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Year:
2004
Publisher:
University of Hawaii Press
Language:
english
ISBN 10:
0824828941
ISBN 13:
9780824828943
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In Light


of


Shadows


More Gothic Tales by





Izumi Kyoka





Translated and with essays by





Charles Shiro Inouye





University of Hawai's Press


Honolulu





Table of Contents





Translator’s Preface

A Song by Lantern Light

A Quiet Obsession

The Heartvine





2005, University of Hawai Press

All rights reserved

Printed in the United States of America

100908070605 65432 1





Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Izumi, Kyoka.

In light of shadows : more gothic tales by Izumi Kyoka : translated and with essays by Charles Shirô Inouye.

p. cm.





Contents: “A song by lantern light" — “A quiet obsession"— "The heartvine.”

ISBN 0-8248-2824-0 (cloth : alk. paper)

ISBN 0-8248-2894-1 (pbk. : alk. paper)

1. Izumi. Kyoka, 1873-1939—Translations into English. I. Inouye. Charles Shirô. II. Tide.





PL809.Z9A23 2005 895.6*342—dc22

2004051610





University of Hawai Press books are printed on acid-free paper and meet the guidelines for permanence and durability of the Council on Library Resources.

Designed by inari information services

Printed by The Maple-Vail Book Manufacturing Group





Translator’s Preface





This collection follows an earlier volume of Japanese Gothic Tales (University of Hawai‘i Press, 1996). I was gratified to see the welcome that first attempt to introduce a body of Kyoka’s work to an English-reading audience received. This quixotic though gifted Japanese author, considered retrograde in his own day, is now being read by a number of readers, though in a language very different from his own and about a century after his first publications appeared. I can only hope that this second volume will continue to feed a growing interest.

I have chosen for inclusion here the famous novella A Song by Lantern Light (Uta andon, 1910) and two well-known short stories, “A Quiet Obsession” (Mayu kakushi no rei, 1924), and “The Heartvine” (Rukoshinso, 1939). I considered many other possibilities, works of comparable quality and importance that s; till await translation. My reasons for picking this particular medley are presented in the introduction and critical essays that are grouped together in a section following the stories. The essays themselves have their own coherence and resisted division. Even though it is true that much in these stories requires explanation, I was concerned that too extensive an introduction to each story might overinfluence their reading. (For this reason, I have also made a point of avoiding notes in the text altogether!) Of course, there is nothing to prevent a reader from reading the essays first, if that seems appropriate.

Those who find pleasure in these pages might take note of Cody Poulton’s translations of three Kyoka plays. His Spirits of Another Sort (2001) introduces another, in many ways even wilder, aspect of the snow-covered peaks of Mount Tado, Gozaisho, Kama, and Kamuri together witnessed the performance.

The night deepened. The town of Kuwana grew cold and frozen. When the notes of a blind man’s whistle sounded again in the night sky, Onchi Kidahachi stood alone. Singing in the darkness of the Minatoya’s eaves, his silhouette was blue and his shadow dark, as the moon that brightened the roof tiles splashed his face with the silvery light of a fan. One fan touching another, two sides of the same, Kidahachi and Omie joined, as she brought her hands together in prayer, and he continued the song.

“Extend to me your saving light,

Through the course of this black night,

Let your powers join with mine,

Oh, Kannon, Merciful One.”

To her brow, she puts the blade,

Now left, now right, all guardians fade.

She steps ahead, death’s price now paid,

Into the Dragon’s Palace!

The singing and the dancing trailed off and came to an end.

“Lend me your back, Sozan.” The exhausted Onchi Kidahachi seemed to reach back and rest upon the back of the large, shapeless shadow that had been crouching at his feet. At last, he had vanquished his enemy.

From the inn, a road led off in a white line, set off by hanging lanterns flickering here and there in the deepening night. A crowd of people had gathered, among them blind men walking with sticks.





A Song by Lantern Light





A Song by Lantern Light (Uta andon, 1910) is two stones combined into one. The reader must jump back and forth between two narratives, two sets of characters, and two sites of narration until the point, near the end, where all merge. This structurally complex story is further complicated by numerous references to Jippensha Ikku’s famous novel, Shank’s Mare (Tōkaidō dōchū hizakurige, 1802- 1809), and especially to that passage where his heroes become separated while travelling in the Ise area. It also makes great use of a nō play, The Diver, in which the heroine sacrifices herself by diving deep into the sea in order to save her son. Boldly experimental for its time, the novella has been appreciated for its flawless use of these two texts, and for a structure that anticipates the age of cinematic collage.





1





On a cold night in mid-January, a single muffled voice recited the opening lines from Book Five, Part One, of Jippensha Ikku’s famous Shank’s Mare.





Many were the sights and tastes that delighted our two travellers as they viewed the massive, daikon-shaped pillars of the sacred shrine at Atsuta and partook of the local cuisine - the same daikon radishes topped with miso. Continuing on, they ferried themselves over seven miles of choppy waters until they arrived with thankful hearts at the safe harbor of Kuwana on the Bay of Ise...





The sky was clear. As the two travellers crossed an elevated walkway, their shadows stretched out in an intense moonlight that was bright enough to bathe the stars. Moving toward the Kuwana Station exit, they took in the sight of the town’s flickering lanterns and the naked forms of wintering trees that appeared here and there below them.





One man wore a black overcoat, a suitable match for the bright moon, even if cut a bit generously for his frame. On his head rested an umber fedora with two stiff-looking peaks that rose up like mountains. Certainly, its obvious newness was a breach of good style, but perhaps we can forgive this lapse of taste. Even more telling was the way he had pulled the hat down until its brim rested firmly on his ears. Along with the dangling chin strap, a defense against a possible gust of wind, the hat suggested a nod to practical necessity. Bowing to the new age, he had abandoned the straw hat of an earlier era. A few years over sixty yet still young at heart, this one likes to call himself Yajirobei, after Ikku’s famous drifter.





This Yajirobei didn’t seem to be carrying much in the way of luggage. In one hand was a cheap velvet suitcase with another cloth bag tied to it. In the other hand he held an umbrella that doubled as a walking stick.





Again he quoted from Shank’s Mare as he walked. “As the text says, ‘In celebration of their sate arrival in Kuwana, our two travellers feasted on the town’s famous broiled clams and enjoyed numerous cups of wine.’ Before we go find our inn, how about a drink near the station? I want to call you Kidahachi, but I’m afraid you’re a bit old tor the part. On the other hand, we’ve come to the place in the book where Yajirobei and Kidahachi become separated. I quote, ‘Without his companion, a lonely Yajirobei trudges along the road to Ise. Fighting to hold back his tears, he checks at every trellis-fronted inn along the way - all to no avail.’ And you? You, sir, are more like the new partner Yaji finds ‘on the road lined with pines.’ So how about a drink with my new partner? What say ye, Nejibei?”





“Oh, cut it out.”





His companion made a sour face. He was four or five years older, which put him near seventy. On his head was a brimless otter fur cap, pulled down to his white eyebrows. He wore a traditional gray wool travelling coat, baggy trousers, white socks, and leather-soled clogs. Strapped across his back was a bundle, a faded saffron furoshiki, fastened with a cord and tied at his chest. He also carried a cloth pouch. And although he favoured the walking stick that he held in his other hand, he seemed to be a fit, good-natured fellow.





“Stop calling me Nejibei! It gives people the wrong impression. I don’t mind being your partner. But ‘on the road lined with pines’ has a bad ring to it - like I’m a pickpocket or something.” He planted his stick to emphasize the point; and like a goose forming a new formation, he quickly passed the other man and proceeded through the ticket gate.





Making a point of letting the older man pass by, Yajirobei eyed his partner, this older man who seemed to be in such a hurry to give someone a scolding. “See? Spoken like a true Nejibei! My making your acquaintance ‘on the road lined with pines’ doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a highway robber. Although I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a little of that in your past!”





Yajirobei laughed at his own joke as the station attendant snatched the ticket from his hand. Stunned, he stared blankly at the fellow.





And no wonder. He was the last of the passengers to clear the gate, having dawdled along the way. The train that had brought them to Kuwana was now gleaming through the blue fields in the distance, its white plume floating dreamily toward the moon like the waft of smoke rising from the town’s famous broiled clams.





Once on the other side of the ticket gate, Yajirobei resumed his recitation, unabashed. ‘”He soon sets off. As he walks along, he hears a traveller singing.’ Hey, Nejibei-san, here’s a good line.





‘Clams boiled in soy.





Are better than a toy.





No gift could be so fine,





As maidens at the shrine!





That’s dandy for me.





Good and dandy for me!’”





“Need a ride, sir?”





There in front of the station, from a lonely row of four or five hand-drawn carriages parked in the darkness, a man with arms folded stepped forward.





Hearing his voice, Yajirobei made a crooked smile. “Many thanks, young man. What impeccable timing! Still, if it’s all the same to you, why not say, ‘How about a ride on my home-bound packhorse?’”





“Yes, sir,” responded the man. He stood blank faced.





2





Yaji waved the sleeves of his coat and pleaded like a drunk, “Come on, say it! Say ‘How about a ride on my home-bound packhorse?’ Be a good sport and play along!”





“Sure. You want me to say ‘How about a ride on my home-bound packhorse?’ All right. How about a ride on my home-bound packhorse?” The rickshaw man rattled off the line, and seemed earnest enough as he did.





Laughing, Yaji teased him. “My friend, if you don’t care for the long set phrase, then how about if I make it a bit fancier? If he gets mad when you call him Former Senior Regent Currently Priest of the Hōjō Temple, then call him Honorable Former Senior Regent Currently Priest of the Hōjō Temple. Makes all the difference, you know.”





“So, please get in.” Considering the deal closed, the rickshaw man ignored the rest and turned his carriage toward them.





Yajirobei glared. “What now, a carnage? That’s good and dandy tor me!”





“Stop joking around.” Standing in the bright moonlight like a withered chrysanthemum clinging to its bamboo support, the older gentleman chided his partner. The moonlit sky seemed to make him feel the sadness of travel. “Hire the man, for heaven’s sake! We have this luggage, and we have no business wandering around at night in a strange town.” He half mumbled these scolding words.





“But first, we must have a ‘That’s good and dandy for me’ or we won’t be in agreement with the text. This is where Kidahachi speaks up. ‘Can we ride for four mon?’ To which the horseman replies. That’s not so dandy for me.’ And the horse neighs twice.”





“Young man, don’t pay attention to that fellow. Let’s just get going. We’d like to you to take us to an inn called the Minatoya, near the mouth of the river.”





“You’ll need two rides, right?”





“I suppose. We’re in a hurry.” Yajirobei’s partner looked back, grabbed hold of the side of the rickshaw, and climbed in. His sandalled feet pressed tiptoe against the foot-boards as he straddled his bag. Without bothering to take the bundle from around his neck, he simply let it bounce around on his lap.





