Eiji's late and the clouds aren't clearing.
I stand in the alcove that lies a half-a-street down the way from Mochizuki's tavern, chewing on a length of grass, shifting my weight from foot to foot. It's been a dismal morning, threatening to prove a dismal day. The clouds are grey as goat wool, close enough to touch, it seems, and there's that smell that precedes rain that I am certain I can smell.
You're always closer to rain in the mountains.
I chew my grass until I need to spit. The grasses of Iga, I've found, are wiry and bitter. It turns your spit bitter, and so I spit a second time. An old baba scowls at me, the way she's been scowling at me for the past ten wasted minutes, sweeping the same spot with the same broom over and over like she's trying to scratch my name into stone with the bristles. She doesn't know my name. This isn't my town. I am not her people. The haggard crone wears a cowl of muddy hemp and her back is bent, and I think she hates the fact that mine is straight. I think she hates the way I stand, like a man, with my legs apart and my hands cupping either elbow, chewing, staring, shifting my weight. She persists until the point I think she might say something, she even opens her mouth...
...instead she retreats behind her half-curtain, leaving her broom in the street.
She'll have a husband in there, probably. She'll be lamenting my morals.
I stand. I wait. I watch.
It's nearly noon.
Mochizuki's tavern is where Eiji and I agreed to meet, but one thing you must know is to never actually wait inside such a place. It may transpire that others can find you there, and so it is important to keep an eye on who goes in and who goes out before you yourself commit to entering. So here I am, watching, waiting. It's not Eiji's lateness that concerns me. Eiji has been late before, but he's always had decent reasons, and always delivered what he promised. Eiji has proven himself to be a man who does not fool around, which is important in those with whom you do business, which is why I continue to do business with him. No, it's not him that worries me. It's the clouds.
Nearly noon, and not even the promise of the sun is visible, up there.
Has their colour darkened?
Is the scent of rain-to-be deepening?
Don-don-don go the hammers. Sound carries up here, the way water seems to carry in the air today too. The noise is inescapable. I made a promise to myself not to notice it, but making such a promise and then remembering the promise simply reminds you of what it is you are trying to ignore. Don-don-don they go, always, always, always, bright and sharp, iron on iron. It's like falling asleep with a hand not your own upon you, waking and thinking its weight part of you, then realising the truth. Then sleeping again, then waking, then sleeping...
...for a moment, I cannot help but think of the weight of Gengoro's hand.
The hammers chase the memory away. They are ringing proudly from a big smithy down the way, a smithy that more or less everything else in this town is centred around. Over the hump of the mountain there's a mineshaft where every day a hundred murderers from Edo and Kyoto and elsewhere shuffle down the miserable hole and come back up carrying precious, quality iron ore. I've seen the shaft, I've seen the chains, I've seen the smithy too, from the outside. I've circled the perimeter of its walled yard a good time or five, and I've counted a score of men that seem to work there. Honest men with sooty faces, bleary eyes used to staring into fires, they make humble things such as pots and pokers and smaller metal parts that are combined with bigger wooden things elsewhere.
Another thing that I have noticed about the smithy, is that the ivies on the easterly wall are thick enough, I reckon, to support a small woman's weight.
But I am not here for the smithy. Even though it is the biggest, loudest, smelliest thing within this town, I am not here for it, and so the true strength of those ivies is currently a thing I do not need to know.
I have studied this town since I walked up the winding trail up the slopes a few days ago. How I find it best when I am undertaking such a studying, is that there's three types of things in the world: the things I must know, the things I'd like to know, and then everything else. The everything else is most usually the things you can see immediately with your eyes, or feel with your skin, or smell with your nose. Things like the smithy, the sound of its hammers, the smell of its smoke. Things like the trees that surround the town, their iron-green leaves, their long slender needles. Things like the wet chill in the air that seeps slowly into your clothes. This town is not the highest town in which I have stayed, but it is high enough that even now in the early summer your breath still mists in the morning.
Neither is this place small.
I've been to some places named to me as towns that were no more than a single hut or a hovel. This is not once of those places. There are families. A community. A river which flows through it, sprung from the mountain's peak. A few times a day it carries with it the vibrant smell of eggs. There's an arched bridge that crosses it, painted blue.
The bridge is quite pretty, really, and yet implacably, irrevocably, a part of the Everything Else.
Of course, after the Everything Else comes the things that I would like to know, and I find that these things usually stem from the everything else. For example: on the northern side of the town's smithy, I witnessed a stray cat crawl through a small opening in the stony foundations of the yard's wall. What lies beyond that little hole? I've seen the roof of a building beyond that hole, and what is that building? Might there be a little trough, or a mucky subterranean nook, or a dusty crawlspace studded with the pillars of foundations, that leads to that building? That leads directly under it? And what lies within that building?
Those are all things I'd like to know, but do not need to.
And of those things that I must know?
