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The Road to Edo

by Sean Hower

part 1 of 2

Hanzo and his horse, Raven, watched the nastiest inundation either had ever seen from under the sparse protection of a giant cedar. Teeth chattering, he rummaged his cart for something to start a fire. The renegade samurai who had robbed him outside of Mito had been thorough, though, and had managed to swipe his tinder along with all of his other tools and supplies.

Hanzo settled for a damp blanket and crawled under the cart to wait out the storm. “I will make it to Edo.” He clapped his hands to catch the attention of any good spirit who might hear him. “Somehow.”

Shortly, a young lady padded down the road towards him. She wore a red kimono decorated in a simple pattern of falling maple leaves and a stylized breeze. She was like a chrysanthemum just beginning to bloom and moved with a grace that spoke of a higher rank than Hanzo’s. A man of a lesser upbringing shielded the girl with an umbrella but left himself exposed to the rain. A hawkish brute with piercing eyes, he had no right to accompany such elegance.

“You can share my cart,” Hanzo said as they approached. He was certain, though, that such a lady would not stoop to his level.

“Your offer is most generous, Sir.” She wielded the complexities of high speech with a welcoming formality. The soft melody of her voice accompanied by the thick drumbeat of the rain melted away Hanzo’s shivers. “But I must decline. My name is Reiko. I am a humble servant of Gunten Ichiro whose cottage is at the top of this hill. If it is not an imposition, you are invited to rest there until the storm passes.”

“Your most honorable of all masters demonstrates a vast kindness that superiorly exceeds that of all other lesser honorables.” Hanzo cringed at how stupid his attempt at formal speech sounded. “Your master is a kind soul,” he said falling back into his mean way. “This drizzle’s going to be over soon. I’ll be fine.” He gave a pleasant enough smile while silently cursing etiquette.

“Please. My master would very much like for you to stay where it is dry and warm. He would be ashamed if you were left out in this weather. I ask you to stay in order to spare his shame. It is very selfish.” She hid her face behind her kimono sleeve and gave a slight bow. It was just enough to show deference in her request but not nearly so low to put them on equal standing.

Hanzo was too wet and too cold to bother with much more polite banter. “For your master’s honor, then,” he said, already savoring the warmth of a fire, the comfort of a bowl of rice, and the protection of a sturdy roof.

“Togasa,” she gestured towards her companion, “will bring your horse and cart. They will be well cared for. Please come with me.”

Reiko took the umbrella.

Hanzo crawled out from beneath the cart and joined her. Sweet perfume tickled his nose and stirred a desire he had to stifle with a nervous smile. When they started up the road, he offered to take the umbrella but she refused him.

They walked a short distance and stepped from the main road to a path that was flanked with ginkgo trees. This led to an imposing wall and gate, beyond which was a compound dominated by an enormous cottage. Its black-shingled roof curved beyond the highest trees and peaked at a sharp angle. Its white finish shined in the gray haze of the rain. A half-dozen smaller structures dotted the compound including a stable that was nestled in the shadows of the southern wall.

Reiko led Hanzo onto a raised walkway that skirted the cottage and escorted him to a shoji door at the building’s western edge. The door’s translucent-paper windows, framed in hardwood latticework, struck Hanzo as a pack of square moons shining through a cloudy night. A carving above the shoji door depicted an intricate scene of animals on pilgrimage, from the beginning of their journey to their final destination at Mount Fuji.

Reiko slid open the shoji to reveal a six foot by six foot compartment. Its flooring, two mats of fresh rice straw set side by side, welcomed Hanzo with a homey benevolence. The fusuma, the interior doors at the back of the compartment, were covered in cream-colored silk and decorated with an ink painting of a quiet village at the foot of a gentle mountain. The lamp that clung to the ceiling cast a wonderfully delicious glow over a sleeping mat and a small, black lacquer table upon which rested a carefully folded robe. A pair of plush slippers waited for him just inside the entrance.

“Please,” Reiko said.

Hanzo stepped out of his wet sandals, leaving them on the walkway, and into the slippers. This brought him up into the compartment.

“I’ll return in just a moment,” she said and then snapped shut the shoji.

Hanzo stripped away his wet clothes, folded and placed them outside next to his sandals, and then put on the robe. The fine silk felt like cream against his skin. He marveled at this stroke of good fortune after his disastrous start and wondered whether Raven was faring as well.

Reiko reappeared through the fusuma doors. She carried a tiny tray upon which were a sake bottle and cup. “Please, accept this small offering.” She placed the tray on the table and then sat beside the table with her legs tucked carefully under the folds of her kimono. “It will chase away your chill.” She filled the little cup. Her delicate fingers moved so effortlessly it seemed as though the bottle was possessed with an independent will.