“My fate is yours. If we die, we die together. Wait up, Nejibei!” Still giggling, Yajirobei climbed into a second carriage.





“To the Minatoya!”





“Got it.”





As the two rickshaw men raced off to the edge of the square, the pale lanterns of their carriages wavered in the moonlight. Rattling over the rocky street, they sped down a narrow alley lined by wooden fences, then turned at an intersection of earthen walls. They seemed to be taking a shortcut, passing through many lonely neighborhoods. By and by, they came to a row of two-story buildings, the road between them as narrow as a thread and shadowed from the moon by overhanging eaves. Tucked into the darkness on each side were a few lanterns, glowing white; and above their heads, stars were sprayed upon the naked tendrils of willow trees, and walls were illuminated by the blue moonlight that appeared here arid there in the night. At the end of a long road, a fire tower rose to pierce the mist of the distant mountains, casting the sharp silhouette of a fire bell that seemed as if it were alive, while the clapping of night guards’ sticks - Beware! Beware! - sounded in the deepening night. Even though business is usually slow in January, the moonlight was still shining on the latticed windows. And yet, the girls of Kuwana seemed to be keeping early hours, for the pleasure quarter seemed quiet and desolate.





Beneath the spokes of the rickshaws the street turned into a narrow river of quicksilver. Hanging from the eaves of black-pillared houses, rows of plain and patterned lanterns looked like river otters crossing a bridge on festival night. Suddenly, the rickshaw in the lead, the one in which the older gentleman rode, came to a stop.





Listen to that! Falling over the hushed, one-street entertainment district of this small town, in the silence of the stilled wheels, came a voice that sparkled among the stars and echoed upon the crest tiles and over the moonlit waters that stretched to far-off Chikuzen, drawing its moonlight over a thousand miles of ocean, up the lapping river, pulled hand over hand like a silver thread.





The clasp that holds his sash in place.





Clothes softer than a pillow.





Hardly seems a country boy.





Smooth walking like a willow -





The sound of a Hakata ballad flowed out from the shadows of the eaves; and right there before the old man’s eyes stood a street musician with his head covered with a white towel, his gaunt silhouette standing before a sign on which was written in red the word “Noodles.” He was looking down and to the side, lingering like a shadow.





With his scarf-covered bundle still tied around his neck, the older traveller looked back from where he sat in his rickshaw and said something . . . just as the second rickshaw came to a sudden stop and surrounded the song, capturing it between them and the walls of the buildings that lined the street. Before Nejibei had a chance to make himself understood, his rickshaw started ahead; and the one in the rear followed in pursuit. The two carriages pulled up neck and neck for a moment, then one fell back into line behind the other; and together they continued their journey through the moonlit night.





The rising moon,

the shadows of the pines,





Ara, dokkoisho!





Standing there on the comer in front of the noodle shop, the street musician suddenly ended his song with one last, frost-cutting note, as if throwing his plectrum into the cold moonlit waters of the ocean. He lifted the head of his samisen slightly and, freeing his hands, turned the plectrum around and used its handle to gently push open the faded red door of the noodle shop. It slid open easily. “Anyone home?”





The proprietor seemed to be caught off guard by the sight of the musician’s clear eyes suddenly peering at him from beneath the towel on his head and through the cloud of steam that rose from the shop’s boiling kettle. The owner was dressed in a striped apron, a cotton kimono with its skirts tucked up. And a pair of green pantaloons. He had been sitting next to the register, listening intently to the musician’s song. It’s a bit much when he jumps to his feet and shoots back, “Sorry. No solicitors!”





This is obviously his way of dealing with all itinerant musicians - to enjoy their music first, then brush them of fat the crucial moment with a “No solicitors!” The problem this time is that the towel-wearing singer entered the shop so suddenly that he caught the owner completely off guard. Luckily, no customers were there to witness his behaviour.





Unaffected by the comment, the one who had come in from the street simply closed the door behind him. He lifted the neck of his samisen and stepped into the shop. “No offense, my friend. I’m the customer here. Isn’t that right, ma’am?” The singer chuckled as he said this.





Also enraptured by the street singer’s Hakata ballad, the shopowner’s wife was standing amid the steamy haze of the hearth, with one fair-skinned arm resting atop the lid of a large pot of boiling water. She was a middle-aged woman, dressed in a teal-colored kimono with its sleeves tied up. Her hair was done up on top of her head and a bit dishevelled. Her teeth were dyed black. She had a fair complexion, and blushed at the musician’s comment. Quickly, she left her place by the hearth. Her wooden clogs made a dry, scraping sound as she hurried over the hardened dirt floor, past the spot where her husband sat, directly to the register, where she plunged her hand into the till.





“Oh, don’t worry about that,” the young man said gently. “Don’t bother. This isn’t extortion. I’m the customer, not you.”





On one side of the shop was a narrow area covered with six worn-out tatami mats all in a row. Customers were welcome to take off their shoes and relax there. But the musician chose one of the stools near the hearth. He sat down and stretched his legs.





“Cold weather we’re having tonight. Thought I’d come in and have a drink. No need to worry, old man. I’m not going to make trouble.”





When he removed the towel from his head, he certainly didn’t look like someone who would create an incident. He had a thin face with excellent features. Fatigue showed around his eyes, but they were clear, and his eyebrows thick and dark. He seemed a well-bred young gentleman, about twenty-eight or -nine years old.





“I see.” Laughing nervously, the shopowner got off his stool and came forward, rubbing his hands. “Well, let’s hope this clear weather holds up.” He looked aimlessly at the soot-blackened ceiling, then glanced at the votive altar above the register.





“Young Master,” the wife said as she patted her apron. “Shall I warm a flask for you then?” She smiled.





The musician placed his plectrum down on his scarf and moved the samisen around to his back. He sat down with one leg tucked beneath him. Arranging his skirts to keep out the cold, he called out, “How about something good.”





“I’ll bring you our best.” The owner’s wife shuffled sideways to the tatami area on her left. With a pair of metal chopsticks, she stirred the coals in the hibachi until they flared red, then quickly pushed them over to where the musician was sitting on his stool. “Here. Warm yourself over these.”





“Thanks.”





He wasted no time making himself comfortable. He positioned himself around the hibachi and let out a long sigh. “When I realize there’s a wonderful fire like this in the world, I think of home. And that thought makes me feel even colder. It’s freezing tonight, ma’am. Make that wine boiling hot, won’t you? I have this cheap habit of trying to get as drunk as possible on as little as I can - just as you probably guessed about me. Isn’t that right, sir?”





The owner chuckled. “Go ahead, Okata. Make it boiling hot.”





His wife flashed her dyed teeth at the musician with a beautiful smile, “Coming right up.”





4





The musician pointed toward the front door, empty sake cup in hand. “By the way. I just saw two rickshaws rush by with their passengers. Went down the street and stopped over on the left - a big building, judging by the root. I could see them in the blue moonlight. Is that place an inn or something?”





“That would be the Minatoya.” The woman turned from the hearth and looked at her husband. “Around here, that’s the place to stay. It’s been around for generations. It used to be a teahouse, but they’ve made it into an inn now. All the rooms have been kept just like they were in the old days. The sitting room in the back has a veranda with a railing, and right there is the mouth of the Ibi River. You can watch the white sails pass by. The sea bass leap. The mullet fly. The atmosphere is wonderful! Sometimes, though, the otters scramble up the stone embankments and play tricks. They put out the lights in the hallways and toilets. It’s not like they’re scary monsters, though. On a moonlit night like this, they perform gourd-drumming rites in the garden. And on rainy nights, they run errands for a few pennies. All that sort of thing amuses the customers and adds to the Minatoya’s reputation. You’re new to the area, I take it.”





“Drifted in last night, as a matter of fact. I’m afraid I still don’t know north from south. Even in this moonlight, I’m like a crow lost in the dark.” He looked down and took a sip of sake. “I guess I should eat these noodles before they get soggy. Wow!” He rubbed his eyes and turned his head. “My, that red pepper’s hot! You know, I fell into this same trap just a while ago. Should have known better, I guess. I underestimate this Kamigata pepper. Poured it on thick, since condiments are free. Seconds later, I fell off my stool. Boy, what a kick! And now I’ve done it again. Sorry. Crying and running at the nose at the same time. Not too sexy, right?” He wiped his nose with the back of his hand.





As she warmed a second flask of sake, the woman tested the temperature by touching it with her palm. “Master, you’re from the East, aren’t you?”





“That’s right. Born in the East, but my finances have gone south.” He swirled the flask around, then poured the last remaining drops into his cup.





“I guess you’ll be staying at the Minatoya too,” she said, but her husband thought to himself, “No way. They’ll throw him out on his ear.” The warm-hearted fellow evidently wants to warn the young man of what to expect.





“You have to be joking. I’m afraid my accommodations are as humble as they come. Straw sandals, an umbrella, a straw mat - they’re my closest friends. From their holes in the walls, the rats stick their heads out and wait longingly for my return. I’m thinking of staying here in Kuwana for four or five days. If you think I look good enough for the Minatoya, maybe I should request a night’s lodging here. How about it, ma’am?”





“If you think this would do. Of course, we’d love to have you,” the woman answered as she nimbly fetched more sake.





“Heaven forbid!” The shopowner raised his eyebrows in surprise and sat down before the register, as if to block the intruder. Until now, he’d been standing there like a scarecrow, with hands tucked into his sleeves.





“Thank you for your kind offer, ma’am. But who could stay the night at a noodle shop but the King of Soy Sauce caught in a rainstorm, or the Queen of Bonito Flakes on a pilgrimage?” He laughed to himself.





“Then allow me to pour for you, young Master.” She sat on the edge of the raised tatami area and held a flask over the dirt floor.





“Please, don’t bother. You’re busy enough as it is.”





“Not really. Most of our business is takeout for the geisha houses, and things are slow tonight, as you can see. You know, Master, you do have a marvellous voice.” She glanced over at her husband. “Don’t you think so, dear?”





“I guess,” grumbled her husband as he puffed hard on his pipe.





“As I was listening to your Hakata ballad, I felt the music come right through my body. It gave me the shivers.”





5





“Generous praise dampens the fun. I’m afraid your words might even sober me up, and that is a truly sad thought. I’m nothing but a street singer.” He folded his arms and looked embarrassed.





“I’m not trying to flatter you. It’s the truth. Your music is, well, chilling. It’s like being tied up, or getting loose, or being thrown down. How would you describe it? It’s like this. If there were a willow tree growing in the ocean, I’d want to throw myself into its reflection in the moonlight and die. It’s a feeling I can’t describe.” She moved both shoulders and leaned toward him.





“Hey now!” The shopowner cut in, seeming put out for no reason.





“What’s wrong with you?” She looked back over her shoulder at her husband. He had already taken his post beneath the votive shelf. Leaning against the register, he flipped through the pages of his account book, and glared at her.





“Didn’t the Masuya take care of their bill?” He flicked his abacus noisily.





