Originally intended to be published in an anthology of sci-fi/fantasy and murder mystery mashups. This was my offer.
Kimyona and Kaiteki*
(Strange and Cozy)
By Danny Wall
Soft sakura petals
Wafting through the hushed courtyard
Stillness before change
The people of the crowd chattered only in whispers, so the noise would blend into the gentle sounds of the afternoon. Anticipation filled the courtyard like the falling blossoms.
The couple holding each other at the front of the crowd were nearly the most hushed, the most anxious. Him, wearing his formal spring yukata, and her, in her fresh and floral kimono– Watanabe and his wife were waiting for Onēsama to emerge from their house.
In fact, it was the Watanabes’ daughter, Tamiko, standing slightly in front of them and everyone, who was the most hushed and anxious of all. She didn’t want to raise her eyes, out of both tradition and trepidation. For Onēsama was the Omiai, a matchmaker, all the way from Kamakura, from the capital itself.
And inside the Watanabe’s house, Onēsama stood, paused in deep bow at her waist, her hands clasped and raised slightly above her lowered head. When she did raise herself, it was with open arms, like she were bursting forth from a morning swim. There are some people in the world that can enter a room and, with just one wide smile, be instant friends with the very air inside. Onēsama, or just Oh, was one such person. Her magnetic presence was helped not only by her pleasantly matronly frame, but also her genuine interest in You As A Person. Her eyes could take you in, sit you down in comfort, and clasp your hands as they ask how your day has been, as if they didn’t know already.
She tip-toed in widening circles about the room, as delicately as her plump feet would allow. It was with a genuine smile that she remarked on the plain austerity of the house of Watanabe, one that nonetheless displayed the wealth of a Local Baron. “Ah!” she noted the scroll with blessings of happiness, instead of fortune, “Hmm!” she intoned over the way the umbrellas were stored in a convenient but clean corner of the genkan area. “Uh-huh!” It was all just as she suspected.
Far away in Kamakura, the Shogun had determined it was time for the marriage of son. And so here, in provincial lands, Oh continued the search for the right candidate, after a several-weeks long and fruitless journey. Normally, Onēsama would be content to be the matchmaker to the families of Kamakura, but this special request couldn’t be ignored, and the Shogun was sparing no expense.
Her services were much in demand, it was true; not that Oh would say so herself. And it was true, in part, for the rumor that Onēsama had a way to see into the very heart of her clients, to read them with the same discernment that an eagle reads the land it flies over. Oh would deny this, of course, hiding the much more stranger truth.
Oh stopped and looked up to the kamidama, the nook in the main hall reserved for the local spirit. The twisted rope that festooned the top, the shimenawa, was old and thick, to help the austerity, and a number of shide, folded paper blessings, dangled downward like bold, zig-zagged icicles.
But Onēsama wasn’t looking for a house kami. Those were wild spirits making various places a home for a time to share its blessing. No, there was another kind likely to be more helpful. She twirled around and set her sights on a red paper lantern near the window.
The lantern suddenly shifted, as if raising an eyebrow. Then its pleated paper surface rippled, resembling a face that had smelled something pungent.
“Most gracious of afternoons to you, Dear Lantern,” Oh smiled. Usually it was the lanterns talking first, it seemed. For some reason, they became Tsukumogami spirits quite easy, the kind of spirits that rose from within an object favored by its people. “Forgive my rudeness, but may I request the honor of asking you some questions about the character of the daughter of this house?”
“Huh?” the lantern asked.
Oh smiled and tapped the base. It slowly swung back and forth giving off a kind of “hur-dee-hur-hur” kind of laugh. One was never quite sure which level of politeness a Tsukumogami object might respond to, it was best to start with the highest respect possible just in case. It did get in the way of efficiency sometimes, though.
“Hey, lantern, can we play a game? I will say one word, and you try to guess what that word does.”
“Thank you, lantern.”
The lantern continued to swing, but slightly slower now, in silent, stymied confusion.
Oh found her way to the side room whose paper doors were slid open already, embracing the back garden and its lovely manicured hills and ponds. Sure enough, long scrolls with careful scrawls of characters were draped next to a cabinet that contained the brushes and sumi-ye paper that Tamiko must be using for practice. Oh unrolled the small bamboo mat that contained the calligraphy brushes and chose the most-worn, the one most obviously favored, the one most likely a special gift handed down from the previous generation. She turned so the garden would provide a pleasant view and kneeled so she could engage in a comfortable conversation.
“Most favored brush! May I humbly ask of the daughter who most deftly brings forth the wonder of words from you?”
