Ukiyo (The Floating World)
I, Toshiyuki Watanabe, renowned poet and famed calligrapher of the Lotus Sutra, whose works assured the succession of many lords, ladies, and even the Shogun Tokugawa Ieharu himself into Heaven, and with whose esteemed accomplishments came recognition in the Far West, within Mystical China itself, and subsequent benedictions by the Buddha with Enlightenment and prosperity—whose very calligraphy brush opened portals to the higher realms of rebirth and serenity—needed to pee. My loins burned with an excess of drink from the festive evening prior, as well as the weight of my Lady Utano’s slender legs as they laid athwart my abdomen. Thus, yawning, I gently pushed aside my lady’s 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 door 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 had dreamt of the many women whose embrace I had known.
The courtyard garden was a ghostly affair of mist, moonlight, and chrysanthemums. I shambled out into the garden, toward a weeping willow whose mournful tresses begged at the edge of a moon pond. While I relieved myself I watched the orange carp float lethargic 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 or Emperor, 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 significant 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. Thus mists without were as mists within.
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 Mount Asama, had cursed the world. Yet, no such demons claimed Lord Gou’s household or province. To the contrary, the Buddha seemed to have granted his blessings to all that Gou owned, including this lovely chrysanthemum garden. The 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 suggested prosperity and good fortunes within Lord Gou’s province. The merchants thrived with their trade, and the Samurai were without war, restless and idle. Though the rest of the world was rife with discord, within this corner dwelled harmony. 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 shadow 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, fated so by the will of the Buddha.”
“I am no diviner,” I said. “I am a poet and calligrapher. Toshiyuki Watanabe. 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 serve well enough.”
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, I saw that the woman had vanished also. Yet, the man…Ren…his words haunted me into the depths of deep sleep.
The next morning I knelt at the low table in my guest room, my brush in hand as I wrote a poem upon a sheet of parchment. Lady Utano stood behind me, eagerly watching my hand as it dragged the ink-kissed brush here and there.
“How sad the lotus
plucked from its native waters—
withers without love.”
“Lovely,” she remarked. “Your kanji is so lovely.”
“Is it about me?” she said, her tone suddenly sad. “Are you to leave soon?”
I grunted again. I never liked these discussions. She knew, before our night together that we were cranes at the same pond for a brief sojourn; nothing more. I had offered her no deceits to forge her delusions, nor did I cloak my intentions in vague promises.
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 long lips should have been disagreeable and morose in make, 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. When I did not respond, she rose and went to the sliding door. “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. From stream to plate, and paddy to bowl, Lord Gou undoubtedly prospered.
“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 born 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 Mount Asami might eventually reach his province, the diviner thereafter employed to march them out of this hitherto untainted region. He was a very renowned diviner, supposedly, and was wrinkled with age and experience. His bald head elicited respect among many, but it merely reminded me of a peeled, rotten egg.
Compulsively, I composed a poem in his honor.
“Hateful blades seek blood
as do crows their charnel nest—
many eggs shall hatch.”
I did not actually understand the poem I had composed. It was a mystery to me, as was the diviner. Yet, as to everyone’s knowing humor, I understood the seed of their mirth. Lord Gou believed I had indulged the concubine he had selected for me during my stay as his guest. She had been a lovely woman, true, but Lady Utano had beguiled my eye with a greater light. Thus, I sent the courtesan away and had, instead, dared the courtship of Lady Utano instead. She was his niece. For him to learn of our tryst would have assured death, like stench in a stubborn wound. He would need only summon the Samurai he had stationed outside of his manor, and thus have my head quickly served to him.
“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 snapped. “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.
“So,” he said, “how have you progressed with my Lotus Sutras?”
“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 rewarding 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 man 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. But there hadto be a balance in all things.
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 eaten my fill of 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 the door, 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 disapproval.
Rain fell for three days, washing away the ofudas. It cooled Lord Gou’s house, 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 and fingering the tanto he kept in his robe belt. I noticed that his hand went to that tanto often when he was troubled. 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 modestly fragrant with a Chrysanthemum breath. The flowers 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 at 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 near me, behind a screen. She stood quite stolidly, 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, boldly.
She did not seem taken aback, her husky voice rolling smooth as a water-worn stone. “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 possessed of their own wills. 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, her silence throbbing with rainfall on the overhanging eaves.
“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 mopes like a lovelorn boy.”
“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 quiet like this 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 as 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. 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 write the Sutras with a hand unencumbered by earthly burdens and obligations.”
“You are no Genji,” she said. “Your luster dims upon repeated viewing, and growing familiarity.”
She abruptly left. I tried to rise to follow her, but spilled my tea on my sleeves. What a shame! It would stain, no doubt.
The next morning I woke to another surprise. It was a 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 while still trying to counterfeit a 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 set the mask with the one from yesterday, stacking them to one side of the table.
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 had his servants summon all of his guests to the garden. We sat upon the veranda, near the moon pond, and basked in the sun as it finally woke from its long slumber. Lord Gou appeared, then, 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 now risen, brightening my home, I should like to properly perform the Tea Ceremony for all of my guests. Ill-humor 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 minister was the first to sip thoughtfully at his tea, for he had been enraptured by Lord Gou’s grand 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 minister sipped, then spat the tea back into his cup, his grateful eyes suddenly agog with 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. His face sweated with anger, like sesame oil in want of flame.
“What is the meaning of this insolence!” he roared, drawing the 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 minister begged mercy. Meanwhile, the yin-yang diviner sipped at his cup, deep appreciation smoothing his wrinkled face.
