In Gotham City, Everyone Has A Batman Story

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Millenium Club for B-Side (ERIN KIRKLAND/Daily)

“I’m serious!” Robbie spread his hands wide as he said it, slowly, so as to not spill his fourth beer for the night.

The other two were laughing. Their fourth and fifth beers, respectively, helped to make the laughs a little more loud and freely given. Both the laughs and the alcohol helped with their ruddy glow and the flow of stories.    

“‘Going somewhere, citizen?'” Neil laughed, repeating Robbie’s punchline.

“No way, man! He did *not* say that,” Kevin could barely sit upright.

Robbie took another sip. He was almost done with this glass and probably should leave a bit at the bottom for a while “Hey, it’s Gotham City. Everyone has a Batman story. You mean to tell me you guys don’t have a Batman story?”

The laughter trailed off just a bit, so eyes could narrow and search for memory. Kevin kept on chuckling, “No, man. No.” Softly, as if he was a bit ashamed by that and didn’t want the others to notice.

Neil remembered, though, and was ready. Setting a now-empty glass on the bar top, he got off the stool, slowly, raising his hands and taking the stage. “Huh, a ‘Batman story.’ Well, it’s not a ‘Batman story,’ exactly, I guess. But, damn. Just … damn.    

“OK, you see, I was really into the guy when I was a kid. I think everyone was, you know? You’re in Gotham; you gotta root for the home team. It’s a point of pride. Our city may be shit that’s shit out of other shit, but we got the goddamn Batman, you know?”

Kevin and Robbie clinked their glasses together. Damn straight.

“But I mean I was *really* fucking into it. I even made my own cowl-type thing and cape out of a pillowcase. Like you do. Ya gotta cut them just right, you see, along the sides to make it an actual-to-goodness long cape. And I wore the crap out of that, like, *all* the time. Loved it. Well, except I never liked the way the fabric just sorta hung there. That never seemed right to me somehow. I mean, the news or someone will capture a photo every now and then, and you can see the cape, like, flowing. I swear there’s got to be like wires or some shit in there.”

Robbie couldn’t hold out. He drained the last sip and waved for another. After all, Neil was settling in to the story big time by now.

“OK, so, it gets bad. Like so bad. Before long, I’m wearing this cut-up pillowcase-thing under my shirt to school everyday. I’m making this rope-like thing to try to swing across whatever the hell it was that we called a garden. And, ah dammit. I actually stole Ray Fogle’s ninja stars after that one sleepover.”

“Shit!” Kevin pointed his pinky at Neil. “That was you? Fuck, I loved those damn things.” He turned to Robbie, “‘Cause why the hell else would you hang out with Ray the Gay Fogle?”

Neil went on, “Yeah, but I felt so goddamned worried or maybe guilty or whatever that I put them in a cigar box under the bed and never once tried to throw them. Anyway, the whole thing got so bad that I was actually staying up late, for hours, just hoping to catch a glimpse of him. I would lay down, just so, so I could stare out my bedroom window, and see this open space of sky framed by either side of the apartments. I knew the best I could hope for would be some split-second shadow as he leaped from one roof to the other, just a snapshot really, so I dared myself not to blink. But at some point, I would. And then I’d open them and it would suddenly be morning, time for school.

“Well, that wasn’t working, so naturally I started sneaking out at night. I got away with it for a little while, too. Or maybe my folks knew about it all along, and let me do it, as long as it was all still pretty innocent. Hell, it probably wasn’t even prime time, but to me it was like dead of midnight. And this goes on for like, days. Weeks.”

“No way!” Robbie said.          

“And it starts getting later, and later. I swear by this time I’m probably spending more time out of the house at night than I am anywhere else. Until, after all that, who the hell do you think I run into, halfway around the corner, by the dumpster for the liquor store?”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Kevin said, “Batman? You’re kidding.”

Neil leans in, his voice low and even. “It’s fucking Batman.”

The other guys pause, unsure. Then reel backward, laughing. “What!” and “Stop dickin’ around.”

Neil joins the laughs, but his are quiet ones, more sobering. “Yeah, yeah. I’m shitting you. Of course it’s my *dad,* in some pretty cool ass costume I have to say, because, damn. Little-kid-me was convinced that ‘Batman’ had caught me sneaking around my block. He gave me some speech about doing the right thing and staying safe and what the fuck ever. It was all I could do to stop pissing myself because I had *Batman* escorting me back home. Finally, we’re there, and I don’t want to go up those lobby steps. I turn and look back. He gives me one of those finger-pointing things, with his head cocked and one eye squinted, and says in the most cheesy-ass ways possible, ‘Be good, son!’ And then? Ducks and runs.”

Neil stopped the story and turned to the bar and his beer glass, waving so the bartender could see it was empty. Kevin and Robbie were laughing hard now– Robbie not sure whether to dry his eyes or give a slow clap, Kevin not sure whether to use Robbie to hold himself up or to keep slowly punching him in the arm.

Neil let the laughter go on for a while. The story needed some of it. Hell, Neil needed some of it, but could only reach the level of a wry smile.

“Damn!” Robbie kept chuckling. “Damn. Your dad was awesome. Who the hell wears a bat costume in Gotham City?”

“Exactly,” Neil was deadpan now. He received his drink as the laughter died to silence.

“You mean,” Robbie asked. Kevin looked down.

Neil raised a toast. “‘Be good, son.’ You can’t pick your last words better than that.”

A sip.

“Everyone has a Batman story in this city. Can’t all be good ones, though.”