Ways in. Ways out.
The situation of the town's stewardship.
Whether anyone has a horse they might be able to ride in pursuit.
Those sort of things.
Don-don-don go those hammers.
Where in all the hells is Eiji?
As the river sends a waft of sweaty, humid sulphur down the street, just as I think I feel the first hint of rain splatter upon the back of my hand, I see a young man running towards the smithy. Running, actually running in a way you rarely see people run, with his elbows and his knees flying wild. As he passes me I see he's less of a young man, more of a boy, with earnest worry in his eyes. An apprentice, perhaps. He's seen something, or he knows something that troubles him. Genuinely troubles him, to the point where he runs like a fool and pants like a dog.
I think upon that, for a while. What I've learnt regarding genuinely troubling things, is that if they are occurring in your proximity, it's best to know what exactly they are.
And if Eiji's not yet here, if he's repeating his performance back last year where he showed up a full three days late, then what harm, I reason, would a minute's diversion cause?
I cannot run after the boy, for that would let others know I'm following him. Instead I spit the bitter grass from my mouth and keep a steady pace. The apprentice vanishes around the corner that leads to the smithy. All corners here lead to the smithy, I suppose. I go as I may, placing one foot after the other, just a little slower than the rhythm of the hammers. The baba's cruel eyes follow me from behind her curtain. Watch, baba. Watch this: I take the bandana from my head and poke my finger through the hole that's been worn in it. I tut as though I only just noticed this hole. Are you watching, still, baba? I purse my lips as though this hole in my bandana is my sole concern in the world. As though I'm a dutiful daughter who's just vowed to undertake a severe session of darning this afternoon. As though even though I may prick my finger a hundred times with a needle, I will not rest until the hole is mended.
Are you watching, baba?
It's yourself I'm showing you.
This pretence costs me crucial information, of course. When I locate the apprentice again, he and an older, burly fellow are already halfway through their hissed conversation. But I am good at joining conversations half way through. I am used to joining conversations halfway through. If I had to guess, I'd ajudge the burly man to be a foreman of the smithy, because he's a burly man in a leather apron who smells so fiercely of forge-burnt hair I can smell it ten paces away. Then if I had to make another guess, looking at the pair of them, the way they stand, I'd guess that the apprentice sought the foreman out somewhere more public and was immediately dragged here, away from others. My final guess upon this situation is that the apprentice said a certain set of words that the foreman really did not want to hear, for the older man, with his big, hard-earned shoulders, stands with his arms crossed.
I nestle myself as I need to be nestled, in the shadow of thirsty wisteria.
“It's him, it's absolutely him!” the boy is saying, “He was there in the village.”
“How do you know it as him?”
“The steward read the big man's border papers aloud. He read his name aloud. We all heard.”
You're a fool if you obey those papers that state where and wheren't you may go.
You're more of a fool if you need them.
“The steward said they were false,” continues the apprentice, “But him, the big man, he just upped and wrestled the steward from his horse. Struck him til he couldn't stand any longer, then threw him in a ditch. Threw him! Actually picked him up off the ground and-”
“Then what happened?” interrupts the foreman.
The apprentice shrugs. “Then the big man walked on. I came straight here.”
The boy keeps saying 'the big man'. If I had to guess, I'd say the name of this big man is the thing he's been told not to say.
The foreman drums his fat fingers off his forearm. He looks pained. He lowers his eyes to the level of his apprentice's.
“Do not,” he says quite slowly, “Absolutely do not, tell Shishido about this. Do you understand?”
“But if he's coming-”
“He's not coming here.” the foreman says, “He will never come here. Why would he? There's nothing here. There's no-one a swordsman might seek.”
The apprentice is not appeased. He wrings his wrists and begins to speak again, and so the foreman slaps him quite viciously across the face. His arm is potent with muscle earned at the hammer – don-don-don go the hammers – and the strike is strong enough that I fancy I can feel the pop of the air blow across myself, stood distant as I am. The apprentice's immediate concern, in that way of teenage boys, is neither the pain nor revenge but rather whether or not anyone else has seen his humiliation. Whether he's lost what precious little esteem he's managed to accrue.
Of course, I'm there to see him, and having not anticipated his reaction, his eyes happen to meet mine.
I might have been in more trouble, had what they been speaking about been of more importance, had this witness to their conversation been of any more importance than a young woman…
...had Eiji not appeared behind me, pressed me up against the wall, winked at the pair of them and then smothered me out of sight with his body.
False lovers, sharing a false kiss.
Mochizuki's tavern is the only one of any real size in the town. Smiths are content to drink in the dust of the yard, after all, and most of the people who do the drinking in this town are smiths. But there's just enough need for a solitary place of indulgence, a solitary oasis where one might believe that pounding of the hammers were the drums of Gion. The tavern in particular has a certain little booth I like. It's meant for husbands and their mistresses. Again, not many mistresses around here, but there will always be the need for just one such booth. One must crawl to enter it, and then when you slide the small half-door behind you closed you're given total privacy from the other patrons. It's a tiny room, no more than a single, soft pine-green tatami mat in size that forces you close to whomsoever accompanies you into that booth, and the low table that's there isn't really big enough to serve any purpose, because people who would need a booth such as this aren't there to really eat.
