Archive for November, 2013
Kaori wakes first, before the first rays of dawn truly make their way into the Shrine chamber. She wraps the warm blanket provided by the monks around her and steps outside, into the chill pre-dawn. The monk that once helped her resolve the original dilemma, only a month and some change ago, approaches her as she steps down into the garden.
“Are you nervous?” He speaks quietly, respectful of Kimiyasu and Katai’s sleep.
Kaori shakes her head, then stops. “I am sad, and fear that this is perhaps not the best choice, but I am willing to do what my parents wish.” The lie of this being what her parents wish tastes bitter in this holy place.
The monk nods, “Come. Dawn is spectacular from the hill. We have just enough time to get there.” Kaori turns and follows the monk up the hill and to the bench. They sit just as the light begins flowing into the valley. Kaori watches it chase the darkness across the farmlands and the fields, turning the deep void of the black earth into something fertile and new. She watches houses emerge from under the starlight, the first green shoots coming forth to meet the dawn’s rays, and finally again she watches the light reach out and caress the mountains and the hills, turning the black-and-purple shadows into fiery red-orange-yellow and white at the heights. She sighs at the peace of everything, and watches her mother and sister exit from the Shrine chamber. The monk grabs her arms suddenly and she turns towards him alarmed, but he is not looking at her.
Kaori looks out, at the close end of the valley, a cloud of dust comes around through the pass, and Kaori sees it now that it has been pointed out: a column of soldiers. She gasps. The monk seems to read her mind.
“This is a sacred space. They will not defile it. Go, warn your mother and sister.”
Kaori does not waste time, she rushes down the hill, almost falling at several points as the songbirds begin their morning notes. “Mother, Kimiyasu!”
“What, was it daughter, what happened? And look at your kimono, you look like you’ve mucked in with pigs.” Kaori gasps for breath.
“What is it Kaori?” The worry is apparent on Kimiyasu’s face, and Katai’s anger quickly dissolves.
“Soldiers… coming through… the pass…” She collapses into Katai’s arms.
“Soldiers?” Kimiyasu places her arm on Kaori’s shoulder. “Are you certain?”
“I saw the dust, and the formation. They had banners, but I didn’t know the sign.” She hugs onto her mother tightly.
“Shhhh,” Katai holds her daughter, trying to stop her from trembling and holding back from doing such herself. “We are safe here, no one would dare spill blood on sacred soil; no one is suicidal enough to offend Heaven.” Kimiyasu and Katai share a look, and then the three are comforting one another as much as they are comforting themselves.
When the men arrive, they come already aware of the news. Huiren speaks to Katai away from the rest of the families. “It seems they are on their way here. It is my hope that they need only provisions and then will be on their way. Their mark is not the Governor’s though.”
“Surely they would not attack a holy Shrine?”
“War is a devil that taints the minds of men and makes of them its slaves. I dare not speak to what they will and will not do, but I believe you are correct, my dear wife.”
“Oh husband,” she collapses into his arms, “I am scared…”
Away from their parents, the three siblings are also conferring as Hensei approaches their parents.
“Do you think they’ll postpone the wedding?” Kaori says.
Weili shakes his head. “There wasn’t an auspicious time for another two seasons for this marriage. It is today or not at all in the eyes of the Tsukino family.”
Kimiyasu fans herself erratically. “But Hensei will have to treat with them, how will he do that when he is here overseeing the paperwork?”
“Hensei doesn’t need to oversee anything, the priest can officiate the wedding without him. He needs only witness the sharing of the wine.”
Kaori also begins fanning herself erratically. Weili reaches out and places a hand on both their shoulders. “Baichang and I will be here to protect the both of you, don’t worry. You’re safe here.”
Kaori and Kimiyasu nod their head.
As the ceremony begins a man on horseback approaches the wedding party, on his back is a banner, at his sides are weapons of war. He waits patiently until after Kimiyasu and Baichang share the rice wine, then Baichang and Kaori. Hensei extricates himself from the wedding party and approaches the man on horseback.
“I am Hideki Hensei, goverment liason for this village. I see you do not carry the banner of our lord, Governor Harukaede Daning.”
The man does not dismount. “That is most unfortunate, Liason Hideki. I have heard good words about your skills as an artist. I did not realize you had been stationed here. My name is Warchief Wunuo Sukehide. I am heading an occupation force into this valley to claim it for my Lord.”
