Kimyona & Kaiteki - Continued
by Danny Wall
Oh was sat for dinner with Shiromei, Watanabe’s wife Yanagi, and Tamiko, the daughter whose life was changed a few hours ago. Luckily, her pillow was facing the expanse of the great room, and her tall but plump frame could allow her to take in the whole scene.
They were all just one table away from Watanabe’s head table, appropriately wider and placed at the back of the hall, the furthest from the entrance and raised on a small dais. He was joined by a local samurai and the heads of the family from the two largest farms under his purview. The tables opposite of Oh’s and continuing back to the entrance were heads of family from progressively smaller farms, with a few token guests making up the very final tables. Two of Watanabe’s guards on retainer stood at the entrance, their hands clasped but never far away from their swords.
Oh invited Yanagi to name the impressive looking samurai next to Watanabe. Dressed in fine and clean hitatare, she noted that she rarely had seen such impressive colors outside the capital. And his sword, dutifully bound by his elegant obi, virtually gleamed in the lamplight.
“Bushi-sama,” Yanagi said, but seemed distracted and simply sat, looking absently about the room without any real reason. It took Oh’s inquisitive expression to be a prompt to continue. “His lands are directly north. Not quite so big as Watanabe’s, of course, as *we* have been commissioned by the shogunate himself.”
Shiromei and Oh exchanged quiet glances. Their conversation tonight would probably be made of many such private, unspoken looks, especially given the current company. Shiromei pursed his lips in a funny way to say “Well! There’s a story here!”
“I find it better to discuss politics,” Tamiko said in a general offhand way, “once we have exhausted all other possibilities.”
“Tamiko,” her mother began, and it was time for another glance between Oh and Shiromei.
As if on cue, one of the last guests to arrive entered the hall, and did so quite dramatically. He swept past the guards, his robes unnecessarily flowing and ample for a relatively slim figure. Obviously fond of such pageantry, he stopped where required but bowed in deeper respect than needed. Watanabe seemed to tolerate it.
“Lord Watanabe! Please forgive the absence of my father! Your invitation came too late for his presence this evening, and I humbly request I may make attempt to give honor to your family in his stead!”
All eyes on him, Watanabe gave a quick nod and gestured to his table. The man flowed upward and took his place at the table on the dais, giving only the barest of a flashing nod to Bushi at the other end.
“Goshoku,” Yanagi announced to her table, but softly, under her breath. She didn’t have to wait for Oh’s prompting this time to continue. “The son of Gokenin, our … other neighbor.”
Dinner was served koseiki-style, with many little dishes comprising many large courses. Soup and pickles and tofu and sashimi and pork cutlets and daikon and more. Conversation was not so varied. Thankfully, Oh had many topics at the ready, such as the girl’s fondness for calligraphy.
“I learned it from my mother,” she demurred.
Yanagi actually brightened at the subject. Holding up her hands to touch some phantom display, she explained, “Each brush stroke has its own character, its own purpose. To lay out a collection of lines in a deliberate way until what emerges is a concept in its purest form, it is a kind of magic. A hasty stroke or upturned flick of wrist will destroy everything, creating something meaningless.”
“Quite literally, yes?” Shiromei said. He hoped the ladies at the table would see his joke. “See? Writing without meaning?”
Yanagi smiled, or at least as best as she could manage. “Surely you must agree with such a principle, Shiromei-san?”
“Eh? Now I’m not sure of your meaning.”
“The rituals of Shinto. It’s more than simple writing, of course, but the offerings of the temple, the incense, the prayers and the order of the prayers. We construct the parts of any ritual bit by bit, until we create our appeasement of the spirits, to align ourselves with truth. There’s a place for everything and if we fail to arrange properly any element, what results is empty and our efforts are wasted.”
“Ah, I see. Purposefulness. Well, then you must appreciate Onēsama’s decision. Truly, she discerns what arrangement is not merely proper but best. We talk of pieces fitting together, but she is tasked with fitting together people.”
Yanagi was brought short, but she blinked away any lack of composure. “Hmm. Of course.”
Oh busied herself with the snapping at some errant bean. “No, please. You both do me too much credit. Why, you talk as if writing must always create scripture itself! There’s also logging an account book or expressing your calligraphic art. But thankfully your daughter is neither an account nor art.”
“Ha!” Shiromei seized the opening, “Did you just call the young lady ugly?”
“Wha-?” Oh coughed. It was the wrong moment to have popped the chewy, sticky bean in her mouth. “You-! But-! I- I-!” She just finished with grunts while she chewed the bean dramatically. She waved the butts of her chopsticks in the air as if painting her own calligraphy over Shiromei’s face.