“Why now? It isn’t the end of the month yet.” She turned back to the musician and called him “Master.”





“Master nothing. I’m talking about the Masuya’s bill here!”





“If it bothers you that much, dear, why don’t you just go there and get it yourself?” She stuck out her lower lip.





With a defeated look on his face, her husband started doing his bookkeeping, abacus in hand. “Four divided by two is two. Six divided by two is three.” Balancing the books requires addition and subtraction, but he was doing division, like cutting a quart of soy sauce with a cup of water.





Just then, through the white steam rising from the hearth, came the piercing sound of a blind man’s whistle, cold enough to freeze the stars. With the winter moon at its zenith, the noise whistled through the town like a blast of cold wind.





The street musician grasped his bony shoulders. “It pierces the frosty night!” His voice was clear and sharp, as if he were reading lines from a story. “Ma’am, a blind masseur passes by.”





“Yes. Blowing his whistle.”





“Damn! That sound goes right through me. So cold I can’t bear it.”





With his legs still crossed, he drew himself up. He tipped his teacup and emptied it on the floor. “Here, how about pouring me a drink in this. It’ll save you some trouble.”





“My pleasure.”





“I appreciate your kindness. It’s like burning twigs beneath a kettle. As soon as this wine starts to cool, it’s like ice carving my throat. My whole body’s going to crack apart. Fill it up.”





As if waving his hand, he downed the entire cup in one gulp.





“My! Very impressive!” She looked at him with admiring eyes. “But you shouldn’t overdo it, you know. I’m sure a lot of people would worry.”





“Okata. What about the greengrocer’s bill?” Her husband blinked and stuck out his chin.





As if toying with her man, she said, “If they come to get it, just pay it, dear.” She didn’t even bother to tum around and look at him.





“What was that exchange rate?” He nicked his fingers in the air, as if doing more calculations on his abacus.





“Ma’am.” The musician’s voice had grown subdued.





“Yes. What is it?”





“Could I bother you for another one? And right after that, another one? Do you understand what I’m saying?”





“I do. You’re quite the drinker, aren’t you?”





“How could I live without sake?” He started to speak in a cheerful voice, but he suddenly looked up at the ceiling and widened his eyes. “There it is again. A masseur’s whistle. Coming from the crossroads to the north. It’s still not that late, but I hear it coming over the rooftops, from the outskirts of town. A block away, maybe more. Well, let’s see. Maybe he’s still some place beyond the rice paddies.” Nervously drawing one knee to his chest, he looked this way and that. “Another one? It’s the same whistle, but a different tone. Ma’am, do you know what those masseurs look like?”





Just then, looking pale in the blue moonlight, a white-eyed man peered up at the rooftops and listened. The musician stared sharply.





“Sir, you can’t judge a blind man by the sound of his whistle. It’s not like telling a stag from a doe.”





“True.” The musician gave a lonely laugh, and stared at the sake brimming in his teacup. He mumbled to himself and looked down at the floor. “Then let’s toast. Mister Blindman. With the moon in our cups.”





Was it a line from a Hakata ballad? Whatever their source, the words seemed dark and lonely, like the cold moonlight that showed through the shōji of the noodle shop. The blind man’s whistle echoed over the cross-roads, the town, and the waves of the river.





6





“What? A masseur? Barging in on us like that. No thank you. No thanks!”





Down the street from the noodle shop, in an inner room of the Minatoya, Yajirobei sat with his partner. They seemed to be in one of the luxury suites that enjoyed a view of the water - an ageing tenmat room with a six-mat room attached. Beyond the wall of shōji was a veranda with a railing and a wall of glass windows; and on the other side of those windows, a cloud of mist rose into a clear sky, and a single star shone above the edge of a long sandbar, sparkling just above the Ibi River as it poured into an ocean of white fog. In the streaming moonlight, rush mats and straw raincoats were hanging out to dry, and, beyond a hedge, the masts of many moored ships.





Yajirobei was seated next to a candle stand, warming his hand over a round wooden brazier. He had a look of puzzlement on his face. “Here we are in our room, settling in for the evening. The head maid greets us, ‘You must be tired.’ We’re all set to have dinner or maybe some wine. Then out of nowhere comes that face. We had just said goodbye to an older woman and were hoping to see a younger girl with bangs come to take her place, when in comes this melon-head from behind the door. ‘Care for a massage?’





“He came out from the other side of that candle stand, like a doorman for the snow fairy making her début at some monster’s palace. He leaned forward, and sat with his legs out to the side - the collar of his kimono loose. Thank you, no!’ I said, and he quietly backed out and disappeared into the darkness of the hallway. Good riddance!”





Yajirobei laughed wryly and looked over at his travelling partner, the bald-headed gentleman now sitting before the alcove, leaning over the warm brazier. “Nejibei, it’s no fun getting old. We should be enjoying an evening of samisen music, not getting offers for a predinner massage. What an insult!”





“You know, if you just acted your age a little. When that old woman with the widow’s haircut came to the front door to greet us, you stared at her and said, ‘Now there’s a beauty for the Buddhist altar! Wish I could fall from the ceiling!’ You never let up on that Shank’s Mare business, do you? That’s why strange things happen.” The one called Nejibei examined the knotted alcove pillar. “Old and spacious. Solidly built. A thousand-year-old mulberry tree. A river unfathomably deep. The lamp dark, the river otters about to make their appearance. Better straighten up or something bad’s going to happen.”





“As you say. Something to be learned from everything.” Yajirobei puffed his cheeks out and folded his arms. He looked up and read the calligraphy that was displayed in a frame above the sliding doors.





Facing to the breezes.





The sound of oars here pleases.





“Well said.”





“White chrysanthemums in the alcove, casually thrown into a vase. A nice touch, I’d say.”





“Now you do sound like an old man.”





“Didn’t you just say we ought to act our age? What’s that! Look! Out from the sleeve of my overcoat. Behold! The fuzzy brown paw of an Ibi River otter!”





“My goodness.” Nejibei glanced at the creature.





“Good heavens!” Yajirobei quickly pulled it back in.





“What was that?”





“I was born with a careless nature,” Yajirobei laughed. “Since yours truly was always losing things right and left, my old lady came up with this strategy to tie my mittens together with a string. You thread them through from one sleeve to the other. Pull them out, and put them on. Frightfully clever, don’t you think? Nejibei, out of respect for my wife’s thriftiness, I mustn’t be extravagant with my tips! Ah, Praise Buddha!”





“You weasel.” Nejibei hunched his shoulders and turned away.





“Here comes that lady. Mum’s the word! Quick!” He tucked the glove back into his sleeve.





One of the serving women entered the room. She kneeled and bowed, pressing both hands to the tatami. “Shall we proceed, then?”





“No. We’ve just kicked off our shoes. I think we’ll stay. So, no procedures, thank you.” Yajirobei spoke in a serious tone.





The woman’s complexion was a bit dark, though she did have handsome features. A puzzled look formed on her face. “So you’ll be eating dinner?”





“Something to drink first would be nice.”





“And what will you have for dinner?”





“Why even ask? As promised. Your famous broiled clams, of course!”





“If you want broiled clams, you’ll have to go to one of the roadside stands just outside of town. They still cook them over pinecones, which is really the only way to have them. We can only offer you steamed ones here. We put in a little sake to bring out the flavour.”





“I see. Those tents along the road, where they cook turbot right in their shells. I can see them now. In the distance, the road lined with pines, the flickering flame of burning cones, smoke rising into the moonlit night. It would be just like feasting in the Dragon Palace, entertained by the Princess herself, with a scarf tied over her head. That would be nice, but not nice enough to be sneaking out on a night like this. I guess we’ll just have to make due with your steamed clams with sake.” With a look of approval, the old man nodded.





“You’ll be having wine with your clams?”





“Come again?” He made a point of leaning over, as if he were having a hard time hearing her.





“I mean, will you be having clams with your wine?”





“No, no. We’ll be eating with chopsticks.” Yajirobei laughed at his own joke and produced the fifth volume of Ikku’s Shank’s Mare from his bosom. “I swear by it!” he said and tapped his forehead.





The maid suddenly burst out laughing. “Oh, I get it. You’re Yajirobei, right?”





“Precisely. On this visit to the Ise Shrine, we had reason to stay at the Gonikan. But on our way to the Inner Shrine, when we passed in front of the Fujiya in Furuichi, where we stayed before, I peered into the entrance and saw the brass brazier with lion’s heads for legs gleaming in the darkness. While it wasn’t exactly good manners, I took off my cap and, without getting down from my rickshaw, bowed rather casually to thank them for their earlier hospitality. Unfortunately, the street was narrow, and I showed my bald spot to the young woman standing in front of her tea shop. A most embarrassing situation.” As a part of his confession, Yajirobei leaned over and pointed his spot toward the lantern light.





“Oh, my!” The maid giggled, and Nejibei, too, broke into laughter.





Had the others been waiting for this moment? When our two travellers first arrived at the Minatoya, the inn was alive with the sounds of samisen playing and drums beating. In the sitting room next to theirs, separated by a dirt-floored hallway and a zigzagging wooden bridge, a group of a dozen or so men and a few women had been making a great clamour. Around the time the blind masseur appeared, the noise suddenly receded, as if lured off to some distant shore by the river’s waning tide. The low rumble of voices suddenly fell silent. But now, from that vast space came the high, piercing voices of geisha, suddenly sounding like monkeys screaming and running about. And then, as if smothering everything, came the indistinguishable, heavy sound of many people’s voices suddenly reverberating like wind belching from a sea cave.





Taking advantage of the moment, the maid stood. “It is a bit gloomy over on our side, isn’t it?”





“Just the way we like it, nice and peaceful.” Nejibei hunched over the brazier and looked at the volume of Shank’s Mare, lying on the tatami. “It just occurred to me. Since I’ve been having such a hard time getting to sleep, maybe I’ll set up a lamp by my bed and read your book tonight.”





“Don’t. You’ll be so moved, you’ll never get to sleep.”





“Nonsense. Nobody cries over Shank’s Mare. You talk about me, but you’re the Nejibei here, always twisting things.” Just as he spoke, the older woman came back with a helper. They brought two low serving tables and wine.





“Your clams will be done shortly.”





“Great.”





“But first, sake.” Nejibei quickly took up his cup.





“And one for you. Drink up while it’s nice and hot.” With the slightly trembling hand of a habitual drinker, Yajirobei placed the small cup from which he had already partaken on the tatami, away from his serving table and next to the book where it was still lying on the floor. With a serious look on his face, he said, “Miss, pour a cup for him.”





Noticing the blank look on the younger woman’s face, the older one who was pouring for Nejibei said, “Kino, go ahead. Pour. This man here is Yajirobei. And now he’s going to toast his missing partner, Kidahachi.”





How quickly the woman catches on!





8





For some reason, Yajirobei’s mood became subdued.





