tokyo’s panorama was sealed away behind cool, tranquil lighting and lapping water and the mesmerizing feline eyes of the young lady in the kimono as she undressed, stepping out of her silken skin and burnished and laquered in oil and steam and foggy lights. Yet, heaven had no place in Tokyo. Ayumu often felt the presence of thousands of men crowding that soft-chiseled space between spaces; a thousand men riding every square inch of her naked body, crowding him out until he was an outcaste in his own session of massage and sexual release. He could not escape the multitude.
And as she dragged her petite body up and down his own— her swelling curves filling up the shallow flatness of his slight frame—he felt not joy or lust nor relief, but the weight of a million people pressing down upon him with their demands and anxieties and expectations. Moaning, he had shoved her off of him and floundered like a broken-backed demon on the slick, inflatable mattress, his hostess shrieking for help.
“Something wrong?” the monk asked.
“No,” Ayumu said. “I was only thinking.”
“About what?” She eyed him suspiciously, her eyelids hanging heavy over the slits of her eyes. She did not have a very pronounced nose. It was more like two slashes in the smooth snout above her wide lips.
“About Tokyo,” he said. “And my life there. It was not a life. It was a death. I hated it. That is why I am here.”
“What is wrong with Tokyo?” she asked.
He frowned pensively, then sighed. “Everything.”

They rested on two smooth rocks that stood side by side beneath a cherry blossom tree. The pink petals hung over them. Strangely, it was the only cherry blossom that Ayumu had seen upon the mountain. All the other trees were cedars and oaks and such. Framed by the pink foliage, the monk woman’s profile was beautifully picturesque. Such an image would enchant all of Japan were it captured in a photograph, and would be subsequently debased as a tourist greeting card sold in shops all over Tokyo. It was a depressing thought.
And yet Ayumu’s eyes were distracted by something in his periphery vision. Turning away from the monk, he saw white tattered bags from a distance. Garbage! All the way up here! Amidst so much sacred purity! It was sacrilegious! He was about to give word to his fury when the monk suddenly rose.
“Why do you carry those buckets?” she asked.
“For my Ascension,” he said.
“So you can become like those men in the temple,” she said. “Those dead men.”
“They have reached Nirvana,” Ayumu said. “That is the ultimate goal of the Path.”
She snorted. “Tell that to their husks,” she said. She began to walk away.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To make water,” she said. She gave him a knowing smile. “You can make your own, I am sure.”
She said nothing else, but disappeared behind a copse of trees. Ayumu looked away, lest he be taken for a pervert, and returned his eyes to the garbage snagged on some bushes and roots. Standing, he went to pick them up.
But as he approached the crinkly white scraps he saw them more clearly in the perpetual twilight of the forest. Bending down to one knee, he discerned that the scraps were large tatters of snake skins shedded off along the forest floor. Not garbage at all! He picked it up and turned around. The monk woman stood there, looking aghast. Before he could say anything, she bolted through the woods and disappeared.
She was gone. Ayumu had not even inquired after her name. Strangely, her bra remained behind. He knelt and picked the thin, translucent material up from the forest floor. It was scaled like snake skin.