The three friends clinked their glasses one more time, then settled in to wait a while for the time the stories could start flowing again.


by Danny Wall (March 2015) 

A Chinese New Year’s Story

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Once upon a time, in a far away place, a small village lived in the shadow of a giant mountain. An even greater shadow loomed over them, however– the threat of the monster whose name mimicked the high, shrill wailing it made during the coldest of the winter nights — the dreaded Nian.

As the winter bore on, and the nights grew ever longer, the sound of the wailing Nian grew more and more intense, more plaintive, more piercing. Soon, it would not be able to help itself. It would descend upon the village in the height of winter darkness, smashing doors, swatting aside men, and swallowing their small tender children. And thus the villagers lived in fear for the day of the lunar new year.

One day, a traveling monk happened upon the village. He was wrapped in silk and fur to fight back the sudden cold of the mountain shadow, and wondered why the townspeople had such downcast looks and sidelong glances from behind their window panes. Old Zu, Hongjun Laozu to be precise, was in search for the Gate of All Wonders, but that is a story for another time. Instead, tonight, he just wanted a place to sleep and eat. So why were the people putting large bundles of food in front of their doorways? After traveling for such a long while, he had put his hopes in hospitality.

A local farmer told Old Zu that the people tried to hold the Nian at bay by distracting it with such food laid at the door. But night after night, the Nian would swallow up some offering and leave the people one step closer to starving and helpless.

That’s when the Nian’s cry lanced through the mountain twilight and bit into the people’s hearts.

Just like winter itself, Zu noted, which sups on our strength with its biting cold, until year by year, winter by winter, we weather away, children gobbled up by time.       

Hmm. Yes, well, the farmer had hoped for more encouragement than that. Maybe one of those warrior monks could wander by, instead of these philosophical scholar types? Old Zu nevertheless swore determinately see this beast for himself.

Under the light of the waxing moon, Old Zu struggled up a ragged stretch of cliff, with nothing more than a ration of water and his tall staff. But as he found a place to allow for a rest and a long sip of water, the darkness before him suddenly withdrew to reveal an even darker void, as if the night itself would shy away from the great beast that moved within– the Nian had appeared.

It’s massive frame was like a grotesque bull’s, it’s wide head a nightmarish lion. Two baleful eyes, fish-like and clouded, rolled toward the old monk, and its jaws popped open and shut, sending waves of rotten stink into him.

“Old man, frail man,” its voice was high-pitched wail of death, “Tonight you warm my belly!”

“Oh, Nian! You are such a powerful beast! But no one can be more powerful than man! I dare you to meet three challenges! If you can indeed overcome each challenge, then I promise, as the weaker creature, I will have no choice. I will submit and fill your belly.”

The Nian produced a squeal that sounded like a scratch against a slate, and bounded forward, forcing Old Zu backward up the cliff a few steps. His baleful head seemed to have no expression, but its head twisted and bounced, excited, like a dying leaf on a vine.

“Oh, Nian! If you are indeed powerful, I dare you to swallow the dangerous snakes of this mountain and survive!”

Indeed, the Nian bounded down the slope and found a deadly snake. The snake hissed with gleaming poison on its fangs, but with a quick gulp, the snake was gobbled up by the Nian’s wide, flat mouth, swallowed whole like wet, fat noodle. Laughing, the Nian leapt upward back to Old Zu, who barely managed to climb down a few steps himself. “Old man, frail man! Tonight you warm my belly!”

Old Zu extended his staff toward the beast. “Oh, Nian! Your body may be strong enough to survive a poison, but is your brain adept enough to guess my name?”

The Nian’s bouncing head tossed its giant, hair-tipped ears, catching wind of some slight whisper. Indeed, far away and below the people of the village were chanting prayers for Old Zu and his mission, which the monster heard as plain as day over the stretches of miles. Roaring in triumph, the Nian jumped ever closer again. “Hongjun Laozu!” and again it’s high-pitched voice pierced the night. “Old man, frail man! Tonight you warm my belly!”

The man scrambled back up the cliff just a little bit more. “Oh, Nian! Powerful by far! And I have dropped my prayer beads somewhere on the mountain in my haste to meet you. They are the color of fresh-tilled earth, and polished to darkness from countless mediations. I dare you to find them among the dust and dirt of the ground!”

But indeed, the Nian danced and tossed its body through the night of the wilds, sending whirls of fecund leaves swirling through the air. WIth his powerful wide nose, the Nian easily sniffed out that which didn’t belong in the underbrush, the monk’s string of beads! With a toss of a mighty paw, the beads were kicked unceremoniously at Old Zu’s feet. The Nian galloped back in just five sweeping strides, to lord over Old Zu with a whining shriek that must have been laughter. “Old man, frail man! Tonight you warm my belly!”   

The monk sighed. “Oh, Nian! Such powerful ears, such powerful body, and such powerful nose! What creature could ever hope to overcome your strengths! We humans must have no choice, then! If I must warm your belly, please allow me to strip bare, as a clean gulp would go better for me than a long and laborious chew.”

First, Old Zu took off his white outer robe, folding it and putting it on the ground. The Nian grumbled low.     

Next, Old Zu took off his reed-woven sandals, placing them together beside the robe. The Nian grumbled and pawed at the ground,

Next, Old Zu took off his orange silk tunic, folding it too and placing it on top of the robe. The Nian grumbled and pawed at the ground, it’s anticipation flying off of him and hitting Old Zu  like wind off a newly dug grave.     

Finally, Old Zu took off his tan pants, revealing red underpants beneath.

At the sight of the red underpants, the fish-like eyes of the Nian rolled back in horror, and his whole body nearly twisted to follow, recoiling from the brightness of the color.

