Her letter to the Governor had been over a week ago; her visit with Henseit a few days. Kaori was now worried. She had agreed to her brother’s gamble because it would cost the Governor nothing to say no, and gain everyone something if he said yes. But Kaori had always grown up with the phrase “Bad news travels slowly”, and now she was worried that bad news was what was traveling towards her. Kimiyasu tried to get her out of the house again, and again Kaori pleaded that she had to work on her dress. This time, Kimiyasu let it go. Katai found her at her desk, waiting for something to happen.
“Kaori?” She turns to look at her mother.
“The fabric has waited for you, longer than it should have. In your sister’s household you will have much work to do and a short while to do it in. You cannot afford to get distracted so deeply by the events around you. Especially those you can’t control.” She extends her hand out to Kaori, who lifts herself from the chair and heads towards her mother. She takes her mother’s hand, and the two begin walking towards the workroom.
“Let the work you must do be your refuge against the work you cannot do. Your Father has taught you how to become one with your art, so take those lessons into the household. Learn to become one with the tasks you must do in the household, forget yourself in those tasks, and you’ll find that when they are over, the world isn’t quite as bad as you thought it was.”
“With all due respect, Mother, that’s art. Not housework.”
“Has your Father not taught you to approach all your work as artwork?”
“He has but…” Kaori sighs. “Its not the same.”
“And why is that, Daughter.” Katai doesn’t bother with formulating a question, the conversation falls along lines that are almost rote. Katai’s fan whips out to warn caution, but in truth it is to arrest the progress of Katai’s knowledge that soon, her youngest daughter won’t be here to have these conversations with.
“Art is… yes its work, but its a liberating work. It is the work which brings the spirit into the world, it is birthing work, generative.”
“And housework isn’t?” This is new to Katai, and now the discussion is joined in earnest.
“Housework is… sustaining? Maintaining?” Kaori fans herself as they walk slowly, deliberately through the house. “It isn’t generative.”
“Even the creative work of creating your own clothing?”
“That is transformative, but still not… creative.” Kaori sees the folly too late.
“Why can the work of maintenance not create? Do you not change the state of what was into what is? Is that change not new? The answer is to see the new state as being that, something new, and not the change of something old. Besides, focusing on what you can control is how you forget what you cannot control.”
“Thank you Mother, you’re right, I should stop worrying. I just… It would be so great an opportunity. I hope Weili knows what he’s doing.”
“Your Father would not have let him do it if he did not believe in your brother. You must have faith. In the meantime, you must have clothing.” Katai smiles at her daughter as the two enter the workroom. Lacquered wood paneling frames a wooden floor and smooth worktables. The fabric chosen in town over a week ago sits folded on one of them, near a series of wooden bars with indentations carved into them where posts will sit in order to measure. Several other colors of thread and sewing needles are arranged on the table. On the other side of the room a few works in progress are draped over dress forms. Kaori recognizes her mother’s style and her sister’s stitching on some of the clothes, projects abandoned in favor of the elaborate white costume that occupies the focus of the room.
Kimiyasu’s wedding dress, even half finished, looks exquisite to Kaori. Next to it, a more humble white arrangement is even less finished. Kaori realizes that will be her dress for the ceremony.
Against her will, Kaori goes rigid. She knows she will not be working on it, as she should, because she doesn’t know if she wants to. Neither, for that matter, does her family. Katai leaves her side to pull up some painted silk screens so that Kaori can focus only on the task at hand. “Go measure your fabric and make sure we have enough, Kaori.”
Kaori walks to the wall, her movements are stiff, she knows, but she cannot relax. The dress makes everything so real… She puts up the posts, wraps them in silk-covered cotton, then proceeds to measure the fabric. She comes up short for the measurement she needs.
“There isn’t enough Mother, the shopkeep shortchanged us.” The anger restores some of the grace to her movements.
“For a married woman?”
Kaori opens her mouth, stops, then turns back to the fabric. She adjusts one of the posts. The fabric is a little more than enough, exactly what Kaori needs. She realizes that there would have been no where else to get the fabric: he knew they already had the wedding dresses and assumed this would be for after the ceremony, so he gave enough for a married woman’s outfit. Kaori goes to take it off the post, and a small splinter catches at one of the edges, she groans.
“Mother, I’m not ready to do this, I can’t—”
“No. You found within yourself wisdom. Now find within yourself nothingness. Fold the frays into the seam. You can do this Kaori, you must.” Katai’s voice does not leave room for argument, she knows she cannot command her child to have confidence, to do, and be, better, but she cannot help but try. She would not be a mother if she didn’t.
Kaori takes a deep breath, extricates the fabric from the wall carefully and without further damage, and then proceeds to do exactly what her mother has said.
“I mean it all in good fun,of course. I’ve never had reason to complain about your father’s kindness before… and he’s always paid his taxes.” A smile ghosts across Hensei’s lips before the teacup reaches them. He turns towards Kaori. “What did you think, little songbird?”
“I think I have never truly seen your gardens before Hideki. Truly as though my father’s verses were brought to life by… well life. I am astounded.”
Weili, eager for the subject change, jumps in, “What verse?”
“’War is a demon that steals men’s minds.’ Is it really such a concern that you would have devoted a section to it, what a year ago, two?”
Hensei smiles, but his expression remains serious, his balding pate angled towards her as he studies the tea in his cup. “Two years. And yes. Our mountains defend us, but we are a hardly-accessible border district for some of the year. The earth that cradles us also hinders us.”
“And yet your visitors came from, all over? I did not get to talk to them as my sister did, but my father spoke highly of your work and the attention that it brings.”
“A pity, Weili. Several of them were notable officials in a variety of governments. It would have done well for you to meet them. Not that your sister does not also benefit.”
Kaori nods her head. “Several of them, not all?”
Hideki shakes his head. “Not all, songbird. Two or three of the most recent visitors were old students of my instructor, now teaching their own students. They had several critiques of course.”
Kaori draws back, her fan moving quickly, yet briefly, “I can easily recognize my inability to critique this work, from skill and general knowledge, but even still Hideki, traveling that distance to talk down about something seems… petty.”