Hanzo gulped down two cupfuls that settled in his stomach and warmed him most agreeably. It didn’t take long for the droning of the storm outside to soften into a drowsy pulse.

“Excuse me,” Reiko whispered after a time, “but a bath has been prepared. Please come with me.”

“That’s really nice of you but I think I’ve had enough of water for one day. Besides, I want to check on Raven. It’s been a hard trip for both of us, you know.”

“Please.” A shy smile curled her lips.

He consented, but he wasn’t sure for whose sake he did so.

With a subtle twist, Reiko rose and ushered him through the fusuma and into a maze of corridors. They arrived at a heavy door set into a natural rock wall. She slid this open to reveal a cave that plunged downward at a sharp angle. Steam boiled up around their feet like the breath of a restless demon; a string of lanterns glimmered like fireflies caught its throat.

She led him down carved stairs to a chamber. The floor was covered in white tiles each decorated with elegant, cobalt-blue calligraphy. The head of a stone dragon curled out from one of the walls. A steady stream of hot water flowed from its mouth, splashed across a carefully arranged mound of stones, and cascaded into a pool. Excess water trickled from around the edges of the pool, rolled towards the opposite wall, and out a much smaller tunnel.

With juvenile enthusiasm, Reiko stepped in close to Hanzo and bashfully undid his robe.

For a fee, Hanzo had enjoyed many an evening with a lovely girl. None of those companions, however, compared to Reiko. Her artistry surpassed even the stories he had heard of the enchantresses from the Floating World. He entertained all that an evening with her could be. His rapture at the possibilities showed itself and caused him more embarrassment than he would normally have felt in such a situation.

“Naughty boy,” Reiko scolded. A coy grin lit up her face. Hanzo was about to reply when she put her hand to his mouth to shush him. Then, she nudged him towards a stone stool and motioned for him to sit.

He complied and settled in peacefully as she washed him. By the time she finished, the steam, the sake, and her touch had intoxicated him. She took his rough hands into her own exquisite petals and led him into the bath.

What followed was a blurry euphoria that blended into a dreamy awakening in his compartment. Gray light and a gentle breeze came in through the carving above the shoji. For a time, he watched little shadows play across the oily paper of the door and listened to the rain scamper along the deck.

Reiko slipped into the room with black tea and a few pieces of grilled rice balls on a tray.

Hanzo was starved, so he gave a hasty thanks and devoured it all in short order. He could have done with a bit more but didn’t want to impose.

“I hope you’re enjoying your stay.”

“Definitely. Your lord is really very kind. And you’ve been especially kind.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Reiko smiled. She leaned into him. “We have few visitors these days. I would be ashamed if you were not cared for properly.”

Her breasts pressed against his arm. The curve of her waist caressed his torso. What would a rural life be like with this girl? Would it be the same as living in the city? Wasn’t he on his way to a city? Of course he was on his way to Edo. How could he forget that?

“I’ve enjoyed my time here,” he said with some regret, “but I should get going. I’m headed to Edo, you know. The Tokugawa is hiring carpenters from all over Japan. There’s good money to be made there and it’s a chance to make something of myself.”

“You’re a craftsman? Then we are both in luck because, if I may be so forward, my master could use your talents.”

The idea sounded pleasant enough, but he was destined for greater things. “I was robbed of most of my tools,” he said delicately. “What’s left should be enough for me to get menial labor until I can make new ones but there’s certainly nothing left that could be of any use for around here. At least I still have Raven. He may not look like much, but he’s a good horse. How’s he doing anyway?”

“He’s doing well. Do you enjoy building things?”

“Of course.” Hanzo was elated that she should ask about it. “I’m filled with joy every time I see something that I’ve worked on. It’s my way to immortality.”

“You want that? Immortality?”

“I want to be remembered.” He had come from a poor family, the youngest in a brood of six, and he had learned from an early age that the only way out of that invisibility was to be noticed by someone who mattered. His path was architecture. “Long after I’m gone, I want children to look at a beautiful building and ask who made it, and I want their parents to say ‘That was built by the great Ichiro Hanzo.’”

Reiko’s cultivated veneer softened into an uneasy intimacy. Then, as if remembering herself, she slipped back into detached professionalism.

“You know, the people of this area tell a story that you might enjoy. You see, one day the wife of a poor farmer, her name was Yoshiko, found a wounded sparrow. Yoshiko’s heart was filled with sorrow for the creature and so she took it home and over the next few days nursed it. After it recovered, Yoshiko released the sparrow. It returned a few days later, planted a seed in her garden, and departed, never to be seen again.

