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Prayer of the Oni 2: Wisteria Tree Lane

2: Wisteria Tree Lane

It was the first time that she had ever bathed indoors. She washed herself in a wooden tub with water taken from the hot spring beneath the inn they were staying at, and the water was warm and welcoming and while in the bathroom of the inn the girl did not believe at first that she was doing such a thing and she stayed in there for longer than the few minutes he had given her and closed her eyes and at first adjusted to the stinging heat of the water until it was no longer stinging but a kind of comfort and she lay there and enjoyed it without thought. Then he brought her out into the room adjacent where he had laid out for her plain robes of grey and under-robes of white with a dark blue sash for her waist, all made of coarse but fresh cloth, with patterns of black stitched into the sleeves and around the skirt.

It was the first time she had ever been given new clothes as well. She dressed herself and couldn’t figure it out, there being so many ways to fold and tie things, and so Takamasa called for the innkeeper’s wife to come help her and when she was done she felt to be lost inside the vastness of the robes with her hands disappeared within the sleeves. But the innkeeper’s wife brought her a mirror and she looked into it and saw someone else looking back.

There was no helping much of it. New clothes and clean skin could not do anything about the scars and the ugliness of how her face was set and the bestial look in her eyes, but studying the girl in the mirror she thought that nevertheless she almost might have been the daughter of somebody rather than of nobody. “A merchant’s daughter, maybe.” Takamasa said, leant against the wall with his arms crossed, present now that she was dressed. “Firmly respectably middling.” He moved from the wall and came to where she sat and knelt down in front of her sitting in a squat. “Now, let’s say you’re the daughter of my good friend, Mr. Genichi of Iwami. Kaede, that’s a nice name for a woman. Now, you’re travelling with me to see your father here, and you asked to accompany me about the city. Yes, I like that!” Outside through the lattice Heian-kyo was dark. Quiet reigned in the streets. The inn was small, with two floors but the three rooms it held all being cramped, barely enough for two beds only separated by a narrow portable screen. It was warm and damp and mould grew in the corner of the ceiling. Compared to her riverside shack she found this to be luxury beyond belief. Compared to home, to the mountains and to the village, it was even greater. The girl did not know what comfort was but knew that this had to be it and knew that it had come to her for a reason. That reason was something she did not yet understand.

In the lantern-light they studied one another both dressed in gloom, she and he both in their costumes. “But actually, you see, Lord Hashimoto is very into common girls.” Takamasa was saying. “You know, they’re a different species, those noblewomen. My source inside the house is an old servant who quit and over drinks he told me the lord dislikes all that romantic nonsense. That he’ll take a shine to any young girl he doesn’t have to write poems for and wave fans at. Disgusting!” He sniffed, scratching his nose. “Very useful for us. The plan, Basket, is that you keep his lordship busy while I find the treasure. They tell me he keeps the Shotaku scroll in the prayer hall, so I’m going to ask if I can offer a prayer there. I’ll leave him with you. Now, don’t be scared. According to my source, I should be able to take the scroll and replace it with this fake within twenty minutes. If he asks you to take your clothes off, just close your eyes and get on with it. We can give the scroll to a man I know in the east market, and he’ll pay us in real gold! It’s going to be great, Basket!”

She heard all this and nodded. Takamasa was a great talker and as he spoke he played with his prayer beads, and he paced about and was always laughing and grinning in a way which never quite went to his eyes. But she trusted his intentions because he was constantly drunk and yet always stayed away from her, and although he was overfamiliar with her it was as meaningless as his smile, and he was plainly only interested in one thing and that one thing was wealth. That night in the inn, with the portable screen between his part of the room and hers, sweaty and awake she lay there and listening to him snoring and she told him she was cold and she asked him to come to her. He went on snoring. When she tried next he was awake and he was quiet for a few seconds before replying. “Well,” he said, bodyless on the other side of the screen, “I don’t think I should touch you. It might endanger things. Sorry.” And that was that.