Hensei laughs. “Oh dear Kaori, not at all. We must all strive to constantly improve. Besides, many of their critiques were about the distance, and how much easier it would be for me to find a student if I were closer to a major city, not the mayor of a border district.”
“I am at a loss to think of possible improvements.”
“As am I, Hideki. Hopefully Tsubasa was not one full of critiques, he seemed… out of his depth.”
Hensei’s left eyebrow moves upward slightly. “No, he is still young.”
Kaori sees the opening her brother has given and jumps in. “Certainly too young to be a master artist. Unless he was a prodigy.”
“Quite so. Then again, you heard his poetry Kaori, how do you feel about his skill?”
“I am too inexperienced to judge another’s work, I haven’t even traveled.”
“That could be arranged you know. And a life of work does not mean you could not critique someone of roughly equal skill.”
“Would you say we were equal, though he is older?”
“I would say he practices less than you do, he is quite busy.”
Weili takes over to give his sister time to regroup and refocus from Hensei’s deft deflection of their questioning. “Ah, so he was one of the government officials you were speaking of.”
Hensei smiles his teacup balanced on the flattened fingers of one hand. “Oh yes, indeed.”
“For Governor Danning’s court?”
“How young the two of you are, that you assume all government to be from Danning’s court. The Empire holds 57 complete provinces and a number of districts within that.”
“Is not the Danning court far?”
“I would not, having traveled in polite company, place the court far enough to earn a visitor distinction just for traveling through. But no, Tsubasa is a friend from a different court, he traveled here while he was originally under tutelage from Zheng Quishui, now he has taken up post elsewhere, thanks to Zheng. Your father tells me you’ve gotten quite good with a sword, Weili?”
Not wanting her brother to take the bait of boasting about himself, Kaori again takes up the offense, initiating a string of questions that give Weili a chance to sip his tea. The three continue for a few good hours, quips and questions skirting matters of propriety and proper social conduct, while still trying to find as much information as possible. Hideki is an official of the government though, and his skill in this proves an appropriate challenge for the two siblings. By the end of their visit they have learned nothing more than Tsubasa’s artistic studies and lineage of teachers, his presence as a government official who has reason to travel from his home province to Governor Danning’s court, and his rough age. Kaori and Weili are both exhausted, and seeing their state, Hideki feigns a yawn behind his fan.
“How rude of me, children of my friend. It seems the shadows have grown while we’ve talked. Perhaps we could continue this conversation later, I would not wish for the two of you to travel in the darkness?”
Weili nods. “Thank you, Hideki Hensei.” Kaori bows as well.
“Of course, come by more often, my door is always open to the Inaba household.”
“That’s very nice of you Hideki, I may find my way here more often, especially in the new seasons.” The two bow again, and leave.
Hideki’s garden. Past the walls of his house, which is also the government compound, it is the first thing you see. Previously Kaori just assumed that Hideki was simply more attentive to his plants than others. Her father also chose the layout almost a year in advance, which plants would go where, the arrangement of furniture, everything with an eye towards harmony and balance. She had previously half-listened to the principals, but the thought of such strenuous organization had dulled her, and seeing his daughter’s lack of interest, Huiren had not pressed the issue.
Now, knowing the ability of Hideki to bring admirers in the winter, even though it was past the first snow melt, brings her pause in the gateway. She looks around at the curving pathways, snaking through winter greens that were actually a very dark teal, brown woods and bark wet and almost black, around bright red winter flowers and purple-leafed vegetables. All more brilliant against the background of white, powdery snow packed into gullies away from the leafy sections. Archways, carefully covered by wintering vines, segment the garden, that they eye might only be required to take in a little a time. From the gateway, Kaori sees the various segments, each one a different path into the house. Weili has walked forwards a few steps as Kaori takes it in, and realizing she is not following he stops.
“Are you all—” Seeing her expression he does not need to finish his question; instead he grips one hand with the other and stands waiting.
Kaori takes a single step forward. She continuous tracing the path of least visual resistance, following the curve of stone and green arch, gully and fern, plant, decoration and yes, even furniture as she spies the stool hidden near the entrance. Curious she sits in it, and the very scenery suggests something different. In the hiding and revealing of itself, of different accent pieces in how the garden is arranged, Hensei has established a story, and even in this stool, where through one archway a riot of reds across the path from a flood of winter-flower whites, while through the other two simple scenes of almost-black and white, the story tells itself. Perhaps just as stunningly, the layout of the garden allows for easy maintenance as well, the gullies of snow watering and wetting the soils as it melts, the excess funneling into water features; or so Kaori presumes from the gurgling of a brook in the background. She moves off the stool and peers through the archways at the other paths.
In the first a few clusters of stately pink-purple flowers grow, slightly smaller than the one which stands down the path from them, upright and bearing a single flower on its stem in brilliant white against petals of a light green. The path curves out of sight and Kaori moves to the next one, where through the arch are seen pairs of like flowers of different varieties. All throughout Weili waits, the servant who went to inform Hensei of his company returns looking curious. Weili waves him away as Kaori moves to the third archway, then follows her through it. His larger stride crossing the distance quickly, then slowing down as Kaori takes in the vista within.
Highly segregated in the beginning, as the two of them walk through the twists of the path and its gullies, some wild growth from ferns and pollination of the flowers themselves has led to two a less divisive spread as they continue. In some red and white exists on the same side of the path, with one side larger than the other. In other sections a few white flowers stand taller than the mass of red, undone by the closeness of the reds competing for too-scarce resources, where the spread of the white flowers has given them the advantage for growth. The end of the path, a small courtyard with a fire pit, low table and seating, is surrounded with pink flowers. Kaori sinks into one of the cushions as Hensei approaches from inside the house, carrying a tea set.
“Welcome.” He bows to Weili and Kaori, sets three places at the table and sits. Weili follows suit, and Hensei addresses him.
“Your father decided not to come?”
“On the contrary, my father was pulled away by one of our tenants en route here. The snowmelt and mud has caused some problems for their fields, so he wishes father’s leniency with the taxes for the growing season.”
“I’m certain there is enough time left for them to adjust. Your Father is too nice sometimes.”