“Well said. Thank you for calling me Yajirobei. This is a comfortable place. The wine’s good. If only Kidahachi really were here with us, then this truly would be Shank’s Mare. We truly would be ‘people of the great peace.’ But within the fading glow of flickering candles, this seems more like a libation to a dead child in hell. I wonder what that fool’s doing now.” With one hand on his knee, Yajirobei stared gloomily at the sake cup on the tatami.





Nejibei suddenly looked away and folded his arms.





“But, sir. Why haven’t you brought this Kidahachi along?” The maid smiled amiably.





Yajirobei’s smile was tinged with sadness. “Well, I’ll tell you. As it says in the book, Kidahachi got lost on his way to Ise. Yajirobei is old enough to understand the ways of the world, but he still likes to drink and have a good time. Life is a journey, they say. When he gets separated from his younger companion, this man who was his staff through heat of summer and cold of winter, he feels like a lost child at the age of sixty. He becomes weary of constantly searching for the Fuji-something inn, where he might find Kidahachi again. He’s tired of wandering by himself through the noisy quarters of town after town, one disappointment after another. He throws his bones down in front of some stranger’s shop and asks for a moment’s rest, completely without hope. When I read the passage, it’s no joke. Nejibei, truly, the story makes me cry.” The flickering candlelight illuminated the moisture in his eyes.





“Young Lady, how about trimming the wicks for us?”





“Certainly.” When she turned the other way, Nejibei, too, blinked his eyes.





“What a party they’re having over there!” Yajirobei stretched to look at the room across the hallway. “My! They’ve brought out everything, right down to the washbasins. The people are flying up to the ceiling, skirts and all; and the plates and bowls are dancing over the floor. The samisen is pitted against the drum in a fight to the finish!”





“Sorry about the noise. It’s that time of year when our new draftees have to report for service. They’re having a farewell party. People are having parties everywhere these days. It’s been a total madhouse. By the time you two gentlemen are ready to retire for the evening, though, things should have calmed down. If you could please put up with it. . .”





“No problem at all.” Yajirobei reassured both women. “To the contrary, the livelier the better. If it gets too quiet, that blind masseur might show up again. And we don’t want that.”





“Masseur?” The maid repeated the word with a puzzled expression on her face.





Trying to avoid the subject, Nejibei forced a cough. “Well, let’s go another round. How about it? Maybe we should get a little company over here, too. Could we get someone to sing us a local song? You know. How about that one about the Lord of Kuwana and clams? Liven things up a bit. Do something wild! They say you can’t have too much fun when you’re on the road. You could even mumble your lines from Kanjinchō. I have no beard to dye, but, look. I’ll take this towel and put it over your shiny head like this.” Nejibei straightened his back and sat up a little taller. Yajirobei stared with wide eyes.





“This might be the greatest rebellion since the Heike. Your plan is long overdue. Never mind the two-person saddle, I’ll just jump on the hump!” Yajirobei was suddenly animated. “Miss, anyone will do. Rustle up four or five geisha. Bring in a crew!” He threw back his shoulders and spoke boldly.





The maid withdrew the hand that was serving wine and held the flask straight up on her knee. “The party over there just requested a few more girls, too. We put in a call. Kino, were there any geisha left?”





The thick-necked assistant shook her head. “They’ve all been called out.”





“I’m terribly sorry, sir. Kuwana’s a small place, and we don’t have many entertainers. With several parties on the same night, anyone who is anybody gets called out right away. And, of course, for people from Tokyo like yourselves, we wouldn’t want to call just anyone. She would have to be pretty, or have some special talent.”





“Now that we’ve come this far, if we don’t hear the sound of a samisen, we might just run off in the night without paying the bill! As long as they’re not one-eyed or harelipped, get us someone, anyone, even if you have to call an antique shop.”





“Wait a minute. I wonder if that new girl at the Shimaya is still available. Go see. Kino, hurry. Run and put in a call.”





9





“Bring it on! You pompous fake!” Back at the noodle shop, the street musician suddenly shouted in a loud, strong voice. Drinking hot sake on a frosty night, the singer of Hakata ballads quickly sobered up in the bright moonlight. His face was still pale as ever, but after gulping two or three teacups of wine, one right after another, he showed a little colour around the eyes. “Blow your damned whistles. Beat your drums. Play your flutes. I’m just a kid. Isn’t that right, ma’am? In any case, you seem to have more than your share of masseurs here in Kuwana.” The young man’s eyes darted here and there to the high cry of whistles.





“People say the eyes of the blind look like oysters,” she replied. “But it’s clams we’re famous for. I doubt we have more masseurs than anywhere else. Maybe it’s because we have so many brothels and inns here. The blind come to find work.”





“I see. The brothels.” The young man seemed to realize something. A bit dazed, he propped himself up with one arm.





“Master, why don’t you take that voice of yours to one of the geisha houses? Let them hear it there. It’s enough to die for.” She twirled a lacquered tray in front of her.





“Woman, what a mirror you are! Heaven forbid if someone should die because of my voice! As it turns out, I don’t think I could stand in front of a geisha house.”





“Why not?





“I might meet up with my enemy.” He looked down at the floor.





“They say a good hobby helps a person through hard times. Master, are you here tonight because of some geisha? Is that why you call her your enemy?”





“No. I’m the enemy!”





“Oh, go on. Listen to you.” As the shop owner’s wife spoke these words, from the dark side of the narrow street came the light scrape of a woman’s clogs. The sound echoed beneath the shadowed eaves and came into the earthen-floored noodle shop. Immediately, the desolate wail of a blind man’s whistle came again, as if tangled around the young woman’s feet.





The street musician stared sharply.





“Speak of the devil, I’ll bet that was a geisha who passed by just now. Go ahead. Open the door, if you like. Take a look. Careful, though. Your enemy might be waiting to strike you down.”





“I’m ready. Any time! Just stop that damned whistling!”





Suddenly, someone else opened the door from the outside.





“Scare me to death!”





“Evening, ma’am. Six bowls of noodles, right away.” Dressed in a livery coat and straw sandals, a man from the pleasure quarters had come to put in an order. The moon poured down on his back as he stood in the entrance. His nose was red from the cold.





“Coming right up,” the shopkeeper cried out. Standing at his place of command next to the counter, he became erect as a stick. “Hurry up, Okata.”





Ignoring him, the shopkeeper’s wife asked nonchalantly, “We just heard the sound of lovely footsteps. Who was she, anyway?”





“The new girl at the Shimaya. Just got transferred in from Yamada.” The young man with the red nose turned around and looked out the door.





The street musician leaned his back against the wall. He straightened himself so he could see into the narrow alley, beyond the shoulders of the man standing in the entrance. The sound of the clogs had faded in the distance but still echoed faintly.





“Did a lot of girls get called out tonight?”





“Not as many as your noodles, I’d say.”





“Well, we’ll have to get your order done right away because you said that.”





“Thanks. That would be great,” he said and left.





The shopowner stepped down from the register and fished for his clogs with his toes. He crashed about until he finally pulled out a large carrying tray. It seemed the couple ran the shop by themselves, and the poor man had to double as the delivery man.





“Mind the shop, now. Understand? Got that? I’m going to make a short stop on the way back. You got that, Okata.”





The shopkeeper glared about suspiciously. No need for a lantern on a moonlit night such as this. With one hand still tucked into his bosom, he flung the door open with a vengeance. Without bothering to close it behind him, he nimbly pranced away.





The draft tore the plume of steam rising from the boiling kettle, and a shadow fell across the musician’s face. The shopkeeper’s wife crossed over to him.





“How long are you going to stare out the door like that? Do you really want to meet your enemy that badly?”





“Ma’am. Here in Kuwana, do geisha use blind men as attendants?” The musician hunched his shoulders as if overtaken with chill. When he finally straightened himself and looked over at her, his face was pale and sickly.





10





“We have our names for things, but I’ve never heard anyone call a blind man a geisha’s attendant before. When that young lady passed by just now - where did he say she’s from? I forget, but anyway - as I watched her disappear down the street, her lavender gown turned teal in the light of that lantern a few doors down, then blue again in the moonlight. She was hanging her head and moving along as if her feet were in chains. And right behind her was the gray form of someone else. If it had been her shadow, it would have crawled along on the ground beneath her. But it followed her all the way, a yard or two behind, guarding her like Dōroku, god of travellers. It must have been a blind man, judging by the unnatural way it walked - the hips, the shoulders, the strange way it held its unshapely head. Funny that a blind man should be working as an escort, though. He was probably an escort to begin with, then went blind later on.”





“What did he look like? I want to see.” She began to move toward the door.





“They’re gone. They disappeared down the street. Looks like they found the place that called for them. I see, so there’s no such thing as a blind attendant, is there? Now I can hear even more of them. Whistles sounding in the moonlight, with shadows following each one. They pile up beneath the cold moonlight, and this town of Kuwana tums into a mountain of needles. I can’t take it any longer!” He gulped down another cup of sake. “Come, woman! Drink up! Your old man’s out. But who cares? See? The door’s wide open. And that mountain there above the rooftops is looking in on us like the snow monster.”





The musician looked toward the door. “Here he comes! He comes! He comes! Here he is! A masseur! Masseur!” he rattled on without pausing to catch his breath.





Hearing the street singer’s “Masseur,” a blind man, who happened to be passing by on the street, planted his walking stick and stood still, frozen in the moonlight. His white eyes rolled. His nostrils showed in the moonlight. He held his stick at an angle. Was someone calling for him?





“Was it a shadow? Or was it really a masseur? Was it just a silhouette?” The musician asked insistently.





“What if it were a masseur? Are you that crazy about blind men?”





“I am.” He let out a deep breath, and looked again. He knitted his brow and laughed in a high voice. “Yes. I’m dying to meet one. And look, here’s one now. Hello. Masseur. Mr. Masseur. Won’t you come in?”





The musician picked up his plectrum and tapped on his stool to signal the blind man who had appeared at the door. “Please, how about a round? Ma’am, excuse me, but if I could borrow this stool.”





“Lie down on the tatami, if you like. Masseur, you’ve got a customer. Come in. And please close the door behind you.”





The blind man entered, tapping his walking stick. “I’m coming. Not much more than a shadow.” The man’s breath showed whitely in the cold air. He wore a black kimono with a brown coverlet, the lantern light glowing red in the folds of his clothing. Rather than suddenly disappearing and leaving behind only a pair of sandals, he shuffled forward, fishing about with one hand while the other fanned the rich, wine-scented air toward his nose.





“So you heard me calling, did you?” The street singer asked in an arrogant tone. He pushed the serving table aside, now laden with several emptied sake flasks.





The blind man sniffled. He took a deep, envious breath of the shop’s aroma.





“I’ve been waiting for you,” the musician said. “Even a dog running down the street looks like a masseur tonight. No offense intended, of course. It’s just the way you appeared - out of nowhere, just like that. Yes, I am drunk. I thought you might be a ghost.”