She knew he was selfish and that this was dangerous, and yet all things were dangerous and filled with death except blind submission which she had already done for her father and as a scavenging chestnut-seller for so long, and she thought more gold would be interesting and Takamasa had already told her she could keep the robes and the new sandals that had come with them and the parasol for shielding her face. In the morning she dressed and met with him outside, in the street. Heian-kyo was bleary-eyed and pale in the morning sun, the wood’s rot and filth naked and the streets alive with early travellers, carts and animals and men in robes. The smell of hot food and of warm excrement mingled together in the air. He walked by her side with his staff and she kept the parasol over herself, feeling unaware of her own flesh. They headed north to the upper areas of the Left Capital, where the broad streets with their masses of houses and bodies became lesser and where the carts and palanquins of the servants of the nobles, colourful and powerful, pushed aside crowds and hurried on, to and from the great estates and the palace, a stream of vehicles from Suzaku Avenue in all its vastness.

The barren dirt roads of the south became more filled with plants, with gingko trees in full bloom and with lovely gardens of bush and wood outside of houses. Children played in yards and husbands worked and out of sight from behind shuttered windows there came the laughter of women. Greenery was everywhere, thick tree canopies of leaves over houses and gardens and parks. She had seldom come this far north before, since there was little money to be made for a mere seller of chestnuts, but now in her robes and with a priest – a false priest and yet a priest – next to her the girl was finding that the sights and sounds of Heian-kyo, the chatter of the people walking and the animal noises and the clunking of wheels on carts and the cries of servants, the houses and streets all alive with people who were not bandits or scavengers, almost appealed to her. Still there were beggars, wretched poor, and still all was filthy beneath the colour, but still she didn’t mind. She imagined for the first time in her life what it might have been like in the palace where the heavenly sovereign dwelt.

Soon they came to a wide street that was an avenue smaller than Suzaku but no less grand, and on one side at their backs was the vast majority of the city and ahead lay the noble estates. If the houses they had passed before had impressed her then what was before her then, on the other side of the avenue then only occupied by several carts pulled by oxen trundling along, seemed to be impossible. She had never seen a noble estate and she did not think at first that she was looking at simple houses. They were walled-off complexes, not only one large building but several each, with gardens and lakes suggested by treetops and by the presence of birds flying circling as they did above water. She could hardly believe it, that human beings would have their own lakes. Each large estate had a main gate of vast wood and beyond that were the rooftops of the buildings and all that was visible was that. To the east somewhere was Suzaku, and above all of the houses even was the grand shape of the palace, now closer to her than it had ever been before. She swallowed.

“Don’t be nervous.” Takamasa said. He tapped his priestly staff on the dirt. “Do you know why they have so much? Why it all has to be so beautiful for them? Because that’s all that makes them different from us. Once you strip all this fancy stuff away they’re just as ugly as you and me.” He chuckled. “That’s what Lord Hashimoto is going to learn today.” With one hand he pointed to an estate on their left, several gates down, a path that led between estates that seemed to be lined with thick purple wisteria trees in splendid bloom. “That’s his. Leave all of this to me. He’s out of favour now. Has been for months. Living in isolation, refusing to appear at court. The kind of thing that is worse than death for those in the heavenly sovereign’s circle. I’m sure he’ll be ready for some divine aid. They always are.” They crossed the street, watching carriages go by from east to west and then proceeding, and they walked along the path in silence and listened.  From one of the surrounding courtyards came the sound of a dog barking; from somewhere else, a conversation between women, so soft and gentle the girl believed they couldn’t be human women but something holy like the bodhisattvas her father had taught her about. They walked down the path past more wall and turned and then they were under the cover of the wisteria, whose long elegant arms hung over them in a protective shroud. Even the dirt here was cleaner and the ground beneath their feet less muddied, with no human waste or dying bodies. On their left was the wall of the Hashimoto estate. “There’s an attendant who always waits at this side-entrance.” Takamasa said to her quietly. “He will listen to us. My source told me all about this.” They walked down the path.

The girl was struck by the sudden quiet; not from the other estates, from which all those noises still rose, but from the Hashimoto manor, which on the other side of the wall seemed to be set in utter emptiness, with no footsteps and no conversation and no animals either. It was a heavy presence to contend with, all this light sound elsewhere and to her left now only this imposing wall with its absence of life. They paused by the wooden gate, which was marked above it by white-papered talismans hung upon rope from the rooftop.