“I do not understand your complaints,” he said. “This is the best cup of tea I have ever drank.”
I raised my cup of tea to my nose, sniffing. It was much bitterer than matcha ever had right to be. But what was truly wrong with it? I sniffed at it some more and realized that it smelled of iron; 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. “There is a curse upon the tea leaves!”
“Or upon the water,” the diviner said, struggling to stand and rallying 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 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 had he finished the characters for blessing did the talisman flare and dissolve 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. I opened my mouth to say something, but the fluttering of her fingers across the strings startled me to silence. For her fingernails fluttered pink like cherry blossoms upon a wind-struck bough; and it seemed both beautiufl and ominous, like the Lady herself.
The chrysanthemums were by daylight no longer pale white bulbs, but glowed brilliantly in many colors. Yellow, orange, purple, red. How much things can change by daylight! What was black and white and otherworldly was now vibrant and colorful and undeniably real. The only thing that remained the same was the beauty of Lady Utano. In a world of impermanence she seemed an untarnished jewel. To see her was to want her. To watch her was to desire possession of her. To touch her was to lose one’s soul to her.
Or so it seemed to me.
Yet, 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.
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 warned, 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 manifest form. 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. It seemed that I should never even outshine the shade of my namesake, Fujiwara no Toshiyuki. I drowned in the thin shadow of his name, paddling in vain to emerge as my own legend to outlast the ages.
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 than pollutant spirits and cleansing rituals,” 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 long black curtain drawn about the far wall. It seemed we were to be audience to a Bunraku show. This diversion was at least worthwhile, I thought. It enticed me more than any fussy, stifling Tea Ceremony could.
Lord Gou bid us sit. The musician took up a shamisen, very simliar to that which Lady Utano had played in the courtyard. Evidently he would be providing the dramatic atmosphere for the performance. I hoped his skill with it was superior to his skill with the hichiriki. He had in his hand a bachi with which to strum the strings, as opposed to Lady Utano’s free-finger plucking style.
“Seat yourselves, my friends,” Lord Gou said. “The show begins soon!”
The show began immediately, and without further ado. Two puppets emerged from behind the black curtain. One was a man and one was a woman. The man greeted the woman with a bow, and she bowed to him in turn. 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 simple grace. It was a quaint conceit, and it pleased me to see puppets so masterfully conducted.
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 orchestrate their puppets so adroitly around one another, but that they should do from behind the curtain so perfectly as to render themselves utterly invisible! I fain believed that Thousand-Armed Kannon himself was behind the curtain, arraying the simulacra of life with his divine hands.
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 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 Lord Gou rising to his feet, livid with confounded rage.
“How dare you mock me in my own home!” he roared. “How dare you question my authority with this…this…damnable willfulness!”
He rushed forward and tore aside the puppet curtain. The puppets collapsed immediately through the air and fell limp upon the floor. The area beyond the curtain was wholly empty, revealing only the far wall behind it. Upon seeing this, Lord Gou fell back with a startled cry. The diviner rushed forward to attend his Host. 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 have been telling me of their journey from Kyoto. They cannot the source of this mischief.”
“I agree with the Lady,” the yin-yang diviner said. “This is the work of spirits. Yokai, possibly. Oni.”
Lord Gou sheathed his blade, 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, seemingly unconcerned with his Host’s fury. “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 three 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, the darkness being black wings upon which he flew
But before I could see the evil one’s face I woke. It was late in the night, or perhaps early in the morning, just before the dew could gather upon the grass and leaves and petals. 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 touch. 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 colorful 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 raw a debaucher.”
“I am neither debaucher or 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 more 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 lost battle.
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 to produce 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 within his quarters. I did not know which offended me more — the imbecilically joyful music or the oleaginous laughter of the minister while his 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 and yet hot as dragonfire.
“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 voice said. “Your uncle objects mightily…”
“He would object more mightily to a death in his home,” Lady Utano said. “And the poet 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 again.
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 lightly.
“Then perhaps you should mark your face as becomes you: with whiskers of a dishonest kitsune. Your shadow is vulpine. 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 expecting you for some time! 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 his throat 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 intermittently, playing his hichiriki between sips.
Merriment was all well and good, but nobler works required my attention now that I had recovered my health. I was of the Floating World, 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 and fumbling fingers…”
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 former lover I knew a few years ago. She looked brokenhearted. I tried to explain to her, once again, that I was fated for things greater than being a husband to a courtesan. She stepped aside, her back against the wall as I passed. Many other lovers did I pass, one after the other. They, too, stepped aside, left or right, passing into the walls until only their faces remained, frozen in a single expression. 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 clouded over with suffocating smoke. I thought I would die ere it lifted.
And then it 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! Dance away the worries of this willful world!”
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. My head was heavy with drink and the vision I had seen. My heart was heavier.
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.
I dreamt that night of Mount 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.
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 in my room. Like the others it hung 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 added it to the stack hitherto collected. Three I had now. How many more would follow?
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 my 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 faintly 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 constancy. And Woman judges often, and judges severely. Izanami will give her verdict, in 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? Willfulness should not be tolerated in any measure.”
“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 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, for we have been blessed by all aspects of Order.”
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 a bull. He did not take anything so lightly, even the playful buzzing of a fly.
“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 the others, 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 ofttimes wisdom.
After the young man had been sufficiently beaten, he staggered away. An older servant helped him down the hall and tended to his knot-crowned 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, as I had done that night.
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. 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 stone, 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 nor lord’s nor…” He gave me a meaningful look. “…nor Lady’s.”