Tamiko, who was downcast and barely eating through the whole exchange, simply had to laugh at Oh’s antics. It broke the ice and allowed everyone to laugh, finally, although in Yanagi’s case it was more of a wry smile.
“There!” Oh finished her gesture in the air, “can you read that word, hm? Ah! What are you labeled now, old man?”
“Why, yes! ‘Wise,’ you say? Thank you for your blessing! And ‘Youth?’ So true!”
The laughter died down to allow more idle chatter, blending in to the general buzz throughout the hall. That is, until the voices from the head table became too loud to ignore. Everyone slowly realized that the argument there was becoming heated, and all other voices deflated entirely when Bushi slammed his knuckles down as he leaned forward to address Goshoku.
“Eh! And how many horsemen did *you* lead against the forces of Akuyama, huh? The forces of war are never far from these lands, and who will dare to stand against them? Your father? You?”
“Dear Bushi!” Goshoku placed his palms together, but his smirk was never as deferential as his posture. “No one doubts the prowess and honor of the samurai. Despite all the governors’ persistent and tireless efforts to manage the lands, the Shogun surely favors your class above all.”
“Do not presume this is some warrantless entitlement! Samurai are not some plum waiting on a branch to plucked when it’s time to eat. We manage our lands just as well.”
“Lands that parceled by the Shogun just as much as any governor’s.”
“Hmph!” Bushi rose to his feet, prompting a tense attention from the crowd. The soldiers at the front of the hall immediately moved their hands to the hilt of their swords, but made no other movement. “Why do I feel like I am being accused of something? Why must I defend the samurai in name, when I have defended all peoples in person, with my very blood!”
“I sense no accusation in any words…” Watanabe raised his hands.
Bushi was incensed and would not sit. “Let me ask this question– to whom are more and more lands being parceled? Is it not to the samurai? Surely I am not the first to notice this. The shogun is indeed showing increasing favor to the samurai, so naturally you governors, you sons of governors, speak as if you are scared of something. Well, the season is growing. Maybe you should just sit back and wait and watch where the plums may fall.”
Bushi turned and moved quickly to leave the hall, his robes the only sounds rustling. Watanabe rose before Bushi could leave, and the samurai paused to listen, over his shoulder.
“Friends, let me remind everyone this is a celebratory feast. We are celebrating a marriage, a union. And to make any marriage work, there must be discussion, compromise, and willingness to seek the good in others. That is what I will try to be doing. I don’t want to see myself as governor for this region if it will take me away from our honored peasants, whose genuine labor to till the soil and tend the crops brings forth good things for all people to enjoy and to thrive. And like any good and honored peasant, I aim to cultivate good things, to produce good fruit,” then he turned directly to Goshoku, “unless I must prune and destroy anything that threatens to ruin good fruit.”
Bushi exhaled but said nothing. There was the space of an uncertain breath, and to everyone’s surprise, Goshoku rose suddenly, moving quickly aside the table and taking a deep kowtow towards the entire hall.
“Forgive me, Watanabe-san! I have dishonored your generous feast and have allowed Bushi to lose face. I am not worthy to take my father’s place here, and I shall leave immediately.”
Rushing to his feet, while keeping his gaze lowered, Goshoku moved down the hall as quickly as his voluminous robes and short steps would allow. His gaze was continually kept low, and he opened his fan to hide his expression from everyone as he scurried. He bowed to Bushi as he passed, turning his body as he walked out the hall so he would walking backwards as well as sending bows to the entire hall until he was well around the corner.
Soon, the hall began to fill with clinks of plates and chopsticks, then with added whispers. Bushi slowly bowed to the guards, then turned, eventually taking his place with Watanabe once again. And, slowly and deliberately, conversations began to reappear.
Yanagi repositioned her knees to settle back into her dessert– konnyaku jelly with red beans. “Is that all it took for him to leave?” she asked rhetorically.
Shiromei raised his characteristically bushy eyebrows to Oh. It was only a look, but it said “I love having dinner with you. We always overhear such interesting conversations.”
After dinner, Onēsama had requested the honor of escorting Tamiko back to her room. The mother stayed quiet, for just as long as it started to be uncomfortable, until nodding her head quickly.
It was a short walk back from the inn, but the women walked slow to enjoy the cool evening. The night was dark with just the beginning sliver of a waning moon. After a polite comment on the scene, Oh walked more closely to the young woman.
