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.

Wicked World

The moon was a skull in the sky, dark clouds laying over it like a torn curtain. The man sat in a black SUV, the engine off and the window partially down. Fog rolled off of the graveyard hilltop on which he was parked, his cigarette smoke blending into it. The graveyard was small and old, overtopping a rural road rarely visited by anyone except raccoons, opossums, and the occasional deer. The loved ones who once knew those buried here were by now buried too, but elsewhere, in more modern graveyards where flowers were still arranged in futile gestures of love and longing. The road was as dead as the hilltop. No one passed here at this time. It had been raining all week, ceasing just after midnight, and the fog rose like ghosts from the burial plots.
The man in the driver’s seat preferred backroads and scenic routes when driving to a job. He smoked his cigarette and stared out into the darkness absently. He would eventually take a nap, if he could, shrouded in the anonymous murk of this backwoods county.
The man was as unremarkable as his SUV. He did not wear a black suit like they often did in the movies. He wore a white T-shirt, blue jeans, and a John Deere hat over his bald head. Tomorrow, when he would arrive in Florida, he would shed this outfit for a button-up shirt, khakis, and maybe sandals— if the weather permitted. What he wore changed drastically from day to day. Shoes, shirts, pants, glasses, wigs. Sometimes he would actually wear a black suit, if the nature of the job required it. Sometimes he wore a white suit. When a job was completed he often wore three different styles of clothes from day to day, and bought some clothes along the way— paid in cash only—to improvise according to what was needed to safely cross state lines without drawing attention to himself. He kept his clothes within the hidden floorboard of his SUV, alongside the other tools of his trade.
His type of cigarettes changed, too. It was his only addiction because he knew that addictions, in his profession, could be deadly. The deadliest addiction was the one known as complacency. Living day to day caused complacency. Not dying caused complacency. People were so successful in living day to day— in waking up alive for the majority of their lives—that they were often surprised when they suddenly failed at it. Life was a gamble, from moment to moment, and the man in the driver’s seat knew that truth better than most since he was something of an assistant to the debt collector at the end of everyone’s gamble. It was a rigged gamble, much like in any casino. Everyone eventually lost the bet. That was why he was not addicted to his complacency. People risked everything, from moment to moment, and risked it all…with or without their consent. The universe did not care about consent, and never would. The cosmos were a cannibal mother, birthing and then devouring its young over the duration of a lifetime, particle by particle, memory by memory, until each child was once again but electrons conjoined in the nebulous expanse of Void. Ash to ash, dust to dust.
The man in the driver’s seat tapped the ashes into his ash tray, then took a pensive drag on the half-burnt cigarette. His eyes were not reptilian or empty of what some people generically labeled a “soul”. He could emote. He could do Shakespeare with such rapturous expression that Hamlet’s father would have clapped as if brought back to life by the riveting performance. Emoting was one of his many talents; one of his many skills in his needful toolbox required by his jobs. Not only could he slip in and out of his disguises like a chameleon its colors, but he could color that plain face of his with whatever tangential expression suited his circumstantial disguise. And it was all genuine, too, as he ingratiated himself or made banter or courted hearts— genuine until the moment when the lights were flipped off of that grand production and the curtains were closed.
Yes, every instant was a gamble and a game. Whether it was cosmic debris colliding with earth or the microbes in a man’s body destroying him with disease from within, the gamble played out without favorites, and with utter disregard for mankind’s delusion of importance. Even a man’s own genes foretold that he was doomed, breeding cancer to devour him with the very cells that manifested him. It was inevitable. The stage would be silenced and the spotlights extinguished. For most people there would not even come the forethought of taking a bow before the end.
“Yes,” said his passenger. “But why did you have to help it along? Why did you have to shoot me in the back of the head while I was taking a piss?”
It had been the right tactic, and the right pay. Leo Romanoff. Age 53. 5’10”. 198 lbs. Money launderer for a Russian oligarch. Went into a public restroom while his two bodyguards stood watch. Pistol and silencer for the two bodyguards, then Romanoff himself. His two bodyguards sat in the backseats of the SUV, their faces veiled in shadow just like Romanoff himself.
“You could have talked first,” Romanoff said. “We could have come to a financial arrangement. But you didn’t. You didn’t want to talk. You just had a job to do, didn’t you?”
The man in the driver’s seat never wanted to talk. He never spoke to them when they came to him like this. He would have never listened to them at all if their voices did not seem to come from inside his head. They acted like the job was personal. But the job was never personal.
“Even when you loved me?” she said, sitting in the passenger seat. Her blonde hair was luminous like moonlight, but her face was black within the halo; a solar eclipse. “You cried when you killed me in our bed. Why so many tears for a job that was not personal?”
Natalya Heidmann. Age 34. 5′ 9″. 120 lbs. Wealthy widow of a hedge fund manager. Her husband’s daughter resented the money her deceased father had willed to his third wife. She wanted Natalya to love the man who killed her, so he comforted the widow and slowly seduced her over the course of a few months. Three months into their relationship stepdaughter told him to kill Natalya. So he kissed her upon her lips and slit her throat while her eyes were closed. A jealous ex-boyfriend was used as the patsy. But it was not personal. Nothing was personal.
The universe did not care about love, family, society, ideals. Such things were as inconsequential as dew upon a headstone, and as meaningless as a headstone upon a mass grave. The worms worked their magic regardless of human pretenses, recycling flesh into forgetful soil. The mindless earth rolled on, like a ball on a roulette wheel. Eventually its luck would run out. It was a mirthless game where everybody eventually lost. It was the only game in town.
“I liked games,” the little girl said to the man in the driver’s seat. “I used to, I mean. And you played them with me when you were our butler. I would play hide and seek with you a lot, until the night you were no longer playing. You found me and I didn’t even scream for help. Who could have helped me?”
Anna Maria Gurlukovich. Age 7. 4’3″. 54 lbs. Daughter to an Pro-Russian politician in Ukraine. He had poisoned her parents’ tea and then strangled her when she tried to hide. It was a politically-related job. Afterwards he was relocated to the United States with the help of the CIA.
“You treated me like I was your daughter,” she said. “And then you killed me.”
So, too, did the universe. He may have been the man in the driver’s seat, but he was also a passenger. He did not drive any of them to their final destinations. He was not the arbiter. He was just another puppet upon a string. He chose nothing. Their deaths were never his to decide, nor the particulars. He had been chosen, but anything else could have easily accomplished the same result, and would have, given time.
He shifted in the driver’s seat, trying to make himself comfortable for a nap. He snuffed the cigarette butt in the ash tray, then tried to extinguish himself with sleep for a while. His brain did not obey, however. It began to wander. The passengers in the SUV murmured in discontentment. He did not know what else they could want. More time? What good would it have done them? The same result; nothing more. He had scoured the philosophies of the world— from Greek Rationalists to the Asian Harmonialists to the German Mechanists and the French Absurdists—and he could only confidently summarize the meaning of Life as thus: Shit happened and then you died.
His eyelids began to close, drawing themselves down so that the outer night would be welcomed inward. But then he saw a herd of deer pass through the graveyard. His eyelids jerked open and he roused, sighing. He watched the deer. Their ears sensed him, lifting alertly, but their empty, imbecilic eyes skimmed over him without further concern. Occasionally they hopped along, as if ready to flee, only to stop and graze once more upon the grass, steadfast in their own complacency. He could have shot any of them and they would have tumbled over, surprised by Death as if it had not been staring them in the face all along.
Fireflies drew his attention from the deer. They blinked in and out of the darkness. People blinked in and out of that darkness, too. The darkness did not care. One moment they were alive, the next moment they were not. Nor did he think himself a spider capturing the fireflies, like so many in his profession did. If he was a spider then he was a spider trapped in the same web as the fireflies. He held no pretenses sacred— only the moment that followed the previous. And he knew it was only sacred to him because it was all that he had…until he lost the ongoing gamble. All he could hope for in life was the occasional contentment of small, temporary victories because all humans were engaged in an existential war for which they would inevitably suffer a final defeat, given time.
Time.
It was time to move again. He had dawdled too long. Movement was crucial for his job. Always be moving and never be restless. Movement meant peace of mind and relaxation. It was only when he stopped to rest that he became restless and fretful and was visited. He could settle down when he was dead, and that was inevitable. Maybe not today, or tomorrow, but eventually. Until then there was no rest for the wicked. And so the world never rested, because it never stopped its one-sided gamble, no matter how many it raised and buried from moment to moment to fleeting moment.
He obeyed all rules of the road, as he obeyed all rules within society. Except for the one, and that was because a greater Law held precedence over that arbitrary one. Obeying the other rules helped him serve that greater Law. After all, that one Law trumped all others. The rules of civilization bowed to it as well, civilization itself made manifest from the fear of that Law, and the promise of that Law, and thus was never immune to it. That Law was Death, and everyone obeyed it. When his time came the man in the driver’s seat would bow his head in resignation to it. There had been times when Death taunted him. He had scars to attest to the playfulness of Death. A scar just above his heart. A scar along his left temple. Several scars from knives up and down his back. But they were mere reminders of the Law, and so he saw them as heralds of things inevitable; post-it notes he could not throw away.
He came to a bridge, and the bridge was closed. Headlights flashed back at him from the orange sign that warned against attempting the bridge. It began to rain again. It was a downpour. Through the heavy hammering he could hear his fellow passengers murmuring with unrest. When lightning flashed he could see them in his rearview, though their faces were still eclipsed by Death. When your life centered on the end of other lives you were keenly aware of the destination. It was easily traversed, but never returned from. There were no refunds for the ferryman’s crossing. The river could not be forded but one way.
The rain had filled the river to teeming, the overflow flooding out his planned route. It might delay his job for a few days— maybe even a few weeks. No matter. Everything in its own time. He turned around and followed Fate’s path, as he had always done. However it determined him to go, he went. The particulars did not matter. The end result was the same.

War Paint

Margaret was glad that, at her age, she could still paint beauty into the world, even if the world had, year by year, taken her personal beauty away. Her husband departed, and her children preoccupied with their children, and their children’s children, she woke every morning with nothing on her mind but blank paper soon to be filled with whatever whimsy was demanded by her muse. This was half the fun: not knowing what would manifest from the end of her paintbrushes. She was as amazed as anyone by what she painted.
When Margaret was younger, and still desired making a name for herself in the Art World, it was frustrating. None of her work was unified by a single theme, and so most art galleries had little interest in displaying it, however masterful it may have been in its realization. What common thread could be found in the paintings of a fox, a still life bouquet of flowers, a meadow with a single apple tree, and a portrait of her niece’s youngest daughter? Nothing— nothing except that her muse demanded them and embargoed all other things until such demands were met.
Of course, Margaret sometimes attempted to plan out her paintings beforehand, and she would always fail at them. The paintings lived as they willed, unmindful of their creator and as vengeful to the taming whip as a wild lion newly caged. She simply accepted this, letting herself be the avatar desired, and was content in both the satisfaction of a deft execution and the serene calm that enveloped her while surrendering to her muse every morning.
Since her last remaining vanity was painting, Margaret equipped that vanity with the makeup that accentuated her talents. Watercolor, gouache, sometimes inks. She preferred water-based paints because they seemed more natural— more elemental to her fastidious muse. The watery colors were chaotic and would run at times like invading armies where they were not invited. They also presented minimal risks to her health and sanity, unlike oil paints which could have poisoned her and had her cutting her own ears off within a year. Her children already believed her too old and senile to be living alone; she did not want to provide them with further evidence for their case.
Nowadays her children rarely visited her. You would think their repeated concerns for her solitary life would culminate in a visitation every other week or so. But they hardly ever came, except for her eldest son, Damon, and that was because he was prime executor of the Will. He visited her twice a month in the attempt to convince his mother to forsake her happy, isolated independence for the crowded miseries of a nursing home. Though he masked himself with concern, the conceit was so counterfeit as to announce itself in shrill overtures. He desired only the house, which to most people would have been considered a mansion.
It was exactly that, too; a mansion in the middle of Vermont’s most pristine woods. Her late husband hated people and so aspired to avoid them wherever he could. The irony, of course, was that he tried very hard to people the house with as much as his seed would yield; with his wife’s assistance, naturally.
And now, born literally and metaphorically from those efforts, his many children were conspiring to take Margaret’s house from her, just as they were conspiring to take that selfsame house from each other.
Succinctly put, they wanted Margaret out of the way, just as she had wanted her husband out of the way when he was yet living. The difference was that she had worked in accordance to wisdom and married a wealthy, older businessman— some twenty years her senior—so that Time would serve her expediently as a trustworthy hitman. Time’s accomplices, Stress and Heart Disease, also served quite loyally.
Now, Time was demanding its payment from Margaret, too, while her children demanded— in subtle words of concern— their inheritance. How could she blame them their covetousness? They had inherited such selfish traits doubly on each side of their blood. Perhaps she would have been as transparent in her greed as they were if she had not been born, too, with the witch-like cunning that possessed her.
That is not to say she had not grown to regret her own behavior. She had been born a cold, distanced girl, and so she grew to be a curt, mostly indifferent mother. Her destiny was never one aligned to the nurturer’s calling; this she knew and embraced wholeheartedly. Any milk that flowed from her bosom had been scarce, if not soured.
Margaret had married her husband John because he was wealthy, and because with his wealth came the prospect of leisure to pursue her painting. Unfortunately, the cost of the wealth was his desire for heirs, and so she surrendered to his old-fashioned notions for the sake of her one passion. A nanny was employed to compensate for Margaret’s natural disinclination toward motherliness, and John had many mistresses, which pleased Margaret as much as her husband, for it spared her any intimate relationship with him after their five children were born. Margaret had always been asexual in her preferences. Their relationship was not even platonic, truly; it was merely an abiding business transaction. Their prenuptials explicitly embraced such a condition, and both had signed their names— and so their lives— to this arrangement without hesitation.
Sometimes Margaret wondered if the only things that perpetuated her life were her paintings and the frustration her continuity caused her impatient children. She lived to spite them and to beautify. She lived as she had always lived: selfishly. She had no illusions about her virtues. Were her virtues equaled in weight to their constancy then a small thumbtack could have held their combined weight up on a wall. Nor would it have mortified her if her virtues were overlooked among the wallpaper, or even a blankly white wall.
Her heart, succinctly put, was a withered leather sack emptied of any and all keepsakes, spacious in allowing solely her paints and brushes entrance. Her husband’s death had not bothered her anymore than her children’s obvious frustration at her longevity. She lived alone, and she lived happily. No memories harried her. No regrets weighed heavily on the leather sack, as if to make it burst. She was content.
And then, one morning, things changed.