The old man said no more. He turned and walked away, leaving me, and the toad, in the Zen rock garden, among the water-smoothed stones. I looked to the toad for comfort of company, for I was shaken. Paradise was not as it seemed, and I feared a Samurai’s blade would seek my heart soon, like a crane spearing for fish in a lake.
“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 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 bold! How absurd! Anyone could have heard us and fetched one of Lord Gou’s stone-faced Samurai to execute me for my trespass. Paper walls could not protect Paradise. Blades pierced it easily enough.
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? And what pit would I find myself confined to? I could see myself scrambling up sharp-leaved trees to reach beautiful women beckoning me, gutting myself while demons clamored to devour my entrails. Yes, that would be my fate. 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 limbs, 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. It spread easily and provoked thoughts of Lady Utano with the Lotus blossom image upon its spreaded face.
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,” the monk 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 then the river would not drown him. He said Master Yuuga could repel whole oceans with enough faith when speaking Amida’s name. Our Master had great faith and so he went to the river. Many townsfolk and refugees heard word of 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, too, 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 not the tengu 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 Oni 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, and thus sprang forth from my lips.
in honor of the Buddha—
burns down his temple.”
The yin-yang diviner grinned, but the musician was too confused to muster a remark. Lord Gou was staring at the refugees clustered around the outskirts of town. He growled irritably. He spoke with a jaw stiffened by intolerance.
“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?”
They laughed, including Lord Gou, for it was a lewd poem at its heart. I did not laugh. I was too divided in mind and heart. 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? The earth would be festooned in rainbows. But what a long expanse of gloomy rain that would follow!
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. Overtaken with my sympathies, 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.
And yet while I feared reprisals against the family, I also boasted to myself that the children were quite grateful for my small charity and, afterward, quite talkative. They brimmed with chatter about their father, now gone, and their homeland, now decimated. They also brimmed with darksome fancies, which were, no doubt, birthed from their terrible experiences. They spoke of seeing gigantic skeletons roaming their homeland, devouring the dead and never satisfying their hunger, the bloody meat spilling through their bony ribs. I laughed, nervously, looking to their mother with a dismissive roll of the eyes. She openly wept, which I thought to have been on behalf of the famine that claimed so much, including the easy minds of her children. Tears fell from my cheeks likewise. The poor, delirious creatures!
As I left the disheveled masses, I walked along the outer skirts of Lord Gou’s provincial town, repairing toward his residence. My mind called up again the image of the two children, starved, and their weeping mother, and I glanced over my shoulder, absently. I saw the tree line, of course, with its greenery splashed here and there with pink and crimson and white blotches of color. But I also saw a horrendous skull rise above it, tottering and overtopping the refugees with its empty, black eye sockets. Rubbing my eyes, I looked again. The giant had vanished, as should any whim of madness brought about by excessive emotion. I continued onward and gave it no further thought.
It was midday when I returned to Lord Gou’s estate. Approaching the manor I saw his many Samurai standing guard outside the gates. How often I forgot those silent, grim, and dour warriors. They were as tightlipped as their sheathes, yet deadly in a moment like a naked blade. They were always watching, even as I forgot them like some background statue—standing guard on the outside of the manor. Had they been allowed inside their master’s home I would not have wooed Lady Utano. Or perhaps I would have, and would have died days ago.
Lord Gou was well into his sake cups as I approached. He was drunk and chased 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 into clenched teeth, 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.
“Yes, her father had her educated,” he said. “As her aunt had been. I think it a foolish endeavor. A woman can be made willful by a certain type of education. It imparts privileges of pretense which fool her into believing she can think as clearly as a man. She steps beyond her place with strong, errant notions. It is a needless risk.” He shook his head ruefully. “But my brother-in-law was always more foolish than any steward ought to be. That is why he is dead and I have control of his lands. That is why his daughter is in my possession. And I will make certain she is not squandered by her privileges and pretenses.”
Lord Gou frowned as if he smelled something foul. He peered at me closely, and 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. That willful woman.” 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 for his willfulness 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. I halted, even as I felt the gaze of the Samurai upon me, but at a distance. It was as if Death watched us, but I walked beside her as she bade me. We spoke quietly, at a distance from eavesdropping ears.
“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. 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 in the riots, 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.”
Sweat broke upon my brow. I thought I saw a Samurai stir, restless in his vigil.
“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 indiscretions 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. “I should like to entangle it in my own.”
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 struck 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.
“Our shadows have already joined once in union,” she said. “In the past. Now, so long as you will not take me for a wife we may only join in words. Nothing more.”
“Words are but the music of the tongue,” I said. “So let us join with such instruments as compose these songs.”
She turned away from me, looking at the Samurai lined in front of the main gate.
“You have a tongue promiscuous with many meanings,” she said, “and many hearts.”
She left me to my disappointment, 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!
The minister returned to Kyoto the next morning. An arrangement had been made between him and Lord Gou. His work done, the minister was to report the success personally to the Emperor himself. I was told very little of the particulars, but Lord Gou was very pleased. I did not see Lady Utano all day, and I feared that she wept in her room, mourning some momentous change soon to sweep her away to a new life.
That night was rife with entertainments in celebration of the arrangement. A troupe of dancers performed for us, and many sweets and fish dishes were served. Sake flowed copiously like flooded rice paddies and we drank ourselves silly into the late hours. When it was time to retire to bed, I instead 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 Mount 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 at his side?”