The brush bristled, naturally, but seemed to recognize Oh as a woman ready to listen and learn.
Onēsama slid open the paper door to the outer courtyard, commanding the attention of those gathered outside. Custom made the crowd maintain their composure, which barely held back the tide of rising tension. Oh’s own face was likewise blank, a dramatic touch she enjoyed, however temporarily, as she commanded the attention of the whole world.
“We…,” opening her arms wide, she could no longer hold back the smile, “have a match!”
A collective gasp flowed upward, a mix of relief, surprise, excitement, and wonder. Once a repose of calm and gentle breeze, the courtyard now filled with a flurry of people floating like the sakura blossoms, bowing and laughing and chatting and idly speculating. Watanabe and his family could barely bow fast enough as eddies of people showed their congratulations and deference. Tamiko tried to look down as demurely as possible while occasionally glancing to each well-wisher. Oh nodded appreciatively over the results of her announcement, then virtually flowed down into the crowd to share in the family’s good fortune. The crowds parted in reverence for the meeting.
“Onēsama,” Watanabe bowed nearly to the waist, “Gracious thanks! You surely have honored us with your pronouncement.”
Watanabe remained low, and his family bowed in suit. “Truly it is a surprise,” his wife Yanagi said. “A blessed surprise.”
Oh bowed in turn, matching their angle for a heartbeat before dipping a bit further, and returning, as appropriate. “The honor is all mine. If you would agree, I now stand now among the family of betrothed to the Shogun’s first son.”
“But of course,” Watanabe began, then stopped and turned to Tamiko.
The ritual of conversation and bowing hit a snag. Tamiko had remained in her low bow. People had begun to notice, and the buzz of energy began to drop to a hum.
“I hope I may rise from humbleness and into worthiness for my new position,” Tamiko murmured.
Onēsama melted and sidled up to the young betrothed, wrapping her slight frame in her own mighty arms. More than a slight breech of protocol for this occasion, but entirely necessary. “Oh, my dear,” her words were as soft as her embrace, born both from experience of seeing exactly this kind of scene and from genuine concern for this young ingenue. “I’m sure there are many thoughts in your head, worries for the future or maybe hopes, or fears. But right now in this space, at this very moment, your place is here, with your family, and friends, and well-wishers. Just be here, in such a rightful place, even if in some tomorrow there will be another, hmm?”
Tamiko began to nod and to look up. Oh helped her to raise her chin, and a smile even began to form. The world began to speed up again, returning to the buzz of light and life.
Shiromei, a priest, bowed close but begged to interrupt. He and the others alongside him were part of Oh’s retinue. As the announcement demanded a timely response, of course, he would send one of the retainers to ride quickly to the Shogun’s castle with an official announcement. “And I would expect,” he added, “the extension of an invitation to visit your wonderful and prosperous land?”
“Ah, of course, Shiromei-sama,” Watanabe said, “We are thankful that you and Oh stopped to our humble demesne. We shall order a great feast at the inn today for all to celebrate and cement our good luck.”
As Shiromei gathered the retinue to finalize plans and send off the messenger, Watanabe took leave with another bow. His wife took their daughter in her arms, leading her back into the great house as well. As Oh let her go, her warm smile dropped a little bit. The comb that was pinning Tamiko’s hair back– it had a carving of a crane along the top, and Oh could have sworn she saw the crane draw its wings inward, as it dropped its head to cry.
Shiromei’s crinkled face still held the sparkle of life, even moreso now because of the happy occasion. “It seems you have uncovered another jewel. Like stars that map into constellation after constellation. The matchmaker of our age!”
Oh demurred slightly. “Oh, stop, ‘Ro-ro. All in a day’s work, after all. Or in this case, a month or two, now?”
“Mm,” Shiromei affirmed. “We were starting to run out of territory. Perhaps we should have started on the edges of the governor’s land and worked our way *back* to the capital?”
“It is strange,” Oh sighed. Together, they started walking back toward the inn, weaving about the crowd that began to disperse, and their retinue following at a respectable distance. “And I’m not saying that because I miss my home somewhat terribly. You know I do. I just think… Well, my list of considerations to find a match for the son of the Shogun is actually not that extensive, nor quite unique. By all accounts, Tamiko is a nice, pleasant enough girl, if somewhat… reserved. I would have thought she would fit nearly anyone, and it would be someone more, let’s say, specific for the governor’s son. Still, as the spirits move, so must we.”
“Heh. I always must remind myself not to be jealous of your gift with the spirits.”
“We all connect with spirits, ‘Ro-ro. Just some of us more than others, for what that’s worth.”