“Is he happy to see you! At first, I couldn’t figure out why the sound of your whistle bothered him so much. Now I get it. All this time, all he wanted was a massage.”





“Thank you, ma’am. Business is good, I trust.”





“We only have one customer, so take your time. Give him a good massage. If he falls asleep, we’ll put him up for the night.”





The masseur was unperturbed. “I understand. I’ll give him a good one, then. Slow and easy.” He clasped his hands together and kneaded his palms. “Well, sir, shall we begin?”





“Don’t call me sir. I’m just a beggar.” The young man gulped more wine.





The shopkeeper’s wife scolded him with her eyes. “That’s not true. You shouldn’t say that.”





11





“Lying down isn’t going to work. I’m fine, sitting here like this. This is good enough. If you grabbed my back, I wonder if I could even breathe. Probably not. I might even get dizzy and pass out. Imagine being massaged to death by a blind man.” The young musician had a serious look on his face.





“No need to worry, sir. This might be the country, but I’ve been trained in the Sugiyama method, and I have years of experience behind me. If you asked me to put needles into your solar plexus, I could even do that with no trouble at all.” The masseur seemed a little put off. When he widened his eyes, they looked like egg whites.





“I’m not saying you’re good or bad. It’s just that I’ve never had a massage before. Not ever. Not even as a joke.”





“Oh, come now. The way you were looking forward to it.”





“That’s right. My shoulders are so stiff that my eyes started to swim with anticipation. Will it be like going into labour for the first time, or maybe that first pang of a healer’s flame? I don’t know what to expect. Does it hurt? Does it itch? Some say it tickles. I bet it would tickle. Unfortunately, my mother was a chaste woman so I’m no bastard. Still, no one in the world is more ticklish than I am. Feels like you’re making rice balls out of me. When I think about those hands squeezing my shoulders, I get so ticklish I can’t stand it. Stop!” The musician pulled his elbows to his sides and writhed.





“My. This isn’t working.” The blind man laughed, not knowing what to do.





The shopkeeper’s wife looked into the young man’s face again. “How cute.”





“Cute? I think the word is ‘pitiful.’ My whole body, skin and all, is as hard as stone. My back’s kinked. My chest feels like it’s about to burst. Yes, a massage! Go ahead, do it! Why should I care?” He yelled and lifted a knee to his chest. “Do it like you mean it, like you’re going to kill me! I’m ready. Ma’am, you and I must have met in an earlier life. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have taken care of a wanderer like me. And now I’m sorry it has to end - now that I’m about to be massaged to death. Sorry to bother you again, but could you pour me one last cup of wine? This might be our farewell toast.”





He shook the drops from his cup, then held it out to her. He was acting like a child, surely. And yet, she was struck by how the expression in his eyes had changed. He now stared sharply. Stunned, she watched on in silence.





“So, Masseur.”





“Sir.”





“Ma’am, could you pour for me?”





“Of course.” As she did, her hand trembled slightly.





The young man gulped the wine in his teacup just as the masseur placed his hands on him once again. His body trembled, but his face, fortunately, did show some colour. “That hits the spot.”





“Perhaps there’s something here I don’t understand. But I don’t think you have anything to worry about.” The blind man was also surprised.





“Good enough.” The musician relaxed his hand. “I know you won’t kill me. Still, that’s the way it feels.” He dangled his head and his body swayed back and forth. “The moon outside is cold, but your fingers are like flames. They become fire and water, and echo in my bones. My chest is cold, but my ears bum with fever. My flesh is on fire, but my blood is ice cold.”





He let both hands drop, and the masseur, startled, drew back. His pouring lips looked like an octopus beak.





The musician sat up straight on his stool.





“No, don’t stop. Keep going. Take pity on me. Be gentle. Even if you do, though, my whole body’s going to fall apart in your hands. I try to avoid the feeling of annihilation. But when I flee from the premonition, it clings to me. When I pass it by, it draws near. When I run from it, it chases after me. When it has no shape, it has a voice. Those whistles are the sound of its battle drums. When they come as thick and fast as they have tonight, a weakling like me can’t take it. Those who lack the courage to stay at the cliffs edge stare into the abyss, they can’t stand the tension and jump in headfirst. But I’m past caring now. Blind man, tell me. Are you his cousin? His uncle? A nephew? If you are one of his relatives, then here I am. Take your revenge! I murdered one of you.”





12





“It happened exactly three years ago, just a little later in the year. We had an engagement in Nagoya, and our schedule made it convenient - if that’s not a disrespectful a way of putting it - to visit the holy shrines at Ise. Anyway, I was more than happy with the way the opportunity came along. We planned to spend a few leisurely days in Furuichi. And then, speaking of convenience, to see the clouds of Mount Asama and hear the wind in the pines at Tsuzumi. We were to see the sunrise over Futami Bay on New Year’s Day. Then go from Sakaibashi to Ikenoura. Then on to Okinoshima, where we were to leave the province. From Kamigōri, we planned to enter Shima, where we would see the Hiyori Mountains. We were going to travel by boat, if the weather was good, to Cape Irako to sample the sea slugs there. We planned our trip to take about five or six days. In Yamada, we put up at the Fujiya in Onoe-chō. Don’t be surprised. At that time, I wasn’t dressed in rags as I am now.





“I was a young gentleman, well-dressed, always ready to change into the formal jacket I carried around with me. I’m sure I sound to you like a palanquin bearer bragging about past exploits - buying grand courtesans at the pleasure quarters, and so on. But I’m not being a poor loser. My success had nothing to do with my own efforts in the first place.





“Listen up. My uncle was also my master, my benefactor. I called him all those things. In Edo, he was considered to be the best of his profession, known throughout Japan as the head of the main school of Mo actors. He was a slightly balding man with a scowling face.





“His temperament didn’t match his looks, though. He was actually a straightforward, fun-loving Edo native. He was sixty years old at the time. But whenever I signed in for him at an inn, he would glare at me and flash three fingers, as if naming the three elements of the universe - heaven, earth, and humanity - or posing some Zen riddle. All those three fingers really meant was that I was to shave three years off his real age and write down fifty-seven. That’s just the way he was. Whenever women were serving us, the one thing I was never allowed to do was to call him father. So what was I supposed to call him? Tin not Yoichibei, so don’t talk like Sadakurō.’ He pursed his lips and wouldn’t let me call him uncle either. So we agreed that I’d call him oniisan, older brother.





“I was this old man’s younger companion, and together we enjoyed the pleasures of the road. The wine was good, the scenery great, and the weather couldn’t have been better. No matter where we went, we charmed the women. Even in the winter, along the mountain road, the asters were blooming. Some of the blossoms were huge.





“Now, riding on the train that took us along the Ise Road - to Kuwana, Yokkaichi, and Kameyama - were two men who seemed to share our destination. They began gossiping about the performance we had just done in Nagoya. Even if they were exaggerating, it seemed I had a good reputation. My uncle’s, of course, was beyond criticism. I can’t tell you more than that. It would be a disgrace to our school if I did. If I revealed his name, the whole world would know who we were. Well, listen to this.





“After we reached Ise, I started hearing another name in their conversation about us. It kept coming up. Are you with me? The name was Sōichi, and he was a masseur and acupuncturist who lived in Furuichi in Yamada.”





As the name left the young man’s mouth, his eyes fixed vacantly on one spot. He no longer paid attention to the masseur, who was standing behind him hunched over his back, nor to the woman who was facing him, sitting with the skirt of her kimono spread near his stool. He stared up at the ceiling and vacantly waved away the steam that drifted around him.





“He was a masseur, but he came from a samurai family that had once served the lord of that area. Listen to this. The fellow was apparently skilled in the same art as our school. Here in Furuichi he reigned supreme. The monster had given himself the name Sōzan, or Grand Master. ‘Arrogant, yes. But he has talent. Even those actors who come from Tokyo to see him are intimidated. Such-and-such came and went away humbled. If he had even one good eye, he wouldn’t have stayed in Mie Prefecture. The same goes for that group of performers who came to Nagoya. I’m not saying they’re fakes, but it wouldn’t hurt for them to come and take a few lessons from Sōzan. He’s the real thing. Eels are tasty, so are bream. They ought to come and taste of what he has to offer before going back to Tokyo.’ That’s what I heard on the train from the beer-bellied businessman with his mouth of gold-filled teeth, as he talked with a prosperous-looking man from the area.





“My uncle dozed off. Being young and reckless, I let it bother me - these things they were saying. I hid my face behind my muffler and glared at the two men.





“When we reached the Fujiya, I sent my uncle off to bathe by himself while I questioned the maids. I also asked the clerk who greeted us at the front door if he knew such-and-such an artist called Sōzan. Their answers were all the same. His reputation was even better than I had imagined. Actually, he had recently performed there at the Fujiya for a local retired lord who had called him in. With the performance came great praise, ‘Is it because the pines of Mount Tsuzumi are so close by? Such a fine rendition of The Wind in the Pines could never be heard in Tokyo.’





“The clerk even mentioned that Master Sōzan had said, “l wish those other guys could hear me.’ ‘Those other guys,’ he said. Well, that’s me, the one telling you this story. I’m one of those other guys.”





13





“I inquired a bit further, and learned that Sōzan, or the masseur Sōichi, was running a small restaurant on the outskirts of Furuichi. He had three concubines and was living the good life. That was the last straw! A blind masseur taking on a name like Sōzan, posing as a master of the no theatre. What nerve!”





The young street singer held a hand to his chest as if it pained him. “Mr. Masseur, I hope you’ll forgive me for criticizing one of your kind. After I came to my senses, I realized that farmers in Shinshū make fun of Tokyo theatre because we don’t have real boars running across the stage. If Miyashige radishes are the finest in Japan, then the local pickles, too, must be unparalleled in all the empire. And broiled clams the equal of Kuwana’s are nowhere to be found in the cities of Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto. I should have realized it was nothing but provincialism. But to a twenty-four-year-old, just approaching an ‘unlucky year,’ it was all very irritating. In the first place, I couldn’t stand his name, Sōzan. And his talk about ‘those other guys’ rubbed me the wrong way. Then there was this business about three concubines. It all made me furious.





“Amid the great changes that followed the Meiji Restoration, the no theatre lost its patronage and many among us were barely making ends meet. Even those artists who were earning a daimyō’s income were reduced to making toothpicks and selling brittle at roadside stands. Some became delivery boys for noodle shops. My uncle, for example, became a janitor at a government office in the countryside. He got drunk off the lees of cheap sake and slept on the dikes of the rice paddies. When his sister was a young woman - this is my mother I’m talking about - one masseur who had managed to save up a little money tried to take advantage of my family’s poverty. He relentlessly chased after my mother to make her his concubine, just because he had loaned our family a little money. She sprained an ankle trying to throw herself into the Sumida River, a place she had only seen from inside a palanquin before. So you can see why I dislike masseurs.