“Yoshiko soon forgot about the sparrow and the seed. On the morning after the next new moon, however, there was a melon as large as herself in her garden. It was clearly a gift from the sparrow and she thanked the creature with many prayers. She then gathered her family, friends, and neighbors, and made a feast of the melon during which she recounted her experience.

“Many thanks were given to the sparrow for its kindness and to Yoshiko for hers. All thoroughly enjoyed themselves. All, that is, except Hanami. She was Yoshiko’s neighbor and, in youth, had fancied Yoshiko’s husband. She was disgusted by Yoshiko’s pandering and resolved not to be taken in by such an obvious attempt to curry favor.

“It didn’t take long for the daily chores of life to fade the memory of the melon and the sparrow. But by the next new moon, another melon appeared in the garden. Yoshiko was amazed, and once again made a feast of it. Everyone praised both the sparrow and Yoshiko.

“Hanami, on the other hand, cursed them both. She became determined to best Yoshiko and went into the forest in search of a sparrow of her own. When she came upon one, she hurled a stone at it and broke its leg. She then took the wounded bird home intent on nursing it back to health.

“The bird recovered quickly and on the day of its departure it planted a seed in Hanami’s garden. Hanami savored the prospect of besting Yoshiko and on the morning of the next new moon, she was overjoyed with spite; a great melon, larger than any that had grown for Yoshiko, was in her garden. She collected her neighbors and announced that Yoshiko was not the only one favored by the sparrow. With a jealous zeal, she cut open the melon.

“To everyone’s horror, great black slugs poured out. The creatures spread across Hanami’s garden and into the family’s rice fields, devouring everything. After their feast, the slugs melted into an acrid black puss that soaked into the ground.

“From that time, nothing would grow in those fields while Yoshiko’s fields became all the more bountiful. In fact, Yoshiko’s family became the richest in the district and Yoshiko herself was well loved by everyone who knew her for she remained as kind as ever.

“As for Hanami, her husband left her and she spent the rest of her days as a beggar at the mercy of other’s generosity. She died bitter and destitute with no one to mourn her passing.”

“Serves her right, I suppose,” Hanzo said. “She was just trying to start trouble.”

“She was just looking for something better than poverty.”

“No she wasn’t. She saw her neighbor doing better than she and got jealous.”

“So, you think that she should have been content with the life that she had?”

“Yeah. The life of a common farmer isn’t all that bad, right?”

“Nor is the life of a common carpenter, right?” She smiled broadly.

Hanzo regarded Reiko. “You’re tricky,” he said. He wanted to be mad for being made a fool, but couldn’t. Not at her, not for anything. He chuckled instead; she joined in. Soon they were both rolling on the floor with laughter. They settled in close together. When their lips touched, Hanzo’s mind soared with an excitement that was more acute than what he had known with other girls.

“Are you hungry?” Reiko asked, snapping back into diffidence.

The change knocked Hanzo from his heavenly flight. “I’m starved.”

“Let me fetch you something to eat and then you can take a bath.”

“Thanks, that’d be great. In the mean time, I want to check on, ah, I want to check on Raven.”

Some of the brightness in the compartment faded, as though a cloud had slipped in front of the sun on a summer’s day.

“There’s no need for that,” Reiko said. “Togasa is taking care of him.”

“I’m sure he’s very good at his job. But I miss Raven. We’ve been through a lot together.”

“Everything is fine. Now please, relax. I’ll be right back.” She left.

Hanzo’s time at the cottage was a stroke of fortune but he had things to do. How many days had he been at the cottage? A couple, wasn’t it? It felt longer — a week or two maybe. It was odd that he shouldn’t be able to remember. He became agitated at this touch of lethe and decided, for his own health, to go for a stroll around the compound.

He stepped out onto the walkway and drew in a long breath of the night chill. Through the hazy showers he could just make out tiny shapes darting about the courtyard tugging and pulling at something.

He was about to step down into the yard to investigate when the rain roared up. Lightning cut through the sky like a saw blade. The thunder that shook the cottage just a breath later was enough to send Hanzo back to the safety of his compartment.

Once inside, he couldn’t remember why he had gone out in the first place. When Reiko reappeared with food and a welcoming smile, the reason no longer mattered.

Under Reiko’s attentive care, the rainy days went by with only brief evening shadows to mark their passing. A growing sense of having stepped out of his normal life nagged at him, but he could not pin down exactly what he had left behind. He had memories, to be sure, but they were difficult to bring into focus. Like a candle light peaking through a forest on a wind-blown mountainside, his memories flickered in and out of view.

If he thought about the shades indirectly, he could make out details — traveling out of Mito, his first master scolding him, getting caught fooling around with his bosses’ daughters — but they were disconnected. Reiko was his only source of resonance.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2008 by Sean Hower

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