Recalling Lord Gou, I did 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 increasingly 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 darkened to nights, and nights burned into 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 myself, 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 my essence within the prison of society and Order. I felt stifled in the mists and wished to free the agents of Chaos from the shackles of pretense and tradition. The mists were dissolution and stagnation, entrancing and horrifying, like the naked body of Lady Utano: luminous with moonlight and the dew of passionate sweat. It was all a permeating prison.
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. I threw all of the masks I had amassed out into the garden. Where they 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 shins 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 masks I had discarded into the garden. He presented them to Lord Gou.
“These were found in the garden, my lord,” the servant said.
Lord Gou took the masks and rifled through them, stopping at the last and staring 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 heard the miscreant as they entered or exited your room?”
“Never,” I said.
“I can tolerate mischief,” Lord Gou said gruffly, “but mischief of this willful nature I cannot abide. Not in my own household. 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 their leaves and blossoms.
“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 nest of their hearts. 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 may 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 is the 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 stonily 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. One of my greatest fears— the one which drove me to become a renowned poet—was to be thrown in shame to the rice paddies to spend the rest of my earthly days toiling for the ungrateful bellies of lords and ladies. Perhaps I had spent a lifetime doing so, in a previous life.
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. Perhaps they were demons haranguing me with a litany of my sins, which only spurred me on in my task.
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 section of the veranda, standing by as I wrote more of the Lotus Sutra for Lord Gou. 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 do 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, smiling. “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 were not to say anything to him, nor to heed his words. And thus many seasons passed as the criminal neither 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.
The diviner’s smile bore teeth— yellow teeth mottled with brown stains.
“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’s smile widened, 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.
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 was 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 shrill notes 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 servants of the 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!
The earth is all afire,
sword and pyre!
Pile the corpses, sweet and fresh.
The way of things,
the way of Springs,
all things unmade!
avert the eye
but feel the Winter!
Bought and sold—
go on down the road!
The only way
to escape the shame
is to pray
or welcome the flame!”
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.
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 had 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.
“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 willful 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 tend to 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 embers 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, and 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 pallid or sickly. Rather, he appeared well-fed and hale. While the cords of his thin, ancient neck were etched sharply as ever, the stomach beneath his white robe seemed bloated unto 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, “in the name of the Emperor, and soon even the Emperor shall esteem me above all other stewards. It will be known that I am a powerful man of means and blessings. A auspicious 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 thing 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 sloshed about as he teetered. “I am readied as ever, my personage 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 only 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. Lacking that bettered medium, I exorcized this 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 unite 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 earthbound 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 another victim of its evil.”
“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 much the same, but with another vice alongside the others.”
“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. It 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 and weighed heavy upon me, as did sleepiness. “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 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 it is to see 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 for that I can respect you, even if you fumble at it like a virgin maiden at a swollen 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.”
Lord Gou suddenly shouted, slamming his fist upon the table.
“Enough!” he said. “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.
Of the yin-yang diviners expected, only a handful arrived. They set to work immediately, undertaking many esoteric rituals that I did not understand. Gou was neither pleased nor displeased at their number. Regardless of their number, he was of a mind that the matter would be resolved soon.
Karasu could not aid them. The old monk was once again as bloated as before, somehow ingesting more of his meal the evening prior than we had in our equal portions. It was a mystery to me how he came to eat to surfeit. The servants were to bring us all as much food as we desired, yet it appeared that the diviner ate no more than myself. Be that as it may, he had excused himself long before the other diviners had arrived, retreating to his guestroom to sleep off his inexplicable excesses.
The newly arrived diviners performed rituals all day upon the house. It seemed to me that the man upon the bridge was either a demon wanting mischief by leading me astray in my comprehension of the matter or he was something else.
In one thing he spoke truly: Lord Gou was polluted with his own natural excesses. He often enjoyed his courtesans, and when he bored of their flesh he sought younger women from his own province, sending his Samurai to collect them and bring them to his manor. It was not uncommon for the Samurai to return with blood-slaked blades. Some parents, and spouses, were foolish enough to resist the seizure of their loved ones.
Lord Gou was also often overtaken by his temper. I had not observed the servants very closely until recently, but I noticed that many of them were missing fingers. When I queried a young servant about the whereabouts of the smallest digit on his left hand he reluctantly informed me that Lord Gou had exacted a punishment in the forfeiture of that finger, for the young servant had spilled tea in the hall. I pressed him for further information and he said that Lord Gou kept a necklace of fingers in his room which he showed to every servant at least once a month to remind them of his impatience.
Among these vices there was also Lord Gou’s pleasure in smoking tobacco. Smoking tobacco was forbidden by royal decree, but that did not stop many among my people from luxuriating in that barbaric vice. Occasionally he drank wine sold surreptitiously by the barbarian trade ships. The Portuguese had been expelled from our lands, but many secretly traded without the Emperor’s or the Shogun’s consent. For all of these reasons, and more, Lord Gou employed me: write the Lotus Sutra. My work was premised on his behalf so as to elevate him heavenward in the next life. I could not fail him or the karmic toll on both of us would be devastating to our rebirth cycle.
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 failed to provide me further 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 Mount Asama.
It was during a welcome 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 me 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 and read the poetry scrawled all across the floor and ceiling and paper walls. 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.”
A messenger came to Lord Gou as he and his guests sat in the Main Hall. The refugees were rioting in town, taking whatever food they desired from the stores and the merchants. Lord Gou was furious. His face burned bright red and the sweat of his wrath wet his black beard like sesame oil. He was a candle ripe for flame. Clutching his tanto in his hand, he brandished it at the messenger, telling him to seek all of his Samurai and inform them to leave, immediately. No mercy was to be granted to anyone—man, woman, or child— until the mob was expelled and sent fleeing into the wilderness.