It had been raining all week, and, according to the weatherman, would continue to rain. Margaret welcomed the rain. Its pervading presence announced the silence reigning in the house with a softly thrumming echolocation. Her muse welcomed the rain also, and its hypnosis. Who cared for sunlight with its peanut gallery of forest voices always chittering and chattering? She could paint light, if need be, and there were no distractions in the shade of a thunderhead. There was only the brushing hush of the rain as it veiled the house. There was only the silent water as it colored the paper with vivacious splashes of overlapping hues.
Then the phone rang.
Margaret was so startled she dropped her paintbrush, smearing an azurn cloud as the brush twirled out and away from her knotted fingers. Stooping, she fetched up the rebellious brush and set it on the easel, then thought on whether to answer the phone.
Part of her said that she should ignore it and simply focus on restoring the smeared cloud. Another part was mourning over the body of her murdered muse as it was hauled off to the tomb for a resurrection— scheduled at whatever time was its impish fancy. The phone’s petulant noise had killed it dead.
Without her muse to distract her, Margaret decided to answer the phone, if only to unleash hell upon the caller. She wiped her hands on her apron (splattered as it was with every color imaginable) and begrudgingly walked over to the antique dial phone resting on the antique rollerdesk. Twisting her face up toward her haughtiest eyebrow— the left one—she lifted the sleek black-and-brass receiver and pressed it to her dried-up peach slice of an ear.
“What do you want, Damon?”
“Hello, mom,” he said. the word “mom” was as uncomfortable coming out of his mouth as a wisdom tooth. “I was just calling to check on you…”
“I’m not dead yet,” Margaret retorted. “Until that hour arrives, leave me to my remaining hours of peace.”
“Hold on, now,” he said. “Since you brought that up, I have to ask you, mother, about the grand piano downstairs. You haven’t said where you want it to go.”
“The grand piano?”
“The one downstairs,” he said.
“I know which one,” she snapped. “It’s the only one in the house, after all.”
“Of course, mother,” he said.
Margaret loved that grand piano. She enjoyed sitting on its bench in the morning and setting her morning coffee on its hood and just ignoring it altogether while her conniving children dreamed in vain of selling its large mahogany bulk for a small fortune. Probably to pay for a new car, perhaps, or kitchen renovations. Denying them these petty dreams pleased her.
“I do not know what I will do with it,” she said. “For now I would not worry about it.”
“But mother…”
Margaret returned the phone to the stand, then stepped away. Her mind was still mourning her Lazarus muse when the phone startled her once more with its grinding gearbox-throated birdsong. She nearly jumped with surprise. Had her muse been a vampire this would have been the stake to the heart.
“Damn it all!” she cried.
Angry, Margaret wrenched the phone up from the stand as if she would fling it across the room. Instead, she slammed it into her ear.
“What, Damon?!”
“Mother, you need to get caller ID.”
It was her eldest daughter’s voice. Laura. Her tongue clucked with jaded sarcasm. Indeed, Laura was nothing but jaded sarcasm.
“If I had caller ID I would never pick up the phone for anyone,” Margaret said.
“That’s no way to talk, mother.” Laura’s pronunciation of “mother” was as frigid and disagreeable as a governess attempting Peter Pan’s domestication.
“What do you want, Laura? I am busy trying to live before I die.”
“How appropriate,” Laura said. “That is exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. I was speaking to Damon earlier today and he seems to think that he is going to inherit the grand piano, which I knew could not possibly be true. I was the pianist in the family. I was the one that had musical inclinations.”
“Yes, but no musical talent,” her mother retorted.
There was a long silence from Laura’s end of the phone. It ticked like a bomb, though it may have just been Laura biting her nails. At length, she spoke.
“It would be a great travesty if you were to give such a beautiful instrument to that dolt. I would flaunt it in my living room, and play it at Christmas parties. Wouldn’t you like that, mother? To know your great-grandchildren are being cultivated on the holidays with a family heirloom?”
Since Laura’s sarcasm was infectious, Margaret asked how her great-grandchildren were doing, and she did so sarcastically.
“Henry has the Measles and is having a bad go of it,” she said. “Betty’s trying her best, but you know how Henry can be.”
No, Margaret did not know how Henry “could be”. She could not for the life of her remember what he looked like. Presumably he was boyish by look and bratty by nature. That is, if he were an honest heir to the family’s blood and not another cuckoo.
“And Susan’s off to boarding school,” she continued. “We couldn’t afford to send her to the school she wanted, but it is nonetheless an excellent school. Highly recommended in the Club for people wanting the best while balancing a budget.”
Margaret shook her head ruefully. “Knowing your side of the family you might be better off sending her to a nunnery.”
Again Laura clucked her tongue.
“If you knew her you would know that she is not like that,” Laura said.
“Oh yes, just as you were never like that.”
“It is always a delight to speak with you, mother. I do believe that it becomes even more pleasant with ever passing year.”
“Yes, I don’t doubt that you welcome each year as my last, just as you think every conversation with me will be the last. Well, don’t fret too much. I intend that this should actually be our last conversation.”
This time Margaret did slam the phone down.
And once again it rang.
“Laura, I gave you what you wanted…!” she said.
“So you gave her the grand piano?” It was Eric, her youngest son. “Mom, I can’t believe you…”
“I’ve given it to no one, Eric,” she snapped. “In fact, I am thinking of having myself buried in it. Why waste money on a coffin when the grand piano would serve just as well?”
“Mom, that’s silly. You need a proper coffin…”
“It would save more money for your inheritance, wouldn’t it?”
“Mom, I know a guy who wants a piano like that and he is willing to pay forty thousand dollars for it. That’s a lot of money.”
“No, Eric, it isn’t,” Margaret returned. “Your father would make that much money in a week sometimes.”
There was a long, defeated sigh from Eric’s end. “Dad was a stock-broker, mom. Of course it wasn’t much money. But I’m a teacher, and I’ll be lucky to make that much money in a year.”
“It is not my fault you chose public service over selfish practice,” Margaret said. “We paid for your education. You were the one to aim for the ditch when you had a golden brick road to follow.”
“Mom, this isn’t about me. It’s about Ashley’s care. We’re trying to hire a specialist to work with her.”
“Ashley?”
Margaret could not be bothered to remember the names, nor even the faces, of her grandchildren or great-grandchildren. They were as indistinguishable to her as a nest full of chirping, gaping throats. And each one a cuckoo, too.
“Ashley, my youngest grandchild,” Eric said. “She came with us last time we visited you.”
Margaret was surprised to find that she did remember the girl. She was a quiet, self-contained child with a meek face and shy, flighty eyes. The awkward girl was perfectly innocent in her reticence and self-consciousness. Upon first seeing the girl— Ashley, was it?— Margaret wondered briefly if perhaps the girl was a cuckoo planted into her dumb grandson’s house by a roaming salesman. Or perhaps a Jehovah’s Witness. She seemed meek enough to be one.
But the poor girl did have her father’s natural pout, worsened by a surprising overbite that neither Margaret nor her husband had to such a drastic degree. Ashley was also prone to freckles, her rounded cheeks bespeckled with them like stars on a night sky. Perhaps she was a changeling. Margaret knew her grandson and his wife had nothing to do with the child. That was why Eric was looking after the girl. Margaret could not fathom it. Having to birth children and raise them was a bother enough— having to raise the children your children birthed was the never-ending spiral staircase to madness.
Be that as it may, what remembered Ashley most to Margaret, though, was her quiet disappearance during the last family visit. It had been six months ago or so and Eric had not noticed— so busy was he inspecting and cataloguing the silverware in the house— but Margaret had, and she went looking for the curious girl. Margaret found Ashley in her painting studio upstairs, standing as if rooted in the center of the room.
Margaret was at first enraged, thinking the careless and homely girl might knock something over, or damage her finished paintings that were lined up along the walls. But then she noticed the gleaming light in the girl’s otherwise murky brown eyes. It was an exciting light; a light of magic and joy and appreciation.
“Do you like it, child?” she asked her great-granddaughter.
The child did not answer, and it was then that Margaret realized that the girl was not altogether there. Back in the old days they would have called her a dumb mute, or an idiot. Margaret did not know what they called them today. Even that asinine word “special” had become passe. Perhaps, she thought, they called them something as equally ridiculous.
So Margaret walked over to Ashley and gently took her by the arm and pointed out all of the things in the painting which had taken so many countless hours to paint. The field with an old castle in the background, collapsed to ruin by the onslaught of Time’s catapults of entropy. The Black Angus cows grazing between the mossy remnants. The crenelations on the remaining walls, like broken rows of teeth, and the castle’s bowels clogged with vines. A sky morose on the horizon, darkening with black clouds.
Looking at the painting anew, with the simple girl beside her, Margaret felt like that castle was her; her old constipated, rotting, derelict body. It was sad and beautiful simultaneously, and she allowed herself one tear of self-pity, but no more.
“Mom? Mom? Are you still there?”
Margaret shook herself from her woolgathering. “Of course I am still here,” she spat into the phone. “Not dead yet, no matter however much you might wish it.”
“Mom, don’t be like that,” Eric said with all of the feeling of a door mat.
“I’ll be however I like,” Margaret retorted. “And as of right now I will be hanging up the phone.”
As said, so done.
Margaret also unplugged the phone from the wall. Then she proceeded to her easel where she painted in supreme peace for a full two hours without interruption by blood or blotch or bladder.
Rain fell heavy on the house, cascading down the windowpanes in hydra-necked rivulets. The thrum of it put Margaret at ease while she painted. A certain serenity enveloped her so utterly that she sometimes forgot to breathe as she painted, her breath growing shallower and shallower until she nearly drowned in open air. Nor did the prospect of dying at her easel scare her; it was a peaceful prospect. The only death that might be superior would be in a blaze that took the mansion and all of its contents while her children stared on in horror, calculators in hand to reckon the total wealth lost.
Margaret had started painting when she was old enough to pick up a brush and splash some cheap watercolors across a page. Her young mind marveled at the colors. It was like there was the life-forming magic of nebulas in those haphazard collisions of color. Eventually, she had to develop an artist’s discipline of form and subject, rather than continuing the Jackson Pollock method of painting inherent in all children below the age of four. Yet, discipline was as pleasurable to her adolescent mind as the splashes of colors were to her toddler mind. Thus, a passion had been born in her: the passion of creating life, or at least, visions of life. Only in this way was she motherly.
Presently, her paintbrush was creating a wild moor, its verdant expanse bordered by whimsical trees and a seaside cliff. It looked like a very persuasive travel card from the Emerald Isle. Her muse always had an affinity toward the Celtic.
Suddenly, the doorbell rang, which irritated Margaret immensely. No one should have been visiting her today. The grocery boy was supposed to come on Sundays. Not today. Moreover, it was raining heavily, which meant the groceries would be wet and would need to be dried if they were to be properly salvaged at all.
Perhaps that was why the doorbell rang so urgently.
Margaret hurried downstairs, past the living room and dining hall and into the foyer. She opened the door, expecting the grocery boy— what was his name?— and instead found her eldest son, Damon, hurrying inside with his umbrella dripping water all over her floor.
“Its raining cats and dogs outside!” Damon remarked, laughing like an idiot. “Be careful, for they will chase each other about your head and leave wet pawprints on your temples.”
He took his fedora off and shook off his wet trenchcoat, hanging both of them on the coatrack. Of all of Margaret’s children, Damon most resembled her dead husband. Perhaps that was why she could stomach the sight of him the least.
“Mother, I wanted to apologize for being so rude with you on the phone,” he said. “I know I sometimes become pushy and it is very insensitive of me. I just want you to know that I am trying to do what’s best for everyone.”
Much like his father, Damon could also lie with a straight, serious face, or with a smile, or with a laugh. It served his father well in his business practices, but such a skill was wasted on Damon. He was “in-between jobs”.
“What would be best for everyone would be to leave me alone,” Margaret said. “When I am dead and gone you can fight amongst yourselves over the house. I do not want to be in the middle of your bickering while I am still standing. At least do me the courtesy of waiting until my corpse hits the floor.”
“A fight is exactly what I intend to avoid,” Damon said. “In fact, I will finish it before it starts.”
He began walking through the house without asking leave. It infuriated Margaret. This was still her house, whatever his intentions as executor of the Will. And she had half a mind to call the police on him for trespassing.
Damon arrived at the grand piano, which resided in the living room near the large recessed window. He then proceeded to inspect the piano in the most outlandish fashion. He plucked at the strings. He rubbed a finger along each square inch of mahogany. He tapped every single key, both white and black, and paused between keys to listen to its distinct note ring and then fade to silence. Margaret was fairly sure he had no idea what a finely tuned piano should sound like. He also kneeled down to inspect the legs of the piano, and its underbelly, and finally, after shaming himself beyond what Margaret could tolerate, he took a permanent marker from his pocket and wrote on the inside of the key cover his own name, the date, and the current time as per his wristwatch.
“How dare you!” Margaret yelled. “Out! Get out!”
She pushed at him, but he was a large man, much like her husband, and did not yield an inch of ground.
“Mother, please, if you do not stop this I will have to put you in a nursing home.” He then added, as an afterthought, “For your own good.”
“That is still my piano!” she said.
“And I am the eldest,” he said, “so it will of course go to me in…due time.”
He then left for the door, grabbing his umbrella and his hat.
“If Laura or Eric call, please inform them that the matter of the piano has been settled.” He opened the umbrella, then opened the door. He paused and looked over his shoulder. “Take care, mother.”
He stepped out and closed the door behind him.