Weili smiles quickly into his teacup, glancing over at the flowers, and then Kaori before looking back at Hensei.
Bright stars and chill winds,
shaking loose peach blossoms
Where do the seeds fall?
Saplings prepare to flower,
As nearby trees prepare fruit.
Kaori had carefully folded the reply into a small flower, and gone to her box of curious and chosen a pressed, preserved peach blossom. She sent it with the messenger when he departed before dawn. She burned the mound of failed poems as offerings to the household. She thought of every brush stroke, was that one too light, or this one too heavy? In fact, thinking about the poem to the Governor ate up most of her time, while thinking about Tsubasa ate up the rest. She found herself so easily distracted that the act of working around the house or even on her artwork had become tedious. She could no longer find her center, no longer could she dissolve into the task at hand.
Mikan draws aside the door and steps into the room to gather Kaori’s clothes. Kaori sighs and Mikan speaks. “I did not see you were meditating, little miss.” She turns to leave.
“Its fine, Mikan. I’m not doing it very well anyways. Ever since this nonsense with the Governor and the marriage and Tsubasa I haven’t been… calm.”
“I would say you’ve been very calm. Distracted even.”
“Well that’s the problem. ‘A distracted mind is unaware. The wise man seeks to see all things, to know every inch of the world around him, but to be removed, without judgment or interference. He who does nothing, accomplishes everything.’”
“I hear the words of the Sages from you, little miss, but I do not hear the wisdom of their meaning.”
Kaori cocks her head, staring at the old woman. Another commoner would have been reprimanded for such a statement. Kaori speaks slowly. “The words of the Sages are wisdom in themselves.”
“’Life is true Wisdom. Wisdom which can be taught is not wisdom, it is dogma.’” Karoi turns brilliant red. She should know better than to engage Mikan by now, but something in her won’t let her back down.
“It is the Emperor’s will that we all come to know the words of the Sages for their advice and importance to right action and civilized society. Are you say-” Kaori stops herself. By using that question she would imply sedition or blasphemy in Mikan, she rephrases quickly and continues, “You are not saying that his advice is ill-considered.”
“I am saying that we are all only human, though we strive for the greatness of Sages. We must know the wisdom of the Sages to know how to react, but the lives we live must always be the greatest teachers, and also the greatest tests.”
Kaori nods, her face turning out the window. Mikan continues around the room, picking up Kaori’s discarded clothing for washing. She is at the door when Kaori speaks again.
“Mikan…” Mikan turns. “What did you mean when you said you didn’t hear the wisdom in my quoting.”
“Exactly what I have said, little miss. We must live in order to learn. Of course you’ve lost your center. Nothing had really challenged it before, and now your parents have decided that you are ready for the world. And about time too. Now you must learn what it really means to dissolve into your work, to meditate and find peace.” She turns and walks out the door, leaving Kaori with her own thoughts, sitting on the bed still in her nightclothes, sheets and clothes pooling around her with her hair.
The room smells of sandalwood from the incense Kaori burns to help her meditate, but she is not at peace, her mind flits from topic to topic, a disturbed songbird continuously chirping into the silence. Disruptions like the ripples from fish wave across her concentration. The conversations yet to come with Hideki Hensei becomes a reminiscence of Tsubasa’s appearance, as well the concern that she may be romanticizing. This then becomes a wonder as to who Kimiyasu is marrying, and what he’s like and how he’ll treat her and what if it secretly is Tsubasa? And how dare Mikan tell her she didn’t know the meaning of the words. Very clearly she knew the quote by heart and could tell her what those words meant in that order.
But at the same time, Mikan is right. Now Kaori must handle things that previously she could so easily ask her mother what to do and how to do it, or her father if it dealt with art or swords. Now though… now her family has trusted her to make her own decision and carve as much of her own fate as she can. And still she is at her brother’s mercy, in the sense that his idea has landed her in this jumbled mess. She breathes deeply of the incense, trying to achieve, to rediscover, that balance where nothing in the world matters except her breathing and the feeling of emptiness. She pushes through the distractions, focusing in on the feeling of emptiness, the non-beng of getting sucked into her work, or the work of the day, or any work really. Having lived it for so long she must be able to recall it, wisdom dictates; except states change. Kaori knows from her lessons that things change all the time, even when one is not an alchemist. It’s one of Kaori’s favorite things, watching the seasons change, and she has seen how even between two summers things are… different. It brings her restless mind to bigger questions beyond comprehension: are things different between two summers, or do I notice the two summers differently because I have changed? The words grow within her thoughts until they’ve overrun Kaori’s other distractions and Kaori vigorously shakes her head to loosen them from their perch. That way is not the road to balance, to peace. And yet, Kaori is uncertain she truly knows the road to balance. Does one know how to return home, if they’ve never left it?
It does not take much before the enormity of the questions now rumbling through Kaori’s mind are exhaustingly unanswerable, and so she gets dressed, and goes to help around the house, for the sake of motion and busyness.
Wildflowers, Spring fields.
A Songbird chirps its last notes
Amid sudden brightness.
A songbird never wastes its notes,
Nearby a nest full of chicks.
Kaori is confused when she receives the letter, complete with its budding branch and folded into a lotus flower. The poem speaks of bleak death, but the flower is enlightenment and the buds hope. She paces her room, trying to decode the subtle nuances of the message that Tsubasa has sent her. Trying also to bring her heart-rate down as it sings out with possibility. Frequently she is distracted by daydreams and visions of what life could be like living in a foreign province, of what he would be like as a husband, of what they would be like as a couple. Would there be love? Would he care for her? Would there be concubines? What would their house look like, what would there kids look like, would they have the finest silks, or the poorest cottons? She looks out the window into the garden and sees Weili and her father talking, she takes in their clothes, their stance their state of dress: they’ve just come back from town, judging by the way their clothing hangs a little loosely and a few loose strands of hair are flying in the wind, not to mention their swords at their belt.