With a pointed scream that nearly split the rocks nearby, the Nian send all his breath out in lament. “Old man, old man! Old man, with my most hated color!”

“Ah-ha!” Old Zu laughed, proud of his red underwear. “I knew it! This is why the Nian must swallow the babies and old men he eats! There can be no blood nor sight of red! You are surely the most pitiful and toothless creature of all!”

The Nian did not wait until the end of Old Zu’s gloating. Blinking and balking, choking and gasping on the sight of pure red, the beast receded into the darkness.

In his excitement, Old Zu didn’t realize he leapt, danced, and sang his way back to the village, still clad only in his underwear!

As Old Zu exclaimed, every year you must remember the Nian.

Remember his belly, and on the coldest night, beware that he will come, seeking people to swallow whole!

Remember his ears and nose, and in the coldest hour on the coldest night, light firecrackers to create explosions of sound and smoke!

And Remember his eyes! And every day hang lantern of red in the streets and banners of red on your doors!

And remember Old Zu, saving the town with his bravery, wisdom, and silly, lucky underwear!     


Story by Danny Wall, adapted from Chinese legends

Why is Music So Intimate?

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headphones class

“Do you want to use the classroom speakers?” I ask the student about to use his headphones during classwork.

No longer a student but a deer in the headlights, his first movement is to make a quick sidelong glance at me. He doesn’t say it out loud, but he’s asking if I’m serious…

Quiet classrooms are quite boring. Some people remain convinced that Capital-L Learning can only take place when the audio levels are equivalent to a library housed in a mausoleum, but I need that low-level of background music to muffle the nervous coughs and clacks of the keyboards, or even general levels of conversation about texts and classwork. Why does the best writers always park themselves in busily percolating coffee shops, after all? And I’m sure I’m not the only one. I’m assuming every one of my students plays music during their private study.

For me, however, the actual music that’s playing doesn’t actually matter. In fact, if I recognize the music, it will likely be distracting. I’d rather my subconscious be taken over by the secondhand sounds that float through the room. And because it doesn’t matter, I’ll suggest that some student share their music over the classroom speakers rather than to hear my eclectic internet radio every day.    

So why does Mr. Student not want to share? What is it about his personal playlist that’s so embarrassing? Perhaps there is too many swears? The song has something sexual in nature? Is swearing and sex somehow ok for personal consumption but not public? And if so, then how does it get airplay in the first place? Where is the fine line between private art and public?

And to paraphrase High Fidelity, the 2000 film directed by Stephen Frears, “People everywhere are worried about children playing with guns or watching violent videos, like some culture of violence will take them over, but nobody is worried about kids listening to thousands, literally thousands, of pop songs about… misery.” Or about love, sex, misogyny, rebellion, drug use, or any of the countless other topics expressed through our music, and by extension, embraced by way of our music.

In some ways, creating a playlist is like trying to find resonance with something unexpressed by our own soul, and by sharing it with another, you are sharing in some subconscious way the way you see the world. Is it any wonder then, that the somewhat-forgotten art of making a mix tape has lost its poignance? What an intimate gesture that once was. It’s not quite the same sending a link to a YouTube playlist, or a one-off click on a Like button.

So I applaud the student that speaks up after I catch one deer in the headlights. “I’ll do it!” he gladly offers.

Now, if only I can explain about how mixing audio levels should work…

Upside-Down Obo

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upsidedownhouse

Little Otto Bob O’Reiniero was a boy with the curious habit of turning things upside down.

Everyone called him Li’l Obo, of course, ever since he was a little baby. They would laugh at the babe’s single-minded fascination with the way his toy clown, weighed down at bottom, would right itself after every attempt to topple it. Later, he would upturn his toy cars, bury the faces of every block, and upend every book in the bookcase so their titles were facing downward. Everyone stopped laughing, of course, once Li’l Obo started spilling the contents of boxes all over the carpet, the planter mix going everywhere, the dog’s food staining the floor.       

He spent long afternoons on his head, leaning against the tree in the front yard with his feet in the air. When people asked him why he was standing on his head, he just replied that he wanted to see what things looked like with the sky on the bottom and the ground at the top, and they would chuckle and shake their heads. Looking upward at their nostrils and undersides of their chins, they seemed strangely grotesque and fascinating to Obo, but he said nothing. Soon they’d walk away, and eventually his head would feel too rushed to keep that position for long, anyway.

Obo grew up to be quite the expert and turning things upside down, although it made it hard for him to set the table, seeing as how the surface was laid against the floor, and the plates and cups and things overturned on the underside. His parents gave up asking him to take the garbage out quite quickly, and although his room was always neat and tidy, the clock read nine, or rather six, when it was noon and his posters featured jet planes racing toward the earth and basketball players in mid-slam drop.     

Usually in these kinds of stories, the hero always manages to find a way to use his special talent in order to save the day, after all the other and more conventional solutions fail to work. Sure, there were little moments of Win, such as the time grown-up Obo saved the company millions by pointing out a key loophole in the ledger because he read the financials upside-down, or the time he invented the Flipped Cupcake and saved the so-called “Bakery Bubble” from an investment collapse. He even flew to Australia and wrote the definitive long-term intensive study on the lives of giant fruit bats. But despite all of this, Obo managed to invert the typical story as success was still denied him, and people dismissed him as, at best, a ineffective eccentric, or worse, completely neurotic.

And so Obo lived the rest of his days alone in an upside-down house, balanced perfectly on its vaulted roof, an architectural wonder of his own design. He entertained visitors occasionally, those who found his quirks charming and could challenge him in a game of Reversi.