Takamasa cleared his throat. The street was empty but for the wisteria trees and they and the far-off suggestions of more estates further on. He moved to the door and rapped at it. “Hello?” he tried. “Namu Amida Butsu. Is anyone there?” There came no reply. He tapped again. “Namu Amida Butsu. I am a wandering monk, and I wish to speak to the owner of this house. I come from Mt. Hiei with words for the lord of the manor.” No reply followed. Takamasa looked to her. She in her false outfit felt embarrassed all of a sudden and held the parasol low over her face. He sighed. “This isn’t supposed to happen.” He banged on the door. “Namu Amida Butsu. I am a monk from Mt. Hiei. I wish to speak to the lord of Hashimoto regarding important matters of karma and sin.” He spat. “Stupid bastard.” he muttered under his breath, only to her. “There should be a man here. A servant. Why isn’t-“

“I am Lord Hashimoto.” a voice said from beyond the gate. It was smooth and arrogant and inviting, as sharp as a blade despite the wall of wood between here and there which might have dulled it. “Who are you?”

Takamasa seemed to shiver at the sound of the voice. He took a second to draw himself together, clutching his staff tight. “Namu Amida Butsu. I am Shirakawabo, a wandering monk. I have come here to see your lordship, to advise him on spiritual matters.”

There was nothing. Then the voice spoke again. “Spiritual matters?” This time the quiver went through both of them. The girl was unsure what it was and yet it had touched her, some spectral element of the sound of the man on the other side of the gate. Men were crude things that imitated gods and failed and yet now she had heard something that almost sounded like a god, a voice that indicated a relaxed temperament and yet with its every clear syllable implied superiority. She listened and Takamasa as well, until he realised he was expected to reply. “Your lordship.” he began, and he sighed, his expression then assuming the quality of a man trying with great effort to remember the words to a poem. “I am here to help you erase the negative karma of your past actions. I wish to grant you compassion. Please, allow me entry into your home.”

“Compassion?” the voice asked. “What compassion do you offer?”

“I – well,” Takamasa paused, swallowing. Beads of sweat trickled down his scarred cheek. “I and my companion would like to offer prayers in the name of your good fortune, your lordship.”

Another long pause followed. “…Companion?”

Takamasa’s face was resolute. “A woman.”

Again a pause. On the avenue a cart went past with its wheels loud and old and then faded away into nothing. “Oh.” the lord’s voice said. “I see. Very well, priest. Come back tonight.”

“Your lordship?”

“Come back here tonight, when the sun has gone down. Come to the front gate. You will be let in.  But only if you bring your companion with you.”

Takamasa played with his prayer beads. “Yes, your lordship.” The voice spoke no more after this, although they waited just to make sure. There had been no sound of footsteps on the other side of the wall to announce his arrival, the girl thought, and now there were no sounds to announce his departure either. She found herself seized with more of that unusual feeling which the gold buddha had cursed her with, which the capital of Heian-kyo had now started to stir in her, which was the notion of curiosity. She wanted to see Lord Hashimoto and to hear his voice again. She thought of how he might look, using the richness of his tone as a guide to chisel out the image of a tall and slender man with white skin and teeth dyed black, his expression refined and careful, his eyes as piercing as his words. It was a hopeless exercise for the girl had no idea what such a man might look like for all she knew was dirt. It was true that Takamasa was wrong and that the nobility really were different creatures from peasants. “What an interesting guy.” Takamasa said, scratching his bald head. “Never met a lord who would get off his arse to greet guests. He must really have fallen into disgrace. But anyway, we’re in. Looks like you have a date tonight.” He turned back to the wisteria trees, their flowers brilliant in the sun. “By the look on your face, you’re pretty happy about that anyway. Don’t fall in love with him, Basket.”

“Shut up.” she said. They left the lane with the wisteria and crossed the street back into the city proper, away from the estates. Takamasa suggested they go back to the inn and so they did. She was relieved upon her return to see that her basket and her bag with her knife within were unmolested, and she hurried to them with such urgency that Takamasa laughed. “Did you think someone would steal it? This is the city. People might be barely better than animals, but they’re at least better than bandits. Although I suspect you don’t know much about these things, do you?”

“Are there other cities?”

