Archive for March, 2016
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.
“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 aims a question at Huiren, Kaori has seen that look before, and falls prey to the shot before her father can respond.
“The character of a place is in its tea. For art, the best way to capture the essence of place is—” In a flash, Kaori realizes she is lecturing men twice her age on a man’s art. She finishes the thought quickly, “in the drink chosen to accompany the writing.” Changfu tilts his head, but has not stopped smiling at her. Indeed, Changfu, Kaori notices, has not taken his lime green eyes off of her. She is uncertain if her father has noticed his gaze, or the way his eyes clash ever so slightly with the emerald of his clothing, or if Huiren is simply acting as though he has not noticed it. The other men however, strangers to Kaori, shift in their seats. Inappropriate behavior settles awkwardly, an ill-fitting bed sheet for the table. Several fans, variously painted, reveal themselves, their motions blocking sight towards the exchange, but leaving the view open for Hensei to respond. 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 as the conversation swirls around her. Verses fly back and forth between the men, their cadence predictable, their laughter soft, but genuine. Her father and Hensei, knowing her so well, both look at her expectantly every time she has thought up a rejoinder to the current verse, but Kaori does not contribute. She is still too embarrassed.
Instead, Kaori carefully studies the men at the table. Most of their names are long gone, and most of them are subdued, quiet, proper. Their clothing is drab, and like her father’s plain colored in darker shades, simple. Except for Changfu. His clothes are just a couple shades too bright to be proper, and as he shifts, she could swear there was embroidery in it, invisible in this light and likely done with the same color as the rest of the fabric.
“Newly grown grasses cut down.
The oriole cannot blend.”
The verse flies from her like a songbird as soon as the cage is opened. She looks at the one who is writing, Shinobu? But her gaze lingers on Chengfu for a brief moment. He smiles a half-smile, and her father leans in slightly towards the table, interrupting their view of each other. Everyone has turned to Zheng, who has watched and judged the exchanges. “I see, Miss Inaba, that you truly have imbibed the art of this place. The verse is rustic and pointed, but so appropriate I cannot help but say yes.” Kaori bows towards him, and catches a wide smile from her Father while Zheng continues: “Perhaps one day Tsubasa will have a wife make him more appropriate clothing for his travels?”
Changfu smiles, “One day, perhaps when Hideki gets too old to show off his gardens.” The men laugh. The verses continue. Kaori leans back, sipping her tea slowly. She notices the river on one of the screen’s moving, and the elderly woman gets up to leave. Searching her face for any sort of clue as to what transpired, she notices the elder shake her head just slightly, breathing deep as when Kaori is preparing her mind for a new task. Weili and her mother continue sitting at the table, Katai’s fan barely moving. They speak few words to one another, but neither is frowning. In fact the two look enviably calm. Her father apparently sees them as well.
“Well gentlemen, the work is nearly finished, and this old man must go rest his weary bones in his own house. Good health and safe travels unto all of you, it was a pleasure to meet and contribute.” Huiren rises and bows to all of them, as does Kaori. Several of them express their desire to correspond with her Father, to which he agrees with a casual but meaningful “Of course, of course.” Changfu also rises.
“It was also a pleasure to see all of you again. I hope we can meet again soon, perhaps when the roads aren’t slurry and the crossings dangerous? If you will excuse me however, I have other business to attend in town. Thank you all.” Changfu bows to the men in turn, finally bowing to her father and then to Kaori herself. She hides her blush behind the fan; surely she is not worth such recognition? As Changfu exits, Kaori and her father approach the table with her brother and mother. Her father speaks, his voice resonant surrounded by wood and paper.
“Let’s go home.”