Ayumu hated Tokyo. Among the crowd his heart quickened, the anxieties running riot to the war drum rhythm in his chest. Sometimes he loosened his tie and forgot about its slovenliness until his supervisor reprimanded him halfway through the workday. Sometimes he wished to strip free of all clothing and spend the rest of his days meditating beneath an ice-cold waterfall, its downpouring roar drowning out the inane noise of the world.
Traveling through Tokyo was the worst necessity. He slept in his office every other day, returning to his small apartment only to take baths, and despising the jostling railway train where he was packed in among other people like grains of rice in an overstuffed bag. Solitude was nowhere to be found, yet loneliness was everywhere. It was a terrible paradox that defined the city. His cubicle was a place closed off to the world and open to the world. He was never alone, yet always seeking the peace of a recluse. Most days he just worked, from sunup to sundown, the time of day told by the small scrap of light that touched his cubicle wall through the windows on his office floor. He never had a break from the long spreadsheets that wallpapered the prison of his life.
And so he thought becoming a sokushinbutsu would be easy. The pine needles would not be much worse than the noodles he often ate while working through his lunch breaks. The sedentary meditation would not be worse than the endless glare of the computer monitor that stared back at him from his desk. The mountaintop solitude would be wonderful compared to the loneliness of his life in the city. Everything would be better in the end.
Or so he thought.
“There is a venom in you, and it brews deliciously.”
Ayumu was so startled that he nearly dropped his buckets with jumping.
The old man in the red robes was right beside him, grinning. Ayumu was too flabbergasted to speak.
“Like habushu,” the old man said. “But how will it be prepared? Will you drown alive in the wine or will they freeze you and gut you, day to day, slowly, keeping you half alive and half dead on ice, and then thaw you out in the future, when you will startle awake and strike, once, in desperation before you die? Either method is good for a tantalizing drink.”
He grinned mockingly, his teeth sharp beneath the hook of his long nose.
“You scared me,” was all Ayumu could say. The rest of what the old man had said made no sense to him.
“You are just like all of the others,” the old man said, grinning. “You think you are special, and that you deserve recognition and honor and a place in history, but what have you to merit such distinctions? You will climb halfway up this mountain, grow bored, and then return to your life, ungrateful for the world you live in.”
Though taken aback, Ayumu was slowly understanding that the old man was mocking him, and it angered him.
“I will Ascend,” Ayumu said, trembling in anger and fright. “I will follow the Path to its culmination. I have the faith and the discipline.”
“A faith and discipline built upon hatred,” the old man said. His eyes remained closed. His face was mottled with age spots, but also red with splotches. It was a long walk for an old man. “I know what kind of man you are. The venom brims in you. It will overflow.”
“What sort of petty priest dismisses a man seeking higher realms?” Ayumu demanded. “Leave me be, you crazy old man. I came to this mountain for solitude, not for company from doddering fools.”
“You seemed fond of that woman’s company,” the old man said. He opened his eyes, and they were blacker than night. “Anyone could see that.”
Ayumu flushed red, but whether with anger or embarrassment or both, he did not himself know. “You befoul this sacred silence here,” Ayumu said. “Go elsewhere and ramble. I am tired of listening to you.”
The old man had gone, as if vanished into thin air. Ayumu felt disconcerted and anxious. But he pushed away thoughts about the weird old man and continued walking, focusing his attention to the moss underfoot, and the trees overhead, and the fresh air in his lungs. He would not allow himself to be disturbed by an old coot lost in the wilderness.
His thoughts drifted, but now they drifted to Nature to Nature. He thought of the other mountains and forests around Japan where he had hoped to visit someday. Mt. Fuji. Mt. Asama. Mt. Aka. He had wanted to visit various natural goshintai, too: holy objects such as rocks, trees, waterfalls, and even mountains themselves. He had deeply contemplated, too, visiting Aokigahara and Ascending there, as thousands had before. Yet, their ghosts would not have let his rest. It, like most of Japan, was overcrowded with other people. He wanted a place of solitude and silence unto himself. But even here, in this abandoned wilderness, there were madmen to intrude upon his much-deserved tranquility.
How he hated Tokyo! His coworkers were nothing but red-faced Oni bullying him about, as were his neighbors and all of the people on the streets of Tokyo. Aggressive, loud, jostling and bustling and tiresome, snorting and frowning and judging. They were an Oni parade marching out of an endless nightmare. His neighbors in his apartment complex were the worst. He had been arrested once, for a crime he had not committed— the kidnaping of a little girl, no less— and though he was proven innocent and released after the real kidnapper had been caught, his neighbors nonetheless persisted in treating him as a guilty pervert. They would not speak to him— and shunned him in the hallways and on the stairwells like a plague. One of his neighbors was a coworker, so the rumors of what had happened had also spread to the office. He nearly lost his job and had to procure a statement from the police declaring his innocence. Even so, everyone looked at him askance, suspiciously, glaring like demons whenever he passed them in the halls. Soon afterward he shaved his head, gathered his bucket of pine needles and tree resin and prepared for his trip to Northern Japan.
Ayumu smelled delicious aromas upon the air. His mouth salivated and his stomach churned, growling plaintively about the emptiness aching within its pit. He was woefully hungry at the scents that wafted through the mist-skirted woods. Stepping through a cluster of dense trees, he found a clearing wherein a man sat, huddled next to a fire. The man wore a tengai and a straw cloak. Ayumu could not see his face, beneath the rice straw dome, and wondered how the large man could eat while wearing such a hindrance atop his head.
“Welcome, stranger,” said the man from within the dome. “Please, sit. There is enough food for the two of us.”
Without thinking, Ayumu set his buckets down and sat on the other side of the fire. A pot hung above the flames, and a stew bubbled redolently within it. The delicious smell of the stew was entrancing. Ayumu had difficulty focusing on the man on the other side of the fire.
“You are a pilgrim,” the man said.
“Yes,” Ayumu said, staring at the stew. “I shall become a buddha.”
“Ah,” the large man said. He stirred the stew with a ladle. “I once knew that old dream.”
“You are an adherent to the Buddha?”
“And aspired to become one, yes,” he said. He snorted. “Not worth the bother, to be honest.”
This bit of blasphemy focused Ayumu’s attention on the man once again. Staring past the stew, Ayumu saw that the man was large, chubby, his big gut hanging out of his robe with uncouth abandon. His face was still hidden behind the interlaced straw of his tengai, but Ayumu could sense the man’s hidden eyes watching him. His hands and gut were very hairy, as were his feet. He wore straw sandals that looked old and worn with walking.
“But Enlightenment…” Ayumu said.
“What of it?” the man countered. “I can find peace right here on this plane of existence.” He held up a bowl and ladled some stew into it. “Would you care for a meal? Rabbit stew with shiitake mushrooms. Fresh ingredients, too. Ginger. Wild onions…”
“No,” Ayumu said, his voice cracking almost unto a wail. “I am on the Path. I must…I must not partake of such delicious fare.”
The large man shrugged and lifted the bowl to his face. Tipping the tengai back, he poured the scalding-hot stew into his mouth; his mouth obscured now by the bowl. He slurped the stew down with a guttural gurgle in his swelling throat. When he had finished, the tengai concealed his face as before. He sighed long and loudly, making Ayumu peevish. The way he ate, and the tantalizing smells of the stew, reminded Ayumu of all of the foods he could never eat in Tokyo because the restaurants and vendors were always too crowded with other customers whenever he went out for his supper. More often than not he had settled for vending machine noodles while everyone else around him— not suffering from his social anxieties— ate very filling meals that he could only appreciate vicariously. Resentment bubbled up in his bilious throat.
Ayumu stood, taking up his buckets again.
“May the Buddha watch over you,” he said. “And lead you again upon the Path.”
“Going so soon?” the man said. “Good luck upon your Path, then.”
Ayumu turned away from the fat man— and his seductive stew—and plunged up the mountainside, through the towering trees and deeper into that eternal twilight.