I found the spyhole, of course, on my first visit. Mochizuki tried to conceal it in the bunch of grapes that are painted on the wall, a dark circle within dark circles. But the wall itself is made of thin wood and if you tap it you can hear the hollowness. There'll be a space back there, I imagine, a narrow corridor one must sidefoot their way down that, if I had to guess, probably leads to the kitchen, and whenever Mochizuki has clients in this particular booth I'd guess he or someone else probably comes to listen in, because secrets hold value whether you're in Kyoto or on the edge of the world.
I do a lot of guessing, you may have realised by now.
I'm right, most of the time.
I don't want Mochizuki listening in to what Eiji and I are about to talk about. I have taken measures to prevent this. The first time I came here, over the course of an hour I patiently and silently whittled my own little counter-spyhole down in the corner of the wall. It now casts a point of light upon the mats. When that point of light vanishes, you know a body is blocking it.
In this world you've got to watch yourself, always.
I know this, because there's people such as myself in this world.
“Do you ever wonder,” says Eiji, wincing at the crack his stiff left knee makes as he eases himself into the tiny corner, “Why we always agree to meet at a certain place, when neither one of us actually ever finds the other there?”
“It's an environment,” I say, “A guideline.”
“What have you been eating, anyway?” he says, rubbing his thumb against his teeth,“I'll need to wash the taste of that away.”
He smiles. He doesn't need to wink at me, but he does. Eiji might be described as a natural winker. This wink is why we don't meet in the depths of the woods as I would prefer to guarantee true privacy, for in the woods who would serve Eiji sake? He's getting too old, he says, to waste his days thirsting by meagre bracken fires, banging on rocks for sustenance.
I don't think he's even past the age of thirty-five. His gut is growing the way moss grows upon a stone.
I have to wait for Mochizuki girl's to come and go on her hands and knees twice, bringing a small clay vase of wine the second time. I have to wait for Eiji to pour his wine into the square cedar cup. I have to wait for him to sample it, to smack his lips in delight, to then slide the contents of the entire cup in a single go down his throat. I have to wait for him to pour a second cup, I have to make sure the point of light from my counter-spyhole still shines, I have to wait for Eiji to look me in the eye before I can ask what it is that I must ask:
Eiji sucks breath through his teeth. The way he looks at me, I can tell he's been thinking about whether or not to tell me what he's about to for some time, probably as he walked his way up the cobbled, winding path that leads to this town. I cannot help but repeat the question, and again he sucks air through his teeth, but this time he decides to pull from the breast of his jerkin a little lacquered box. It's a thing for Ladies, gleaming black save for the image of a hare galloping through the madness of spring in mother-of-pearl in one corner. I undo the clasp.
Inside the pretty box, on a folded bed of chequered silk, sits a human ear.
“That's not,” I say after a moment. “Necessarily Gen's ear.”
I stare at the ear. How can you tell someone's ear apart from someone else's?
If I were to place the tip of my tongue, I wonder, upon the lobe...
“Do you believe Senju would lie?” shrugs Eiji. “He wanted me to give it you. He wanted you to see it.”
...would I know for certain, then?
After five more heartbeats I close the box. Eiji is right. Senju would not lie. This, I conclude, is Gengoro's ear, which means Senju is growing impatient. I redo the clasp, and try to return the box to Eiji. He says no. He says something along the lines of, you've more right to that than I have, and then he drinks his second cup of wine.
I'm not really listening. This tiny booth is not this tiny booth, for a spell. For a spell, I think of Gen.
I can't remember a time before Gen. We grew up together. He took me to the foot of a waterfall once. He said, I bet even you can't scale that. I proved him wrong. In a matter of minutes I stood on top of the slick rocks I'd climbed and I looked down at him. He wasn't going to make the attempt. He knew enough to know he'd fall and break his back. He simply stood there in the mists at the foot, looking up at me, smiling. He was proud of me.
That smile of his.
What else could I do, in that moment of cool mists and hot blood, but jump?
That was Gen.
But Gen, you see, grew up with me, and so he abides with the sort of people with whom I abide, and sometimes he likes to play those ombre cards that came from Portugal, even though he doesn't really understand the rules. Sometimes Gen drinks that sickly sweet Portuguese wine while he plays those Portuguese cards, and sometimes when he drinks that wine, much stronger than he's used to, Gen sometimes loses track of debt and score, and sometimes, drunk on foreign spirits, he sometimes flips over tables, and sometimes he points fingers, and sometimes he calls the man to whom he now owes a substantial amount of money a scabrous son of a whore.