“And have the leaders and the instigators brought to me!” he said. “Alive, if possible. There are a myriad of ways I wish to inflict upon them punishment for their willfulness.”
The messenger went at once to inform the Samurai beyond the manor. All of the Samurai already stationed within Lord Gou’s household emptied, walking with grim purpose into town. Seeing the aquiline look in their eyes, I hoped the mother and her two children had not engaged in the riot. I hoped they were well away from such carnage as what was soon to ensue.
“It is good that you have so many Samurai in your service,” the musician observed.
Lord Gou snorted, sitting down again and sheathing his tanto. “It is good for them, you mean. They do little to earn their food and land. This is, if anything, the opportunity to prove their worth to their Master.”
“But what if the malcontent overwhelm the Samurai?” one of the newly arrived diviners asked.
“My Samurai will not hesitate and are not fools,” Lord Gou said. “They will be as cats among the mice, and they will feast to surfeit.”
“But the karmic toll!” remarked another diviner. “It may well be high, my lord.”
Once again, Lord Gou snorted like a bull. He took a swig of sake— for we had been drinking well that evening— and then slammed the cup on the table “So long as they quell the riot and bring me the petulant leaders, I will be satisfied.” He smiled mirthlessly. “Perhaps I should employ my Samurai in ridding my house of these accursed spirits. They would do as well as you charlatans have done thus far.”
The old diviner, Karasu, smirked like a crow with a beak rimmed with viscera. “Samurai against spirits?” He laughed— a cackling laugh that silenced the Main Hall. “Those molting cherry blossoms. What good is there in any of them but a mess to trample along the way? Spirits do not fear blades, nor demons that melt sword hilts with a fiery word.”
After a long moment of silence, Lord Gou cleared his throat. “You are right, of course,” he said. “To each agent of Order his expertise. Samurai for Man. Diviners for spirits.” Lord Gou’s fury subsided, strangely, into an uncharacteristic deference and humility. “I am just…so tired of these trespasses, Karasu. Sleep comes so uneasy now to me. I…I see her face. And I see his face. I see so much that I wish to expunge from my mind. These pollutants…they cling to me and…”
Lord Gou shook his head and fell to silence. The diviners nodded sympathetically— all except the crow-capped Karasu. He observed that I was observing him, and he grinned at me in a most unsettling way.
As for Lord Gou’s fondness for Order, I understood it well. What was poetry but the ordering of the world into words? What was calligraphy but an art of discipline and control as ink and paper exerted their own wills against your own? I could not abide drips. I could not abide wrinkles in the paper. And yet I was of the Floating World, seeking salve from the rigors of everyday society and its endless rules that imprisoned willfulness. And I could not but remember that great poet Batsuo Masho who traveled the wilds, away from society, to appreciate Chaos and Disorder, finding in them the harmony whereby his masterful poems were extracted. But I was yet too afraid of Disorder. I was too cowardly to go roaming as he had. One day I would need to surrender myself to the wilderness beyond cities if I ever hoped to master the Disorder of the cosmos.
The door slid open and Lady Utano appeared in the Main Hall, standing at the threshold uneasily at first, but then mustering her courage and addressing her uncle openly in front of all of his guests.
“Uncle, I have heard that you have sent Samurai into the town to kill hungry children,” she said. “Is this true?”
“You will not address me in this manner!” her uncle roared.
“And you will not have children slaughtered on the streets!” she said, as equal a dragon as him. “I do not care if you damn your own soul, but to inflict such…barbarism upon starving people is to offend the Buddha and all of his teachings of passivity!”
Lord Gou’s face quivered and frothed with fury. Before he could say anything, however, the diviner, Karasu, surprised us all by rising to his feet and addressing Lady Utano directly.
“That is very true, my lady,” he said. “Buddha frowns terribly upon such needless suffering and sorrow. But there is a famine upon the whole of the earth now, and so, it seems to me, that the Buddha has not granted a reprieve for these refugees; not as has this wondrous province been so blessed by his love and mercy.” He began to pace up and down the Main Hall, his fingers clamped together behind his back, his back bent slightly forward, his neck hooked upward and his head bobbing as he walked. His posture reminded me of a bird.
“The Buddha works in mysterious ways,” he said, “but his blessings and his curses are apparent to all willing to see them. The refugees were welcomed into this province, and invited to fish the rivers for food, if they so desired. But they spat upon your uncle’s hospitality. They would rather be pampered and served and fed as any lord in his household than sweat honestly for their food. But they transgress your uncle’s charity. They overstep themselves. Ungrateful, they demand more and more, and now they take, their perfidious natures revealed at last. It reminds me of someone else,” he said, abruptly wheeling about and staring at Lady Utano. “It reminds me of someone for whom hospitality is repaid in ingratitude, and disobedience, and contumely.” He affixed his dark eyes upon her, his back still bent forward and his neck raise in that avian stance. He smirked with the confidence of Death itself.
Lady Utano appeared shocked, unable to counter his smugness with feigned ignorance. The rotten-scalped diviner continued, turning about and pacing again.
“And, what’s more, my lord,” he said to Lord Gou, “this seems an excellent opportunity for the reckoning of accounts on all sides. Indeed, there is much profligacy to be atoned for, and penance to be had. Like a battlefield beneath the rising sun, truths must be revealed, however ugly.”
The diviner stood solemnly, head bowed and his sharp fingers clasped before him, as if in prayer.