It might be the opposite of what you would choose, but it makes Obo very happy, which is still a very nice moral to the story, if you think about it.

Rice Cooker Cornbread Dressing

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Autumn brings its peculiar sensibilities, and by that I mean, the desire to start strangling yourself with a long piece of fabric (called a scarf) and putting a cinnamon/nutmeg combination into and on everything.

(As I write this, I’m sitting in a cafe, sipping on a seasonal hot brew of barley ginger tea with red dates.)

Also? Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving overseas is quite an experience. First of all, there’s no guarantee you can track down key ingredients like, say, turkey. I’ve yet to find allspice here in Shanghai, although others have convinced me its around here somewhere.

Luckily, a select few of international teachers are determined to keep Thanksgiving as a tradition of gathering with friends and family over comfort food. With a online sign-up list, and the ability to deliver to your door practically anything in the world, we were able to create our very own Thanksgiving feast, complete with all the trimmings, here in Shanghai.

My offer was cornbread dressing, complicated by the facts that 1) There is a considerable lack of cornmeal around, 2) it’s the norm to NOT have an oven in your kitchen wall, and 3) I’m definitely not from the southern U.S.  Well, I can solve the first by keeping my eyes open and buying cornbread mix when I stumbled across it a few weeks ago in the “foreign” market. I can solve the second by learning to bake basically anything in my rice cooker. I still haven’t been able to solve that last one, though.

So, yes. Here’s a recipe for cooking cornbread dressing in your rice cooker.

cornbreadstuffing

RICE COOKER CORNBREAD DRESSING

1 loaf of cornbread (8×8)
2 slices of wheat bread, toasted and cooled/dried
6 Saltine crackers
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1 stick of butter
1 onion, diced
1 1/2 cup celery, diced
2 cups chicken stock
3 eggs, boiled
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp. sage
1/2 tsp. thyme
3 bay leaves/laurel
salt/pepper

1. Prep, prep, and prep:

1.1 Prepare the cornbread according to directions (yes, I baked the cornbread in the rice cooker the day before), allow to completely cool and roughly cut into small pieces, reserving all the wonderful crumbs, and put it all in a giant mixing bowl.

1.2 Toast a couple slices of wheat bread, allowing them to completely cool, too. Tear them into small pieces and add to the bowl.

1.3 Pulverize the Saltines (try between a folded paper towel), adding them to the bowl.

1.4 Add the baking powder and toss all the dry ingredients together.

1.5 Boil 3 eggs, cool, peel, and slice.

1.6 Butter the bowl of the rice cooker. Place three bay leaves/laurel at the bottom.

2. When you’re ready:

2.1 Sauté the onions and celery in 1/2 stick of butter. I like the little browny bits on my onion, so it’s about 10  minutes of frying and tossing.

2.2 Add the remaining butter until it’s just melted.

3. Put it all together:

3.1 Add the buttery onion/celery mix to the dry ingredients. Fold it to mix together.

3.2 Continue to fold, adding the chicken stock gradually. You want it moist but not wet, and definitely not soupy. You might not even use the whole amount.

3.3 Add the sliced boiled eggs, beaten eggs, and seasonings. Fold together, aiming for a stiff but moist dough. More like a cookie dough than a cake batter.

4. Cook it!

4.1 Pour the dough into the greased rice cooker bowl, flattening softly.

4.2 Press the “蛋糕” button for “Cake” on the rice cooker. The total cooking time should be about 45 minutes, but may need up to one hour.

4.3 Check for doneness, but only when the cycle is complete. Don’t lose that heat! The top should appear firm and feel dense/not too springy when tapped. It may be wet– baking in the rice cooker keeps things quite moist!

5. Presentation

5.1 Flip the bowl over your serving dish, carefully removing the bay leaves. I used a casserole dish to keep it warm until presenting it for serving.

ENJOY!

You’ll love the way the dressing will be so crispy along the outside, and how moist the dressing will be. I might even suggest increasing the amount of chicken stock to use, as the dry stuff really absorbs the ingredients well.

Kimyona & Kaiteki – Section Five

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Kimyona & Kaiteki – Continued
by Danny Wall

*_~_*

Goshoku was indeed in the main hall, at the same table Oh herself was at, a subtle way to claim a significant place in the room. Others dotted the room as well, but more casually, simply there to process the tiredness of morning and the momentous events of the day. Goshoku sat with two retainers on either side, young women who looked more like statues flanking him, somewhat removed, as he nibbled his breakfast. Oh wondered if she were watching a kabuki performance or someone actually consuming a meal.

“Forgive my rudeness if I dare introduce myself,” Oh played her part with appropriate formality. “I heard you would be taking leave very soon and I would feel unlucky without having met the most honored Goshoku, son of Gokenin and friend of Watanabe.”

Goshoku smiled thinly but widely, in a way to show that he actually appreciated the gesture. Oh lowered herself to the cushion opposite to him.

“As you know, I have the honor of being a humble matchmaker, and a well-positioned and blessed young man such as yourself deserves a special wife indeed.”

Goshoku seemed amused by the turn of the conversation. His chuckle was a high-pitched, slow staccato. “I’m afraid my position is not as lofty as you suggest, Onēsama. As I live, I live to serve my father’s desires only, and certainly he has yet to determine the time of marriage for myself.”

“Ah, forgive me. But your father… remains unmarried at this time?”

This gave a pause to Goshoku’s performance, and he reversed the motion, replacing a bit of rice to its bowl.

“Should my father,” Goshoku was actually picking his words slowly, “deign to remarry, I am not sure he would choose your services.”