“It would seem this is terribly unfortunate. Honor dictates that we should resist as is our duty to our Lord Governor.”
“As I said. I would regret having to kill such an exalted artist.”
“Your men are not attacking though.”
“This is a holy place. More importantly, we do not wish to destroy the village. I have strict orders to kill as few people as possible. Our Lord needs this village and its produce in order to continue his war effort, and in order for that to work, he needs this village producing, not razed to the ground. We have heard of the skill of the Tsukino family in producing more than most thought possible from this soil.”
Hensei looks over his shoulder. “Their eldest son is the groom in today’s marriage.”
Huiren and Baichang’s father both step forward. Huiren places a hand on Hensei’s shoulder and the two share a look.
“I will stand with you friend, as is our duty.”
“For the good Inaba Huiren has done this village, I would be honored to stand with both of you.”
Distracted with the ceremony, Kaori does not hear her father’s words, and wonders what is going on with the rider.
“Then I propose a duel, I will fight the three of you in succession. I trust all of you have heirs?”
Huiren complains, “That is hardly fair, unless you judge your skill to be that great, and then I would accuse you of bragging.”
“I have been three years on campaign. I have faced numerous duels and won entire battles because of it. I would wager my skill is suitable to the task.”
“Should I fall, I assume you will take my post, honorable Warchief, as government liason?”
“For the time it would take my Lord to send a more suitable replacement and thus allow me to continue, yes. You do not have an heir?”
“I am as yet unmarried.”
“I see then. I will honor you at the shrine after you have passed on then.”
“Thank you, Warchief.”
Finally the three travel down the hill and to the road. Kaori watches them go, concern growing within her. Kimiyasu reaches out her hand and holds it, for comfort and to prevent Kaori from dashing off in the middle of the ceremony.
When it is over, Kaori rushes down the hill to the road. Hensei and Baichang’s father lie dead to one side, composed for burial. Kaori and Weili see the swords of the Warchief and her father flash in the midmorning light, and then lock together. Kaori screams out her father’s name. Weili and Katai hold her back. The temple priest rushes over to the bodies.
Huiren smiles bitterly. He had not wished Kaori or Kimiyasu to see this, his death on their wedding day. He is skilled enough to know that the Warchief was not being boastful, even with the two surprise wounds from Baichang’s father, the man’s icy demeanor is deadly. He leans in as their swords are locked.
“Make it clean. For my daughter.”
The Warchief nods. The two pull back simultaneously and then rush forward. The Warchief deflects Hensei’s blow with an unexpected twist that leaves him open, and then slices sideways.
Huiren’s head flies to the side by the other bodies. Kaori screams, and the world goes dark.
Kaori grinds the inkstone, sets the papers, and begins writing her letters. The first, she writes to the Governor, as is appropriate:
“Winter snows cover
A humble garden with ice.
A single shoot sprouts.
The stars are unconcerned,
But the Sun takes interest.
She folds it into the shape of a sunburst, attaches a pressed camellia blossom, and sets it aside. She pulls forth another paper and addresses her second letter to Hideki Hensei.
“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, now that Kimiyasu has reminded 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 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 would not 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.”
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 excellence, if not beyond. I hope you weren’t too hard on him though?”
Kaori shakes her head. “At least, I don’t think so. I want to continue the conversation. There’s something about him.”
“Mother said his kimono 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 status.”
“As though perhaps he is a little forgetful and left 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 kimono?”
“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.
“You’ve cut to the heart of it, yet again, Kimiyasu.” Kaori has not turned back to her.
“I’m sorry, Kaori. I didn’t mean to imply anything. You are young, and an artist, you are not expected to know yourself, you are expect to explore the arts and through them learn of yourself. But everyone likes knowing they aren’t alone.” 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.
“I see you’ve been corresponding with Tsubasa Changfu, Kaori.”
Kaori turns to her Father, standing just outside the circle of branches of the cherry tree that Kaori is sitting under. “We have. It has been… proper, in all things. Several conversations, in fact, about the nature of art and the benefits therein. Tsubasa is a font of contradictions, and I think he does so just to get a rise out of me, but I’ve taken to turning his criticisms aside.” Her fan is quickly working in Kaori’s hand. “Has he written you, Father?”