The cataract hurled itself from the overhanging crags like a frothy, pearl tongue, splashing amidst the pool to settle into serene idleness. Ayumu saw a kindred spirit in that desperate act and hoped to become like that pool as he himself rushed headlong toward the tranquility of the Path.
Feeling so much kinship so keenly, Ayumu decided to take a dip in the calming pool. He set aside his buckets, stripped off his robe, and waded into the cool green waters of the pool. It was deeper than he had thought, the ground disappearing suddenly beneath his bare feet. He floated like a lotus upon the tranquil depths.
He drifted for hours, it seemed, surrendering himself to the weightlessness and the mist that breathed over his face from the waterfall. The gentle roar was purer than any white noise or music or insect chatter. It filled up his senses and he could have simply accepted the waters into himself, sinking like a stone to the bottom of the pool and never surfacing again. It was a peace of selflessness— of Zen negation.
And then something bumped against him in the water. Thinking he had drifted upon the embankment of the pool, he pushed himself off of it sluggishly with his languid muscles. It was not the bank. It was like a tree trunk, but flexible as rope. And it was moving Suddenly something grabbed him with a thick, corded coil, entwining him and dragging him under. His peace gave way to terror, but he had succumbed to darkness before his last gasp of bubbles had broken upon the pool’s surface.