New questions enter unbidden into Kaori’s mind. What if Tsubasa is secretly a warlord for a foreign liege? Would they be safe from the war? Would he be called away after their marriage? Would he die on the battlefield, or from a wound afterwords? Would she ever know the difference, or would they lie to her to preserve his honor. She turns back to the note in her hand and reads it again, forces herself to focus on the meanings he has sent her, and in the back of her mind sees a little of the wisdom of her father’s words: “War is a demon that steals men’s minds.” And women’s… she thinks.
The buds and flower are major symbols, hope and enlightenment… but then this poem, about the beauty amid death… Suddenly she gets it, and as she sits at her desk a knock comes from her door.
“Sister?” The door slides open. “I heard you got some— Your face seems flush, are you alright?”
Kaori’s fan comes up with such quickness it almost flies out of her hand, for a brief second it completely obscures her face, then settles calmly. “Brother! What are you doing just barging into my room? You have no idea what I could have been doing!” She knows its irrational. “And I most certainly am not blushing. Or if you saw one it is from surprise and fear at the sudden intrusion.”
“I only thought—” Weili stops. Having grown up in a house of a majority women, he knows when to bite his tongue. “I apologize sister. I only wanted to see how you were doing and if there was any good news recently.”
Kaori takes a deep breath, stills her fan and closes it as she brings it down. Weili notes the smoothness of the motion, and thinks briefly on how much his sister is growing.
“There are letters. Tsubasa has sent me a poem folded into a lotus flower with a budding branch, the others were much more sedate. I was just puzzling out his meanings and about to compose a response to him when you came in.”
“What was it?”
“Hmmm? Oh, a lament at the harshness of my initial letter warning him to keep to proper traditions in our correspondence, but a belief that we could eventually speak past propriety. It was… heavy-handed? I actually think he’s taking it to be a sly poke at my original heavy-handedness.”
“You think he’s making fun of you?”
“I think he’s critiquing me, with a smile and a laugh.”
Weili takes a moment before responding. “What do we know about this Tsubasa, Kaori?”
Kaori’s fan comes back out, its pattern displayed at her chest and fanning lightly. “I know that he is a man of stature from a neighboring province. He is a fan of the arts, and a friend to Hideki Hensei, a friend of our family. I also know that father has approved of our correspondence. In fact, he had to tell me how it was folded, since of course he read it first.” Weili nods, and Kaori knows that look, her brother is unsatisfied. “What, Brother, are you thinking?”
“I just think we should know more about him, in the interest of propriety. Perhaps I will go politely ask questions of Hideki… tomorrow of course. Or perhaps the day after, Father doesn’t like going out every day. Perhaps it would do for you to come with us, Sister. Weren’t you talking about seeing his gardens?”
“I do not like the feeling that I am now a piece in your schemings, Brother.” Kaori’s eyes narrow over the fan, which has come up to hide the rest of her face.
Weili spreads his hands, palms out, and raises his shoulders. “I have no schemes, just the desire to better know your suitors. Can you blame a brother for that much.”
With a sigh the fan comes down and closes again. “No, I guess I can’t. We’ll see what the weather is like in a couple of days, and I will go with you to speak to Hideki Hensei about his gardens and Tsubasa. But please brother, don’t visit him without me.”
Weili smiles, “Knowing your concerns now, I would never dream of it. I’ll let you compose your letters,” as he nods his head and turns to walk out the door.
Beavers dam the stream
Pools and eddies they live in.
Still the water flows.
Downstream young girls wash clothing
In between a village lives.
She attaches to it a small porcelain charm in the shape of a mask, and folds it into a sunburst.
Sorry for the delay, I’ve decided, in this draft, to change some pretty major things, and this is the divergence point, which naturally required a rewrite. Updates might slow down a bit to once every 2 weeks as I slog through them.
“Pilgrims pack their things,
their faith is commendable.
You stay in taverns.
The ivy that grows outside,
Grows strong because of your care.
She folds Hensei’s letter into a simple, locked triangle. He will recognize it as a mountain fold, and attaches to it a small, shiny pebble with some string. She writes more letters to the others that were present in town that day, after Kimiyasu reminds her. The tenor places her as a demure young girl taking uncertain steps, yet the humor is in the possibility that she knows more. She hopes they will be well received. Finally she writes a letter to Tsubasa Changfu, the last in the list of names from her Father through Kimiyasu.
“A single swan sings,
Praised by the one watching.
Empty sake cups.
Best to speak of what is known,
To those who would listen most.
She folds the letter into a swan, and to it attaches a stick of temple incense. The subtle message shouldn’t scare him off, but perhaps, Kaori hopes, force him to consider whether or not his undue interest in her presents a problem of etiquette. Although… she wouldn’t say he wasn’t handsome…
“Sister?” Kimiyasu enters. “I waited a few minutes after knocking, but you didn’t respond. Are you all right?”
Kaori turns around. “I’m sorry sister, I was writing letters, I didn’t hear you.”
“Shall I go then? I don’t want to interrupt.” Kimiyasu takes stock of the letters, folded and ready to go. She looks at the one that Kaori was tying. “Purity and loneliness? Is that for Tsubasa Changfu?”
“Is it too obvious?”
“From what Father said of the way he behaved towards you? Not at all. I think you’ve done…” Kimiyasu stops herself from saying surprisingly, “Well.”
“I would hope for excellent. I was unsure if Father had noticed or not, but since he did not respond as I expected, I presumed he hadn’t.”
Kimiyasu smiles at her sister. “We all hope for excellent, and since the only thing I have to go by doesn’t include the verses within, I’m certain you’ve managed to reach it, if not beyond. I hope you weren’t too hard on him though? Certainly the beginning of a correspondence is also the hardest. You want to make sure he is not chastised into sending you letters through our Father.”
Kaori shakes her head. “At least, I don’t believe so. I would certainly hope he doesn’t scare easy, but I have a feeling there’s more steel underneath the silk than Father and I perhaps give him credit for. There’s something about him.”
“Mother said his clothing was off color?”
Kaori pulls back just a touch and squints at her sister. “I didn’t think mother had noticed.” She tilts her head. “Which is silly really, when has Mother not noticed someone’s clothing? It wasn’t upsettingly off, just a couple of shades too light to be appropriate for the season, or his station.”
“As though perhaps he is a little forgetful and left it to bleach in the sun last summer?”