“Oh, I am sorry, of course,” Oh bowed her head, but noticing with a hidden smile how he emphasized the ‘your.’ It did give her a secret thrill to offend certain people’s sensibilities. “Dear Goshoku, as you must appreciate, we are all living at the dictates of our station. Mine is to make an objective, considered match between two people, and this time at the behest of the Shogun himself. If this has happened to offend your father, I apologize but must ask you to consider the divine inspiration.”

“Divine inspiration is difficult to understand, of course. My father and I deal with the world of men, you see. From such a point of view, it is very curious indeed that someone of the Watanabe is the selected. Is the Shogun concerned of the growing strength of the governors? The line seems to grow fine between being the keepers of the land and being kept in line.”

As if to emphasize his passion, Goshoku took up a fan with a flourish, snapping it open and turning his nose at the air he waved in his face. Despite the movement, Oh recognized a special spirit immediately in the old bamboo sticks and faded, painted paper. A landscape, a fisherman in a boat. Fishing, indeed.

“Please correct me if I am mistaken, I believe I saw you leaving the Watanabe estate last night? I hear your offer of apology was grand and heartfelt.”

“Really?” Goshoku was surprised but happy for affirmation.

“Of course! To humble yourself at dinner and then the evening! Many would not consider a gift at such a time, but you chose so wisely! Mochi, so that fortune and luck may stick throughout the year!”

Goshoku didn’t seem to have chosen correctly, but he wouldn’t contradict an unsolicited compliment.

Oh continued, “To have the foresight to bring mochi from your father’s lands! Certainly you must be particularly proud of your mochi!”

“Ah, well, that I ordered from Mochiba-san here at the inn. An apology and a gift should never be overlooked, father says.”

“Well, you are truly a honorable son to follow your father’s passions.”

The fan slowed, but Goshoku kept his face aloft. “I follow my father’s instruction, of course. My father is a strong man. He will do what it takes to remain strong, and I will do what it takes to remain his son.”

“And your mother’s?” Oh pressed the question. “My, that’s a lovely fan.”

The fan now stopped, and Goshoku softened as he examined it anew. “It was my mother’s, in fact.”

“She tried to do ‘what it takes,’ too, didn’t she?” Oh leaned forward to share in his softening. “Mothers always do.” And she turned conversation to the fan again.

o_o

Returning to the Watanabe house, Onēsama noticed without surprise she encountered fewer and fewer people. If people could break from work, they must all be retreating to the safety and purity of houses and shrines. Despite the spring day, even the sun seemed to shy away, ducking behind clouds, and the soft wind could easily just have been the remnants of some spirits rushing for hiding spaces.

The Watanabe dare not reenter the house without its cleansing, which Shiromei dutifully helped officiate. Oh found him and only him in the house, in Tamiko’s room, presiding over an offering of incense, two sticks slowly burning from a bowl of ash in the center. As he knelt he held his beaded necklace, running it through his fingers and thumb.

Oh asked if the body was being prepared, and Shiromei nodded. She placed her hand on his shoulder. “Thank you for being here to bring peace. I fear this was not a happy passing.”

“No passing is happy,” Shiromei said.

“But we may hope for simplicity and significance.”

Shiromei sighed. With reluctance, he turned his full attention to Oh. “Enlighten me.”

“We forget, I think, how tenuous the Shogun may bring peace to the lands. And while Watanabe may serve the Shogun dutifully, I wonder if those days are about to change. Governors versus governors versus samurai versus shogun… I fear forces are moving, and if someone is simply being in-between…”

“Tamiko, a victim?”

“I have gathered together some items of conversation,” Oh said. She hoped her flair for the dramatic moment wouldn’t be too impolite. Shiromei, too, tried to keep his smile from being too, too wide.

She set the items in near the incense. A good luck charm with a lotus emblem, Bushi’s. A well-kept old teacup, the Mochibas’. A worn fan with a picture of fisherman in a landscape, Goshoku’s. Oh took her place just beside the wall-hanging of the word Peace, drawn by Yanagi Watanabe.

“Tamiko was poisoned, eating of deadly mochi cakes last night, correct? And she brought them into the room alone, and of them alone?”

The painting’s square intoned a soft “Yes” in response. Oh said “thank you,” and Shiromei marveled, hearing just one side of the conversation. He remained kneeling but settled in to watch Oh’s performance.

“But, these cakes were not given to Tamiko directly, as she was not present when Goshoku gave them as a token of apology. Correct?” Oh asked the fan. The fisherman looked up from his boat and shook his head to agree. “Goshoku is a good boy,” it agreed.

“So let’s consider if the intended victim was not Tamiko after all.”

Shiromei joined in, “Goshoku’s disruption at dinner! There’s some rivalry between Gokenin’s lands and Bushi’s.”

“And Gokenin hoped to marry Tamiko, allying their lands in a position against Bushi, and therefore against the Shogun.” The fisherman nodded. “But if Tamiko were indeed to marry the Shogun’s son, it would sideline Gokenin and his ambition. Whether or not Goshoku agreed with this of course, there’s no doubt he would take to any extreme to further his father’s wishes.”

The fisherman remained a bit indignant. “Goshoku is a good boy,” it maintained.

“By contrast,” Shiromei said, “with the Watanabe dishonoring the Shogun, they would lose their lands, perhaps even making it possible for Gokenin to take the lands directly.”

“Or another!” Oh noted, turning now on the lotus charm. “Bushi!” The center of the lotus turned into a face with eyes wide circles of surprise.