Margaret returned upstairs to paint, feeling rather furious. She entered a vicious sort of trance that held sway over her for countless hours. Possessed of her newfound passion, her every spiteful thought went from neuron to brush tip like a lightning strike. It was a murderous mood most foul and perpetrated itself with gashes of gouache all over the watercolor underpainting.
When she came to herself later—brush in hand and swaying with exhaustion— she was disturbed to find her moorland painting savagely deviated from its original image. The trees were aflame, the sky was black with smoke, and the moor itself was littered with corpses mangled within shattered armor. Mass pyres burned on the horizon and women wept over fallen husbands, sons, and brothers. Swarms of black flies crowded upon the banquet of death served so generously to them. Soldiers stood in the distance, looking distraught and dismayed at the destruction they had achieved, like dogs of war waking suddenly from a bout of rabies.
And standing in the center of it all, like a grandstanding ringleader grinning at applause only he could hear, was a tall figure in a blood-red cloak.
Margaret’s eyes lingered on that strange figure, and his eyes seemed to linger on hers. Something about him seemed to pop off the page. Perhaps it was merely his red cloak, which was a complementary color to the green field.
Enough, she thought. It was past time that she had something to eat. All of the painting and family drama had exhausted her. She was also feeling dizzy and faint.
Without further ado, she walked downstairs and made a simple salad for herself, sitting on the couch in the living room and watching a little television to distract herself from the grand piano and the painting upstairs. The television chatter blended with the sound of rain pattering on the house. Neither made distinct sense in her waywardly drifting attention, but both were welcome and comforting.
Accompanying her salad was a tall glass of merlot. She kept the bottle on the coffee table, within easy reach should she have need of a refill; which she had, and numerously. She was drinking her fourth glass when she fell asleep on the couch.

Sometimes Margaret peed the bed. Sometimes her bowels betrayed her. But there was little shame in these accidents because there was no one around to shame her. She simply bleached the sheets, washed her underwear, and found a large sheet of blank paper upon which to work her frustrations into fulsome fusillades of paint.
Unfortunately, the couch was not something so easily cleaned as bed sheets. Rather, it was leather, and she had no idea how to properly clean the smell of urine off of leather. So, when she woke later, in the middle of the night, she did the only things she could do: she took a shower, threw her dirty clothes in the laundry machine, put on a nightie, and scrubbed the leather with wet, soapy rags. Whether it would clean it sufficiently or not, she did not know.
When she was finished, Margaret went into her bedroom and cried, thinking about how much she hated the thought of a nursing home and how much she hated the thought of her children rejoicing in finally exiling her from her home.

***

So long as Margaret could see, and so long as Arthritis did not clutch her hand into a gargoyle’s stony claw, she could paint serenity and beauty into her decaying life. Thus, the next morning Margaret woke up and, without food or drink or even a bathroom break, she stood at her easel and painted for four hours straight; unblinking as if in a trance. What possessed her, she did not know, but when she was finished the paper was wet with a strange scene.
It was a royal court, presided over by a king robed in crepuscular velvets and crowned with stars. The people populating his court were humanoid, but not human. Their faces were more delicately featured, some being cartoonish in their long noses and slender chins. Their ears were tapered and long, like pointy aloe leaves. The men’s faces were narrow, and the women’s faces were shaped like acorns. All wore finery of a more anachronistic make, such as lavish gowns and trim-fitted pantaloons, frocks and tunics and petticoats, vests blooming with cravats and waistlines tightly wound with whalebone-and-lace corsets. Translucent wings, such as those belonging to dragonflies, sprouted from the backs of the men, and the women were paired with butterfly wings whose diaphanous colors shimmered.
Margaret was astounded by the breadth of the details and the sheer amount of dexterous work involved in the painting. Frankly, she amazed herself. She wondered if she was suffering dementia, and if so, she concluded it her best muse yet.
And then her eye alighted upon the most dominant figure in the scene, with the exception of the twilight-robed king. There was a tall, willowy man in a bright red suit standing near to the king’s throne. He was, perhaps, the most gaudily dressed gentleman in the room, and while he was certainly handsome, there was something about his eyes— as he peered over his shoulder at Margaret— that chilled her through to her old bones. Something whispered in her ear, Oleander, and she knew, at once, that Oleander was this creature’s name.
Startled, she glanced about herself. Blood throbbed in her head and she decided that it was time she had something to eat, lest she faint.

Margaret ate eggs benedict with a cup of plain milk, the latter of which was a rarity for her. It was raining outside again, though the sun sometimes shone its light through that hushing veil. As she finished her eggs, the doorbell rang. Thinking it might be the mailman, she went to answer it.
It was not the mailman.
It was her eldest daughter, Laura.
“Hello, mother,” Laura said, stepping in with her stilettos hammer-tapping the floor. She tossed her parasol to the floor, quite unmindfully. “I came to check on you today. Damon said you were in extreme duress yesterday.”
“You should be in extreme duress,” Margaret said, “wearing high-heels in this weather.”
“You still have your spirit, at least,” Laura said, puncturing the silence of the house with each piercing step. “God willing, mind and body will remain, too.”
She pretended to give the foyer an equal glance over— here and there— but soon arrived at her obvious purpose for the visitation: the grand piano in the living room. She walked around it, inspecting it casually, feigning disinterest before lifting the key cover and running a ringed finger along Damon’s name. She clucked her tongue and stomped her heel like a billiard ball striking another billiard ball, and another, and another.
“That selfish bastard,” she said. “He knew I wanted it. He knew I deserved it. He had never shown any interest in it until he found out what it was worth. I remember when we were children and he would mock me for playing it. He had no ear for good music.”
“None of you ever did,” her mother said.
Laura ignored her. She had a purse at her side— a black leather, diamond-studded gaudy thing— from which she fetched a tube of fingernail polish remover. She then proceeded to dab at Damon’s name and the date with the odorous little brush. While the acetone ate at the permanent marker, she stood by and waited. Then, using a handkerchief, she wiped away the ink, as well as some of the piano’s finish.
“Right as rain,” she remarked, folding the handkerchief and returning it to her purse.
“Nothing is as ‘right as rain’,” Margaret grumbled.
Laura then proceeded to take a turn about the lower level of the house, from the living room to the kitchen, to the utility room and the pantry and the dining room. It was mostly an open-floor plan on the first floor, and so each of her stiletto-steps echoed pointedly throughout the house. Margaret followed her, outraged and yet helpless.
Whereas Damon resembled his father, Laura resembled her mother. She differed, however, in that she was taller and younger, and thus vainer. This was why Margaret could suffer her presence even less than her other children’s. The very reason Margaret painted so much was so she could escape herself, and yet here was a walking, talking reminder of all of her former earthly vanities.
Returning to the living-room, Laura suddenly paused in her perambulation. The click of her stilettos stopped, ending with a cluck of her tongue that seemed louder than her punctuated walk.
“Why does it smell like pee in here?” she asked.
Livid with anger and shame, Margaret lied. “The cat peed on the couch.”
“I didn’t know you had a fondness for cats,” Laura replied, craning her neck to look for the errant beast.
“I don’t,” Margaret said, “which is why I had to rid myself of it.”
“I see,” was Laura’s stiff reply.
Laura gave the house one last sardonic look. “Well, mother, I suppose I should be going. Julio and I are set to take the grandchildren to the beach.”
“To the beach?” Margaret said. “But it is too cold for the beach.”
“Copacabana beach, mother,” Laura said, curtly. “We’re taking Julio’s company jet there this evening. Long trip, of course, but worth the eleven hour flight. Little Laura has been so looking forward to it. She can hardly wait.”
Margaret could only nod. She could not remember what “Little Laura” looked like. She supposed she looked like a little Laura, which was to say, a girl not unlike what Margaret herself resembled when still young; a happy, pretty, spoilt, naive little girl. Not so bent and embittered and soured to life as Margaret was now.
“Well, take care, mother,” Laura said, heading to the door. “Try not to fall down the stairs or anything. If Damon comes by again, tell him he can put his name wherever he likes. I have plenty of remover to wipe away any claim he might make.”
Laura left and Margaret fumed. The pettiness of her children, and the invasiveness of their visits, infuriated her. There was no end to it, except, perhaps, the end. And it was all so uncalled for. Laura was very wealthy; perhaps wealthier than Margaret had ever been. Her husband, Julio, was a derivatives market conquistador from South America. A bronzed man with an aquiline profile, he had a black ponytail and was built like a professional soccer player, even as he entered his mid-fifties. Margaret’s dead husband hated him, more for their similarities than their ethnic differences. And that was why Laura had married him. That, and his financial liquidity. The plain fact of the matter was that Laura could have bought any piano she wanted, but she wanted Margaret’s piano precisely because Damon wanted it, and Damon wanted it because Laura wanted it. At least Eric was honest about wishing to sell it, not that such honesty earned any appreciation from Margaret. An honest thief was still a thief.

Margaret returned upstairs to her studio. The next painting came spontaneously and without forethought or reflection. Margaret welcomed her muse and became its willing conduit. Like a bloodhound on the trail, she followed it with single-minded devotion. When she had finished, and woken from the magical mesmerism, she looked at her painting with a stranger’s eyes.
It was an outdoor scene where a king in a crepuscular robe and star-studded crown was walking through an apple orchard. Arrayed around him were many smaller fairies— perhaps sprites— all sitting in the boughs of the trees, or flitting through the air, or hiding under flowers and roots. Beside the king stood the same devilish dandy in his crimson cloak that smirked in Margaret’s other two paintings.
Oleander.
Lord Oleander, something told her.
In this painting he was much closer to the viewer, his features elaborated upon with greater scrutiny. Lord Oleander was a tall, willowy sort of dandy, with conceitedly long blonde curls. In that slender foppishness, however, was the cold, sharp promise of anger, like an unsheathed rapier with a flowery handguard to distract from its blade. He was the sort of blade which never sheathed itself but reluctantly, and then only to lower his target’s guard and trick them for a killing strike.
The devilish dandy was gesturing the king toward a ring of mushrooms in the center of the orchard. The king, who was a bent and sallow looking old fellow, nonetheless beamed with a genuine grandfatherly sort of smile. He could not see the kris dagger in the dandy’s other hand.
Margaret took a few steps back, then leaned forward, peering. She stepped forward again and leaned back, peering. No matter how she looked at the painting, she felt like she was painting someone else’s painting—not her own. Where did this painting come from? Where had it been hiding inside her all this time?
Letting the paper dry, Margaret walked to the studio window and looked outside. The massive Vermont pine trees were standing like soggy, shaggy green beasts wishing they could come in out of the incessant rain. Some perverse part of her wanted to see her spiteful children standing out in this rain, wanting to come in, just so she could deny them entry and watch the rain taunt them with its cold wetness.
“I am a bad mother,” she said to her ghostly reflection in the window. “I have always been a bad mother. That is why I have bad children.”
She walked downstairs, found the half-empty bottle of merlot, and carried it to bed.

***

The ringing of the bedroom phone woke Margaret from her drunken slumber in the middle of the night. It was Chris, her youngest son.
“Heya’, mom, I just wanted to give you a call,” he slurred into the phone.
“Chris, it is three in the morning.”
“It is? Aw well, it ain’t no biggie. How ya’ doin’, mom?”
“You’ve been drinking again,” Margaret said. It was not a question. She leaned over to put the phone back down on the stand, but the empty bottle of merlot fell to the floor, ringing and rolling. “Chris, you know the court will not like it if they find you’ve been drinking again.”
“Ain’t no big deal,” Chris slurred, blithely. There was a sound similar to a bullfrog’s throat engorging and croaking, ending with a wet smack of lips and a throaty sigh of satisfaction. “My parole officer doesn’t know where I am.”
“You get involved in another hit and run, Chris, and you’re on your own! I’m not paying to bail you out!”
“You didn’t pay last time,” he snorted. “You let me rot in jail.”
“I gave Mr. Setter the money and he took care of everything.”
“Mr. Setter? Oh yeah. The mute suit. Fucking stuck-up sonnabitch wouldn’t say a damn word to me.”
“That is because he is a lawyer who knows when to speak and when not to,” Margaret quipped. “Something you never learned, obviously.”
“You were always a cold ass, mom,” Chris said.
Behind him came a volley of voices and the distorted blast of music from static-eaten speakers. The occasional chinking of long-necked glass told Margaret all she needed to know. He was at a bar. Knowing Chris, she guessed it was in all likelihood a dive-bar.
“The boys and I are goin’ for a run later,” Chris said. “We’re going to pick up some girls. But don’t worry, mom. Sheridan’s driving. Or Joseph, maybe. Wait a second…” He shouted away from the phone. “Hey! Who’s driving?! Thomas? Fuck all, I might as well be driving…”
Margaret hung up the phone. She had no patience for drunkards, especially those who cost her money.