“As though he does not have a wife to choose the correct colors and fashion something for him on a regular basis.”
“How is that different from what I said?”
“That’s what you like about him though, isn’t it?”
“The off-color clothing?”
“The fact that he’s not certain about how to belong.”
Kaori turns back to her writing desk. Sometimes her sister’s wit can be a little too sharp, too quick. If words were swords, Kaori was certain Kimiyasu would give her Father a fair challenge.
“That was sharp, sister. You’ve cut to the heart of it.” Kaori has not turned back to her.
“I’m not sorry, Kaori. It is good that you are finding an attraction in your memories of him especially if… but be careful not to… well, you do have a tendancy to over-dramatize things, little sister.”
“I do not.” Kaori responds, her bottom lip jutting out as she fires the comment back over her shoulder.
“I did not say it was a fault. Just something to be aware of. If Tsubasa is to be a candidate for marriage, then it is good that you are discovering feelings for him. But potential and action are as yet very separate, and you must be prepared for either eventuality. At any rate, you are young and an artist, you are not expected to know yourself, you are expected to explore the arts and through them learn of yourself. But everyone likes knowing they aren’t alone, either in their manner of appreicating off-color clothing, or in their feelings.” There is a pause, filled with the evening notes of songbirds. “Shall I take these to be delivered through post?”
“If you would be so kind, Kimiyasu. I should get ready for dinner. Thank you, sister.”
“For reminding me of these letters, for these illuminating conversations of ours. For being my sister.”
“Your welcome, Kaori. And thank you for much of the same.” Kimiyasu leaves, carrying the seven letters with her.
After she leaves Kaori has time to stop and listen to the songbirds. She wonders about Tsubasa, about what her sister has said. She cannot deny that her heart beats ever-so-slightly faster when she sees him, or that she is excited to know his response; to correspond with him. However… Kimiyasu is right, and for a brief moment, the crushing weight of being a concubine bears down on her and forces her to sit back in her chair. What would she do? How would she help her sister? Would she still have time for art? Kaori shakes her head and grinds more of the inkstone with a little less water. She changes her brush for something thicker and begins putting it to the paper, outlining mountains and rivers in weighty, bold lines. She knows it should be lighter, even just a touch, but the goal is to bring her peace, to bring her the stability and solidarity of this mountain valley. Soon she is adding the colors, the greens of grass and pink of flowers. Along the sky she writes a simple poem:
“Soft, loamy, clay riverbed,
Only finite streams can join.”
Kaori stares at the paper, still wet and heavy. In the morning, when it is dry, Kaori takes the picture and rolls it up. Tying it shut with another piece of paper, she places it gently into the embers in the fireplace, and with her fan, relights it. She can hear her Father’s voice from the first time her showed her this:
“This is how I am strong, Kaori: I learned to burn away my weakness.”
Kaori and Kimiyasu bounce along in the cart in the rising light of the day. Trying to keep her sister’s mind engaged in things other than the recent news, Kimiyasu asks her for details about Hensei’s guests, their father and the poetry, she asks her for her verse from the poem; whether or not Kaori remembers it, which she does.
“I can’t help notice but an outpouring of description about this Tsubusu.”
“Tsubasa.” Kaori corrects her sister without thinking; her fan moving quickly. “And its nothing… or I should say, in a field of barren grass, its easy to focus on the singular flower.”
“You don’t say…” Kimiyasu’s arched eyebrows on the other hand… Kaori looks forward down the road. “He’s just someone I met.”
“Someone our father introduced you to.”
“I don’t see why that should matter. At any rate, Tsubasa is a foreigner, from some unknown land, I doubt we’ll see him again.”
Kimiyasu watches her sister closely. “Mother tells me Uncle came from a distant province.” Kaori does not move her head, but her eyes flick to the corner towards her sister.
The two of them arrive at the red-painted wooden gate along the road to town. The songbirds, having wintered here in the valley, are quiet in the overcast light of the early afternoon. Kaori and Kimiyasu get off the cart and proceed through the gateway and into the temple grounds. The diffuse sunlight dampens the vibrant colors of their clothes, as the cracked, dry air seeps through their layers.
The path towards the temple is lined with chestnut trees, bare at this time of year, their seeds long since taken by the birds. White stone paving lines the small avenue towards the main building, visible only barely from the gateway as a small, single-story construction made of wood and rice paper. Kaori and Kimiyasu walk slowly. The gravity of the place demands silence, even if the monks do not necessarily require it.
“Look Kaori,” Kimiyasu whispers. Kimiyasu points towards a line of prayer papers strung over the path between too trees. On top of the prayer’s white papers and black ink, a small songbird sits. Even though the songbird is dusty yellow-brown, the sky behind it is a pale, almost-white gray, the thread is a simple twine darkened to almost black from the wetness of the air. Kaori smiles. “’Even the darkest winter day holds many colors for those who wish to see them.’”
Kimiyasu nods. “Its a good omen Kaori, you should pray for guidance. Maybe this songbird will sing your sorrows to the Heaven and bring you wisdom.”
Kaori also whispers back, “A clear answer would be nice, but Father always taught us to depend on our judgment. That if we remained pure of heart and noble of character and virtue we would always know the answer, no matter how confusing the road may be.”
A monk, dressed in the orange robes of his order, appears from between the chestnut trees that line the path. The girls stop. He bows to them and they bow back.
“Forgive me if I startled you, young ladies. I was tending to the landscape on the other side of the trees, and everything is so quiet that I could not help but hear you. Your Father sounds like a wise man, and yet here you find yourselves.”
Kaori and Kimiyasu look at each other. As if to punctuate the strange, almost magical air quickly settling around them, the songbird chirps out a few notes. When the eyes of Heaven lie upon one, the only acceptable answers are to laugh or to cry, so the two girls laugh. Their fans come out simultaneously, in the same motions, as they take the opportunity to giggle soundlessly behind them. When they have composed themselves they turn back to the monk who addressed them.
“Would you deign, honored monk, to lead us to the well, where we might purify ourselves before meditating in the shrine?” Kimiyasu asks the monk.