He did not wake all at once, nor remember himself or acknowedge what was happening to him but in smattering glimpses of images and sensations. He had vague impressions of pleasure, and horror; of surrender and struggle. He longed for the climax of death, and was embraced by it— in a manner of speaking—at last emptied unto oblivion afterwards. He became like a dead root within firm soil; numb to all things and tied down to the earth.
After a time his eyes cracked open, reluctantly like clams clamped tightly shut, and he saw through the bleary twilight the forest floor, glistening wetly all around him. He himself felt hot and damp. Torpid, he moved his head only slightly and saw the monk woman slipping her naked, gleaming body into her orange robe, her long coils disappearing into the folds of her garments. Dressed now, and human, she approached him, kneeling beside him and putting a cold palm on his flushed cheek.
“Do not seek the Path,” she said, her voice a susurrous sibilance in his ear. Her long forked tongue in and out between her lips. “Stay here with me and let us seek pleasure until the end of all earthly days.”
He tried to speak, but his numb tongue rolled ineffectually in his mouth— parched, lax, half-dead with the expenditures of desire and dread. He managed only a mumble.
“You will rethink it all before it is too late,” she assured him. She then walked away, her body swaying left to right with a serpentine swagger that belied the simian subterfuge of her stride. She disappeared into the misty woods.

Poetic Justice Finale (Rough Draft)

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.”

Oni Onanism

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Kosaru was an aspiring monk in service to the legendary yin-yang diviner Kamo-no-Tadayuki. He was a devout student and keen to become a powerful diviner himself. Tadayuki had confidence in Kosaru and was proud to have him as a disciple.
One day Tadayuki was summoned to the Emperor’s palace in Kyoto. It seemed the Empress was suffering from a terrible malady and only the best yin-yang diviner could heal her. Tadayuki brought with him Kosaru to learn how to handle strong evil spirits, and to help him in the pursuit of cleansing the Empress. Thus, Master and Pupil traveled many miles by horse and came to the Emperor’s palace within a week. When they arrived, Tadayuki insisted that they see the Empress at once, rather than rest and eat after such a long ride, and so they were taken to the East Wing of the palace by several women-in-waiting. The Empress sat behind a screen, attended by her servants, and the Master and Pupil conducted their rituals on the opposite side, so as to afford her strict privacy and not commit any improprieties.
The rituals were intricate and taxing. Tadayuki was overcome with fatigue after the long journey to Kyoto. He felt he must rest, but in the meantime he instructed that Kosaru— being such a prodigal adept—should continue in his stead. And so Tadayuki retired while the young monk labored energetically, wanting to both prove himself and not disappoint his Master.
Late into the evening did Kosaru conduct the rituals. The women-in-waiting succumbed to sleep as night fell, and yet Kosaru persisted. After a time the Empress began to giggle. Kosaru thought her possessed by a fox spirit, for he could see her silhouette through the candlelit screen, and her silhouette appeared to be shedding its skins. Soon, he thought, the fox spirit would flee and the Empress would be saved.
Instead, the Empress stepped around the screen, standing denuded before him. She had not shed her skins—she had shed her robes! Kosaru stared in disbelief at the beautiful woman standing before him, her voluptuous body as ripe fruit and her skin glowing orange in candlelight. Having borne the Emperor an heir had not left any mark upon her, save a little puckered curve of belly fat which only accentuated her navel and the curves of her body. She was as pristine wilderness longing for a traveler to glimpse its vistas.

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Kosaru gawped for a time, and the Empress smiled as if in invitation. He felt himself stir, but remembered his vows— and the Emperor’s fury—and so sat upon the floor, cross-legged, covering his eyes with both hands and rocking back and forth like a monkey sitting precariously upon a tree limb.
At length, Kosaru uncovered his eyes and saw that the Empress had returned to the other side of the screen, assuming her robes once again. Temptation now passed, Kosaru hurried to find Master Tadayuki, the Empress’s giggles echoing after him.