Margaret tossed and turned for the remainder of the night. When she got up in the morning she had a migraine that not even Columbian coffee could allay. Wanting to paint, but unable to concentrate, she took a long hot shower and then laid on the couch in the living room, listening to the rain continue its hushing thrum upon the rooftop.
Gradually, the trenchant pain in her head dissolved into a lax pool of numbness, and with it her consciousness. She slipped, gratefully, into a restful nap.
She was startled awake by what sounded like an intruder upstairs. Fearful for her life— whatever little of it remained to her— she stood up and walked to the kitchen, quietly taking a butcher knife from a drawer. Cautiously, she walked upstairs, her house slippers whispering to each other as she baby-stepped across the floor.
There was the sound of tearing paper, and of tearing tape, of what must have been her easel as its three legs were rattled into a new position while the intruder moved it. What was the intruder doing up there?
Upstairs now, Margaret sidled toward her studio door. Her nerves were electrified with anxiety and fear, and static electricity. The friction of the hall rug was building static in her furry pom-pom slippers. The hairs on her neck stood at attention. Scared to breathe, she craned her neck around the doorframe and peered into her study.
No one was there. She checked behind the door, and near her stacks of paintings against the wall. She even checked the window and found that it was fastened tightly against the elements, permitting no entry or exit. As she was turning from the window the phone rang in the bedroom, giving her a violent start. She jumped.
“Damn it all!” she gasped.
Her heart pounding in her chest, she walked to the master bedroom and answered the phone.
“Heya’, mom,” said a chippery girl’s voice without a care or wear in the world. “What’cha’ doing?”
“Angela?” Margaret said, unsure.
“Duh, mom,” Angela said, giggling. “Did you forget me?”
“No, I did not,” Margaret said. “It is hard to forget you when I am still getting bills for your credit cards. You know, I am seriously contemplating canceling your cards.”
Angela laughed nervously. “Oh, mom, you wouldn’t do that. You’d leave me stranded in the middle of France without any way to live or get by.”
“You could always find a job,” Margaret said. “Washing dishes. Cleaning rooms. Oh, but you never learned how to do anything for yourself, did you?”
Angela’s chippery voice flattened with gravitas. “Mom, I am taking care of myself just fine. I stay in cheap hostels and…”
Margaret cut her off. “Nothing is cheap in Paris. I have the bills to prove it.”
There was a long pause on Angela’s end. When she spoke again it was with a measured amount of optimism. “My novel is coming along. Jean believes it will do well in France. Maybe even the rest of Europe.”
If Margaret was a young woman again she would have rolled her eyes. Instead, one of her eyes simply twitched with frustration. “And what is this novel about again?”
“I’ve told you a hundred times, mom. It’s about a young American woman living in France who falls in love with a mysterious man with a dark past.”
“How very…romantic,” Margaret remarked, the word as corrosive in her mouth as acid. It invoked Cherubim, and immediately shot them down from heaven.
“Jean has many literary contacts in Paris,” Angela said, heedless of her mother’s sarcasm. “Publishers, agents, critics. He says they are all interested in me.”
“Just make sure you don’t meet them in dark alleys after midnight,” Margaret said.
“Don’t make fun, mom,” Angela said.
“I’m not making fun,” Margaret replied, seriously. “I am speaking in earnest.”
Angela was the youngest of all of her children, born unexpectedly when Margaret should have been going through menopause. Margaret was not even certain Angela belonged to her husband. Had Margaret not been there herself for the delivery, she would have questioned whether Angela belonged to her, too. In her late twenties, the adventurous girl still acted like a teenager on Summer Break; all year long.
“Once my novel is published I will be able to pay my own bills,” Angela said. “Actually, I will be able to pay you back for all of the bills you have paid for me.”
“That’s nice, dear,” Margaret said.
“Stop making fun of me, mom,” Angela said. “I will be able to take care of myself. You’ll see.”
“Of course,” Margaret said.
“I mean, I know you won’t be around forever. I’ve got to get my shit together.” She dropped her voice again. “By the way, mom, what are you doing with the house? I mean, I don’t want to own it, but can’t there be a clause in the Will somewhere that says I can stay there whenever I want? I bet I could really write a lot if I set up a desk and computer in your old study.”
Margaret bit her tongue.
“By the way, mom, have you figured out what you’re going to do with that grand piano? Jean plays in a band and…”
Margaret slammed the phone down with a very satisfying bang.
Her fear, now, was completely replaced by fury. She went through the entire house, finding phones and unplugging them. This done, she went upstairs to paint.

Hours later, a painting sprawled across the heavy-weighted paper, centered on the crimson-cloaked dandy. He stood victorious in the court now, all of the crepuscular tapestries hanging from the walls replaced with blood red tapestries in likeness to himself. Lord Oleander. The throne was refurnished with carmine velvet and a new crown sat upon his head, its petals forged from a reddish-gold.
“What a horrid creature,” Margaret said, distastefully.
Everyone in the Elfin court— from lord to lady, peasant to soldier— bowed low to Lord Oleander, their faces twisted with disgust and fear and impotent rage. The crimson dandy basked in the bitter emotions of his subjects, a joyful smirk wrinkling his long, narrow face. In an upraised hand the kris blade glittered in the morning light, the head of the old king impaled through the eye for all to see.
Margaret heard the the front door open and close downstairs. Then came the heavy clomping of boots as the intruder walked through the lower floor. The tread sharpened as the intruder went from the rug-lined foyer to the tiled kitchen and then the wood-paneled living-room.
“Mother?”
The intruder’s voice was more curiosity than concern. His tread sharpened again as he came near the bathroom. There was a knocking at the door, which Margaret knew was open.
“Mother?”
The intruder headed upstairs.
“Mother, where are you?”
He came up to the landing, then spotted her through the open door.
“Mother, you really should answer me when I call to you,” Damon said. “I was afraid something might have happened to you.”
“Oh, really?” she retorted. “Is that why you took your time walking through the house? Make sure I’m good and dead before you find my body and have to call an ambulance?”
“Mother, this attitude of yours does not help anyone.”
“Were you in my house earlier today?” she demanded.
He looked at her all agog. “Of course not, mother. I have been at Mr. Setter’s office, adjusting the Will. Was someone in the house?”
“I…I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe it was just a squirrel in the attic.”
“Are you sure you are not hearing things?” he said. “Voices?”
“Oh, I hear more voices than I care to,” she said. “Especially right now.”
Damon ignored the quip and instead looked over his mother’s shoulder at the painting she was working on.
“What a horrific scene,” he observed, though his flat and impassive tone did not indicate that he was seeing anything that struck him as horrific. “Mother, I worry about your mental… stability. You shouldn’t be painting things like this.”
“I worry about your mental feasibility,” Margaret returned. “All your life I’ve worried about it. For you see, Damon, you are an idiot, and I do believe that had I been a more attentive mother I would have remedied your natural deficiencies to the best of my abilities. Which is to say, I would have sent you to a school for the handicapped.”
“Don’t be so rude, mother.”
“I’ll be however I’ll be,” she said. “I grow tired of my children telling me not to be as I am inclined.”
“It’s just that you have had, for some time now, a very twisted view of everything, mother…”
“My head’s on straighter than yours,” she rallied. “I see things as they are; not as I’d like them to be. I can see, for instance, that you’re looking forward to my death so much that you can’t see anything else, including how foolish you are in your transparency.”
“Mother…”
She pointed her paintbrush at him as if she were mugging him with a knife. “You are hurrying me to the grave, but I won’t go quickly. Eventually, yes, but in my own time.”
Damon stared at the paintbrush with an unimpressed frown.
“That’s not true, mother. I want you to live as long as you can. Many years more, in fact. And I want you to live them happily. That is why you need to go where a professional medical staff can look after you. Riverside Retirement Villa has an excellent rating with…”
“I am going to die in my own home,” she snapped. “If that means breaking my hip on the stairs and starving to death all alone, then so be it. But if you force me out and I die somewhere else I promise you that I will move back in here and haunt you forever. I promise you that, Damon.”
“Mother, no one wants to force you out…”
Margaret laughed; a bursting sort of abbreviated laugh that someone might make if they had been run through with a rapier upon hearing the particularly powerful punchline to a joke.
“I’ve never seen so many buzzards fighting over an animal still alive and out of reach. Is there not some roadkill down the street that can sate your appetite in the meantime?”
“Mother, you do your children a great disservice…”
“You are right,” she said. “I should have never had children. I should have had my lady bits cut out so you wouldn’t have to grow up to become…me. I’m tired of you. Leave now.”
“Mother.”
“Out, I said!”
Damon left, though not soon enough, and Margaret returned her attention to the painting she had been working on.
“Lord Oleander,” she said, staring at the crimson-cloaked dandy.
King Oleander, someone said.

That evening Margaret went to bed early. She could not sleep, and she cried. She did not cry maudlin tears, or even tears of self-pity; they were tears of frustration and anger. She had never in her whole life cried out of anger. It was a new experience.
“Might as well get that out of the way,” she said aloud, wiping wrathfully at the tears. “Before the end. There’s a first time for everything, even in a long life like mine.”
Margaret knew she had been selfish in her choice of husband. She had chosen him because she thought he would die early and allow her the financial freedom she desired. But instead of finding freedom she had found her children readily assuming his role as oppressor. They, in turn, thought that she was selfish in her sternness. Yet, they did not know what it was like to be married to their father. Love was not an essential factor of life, for her or for him, but he was needlessly cruel to her. Indeed, that she had so many children was confirmation of the way that he dictated how her life should be.
“I will cause a scene at my own funeral,” she vowed. “I will decompose quicker than usual and make the pallbearers flee from the stench. I will make a scene for the newspapers, and their articles shall hound my children forever more.”
Lightning flashed beyond the windows. A downpour began, hammering the mansion with its own angry tears.
Unable to sleep, Margaret climbed out of bed and went down to the kitchen. She poured a glass of water for herself and sipped from it absently while she returned upstairs. In the second storey hallway she saw her studio shrouded in shadow. A flash of lightning illuminated the easel. The tripod stood in the center of the room, like a ghoul, its shelf a jaw splattered with paint that looked like blood in the brief flashes of light.
She turned and looked at the master bedroom, and hated it. She hated the bed that sprawled there, insolent with its parted sheets. This, she thought, was the bed that begot her life. This was the marital bed, the conception bed, the deathbed. This was the hateful apparatus whereby her husband exercised his continual control over her.
Upset, she slammed the bedroom door shut and went into the study. Using the glass of water she had brought upstairs to drink, she worked in the epileptic luminescence of the thunderstorm, welcoming both the light and the shadows that fought over the embattled painting there.
The hours passed quickly. Midnight came and fled on fleet raven wings. Then came the witching hours and they were more riddled with thunder and lightning than anytime before. Once the creative seizure was over, she looked at the painting for the first time.
There were children impaled on pikes while parents mourned on bent knees. Babies were bashed across walls and thrown from windows like refuse onto the cobblestone walkways. Men and women were being skinned and bled dry, their blood flowing in runnels that converged on the royal robe of the new king. He sat in the center of it all, rejoicing on a throne of bone. He wore a vest of flayed skin and drank from a goblet brimming with the blood of innocents.
“King Oleander,” she said.
“Emperor Oleander,” said someone behind her.
She turned and staggered, clutching at her chest. Standing there, in the dim light of her study, was the crimson-cloaked dandy himself: Oleander. He was half-shrouded in shadow, and flickered into stark relief with every lightning flash through the window.
“I had not the luxury of time during my last visit to address you directly,” the tall fairy said. “I was so preoccupied with the Purification in my kingdom that I could scarcely afford my attentions being anywhere else. But I am encouraged to see that you, for your own sake, took to my dictation and have been allotting the appropriate amount of your time to the most important priorities of your life. Namely, recording my legendary ascension to the crown— and with it a new age unlike any other.”
Margaret could only stare in astonishment at this crimson gentleman. She feared she was suffering a stroke-induced hallucination. Any moment she feared a vesicle should burst in her brain.
“Granted, I should be offended that my glorious reign should be recorded by someone of your breeding and background,” the fairy continued to say, “but I am of a charitable character when Fate decides it so, and so I will gladly allow you the honor of being my chronicler.”
He paused, seemingly awaiting her reply. There came none and so he continued.
“You are overwhelmed by my presence. It is only natural. But I am afraid that this arrangement will soon come to an end. Rejoice in the service you have rendered me, for while I will live on, as recorded here, you will soon depart from your mortal coil. The whole of your life was for the making of this tribute to me.”
Margaret looked at the painting again, in the flashing luminescence stabbing through the window, and then at the crimson dandy with his habitual sneer.
“Allow me to paint you one final time,” she said suddenly, “so as to better capture your majesty.”
The malicious fairy’s face curdled into a vicious smile. “One final painting? You are dedicated, mortal. Very well. Yes. Yes, I suppose that it is enough of a reward for a lowly mortal to be the chronicler of my unequaled magnificence.” He turned to leave, but hesitated, speaking over his shoulder. “But do well by me in this, your last tribute, or else you will suffer.”
“I promise you that the execution will be perfect,” she said.
The next morning Margaret sketched for hours trying to force her willful muse to depict the Execution of Emperor Oleander. But to no avail. No matter how much she tried to enslave her muse to her dictation, the wild-willed wanton refused submission. The sketches were a disordered mess of smeared graphite and blurred erasures. When she attempted to paint the most successful among her failures she found no respite from her contentious muse. The paint bled and fled wherever it would, like a wounded beast, and she could not corral it into an orderly stillness. Had she been a more attentive mother with her children, all those many years ago, perhaps she would have learned the patience and authority to overmaster her own errant inner child. But she had not and now that spoilt brat would not bend or bow, defiant with every little artistic impulse.
Frustrated, Margaret walked downstairs to get away from her studio, and her muse. She turned on the television and flipped through a few channels, arriving at some absurd soap opera. Normally she abhorred drama, but this she watched with dawning enlightenment. The tone-deaf drama represented on-screen what was likely the kind of absurdist scene that would soon follow her own demise. Torrential arguments. Fish-eyed gawping outrage. Frigid shoulders and the soul-crushing gravity of disappointment. Theatrical tantrums. Histrionic fits. Pity parties to surfeit.
The prospect of such melodrama would have been wonderful if not for the fact that she would be too dead to relish it. A pyrrhic victory was all she had remaining for herself.
Margaret turned off the tv and plugged in a phone. She called Mr. Setter, the family lawyer. She informed him that she desired to review the Will.
“Of course, Margaret,” he said.
Mr. Setter had learned early on in their business relationship that Margaret preferred to be called by her given name rather than by her married name.
“I do not know what is in the Will,” Margaret confessed. “I’ve forgotten. Could you bring it here so I could read over it? I do not go out much these days.”
“Yes, I can arrange to have that done,” Mr. Setter said. “Do you wish for the Executor to be present also?”
“No. No, I will handle this myself.”
“Then I will send it over with my secretary this afternoon.”
“Thank you, Mr. Setter.”
The business call ended, Margaret unplugged the phone.