“Many girls have questions, you see, about the … process,” she said. “I think your mind is so full of them that you can’t even speak! It is only natural, I think.”
The girl just looked to the floor as they walked. Onēsama was large enough to see the comb on the back of Tamiko’s head quite clearly– the one with the crane and its wings spread.
“You have a lovely comb,” she remarked.
“Thank you,” said the crane, and Tamiko, too.
“Do you often talk about marriage, with your friends? Your mother?”
“Nope!” the crane squawked. Tamiko just shook her head.
“No,” Oh said. “But let me tell you a secret. I knew you would be a perfect match because of your calligraphy. You make very lovely works of art, and that was the sign that I was looking for.”
The crane nodded in an agreement; Oh knew she was on the right track.
“My mother makes me do it,” Tamiko said.
“Hmpf. That may be true, but I also know how you put your heart into every brush stroke. See? That happens despite the fact your mother makes you sit for calligraphy every day. You have found a bright thing for your life regardless of your place within it.
“Everything may have a place,” Oh continued, “but by giving it your heart you begin to give it life.”
Tamiko finally looked at Oh, but her expression was still blank. “Would I live in the capital? Would that be the next place for me?”
Oh nodded. “When the shogun’s retainers arrive, they will bring you back to the capital as his son’s betrothed. And there are many places you are sure to like in the capital. You can even visit me anytime you like!”
Tamiko shook her head. “Thank you, Dear Auntie. But you still haven’t talked about my real ‘place.’ I know it. I don’t know why everyone talks like I shouldn’t. If I marry the shogun’s son, it strengthens ties to the lands in the south. If I married another, well, someone else, it would strengthen ties to some other place. I’m just a signpost. And one might give a heart to a signpost, but it doesn’t change that it’s still a signpost.”
Oh was silent and regarded this young lady carefully. “Were you promised to someone already?”
“No,” Tamiko turned her face away, which gave view to the crane, who squawked, “Yes!”
“Forgive my rudeness of asking, revered Auntie, but,” Tamiko said, “how did you do it? Find your place? Weren’t you married? How can one be so successful being neither signpost or place, and just her own self?”
“I don’t know, my child. It just sort of happened that way. One day I looked around and found myself where I was. I think I was so distracted, finding things I enjoyed and doing what I found rewarding regardless of whatever situation I was in, that…” She shrugged to finish the sentence.
“That sounds nice,” Tamiko trailed off.
Even their slow pace would take them to their destination. Oh and Tamiko arrived at the exterior of the Watanabe’s house within their estate.
In the distance of the grounds, near the main gate on the other side, the women noticed the servants bowing low and announcing farewell as Goshoku swept out of the gate to return to the town. “That’s strange. Perhaps yet another apology?” Tamiko said. “Just like him.”
Tamiko continued with graciousness and profuse thanks to Oh, but, thanks to Goshoku’s distraction, it was merely basic thanks for shared conversation. And yet, in her parting, Tamiko gave Oh a present, the comb that had pinned her hair. She indeed did give much of her heart to it, and it was indeed lovely. Maybe the best way to honor that was to give it to a worthy recipient.
“You’re welcome!” the crane spouted, and Oh repeated it in awe.
Oh began the walk back to the inn. As she left the enclosures of the Watanabe estate, she marveled at the old comb that was her new gift. “So, Lovely Comb,” she asked, “It seems I remain ignorant of things. I didn’t get to hear who was Tamiko’s betrothed before I arrived.”
“Gokenin!” the crane reported.
Oh looked up to the sliver of moon and thought about that.
~ – ~
The next morning, Onēsama was awakened by a rising swell of conversation, a growing crescendo that slowly pushed away the cloud of sleep. From the wall hangings to the seat pillows, any object with a Tsukumogami spirit couldn’t rest, even in this early hour. “What could it be!” “Will the people be angry?” “Dark times ahead, dark times!”
Oh got dressed as quick as she could. She could barely ask what was going on, as she was interrupted by incessant questions. “Wait! What was it?” “Why is it so noisy?” “Can you make it stop?” “Will you ask a teapot? Ask a teapot!”
Rushing about, she reached the sliding door as Shiromei began to tap the frame in urgency. “Onēsama! Are you awake? Onē-nē!”
She slid the door open, leaning her own frame upon the door’s in exhaustion. “ENOUGH!”
“Ah. So you are awake, then.”
“There seems to be some news in the air,” she said as she regained her composure.
Shiromei gave a heavy sigh. It would be difficult to say it even under the best of circumstances. “Tamiko,” he said, “is dead.”