Tadayuki had forewent all else and retired to bed with a fever. He was not to be disturbed. A servant to the Emperor relayed to Kosaru that Tadayuki had entrusted his best Pupil with attending to the Empress until the old diviner had regained his strength. Feeling at a loss himself, Kosaru went to his own guest room and lay down to sleep. He told no one of the Empress or her salacious behavior. Instead, he tried to sleep. Sleep did not come but fitfully. He tossed and turned all night, unable to escape the haunting smile of the Empress, and her gleaming torso and legs. Anxious, he paced his room for a time, then went to the palace shrine before daybreak.
Kosaru had intended to invoke aid from benevolent spirits and the Buddha. Yet, as he tried to meditate he found his mind scarred with the candlelit form of the Empress. Before he knew what he was doing he had reached into his robes and began to pleasure himself to her figure. He knew he should stop, and yet he could not. Forcefully, he chaffed himself— half in pleasure and half in frustration— until he had finished. Red-faced as a snow monkey in rut, Kosaru wiped his hands clean on his robe and left the shrine, his eyes averted from the statue of the Buddha whose face, in a furtive glance, was full of disappointment.
Kosaru had slept little, but ate a lot. Servants inquired after his success and he demured, saying only that further rituals were required. Thereupon, he was escorted again to the East Wing to continue his services to the Empress. All day the young monk undertook the rituals. His bald head gleamed with sweat and drooped with fatigue, yet he persisted. Once again the women-in-waiting succumbed, one by one, to sleep, until only Kosaru and the Empress remained awake. Hereupon, the Empress doffed her robes and brazenly stepped around the dividing screen. Kosaru once again sat cross-legged and covered his eyes. Yet, the Empress knelt beside him, whispering in his ears of things he knew he should not hear.

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“I am your Empress,” she said, “but you may call me Okame, for I find that I can trust you with my sorrows, young man.”
Kosaru held as still as possible, staring straight ahead of himself; trying not to gaze upon her nakedness. His body trembled with fear and desire.
“The Emperor has no fondness for me,” she said. “I am overripe fruit in his eyes. Unplucked and young is how he prefers his persimmons. Now that my son is a man, and is away in training to ascend after his father, I am a forgotten possession misplaced in the corner of my husband’s palace. I have not seen my husband for a year, and even then only to speak in formalities.”
She leaned closer to the monk, nearly kissing the lobe of his ear.
“I have not known the touch of a man in fourteen years,” she continued, “and even then but a greedy fumble of fingers and a slight pain between the legs. I have had more joy from my own hands than anyone else’s touch. Before I die I wish to know true passion. Will you grant me this boon, handsome boy?”
Kosaru could hear her still, and so pressed harder against his ears.
“You are a shaman,” she said, “and so you explore the boundaries between Heaven and Earth. Why not explore my boundaries. I believe we will find a Heaven of our own in such Earthly pleasures…”
More such scandalous whispers followed until Kosaru pressed his hands over his ears as if to crush his own skull. He deafened himself this way for a time, and it hurt him grievously. Eventually, the Empress returned to her side of the screen, speaking no more. She donned her robes and went to sleep. Hesitatingly, Kosaru stumbled out of the East Wing and found himself at the shrine once again. He slipped off his robe and pants, swathing and blinding the Buddha’s head with his clothes, and stood and gripped himself with both hands, angrily abusing himself as he imagined Okame’s husky voice rising and falling in pitch to the rhythm of his strokes. When he had finished, he dressed himself and stumbled off to bed. Sleep did not come easily, for his desires burned ever afresh. He moaned while abed.
“I feel I must climb to the highest mountain peak and bury myself in the snow,” he said, “and still this burning would not abate. I burn for her embrace! I must throw myself into an icy river and let it freeze over me, drowning me in its cold waters to slake my passions! And still it would not abate!”
The next day, before dawn, Kosaru returned to the shrine to pleasure himself to her image and her voice. He then ate a great deal, once again, and checked on his Master. Tadayuki remained a convalescent, though he was now able to drink herbal teas and speak weakly in a few words. He asked his favorite Pupil if the Empress had improved. Kosaru could not tell his Master of the Empress’s shame, nor his own, but assured him that she was growing in confidence. Tadayuki then fell asleep and so his Pupil returned to the East Wing to continue his dubious rituals for the betterment of the Empress.
The day proceeded as the two days before. Kosaru was diligent and tireless, even if sleepless and fatigued, and he worked his rituals from his side of the screen while the Empress’s women-in-waiting observed him for the sake of propriety. However, they fell asleep once more as the day darkened to night, and once more the Empress let fall her robes and tempted Kosaru with her beautiful body and her beautiful words.
“My handsome boy,” she said, kneeling before him, “you need only ask and I will pleasure you as only Paradise can. Can you not see how I adore you? How I crave you? I know you crave me, too. I can see it in your eyes, and in the way you tremble so. You need only say you want me, and I will gladly give myself to you. I am Empress Okame, and I ache for you. Do you not ache for me?”
Kosaru’s mouth moaned of its own compulsion, but before the moan could become a “Yes” he slapped his hands over his lips and bound himself voiceless. The Empress cajoled and whispered and pressed her breasts out toward him as offerings, but his words were silenced behind the cage of his hands, imprisoned mercilessly behind his clamp-like fingers and sweaty palms. She was a great persuader, and so he fled before she could sway him with her comely body and sweet words and gentle touch.