A few hours later, Mr. Setter’s secretary, Skyler, arrived with the folder containing the Will. She was a mousy-looking, bespectacled thing in a brown overcoat that was as plain as she was. Margaret envied Skyler insomuch as Skyler, when she aged, would have little to mourn as she became older. She had less for Time to steal, in other words— less beauty, less wealth, less vanities and pretensions. That was a comfort to be cherished in and of itself, she thought, for the homely among us.
Margaret read through the Will while sitting at the grand piano. There were few specifics in the Will regarding the actual estate. In fact, the overall Will seemed to be more of an afterthought than a genuine summation of Margaret’s overall material existence. And it seemed to have a defiant sort of vagueness to it, as if it was procrastinating in denial that the event that the document addressed, DEATH, would ever come to pass. It seemed to acknowledge the possibility in mere abstraction and without any serious concern of its inevitability or its repercussions.
Margaret frowned down at the document for some time, forcing her mind to accept what it represented: a glimpse into the future; the cold, dead-eyed stare of her own corpse as she was hauled off to be embalmed and buried. Skyler, meanwhile, stood aside with all of the calm, quiet patience ingrained in a a bookish woman who had been ignored all of her life.
Margaret laid the Will on the grand piano and then, after a moment’s hesitancy, fetched a pen and a pad of paper. For the next two hours she catalogued the possessions in the house and designated to whom each would be granted upon the time of Margaret’s death. It was no easy feat, especially since it confronted her not only with the starkness of her mortality, but the thought of her children rejoicing in these things they had coveted of her for so long.
When Margaret came to the thought of her paintings and what would become of them, she wrote that she wanted them to be buried with her. Then she remembered little Ashley— Ashley was her name, wasn’t it?— and how that mute girl would stare at the paintings as if they were magically entrancing her. Margaret scratched out her selfish post-mortem request and wrote down “To my great-granddaughter, Ashley Tess: ALL of my paintings”.
Margaret was resolved. She would not be an atheist pharaoh hoarding her most prized treasures for an afterlife she did not believe in. There was no better afterlife, in her sardonic modern view, than in the eyes of a mute who could say nothing and simply stare at her great-grandmother’s paintings. The girl could not speak ill of Margaret, even if she had wanted to. In truth, Margaret regretted not having spent more time with the child.
It was as Margaret was signing and dating the catalogue that Damon arrived. He looked momentarily stricken to see Mr. Setter’s secretary there, but soon overcame that fleeting sign of weakness and introduced himself with a big, deceitful smile.
“Hello,” he said, shaking her hand. “You must be Skyler. I believe I’ve seen you in Mr. Setter’s office. You are his personal assistant, yes?”
“Secretary,” Margaret said, enemy of all euphemisms.
Skyler would have scowled at Margaret, but a tall, handsome man was showing her attention; never mind that he was old enough to be her father.
“Yes, Mr. Tess, I am Mr. Setter’s personal assistant.”
Margaret chuckled. They ignored her.
“What brings you to my house?” Damon asked.
“It is my house…” Margaret began, but Skyler was too mesmerized by Damon to hear. He was handsome for an older gentleman.
“Mrs. Tess was just reviewing the Will,” Skyler said, making herself an eternal foe to Margaret.
“Oh really?” returned Damon. He looked at his mother in mock-surprise. “So you are finally treating it with the seriousness it deserves, mother?”
Margaret wanted to slap that ridiculous fedora off his head, along with his head. “I am just making sure that everyone gets their due.”
“Now, see, that’s the most sensible thing you have said since father passed away.”
Margaret looked to the heaven’s for patience, and found none. She pushed the notepad into Skyler’s hands. “Here, secretary. See that Mr. Setter gets that today. I am done with visitors. You can see each other out.”
She turned and walked toward the stairs.
“This is a happy coincidence,” Damon was saying to Skyler. “I have business with Mr. Setter later today. Maybe you and I can go out for dinner afterwards? My treat…”

The outrage Margaret felt focused her mind into the shackles necessary to chain and bend her muse to her will. She was angry— with herself and with Damon, and even with Skyler— for she realized, too late, what Damon would do. He would not let her have her last wishes as she wanted them. He would deny his mother her last dignity.
Her last dignity stolen, Margaret painted and painted; all evening she painted. Her muse finally surrendered to her rigors and she worked with the forethought and deliberation that she had lacked her entire artistic life. Even so, she knew it was killing her muse in the process. The sacrifice of freedom was too great and her muse started to wither, even as Margaret’s skill bloomed one final time.
When Margaret finished she stepped back and looked at the painting with tears of pride and of loss, for she knew it was the best and the last painting that she would ever make. Reconciling herself with fate, Margaret then walked through the house— her house— and looked over its contents. She tapped a few keys on the grand piano; not for spite or defiance, but because it was just nice to hear the keys ring in the dead silence of the home.
This done, Margaret felt extremely sleepy. She returned upstairs and laid down on the studio’s floor. Rain came again, calming in its pattering pall. Margaret listened to it with her eyes closed. She thought she heard someone in the room.
But I am the one and only Oleander! You cannot do this to me! I am your emperor! I am your god!
Margaret sighed contentedly.
Then she passed away.
***
A year later— after the burial and the distribution of the estate and its effects— there was an art gallery exhibition in New York for the Margaret Tess collection. Damon Tess secured the showing after spreading word about his mother’s mental breakdown and the subsequent paintings of strange, deranged worlds that visited her deteriorating mind while she dwelled in “misanthropic isolation”. Since Alzheimer’s was a very popular crusade among the New York intelligentsia, it proved to be an excellent marketing strategy. Damon had the potential of making millions from the auction on the following month.
The premiere was crowded. Many high-profile New Yorkers came. There were reporters, art critics, celebrities, and even a few local politicians. But while all of the self-important adults were chattering and clattering wine glasses, a little girl was walking from one painting to the next, unnoticed by the insular crowd gathered there.
She was strange, this girl, and very quiet. Had anyone engaged her they would have found her doe-eyed and mute. She stopped in front of the painting entitled “Dementia On Trial: Losing One’s Head”. The girl’s granduncle, Damon, boasted that it was the last painting his mother had completed before she was found dead in her studio. The tale of his grisly discovery had already been revisited multiple times by her granduncle, and was likely to be revisited many times more before the auction next month. But the girl did not care about such things. She had a mind only for the painting itself.
The painting depicted a crowd of strange-looking people who were gathered around a chopping block where a tall, slender fop had just been executed with an ax. There was no joy in the faces of the crowd as they looked on the decapitated corpse; only unabated anger that would live on for generations.
The little girl’s ear tingled suddenly. It caught the notes of piano keys tiptoing daintily in the air. Enamored, she followed the sound past the self-absorbed adults and out of the gallery room. Down a hallway she went, toward the storage area of the gallery. The hallway was dark and dusty. She passed a broom closet and a single-toilet bathroom. At the end of the hall opened to a large, spacious room that was murky except for a bright candle sitting on a grand piano in the center of the floor. Coming closer, the little girl recognized the piano. She did not recognize, however, the strange man sitting on the piano stool.
His ears were pointy and his head was narrow and he was very tall, gangly, and yet graceful with his long fingers. He wore a strange suit unlike the tuxedos flocking about in the gallery. It was the color of twilight, this suit, and had a flowery bloom at the neck. On his head was a simple crown of silver saplings uncoiling toward. He was the handsomest man the little girl had ever seen. And he had wings like a dragonfly’s.
The young man stopped playing the piano and turned to the little girl. There was something in his lap. He picked it up and gave it to her.
“The settling of debts, my little princess,” he said.
The little girl looked at the thing in her hands. The room fell to darkness, then, and when she looked up again the young man and the piano were gone. She left the room and went down the hallway. Turning back, she found that the room, too, was gone. She returned to the gallery.
“Ashley! Ashley, don’t stray!”
Ashley looked at her grandmother, then down at the thing in her hands. She returned to her grandparents with a slow, confused stride. They were standing next to her grandaunt Laura, though Laura did not seem pleased by their presence.
“Eric, I told you not to bring her,” Laura whispered harshly. “She will make a scene.”
“Oh, she is just looking at mom’s paintings,” Eric said, smiling nervously. “She always liked mom’s paintings. More than anybody else.”
“That tells you a lot, doesn’t it?” Laura mumbled to herself before taking a sip of wine.
Ashley’s grandmother scowled. “Says more about Margaret’s children than it does about her great-grandchildren.”
Laura rolled her eyes and clucked her tongue.
Ashley held out the thing the prince had given her.
“What’s this, honey?” Eric asked.
The little girl handed the notepad to her grandfather. Eric smiled and read the first page. At first his eyes skimmed the long list with a polite, albeit disinterested, gaze. Then his eyes widened, scouring each line in shocked disbelief. He saw the signature and the date at the bottom of the page and gawped. A moment later he shut his mouth and ground his jaw, as if chewing stiff leather.
“Laura,” he said, as evenly as possible, “you, Damon, and I have some things to talk about.” He slapped his palm with the notepad. “Many important things.”
“Surely, it can wait,” returned Laura, sighing. “Damon’s about to give another boring toast to mother.”
“Well, I don’t think things will be boring for long. In fact, I think war is on the way.”
Laura blew smoke lazily from her cigarette. “What are you talking about?”
“Theft,” he said, slapping the notepad again. “Shameless theft.”
His jaded sister rolled her eyes in disinterest. “Don’t make a scene, Eric. Mother wouldn’t have wanted it at her first official gallery showing.”
“To the contrary,” he said, “That is exactly what mother always wanted. A memorable scene for the newspapers to write about.”
Eric walked over to his brother— standing amidst his rapt audience as he spoke of how much he had agonized over his mother’s well-being— and slapped the glass out of his hand. He then slapped the fedora off of his head. When Damon opened his mouth to voice his outrage, Eric held up the notepad for all to see. The flush of fury in Damon’s cheeks abruptly drained to a sickly pallor. He looked like a dog about to be beaten by the newspaper. And he was.
“This is Margaret Tess’s last Will and Testament,” Eric said. “And it says that my brother here is a scheming thief trying to rob her great-granddaughter out of her rightful inheritance…”
As the journalists hurriedly jotted down notes, Eric began to read his mother’s last Will and Testament aloud for all to hear. It proved quite the scene and later only added to the mystique of the paintings. Art historians argue to this day that the family infighting only increased the value of the paintings, the scandal multiplying their worth manifold among collectors. After a lengthy court battle the paintings came to belong to Margaret’s mute great-granddaughter since she was, according to the Will, the only person who appreciated Margaret’s art while Margaret was alive. Ashley retained ownership of the paintings until her death many years later. No one currently knows where the paintings reside. Only Ashley knew, and she, of course, never told a soul.

Poetic Justice (Part 2 Rough)

I saw, too, that her hands clenched her flowery robe among her trembling fingers. I thought her fingers restless. Their lissome loveliness provoked much mischief in my heart.
“Should your fingers be restless for further play,” I said, “I should like to volunteer myself as the instrument of your joy.”
“My fingers are taloned,” she said, fluttering her fingers so that I might see their nails. “They will not stop for blood or bone or scream or plea.” She sighed. “Should you take them as wives to your fingers, however, they would serve as ever it might please you.”
“But I will not sell a false hope for such a delightful service,” I said, “no more than a kappa will sell his water to a thirsty man. I cannot marry you, as I have said before. Should not my honesty attest to some honor in my soul? I have ever been a servant of the truth, even when concerning you.”
“A poet’s truth always implies promises never fulfilled,” she said, “even when speaking of honor.”

I watched her leave, and not solely to look for a fox’s tail hidden beneath her kimono. Her stride beguiled, too, as did so many other aspects of her. Yet, I knew that wherever she walked, and however graceful, it was a path not my own. I walked a path plotted on paper and shadowed by ink. How else would I rival or surpass that famous poet, Matsuo Basho? His inky shadow obscured me from the fame I deserved.