Sometimes that man happens to be Senju the Hammer, illicit liege of a hundred illicit men and always, always, always...
...a man who has earned the name 'the Hammer' has not earned it through peaceful means.
I've seen Senju's fabled hammer. He carries it proudly across his shoulders. It was made to break boulders. The prisoners up at the mineshaft each have one like it. They use them all day every day, and the iron always triumphs over rock. I try to imagine Gen with flattened hands. I try to imagine him without an ear. I wonder if losing an ear deafens you? I suppose he could grow his hair longer. I suppose he could wear a hat over it.
I suppose, at this very moment, they've got Gen out there in that old rotted mansion that a samurai lived in a hundred years ago, that place that Senju's boys use to do the things they cannot do in town. That old rotted mansion, where Gen is all tied up and naked, they flicking rocks at him, dousing him with saltwater, taunting him that its his girl and not him that is out there, trying to pay back what he owes the Hammer.
That's what I suppose, I suppose.
“But here, of course, my girl,” says Eiji, “Is where you thank me.”
While I have been studying this town the past few days, in between meeting Senju Eiji has been studying the village that lies at the foot of the mountain. The village is upon the Nikko Kaido road, which leads to Edo, and that means much more is occurring down there than up here. This town here is a terminus. People who do not have specific purpose to come here, do not come here. But the village down there is a thoroughfare, a line of taverns, inns, roadhouses, hostels, trading posts, guildholds, stables and minor shrines built right up against the road and stretching for a mile in either direction. No-one even actually lives there, I think, for every bed must be taken up by a traveller. It is those travellers that Eiji has been watching. He describes to me the place where he sat, up in the little skeletal belfry tower that looked down over the roadway, eating edamame beans. He says these past few days, whilst chewing those beans and throwing their husks down to the ground, he has seen a horde pass before him. Over three thousand people, by his count. He says he has seen sixty samurai, some in armour, some in silk, passing through parting posses of pilgrims and bowing battalions of brutes already bent by the barley borne upon their backs. He says he has seen mendicants, itinerants and indigents, some of them docile and some of them belligerent. He says he has seen convoys of rice and of copper, of carts carrying clouds of raw unwoven silk, wheels rattling across the cobbles. He says he has seen the eyes of a princess through the spokes of an umbrella and the gaze of a devil in a father beating his son with a knotted rope. He says he ate a hundred pods of edamame as he watched, and as he ate them he heard voices from east and from west, and he saw the rich and the poor, and he counted three dozen saddled horses, twenty yoked oxen, a pack of nineteen nipping dogs, ten asses hauling asinine assemblies, eight snakes knotted in baskets, three cats carried on cushions, and a solitary monkey on a leash that'd been trained to bow and to clap and to hold a bowl out for coins.
Eiji likes to talk, you may have noticed.
I ask him if he happened to see a big man causing trouble this morning.
“I saw many big men.” he shrugs. “But all of them were peaceful. Why do you ask?”
Right now, that belongs with Everything Else. I gesture him onwards. “But then of course,” he says, “Last night a party of holy men happened to arrive at the very inn that I myself was staying at. What caught my eye about these men immediately, among all these other travellers, was that they wore those straw helmets that hide their faces. The bell-shaped ones that the fuke monks wear while they're playing their flutes. The nothing-hats, I think they call them. There were ten of them, and six of them were carrying a palanquin on their shoulders. They sought lodgings, these ten men. They said they were from Kyoto, bearing their abbot to their sister temple so that he might pray there, and I did not care until they happened to mention that their sister temple was the temple of Rakan,” says Eiji,
The Rakan temple, of course, sits on the peak of the mountain we're currently halfway up.
The Rakan temple, of course, is something in which I am very interested.
“Their abbot,” says Eiji, knowing how interested I am in this temple, “According to these ten, holy, faceless, flute-playing men, was sickly and could not walk. That was why they were carrying him a palanquin. They were very certain to mention this aloud. They then asked not to be disturbed, for their ailing sage needed hours of perfect rest. The innkeeper bowed and assented. The other guests bowed and assented. I bowed and assented. But something seemed queer about these ten men to me. Compared to the other pilgrims I had seen, they were different. I thought about it for a while, and perhaps it was the way that they walked, or perhaps it was the number of them and the way they huddled, or perhaps it was they way would accept nothing but the largest, finest hall for their berth... It's hard to place a man when his face is hidden by a straw bell. But then I realised, even though they were wearing these straw bells, there wasn't a one of them among their number that didn't have a belly on him.”
Eiji smiles that smile when he knows he's tugged the right thread. What he means to say is, what holy man would be devout enough to hide his face in constant humility...
...but also indulge in gluttony?
He's got a keen eye for things such as that. Things I sometimes miss. He's about to speak again, still smiling his smile, when a shadow falls across my telltale point of light.
I raise a finger...