For a week or so Kosaru tended to Empress Okame. At night, and in the morning, he sequestered himself in the palace shrine— not to be disturbed by anyone—and satisfied himself to image and sound and touch of her. Sometimes he would weep with shame afterwards; sometimes he would not. Sometimes he wept with frustration, or screamed and roared until nearby servants thought him wrestling demons within the shrine. Nor was this a total misconception. Rather, Kosaru knew that oni and tengu and other malicious spirits were most interested in holy men and aspirants, for they were more challenging and the vexation they caused more rewarding. While holy men were indeed stronger against such spirits they were also most susceptible, the paradox being that suppression implicated exploitable weaknesses and, so, it led to greater chances of corruption. Tadayuki had warned Kosaru several times about temptations and the traps therein provided to evil spirits. That was why Kosaru had vowed to abstain from most pleasures, including those between a man and a woman. By denying himself pleasures he hoped to display his devotion to the Buddha and thus be granted greater powers over wayward spirits. Yet, it was easy to be celibate in a monastery where no temptations dwelled. It was much more difficult when a beautiful woman tempted him with every visitation.

Tadayuki gradually improved. In time he felt so hale and hearty that he resumed the rituals once again, dedicating himself to curing Empress Okame of her mysterious affliction. He said he was impressed with Kosaru’s dedication; so much so that he let his Pupil have the day off. Kosaru was conflicted, naturally, since he both wanted to see the Empress again and since he did not want to see her again. To keep his mind off of her, as much as he might, Kosaru went into town. He walked about for a long time until he came to a small temple that resided near a larger Buddhist temple in Kyoto. What caught his attention were the amulets hanging from the small temple’s ornamental eaves. The talismans were kukurizaru, or hanging monkey amulets. They looked like little cloth balls formed like monkeys with their hands and feet bound together with string. There were hundreds of them dangling from the small temple. Kosaru had heard of such amulets before. He knew they were supposed to help a man with a wish, if he only sacrificed a desire to them.
Kosaru looked around the temple, and noticed that he was the only one there. Reaching up, he took a monkey ball down and hung it from the belt of his robe. As he was leaving the small temple, he noticed a graven image of wood serving as ornamentation upon the temple itself. It depicted the Sanzaru, or three wise monkeys, and he knew this was a good omen. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil— that was what he desired, after all. He would sacrifice his desire for the Empress and in return be granted his wish to become a powerful yin-yang diviner.
Feeling reassured now, Kosaru went upon a walk near a bamboo forest. He was pleased with himself, and his good fortune. The air never seemed so fresh, nor the bamboo so vivaciously green with life. Birdsong enchanted him and he felt at ease. Suddenly overcome with the toil of the week, and the exhaustion of his desires seemingly unburdened, he laid down in the cool shade beneath a copse of bamboo and quickly fell asleep. He slept for an hour or so before the chattering woke him. It sounded as if drunkards were laughing. Opening his eyes, Kosaru was surprised to discover a group of monkeys playing nearby.
There were several monkeys, their faces red and their furry bodies either white or brown as they chased each other around playfully. Kosaru said nothing, but quietly thanked the gods, and Buddha, for yet another omen to confirm that his wish would be granted. Yet, as he watched the monkeys, the monkeys took notice of the young monk. They were all alerted by his stare, but instead of fleeing in fear, the monkeys laughed louder and frolicked wildly. They rolled and somersaulted and leapt over one another like jesters in front of a king. Their behavior only reassured Kosaru’s conviction that he was blessed. Then their behavior changed. The female monkeys walked themselves backward toward the male monkeys, their tails raised and their buttocks red. What followed horrified the monk. The monkeys yammered and laughed and howled, and the monk fled in disgust and fright. He did not stop running until he reached the royal palace.
Sweating and breathless, Kosaru heaved and coughed until the pain in his ribs subsided. He began to weep again, for the monkeys were an ill omen. Clutching the monkey amulet in his sweaty, feverish hand, he prayed that the deity Sarutahiko would grant him guidance. Sarutahiko was the god of the crossroads, and the Mediator between Heaven and Earth. Kosaru pleaded to that great deity to save him from himself.
From somewhere in the thin, blue air he heard the wild laughter of monkeys.