***

I could not escape Lady Utano’s song. It was as a small centipede spiraling in my ear, gnawing at my mind. Thus I welcomed the distraction that Lord Gou offered later that evening.
“Come, let us think of other things,” he said. “We have more entertainment for tonight. Something special! Something enchanting!”
Lord Gou seemed quite pleased and excited. Perhaps the entertainment awaiting us was special, or perhaps he was merely relieved at having his house purified. Perhaps both. I followed his entourage into the main hall where his long, low table resided. At the head of the room was something new: a booth of lacquered wood, a red curtain drawn about it. It seemed we were to be audience to a Bunraku show. This diversion was at least worthwhile, I thought.
Lord Gou bid us sit. The musician took up a shamisen. Evidently he would be providing the dramatic atmosphere for the performance.
“Seat yourselves, my friends,” Lord Gou said. “The show begins soon!”
The show began immediately, and without further ado. Two puppets rose from below the curtained booth. One was a man and one was a woman. The man greeted the woman with a bow, and she bowed to him. He then came forward as the shamisen was struck affectionately. She tried to turn away, but the man bowed to her again and she simply demurred, then invited him to walk beside her. They strolled together as the music was struck placidly, like the falling of easy rain on a lake. The two puppets turned to one another and seemingly kissed. A beautiful note sounded, punctuating their moment with the grace of Heaven.
Suddenly, another puppet appeared. He wore a lavish kimono and a dark beard. A harsh note was struck upon the shamisen and several other puppets appeared with swords. There were so many that I marveled that so many puppeteers should not only inhabit such a small booth, but that they should do so while so adroitly manipulating their puppets. I fain believed that Thousand-Armed Kannon himself had to be squatting in that booth, arraying the simulacra of life.
The puppet woman was taken to the puppet man with the beard and he pressed himself unwantedly upon her. Her lover attempted to intervene, but was cut down by the warriors amidst discordant twanging of the shamisen. I looked at the musician, wondering if he was suffering a malady or paroxysm of the fingers. But his hands moved not at all, gnarled with terror as the shamisen’s strings trembled and shook of their own accord. I then noticed that Lord Gou had risen to his feet, livid with confounded rage.
“How dare you mock me in my own home!” he roared. “How dare you question my authority!”
He rushed forward and tore aside the puppet curtain. The puppets collapsed immediately through the air and fell limp upon the floor, the booth empty. Upon seeing this, Lord Gou fell back with a startled cry and the diviner rushed forward. Lord Gou quivered upon the floor, clutching at the diviner’s robe.
“Deliver me from these foul spirits!” our host pleaded.
The commotion drew the servants of the household into the main hall, followed by the true puppeteers. All were baffled and confused, including myself. Upon seeing the puppeteers, Lord Gou rose to his feet, the wrath in his face blazing and his teeth gnashing within his beard.
“You! You seek to make a fool of me!” He drew his tanto, ready to spill blood. “I will castrate the lot of you and throw your manhoods to the crows!”
The puppeteers ran from the room in a clumsy rush. Lady Utano intervened on their behalf, gliding forward into a low bow. She was like a prayer hushing a violent storm.
“My lord,” she said, “they are not the source of this mischief. They have been telling me of their travel from Kyoto.”
“I agree with the Lady,” the yin-yang diviner said. “This is the work of spirits. Yokai, possibly.”
Lord Gou sheathed his blade once again, turning upon the diviner with a snarl.
“And whose fault is that?” he said. “You were supposed to purify my home!”
“There is a darker stain on this estate than I realized,” he said. “I will resume my rituals immediately.”
Lord Gou merely grunted, then turned upon the musician. “Cease your noise, imbecile or I will have your fingers severed one by one and your tongue…” He did not elaborate on the punishment, for his last word fell from his gawping mouth like a dead bird. He saw that the musician had tossed the shamisen from himself and that the instrument played itself as it lay untouched on the floor. It played a dreadful discord before its noise died abruptly with the snapping of its strings.
***

I had a terrible dream about puppets. They pirouetted without hands in a great darkness. Men, women, children— all dancing as they floated in the air. Then, gradually, I realized they did have a master that manipulated them all, and that master gradually formed from moonlight within the darkness.
But before I could see the master I woke. It was late in the night, or perhaps early in the morning, just before the dew could form. The room seemed crowded with invisible specters, all watching me. I told myself it was a ridiculous sensation born of childish fears, but could not slip from its clammy control. Rising, I went outdoors, into the garden, to pace a bit and to breathe the calming open air.
The man was on the moon bridge again, staring into the moon pond. He waved to me and I went to him, not really knowing why.
“Unable to sleep,” he said. “We share the same affliction. Doomed without rest and without end.”
His back was to the moonlight, and so his face was black shadow. His robe was richly red. It must have cost him much to have such a robe.
“Perhaps we should drink more,” I suggested, “or perhaps we should drink less.”
“Diviner,” he said, “you are not enjoying your stay in Lord Gou’s hospitality. Most would question why the navel of paradise should chafe so.”
“I am not a diviner,” I said, without much feeling. “There are kami haunting this place. But it is no matter. The diviner— the true diviner—is working to purify these grounds.”
The ghost was silent a while, staring into the moon pond. “Do not trust that diviner,” he said. “He is not what he seems.”
“What do you mean?” I said.
Before the man could answer me I heard a great flapping of wings near the roof of the manor. I turned and glimpsed a shadowy bird passing astride the air. I could not tell what kind of bird it was, nor its size. It plunged out of sight. Returning my attention to the man on the bridge, I found that he had gone. I dropped my eyes to the moon pond, among the moon and carp and lotuses. I saw no one there, either. Feeling even more greatly unnerved, I returned to my room and attempted sleep once again. It did not come willingly, but had to be wrestled for obedience. It was a losing battle for me, as well as it.

***

I had not slept well. My grogginess clung to me like a goblin. I tried to shake it only to find that it had crawled in behind my eyes. I did not attempt any of the Lotus Sutra that day, knowing such an endeavor was doomed from the start. Instead, I drank tea and sat beneath a red flowering plum tree, away from everyone. Lord Gou’s servants sought to better my health with remedial herbs and honey. I was informed that Lord Gou himself had suffered a bout of ill health also and was now resting in his room, tended by the yin-yang diviner. The musician and the minister seemed of adequate haleness, for the former played his music incessantly near the moon pond and the latter enjoyed the company of many prostitutes. I did not know which — the imbecilically joyful music or the oleaginous laughter of the minister while the whores giggled indulgently. I swooned with fatigue and what grew to become a fever.

***

I did not remember coming to my room, but there I lay, on the floor with a pillow under my head and a kimono draped over me. The silk was soft, but it burned like fire. Someone knelt next to me, my eyes too blurry to see their face clearly. To see was to hurt. To think was to hurt. To exist was to hurt. The Buddha was right: existence is pain and sorrow.
A breath passed across my face, sweet as plums.
“The flames of Hell can be felt in this life,” she said, placing a cool hand over my hot forehead. “We must not fan them with sin and vice or Hell will come for us before we can atone.”
“Utano,” I said.
“Rest,” she said. She laid a moist cloth over my brow and then sang a song. Even in my agony her song was beautiful. Her song was restive sleep after a grievous journey.

“The Wishing Jewel you gave to me
was as dew upon the tree
and it shines with a light all its own,
but now I walk alone—alone.

“The Jewel you gave fell with the wind
through leaves at our Summer’s end,
and though I hold it, the winds still moan
while I walk on, alone—alone.

“Foxes laugh among sunshowers,
haunting pagoda towers,
and while my heart becomes as a stone
I walk this night alone— alone.

“The Jewel is hot as a fresh tear,
yet, lover, you come not near.
Willful fox! You refuse to atone,
so I walk forever alone…”

I fell asleep in the lull of her lilting voice.

***

I heard wings—huge wings—thrashing the air. Something heavy landed upon the roof, and then leapt down into the gardens. A large shadow, like a bird, stalked the screen door, pacing restlessly.
“I smell death,” it said with a raspy voice. “So much delicious death in this estate. My brethren will wish to roost here, in time. But they indulge the great feast of the famine. So many starved dead— what good is picking their bones? Better for fat, juicy souls glutted on decadence. No piety. No blessings to choke you.”
The creature laughed, squawking like a crow, and then walked away. I was overcome with fear and fever and fainted beneath my fatigue.
***

Breath wafted over me like charnel smoke over a battlefield. It stank of death and hopelessness. I dared not open my eyes.
“I will attend the poet,” said a voice.
“I am attending him,” Lady Utano said.
“But my lady, it is not proper,” the diviner said. “Your uncle objects mightily…”
“He would object more mightily to a death in his home,” Lady Utano said. “And he has improved greatly in my care.”
“A sick man must be tended by one who knows the spirit realm and who can defend him from its malicious forces.”
“I am the only malicious force this man needs to fear,” Lady Utano said.
“I…see,” said the diviner.
I succumbed to sleep once more.

***

My fever broke, in time, and a new day was heralded by birdsong. Drenched in sweat, I sat up. Lady Utano’s kimono still remained upon me. The Lady herself sipped tea at my table. She wore only her white undergarments. My hand reached for her, unconsciously, and she offered me a cup of tea instead. I took it tenderly and sipped as if it was her bare breast. My thirst did not abate for many cups.
“You are so false, Toshiyuki,” she said. “I wonder if you also keep a little bottle of tears up your sleeves when encountering wiser women who are warier of a man’s sweet lies.”
“Only a bottle of ink,” I said flippantly.
“Then perhaps you should mark your face as becomes you: with whiskers of a dishonest kitsune. Your shadow is vulpine, Toshiyuki. Either you are possessed by a yako or you are a fox.”
“I have been told that I am a diviner,” I said. I laughed weakly, and it hurt as it rattled out of my chest. “Perhaps my mother was a tenko. I am of a vulpine nature, admittedly.”
“And my uncle is like the ocean,” she said. “Often even when calm there is a legion of sea giants warring below the surface. Imagine what might happen if he were to learn of our love?”
“This is not love,” I said. “It is a delightful dalliance. Nothing more. Nor did I promise more.”

***

Sometimes I felt as a Bunraku puppet in a theater, performing in accordance with the will of other forces. When Lord Gou summoned me to the main hall I thought it was to congratulate me on my recovery. Instead, he did not seem to know of my illness, but rather had invited me to witness a troupe of dancers from Kyoto that had come to perform for his patronage.
“Come, Toshiyuki!” he said, hailing me as I entered. “We have been awaiting you! A fine entertainment awaits us tonight!”
I took my seat at my host’s long, low table. There awaited me— as there awaited everyone at the table—a cup which smelled of strange earthly odors. I lifted the cup tenderly, for it was a cup of some fine resplendence. Made of smooth porcelain, it was white and had kanji upon its sides which read “remember”. I believed it was of the saikai type of pottery. Saikai meant “reunion”, but why such exquisite cups were called by such a name I did not know. As for the liquid within it, I knew even less.
“What is this?” I asked. “It is not sake.”
“No, it is not sake,” said the diviner, smiling. His rotten-egg face wrinkled terribly and his voice croaked harshly. No doubt the many prayers and cleansing rituals had strained it hoarse. “It is a special drink made from maitake mushrooms. I made it for this occasion. It seemed fitting, for why should we not partake of the ‘dancing’ mushrooms while watching lovely creatures engage in dance?”
“Exactly so!” Lord Gou said, raising his cup and draining it to the dregs. “Let us enjoy in all senses this entertainment I have arranged this night!”
The minister raised his own cup in agreement, though he could not drain his own cup as well as Lord Gou. He choked and coughed halfway through the quaffing of it. The musician drank his steadily, playing his hichiriki between sips.
Merriment was all well and good, but nobler works required my attention now that I had recovered my health. Kabukimono I was, but decadence chafes without hard work and sweat to lubricate the leisure. I resented the squandering of this time.
Yet, I knew better than to be an ungrateful guest, insomuch as could be perceived. So, I sipped at the maitake drink. It was not so sweet as it was salty. I managed to drink half of the cup before the dancers gathered at the head of the main hall, preparing to showcase their talents. They wore yukatas, for to dance in this Summer heat was to invite suffering. The women also held pretty little fans in their hands, masking themselves occasionally with them as they spun and gestured to the piping of flutes and the beating of drums.
And they danced well. As I drank I watched the robed figures perform. It seemed to be a Bon Odori dance. I had seen it performed once during the Obon festival in the Ugo province.
Lord Gou growled suddenly, and slammed his fist upon the table. “I did what was within my right!” he said. “The two of them belonged to me! I am the governor of this region!”
The minister swooned, smiling laxly like a drunkard. “I knew you were a kitsune, my love, but I do not care. I love you as deeply as the cherry blossoms love the winds. I tremble at your merest movement, your gentlest sigh…”
The musician had abandoned playing his hichiriki, and was instead arguing with someone who was not present beside him. “You may have taught me the song, but I brought it to life. What good is a thought of music until you breathe life into it? I breathe life into all of the songs you killed with your ineptness…”
It was all so bizarre. They sat at the table, yet seemed to be far away with their souls. Suddenly, the others vanished— as did the main hall, the table, and the dancers. I was standing in a hall, slowly walking down its corridor. I saw my father. He looked sad and he shook his head. I tried to ask him what was wrong, why he was ashamed, and he gestured to the hall beyond him. I followed it, coming to a lover of mine. She looked brokenhearted. I tried to explain to her that I was fated for things greater than being a husband to a courtesan. Many other lovers came, one after the other. They were a hall of Noh masks— some sad, some demonic. They accused me silently with their eyes. Flames spewed from their mouths and the vision lifted.
I was once again in the main hall, and I saw the dancers spinning in harmony with each other like Karakuri machines. The drums continued to beat and the flutes continued to pipe. The old diviner was staring at me with his beady eyes. A faint smile touched his lips and I felt angry, and afraid.
Lord Gou stood, then, and went to the dancers, joining them.
“Let us all dance!” he exclaimed, mimicking the graceful movements of the dancers with his own clumsy, heavy-footed parody. “Dance for your ancestors! Dance with a light soul and a full belly!”
The minister rose and joined the dance, grinning as if he was dancing with his kitsune bride amidst sun-showers. The musician staggered upright and stumbled into the troupe also, dancing vengefully as if to spite the apparition with which he was formerly arguing. The last to join in the dancing was the yin-yang diviner, cawing with laughter. I watched them all dance, wanting to quit their company and retire to my quiet room. As I stood to leave I noticed that there was something wrong with the shadows of those dancing. The dancers had shadows shaped like small animals spread upon the floor. Badgers and raccoons and monkeys. Lord Gou’s shadow, meanwhile, reeled in the form of a great bull as he twirled and gestured. But I had had too much maitake to drink, and still felt the weakness of the fever. Discreetly I returned to my room while my host danced a madness among his honored guests. The festivities disagreed with me.