“My lord,” he said, “it will give you no pleasure in the revelations I now present, for while you certainly have apparitions unwanted in your home, another sin impugns your honor, and, I must say, more brazenly than mere specters.”
All expressions were quizzical, from Host to guest to servant to niece. Even the diviners appeared confused by Karasu’s words. He paid them no mind. In fact, I had observed a certain contempt in his manner toward the other diviners; contempt and amusement.
“Indeed, my lord,” the corvine diviner said, “all is not as it seems. While you have unrest in your town, there is, unfortunately, a greater unrest brewing in your household— an unrest that may well upset the Emperor and the Shogun. It is one of betrayal and lust and sin. It is a sin of willfulness. And that sin begins in your most wanton niece!”
All eyes flew at once to Lady Utano— all eyes save for my own. No, my eyes knew no rest or refuge, like fireflies in chaotic winds, searching for sanctuary from the storm. Dawn’s dew was not half so profuse as was the sweat that drenched me in that moment, and I feared the light of the lanterns would betray the dew of my indiscretions, for I could not withdraw the flow, nor feign a calmer visage.
Lord Gou rose like a monsoon— loud, spraying showers of spittle and flinging his sake in the gale of his fury.
“What is the meaning of this?!” he roared. “You insolent old man! You dare question the honor of my household?!”
“I do not question your household, my lord,” Karasu said with a bow, “only those blessed by your hospitality.”
Lord Gou’s blazing eyes went from the diviner to his niece. “Niece, do you deny it?!”
Lady Utano stepped forward, bowing low. “No, uncle,” she said. “I do not deny it.”
Lord Gou’s mouth gnarled and gnashed. “I will have his blood! Tell me his name so I may flay him and use his skin for the Lotus Sutra!”
My robe was of flame, it seemed. I could not breathe, and I dared not look at Lady Utano for too long, nor her uncle.
“Lady Utano is with child,” Karasu said, shocking me furthermore. “I can sense the growing seed of her bastard even now.”
“Who is he, you willful harlot?!” Lord Gou demanded, more apoplectic than before. He struck the table and everyone’s cup leapt and spilled.
“He is only a coward,” she said, her eyes fallen to her feet. “A shadow through a screen, soon gone and unmourned.”
“Gone, indeed!” Lord Gou vowed. “Gone and unmourned, for soon death comes to him, as it comes for you, you vile whore!!!”
He drew his tanto and rushed forward, to avenge himself upon his niece. She welcomed the blade without struggle. To my great surprise, I found myself kicking the table. Its long body slid and struck Lord Gou’s foot. A great tumult followed with Lord Gou tumbling over the table and falling upon the floor. The blade kissed his cheek and blood spilled. Lady Utano, seeing the blood, woke to her instinct for self-preservation, fleeing from the room while several servants gathered around Lord Gou to see to his wound. Yet, he shoved them aside and rose again, his face red as much from rage as from blood. Still grasping the tanto in his hand, he screamed an unearthly, terrible scream and readied to hunt down his niece.
It was at that moment that the lanterns extinguished, leaving the Main Hall drenched in a darkness that dowsed Lord Gou’s rage. When the lanterns flared again they glowed crimson and shadows appeared upon the walls, recreating in silhouette a scene now familiar to the guests of Lord Gou’s home. It was the same scene played out with the Bunraku puppets: two lovers meeting, walking together in sweet serenity, and then a portly lord taking her, abusing her, and her lover being struck down by swordsmen.
Lord Gou screamed in horror and rage.
“It was my right! She had rebuffed me, her master, and then that whelp attempted violence against me! It was not a sin!”
Shrieking, he attacked the shadows upon the walls, slicing the paper apart and leaving it in tattered shreds and broken bamboo.
The household was all frenzy and disarray. People clambered over each other to flee. Even the diviners were panicked unto a stampede. I slipped away, unnoticed, to the garden, seeking silence and solace from the madness of the evening.
It was a clear night, scintillating with stars, and the moon was high. As I approached the pond I saw shooting stars streaking across the heavens. A heron, hitherto unseen next to the weeping willow, shrieked and flew away. Watching it, I composed a poem. Oftentimes I wondered if I composed poems to cope with life’s disappointments and tragedies.
“The gray heron shrieks
as a star flies and burns out,
knowing its life now.”
The figure on the bridge leaned upon the railing, gazing ever into the pond below.
“It is time,” he said. “Justice will be served. As below so above. As above so below.”
A woman smiled up at him from the pond, sadly and beautifully, among the Lotuses. When I looked upon her directly, however, she vanished beneath still waters, as did the faceless man upon the bridge. Things at last became clear in the fog and moonlight. The man upon the bridge had been cut down and his lover had drowned herself in the moon pond. It would have made for a beautiful poem had I not wearied of such rigors of emotions already.
Tired of spirits and of people, I walked toward my room, intent on sleeping until the world reemerged from the dissolving mists. I hoped that Lady Utano had escaped her uncle’s wrath. Perhaps I would be awakened later, with his tanto in my throat. Perhaps we were all ghosts already and did not yet know it.
Suddenly I heard growling, and shouting, and pleading. Lord Gou came stomping into the garden, flanked by his servants and his consorts. They tried to soothe him, but he would accept no solace or appeasement. He scattered them with an upraised tanto.
“Out, you sycophants! You whores! Harlots! Snake women! Or my rage will burn all of you, too!”
He carried a torch and his eyes flared within its angry light. The diviners attempted to persuade him from his fury, but were quickly silenced. The old diviner, Karasu, stood by, smirking with strange anticipation. Lord Gou paid him no mind at all, seemingly unaware of the rotten-headed man’s eager countenance.