“Yes. In many different parts of the country. Heian-kyo is the biggest though.” He yawned. “They’re all like this. Filthy, yes, but interesting.” The innkeeper’s wife brought them some barley and a tray of boiled vegetables in the living room downstairs and at the table they ate together. The room was small and mouldy and yet it was better than outside and the food had flavour, very unlike what she ate back at her shack. The lettuce and carrot were delicious, and when the innkeeper came in with some small slices of fish that too was too much for her and she had to force herself to eat slowly. She used her chopsticks with care, since she was not familiar with them. They ate slowly and without talking and together enjoyed the moment. Outside the city turned over. “So,” Takamasa said when they were done. “I want to tell you something about myself, before we get to work.” He bid the innkeeper’s wife to bring them a bottle of wine and a bottle of wine and two cups were brought, one for him and one for her. They toasted to the success of the mission and he drank and then she did. “I like to share, you see.” he said. “After all, we have to trust one another. I feel that sharing something of ourselves can help with that.” She said nothing but held onto her cup. The wine sat in its jug between them. It was sweet and yet strong, the kind of thing her father would have laughed at. She sipped. “Now, I’ll tell you.” Takamasa said, trying to affect seriousness. “I’m a family man. I’m trying to help out my village. Did you notice I have a western accent?”

“No.” she said, for she had never heard a western accent before.

“My family is out there, under the thumb of some wealthy bastarding nobleman. I want to get enough money to help them out. That’s what I’m here for. But in all this time, I’ve ended up losing more money than I’ve made – it’s hard, to travel the road and find enemies everywhere.” He sighed, drinking and then refilling his cup. “I heard about this Hashimoto fellow in an inn once, and decided then and there to try for it, a haul that could finish me. Once we get that scroll and sell it, I’m heading back west to save my village.” He leant forward, elbow on the table. His monkish attire and his very unmonkish attitude were visible fully, the slyness of his grin a contrast with the pious intent of the prayer beads around his neck. “So, that’s me. That’s Takamasa, your partner. How about you, Basket?”

“How about me?” she repeated.

He gave a vigorous nod. “Tell me something. Anything.”

She was quiet for a long time. She took the wine and drank up, letting it overwhelm her. “I killed my father.” she said. He blinked and after that he watched her. For a second they were both still.

“Any reason why?” he asked.

“He upset me.”

“I see.” He grinned again. “You know, I had a feeling about you.” She said nothing. “I pride myself on character-reading. Understanding the ‘feeling’ of others. It’s necessary, in this business. I had a feeling about your feeling.”

“What feeling did you have?”

“That you were dangerous.” He hit the table, laughing. “Come on! Drink up, girl. We’re the last honest folk in the world, you and I!” They drank up. Takamasa after lunch fell asleep, snoring to himself in the guest room. The girl went outside and sat on the step of the inn, watching the traffic go by. It became darker as the day stretched on, hot and fetid, and a dog died in the street panting to itself with long ragged breaths and then falling still, and two men came and bickered over who could claim its meat. They were mangy and dark and one had a knife and she watched with interest as the conversation bubbled up into violence, as they struck and cursed one another and eventually one dashed the head of the other against the side of a house. An ox-driven wagon went past, bouncing as it hit the dead man now in the road. The blood dried quickly in the sun. Children came along, singing a poem to one another, and their mother came after them, admonishing them, a woman with greying hair and wrinkled skin too old to be a woman. She had heard once that nobles could live for forty or more years and she hadn’t believed it as with so many other things that had been inconsequential – beyond imagining – before.

Saburo, she thought, would still be at the west market selling food. But there would be no one to sell chestnuts there today. Soon the clouds took over; soon it was later. She went back inside and on the other side of the portable screen to him took the buddha from around her neck and looked at it, felt its weight on her palm. She then went to her bag, the bag of the girl who had lived in the hut on the riverbank, and found her grandfather’s knife and took it out. She put it into the pocket of her robes. That helped. When the sun came down and Takamasa was awake they set off once more for the lane with the wisteria trees. Tonight the moon was high and full and bright and thick clouds drifted around it, casting the whole of the capital in a haze that made it less one place than a vast gathering-ground for hidden mysteries, with every building an obscure shape hiding things that were not known to her. The air was warm. Her stomach was full. As they were leaving Takamasa slapped her on the shoulder and chuckled. “Let’s go, Basket Girl!” She said nothing but, holding onto the knife handle in her pocket, she nodded, and so they set off for the estate of Lord Hashimoto.

3: The Courtyard

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