“Of course, right this way.” He turns, his motions fluid, trained in the disciplines of temple life.
The monk leads them to a well just outside what can now be seen as a main building for the shrine. The two sisters wash their hands, drawing back their sleeves, washing first one hand and then the other, letting the water drip down to purify the ladle between hand-washings and before replacing it into the well. The monk watches, his attentions both present and distant, contemplative even during such simple acts. When they are done and they turn back to him, he speaks again. His lack of whispers helps to ease through the seriousness of place affecting the two girls.
“Where would you like to meditate?”
Kimiyasu quirks her head to one side delicately. “Do you have an opinion, honored brother?”
“I think wisdom is found in peace.”
“If peace is found within, then yes. Otherwise you must find the peace that will tame the wild soul.”
“And where does a soul go when it must be tamed?”
“’Soul and mind must flow like water, there they find peace.’ A troubled soul finds peace among the trees. A troubled family finds peace within the past.”
Kaori inserts herself into the conversation with a small nod. “And a soul troubled by family?”
The monk smiles. “A soul troubled by family finds peace in the lands of its ancestors. You are the Inaba children, are you not?”
Kimiyasu straightens. “We are…” her statement still implies a question.
“I was born to the Akimura family. Though I may be a monk, I have lived in this valley all my life. What seems like a lifetime ago, I played often with your brother in these very hills. There is a place, not far from here, that is still part of the temple. I would be happy to show it to you?”
Kaori nods. “You have been much help, but we would not wish to keep you from your duties.”
“The greatest of our duties is in service to our fellows, I would be honored.”
Kimiyasu bows. “If you insist, honorable brother, we would be happy to see your wisdom.” Kaori nods, and the monk leads the two of them around the side of the main building.
Kaori spends much time sitting in the garden, despite the slush and snow. When it gets too cold or too wet she stares at the cherry tree from her window, wet black boughs against a gray sky. Her writing desk is bare, even though she grinds the ink-stone every time she sits down and then doesn’t use it. It is Kimiyasu who comes to her first, after three days without one of Kaori’s spontaneous poems that the family is grown accustomed to. She next to her on the cold stone bench, wrapping an old quilt around the both of them. It was made for winter, from scraps of wool and silk, its chambers thick to bursting with cotton, the colors all harmoniously arranged so that it spirals gently from a cool green to warm purple. The wind blows the clean scent of icy air and frozen ground around them. For a time, Kimiyasu simply stays inside the blanket close to her sister. Finally, as she can feel the bone-chill of the stone seeping through even the thick quilt, she speaks without looking at her sister.
“Sluggish black water,
even fountains flow in circles
outside of winter.”
Kimiyasu waits for a response verse from her sister. With no response other than Kaori’s glance in her direction, Kimiyasu continues: “We’re worried about you, sister.”
Kimiyasu’s fan comes out, the blanket slipping down her shoulder, and points at her sister’s obvious untruth. “I’m not so sure. You spend most of your day out here in the cold, staring at the frozen pond. Mother worries that you’ll get sick if you keep this up for much longer.”
“She gave me a lot to think about, I’m thinking about it.”
“Father didn’t want to give you a choice.” Kaori looks at Kimiyasu, inadvertently pulling the quilt more around herself. “He said that this sort of decision should be theirs to make in your best interest. Having lived through it, Mother argued vehemently that you should be given a choice. Father did not believe you were strong enough.”
“Maybe he was right. I don’t know what to do anymore. Both of my choices are right answers, in a way. But they cannot both be.”
Kaori looks at her sister before repeating her father’s words. “’The path of virtue is clear to the virtuous.’”
Kimiyasu shakes her head. “That doesn’t say anything about choice. Or what to do when two virtuous options present themselves.”
Kaori’s brow furrows. “No, but that’s what Father always said to me when I had to make choices…”
“Perhaps, then, what you need is a different opinion. Father will not always have the answers. You must learn to interpret the verses for yourself, in the context of your own life, dearest sister. Come let us go to the temple, the changing scenery always helps when I must puzzle out a vexing situation.”
Kaori smiles slightly at Kimiyasu. “I fear I would do much the same thing at the temple as I am doing here, sitting and staring, lost in my own mind. Or worse, distracted by the colors there at this time of year.”
“But there you will have the wisdom of the place and the austerity of the monks to guide you.”
Kaori has no response for her sister’s seemingly infallible logic.
“That settles it then,” Kimiyasu claps her hands and Mikan comes after a short while. “Mikan, have one of the others prepare my cart. Kaori and I are going to visit the temple.”
“Of course. Oh, Kaori.” She looks at the older woman. “Your mother wishes to tell you the fabric has arrived from town.” Kaori nods, and Mikan continues towards the front of the house.
“Sister, I should get to work on the clothing I’m to make, I know—”
“That I mean well?” Kimiyasu sighs. “I think you would try and get distracted, or worse yet, make so many mistakes you’ll ruin the fabric. You need time to still your mind before you begin the project Kaori. Isn’t that what Father always told us? That we should begin our works clear of mind and spirit, that we might give full attention and full… what was it he used to say?”
“The better to give our projects full attention to the spirit of their purpose.” Kaori supplies the missing answer for her sister.
“Yes that, now go, grab your coat, and come with me to the temple. I will not discuss the matter further.” Kimiyasu looks rigidly into the pond. Kaori opens her mouth a few times, and realizing her sister is serious, gets up to go and choose a coat, and possibly do up her hair. For the first time in three days, Kaori’s mind turns to the simplicity of dressing appropriately to go outside and sheds itself of the choice her mother gave her.
Kimiyasu stares at the recently raked furrows in the snows of the garden, subtly reflecting the overcast gray sky, until Mikan comes to tell her the cart is ready.
“Do you think our Father asks too much of Kaori?”
“I would not presume to know Huiren’s actions.”
Kimiyasu looks over at Mikan, one eyebrow delicately raised. “And yet… you refer to him by first name and very obviously have an opinion on the matter, or you would not have been watching from the overhang.”
Mikan nods. “Well of course I do, child. I helped raise the boy. That does not mean that even our families cannot be mysterious, full of hidden depths, or that we do not worry about the well-being of our charges. Just that, as the chick that is stuck in its shell, sometimes we must let things be.”