“He has not.” Huiren looks down as he says this, and Kaori’s fan slows. He looks back up at his daughter, his face is smooth, but his mouth has pulled down and his eyes threaten to start glistening.
“What is it, Father?” Kaori moves to one side to allow Huiren to sit down on the bench.
“The plum tree on the hill has started budding.”
“There is no word from the Matchmaker then?”
“And no word from Tsubasa means…” Huiren cannot finish his thought. Kaori’s fan slowly stills and drops down to her lap, still open. The only sound comes from the wind over the eaves.
“I will be prepared to marry Tsukino Baichang.”
Huiren finally walks over and sits next to his daughter. “That is your final decision?”
“I would bring shame to our family if I didn’t follow tradition. I bring shame to our family by not trusting in your wishes and following them, but no one will know that shame, where everyone will know the shame of not committing to the marriage.”
“You aren’t wrong, daughter. I wish you did not have to shoulder such a burden.”
“I will not be shouldering it alone. Kimiyasu and Weili both choose the same path as I do, and now we will all share the private shame for having disobeyed your wishes. Honestly, I wish this also wasn’t the truth, but I do what I do for our family.”
“Our family… yes.” Huiren looks over the pond, he slaps his sigh. “It is supposed to be my responsibility to take care of and decide what is good for our family. But you are not wrong in feeling that such an obvious breach of tradition would be bad for our family. I only hope that the burden of my shame will not drive us apart.”
“Nothing could drive us apart Father, you raised to believe in harmony and the truth of right action, and that is what we will naturally gravitate to.”
“I certainly hope so. You bring honor to me by following what I have taught you. Perhaps one day the honor you children bring to our household will be enough to overshadow the personal shame the three of you shoulder from disobeying me.”
“I should certainly hope so Father… we are making good progress. You are building a pillar of peace within the valley by marrying my sister… and I… to the Tsukino family. Weili’s marriage will also help the valley to prosper. Oh, and I almost forgot! I received another letter from the Governor today.”
“Oh? Any good news?”
“Not particularly, but I’m pleased that Kimiyasu was right and that he is genuinely interested in corresponding and exchanging verses.”
Huiren smiles. “I am pleased to see you forming connections that are appropriate, but also I am pleased to see you making friends, and that your skill is strong enough to make the Governor forget you’re a woman that is writing to him.”
“I know better than to bring it up. I do find it somewhat annoying that these men see me as childish and naive as to the workings of the world of art.”
“But daughter,” Huiren pulls her close to him in a half-hug, “you are childish.”
Kaori taps her father’s thigh with her fan. “You know what I meant, Father.”
“I do, I only hope you do not hold it against them and try to understand their perspective.”
“I do, Father, I do.”
Kaori and her Father sit on the bench quietly, both enjoying the simple smells of winter, the black waters in the pond contrasting with the warm lacquered wood of the house and the white of the last snow on the shadowed corners of the garden. The soil itself, moist and black from its time sleeping through the winter, is ripe for the work the garden will taken after the Spring festival. Eventually the two of them begin discussing the plans for what Huiren will do with the space after the garden, what flowers he will plant and where, the paths and the borders of herbs and ferns, the beautiful colors when the flowering time comes. Kaori nods, enjoying the time with her Father. Landscape is one of the arts Kaori did not take to, mostly because of the exertion involved, the aesthetics that recalled obscure points in the past, and in truth, everything about it was not something Kaori found easily comprehensible, or even remotely exciting. Slowly, the conversation shifted to the wedding of Kimiyasu and Baichang, and the meeting that would have to take place soon. Here, in the garden, Kaori felt calm at the prospect… She was not certain how she would feel later, but for now, she was calm.
The family is sitting down together. Dinner has just passed, and tea is almost finished. Kaori’s sister turns to her.
“Sister, will you dance for us?”
Katai nods, as does Huiren. “It will be good for you. We know the Governor’s decision was hard on you, this will be a good distraction. Go on.”
Her sister jumps in, “Yes, and I will play for you.” She claps, and a servant comes by. Kaori thinks. It has been most of the day that she has been thinking about the Governor’s letter. About her failure. About her brother’s gambling, how dare he! It takes her mind a long moment to switch tracks, to think about dances, about stories, about artwork. Kaori realizes everyone is looking at her. Except her brother. He has not stopped looking at the table since dinner began.