I stepped aside—for the angry bull of a man nearly trammeled me in his wrathful path— and glanced about, wondering if Lady Utano was nearby. I found that the manor’s screen doors had been opened and all of the household’s many occupants stood now upon the veranda, facing the courtyard garden. They stared in disbelief and fear as Lord Gou approached the moon bridge. His shadow was a wild, flailing demon as the torch flame flickered and writhed with hunger.
“I will abide this taint upon my house no longer!” Lord Gou roared. “His stain will be lifted, even if it means I have to burn down this damned bridge!”
One of Lord Gou’s eldest servants attempted to intervene, and was struck to the ground for his efforts. Other servants helped the incautious man to his feet, all while cowering from their vengeful master.
“I will do what these worthless diviners could not!” Lord Gou continued, sneering at the diviners. His beard shimmered wetly with sake and blood from the cut across his cheek. “I will purge my house, and my soul, of this corruption!”
Forthwith, Lord Gou set light to the beautiful moon bridge. The torch’s flame was hungry and unhesitating, enveloping the bridge quickly. Yet, the flames were not satisfied. As we all looked on in horror, the flames caught upon Lord Gou’s beard, setting it alight. He roared in agony, yet did not try to extinguish the flames. Rather, his roars heightened to exultant laughter— devilish laughter. The shadow became the man and he transformed amidst flame and fury. Where Lord Gou once stood there now stood a large, flame-haired Oni with a bull’s horns and a fiery beard. Teeth as sharp and as long as tanto blades flashed within his grin, yet his grin was all mirthless wrath. Those servants near at hand fled, screaming.
“I did not dismiss you!” he proclaimed, snatching at a nearby servant attempting to flee. “I will teach you for your presumptuousness!” He raised the hapless servant until they were face to face, and then he breathed upon him, melting the man’s face. Lord Gou then cast the corpse down, its skull blackened and smoking like a used incense stick.
“The flames!” Lord Gou roared triumphantly. “The flames! Do you not see that the purge me of my corruption?! I shall purge all of vile corruption!”
The demon that was once Lord Gou stomped about the garden, setting fire to the chrysanthemums and the plum trees and the cherry blossoms. The willow tree was as a bowing widow immolating herself above her husband’s grave. The courtyard became a fiery pit of Jigoku, and all who witnessed it screamed in horror.
Only the lotuses in the moon pond remained untouched. Soon the flames greedily pounced upon the veranda, and then everyone fled, myself included. Panic was as contagious as the flames. I went inside to gather up my scrolls. My heart ached to think of the Lotus Sutras I had already given to Lord Gou, wanting to retrieve them before they could burn, but I knew not where he had kept them in the meantime. They were my finest works!
How fast the fire worked its masterful destruction! What was once dreaming midnight mist was now wakeful smoke and flame. I fled through the manor as the flames rapaciously ate the paper walls and the wooden beams and floors. The ofudas which the diviners had hung all over the interor halls were quickly eaten up with contemptuous fire. It was as I emerged from the front of the manor that I saw him standing upon the street leading into town. The yin-yang diviner grinned—a devilish grin that sent chills cascading through my body like an icy waterfall. He had such a long nose now, and wore a black-crested cap atop his bald, rotten egg head. Black wings spread from behind his back, flapping up great gusts of air that fanned the flames and spread their frenzy ever the more wildly.
The diviner rose on his black wings. He croaked a laugh of glee, like a crow.
“I sensed innocent blood had been spilled here and was not disappointed!” Karasu exclaimed. “Rot and ruin make for wonderful meals. All the demons of the pits shall feast well tonight!”
He rose and rose up into the air, soaring so high as to surmount the Western Pagoda, flying toward the horizon with a caterwauling chorus of attendant crows. At his cry the demons sprouted upward from every impure heart. A legion of demons reared their heads through the town and beyond. Crow demons took flight and followed their master through the nocturnal air.
Lord Gou rampaged through his household, exploding through a wall and out onto the street. He snorted and fumed within the flames, his body grotesquely large and his beard flaring wisps of fire. His head was crowned with the long horns of a bull and where he stomped and clawed there erupted flames riotously. He smashed into his household again, charging through the corridors and walls and rooms, destroying all in his wake. Nothing and no one was spared his fury.
I called for Lady Utano. I truly did. Do not doubt me in this. I went searching for her amongst the consumed household and the flames. I found only servants fleeing in terror, or screaming as they burned alive. The flames of Jigoku had come for Lord Gou and all of his household. They were inescapable.
I walked the long road leading to Kyoto. All behind me was flaming fear and smoky confusion, but I floated along easily through the mists. Giants walked the outskirts of the province, their skulls gleaming in the luminous moon. Tengu flew through the air near them, or perched upon their collar bones, cawing with laughter and proclaiming blasphemies upon the land. Lord Gou’s bellows resounded throughout, deafening the screams of his dying servants and subjects. It was a grand feast of death and destruction. I wondered what happened to that mother and her two children that were among the refugees. I wondered what happened to Lady Utano.
I did not look back, but walked forward with my heart and mind upon Kyoto. Everything was clearer out here, in the country, even as the mists rose along the nocturnal border between the living and the dead. It was quieter. No raging infernos. No demons to terrorize the earth. Not even a breeze shivered the trees. All was silent. All was still.
I recalled seeing the Chrysanthemums burning, and was not in the least sorrowful for them. Why should they not burn? All else had. Part of me wished that the flames would march to complacent Kyoto and roost all Winter long. It only seemed right and just, for there was a harmony in Chaos. I had realized it while the flames gathered around me. They were beautiful, in their own way.