“The Shogun of late has shown increasing favor to the samurai class, and not the governors. With that trend continuing, Bushi in fact might be the best positioned to gain advantage with the Watanabes’ death.” The lotus flashed as a giant “X” to show its frustration.

Shiromei wasn’t convinced. “Inconceivable. The man is honorable, noble. A warrior.” The lotus agreed, striking a pose of a mounted samurai.

“Ah. But there was love. One must never discount the power of love,” Oh said. The lotus became a face shedding a tear, then became a heart. “Unrequited, of course, and from afar. Would it be enough, I wonder, to hatch a plan to take Tamiko in the wake of the tragedy and upheaval, especially if Goshoku is framed?”

The lotus changed once again into the samurai. “Yes, you are probably right. Bushi is far too proud to resort to certain underhanded means to get what he wants. He would prefer a direct confrontation.” The picture was of a powerful fist.

The picture then changed into a box, then three round mochi cakes. “Ah!” Oh considered. “Good point. How would Bushi have had access to the cakes with which to carry out his plan.”

Shiromei looked from the charm to Onēsama and back. It was a good point, and surprising when hearing only part of the conversation. “Well, he stayed at Mochiba’s inn like all the guests.”

“Which brings us back to the inn,” Oh turned to the teacup. “Did you see Goshoku receive mochi from the inn?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Who prepared the mochi?”

“I cannot say, ma’am. I would not have seen that.”

“Did you see Goshoku put anything in the mochi?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Wait. Who gave Goshoku the mochi? From whom did he request it?”

“Toribo, ma’am.”

“Toribo!” Oh echoed softly.

“What?” Shiromei leapt to his feet. “What did they say? What about Toribo?”

“I wouldn’t have believed it, but I suppose…” Oh said. “If Toribo loved Tamiko, it must have been tortuous to see her caught between the forces at play. Seeing her betrothed could have been the final straw. What if he hoped to disrupt everyone’s plans, to finally have a chance, even in his lowly position? Ah, dear ‘Ro-ro. I think Toribo must have done it!”

Shiromei shook his head, still trying to clear it from confusion. “No. No, you don’t understand. Toribo wasn’t in love with Tamiko. Tamiko is .. was his sister!”

“What?” Oh actually lost her breath. “Sister?”

The wall painting shuddered, its mouth breathing “sister…” Shiromei actually caught the movement with his eye. “Wait! Did you see..?”

The painting tossed itself against the wall. Shiromei’s eyes widened, and Oh realized he saw the Tsukumogami move. Without taking his eyes from the painting, Shiromei continued. “Watanabe was concerned about the purity of the ritual, and I explained how the family should prepare it. He … confided in me that Tamiko was actually not of his family. She is a Mochiba!”

The teacup joined the echo, “Sister!” It managed to give a little leap in agitation.

“The Watanabes couldn’t conceive children! They arranged to adopt a child from the innkeepers. It was meant to be a secret, but they wanted to arrange their lineage with people from their lands!”

“Sister!” “Sister!” The fan opened and closed itself, causing Shiromei to cry out and sidle closer to Oh. The teacup was hopping up in fits and starts, and the lucky charm squirmed. Shiromei gripped Oh’s sleeve, his wise old eyes fill with wonder and fear.

“Arrange,” Oh wondered about that word. “I see now.”

“YOU!” she turned toward the wall hanging, which visibly flinched. “Madame Yanagi was the person who directly gave Tamiko the cakes, wasn’t it?”

The mouth moaned “Yes,” and then the house itself gave a shudder.

“She gave pretty words, too, didn’t she? Words about being in the right place, about playing the role of the daughter?”

“Yes.” The walls shook; the items jumped and murmured.

“But her role was over now, wasn’t it? She hoped her daughter could remain fixed in that role forever, didn’t she?”

“Yes.”

“Look at you,” Oh gestured at the painting, even as Shiromei tried his best to hide behind his friend. “Every line placed perfectly. Calligraphy posing as art when it’s really just about the control. Just like her home, just like her daughter?”

The painting didn’t say anything, but shuddered once more and fell to the floor. The teacup managed to invert itself completely in one jump, and the wooden frames of the paneled windows and doors begin to split and shatter.

“Onēsama! We must flee!” Shiromei tugged at her side.

Oh scrambled to gather as quickly as she could the objects from the floor, and Shiromei overturned the incense sticks to snuff them. Huddled together as best they could, they made their way through the shuddering walls and warping, curling tatami mats. Skittish items were crying in nearly intelligible turmoil to Oh, who could only offers a “sorry!” “sorry!” as they scrambled through the house. They made their way outside and left Yanagi’s carefully-managed mansion crumbling at last.

‘*__*

Later, Shiromei had the honor of returning Bushi’s blessed charm to him. It would unfortunately be the beginning of a conversation asking for justice.

Oh regarded the scene from a distance, in the shade of a sakura tree whose blossoms yesterday offered a sense of hope and promise. Now, their soft petals fell like snow, reminding her of winter and of endings. She held the golden comb that was a gift from Tamiko and offered her apologies to its spirit.

“I had always thought that our place gave us purpose, Little Comb, and an opportunity to develop one’s spirit.”

The comb agreed, its crane saying “Mother, daughter, matchmaker, comb!”

“But I suppose it’s not enough, really. A ‘place’ is only good, or bad, as its relationship to others. Force a person to be just a place, and, well…”

She took the comb and placed it atop her own head, a privileged place atop her own pins. “How’s this place?”

“Perfect!” the crane said.