“Play… play The Lone Swan.” Katai and Huiren glance at one another. Kaori’s sister stiffens.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Yes I am. Play the song.”
Kaori rises and moves towards the side of the room, where there is more space. She closes her eyes. Her sister plays the first few notes. She focuses on them, clings onto them. Her father did not raise her to get distracted by the everyday, he raised her to achieve selflessness through artwork. To contribute and produce and change the world. Kaori knows she cannot do that if she cannot forget herself in her artwork. She takes a deep breath, centering and calming herself. The movements begin, almost of their own accord. She feels them, really feels them with everything she has. She does not let herself think, she only lets herself move and hear. She is to become the music, and in becoming that, tell the story of the Lone Swan. After only a few bars there is no more Kaori, only The Lone Swan.
Once, there was a swan
Who traveled with his own flock
And yet was alone.
The swan cried out to the moon,
Why must I be so lonely?
The moon heard the swan,
Lighting a path in the dark
The swan was led away.
Soon, there was no one nearby
Only wind, and wood, and moon.
The swan sang out in the dark
But no one could hear.
The moon turned its face from swan
The wind dies and the wood rots
In his loneliness
The swan does not hear approach
An old and great man.
Why do you sing so loudly?
No one has come to hear you.
I sing to find my way home…
The dance ends. Kaori’s outstretched hand falls back into her now seated lap. Kaori realizes that her sister has cried throughout the whole dance, and played without missing a note, as far as Kaori could tell. Even her father’s eyes are glistening. Weili is no longer in the room.
“It pleases me that both my daughters have such dedication to art. Now go. Your mother and I have much to discuss. Kaori.”
“Yes?” Her voice is as though she has just woken up, raspy and strange.
“Go apologize to your brother.”
Kaori bows instead of trusting her voice, and leaves the room. She walks down the hall, taking the time alone to clear her throat. Her brother’s room is only one on this side of the house with the light on currently. She knocks politely.
Weili opens the door. His eyes are red, but dry. “Yes?”
“I came to apologize. I don’t hate you, Brother. I know you did what you thought was best. I’m just…” Kaori has time to realize that there is a waterfall ahead of her, and then she is cast off. “I’m tired of not being recognized, of not having strangers praise my work. To have the Governor do that was a thrill I didn’t even know I wanted. More importantly though, it was terribly improper of me. The point of my work should be the finding of myself, the finding of my way, not the praise of my peers or even of strangers. You acted within that knowledge, and have proved yourself to be the superior person. I should not hold that against you, or imply my displeasure.” She falls before her brother, bowing deeply to him.
“I had hoped your art would be sufficient to bring honor to our family.” Kaori flinches as though he’s kicked her in the ribs. “But it would seem I too, lost sight of your art’s purpose.” He bends down and picks her up. “It is I who should be apologizing, dearest sister.” He smiles at her. “Can you forgive me, Kaori?”
“Of course, Weili.” He places a hand on her shoulder and smiles warmly at her. Standing like that for a few moments longer, Kaori finally nods her head, and turns to go back to her room.
Several strides down the hall, Kaori turns to look at him.
“One day, you will be the most famous poet in all the land.”
“One day,” Kaori responds, “I will find myself in one of my poems, and be completed.”
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 had sent it with the messenger when he departed before dawn.
That had been over a week ago. 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 travelling towards her. Kimiyasu tried to get her out of the house again, and again Kaori pleaded that she had to work on her kimono. 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.”
“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 drapped 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.”
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.
Kaori is taking a break in the fields behind the house when Hensei comes to visit. It is the first glimpse of the bare soil she has seen since last fall, and despite the wetness of the ground and the risk to her clothing, Kaori wishes to enjoy it. The smell of damp earth mingles with the fresh, cold breeze full of ice. It is, for Kaori, a smell that is strictly seasonal. She wishes there was a single word to encapsulate the smell, so she could use it in her poetry. She would use it in her autumn, and winter poems. She sighs, watching the small, faint cloud work its way outward and upward. She breathes in the smell again, her eyes wandering downhill to the row of elm trees bordered by yarrow that reach to the edge of their property.
Mikan finds her here, at the top of the hill where her father likes to rake the snow when there are no plants and no paths. “Miss Kaori, your Father and his visitor have sent me to fetch you.”
“Who has come to visit my Father, Mikan?”