“It's not getting any better.” says Eiji immediately, “It's been a winter, a spring, and now the summer. Father's sick, little sister, so sick. And if we go to the temple tomorrow, and we pray for him, and we make our offering, and he does not get better, then what do we do? What comes next? We've come so far. So far from our home, and if heaven won't favour us, even after we-”
…he goes on weaving this tale until the point of light returns and my finger falls.
“Poor papa.” Eiji says, and of course he takes a long, long moment to drink a long, long toast in honour of his fictional father's fickle fortune.
Someone is frying much too much garlic in the kitchen.
The hammers are saying: don-don-don.
I tell Eiji to continue.
He obliges: “When night had fallen, just as I was about to retire for a peaceful sleep, I happened to notice the pisspot had gone missing from my room. How can a man sleep without emptying his bladder? I went in innocent search for my lowly pisspot, quite by chance on this search I happened to stray near to the hall of these holy men. And do you know what? I did not hear a single note from a flute, even though they each carried one. Neither did I hear the drone of prayers or mantras. What I did happen to hear from within their room, quite by chance on my search, was a woman's voice. And this woman, she was not a chaste woman, I will say that much. I then happened to go and see if my pisspot perhaps had not been misplaced near the kitchens, and though I searched for an hour or more, I never once heard a request for gruel that a sickly abbot might eat. There were ten hearty meals for ten gluttonous men who hide their faces, but gentler food for a man in a time of deathly sickness? No. Not a single order. It then occurred to me... What if they were starving their abbot? What terrible neglect! Oh that poor old man. That poor, poor old saint. And so being a man of conscience and filial duty, what choice did I have but to forgo my quest for my missing pisspot to see if these ten wicked men hadn't, say, locked that poor old dying abbot in that palanquin of theirs?”
A woman could spend a year at a loom and not achieve as much weaving as this.
Eiji knows this too, and he loves it. I can see it in his eyes.
“I waited for the falling of the moon. The perfect stillness of the hours of the rat. The holy men had berthed their palanquin in a private yard behind a locked gate. I climbed the wall and dropped to the dusty earth on the other side. It was a big palanquin. On the yokes were painted flowers, their lines of silverleaf shining in the moon. A curtain hid the hatchway to the carriage. Behind the curtain was a wooden door. Behind the wooden door, I feared, was that poor mistreated abbot. After a moment I dared to take a few steps towards the palanquin. I whispered, o holy one, hear ye my voice? Though I am but mortal, I am pious, I have come to your aid! No voice replied, the yard was still. I drew closer to the palanquin. O holy one, I said this time, if ye are in peril, call out to me and I will save you! The palanquin was silent as a coffin. I drew closer still. O holy one, have ye perished already? I dared to ask. Are your bones trapped within that prison? Wish ye me to free them?
“It struck me then – if these wicked fat man were starving their abbot, and locking him in a palanquin, then could these men not also have gagged the poor old man? These wicked fat men! These rogues, these knaves, these sacrilegious scapegraces! I reached out and I drew back the curtain. I had no choice. Behind the curtain, I found, was a shade of bamboo blinds. I rolled these up, slat by slat by slat by slat-”
Heaven help me...
Don-don-don go the hammers...
“-by slat by slat.” goes Eiji, “And behind the blinds I found a black door. The only thing between the abbot and I. The knob of this door was shaped like a chrysanthemum. It felt strangely cold to my palm. I hesitated. I looked about myself. The moon was my only witness. Wish me luck, moon, I said, and I turned the handle. The door refused to open. It was locked! I rapped on the door, I asked the abbot if he wanted me to break it down to free him. But how could he answer if he was gagged? How could he answer if he was dead? I had no choice. Within a minute I had the lock undone, and I'd turned the chrysanthemum knob, and you won't believe what it was I saw inside the palanquin. There was no poor gagged and sickly abbot. There were no human bones. But it was not empty. The thing I saw was... The thing I saw...”
Eiji stops and rubs his throat that's grown so dry in the telling of the tale. He must wet it. He needs to wet it, and he drinks slowly, watching me out of the corner of his eye.
I do not say 'what?', the way he wishes me to say 'what?'.
He lowers his cup, he makes to speak then coughs anew and takes another languid, lackadaisical, leisurely...
...”What?” I have no choice but to say.
“An iron lockbox.” Eiji tells me, miraculously recovered. “Big enough and heavy enough that it needs to be carried by six false priests.”
Eiji doesn't need to say more. He knows he doesn't need to say more. He looks at me, and he does nothing but smile. He knows, as I know, that you don't go to the effort to haul an iron lock box up a mountain if you're not coming to claim something incredibly precious at its peak. And more than that - you don't disguise that iron lockbox if that precious thing is something you don't want others to know that you have. If it's something you don't want others to even know exists.
Which means, it seems, that he and I guessed right.