“Sōichi, I’ll teach you a lesson! I’ll make you see yourself for what you really are, blind or not.





“The next day we paid homage at the shrines in Ise. My uncle was so moved by the visit that he only drank a little that evening and went to bed early. I tapped his bed and left a glass of water by his pillow. I told the maids at the inn that I was going out for a little sightseeing, but the truth was, I planned to catch this Sōzan in his own hole. I’d teach him a lesson.





“The wind was blowing hard. I thought the Isuzu River might serve as some son of boundary and that it would be calm on the other side of the Uji Bridge. But the wind was howling up the long mountain slope - disagreeably warm. The sand in front of my lantern was yellow, and the moon was partially hidden by a covering of clouds. Although the trees of Mount Kamiji were blue, the waves of Futami Bay were white. What a terrific force! The wind nearly blew me over as I stumbled ahead. It would have taken my hat, so I took it off and left it there at the Fujiya. With my jacket puffed up around my back and my sleeves flapping, I set off like a monk sneaking off at night. It was too much trouble to change clothes, so I was still dressed in the formal kimono I had worn to the shrines. I took my jacket off, folded it up, and tucked it away in the bosom of my kimono. Imagine how fashionable I looked when I covered my head with a towel. That was my clever trick, a sign of things to come. Serves me right.”





The musician pulled a hand into his sleeve. The other seized his teacup.





“It was still early in the evening in Furuichi, but things were already quiet. The wind roared in the eaves and tossed the hanging lanterns back and forth. I could hear the sounds of samisen playing, but the notes were being blown away like a cat scurrying over the roofs of the great buildings. To put it simply, it was as if I had brought the wind with me that night and hurled it at the desolate pleasure quarters.





“I came to a shallow depression, where a dart and air gun booth stood. It had been set up right against the street gutter and was surrounded by a bamboo railing. The edge of a rug was flapping in the wind, and an island of red light from a sooty oil lamp poured down on the tatami mat in front of it. I spotted a woman with a white, painted face and staggered up to the booth so I could talk with her. I glanced over as I took aim at the dharma doll looking straight at me with its huge enlightened eyes and inquired, ‘I’m looking for a blind masseur named Sōzan. Does he live in this neighborhood?’ I was trying to get a feel for the situation. It was a surprise visit, and I didn’t know my way around.





“”Yes, the Master lives here,’ she answered.





“The Master. Can you imagine that? Calling him ‘the Master’ to one of ‘those other guys?’





‘”I’ve come to hear him perform,’ I said. ‘I wonder if he’d oblige.’





“The booth had a curtain with a good-luck mark on it. Just then, from behind it emerged a middle-aged woman - gaunt, pale, her hair in disarray. ‘If you’re a stranger, just passing through, I’m not sure he’ll do it. But if you like, we can provide you with a guide.’





“I tipped her generously and employed her services.





‘”Show him the way, then. He looks like a gentleman. But be careful.’ The older woman winked. Without further ado, the younger one with the heavy make-up jumped nimbly over the bamboo rail. And we were off.”





14





“I held both sleeves over my mouth and lowered my head into the wind. I followed the woman, who was now my guide, into a narrow alley just across the street. Everyone’s doors were tightly shut against the wind, eerily illuminated by our lantern as we passed by. Among the crowded tenement buildings on either side stood a two-story house. It had a latticed door and wide boards covering the gutter running before it. The signboard read, ‘Light snacks and drinks.’ Apparently, this was the residence of Master Sōzan.





‘”You’ve got a visitor,’ the woman announced and went right in. I saw three women seated around a long brazier. They were strange creatures- - one was sitting with her knees propped up, another with her legs to the side, a third leaning over the brazier with an elbow resting on the board that spanned its lip. The restaurant part of the business was slow, it seemed.





“Leading up from the entrance was a narrow staircase. ‘So the sitting room is on the second floor?’ I asked, quickly removing the towel from my head. I began the ascent. But because of the gusting wind, there were no lanterns in the stairwell. It was pitch-black. While I hesitated at the bottom of the stairs, the place came alive with the sound of people bustling about to find a lantern. As if on cue, a gust of wind blew and the light hanging above the women went out.





“At that moment, I could see two paper-covered doors dimly illuminated by the light of another lantern in the adjacent room. In the middle of the doors was the silhouette of a sitting figure - a shaved head and a face with a protruding forehead and thick lips. So that’s Sōzan, I thought. The most vexing thing of all was the distinct shadow of another person - a graceful figure of a young woman with a Shimada coiffure - standing behind him with her hands on his shoulders. She was giving him a massage.





‘”Someone get a match,’ I heard the women call out. And then came the thick sound of a man clearing his throat. I saw the reflection of a large hand lifting an ashtray, then the outline of a smoking pipe. Suddenly, the shadow increased twofold in size as the man lifted his arms and spread his sleeves. He was dressed in a padded gown.





“Finally, someone lit a lamp. ‘Sorry to make you wait. Come this way.’





“I started climbing to the second floor. Halfway up the stairs, I looked for the woman who had accompanied me from the dart stand. She was sitting behind another woman, away from the brazier, with both legs beneath her and her head bowed. When I reached the six-mat room upstairs, my escort said in a low voice, ‘Is that one all right? We have other girls.’





“’Ah, so that’s their business,’ I thought to myself. She asked me in a louder voice. ‘What can I get you to drink?’





“’Just a little wine and something to nibble on.’ I began to explain that, actually, I had come to hear the voice of the blind masseur.





‘”The voice?’ she asked, then laughed in a condescending way. ‘You want to hear the Master sing? I’ll speak to him right away.’





“My usher from hell suddenly straightened her kimono and left the room for the first floor. A few minutes later someone else came up the stairs. This time it was a young woman, maybe sixteen or seventeen years old. This one, as they say, was a dove trooping among the crows. Her sash and kimono were not of the highest quality, but she was as beautiful as the maple leaves in autumn. Her hair was done up high on her head, and tied into it was a pale-blue tie-dyed cloth. Could she be one of Sōzan’s three? Such depravity! And so close to the sacred shrines at Ise! It appeared she was the woman with the Shimada coiffure who had been massaging Sōzan’s shoulders. What a waste! The cast of her eyes was clearer than the stars above the Isuzu River - only to be muddied by the fins of a catfish. I felt sorry for her. She brought me a ceremonial cup of green tea served on a purple crepe cloth.





“Well, since I had come for an audience with the great Sōzan, he was letting me know that I ought to behave with the utmost respect. This was going to be fun, a real duel with real swords. I took out the formal jacket that I had folded and stashed in the bosom of my kimono, and put it on.





“The wine they eventually brought was served on a magnificent red-lacquer stand on which was painted in gold a scene from Futami Bay. Truly amazing.





‘”Before I begin, please enjoy your sake.’ The blind masseur instructed me as he entered the room. His manner seemed to say, ‘I expect you to listen in awe to my performance.’ What a perfectly arrogant man! He sat himself down. His legs and belly were thick and squat, and his throat was as wide as his torso. A vein meandered like a small snake from his ear to his forehead. His eyebrows were thin, his nose was flat, and his lips grotesquely thick. On top of that, his cheekbones protruded abruptly, and his teeth looked as though they would rattle whenever they came together. His left eye was completely blighted, I could see. His right showed whitely, looking upward. And to top everything off, his face was covered with black pockmarks.





“Clearly, the man was a cripple. His shoulders were rounded and powerless. He was a bald monster with his head hanging forward over his kimono’s open collar.”





15





“I’m not trying to be mean to you.” Back at the Minatoya, one of the maids firmly pressed her hands to the apron that covered her knees and glanced over at the young, twenty-year-old geisha at her side. The latter sat with her head tilted forward as if bending beneath the weight of her full coiffure. The nape of her neck and her legs were white and cold-looking. Her pale-pink undergarment was slipping off her sagging, lonely shoulders, exposing her back all the way to the backbone. Supple and languid, her two-layered lilac kimono was delicately set off with light purple and blue asters.





With condescension in her eyes, the maid spoke sharply, “I’ll take care of things here. So go. You’re Omie from the Shimaya, right? Well, Mie, go home! I counted on you to come and cheer up our customers, so I left things to that younger girl and went out to help in the kitchen. But what a waste it was to call you! Is it because our guests are old? Or are you looking down on us because you’ve just come from Yamada? When those men asked you to pour wine for them, you hardly managed a smile. ‘Let’s hear some music,’ they said. But you laughed down your nose at them. Kino was in there with you. She didn’t know what to do and finally came and told me what was happening.





“All this time, I’ve been talking myself silly trying to make you feel better. I asked you, ‘How about a song? Please, play your samisen for them, won’t you?’ Those men are lonely. They want to have some tun. Look. The candles are about to bum out, I’ve been talking with you so long. Is that all you have to say for yourself - that you don’t know how? What’s wrong with you? Do you think it’ll kill you to touch a samisen? You say you don’t know how to play. But who’s ever heard of a geisha who can’t get through a tune?





“Think about it. You can see they’re not just ordinary guests. You can tell they’re gentlemen. So what are you going to do for them? I won’t put up with it. Come on. Get up. I’ll carry your instrument for you.” The gentle woman quickly got to her feet, grabbed the samisen case that was lying next to the sliding doors, and stood it upright.





“Oh, please!”





With a start, the young geisha slid the train of her kimono over the floor and gently grabbed the maid by the knees. One hand held the older woman’s sleeve, and the other tried to stop the samisen. Omie’s figure, as if broken, scattered like the petals of a peony blossom.





“Please, forgive me. Please.” Her voice was short of breath and choked with tears. “Why would I insult those two men? Why would I disrespect the Minatoya? I just can’t play the samisen, that’s all. I really can’t.” Her words broke off. “I was at another place earlier tonight, at a party for some soldiers, where everybody was having a wonderful time. They told me, ‘If you can’t do anything, then get out - unless you want to take your clothes off and dance. If that’s too much for you, then leave.’ So I was sent back alone to my master’s house, and when I got there my manager beat me. ‘You can’t play the samisen? You can’t dance? Well, if you won’t take your clothes off for them, then do it here!’ He stripped me. He took off my sash, everything. He made me lie down on the kitchen floor, and opened the windows in the ceiling to let in the cold air. I was so embarrassed. There in the cold moonlight, he poured ladle after ladle of cold water on me - on my breasts, and on my chest.





“So then we got your request for someone to come to the Minatoya, and what do you think happened? The manager made me put on my undergarments, which he warmed by the brazier. He said, ‘You have customers from Tokyo,’ and got out a special kimono. He told me to go do my best. He even set my clogs out for me himself.





“Do my best? How could I? I could hardly walk, let alone dance. And the samisen? Sister, anyone can make a sound if they hit the strings. But you’re asking me to play a song in front of other people. How could I ever do that?