“Hensei.” Her eyes, from their wrinkled folds, speak of more compassion that Kaori has known any other person to have within them. She cannot bring herself to correct how the woman addressed her Father’s friend. Still she takes a deep breath, welcomes the physical feeling of the icy-cold wind in her chest.
“Do you know what they have called me?”
“You know I do not, little Miss. Come let us walk together.” As when she was a young sprout, Mikan takes Kaori’s hand in hers and walks with her back towards the house.
Kaori breaks the silence. “They say bad news travels slowly.”
“They are not wrong. The Governor’s response is late, is it not?”
Kaori cannot speak. Her eyes widen and she looks up and to the left, away from Mikan. She shudders through another deep breath. Mikan holds her hand tighter. Kaori can only take a few more steps before she crumbles into this little old woman, sobbing. Mikan holds this almost-daughter of hers, stroking her hair.
“For all I could, Kaori, I would give you a blessed and trouble free life. As would your parents.”
“But… but wh— why?”
“Only the Sages can truly know the minds of men when war grips the land. He had good reason, Kaori. Or he is a fool. Either way, this is nothing you could have prevented. Now hush dear.” Mikan repeats that small phrase to Kaori until she stops sobbing, the only consolation she can offer.
“Thank you, Mikan. We should go change before meeting my Father.”
“I will tell him you are unfit to receive visitors.”
“No.” Kaori’s forceful hand motion almost knife-hands the older woman in the stomach. “Sorry, no. I will meet with Hensei and my Father. Just… Just give me a moment to myself.”
Mikan takes a small half-step back. “I will have someone bring you a basin of warm water so that you may wash your face, and inform your Father.” Kaori takes the old woman’s hands in her own and looks deeply into the lined face. She forces the corners of her mouth to turn upwards. “Thank you, Mikan.” Seeing the love there threatens more tears; Kaori turns away and runs back towards her room.
Kaori has spent much time sitting in the garden. When it gets too cold she stares at the cherry tree from her window. Her writing desk is bare, mostly untouched, even though she grinds the inkstone 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 bench, wrapping a quilt around the both of them.
“We’re worried about you, sister.”
“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. “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 I cannot have both.”
“Perhaps we should go to the temple? Consult what the Sages would say?”
She smiles slightly at Kimiyasu. “I would go to the temple to enjoy the colors at this time of year, but I would not go to ask the Sages in this matter. I fear I would do much the same thing I am doing here, sitting and staring, lost in my own mind.”
“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. 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 a good 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 sluggish, black water reflecting the overcast sky until Mikan comes to tell her the cart is ready.
Kaori and Kimiyasu bounce along in the cart. Trying to keep her sister’s mind engaged in things other than the recent news, Kimiyasu asks her for details about her trip into town, about what happened with the shopkeep, with their father and Hensei’s guests, she asks her for her verse from the poem; whether or not Kaori remembers it, which she does. Relatively soon the two of them arrive at the red-painted wooden gate along the road to town. The songbirds are quiet in the early afternoon gloom. The two young women get off the cart and proceed through the gateway and into the temple.
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 way towards the main building, visible only barely as a small, single-store building 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 prayers a small song bird 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, with white paper’s hanging from it with black ink. Kaori smiles.
“Its a good omen Kaori, you should pray for guidance. Maybe this songbird will sing your sorrows to the Heaven and bring you much 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.”
A monk 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, but is there anything I can help you with?”
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. The two women’s fans come out simultaneously, in the same motions, as they take the opportunity to giggle behind them. When they have composed themselves they turn back to the monk who addressed them.
“Would you deign 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.”
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 and purify themselves in the appropriate fashions as the monk watches. When they are done and they have turned back to him, he speaks again. His lack of whispering helps to ease through the seriousness of place affecting the two girls.
“Where would you like to meditate? If I may recommend, where you are often goes hand in hand with your problem. For family matters, I recommend before the altar, for issues of behavior, I recommend the gardens.”
Kaori cannot help herself. “Why?”
Nonplussed, the monk responds: “Nature is our first and best teacher, after the spirits, on the virtues of correct action. Our ancestors are the best guides in how we may currently serve our parents with the least amount of friction.”
“I see.” Kaori’s fan flutters once, then closes. “For a matter of both?”
The monk smiles. “There is a place I often go for the more difficult questions. If you would be so kind as to follow me?” Kimiyasu and Kaori bow to him.