Kimiyasu nods. “I am too young to ignore my sister’s hardships. But I hope I can help her find her own answers.”
Mikan shuffles towards the doorway that will lead her towards the warmer kitchen, she finishes the conversation over her shoulder. “Then I have raised you to be a good sister.”
Kaori and her mother sit at the small table in Kaori’s side of the house, its a simple affair made from local pine, handed down in Katai’s family. A few candles give light to the room as well as the faint scent of honey. The rest of the family retired reluctantly, Weili stiffly, and Kimiyasu with a look that Kaori could only describe as hopeful and scared all rolled into one. Her mother pours tea for both of them. Kaori smells the faint notes of mint, rose hips and lemongrass. She sips slowly, calmly. Her movement is smooth, but the water still shivers slightly from it. Katai’s movement is fluid, continuous; the water in the teacup does not even know it has left the table.
“Do you remember your Aunt Chochin? On her last visit you were fairly young.”
“Vaguely. I remember her as a happy woman who always smelled of tea and herbs, but if you asked me what she looked like then I would not be confident in my description. Why?”
“Did you know she was married at your age?”
Kaori sips her tea slowly. Her mother does not speak without purpose. Its the one thing her Mother made absolutely certain to teach her: even in idle chatter there is meaning.
“I did not, Mother.”
“It was before the war. Everyone was in a state of… waiting. As my younger sister, Chochin and I would have been married to the same husband, if he could support it, but our Father did not want that.”
Kaori’s fan comes up in front of her face, her eyes are wide. Katai is suggesting that Kaori’s grandfather would be guilty of rebelliousness. Kaori continues listening, even as memory conjures up her father’s voice. By tradition, the family was everything, one listened to the word of the Father and acted in accordance with it. By extension, the word’s of a Father’s father, and further back, held more and more weight, and so traditions were made, breaking with tradition was equal to open rebellion. If you could not be trusted to follow the word of your family, what trust would anyone have for you to succeed at your other obligations?
“He did it because he was greedy, and the spirits dealt with his rebellion. However, since he wanted a separate husband for Chochin, against tradition, he had to find a Matchmaker to find someone suitable for her. So he went to the Matchmaker where we grew up. For an entire season the Matchmaker tried to find someone. Our Father carefully proposed the idea to a number of his friends, always in ways that could be retracted if they proved to value tradition more than friendship, as they should. None of them would give the idea any sort of merit or even very much recognition.
“Eventually, our Father was ready to give up, especially since my wedding day was quickly approaching. Your Father and I had our first and second meetings, and suddenly the Matchmaker came to our house. She said she had found the perfect husband for Chochin, who had always been interested in tea and aromatic herbs. Our father was elated, but both Chochin and I were aghast. But we did as we were told, I should say despite the protestations of your Father, Kaori. And he and I were married while Chochin and her husband went through the ceremonies.”
“I remember Chochin being fairly pleasant when she was here though, and Uncle also. The two… complemented each other.”
“They do. Your Uncle owns several tea farms and processing facilities, and even though he proposes the work is his—”
“As is proper.”
“—the true genius is your Aunt. She chooses the leaves, mixes the proportions of herbs and samples every batch. It is her tea that stocks our house right now. Well, a fair mixture of that and local varieties your Father insists we carry for your education.”
Kaori shifts uncomfortably. “I don’t understand, Mother. This whole story seems to end quite well for everyone involved. But should not Aunt Chochin and her husband be living in dishonor? Why does anyone listen to what they have to say, or trust their business?”
“It does present a conundrum, doesn’t it. On the one had, since our Father broke with tradition and your aunt didn’t do anything about it, your grandfather’s family is in disgrace. However, your Aunt and I are no longer part of his family, should we be held accountable? Your aunt works, and works hard, I might add, outside of her home, and thus should be disgraced, since everyone knows you can’t work outside the home and take care of the home. And yet… her very business is her reputation.” Katai’s fan waves back a stray lock of hair that has come forward from the tilt of her head. “And even though everyone knows, no one says anything, or really judges her based on that fact. She is a woman who’s work is judged based on her merit, not her birth or her status currently, or even the past of her father.”
“I can appreciate being judged on merit,” Kaori’s fan movements are erratic, not so much towards her, but past her, trying to blow away the sudden burst of daydream. “But you and Father have raised us to adhere to tradition in all that we do.”
“Your Father has raised you that way in the name of the arts, which are traditions in and of themselves. I have raised you to adhere to tradition in what you present to the world outside.”
“That does not remove the fact though that Aunt Chochin went against the will of the ancestors, with your help no less.”
“And what sprang from that is the greatest beauty.”
Kaori’s fan stills, and she sets it back into the pocket in her sleeve. Her shoulders slump slightly as she rests her elbows on her knees. Outside the lanterns sway lightly in the nocturnal breezes, inside a cloud of aromatic scents has risen to encompass both of them. It toys with Kaori’s nose, further distracting her from what her mother has said; even still Kaori knows she has lost this round of wits. “I am now thoroughly confused about where this is going, Mother. My mind has tangled my suppositions and assumptions while waiting for this conversation to start with what has already been said and what has not been said. Please, explain what you wish of me.”
Katai sighs, likewise places her fan in her sleeve, and looks at her daughter. It is rare that Kaori admits defeat, but family can do that with one another. At least her mother certainly wants her to feel that. “Would you, given the opportunity, adhere to the traditions of marriage or instead adhere to the propriety of reverence to your parents and ancestors?”
Kaori’s head pulls back as her eyebrows scrunch together. “I—” She wants to say that she would adhere to the traditions of marriage, but her parents have always guided her well, as today was any indication; Kaori trusts her parents. “I—” She thinks of the beauty that came from past resistances; choosing to follow the traditions of marriage, and realizes that both ways are tradition, both ways are correct and in a sense, both ways are improper. Finally, only the tea left in the pot still warm, Kaori can speak: “I do not know.”
“Then you will have to decide soon. Your sister is getting married. And unless you have a better prospect, your Father will marry you to him as concubine, as is proper, and despite his desire for your happiness.”