Master Tadayuki succumbed to sickness yet again and had to retire to his room to recuperate. Kosaru was once more obligated to attend the Empress, and the Empress was once more obliged to tempt Kosaru with her body and her delicious promises of pleasure. Kosaru lost sleep and, like his Master, was prone to fevers and shakes, albeit fevers that did not overtake him with illness. His loins burned hotter than any hot spring, his complexion so ruddy that it seemed he cooked in the flame of his fevers. Meanwhile, his inability to sleep and his lack of appetite cut deep grooves around his eyes, hollowing his sockets while emboldening the ridge of his brow. His solemn-lipped mouth became inexpressive and drooped seemingly down to his chin. He failed to shave his pate and a strange white mane grew very thick very quickly upon his scalp and down his temples, and even thickened around his cheeks. The women-in-waiting were all aflutter upon seeing him, for he both repulsed them and thrilled them with his strange, handsome features. As for the Empress herself, she could hardly contain herself, and gyrated upon his lap as he sat, cross-legged, whenever he came to perform rituals to cleanse her. Kosaru, however, never succumbed to temptation, and tactfully withdrew every night to the palace shrine where he vigorously exorcized himself of her seductions. His arms grew larger during these rigors, and longer, and his back bent over with the exertions of the motions and stance, his legs bowed. His manhood increased manifold, his priapism ungodly and not to be concealed, even as he swathed it in his monk garb.
And then the farce worsened. Word reached the Emperor and he dispatched his samurai to apprehend Kosaru for his indecent appearance and behavior. Taking him by force, they locked him away in a cage made of wood and bamboo, binding him with threaded rope until Master Tadayuki recovered and could come see him. When his Master finally did arrive, Kosaru’s priapism was larger than ever before.
“My greatest Pupil!” cried Tadayuki. “And now my greatest shame!”
Kosaru would have wept, but his mind was consumed with thoughts of Empress Okame.

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“I must perform a cleansing ritual on you, my friend,” his Master said. And so he began, burning incense and arranging talismans around Kosaru’s cage. He performed many rituals in the morning, before attending Empress Okame, and then retired to bed. Tadayuki was old, and had just recovered from sickness, but his supernatural powers supplemented his age and natural vigor.
Kosaru did not improve, and neither did the Empress. To the contrary, the Empress lashed out at her women-in-waiting, becoming temperamental and angry. She refused to eat, and only drank water occasionally. Falling ill, she nearly died, despite Tadayuki’s efforts. She cried out for Kosaru in her sleep, as he called her name throughout the night. At last, the Emperor had Kosaru taken away from the palace, keeping him caged in a remote area of Kyoto. Since he was so far away, Tadayuki could no longer visit him, and so Kosaru’s condition worsened; or perhaps it worsened because he was so far away from the Empress.
And then one night, while Kosaru’s guards were drunk on sake, monkeys from the bamboo forests gathered around his cage, mocking him with their play and their mating. Kosaru tried to ignore them at first, but their laughter and their mockery became too much for him. He roared wildly, his face brightening to an unnatural crimson, and white whiskers sprang from his chin and eyebrows, and all over his body, the mane upon his head thickening all the more, and a white tail sprouted from the base of his spine. His body grew much larger, and his muscles and sinews elongated and engorged like the branches of trees. His shoulders broadened, tearing open his monk robes. He easily snapped the ropes that bound him and smashed through his wooden cage. Guards ran to meet him, but upon seeing him totter upward, growing even larger, they fled in terror. His face, too, grew, extending longwise until his nose was nothing more than crescent slits in his flattened face, and two giant horns rose from his forehead. The oni transformation should have been agony, but his mind was already pained with the all-consuming desire for Empress Okame. He hollered maniacally, then hastened toward the palace, loping like a giant ape, his priapism like a dowsing rod seeking the Empress’s sacred waters.
Where he loped, terror and destruction lay in his wake. He leapt over the palace walls and hurried to the East Wing. Now the size of a man-and-a-half, he smashed through the hall and came to her chambers. Her women–in-waiting roused at the commotion, then fled, screaming as the whole household was beset with terror and panic, everyone scattering like insects in sudden light. All except the Empress. She rose, in her fine kimono, and dared to gaze at the large demon heaving before her. She was scared— it was true—but then Kosaru knelt before her, trembling and moaning in abject prostration.
The humble monk was an oni now— a demon born of untempered desire. Empress Okame recognized in his weeping red face the eyes of her Kosaru. She saw, too, his engorged manhood, and though alarmed at first, she at last smiled and, with calm, easy motions, undid her kimono and let it slip from her body. She took his ruddy cheeks in her hands and pulled him down with her to the floor.