The musician— of all people— suddenly appeared upon the road. He ran past me, gasping and weeping in turns. He was pale and his robe was coming undone with the rigors of his frantic motions. He did not seem to care, however, until the belt loosened and his pants slipped down, tripping him and dropping him into a roll. He sprawled out in the dirt, tears on his cheeks and his eyes wide to the whites. Calmly standing over him, I offered my hand to help him stand. He did not see me at first. Rather, he glanced around the mists with fright, trembling. His chest rose and fell as if to shed the upper swaths of his robe. Suddenly, he looked at me, as if seeing me for the first time. His face contorted with great horror. Scrambling like a beast, and screaming wildly, he fled farther down the moonlit road, never looking back. His pants remained behind, trodden in the dirt.
Lord Gou had been correct. The musician was an idiot.
I walked on for some time before coming upon anyone else. When I turned a bend in the road I saw two figures ahead of me: a man and woman walking, arm-in-arm beneath the moonlight. I called out to them and they paused, looking back at me. I could see their faces clearly, and they appeared contented: a beautiful young woman and a handsome young man. I realized they shared a name, though I did not understand how I knew this. They were Ren and Ren. They walked toward a lake lovely with lotuses. They soon disappeared. I wished them well.
I continued upon my path, coming to a large field. Fireflies were as stars above the wild grasses. A figure waited there, playing a song among the moonlight. I knew who she was, and I nearly walked away, thinking I might escape as if having not seen her. But the despondency in her song gave me pause, and soon I found myself compelled toward her.
She played until I was within arm’s reach of her, then she ceased. She wore a kijo’s face, its snarling grin full of wooden fangs.
“You tried to leave without saying goodbye,” she said.
“I have many roads to walk,” I said, “and many Sutras to write.”
“And many women to woo?” she said, the notes of her scorn like a snapping shamisen string.
I held my tongue, for I had never heard her so angry before. It was…beautiful, in its own way. It had an appealing novelty and music akin to passion within the moonlight. I wished to embrace her, if only to absolve myself of her fury, or transform her fury into ardor once again.
“The spirits are on their way, then,” she said, gesturing toward the lake where Ren and Ren had disappeared. “That is good. They shall find peace together.”
“You know of them?” I said, surprised.
“I have known of them for a long time,” she said. “I have commiserated with them in lonely hours. It was I who asked them to seek their revenge through you, and the others. It was a selfish suggestion. I knew what kind of man you are, and wished them to influence you with their truer love.”
I only grunted, baffled by the revelations.
“You do not seem to realize it,” she said, “but you are as the blacksmith, and you are as my uncle. You condemn yourself to die by condemning the love you harbor for me. You will condemn both of us to terrible fates if you abandon me. As for myself, I am like that girl, drowning in the love of you.”
I attempted a laugh, but the stillness and the silence behind her Noh mask disquieted me quickly.
“Only a fool laughs where hearts are concerned,” she said. “Whereas the spirits of the lovers have been reconciled, you and I will be as Izanagi and Izanami. And I will relish tormenting you for eternity.”
“You have a dragon’s tongue,” I said. “But you breathe more smoke than fire.”
“I will have more fire to quell than that if you leave me,” she said. “I will return to you as a demon if you forsake me. I will haunt you for the rest of eternity, and beyond. My uncle is not the only heart that knows terrible flames.”
She doffed the demon mask, yet there still seemed a demoness in her visage. There was darkness in her eyes, and a twinkling flame. She was in earnest, as is a monsoon against the unwary shore. It was a novel passion, and I cherished it. Her hair had been undone with grief and framed her pale face with its black ink. Smoke wafted from her kimono, as it wafted from me.
“You haunt me even now,” I said. I thought of the ghosts, then, and of Lord Gou, and I realized that to allow another greedy man to separate two lovers again would only lead to more tragedy. I went to her. “Come,” I said. “Haunt me forever, if you must.”
I entwined her with my arm. The moon was underlined by the single stroke of a cloud— a diaphanous mark as if to underline the meaning of the moon. We began to walk together, following the firefly field. A terrible scream rose in the distance, and we paused.
“They are Oni,” I said.
“Of course,” she said.
“You must be a diviner, too, I said, “to behold them.”
“Like can spot like,” she said, black smoke rising from her black hair.
I patted the flames off of my robe, and waved away the smoke from before my eyes. Just then, from down the road, came a procession extraordinary in its size and assortment. Seeing it should have frightened me, yet I felt a keen need to join them as they proceeded along the road toward Kyoto. Foremost among them was a mother and her boy and girl, and they struck me as familiar, only happier now, and more colorful than they had ever been in life. They danced and chanted together, making motley merriment along the road.
“What a bustling group!” I remarked.
“Indeed,” Lady Utano said.
“Should we join them?” I said.
“I will follow wherever you go,” she said.
Lady Utano and I joined the procession, she and I walking together, hand in hand, surrounded by hundreds of creatures in wildly colorful robes and kimonos; singing willful songs. And why would we not? We were of the Floating World! We chanted and danced all the way to Kyoto, and then all the way to the Emperor’s palace, for we would be heard, and not even the Buddha would know rest in the meantime. Eternity stretched before us, lit with flames, and the past was but a long shadow of mingling ashes. Thus I lived poetry, for my Lady Utano and I were as poetry together, forever wed like ink and parchment.
“Free as hot embers
we were, dancing on wild winds
to burn paper walls.”