“I wish I were crippled. I’m completely tone-deaf. How does someone like me deserve to play in front of paying customers? When I think about it, I get so scared I can’t even talk. What’s she pouting about? Why is she so rude? I can understand why you’d think that way, but please. I’ll do anything. I’ll wash dishes. Please.”





The young geisha pressed her sleeves together, and tried to look up through her tears at the maid’s face. The maid’s expression softened, and the samisen that had been standing straight as a pole began to seem as if it might sway. The young woman immediately looked in the direction of the two customers from Tokyo, and the fluffy bow of her twilled sash pressed ever more rightly against the maid’s skirts.





16





Omie formally pressed her hands on the floor and bowed politely to the two old gentlemen. “I know you called for a geisha, but I’m afraid I can’t be of use to you. I’m embarrassed to say that. I can’t even pour sake, my hands tremble so. So please think of me as a maid. Make use of me until you retire for the evening. Perhaps you’d like me to massage your back? Or your shoulders? That’s something I could do wholeheartedly.” With unsparing passion, she bowed deeply, until her bangs touched the tatami. With her fingers pressed to the floor in the formal manner, she ended her greeting to the two travellers. Even in these distressing circumstances, her elegance was evident.





Nejibei, who had been silently looking at the illustrations in Shank’s Mare, managed awkwardly to say, “There’s something here to be learned for posterity’s sake. From now on, we should think twice about calling for a geisha when we’re on the road.” He reached over and touched the tongs for the brazier.





Gazing with half-opened eyes at the calligraphy hanging in the room - ’Facing to the breezes/The sound of oars here pleases.’ - Yajirobei, indulging in a cigarette, absent-mindedly put the lighted end to his lips. He hurled the cigarette into the ashes of the brazier and coughed. “Well, Maid, you’ll get your tip afterwards. I could hand it to you now, but that would make the girl feel worse. Let her rest in another room somewhere, and you get some noodles or something for everyone. It’s on me. Maybe you know an interesting story that will revive her spirits. At the appropriate time, send her back to her house.” He reached for his wine cup, now cold, and drained it without pleasure.





Just moments ago, the maid had tried to force the samisen on the girl. But now she pushed it quietly to rest in a dark comer of an adjoining room. She leaned toward Omie, who was snuggling up against her, swaying like water beneath lantern light; and, without saying a word, she rubbed the girl’s back. “So the boss of the Shimaya did those terrible things to you, did he? Don’t worry. I’ll tell the boss’s mother just what you told me, and we’ll work things out. You’re lucky he didn’t scar your face.” She tenderly stroked the young woman’s arm and added, “He probably didn’t want to damage saleable goods. That’s the only reason he didn’t hit you. So thank our customers now. Then go have a chat with the owner’s mother, and warm yourself with her foot warmer. She’s just covered her head with a scarf and is getting ready to have tea and sweets.” The maid took a close look at Omie, turning her eyes from the young woman’s angelic neck to her gentle side locks. “My dear girl, what kind of karma is this? Who’s ever heard of a geisha who can’t play the samisen - not even one note?” She laughed, trying to show her sympathy.





Omie seemed to melt under the woman’s compassion. She shed icy jewels of tears as she tried to speak. “I’ve tried everything. I made a vow and offered prayers. I’ve even gone without salt. But I just can’t learn how to play. I can’t even tune a string. I suppose I was just born this way.” Her face showed in the candle light like a white plum blossom in a dark winter’s night.





“You can’t dance either?”





“No.”





“Don’t cry, young lady,” Yajirobei said. “You’re such a weakling! Here, have a drink. Cheer up. From now on, whenever you get called out, don’t be afraid. Understand? Keep your head, and things will work out. Just hit those strings. Make it up if you have to. Stay away from instruments like the koto. Bang on a gong or a cymbal. Make noise on a flute. No one will know if you’re good or bad. Do that, and no one will say you don’t have talent. If you can’t dance, do calisthenics. Ready, begin. A-one!” Yajirobei puffed out his chest and stretched his arms to the left and right, as if he might snap the ties on his haori. “And a-two!” As if playing fox-and-squire, he thrust two fists forward. “See, you can do this. Well, I guess even this would require some courage. Judging from what I see, if you’re that shy, you won’t be able to do much of anything. That’s a shame.” His voice became a bit hoarse.





“Perhaps I shouldn’t say this about myself, but I can go through the motions of a traditional dance. Just one, though.” Omie lowered her head again and timidly pressed her hands to the tatami.





“You dance? You can dance?” The maid’s voice was filled with joy. “We’ve just been talking about the wrong kind of dancing! If you can do the older style, go right ahead. No one in this room is going to be too fussy. But wait. You’ll need some accompaniment. Kino, go to the other room. Tell them Sen sent you. Bring back someone who can play.”





With a blank expression on her face, Kino got up to go. The one who called herself Sen turned and puckered her lips into a gentle smile, “Wait just a second.”





17





“Tonight’s different. Once you’re a soldier, you can’t count on getting time off except on Sundays. We all have to sacrifice for our country. They’re having farewell parries for the new soldiers tonight. They have a lot of girls working for them, but they’re telling us they can’t spare a single one. So we’ll make do. This is what they mean by ‘Forget your inhibitions while on the road’ - except backwards! I’ll bang on the samisen in front of our guests. So, Omie, which dance is it? Maybe I shouldn’t ask. I hope it’s acceptable, whatever it is.”





“Oh, please.” As Osen got up to fetch the instrument, the charming Omie touched the woman’s knee. She seemed embarrassed. ‘Tm not so sure my dance goes very well with the samisen. The dance I do is from a no play.” Before she finished speaking, she buried her head in Osen’s lap and laced shyly away from the old man and his partner Nejibei. Although she was a modest girl, the movement of her body caused her kimono to become dishevelled; and her undergarment spilled out from her kimono and spread over the tatami, revealing its alluring hue.





“So your dance is a no dance?” Yajirobei asked tersely.





Nejibei put his book down. “Let’s drink. I’ll pour. I gratefully decline to see your no performance. Maybe you can pound on some Buddhist drums or something.” For some reason, the man’s hoarse laughter powerfully filled the room.





“Nejibei, Nejibei-san.”





“What?” He finally answered lazily.





“This might be the beginning of a good story. I think we ought to take a look.”





“Count me out.”





“Then perhaps, sir, you could just close your eyes?”





“My god, what a thing to say to an old man. Until I get back to Tokyo tomorrow and see my granddaughter’s cute little face, I don’t think I’ll be closing my eyes, thank you.”





“How fond you are of twisting things. But, then, that’s Nejibei all over, isn’t it? Do what you please. Now, young lady. Go ahead. No need to feel embarrassed in front of this old man. You say you don’t have any talent? You even offer to give us a massage. But if you can manage to show us your one dance, then I say you are a true geisha. Do this one thing, and you’ll feel better about the rip you’re going to be getting. We definitely want to see you perform. But do as you please. We’re not going to force you to entertain us.”





“What kind words the man has spoken!” the maid said. “1 don’t know what sort of dance you have in mind, but even if it isn’t polished, who’s going to mind? Not at all. Now, don’t you have to get ready?”





“Yes, ma’am.” Omie raised herself ever so slightly and turned her head so her lips almost touched the collar of her purple kimono. Her once full figure now seemed sadly gaunt.





She lowered her head and looked down at her chest as if embarrassed. She almost touched her chin to the skin showing at the collar of her kimono. She pulled a slender, deep-purple silk pouch from her bosom, quickly turned it over, and from it produced a silver fan that flashed in the candlelight. The fan seemed to rest heavily in her slender, pale fingers. As if bowing to it, she held it to her forehead like a jewelled hairpin, then gradually opened it. As it spread like the outflowing tide shimmering beneath the moon, her face disappeared behind it, leaving only her thin white fingers, bent back against the fan’s outer ribs.





Like the tide flowing into the mouth of the Ibi River, the sound of the people celebrating in the adjoining room fell quiet. On the silver fan glowed scattered clouds of gold and the round orb of the moon, painted in dark blue. And through the light of that moon came Omie’s clear voice as she began her dance.





Then the diver made her plea





To the Dragon of the Sea -





“If the jewel I fetch for thee.





Make my son thy Hope.”





Upon his eager affirmation,





N’er a moment’s hesitation,





Snaked ‘round her waist her son’s salvation -





A thousand-fathom rope.





“If the jewel I forthwith take.





Feel my tug upon this snake,





Then pull until your sinews ache,





And rob the Ocean Slope.”





Omie found the rhythm.





With their promise





She unsheathed a sword . .





She closed her fan and moved her sleeve with skill and practiced mastery. Her refinement and maturity were as fine as the kimono she wore. Her eyes were fixed in concentration.





The moonlight flooding through the window illuminated the undulating waves of the frosty river. Upon the tatami where she placed her knee, the light of the lantern flowed like flowers.





Suddenly, Nejibei called out with new strength in his voice, “Hold it. Right there.”





18





Nejibei reached out and pulled the brazier closer to him. “I wonder if I could get someone to put a little more fuel on this fire. No, wait. No need to get up. We’ll just move this kettle over.”





Osen suddenly became tense, sensing something about the situation.





He turned his legs to the side while she quietly moved the coals around in the brazier. His luggage was in the adjoining room, but he had kept one item close by. There in the alcove was the bundle he had carried from the station in the furoshiki that was tied around his neck. He picked it up carefully in both hands and, as if it were heavy, placed it on his lap. Looking away from Osen, he held his hand over the brazier and warmed it on both sides.





“Omie. Is it? Young lady, take your hand off the floor. Look at me.”





Nejibei had stopped Omie as she was about to stand with her sword. She was holding the opened fan close to her face, close enough to reflect the red blossom of her lips. She was looking down, bringing the fan to her forehead, just as the other hand touched the floor. At the sound of Nejibei’s voice, she lifted her head slightly and closed the fan. Yajirobei, who had been watching intently, closed his eyes. Without saying a word, he held a trembling hand over the edge of the brazier, as ashes fell silently from his cigarette.





Nejibei let one knee slip off his cushion.





“We’d like to see the full performance again. But first, come here a minute. The dance you were just doing - the form, the style. How well it was taught! And how well it was learned! As tar as we know, there’s only one person in this entire country who could have taught you to dance like that. We think we know who it is, and we’d like to know how that came about.”





Nejibei cast a meaningful glance at Yajirobei, who was sitting beside him. “And you, you be quiet and listen. So then, how and from whom did you learn that dance?”





“Well,” Omie answered tearfully. Already, she had returned to her innocence. “As I said before, I’m a clumsy person, and hopelessly tone-deaf. I also have a hard time memorizing pieces. I couldn’t pluck the first note of the easiest ballad. But there was a woman in Yamada, where I used to be, who did her best to teach me how to play - in the mornings and afternoons, even in the evenings when she had time. Three times a day - explaining things in the simplest way so I would engrave the music in my heart. But it was sad, even to me. It took me ten days just to learn a line or two. I finally got to where I could follow the notes. But then on the third line my hand would slip. I had the music in my heart, but my fingers would go to play the third string and hit the first string instead. It sounded terrible.





