A Chinese New Year’s Story

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

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Kimyona & Kaiteki – Section Five

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

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

Kimyona & Kaiteki – Section Three

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.”

 

TO BE CONTINUED IN SECTION FOUR

Kimyona & Kaiteki – Section Two

Kimyona & Kaiteki – Continued
by Danny Wall

At the Inn, Mochiba the innkeeper and his wife greeted Onēsama and her party. Shiromei shared the news, and immediately thanked the innkeeper’s family in advance for their gracious hospitality. Oh watched as the priest explain with colorful gestures and adjectives of ever-growing magnitude.     

She stayed to the corner of the small entryway and dismissed her retinue to scatter to their various duties about the inn. Then, as she waited, she noticed the slippers in near the shoe locker were shaking their heads slightly. The handle of the umbrella back near the entrance scowled a bit. That’s when Oh took a second look. She noticed the Innkeeper’s wife had sidled up to her husband’s side, had now almost imperceptibly gripped his hand, without either of them taking their polite attention from Shiromei’s idle chatter. Onēsama, and the slippers and umbrella, seemed to be the only ones who noticed.     

+_+

Before dinner, the innkeeper’s son tapped on the paper doors to Oh’s room, announcing his forgiveness for delivering tea. Oh allowed him inside, and he kneeled to deliver the tray on the low table in the middle of the tatami and pour the honored cup from the kettle.

He rose and walked to the door, then turned completely around. “Dinner will be in the grand hall in two hours time. If it pleases the honored guest, the house will prepare the bedroll in your absence. If there is anything else the honored guest wishes?”   

Oh smiled softly. So formal! She regarded the slender frame of the innkeeper’s son, how stiffly he walked, how deliberate were his movements.

“Thank you, Young Mochiba. It’s Toribo, yes? Can I call you Toribo?”

“No, that is not necessary. If there is anything else the honored guest wishes?”

“Ah. Well, no. Thank you for your service, Young Mochiba.”

Toribo gave a deeply formal bow then stepped backward, sliding the doors shut. Oh sighed as she completed the process to lower herself to kneel for tea.      

“Hmm. Is something the matter with him?”

“That I cannot say, ma’am,” the teacup said.

“Ah! Good evening, Little Cup. I wouldn’t expect a cup to be so articulate. You must be well-cared for.”

“Yes, I am very well-cared for, ma’am.”

Oh took the cup with her left hand and supported the bottom with a flat, upturned right hand. She could just make out some small mark that moved like a mouth, but it was really just the texture of the hand-molded clay. “I would expect the teapot to be the eldest among you. You young things are often not so filled with such spirit.”

“There are a few old teapots in this place, but this one like many more are very new, ma’am. The innkeeper-master has been buying many new things recently, as the inn grows and grows very much lately, ma’am. I’m sure its spirit will also grow very quickly, though. “

“Do you think Young Mochiba is mad at me?”

“That I cannot say, ma’am.”

“Perhaps he is mad at another?”

“That I cannot say, ma’am.”

“But you can say if you have seen much anger in the house of late?”

“Yes, ma’am, but no, ma’am. I think I have seen more pride than anger. You can drink from me, ma’am. I am happy to be your cup.”

“Ha, ha! Forgive the gossip of an old human, little cup, but… *How* have you seen pride lately?”

“The innkeeper-master-family. They are buying many new things as I’ve said, ma’am, and they are making new parts of the property into guest rooms. Many compliment the innkeeper-masters, and I have seen them smile at me and us many times.”

“Deservedly so! But, again I fear to gossip, why do you not say there is, well, say, happiness, then? Let me guess. The old master speaks firmly with the young, and the young master works very hard.”

“Yes, ma’am. Although, the young master does more working very hard than the old master does speaking with him.”

“I see. Thank you very much, most articulate of cups!” Out of courtesy, Oh turned the cup 180-degrees so its textured mouth would face outward before lifting it to her own lips. Also out of courtesy, the cup kept its spirit silent as Oh enjoyed her tea and her thoughts.