Kimiyasu met them when they arrived back at the house. She was waiting in the courtyard with Mikan, an old wrinkled woman who had been with the family since Kaori’s father was young. They bowed to her father and mother, her brother and finally to her, though only Mikan bowed. Kimiyasu was older than Kaori, and it was Kaori instead who bowed to her. The lanterns were just being lit by servants, and the rich lacquered cherry wood glowed in the warm light of the paper lanterns. Kimiyasu greeted her mother and father.
“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.” Ume bows and goes inside to prepare the seating room, 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, though I don’t know who would have done it. 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, and then I argued that it was humbling, and was maybe a little too forceful. I fear I may have left a sour taste.”
“Oh well, not every will be pleased by your ideas little sister, just as not everyone will appreciate your poetry.”
“Speaking of, we also met with some friends of Hideki Hensei.”
As they arrive in the sitting room and sit down, Huiren speaks. “Yes, Hideki 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 afterwards in order to meet back up with your mother.”
“I’m not sure how that relates to Kaori’s poetry… unless?”
Kaori nods sharply. “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 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.
“Wait, Kimiyasu, you said Mother asked you if I was ready?”
“I did. I thought you would be, but I wanted the opinion of your sister, the two of you are close. Not to mention you are about the same age she was when she shopped for her first fabric.”
“You too 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.” Ume 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. “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.
Kaori and her mother sit at the small table in Kaori’s side of the house. The rest of the family retired reluctantly, Weili stiffly, and Kimiyasu with a look that Kaori can only describe as hopeful and scared all rolled into one. Her mother pours tea for both of them. Kaori can smell 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. Unlike her mother, who 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. Kaori knows this, 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, but our Father did not want that.”
Kaori’s fan comes up in front of her face, her eyes are wide. To suggest such a thing against the traditions of their ancestors was… unthinkable. Kaori continues listening.
“He did it because he was greedy, and the spirits dealt with his deviation from tradition. 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.
Kaori, Katai, and Weili inhale the aroma of the various herbs and teas of the tea shop. No place like any other would smell like this. Tables have been set up in a small-ish section of the shop, with movable paper screens between them. Most of those tables are occupied by a group of six men. One of them rises and approaches them. In the quiet lighting it takes Kaori a moment to recognize her father.
“Beautiful wife and lovely children!” Katai and the family bow to him, smiling.
“Husband. What a surprise.” Despite the cool flippancy with which her mother says it, Kaori can tell she is genuinely surprised.
“I came to meet with Hensei, and discovered him occupied. They have kindly invited me to join them.” Kaori’s father looks at her. “You should join us Kaori. These men would be good for you to meet, and the conversation has just turned to poetry.”
Katai’s fan lazily waves near her shoulder. “Will you not be joining me in my meeting then, dearest husband?”
“Weili can join you. I trust his judgement in the matter.”
Kaori looks to Weili and catches his eye. His shoulders move upwards a fraction of an inch and then back down. A subtle gesture she recognizes from their games in exaggeration of formality. He bows to his father. His mother inclines her head.
“All right. Come Weili, lets grab a table. And don’t forget to pull the screen.” As the two of them move towards one of the tables, someone calls them from the table of gentlemen.
“Huiren! Come on then, we’re ready to start.” Kaori dimly recognizes Hensei’s voice from his few and sporadic visits with her father. She knows little about him, other than his close friendship with her father. The two walk back towards the table, and her father introduces her.
“Gentlemen, this is my daughter, Inaba Kaori. Kaori, these are some of my acquaintances from afar. They’ve come to visit with Hensei.” Despite the deep burning desire to know why, Kaori understands that such a question would be improper at best, insulting at worst. She bows to each of the gentlemen in turn.
“Tsubasa Changfu, Zheng Quishui, Henghai Shin, Shinobu Gangan, Noboru Michi, and of course, you know Hideki Hensei.”
“It is my fortune and pleasure to meet all of you esteemed gentlemen, and to see you again in good health Hideki Hensei.” Kaori and her father join the men at the table. Kaori turns when she hears the door open and sees an older woman walk in, unaccompanied. The elderly woman goes over to the table where her mother and brother are and sits with them. Kaori has been lost in this occurrence and when she returns to the conversation, Hensei is speaking.
“…I think I would have preferred the red flowers in that border, but they’re impossible to get a hold of in the Winter.”