***

I dreamt that night of Mt. Asama erupting into the sky. Its mouth expelled a fire-froth that spilled over all lands, from sea to sea, and the black smoke became a million crows while the liquid-fire marched forth as red-faced Onis. They conquered the world, stamping underfoot all beauty there was to behold. It was an army of land and air come to blight the earth with death and corruption.

Poetic Justice (Part 1 Rough)

I, Toshiyuki, renowned poet and famed calligrapher of the Lotus Sutra, whose works had assured the succession of many lords, ladies, and even the Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu into Heaven, and for whose esteemed accomplishments came recognition in the Far West of Mystical China and subsequent benedictions by the Buddha with Enlightenment and prosperity, needed to piss. My loins burned with an excess of drink from the festive evening prior, and the weight of my Lady Utano’s slender, pale legs as they laid athwart my abdomen. Thus, yawning, I gently pushed aside her legs and rose from the tatami-spread floor of my host’s guest room, generously provided by my most recent patron, Lord Gou. Rising unsteadily— for my head swam with sake and my back ached with my Lady’s passions— I walked to the sliding screen that led out into the courtyard and slid the screen quietly, stumbling onto the veranda. I glanced over my shoulder as I heard Utano stir, then sigh, softly as a paintbrush across a scroll, and then settle again into her dreams. I wondered if she dreamt of me. I had dreamt of her, and I dreamt of the many women whose embrace I had known.
The courtyard garden was a ghostly affair of mist, moonlight, and chrysanthemums. I stumbled out into the garden, toward a weeping willow whose mournful height begged at the edge of a moon pond. While I relieved myself I watched the orange carp float lethargically in the water, and my thoughts moved as the carp moved among the lotus blooms. I hoped no one saw me, for the garden was illuminated brightly with the on-looking moon. Most of my host’s guests were asleep, for sake had gushed generously during yesterday’s celebration. I heard one guest yet awake— an official sent by the shogun, I believed— indulging a maid in Lord Gou’s household. This noise soon ended with a porcine snort and groan so that thereafter only the chirping song of crickets remained. As I shook myself dry I composed a haiku, compulsively, for that choral moment of solitude and peace.

“Carps float silently,
heeding cricket garden song—
legs shiver in mist.”

It was not a truly lovely poem, but my mind still ached from the happy thunder of yesterday evening. My mouth was parched, also, my tongue dry and rough as scroll parchment. I was foggy-headed, you see, from drink and grogginess, and the garden was likewise dreamy with mists.
Lord Gou had been quite fortunate in his karma, for his province had yet to starve as other provinces had. The famine reigned, as did the bleeding disease. Some believed that Oni, released from the hellfire of Mt. Asama, had cursed the world. Yet, no such demons claimed Lord Gou’s household. To the contrary, the Buddha seemed to have granted his blessings to all that Gou owned, including this lovely chrysanthemum garden. Their white petals reminded me of the moon above, and both moon and chrysanthemum seemed to glow as if calling to one another, mother to child. Indeed, all evidence I had seen of Lord Gou’s province suggested prosperity and good fortunes. The merchants thrived with their trade, and the samurai were without war, restless and idle. This I thought good, of course, for the Buddha favored harmony and nonviolence.
I had finished my cleansing and was soon to return to my Lady Utano, but I happened to glance up at the moon bridge that arched over the moon pond. To my chagrin I saw a man upon the bridge, leaning over the railing as if in contemplation of the lotus-dotted water. I could not see his face, for the moon was at his back and the mists rose around him thickly. Thinking I had shamed myself, I hurriedly tucked myself away and attempted to flee, but he called out to me.
“It is a mischief we all do by moonlight,” he said.
Thinking him one of Lord Gou’s men, I surrendered myself to my shame and hoped for mercy.
“We can only ask forgiveness from the Buddha,” I said.
The man remained silent a moment. His face was nothing but shadows and mist.
“And we must strive to be worthy of his forgiveness,” he said.
Having thus engaged me in conversation, he beckoned to me and I— fool that I was— approached him, circling round the pond and coming to the edge of the moon bridge. I did not step upon it, however, for it felt as if I was trespassing. Instead, I lingered at its edge, watching the faceless man as he leaned over the railing. He was attired in what would have been a very modest robe if not the for rich dye of dark redness that colored it. As he spoke he continued staring into the moon pond.
“There are demons about,” he said. “They can be very hospitable, and very mannerly as they devour your soul.”
I did not understand his meaning, but my body seemed to. My skin was as gooseflesh, a clammy coldness stealing over me despite the Summertime heat.
“I have had too much to drink,” I said, “and too little sleep for talk of demons. It is a late hour, and the only reasonable people to linger by moonlight are lovers and diviners.”
“That is true,” the man said. “And I am a lover. You, in your own way, are a diviner. So here we meet and linger by the will of the Buddha.”
“I am no diviner,” I said. “I am a poet and calligrapher. Toshiyuki. You have heard of me, no doubt. They call me Ink-Between-Stars and Rainbow-Within-Black. I paint the truths of this world with ink on parchment.”
“I have not heard of you,” the man said, unassuming and unforceful in his impudence. “I have no need of a poet or calligrapher. But a diviner, such as you, will do.”
I was now impatient to be done with this man. Lady Utano’s legs awaited me, as did her cherry blossom breath and her milky breasts. Moreover, this misty sojourn upset me, and not only my impatience. I was afraid. His talk of demons, and his facelessness, and the chill silence of the garden frightened me. Even the crickets had ceased their song. Now only this man’s voice broke the silence, and though he was atop the bridge I felt his voice at my ear. My own voice startled me. All was jumpy anticipation.
“Enough from madmen,” I said. “If I am going to postpone sleep, it will be for the lotus lips of my Lady Utano, not the words of a drunkard.”
“Neither drunkard nor madman,” the man said faintly. “Only Ren, lover of Ren, met by moonlight and cold steel to separate destined hearts…”
As I turned away I skimmed the moon pond with my eyes, glimpsing a woman’s face in the undisturbed waters. She appeared mournful as she looked up at the moon bridge. I, too, looked up at the bridge, and saw that the drunkard had vanished. Looking down at the waters, the woman had vanished as well. Yet, the man…Ren…his words haunted me into the depths of sleep.

***

The next morning I knelt at the low table in my guest room, my brush in hand as I wrote a poem upon a sheet of parchment. Lady Utano stood behind me, eagerly watching my hand as it dragged the ink-kissed brush here and there.

“How sad the lotus
plucked from its native waters—
withers without love.”

“Lovely,” she remarked. “Your kanji is so lovely.”
I grunted.
“Is it about me?” she said, her tone suddenly sad. “Are you to leave soon?”
I grunted again. I never liked these discussions. She knew, before our night together that we were cranes at the same pond for a brief sojourn; nothing more.
She knelt down beside me, quietly. Her movements were always graceful and unhurried; silent and smooth as the silk kimono she wore. Her black hair lay laxly about her shoulders. She had not yet done it up with her comb, the tresses hanging over her brow. I preferred her to look this way— this dawn look after a night of passions— as I had preferred it in all of my lovers. Her black hair framed her pale, rounded face perfectly. Lady Utano was doubtlessly beautiful. I only ever courted beautiful women. Yet, her lips were longer than most women’s, and hung down mournfully, even when she smiled. It gave her a uniqueness that summoned her often among my forethoughts, whereas other men valued small, rosebud lips. Her lips should have been disagreeable, but they were not; not unless she used them to speak what should have been left unspoken.
“I will always await your return,” she said, sadly. When I did not respond, she rose and went to the sliding screen. “We have become as intimate as husband and wife,” she said. “Yet, you behave as if there is still a screen between us.”
“There must always be a screen between us,” I said. “Even when we embrace. And, sooner or later, there will be more than a mere screen between us. There will be many lands between us, for that is my destiny.”
She said no more, but withdrew discreetly into the courtyard garden. I sighed and set aside the brush, taking up the parchment. The ink strokes were smooth and the characters perfect, but the abrupt change in position caused the ink to run, like tears, down the page.
It was at this time that a servant of Lord Gou called from the corridor.
“Our Lord requests your presence,” the servant said.
“I will arrive shortly,” I said.
I was of two minds, however: one, to go attend Lord Gou, and the other, to seek Lady Utano. No good would come of the latter, I decided, so I pursued the former.
The servant led me to the main hall with its long, low table. Lord Gou was seated at the head of the table, as were his other guests. I will not recall names here, but there was a famous musician known for his skill with a hichiriki, as well as a famous yin-yang diviner, and a servant of Emperor Kokaku. They had already eaten and were talking politely amongst themselves. My plate of food awaited me and I sat to partake of it, for I was famished. As with all of Lord Gou’s hospitalities, the fish and rice and fruit were all very excellent and generous of portion.
“Toshiyuki has quite the appetite this morning,” Lord Gou remarked, grinning through his black beard. His lips were already wet with sake, though the sun had yet to rise above the first tier of the Western pagoda. “Was it yesterday’s festivities that provoked such a hunger, or was it a hunger in the night?”
“Hunger can beget hunger,” the diviner said, stealing furtive glances around the room, “or so they say.”
“I dreamt of many sweet things,” I said warily. I began to eat, staring down at my food in the hope that they would abandon this conversation.
“And what form did your dreams take?” the musician said, smirking with mischief at Lord Gou, for the musician was a sycophant if ever there was one.
“Mist and shadow and moonlight,” I said. “Ink and parchment and hard work. Nothing more.”
The four men chuckled knowingly and drank from their sake cups. They had been drinking for the last three days, halting only for sleep and laughter. I, too, had been drinking similarly, though I restrained myself from equal measure for the sake of clarity. After all, I had a purpose here, as did the diviner and the musician. We were guests, and so had functions to serve. I was to copy the Lotus Sutra for Lord Gou, and to write original poetry in honor of his esteemed personage. The musician was to provide music, naturally. As for the diviner, I knew not what his purpose was. Perhaps Lord Gou feared that the Oni of Mt. Asami might eventually reach his province and, so, the diviner would be employed to march them out of this hitherto untainted region. He was a very renowned diviner, and wrinkled with age and experience. His bald head elicited respect among many, but it merely reminded me of a peeled, rotten egg.
I composed a poem in his honor.

“Jealous blades seek blood
as does the swallow its nest,
yet eggs do not hatch.”

Lord Gou believed I had indulged in the concubine he had selected for me. She had been a lovely woman, but Lady Utano had beguiled my eye with a greater light. Thus, I sent the prostitute away and had, instead, dared the courtship of Lady Utano instead. She was his niece, though he cared little for her as much as he had for his concubines.
“How go my scrolls?” Lord Gou asked, leaving off the former subject at last. “I expect my Lotus Sutras to be peerless, for my sins have been peerless indeed.” He laughed, and so, too, did the musician. He then stopped laughing, glowering at the musician until the latter’s voice died like a mouse in a fox’s teeth.
“There is nothing funny in it, boy,” he remarked. “You would do well to hold your tongue or else you will never work song upon it again.”
The musician stared at his lap, his head bowed. Lord Gou scowled at him a moment longer, then turned to me again, smiling. His smile was without humor.
“How have you progressed with my Lotus Sutras?” he asked.
“They go well,” I said. “They are some of the best I have ever made.”
“That is good,” he said, “for your sake as well as my own. I am paying you handsomely for them, and so I demand that they be of extraordinary beauty.”
“This version of the Namu Myoho Renge Kyo shall be my finest version,” I promised. “When I write it the very sight shall absolve you of whatever negative karma you have collected. Like water carrying away tea leaves, you shall be poured out as a cup and cleansed.”
“That reminds me,” said Lord Gou said, motioning toward his servants. “The Tea Ceremony. We have much entertainment arranged for today, but we must also observe tradition.”
Sweets were brought forth, as were the Lord’s personal porcelain water kettle and his silver ladle. Cups were distributed as well, each filled with water and matcha, stirred to perfection. Lord Gou did not prepare the tea himself, but had his servants do it. This was not true to the ceremony, but none of us dared say so. Having our own cup, too, was not in keeping with the ceremony. In truth, none of it was really in keeping with tradition, but then again neither was I. I was, after all, a kabukimono of the floating world. I wrote the Lotus Sutra for a living and spent many of my days practicing it for my own vanity and pride rather than the call of the Buddha.
We drank of our tea slowly, to show appreciation of the tea and of our host. I did not eat the sweets, however, for I had yet to finish the food already provided to me. Soon sake was offered, and readily accepted, and we all drank ourselves silly throughout the day and night.