Kimiyasu met them when they arrived back at the house, a splash of violet against the backdrop of white walls, gray snow and dark wood. She is waiting in the courtyard with Mikan, a wrinkled woman in equally bright orange, who had been with the family since Kaori’s father was young. They bow to Kaori’s father and mother, her brother and finally to her, though only Mikan bows. Kimiyasu is older than Kaori, and it is Kaori instead who bows to her. The lanterns are just being lit by servants, and the rich, lacquered cherry wood glows in the warm light of the paper lanterns.
“How was your trip into town?”
“Productive, if I do say so myself. Although I did not attend your mother’s meeting.” Kimiyasu turns to her mother.
“Let us go inside and discuss this while sitting.” Mikan bows and goes inside to prepare the seating room, while the rest of the family ambles slowly in the same direction. Kimiyasu turns towards Kaori.
“Did you find anything interesting, sister?”
“Gossip and rumors, but also this wonderful fabric. It’s a beautiful emerald silk with a simple linen brocade done in lavender. Tenshu said it was a local work, that his kinsman made it, although honestly, it seems a little beyond the work of his kinsman, judging from the past that is. We—” Kaori pauses, “I, got him to throw in enough material for a sash as well, a darker purple. We’ll see how it works, but I have high hopes.”
“I’m so glad it went well. Mother asked me if I thought you were ready to start doing your own shopping.”
“Well, I wouldn’t say it went… well. Tenshu kept wanting to say the fabric was beneath me. I argued that it was humbling, and was maybe a little too forceful. I fear I may have left a sour taste. Which would then mean that I at least, will have to deal with increased prices and perhaps less fabric for a time. Tenshu does not have a small memory.”
“Well, virtue always wins over greed, right sister? If the fabric was truly humbling, then he has no right to overcharge you in the future. Although, not every will be pleased about being wrong little sister, although my poetry is not as good as yours, I always find it useful to think of them as a difficult couplet: you have to find the right rhythm.”
“Speaking of, we also met with some friends of Hideki Hensei.”
As they arrive in the sitting room and sit down, Huiren speaks. “Yes, Hensei says they were from a nearby province, people with whom he has corresponded for many years. He invited them to see the newest arrangement of his garden, which is where we met. I accompanied them back into town afterwords in order to meet back up with your mother.”
Kimiyasu’s fan appears, blowing at a brisk pace as her eyes widen. “Oh… then Kaori has made some new acquaintances?”
Huiren smiles, “Indeed. At the very least, any friend of Hensei is a suitable friend for out family. But what did you think of them, Kaori?”
Kaori’s fame waves in the thump-thump of a meditative heartbeat. “Honestly Father, I forget most of their names already. I do remember Changfu, but I also feel like he was trying to stand out. Or if not, then parhaps he needs a wife more than any of us realize.” A look passes between Huiren and Katai, and between Kimiyasu and Weili. Kaori is too busy trying to remember everyone to notice. “Shinobu is a careful, practiced and very quick man, at least I would guess as much from his brush movements. While I couldn’t see his writing, it looked very precise and clipped.” Her father nods. Kaori flushes.
“What have you thought of, my little brushstroke?”
“It is inappropriate.” Everyone waits expectantly for Kaori to continue, when she notices her father is as well, she sighs. “I thought Zheng to be judgemental, too close to being dismissive, like he was humoring me by allowing my verse into the poem.” Kimiyasu’s fan moves master. “I know that is unfair, to him and my work, though.” Kaori bows her head.
Kimiyasu sweeps in, “Wait, they put one of your verses into their work?”
Kaori nods eagerly. “It was a simple verse, one of them called it rustic and pointed, but they still put it in.” Kaori turns to her father, her eyebrows have gathered like the folds of a sash. “Who kept the poem?”
Huiren thinks. “I imagine it was Hideki, since he was the cause of everyone being together and thus the host. Although, since Zheng acted more as a host, Hideki may have gifted it to him instead of keeping it. Hmmm, I genuinely do not know, Kaori. I shall ask Hideki when next I write to him.”
Kimiyasu turns towards Katai. “And what of your meeting mother?”
Katai’s fan wafts lazily around her face, it is a practiced gesture, and Kaori thinks of her own experiences in learning how to speak with a fan as much as with her tongue. “It went well. Your brother did a good job and I’m so proud by how much the two of you have grown up.” Katai looks to Weili and Kaori, who turns to her sister.
“Yes, I asked your sister for advice.” Katai leaps into the conversation, her fan closed and angled with the spines facing the space between them for just a brief second, before being tucked into her sash. “I thought you would be ready to do this on your own, but I wanted the opinion of your sister; the two of you are close. Not to mention you are almost the same age she was when she started handling her own shopping.”
“You took to the arts so much better than I did, and have gained such maturity from them, that I figured even though you’re younger than I was, you would do just fine.” Mikan enters, and leans in to speak to Kaori’s mother. The fan comes up to block their faces as they converse briefly. When the fan comes down, Katai looks at the rest of the family.
“Dinner is ready, and afterwords I think would be the best time for a fairly important announcement to be made.” She turns to Huiren, “Shall we?”
Huiren turns to his wife, framed as she is in warm wood and lantern-shadows. “One hurdle and you already think its time?”
Katai pauses midway up from the ground and then continues. She turns to her husband. “Time is exactly why. It continues to pass. I know you think its too early, but it we went according to your ideal schedule, we’d be mentioning it as it was happening. Now is as good a time as ever, Huiren, especially after we’ve put it off this long.”
Kaori, Kimiyasu and Weili have all turned to one another in a furious exchange of glances and fan movements honed over the many years of their lives into a fairly well developed secret code. It seems to Kaori that not only do Kimiyasu and Weili know what’s going on, but they know that Kaori has no idea of what their mother is referring to. Kaori quickly realizes that everyone is sharing a secret that she isn’t privy to. But why would they keep this from her? She will simply have to wait until after dinner, and likewise after tea, and then likely after practicing her flute playing. Kaori becomes much less certain she’ll be able to wait until her mother tells her. She hopes that the calming scent of jasmine from the food and tea will help curb her impropriety.