“I agree. The red flowers would have made a much more dramatic point, but the subtlety with which the ferns executed it cannot be ignored Hideki, you’ve done well.” Kaori thinks this is Zheng speaking, but already some of their names escape her. Changfu turns to her. Kaori’s fan comes out by reflex and covers her face while fanning lazily.
“What do you think, Miss Inaba Kaori?”
Kaori takes a moment to still her fan and lower it slightly. “I have been told that Hideki Hensei’s landscaping is legendary, mostly from my father. I did not think anything in this village was legendary until I knew it could attract those from other provinces, but I have never seen Hideki’s work.”
Many of the men smile, Changfu the widest. “You should make time to see that, Miss Inaba. Sure the friendship your father has would dictate such things.”
“In truth, Hideki’s house is so far for an old man, I have not thought to bring her with me. But now that she older and stronger, perhaps her old father could lean on her during the journey.” Kaori smiles pleasantly and hides behind her fan, the other men chuckle quietly in good humor.
“You are the perfect picture of health, for your age, Father.”
Several of the man now laugh outright, including her Father. Changfu turns to Huiren, “You have raised her with sharp wit and gracious manners, a rare but appreciable combination. Well done, Inaba.” Kaori’s father bows at the compliment, while Hensei speaks up.
“He has also taught her appreciation of poetry, which I know more than a few of you enjoy better than flowers and grass.”
“Ah yes, has the time come for me to recover my writing box?”
“Yes, Shinobu, I believe it has. Henghai, you’ve been quiet for much of this visit. Would you grace us then with the first verse?”
“Only if Noboru will grace us with the second and Inaba pays for the tea.” The men smile again. Kaori’s father gestures to the shopkeep and speaks to him softly, yet loud enough to hear. “It seems I have lost this round of exchanges. Would you be so kind as to set us up with a pot of the local tea.”
Hensei responds. “Local? Why would you serve my friends the local varieties, Inaba?”
Kaori responds, she knows it is out of place, but the words escape her before she can hold them back. “The character of a place is in its tea. For art, the best way to capture the essence of place is… in the drink—” Kaori finishes quickly, “Chosen to accompany the writing.” Changfu tilts his head, but has not stopped smiling at her. Indeed, Changfu, Kaori notices, has not taken his eyes off of her. She is uncertain if her father has noticed this, or is simply acting as though he has not noticed it. The other men however, shift in their seats. The shopkeep quickly retreats from the table, Hensei turns to the other men. “Her father has taught her so well, she even reminds me of my lectures some time. You are absolutely correct, Miss Inaba. Thank you.” He nods his head to her and she bows slightly. Kaori returns to hiding behind her fan.
Kaori looks out over the quiet winter courtyard. The lone cherry tree came up near her window, affording her a similar view from her writing desk in the winter as from the stone bench underneath it in the summer. A light slurry dusted the ground of the garden, mixing with the dirt to produce a gray that was slightly more brown than the rest of the black-and-white landscape. Kaori notices that someone, likely her father, has taken the time to rake the snow as one would have done for sand. The whirls of the snow creates pathways that say more about what he would do with the courtyard in the summer than where things were now. Kaori turns back to the writing desk and stared at the blank page in front of her. She knew she could not force the poems to come, but she also knew that if she did not write, she could not give them opportunity to come.
Frozen pond hides carp
sludging through frigid water.
Spring sap through the trees.
Waiting for spring festivals,
Ferns gather strength from each other.
Pouring sand over it, Kaori looks out through her window as her brother crosses the courtyard. She waves at him, and he waves back smiling. Kaori brushes off the sand, and quickly folds the poem into a crane. She goes over to her curio cabinet and grabs a small twig with two buds coming off of it. She is tying the twig to the crane when the knock comes. Kaori opens the door, composing her face into almost serious, she pulls the fan from her sash and flutters about to hide the slight smile.
“Inaba Weili. So good of you to come visit me.” Her brother smiles at her formal play.
“Inaba Kaori. I wish I was here on pleasant matters.”
Kaori’s fan slows and her eyes narrow. “I wrote you a letter.” She presents the letter, balanced delicately on the fan.
As Weili takes it, “And so we must fly. Mother wishes us to go with her into town.”
Kaori’s hands drop and with them their playacting. Her shoulders slump and she tucks the fan into her sash, turning towards the standing mirror. “Did she say why?” She looks at both of them in it.
