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.