The servants of the Empress were in hysterics as they rushed through the palace, begging help from anyone who would provide it. Quickly word reached the Emperor and he commanded his guards, samurai, and anyone else who could wield a weapon to hurry to the East Wing. Master Tadayuki attempted to intercede on his Pupil’s behalf, and nearly lost his head for it. If not for his spirit companions spiriting him away, he would have fallen to a samurai’s blade.
The Emperor’s small army went, en masse, to the East Wing with a collective war cry heralding their advance. However, they lost their momentum, and their bravado, when they entered the Empress’s chambers to see her in joyful congress with the demon. Stunned, they stood aside for a moment, glancing around everywhere but at the oni they were ordered to slay.
“Mediate between Heaven and Earth!” the Empress cried. “Mediate until the Earth and Heaven are one!”
At length, the most hardened warrior among them— a samurai who had strewn the earth with many corpses— stood forth, breaking free of his disgust and horror. He raised he sword and charged the large ape demon rutting upon the Empress.
Kosaru withdrew from the Empress and presented his gigantic phallus against the warrior’s blade. His phallus grew larger still, and struck the blade with a counter slash. The sword shattered to the hilt and the seasoned samurai was thrown against the other men, knocked insensate upon the floor.
Three more swordsmen, rallied by the warrior’s bravery, approached the oni, attacking Kosaru all at once. The monkey monk broke two swords with his priapism and caught the third sword with his horns. Meanwhile, the Empress gyrated upon the floor, moaning for Kosaru to return to her. The other men approached now as a mob, at last driving the Oni back with the flashing flurry of their blades. He roared defiantly, ready to fight them all for his mate. Suddenly, the Empress’s moan transformed into a roar. She rose from the floor, her body elongating and sprouting white fur also. The men had seen enough and fled. No one remained behind as the two oni embraced once again.

The oni remained in rigorous congress for a week until the East Wing was set ablaze by the apoplectic Emperor. This fire would consume the entire palace, forcing the Emperor’s staff and guards to relocate to another palace. The Emperor was never quite the same again. His desire for sex with virgins— and sex with any woman for that matter—was utterly ruined. He suffered terrible dreams at night, and it was said that the image and the sounds of the two oni haunted his dreams for the rest of his life.
After the fire, Kosaru and Okame were never seen again, but it was rumored that they lived on in the snowy peaks of the mountains, away from human eyes and ears and gossip. Master Tadayuki later told his son of his greatest Pupil, confessing that he believed Kosaru to be the avatar of the monkey god, Sarutahiko, and stating that he believed the Empress to be the avatar of Ame-no-Uzame-no-mikito. When his son asked him why he had not attempted to save his Pupil, he responded that gods needed no saving, and did as they pleased. It was fate, after all, and no yin-yang diviner could interfere with fate, nor was there wisdom in trying to do so.
His son eventually married and became a powerful yin-yang diviner in his own right. Some say he became powerful despite having married and raised a family. Wiser people claimed he became powerful because of his wife and family, for they helped temper his life with a balance that many holy men fail to observe. He would later confirm, with his own eyes, that his father had been correct about his father’s former Pupil. Kosaru and Okame dwelled in the mountains, given to their bestial pastimes. Being witness to such things could ruin all but the most godly of appetites, but when Tadayuki’s son returned to his wife he found that he was not ruined in his amorousness for her. Rather, he knew that immoderation in one extreme or the opposite was the death of balance. And what was a yin-yang diviner but someone who strove for balance?

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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.