Weili takes the opportunity to tuck some stray hair back behind his ear, clearing his sharp, but still soft, features and removing a barely visible irritating black line from his vision. “She says she has business.”
The two of them adjust their clothing. Kaori pulls her elaborate sash up slightly from where it has slid, and secures it even more tightly. Her brother runs his hands along the edges of the deep-V of his own outerwear, pulling them more slightly closed, briefly obscuring their house symbol. His much simpler sash and muted clothing contrast with Kaori’s bright patterns and elaborate costume. She pulls her hair upwards and looks at him. Weili goes and rings the bell for a servant to come and assist her.
“I’m guessing that means business with the weaver, but she was surprisingly vague about it.”
“Mother can be… difficult to read, sometimes. From her time at the provincial court.”
“This was different, she wasn’t just concealed she was… vague?”
“You, brother, will never be a poet if you can’t express these simple thoughts with the appropriate words.” She smiled at him as she said this.
“But that, dear sister,” he opens the letter, “is why I rely on you. I’ll let her know you’re getting ready.” Weili leaves as the servant comes in, tucking the letter and twig into his sash.
Kaori, Weili and their mother walk down the country road towards the village. They keep to the drier areas in the middle of the road, where much of the snow has melted in the sunlight and run off down the sides. Occasionally the three of them must step to the side of the road along a dry patch as peasents driving heavy loads pass them by along the cobbles. They bow profusely and thank them graciously for allowing them to pass, while Kaori’s mother and Weili nod their heads. Kaori keeps her face behind a parasol, fan, or simply staring at the ground. The lighter carts that can will risk going towards the side of the road so as to let the Inaba trio pass them.
As they walk they pass by a large bowl that has spilled over the cobbled road. On one side of the road a father breates his son for his clumsiness in dropping the bowl, gesturing angrily to the other side of the road and a large, wooden gateway. The archway is painted red, faded and indicates a temple, but the grounds are surrounded by cypress trees and difficult to see from the road. Kaori tilts her head.
A single white line
in a network of black cracks.
She tucks the poem away into her mind. Soon the trio approach the nearby town. Not many merchants filter through the gates today. Several nearby areas are still inaccessible due to the snow and rain, even if one wanted to go, so the traffic through the town is peaceful. Kaori prefers it this way, as it allows one to really engage with the shop owners and the people who live here. In the spring and summer, the town becomes a mad house so dense it is almost impossible to push through the crowds in the street. In the autumn, women send the men to deal with the town as everyone prepares themselves for the coming winter snows. The simple wooden buildings feature an overhanging walkway from which shop owners can call out at those walking down the street. Several are doing that now, but most are simply talking amongst themselves, discussing the latest gossip.
“Did you see that group of strange men at the tea shop?”
“I heard one of them is visiting from a nearby province.”
“Who would visit from that far in this weather?”
“It seems someone with great business to attend to.”
“Junue said they were diplomats, here to arrange for local participation in the war.”
“But, the governor—!”
“Said there would be no war, but how much can the governor guarantee? The war is everywhere now.”
A voice calls out to their mother. “Ah, Inaba Katai! Always a pleasure.” The shop owner bows deeply to her.
Katai nods back, “Tenshu Ichigo, I hope the winter is treating you well.”
“As well as it can, please please, come in, we just received a shipment from a neighboring province, with some beautiful fabrics you’ll love.”
“I’m sure, come along Kaori. Weili, will you wait for us here?”
“Of course mother.”
Ichigo turns to Kaori and bows to her as well. She bows slightly back. “Your daughter grows quickly, Inaba Katai. Are we here for her, or for you today?”
“I’m here accompanying my daughter today, Tenshu Ichigo. She said she absolutely needed new clothes for the Spring festival, so I decided to bring her.”
Kaori looks at her mother as Katai pulls out a fan and begins lazily fanning herself. Kaori is well aware that she has said no such thing, but the subtle ease of her mother’s fan makes Kaori think that perhaps there’s a bigger purpose?
“Uh, yes. I heard rumors that some men had come into town and had hoped they would be merchants bringing shipments in.” Kaori is about to say something about the fabrics from the next province over, but quickly realizes that if she is wrong the shopkeep, of all people, would be the first to know. She waits for him to speak as she browses the fabrics near the front inattentively.