Why we are here, why I have been studying this forgetown and Eiji has been studying the roadway village, is that a month or so ago we happened to hear the strange tale of a man who achieved enlightenment in a single day. The man was a merchant, who traded in salt. He ran salt the entire length of the Nikko Kaido road. He was good at trading salt, and he had become rich due to it. One of his guildposts even sits in the village below. He showed no prior inclination to holy matters. He did not meditate, He studied no Teachings. He could not even point the direction in which the Pure Lands lay. But this common trader of salt, ignorant of higher things, journeyed up to the peak of this mountain, past this forgetown to the Rakan temple, and within an hour in the presence of the priests there, had apparently shed himself of his mortal delusions and mapped the path to nirvana.
We knew this, because the trader of salt came back down the mountain with a certificate he showed to everyone within his proximity, which said quite clearly and quite ecclesiastically that he was officially heavenbound.
This new Buddha left no lotuses growing in the places where his feet fell, of course.
We were told that people shrugged. Stranger things have happened in this world.
But when a second man, a man who owned five hundred acres of paddyfields just outside of Osaka, achieved enlightenment in the exact same manner the very next week, it was then that Eiji and I became very, very interested in the Rakan temple, and in this village, and in this forgetown.
Because either the priests of the Rakan temple are rare masters of spiritual disciplines, or they're handing out tickets to heaven the way ferrymen hand out wooden tokens on the shore.
And crucially, delightfully, two tickets to heaven, as Eiji says now as he drains his cup, cannot be cheap.
“I had no time to make a try at the lockbox's lock,” he says, “Someone had risen, I had to run. I don't know what's inside it. But my guess would be that it is currently empty. Why else would they be bringing such a thing, if not to take that gold, or whatever those two frauds paid in, back to their temple in Kyoto?”
“Which means right now,” I say, “It's up there in the temple grounds, waiting to be claimed.”
Eiji finds his vase run dry. “Which means its now worth you taking the risk of a little intrusion.” He tries to coax the very last drops from the vessel. “You understand though, girl,” he says, “That you'll only have once chance at this. Those holy men'll be at the temple tomorrow with the lockbox. Once they get that money in there, it'll be gone from us. You'll have to go tonight.”
“I know.” I say.
“And have you seen those clouds-”
“I have seen those clouds.”
“Those lovely, thick, wool-grey clouds, fat with the promise of rain?”
“I have seen those clouds,” I say, “And it doesn't matter. I can do it.” I tell him. “I can do it.”
Eiji admires my belief. He says as much. He says if only Gen could hear you now...
...and then he laughs because of what lies within the lacquer box that still lies between us.
Someone is still frying pungent garlic.
The hammers are still pounding don-don-don.
“Does it offend you,” Eiji asks, as he upends his vase and holds his tongue out for the very final winedrops that slide from within, “Knowing that priests are shilling their faith? Should we be offended?”
“Are you offended?”
“No.” he says. “But I feel as if I ought to be. I think if I was younger, I'd probably be offended.”
I am younger than him. I feel no outrage.
What's a priest but a human being pretending he isn't?
A few hours later I sit at the foot of the cliff face on top of which sits the temple of Rakan. I am alone. I am studying the colour of the clouds with the focus of a painter, knowing they're darkening, asking heaven silently to delay the inevitable rain by just an hour longer, just one hour, just one hour...
...heaven responds by spitting a single fat, cold, obnoxious drop of water right between my eyes.
I wipe it away. I am sat with my back against a tree trunk. I do not know what kind of tree it is. That is Everything Else. I can tell you that it is tall and straight and its bark is smooth and amber and glossy in the pre-rain. It has been torn in two midway up its length by a gale a long time ago, and it remains like a splinter stuck into rock. I am wearing my leather gloves. I am wearing my leather boots with the iron-capped toes. I am wearing my bandana across my face. I'd rub soot around my eyes too, if I were waiting for night.
But I am not waiting for night.
I cannot wait for night.
One more hour, I ask, one more hour.
As you may have guessed, these past few days I have been studying the compound of the Rakan temple as thoroughly as I have studied the forgetown. I'll tell you of what I've learned, much more concisely than Eiji would. A solitary path winds its way up to the mountain peak and the temple's gate. On this path you'll see lizards and pebbles, and in turn be seen by the hawks that perch upon their eyries, and by any from within the temple, particularly as you make the final approach across the stony stretch of empty slope that lies beyond the treeline. Outsiders are only permitted inside the compound twice a day for public mass. Otherwise its clergy only, and there is that stretch of empty earth and big black wooden walls that encircle the compound and five men that are barracked in the gatehouse to see that this is enforced. Each of these five men has a spear. Three of them are on guard at any one time, all five of them when they permit the crowds of layfolk in to pray. This is a paramount example, of course, of something that I Need to Know. If I had to guess I would guess that there are perhaps twenty other people that live up there. Acolytes, priests, servants, those sort of men. Yet any sort of man can hold a spear, or lock a door, or form a fist if he needs to. Any man can cry out, and bring twenty other men to him. Of their routines I know absolutely nothing. They could be anywhere at any time, outside of the masses. I've only been able to take a guess at their number at all because I got a few seconds of a glimpse at what I supposed to be their dormitory, a long low building hidden by a grove of bamboo.