 

Kimyona & Kaiteki – Section Four

Standard

Kimyona & Kaiteki – Continued
by Danny Wall

Onēsama and Shiromei rushed past the the simple-robed retainers that stayed in a line in the patio of the Watanabe estate. While surely the people were all aware of the rumor as the Tsukumogami, everyone kept still and quiet in contrast. The servants dared not turn to each other for a whisper, but bowed low to allow the priest and matchmaker inside. The two found Watanabe and his wife holding each other just outside the sleeping room, fighting back their tremors. True to the demands of their station, their faces tried hard not to display the trauma that swirled inside them, which ironically told more about their inner struggle than any overt display of emotion ever could.

With silent permission given, Shiromei and Oh walked softly inside. Everything was untouched from the moment of discovery. Tamiko lay inside, still and unmoving on her back as if she were still asleep; her bedroll thrown aside from others’ attempts to rose her. Just within her reach was a small sachet made of bamboo leaves, a container for some red bean mochi cakes. Two, to be precise, with residue from a missing third.

Shiromei knelt beside the girl’s body and chanted his prayer. Oh lowered her head and tried not to cry. She tried hard not to think about this young life had already touched her heart in the short time she knew her, about the beauty of potential and complexity of life, the horror of life cut short! It didn’t help, and she wiped away a tear that began to fall.

While she mused, Shiromei finished his prayer and took a short moment to sigh. He made his way back to the hallway and to Watanabe and his wife. He shared a consolation, and they all fell silent again. Oh continued to survey the room, listening as Shiromei and Watanabe continued their discussion.

Shiromei continued, “It would be an honor most sincere if you would like me to offer…”

Watanabe cut him off, keeping the embrace of his wife. “This and so many other things are in my thoughts now,” he said. “And what of the Shogun or his envoy? Who will be coming to this estate in the next few days, and what will they find?”

Shiromei was stunned. “It is not my place to say, my lord, although…”

“Or perhaps we should send someone to meet them? To race ahead with horses of our own to tell them thank you but it’s not necessary?”

Oh regained her composure even as Shiromei was losing his. She presented herself to the hallway and bowed in compassion and respect.

“Dearest Watanabe,” she addressed them both, “this is a tragedy most true, and I am deeply moved as you are. And while tragic, it is not exactly unheard of. We can surely provide her proper respect and I will explain to the Shogun on your behalf.”

“Will it be so easy?” Watanabe said, trying to keep in check as much as possible. “Or will she still be taken from us, taken to the pagoda of the Shogun?”

“Yes!” Yanagi Watanabe broke from her husband to confront Onēsama directly. The forcefulness of her approach backed Oh into the wall, Yanagi’s smaller statue nevertheless overpowering the ample matchmaker. “You have given our daughter over to him already! She was lost to us the moment you gave us this ‘blessing!’

“My wife!” Watanabe enfolded her again.

“At least we can truly mourn, as we have a true loss,” Yanagi said, finally gave in to her tears for the first time.

“Yes, well, we should throw the water to cleanse the lands,” Shiromei said, opening his arms wide for embrace as well as guidance away from the scene, “Please.” He looked back at Oh with direction in his eyes which said “we must find out what happened!”

Silence returned to the hallway, and Oh made her way respectfully back into Tamiko’s room. Had her spirit simply flown away? Unlikely, not without purpose. Oh regarded the mochi. The sticky, starchy dessert had been commonly known to have a large risk of choking, but the girl’s body was laid back much too neatly for a choking accident. Perhaps too neatly for any accident at all. Was the girl truly as upset to take her own life? As she said, these moments, however tragic, were not unheard of. Not in her profession. Did she misread the conversation of last night? Tamiko was certainly confused, fearful, but not nihilistic.

There was only one other possibility. She straightened herself, looking around. The bedroom was small and sparse. The objects she talked to earlier belonged in other rooms, but perhaps … the lantern here? No response. The head pillow? Too new to have grown a spirit. The handmirror? As if one could trust a mirror. The golden comb would have been a reliable source, but Tamiko had already given that away. The calligraphy wall-hanging?

“Painting? Can you hear me?” Oh sidled up to it.

“Yes,” it’s voice was very soft indeed, the “ロ” of the word “和” opening like a mouth.

“Can you tell me what transpired here last night?”

The word remained silent.

“Do you understand my question?”

“No,” it whispered.

“Do you know the girl who sleeps?”

“Yes.”

“Did she sleep last night?”

“Yes.”

“Did any other person come here last night?”

“No.”

“Did she sleep after she ate?”

“Yes.”

“Did she … cry?”

“No.”

“Should I eat the cake too?”

Silence.

Oh walked over, then bent down, just to look at the cakes.

“No,” the sign whispered.

-_-

Onēsama wandered the silent halls of the estate, made more dark with the stillness of death. There was obvious tension in this town, and this would only darken the future were there should be growing light. That there was poison in the mochi was no doubt, but there was much doubt over everything else.

She stopped in the main room where she had begun her work the day before. “Dear spirits?” she asked, “You have watched over this house and have been good items just as your people have been good to you. I will ask, and if you are open, I will listen.”

The spirit-filled items of the room seemed to open and rise as one, making the whole room feel swollen and fallen with a heavy sigh. The lantern was the first to truly open, its pleats arching to form sad eyebrows and a vague mouth.

“Light?” it asked.

“Soon, Dear Lantern. But first tell me who enjoyed your light during the night yesterday?”

“Watanabe-san!” The lantern brightened, as if self-lit.

“Of course. And Yanagi?” As Oh questioned, the lantern lit more brightly to signal correct answers.

“And Tamiko?” The lantern dimmed.