“More times than I broke the strings on my instrument she scratched my throat with her plectrum or struck me on my chest with her smoking pipe. She wasn’t trying to be mean. Compared to what I had been through in Toba, before that.”





“So you’re from Toba. That’s in Shima, isn’t it?” Yajirobei suddenly asked.





“No. I’m actually from here, in Ise. After my father died, my stepmother sold me. They called it ‘service to the family,’ but it turned out to be nothing like I thought it would be. They told me to go along with what the customers wanted. If I didn’t do it on land, then I’d do it on water. There was a dock beneath a cliff, where the male servants would grab me and throw me into a small boat at night. Even if the moon was shining, they’d head for the places on the islands that were hidden in the shadows. It was so dangerous I shook with fear. We drifted about on the water like a leaf fallen from a tree, and I would sing songs on the silent ocean. On nights when we didn’t get any customers, they said this would be the magic to make sailors want women, or the punishment to take away our bad luck. They’d make us get off the boat and jump into the water. We’d go to the rocks that were exposed in the low tide, and they’d make us cry in to the cracks - ’Love me! Love me!’ - as if we were calling for men. The male servants on the boat would wait near the bow, and when our voices got so hoarse that we couldn’t yell any more, they’d throw empty turbot shells at us. The ocean wind was damp, and even the summer nights were cold. I was there in the middle of winter, when every one of those eight hundred and eight islands was white with frost. The wind was freezing, and the edges of those rocks were like needles. And on top of that, I’d have to shout out, ‘Love me! Love me!’ My lips would go numb, and I’d start crying. My throat would split, and my tongue would freeze. My clothes were drenched with ocean water, and the cold would go straight through me. If 1 started to faint, there would be the turbot hell. When I came to, I’d be in the boat. It would be dark, and I wouldn’t know which boat I was in. I’d be looking up at a mast towering above me like a monster’s walking stick. Huge leathery hands would reach out and grab me.





“The stars in the sky were blue, and the ocean was black. I felt as if I had fallen into a dark lake of blood. Am I still alive? The plovers would cry. I would cry. It was all so shameful.”





With her sword, her dancing tan, pressed to her tear-soaked sleeves, Omie hid her face. No one spoke as the candle shed its white drops.





Ah, the heights of Mount Hiyori, the scattered islands of Shima, the placid ocean, and cranes circling over lakes of mist. You who hear this story, what do you think about the glorious scenery of Ise now?





19





“I cried constantly, so the boatman - that crude fellow - told me that with the money it cost to buy me, he’d rather sleep with the sea slugs of Cape Irako, or amuse himself with the squid of Yashima. Any other boat would have thrown me into the sea!





“I’d be taken to the rocks again, along with the gusts of freezing wind, and I’d cry out, ‘Love me. Love me.’





“All I wanted anymore was to cry into those rocks, even if my arms and legs froze and I turned into a clam. I wanted my voice to go through those cracks and spread over the water, even to the ends of the earth. Let the boat leave me there! Let the ride rise! I wanted desperately to tum into stone, because, sir, I . . .” Omie bit the rumpled sleeve of her undergarment and blushed slightly around her eyes.





“Because I had been thinking of someone for a long time, though only in my heart. This sounds presumptuous for a person like me to say, I know - since I have neither talent nor looks. But I knew I had made a pledge in my heart to someone, even if they killed me, or if I happened to die.





“One night, I was bought by a party boat; and because I didn’t do what the men wanted, I was going to be taken back to my original boat. I sat in the stem, straddling a foot warmer and drinking cloudy sake. The young man taking me back told the others that if they would stand the cost of the fee, he’d make a diver woman out of me before their very eyes. It was a bright, moonlit night.





“He made me take off my kimono in the middle of the boat. Then he tied a rope around my waist and threw me headfirst into the ocean. 1 went down and down until I thought I must be at the bottom of the sea. Then they pulled me up like a well bucket, and dangled me from a pulley. Before the last drops of water fell from my hair, they’d plunge me into the water again.





“There happened to be a young man who said his uncle from Nagasaki was on the boat and that he had come aboard to get some spending money from him. He was young. It was the middle of winter, and all he had on was a shin and a pair of trousers. He had come to collect fees and was staying for a few days in the area. He drove a carriage from Futami to Toba and he told those men that what they were doing to me was cruel. When he got back to Ise, he reported what he had seen to the people there; and that’s how I came to know the woman I was telling you about earlier. You know the one...





“In Furuichi, where I had been until recently, she paid my owners a considerable sum of money and brought me here. She implored me to learn the arts well so I could avenge myself against those fiends in Toba, and to make myself into a splendid geisha. With tears in her eyes, she beat me with her plectrum and tried to teach me how to play the samisen.





“But for some reason, I just couldn’t get it. With two fingers - my first and second - I practiced a short piece three times a day for a week straight. I drove everybody in my neighborhood crazy. They even said that my playing made them lose their appetite.





“Again, it was a beautiful moonlit night. My mistress’ kindness made it even harder to bear. Physical pain or anguish end once they kill you. I considered going back to Toba and crying ‘Love me! Love me!’ into the cracks of those rocks again. I thought of being tied to a rope and thrown into the ocean again. That would be easier to bear than what I was going through. In my mind’s eye I could see the islands and the oceans. In a daze, I pictured a messenger bird from hell coming through the moonlight to take me away. But then 1 heard the song of a street musician, right in front of our door.





“In the moonlit streets of the quarters, like the dew about to fall, came the shimmering sound of a samisen and the most beautiful voice I’ve ever heard.





A Hakata sash wrapped ‘round





A dappled Chikuzen kimono.





‘”Sorry about the noise,’ he said, then started to walk away.





‘”He’s so good he makes me shiver. Quick. Go to him. Pray that he’ll give you some of his talent. And take this, as an offering.’





“My teacher was so engrossed by his music that she almost let the sleeves of her coverlet touch the ashes in the hibachi. Rustling her kimono, she quickly took some money from a drawer in the brazier, wrapped it in some paper that she took from her smooth satin sash, and told me to take it out to him. I placed the money on a tray. By the time I opened the front door, he was already a few yards down the street. The moon was between us, joining us together with its light.





“I ran to him. ‘Dear sir,’ I said, and held out the tray. He turned around and took the money. As he did, I suddenly reached out and grabbed his hand. Tears came to my eyes. Even though he was a man, if I could take just one finger of his hand and put in on my body. Thinking that, I couldn’t stop my tears.





“He was wearing a towel over his head. He took my hand and held it. Without saying a word, he stepped to the side, and asked me gently, ‘Why do you cry?’





“That’s when I forgot my embarrassment and told him about my troubles learning the samisen.”





20





“He listened carefully and gazed at my face. Then he said, ‘Tell your employer you’re going to pray to the gods to learn how to perform. Before the sun rises in the morning, I want you to come here again. Come to the woods at the base of Mount Tsuzumi. Three days should be enough, but ask for seven. We’ll start right away, from tomorrow morning. Understand? The path for a young woman is perilous. I’ll come and wait for you at the front door. Don’t think I’m a monster about to put a spell on you.’





“After he said this, he brought his samisen to his chest and walked away into the shadows, along a black fence.





“I didn’t tell my teacher about him, but when 1 asked her if I could go out and do ritual washings from three in the morning until dawn, she happily agreed. I was ready to be killed if it came to that. She had always been good to me. Thinking I might never see her again, I lingered there beneath the eaves, looking back at the gate. Then someone suddenly grabbed my hand from behind. ‘Come.’ It was him. 1 was ready to go. Still, I felt like I was being snatched away by a Tengu.





“What happened after that was like a dream. A few days later I returned to the house at dawn feeling as if I were in a daze. In the darkness of the woods at the base of Mount Tsuzumi - the wind moaning in the pines and the waters of the Isuzu River rushing by - I took lessons from that man. He taught me a dance - how to move my hands. He held me from behind, and my body started dancing. That’s all I know.





“Of course, I told him about how those men had thrown me into the ocean. Strangely enough, he told me that the two of us were enemies, and that there was more to our relationship than I realized. And he made me promise not to tell anyone about what we were doing there at the base of Mount Tsuzumi. So I couldn’t say a word.





“On the fifth day, he told me I was ready. ‘Do this dance for your guests. And they will never say you have nothing to give.’ As a memento, or a sign, he gave me this dancing fan.”





Omie took the fan from her sleeve and held it rightly to her chest. Her shoulders quivered, and a few strands of her hair fell into her eyes.





Nejibei sighed and nodded. “I understand. The way he taught you. The way you learned. I knew all of that without your having to tell us. So then, how did you fare in Yamada? They didn’t think much of your new dance, I suppose.”





“No, they didn’t. When I performed it the first time, some of them started laughing. Others said it was terrible, frightening. They started this rumor that a Tengu had had his way with me for four or five days in a row.”





“Yes, but if your teacher hadn’t been a demon, you wouldn’t have been able to learn how to dance like that. I understand that even here in Ise there are a handful of people who know something about no. Did you show your dance to them?”





“I did. There was a gentleman who wanted to see me perform, just out of curiosity. He himself offered to sing the libretto. But when I started dancing, he said I didn’t know what 1 was doing, and he made me stop.”





“The strong rhythm of your footwork would have made a mess of a weak accompaniment. The singing would have fallen apart. In any case, that’s how you came to be transferred - if that’s what you call it - to Kuwana.”





“Everyone said I was crazy. A fox! Badger! Bewitched by owls! Those howlers couldn’t handle it. My mistress said she was sorry to let me go. But the others wouldn’t have me around. My teacher told me she wasn’t that close to the owner of the Shimaya in Kuwana, but they were related. So she sent me here temporarily.”





The older man said, “I see. And you’re still having your share of troubles here, I suppose? We can talk about that later. I must say, dear child, your dance surprised me, too. For someone like you - a young woman, and not some evil spirit - to be dancing with such grace was so astonishing I had to interrupt. I hope you’ll forgive me. Now, back on your feet. Let’s see the rest. I hate to trouble you again. It’s been a while since I last saw that dance. You make me want to see the young master again.”





As he says this, see what emerges from the scarf now untied on his lap. It’s a small hand drum so elegant it could have been painted by one of the Tosa masters. It has tuning cords of crimson, like the maple trees of the Tatsuta River, and two round heads like faces of the moon. Its sound was like the striking of a jade fulling block. So let the angels come and hear! Inlaid in its lacquered barrel was the name Kumoi, “a well of clouds.” With aged hands, the man warmed Kumoi high above the brazier’s fire and tightened the cords as his hand struck it like a shuttle skillfully weaving a length of brocade. At the sight of it, Osen held her breath and immediately bowed. She pressed both hands to the floor.





The power of art is indisputable. Who was this Nejibei? None other than the seventy-eight-