Twenty men at most, assuming they're not sleeping shoulder to shoulder in there.
The temple itself is not a vast structure. There is an altar with three Buddhas painted gold – which Buddhas I do not know, Everything Else – and the head priest kneels in front of it and strikes his gong while his lesser boys sit in two lines behind him facing one another chanting their chants in a language I will never speak beseeching things that I will never need. They take up approximately half of the space in the temple, which means the layfolk must wait in a line and head in and bow to the altar, then head out once more and stand in the courtyard and wait until the priest determines all is finished.
It is no Kyoto cathedral. Yet.
Perhaps that is what the money is for.
The area of the compound itself, however, is much larger than I expected. The peak is actually more of a plateau, actually quite broad and flat, which is good and bad. Quicker to move, but less terrain in which to hide. There is enough space for a pagoda and a pond and a few other buildings I was not permitted near enough to discern their function. There is enough space for a grove of trees of the same kind I'm sitting against now, tall and amber and perfectly straight.
But I'll tell you what I did learn, when I was shuffling to and fro along with that crowd of desperate penitents. I'll tell you the most crucial thing I learnt of the Rakan temple, the thing above all else that I Need to Know:
It is only walled on three sides.
The fourth side is not walled because no wall can be built there. It is not walled because there is no need to build a wall there. It is the rearmost side and face of the mountain there is a rocky, uneven cliff scoured of trees. One can look down from a certain spot across the whole valley, almost all the way to the sea. They've built a little dais there, specifically for this reason. I imagine the brothers bring cushions out there to meditate in the morning. I suppose in autumn they will stand upon that dais and look down across what lies below, and in the sea of russet coloured leaves with the shadows of clouds moving across them like the stripes on a tiger's hide, they'll contemplate both the vastness of nature and its complete impermanence.
I felt no cosmic understanding when I stood upon that dais in the half a minute before I was noticed and shooed away, for I did nothing but look down and study the real and practical shape of the cliff face...
...just as I am looking up and studying it in the exact same way from the opposite direction right now.
I have drawn the same conclusion: it is not the most imposing thing I have scaled. I'd hesitate to call it a cliff face at all. You might call it a stern slope. It is craggy and nooky and its steepness is well shy of vertical in most places. I can see a hundred handholds just by looking at it, a dozen places I reckon I might be able to stand as evenly as though I were in a meadow. If I had an afternoon, I know that I could get up and down it a dozen times and figure out the safest, quickest route for others to follow, maybe even hammer in a few spikes for ropes. If I had a calm, moonlit night, I am certain that I could ascend it with diligence and care, testing every knobbled outcrop, gauging every loophole, winding my body slowly and patiently beneath the stars.
But, of course, I have neither of these things.
One more hour, I wish upon the clouds, one more hour, one more hour...
The scurrilous nature of my mission denies me the afternoon, just as these damned clouds have stolen my beloved moon from me. When the sun falls the darkness this night will be perfect, and in perfect darkness you cannot climb something you have never climbed before. Eiji would argue you cannot climb anything, I'd argue otherwise. But I know I cannot climb something I have not climbed before in complete blindness, just as I cannot wait for tomorrow and the hope for a clear sky, for if I wait the prize will be gone by morning and Senju the hammer will then most likely subsequently break Gen's arms and legs and throw him into a ditch for the crows and the lice.
Which I cannot allow to happen.
Which means ultimately, what I have to do will have to be done right on the knife-edge of twilight.
An hour, I reckon, is my window, that specific, fleet hour where it is both light enough to see but also dark enough to hide.
I look upwards. An hour, I beg the clouds again, and once again Heaven spits upon my face....
An hour in which I'll have to navigate the compound I know next to nothing about...
...a second drop detonates on the iron toe of my boot...
...in which I'll have to locate this uncertain prize which is likely carefully concealed...
...a third on my shoulder...
...in which I'll have to abscond with that prize, somehow, whatever it may be...
...a fourth, a fifth, a sixth, I stop counting...
...all of this within a murky, gloomy hour, and all of this after scaling this slope which I have never scaled before in the half-light, with no time to second-guess my route...
...and all of this, now, upon rocks that are slick and wet with rain.
Don-don-don go those distant hammers.
Even here, I can hear them.
Gen, if it were anyone but you...
If it were anyone but Senju...
If I were anyone but me...