***

The next morning I awoke, alone, in the dimness of a predawn murk. Groggy with sake, I stood unsteadily, walking toward the sliding screen door that led out into the garden. I reached for it, then halted, gasping in fright. Above the door, hanging by a piece of thread, was a Noh mask. I reached and took it down, looking over it. It was like most Noh masks. It was made of wood, fashioned in the visage of a smiling woman and painted white with red lips. Her eyes were black. Thinking I must have somehow hung it while in my drunken stupor, I laughed at myself and set it on my table, beside my parchment and ink well.
It was a hot, sweltering sort of day. The sun lacquered the world with its hot resin. My host and all of his guests retreated indoors, to the main hall, where his servants fanned us until the cooler evening hours when the sun could set, the moon could rise, and the shadows could steal over the courtyard. We then went to the garden to walk among the Chrysanthemums and the cherry blossoms. Lord Gou spoke to the minister sent by the Emperor while the musician played his hichiriki. The yin-yang diviner performed some rituals and put ofudas here and there, over every screen door on the veranda. I stared into the moon pond, wondering if I would see a woman’s face in among the lotuses and the carp. I saw no woman. And then I did. It was Lady Utano. She said nothing, but stared into the water, much as I did. When I opened my mouth to say something, however, she walked away, leaving me to my reflection in the still water; looking lonely and sad. I turned away from it in self-disapproval.

***

Rain fell for three days, washing away the ofudas. It cooled Lord Gou’s house, though, the wet breath of the persistent storm both refreshing and inspiriting. Many poems did I write, and many passages from the Lotus Sutra did I copy; and quite beautifully, I must add.
Yet, it was not altogether pleasant. A melancholy fell upon the others, including Gou and Lady Utano. Gou brooded, listening to the musician’s incessant songs. Lady Utano avoided me whenever she could. But we were trapped indoors by the rain. When we passed in the halls she often paused and gave me a despondent frown that instantly darkened the day more sadly than any storm cloud.
Upon the second day of rain I sat on the veranda and sipped tea, enjoying the sweetness of the rain and the bitterness of the tea leaves. The garden was fragrant with flowers. They welcomed the showers as a leper a balm. I saw that drunkard upon the bridge again, seemingly unmindful of the downpour. He brooded worse than Lord Gou, staring as always into the moon pond to see— I could only surmise—his rain-shattered reflection.
A servant to Lord Gou’s household arrived, just then, bringing more tea.
“The fool is at it again,” I said to him.
“Fool?” he said, apparently afraid that an honored guest had spoken ill of Lord Gou.
“On the bridge,” I said, pointing…and nearly spilling my new cup of tea in my lap.
“I see no one,” the old man said.
“That is because you are drunk, too!” I said, scolding him before sending him on his way. As I blew upon the hot cup of tea, I stared at the man on the bridge. He was a puzzle demanding that I solve it, and yet there may have been little mystery to him after all. He seemed such a hopeless soul, and I did not pity him.
“He will catch his death in the rain,” I remarked aloud to myself.
“Tears earn as many deaths.”
I was surprised to find Lady Utano standing beside me, behind a screen. She stood quite properly, and at a distance, for the sake of propriety. It was absurd to see her this way, stiffened with formality and manners, for we both knew each other’s bodies and pleasures and neither screen nor pretense should ever hope to undo such strongly established intimacy.
“Your presence is as refreshing as Spring rain,” I said.
“That is too obvious a compliment for a poet of your renown,” she said, rather flatly. “Perhaps you should apply more skill.”
“As I applied skill to you as I had you in my arms,” I said, rather boldly.
She did not seem taken aback, her husky voice rolling smoothly as honey down a Zen garden rock. “Do not credit yourself with all of that night’s pleasures,” she said. “What good is a brush without a satisfying well of ink? It will run ragged and dry on the page without a proper dip.”
I could not help but smile. “Indeed,” I said. “You deserve as much credit.” My smile faded, however. “And yet I know that you are not as satisfied by that night as I was. You feel I have abused your heart. For that…I can only say that it was a pleasure between a man and a woman of their own minds. Just as you cannot credit me solely for the pleasure, you can neither credit me solely for the pain. That we must depart was well known to you prior to your having come into my room.”
Lady Utano was quiet for a long time.
“Things are always more rapturous by moonlight,” she said. “And how often we find the flaws by dawn’s lantern. Yet, I should like to be at your side, despite the flaws that come to light.”
“Perhaps you know that wayward man,” I said, seeking to steer this conversation elsewhere. I pointed to the figure on the bridge. He looked almost as if made of mist, so awash was he in rain. “Perhaps it is you for whom he swoons like a waterlogged rat.”
“I do not know whom you mean,” she said, “unles you speak of yourself.”
I laughed once—a short, hearty guffaw. “I would never mope as he does. Not for love lost. For my life’s work, perhaps, but never a broken heart.”
Lady Utano was quiet, again, for a long time. When she became so quiet it was as if the world was biding as she gathered her thoughts.
“Perhaps I shall become a demon,” she said, offhandedly. “Then I could gather bones and saikai cups and ash and make a man like yourself to be my husband. Or perhaps I will simply torture him for eternity.” She turned away, her tone soft as rain on Chrysanthemum petals. “No, that would not be right, or satisfying, for I would always know he was not you.”
She sounded as if she had quietly gone mad, and it struck me keenly. I tried to explain to her, as evenly as possible, the impossibility of a conjoint life.
“Lady Utano,” I said “I am of the floating world. I am a kabukimono. You do not belong in my world. No respectable woman does.”
“And yet you have invited me in for a moon,” she said.
“What is dared by moonlight may never be dared by daylight,” I said. “You know this. The Shining Lord of Letters must seek the Sutras with a hand unencumbered by another, no matter how graceful or dainty.”
“You are no Genji,” she said. “Your luster dims upon repeated viewing, and closer inspection.”
She abruptly left. I tried to rise to follow her, but then spilled my tea on my sleeves. What a shame! It would stain, no doubt.

***

The next morning I woke to another surprise. It was another Noh mask, this one’s smile strained more greatly than the first. The ruts of its cheeks were deep, painful at the edges of the woman’s mouth, and there was a desperation in the brow around the eyes of the mask. It was as if the mask was being tortured, and still trying to smile. I had not drank enough the prior evening to forget myself, and I knew that I had not hung the mask in my room. Someone else was taunting me. Perhaps it was that mischief-maker upon the bridge. If I ever caught him out there again I would flog him. I promised myself thus as I gave the mask to a servant to do with as he pleased.
The rains departed, leaving in their wake an effusive envelopment of mist. It made the manor seem a haunted, lonely place upon cloud-wreathed mountaintops. Sometimes it seemed that I walked through the halls without ever coming upon any other person. The mists seeped into the house, and isolated us all. My calligraphy failed me often while the chilly mists clung to my hands and I felt as if there were hands in the mist tickling me, distracting me, fiddling at my ear to ruin all my enterprise.
When the mists finally lifted, Lord Gou summoned all of his guests to the garden. We sat upon the veranda, near the moon pond, and basked in the sun finally woken from its long slumber. Lord Gou appeared tardy, however, carrying with him a tea pot and ladle. His servants presented to each of us cup. Lord Gou addressed us.
“The rains now gone,” he said, “and the sun risen and brightening my home, I should like to properly perform the Tea Ceremony for you all. My melancholy has not allowed me to be a good host as of late and this, I hope, will make amends.”
The musician and diviner attempted to explain away Lord Gou’s inattendance, offering excuses and pardons for him in turn.
“No!” he said, nearly stomping. “I will not hear it! I have been disgraceful, and so allow me this small atonement.”
Lord Gou then proceeded to perform the Tea Ceremony— precisely, methodically, almost humbly. It took some time, for he seemed obsessed with observing all of the protocols of the ritual exactly, and the rest of us waited as patiently as possible. However, I could not loosen the irritation I felt at this protracted waste of time. I had the Sutra to write; I did not wish to squander time on tea or pretense.
The sun was at its zenith, blasting the garden with its heat, when Lord Gou had served us all so that we might finally drink. The yin-yang diviner was the first to sip thoughtfully at his tea, for he had been enraptured by Lord Gou’s gesture and wished to reciprocate immediately in gratitude to his host. I was hesitant, being distracted by another poem that wove and unwound itself in my mind, and so was slower in partaking. I never did partake, in truth. Instead, the diviner sipped, then spat the tea back into his cup, his sleepy eyes suddenly agog with fear and disgust. The musician was less subtle. He gulped at his cup, then sputtered it out all over himself, gagging and coughing and then finally scooping up water from the moon pond to rinse out his mouth.
Lord Gou was outraged.
“What is the meaning of this insolence!” he screamed, drawing a tanto he kept ever at his belt. Its blade gleamed, but not so fiercely as the fury in his eyes. “I will have you two gutted like fish and thrown to the dogs!”
The musician and the diviner begged mercy. Meanwhile, I raised the tea to my nose, sniffing. It was much bitterer than matcha ever had right to be. But what was wrong with it? I sniffed at it some more and realized that it smelled of iron, and of blood.
“Lord Gou,” I said, rising to my feet. “There is something wrong with the water. It smells of…corruption.”
Lord Gou turned upon me, his apoplectic rage not unlike an Oni’s. “Corruption? What nonsense is this?!”
“It tastes of blood!” the musician wailed, prostrating himself on the veranda to beg mercy for his mouth. “There is a curse upon the tea leaves!”
“Or upon the water,” the diviner said, struggling to stand and rally to explain. “Wherefrom did you retrieve the water, my lord?”
Lord Gou turned upon one of his servants, grabbing the young man by the collar of his robe and brandishing the tanto. “Where did the water come from, little whelp?”
The hapless servant stuttered and yelped like a dog being throttled. “From the rainwater, your esteemed glory!”
“I see,” said the diviner. “So what I sensed was amiss after all.”
Lord Gou released the young servant— with a violent shove that sent him sprawling upon the veranda— then addressed the diviner. “What did you sense?”
“There is a curse upon your house, my lord,” the diviner said, bowing. “There is a matter unresolved among spirits here. They seek a toll. They seek revenge.”
Lord Gou’s face paled but a moment, then darkened with redoubled rage. “That is ridiculous,” he said, sheathing his tanto. “I have no sins with shadows to fear. This is a house of honor! A house of nobility and pride! Spirits would do well to flee here or else be cast out by the Buddha from all realms but the most infernal.”
“I do not doubt you, my lord,” the diviner said. “But I sense something terribly wrong here. My talismans have all been repelled by an evil force. I cannot even prepare new ones no without the paper catching fire in my hands.”
He proceeded to demonstrate, setting a paper talisman upon the table and using a stick of charcoal to write a benediction. No sooner than charcoal finished the characters for blessing the talisman flared and dissolved into ash and smoke.
All stood and stared, amazed, including myself. Why had my Sutras been spared by this malevolent presence?
“Worry not, my lord,” the diviner said. “I will exorcize these spirits soon enough. Wherever they lurk, they shall be expunged.”
The Emperor’s minster comforted Lord Gou with promises to seek more diviners to help the one already in his employ. Thus, he wrote a letter and had it dispatched to Kyoto. In the meantime, the diviner set about Lord Gou’s household, performing cleansing rituals. The musician stayed with them, and most of the servants attended them, as they attended Lord Gou. As for myself, I retired to the garden, for I felt that I would only intrude.

I saw Lady Utano playing a shamisen beneath a red flowering plum tree. She did not see me, for she was turned away, looking out over the moon pond as she played in the purple shadows of the tree. Her profile was lovely and forlorn, her fingers gingerly striking with their pick upon the taut strings of the shamisen. The chrysanthemums were by daylight no longer pale white bulbs, but glowed brilliantly in many colors. Yellow, orange, purple, red.
I would never attain the same status as Matsuo Basho if I took a wife. Rather, I would need to renounce urban life and venture into the countryside, heading wherever poetic inspiration might greet me. Yet, I was too enamored of city life and its easy pleasures. And I was too enamored of women. Especially Lady Utano. I could see, even then, her black hair flowing like ink upon the pale, smooth silk of her body, the latter gleaming and lustrous as the dreaming moon. Her skin was immaculate, with neither an inky droplet of a mole nor the obscene crease of a wrinkle. Her eyes were dark and hot like burning incense. What was her fragrance if not plum petals cloyed with dew? Her voice— which I loved most of all—was husky and heady, lacking the childish squeak of so many other women when in the throes of passion. She had a heavy breath, and her voice was a primal spirit echoing from deep within the cave of her mountainous bosom.

This was her song:

“Lotus, fair, upon the water,
so lonely now, at the midday hour,
my unmarried daughter;
Lotus, fair, in the silken shade,
such a lonely flower
to do as you are bade…”

She saw me, and pretended to ignore me. I did not mind, for she continued her song, and I yearned for nothing half so much as her song.

“Lotus, fair, in the vase,
taken by a giant’s greedy fist,
O you weep in this dry place;
Lotus, fair, in the dust,
saved not when kissed
by the dew of lust…”

Abruptly— almost violently— she shoved aside the shamisen against the trunk of the tree and turned her back to me. Yet, I would not be put off so easily as a musical instrument.
“I think you could play a fine song upon most anything,” I said, “even a blade of grass, if need be.”
She remained with her back to me, yet there was a coquettishness to her posture that seemed to invite me. Perhaps it was the serpentine curves of the spine beneath the robe— .
“Yes,” she said, “but crude, lowly things often presume that they make that music alone, and so we must be selective of the instruments we play.”
Doubtlessly, she was speaking thorns at me. It did not matter, though, for they delighted me as much as her petals might. Her mind was a delicious dish, too.