“And Goshoku?” The lantern brightened considerably.

“Yes. (The man does make an impression on a room.) And he was apologizing?” Brightness. “With a gift?” Bright. “Of mochi?” Flicker. Oh rephrased her question. “With a package wrapped?” Bright. “Were there thanks given?” Dim. “Anger?”

The lantern folded its pleats as if to demure. It almost giggled to report some inappropriate gossip. Its glow was bright, as if to blush. “Uh-HUH!”

Oh left to find the kitchen and food pantry. The house remained empty even of attendants, no doubt from Watanabe’s orders, but still Oh tiptoed as best she could, feeling like an interloper.

Soon, sure enough, she found what must have been Goshoku’s scarf for wrapping the gift, and a small box that still carried the smell of steamed bamboo leaves. The dramatic display during dinner was not the only theatrics of last night, it seemed. “Well!” Throwing her hands to her hips, Oh announced to any object that would listen that it was time talk to Goshoku.

~-~

When Onēsama finally returned at the inn, it was even more bustling than she had left it. Attendants and retainers were scurrying about, unloading things from horses and palanquins.

The samurai Bushi stood tall as he oversaw the men. He held his helmet in one crooked arm, his other hand on the hilt of his sword, despite wearing a day yukata. Onēsama expressed surprise; it seemed he was arriving as if for the first time.

“Hmm,” Bushi continued to look at his servants. “We were ready to leave when word reached us, and thus already we return. We will not leave at this unfortunate time, and will honor Watanabe as needed.”

“A truly noble man!” Oh bowed, and while low she noticed a tassel knotted to the tip of his sword’s pommel, complete with an elaborate but tiny charm illustrated with a lotus flower. The center of the flower formed a face, closing its eyes to return the bow. “And a truly noble mark of blessing!”

Bushi barely acknowledged it but his voice was proud. “A legacy from my father. It shows the beauty of struggle, the triumph of prosperity. Did you know the lotus begins life submerged in water, and must struggle upwards from the bottom of the swamp, until it can unfold to the light of day?”

The center of the lotus mark showed Oh its pride by transforming into a picture of the sun.

“Forgive my rudeness,” Oh did not wish to appear indelicate, but the subject must be broached. “Will Goshoku-san…?”

Bushi looked at her with a sudden flash from his eyes. “Our noble neighbor professes to make good on his claim and readies his return to his father.”

“Perhaps he will deliver the news to Gokenin, who will return with condolences personally?”

“Or with condescension,” Bushi caught himself and shrugged to regain composure. “Perhaps he will, if common courtesy becomes more common.”

Oh noticed the lotus center had turned into a ball of fire. After a breath, she played a hunch. “Yes, surely. I was just remarking what a shame it was that I wasn’t given the courtesy of some basic information before I began my work. It seems Tamiko may have already been pursued by Gokenin, the governor himself. Perhaps for his son…”

“I do not know if such information is truly a courtesy,” Bushi sighed. “Onēsama, you must realize these lands are not what they once were. The Shogun may be searching far and wide for a match to his son, but not all the governors are keen to find such favor. Some may be looking to each other, forging alliances over power that should be left to the Shogun and his samurai. The beauty of Tamiko was hoped for by … many.”

“For old Gokenin himself?” Oh realized, but the lotus center became a face looking plaintively at her. It cast its eyes upward to its owner. “And… you?” She laid an understanding hand on the man’s powerful shoulder, noticing his attention was not on his servants but back towards the Watanabe estate.

“Courtesy, indeed,” Bushi flinched the hand away.

Onēsama bowed low. “Ah! Sincere apologies! And, ah, as a token of my apology, and sympathy, let me take your charm to my friend the priest and return it to you with a blessing. He would very much appreciate your story as we continue to find our way out of the swamp and into the open air.”

The lotus appeared happy at its potential blessing, making soft cooing sounds and burbles as the matchmaker and the samurai regarded one another, and he agreed.

^-^

Oh did not pass too far inside when she turned the corner and nearly bumped into Toribo, the innkeepers’ son. Despite his strapping young stature, he looked nearly eye-to-eye to her, and without speaking, he bowed appropriately and took his leave.

“Ah, Toribo-san, I pray my situation has not made any undue demands upon you all. However, if I may put some questions to you? I am looking for Goshoku-san…”

“He is in the main hall for morning meal.”

“I hear that he was out late last night, meeting with Watanabe?”

Toribo regarded the plump and forward matchmaker.

“I cannot say,” he said, which Oh took as confirmation.

“Of course, of course. I just wondered if there were others who must have also come home late. Perhaps his retinue…?”

“As far as I know, ma’am, everyone was accounted for as appropriate.”

“Ah, and this must truly be unforgivable to ask, but if it’s something easy to repeat, I would very much appreciate drinking from the same teacup that you served me last night.”

“Everything will be in order, ma’am,” he said and continued walking.

“Yes,” Oh said, more to herself this time time, “Something Yanagi Watanabe would say, I’m sure.”

At her name, Toribo paused, just so slightly, bristling ever so subtlety. Oh also continued on her way, but considered. Young Toribo would be the closest in age to Tamiko of all her potential matches. Could it be there was another who hoped for her, albeit far outside his station? Still, there was something about this young man that failed to make him a perfect match, according to her intuition. Not that this would preclude anyone from pining for someone. Poor Tamiko! To be able to touch so many lives simply by being herself! It was something she must have seen as a responsibility, if not a duty, with the added tragedy that, in hoping to please everyone, she was destined to disappoint all.

*_~_*

TO BE CONCLUDED IN SECTION FIVE