She thought about the Mochiba family’s inn, and how it already seemed quite big for such a small town. She never would have guessed they would have more ambitions to grow. It did make sense, though. This was a land far removed from the Shogun and the capital, and as people were becoming more and more mobile these days, it was only a matter of time before the larger concerns of state would reach even here, and such concerns certainly needed places to rest. Perhaps that’s why her search for the governor’s son’s match took her here. Perhaps all signs were pointing for things of import to this town.     

Still, that didn’t explain Toribo’s curt behavior earlier. If the family was truly ambitious, then treating customers with dismissive courtesy was simply not acceptable. No, Toribo couldn’t be resenting her as a customer, so there must be another reason. And in her experience, the only other cause for reason would be in regards of her profession. Ah! Such is the occupational hazard of a matchmaker!     

– ~ –

TO BE CONTINUED IN SECTION THREE

Kimyona & Kaiteki – a Japanese Murder Mystery

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)

strangeandcozy1

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.”

“Ok!”

“Lantern.”

“Light!”

“Watanabe-san.”

“Frowns.”

“Watanabe Yanagi.”

“Cleans.”

“Tamiko.”

“Writes.”

“Thank you, lantern.”

“Light!”

“Yes, Okay.”

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.

*o*

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.”

~_~

To be continued in Section 2

Marvel Flipside

Welcome to the FlipSide!

In what could only be described as a grand experiment, a personal hobby of drawing and writing became an nearly three-year weekly project. From 2006 – 2009, I drew and PhotoShopped a “faux-cover” and wrote a “ficlet” featuring characters from Marvel Comics that were inversions of the hero/villain dichotomy.

In other words, I took all of Marvel’s villains and made them heroes, and all of Marvel’s heroes and made them villains. One issue at a time, starting with Marvel’s first, the Fantastic Four #1–  er, 4-Victory, #1, I mean.

I haven’t really done anything with them since then, but as I write this, Marvel is currently publishing an event that ties together nearly all the books in their publishing line-up, in which– yes, you guessed it– the heroes and villains are “inverted.” It’s called “Axis.” DC has done it, too, of course, most recently with their “Forever Evil” event, featuring Earth-3 and the Crime Syndicate, which are “flipped” versions of the Justice League. (That did have its roots in comics from previous decades, to be fair.)

What better opportunity to dust off all my old stuff, re-package them in a new blog layout for anyone to enjoy (or re-enjoy)?

So… here you go. Enjoy.


The four “families” of titles include:

4-Victory

Ani4Victory

The World’s Greatest Science Heroes, banding together to fight for justice, for life, for VICTORY!

Witness the rise of Mr. Victorious, the love between Fantasti-Girl and the Mole Man, and, of course, the wondrous wingless Wizard! Jump in here to explore the cornerstone of the FlipSide universe.

Green Goblin & the Gremlin

AniGreenGobGrem

How far would you go to protect your city and your only son? Norman Osborn has taken on the urban legend of the Green Goblin as a force for good, but his driven passion may threaten to turn his son into a version of himself. Can Harry grown into his own man while also keeping the city safe from the likes of the Kingpin of Crime and Spider-Man?

AvengersAniAvengers

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are quite the celebrities! From Ricky Jones’ Emerald Heights penthouse or the Avengers Lodge, no crisis is too large, no cast is too large, for our celebrity heroes to save the day! Mythology, science, and time-crossed heroes collide to provide high-octane and high-stakes action!

The Brotherhood

AniBrotherhood

There’s a secret sub-group of humanity whose only means of survival is to keep hidden among the throngs of everyday people. The Brotherhood tells the story of a secret society of mutants determined to unite the disparate underground and to keep the world safe from the evil Mutant X and his X-Men!


FULL MENU OF PREVIOUS FANFICTION:

4-Victory     ~     Green Goblin & the Gremlin     ~     Avengers
     The Brotherhood     ~     FlipSide Marvel Presents
FlipSide: The End     ~     FlipSide Handbook