Let the die be cast. Let the cards be dealt. Whatever game of chance you prefer, the time is now. I aim to achieve the summit right at twilight's equilibrium. I sense that this is the moment. I leave the tree and begin to climb, guiding myself up the route I have guessed at. Left hand. Right hand. Right foot. Left foot. Quickly now. Quick. The rain sounds heavy upon the leather of my clothes, the stones here are still soft with moss. I do not go straight up but rather work back and forth across the face, zagging a path like a poorly threaded thread. This is the route that I have seen, this is the route which I think will yield success with the least amount of risk. If it doesn't, I won't have time to try a second one. So I must go. I hook my toes on a ledge, I balance on series of studs that jut, I reach up and haul myself up and over the lip of a boulder shaped like an eyetooth.
If I fall and land on the point of that tooth from above, I'll be broken in two...
...I do not think of this.
I keep going. My fingers trace the seams, they clutch at roots, they latch upon ridges. Slow, too slow. I must move faster. There is a state of mind that I seek. I cannot describe it. When it happens it happens all by itself. When it happens, I am carried. I move as fluid as water uphill. But this state cannot be provoked, it can only be experienced. I wish I had a name for it. I wish I knew how to tap into its potential. I wish it wasn't raining, I wish that I wasn't here. I wish for meadows and blossom and unending summer.
I wish, I wish, I wish...
I sidefoot my way along a crag, and then I steel myself for a short jump. I have barely begun, I am not that high, but any jump is foolish when you're climbing. I think for a moment, hanging there by two fingers and two toes, contemplating this leap, contemplating the fall should I fail, is what if that salt merchant bought his way into heaven by promising them salt from his mines for a hundred years?
What if that paddy field man promised the brothers five hundred years of rice?
What if I'm doing this for no more than a piece of paper stamped and sealed in red ink?
I cannot think these things. I have no choice. There is only the climb. There must be only the climb, and so I hold my breath and I swing my body, and when I am in the air my heart skips and says something like: idiot. But three fingers of my right hand hook into a cranny and my iron-tipped boots sink soundly and firmly into a wet pocket of loam, and my heart continues beating.
I look up. Rain catches in my lashes.
I hope heaven spits less on you than it does on me, Gen.
I'm halfway now, but now the hard half begins. Now the moss fades and the rock becomes bare and sharp and slatey. I can feel it sawing at the palms of my gloves, but my gloves are well made and I have faith in them.
I have faith in me.
I follow the veins that are written in the mountain. There's a tale that men love, the tale of the Regent Toyotomi and his great climb. I've heard it many times. This was before the Regent was the Regent, or even a general, or even a samurai. This climb is the thing that marked him out as such a man. There was a castle in Inaba built on top of a rocky mountain, much like the temple of Rakan is built, and the castle was held by an enemy of the Lord Oda. Oda could not afford months of siege, for he had many enemies circling, and so the Regent Toyotomi, back when he was common footman Toyotomi, volunteered to attempt to climb the impossibly steep cliff face at night, a climb no samurai would dare. I've seen paintings and woodprints of this moment. The moon is full, Toyotomi has a dagger in his teeth, a fierce scowl on his face.
I'd say, if Toyotomi was a member of a species that possesses the ingenuity to dig ore from the earth, to take that ore to a smithy, to smelt that ore into stronger amalgamations, to be shaped into a dagger, to be sharpened into a blade keen enough to slash the fiber of any living thing in nature…
...why'd that same species not think to invent a sheathe for the dagger?
Why'd he take it in his teeth?
The Regent, of course, succeeded. He scaled the peak with his dagger between his molars, he snuck into the castle, he opened the gates and Oda's army poured in, Oda won, then Oda died, then Toyotomi became the regent, then Toyotomi died. All of that part is Everything Else. What matters to me is the way men speak of that climb. The way they paint of it. What they think about the smallness of their body versus the vastness of the mountain's. They think of it as a fight, and that when they win and stand atop the summit they've knocked the entirety of the mountain to the floor. That they're bigger and stronger than the mountain. That they've assumed the mountain's power. But that's not how I see it. The mountain is not a mountain to me. What I see, what I must see, is only the next handhold.
I do not see myself defeating a mountain. I am not defeating anything.
I am moving. Simply moving.
I am moving here. To the next handhold.
To the next foothold.
The next fingerhold.
The next toehold, which I find is filled with rainslick moss, which sends my foot and a shower of pebbles plummeting away...
...which proves sturdier on a second, desperate attempt.
The hammers are saying, distantly don-don-don, my heart is saying the same at three times the tempo. I can feel it in my throbbing knee. I cracked it hard against the rock, and I think perhaps I can feel blood trickling down my shin.
Gengoro, I swear to heaven you're going to throw lotus petals in my path for a year.
Others would have fallen there, but I've got a strength in my fingers and a limberness in my body others don't. I continue to climb on. I'm good at this, I know, but I cannot explain why I am so good at this. I can say that I am good because I have climbed things or worked my way into places that no other person I know could. This makes my ability fact. But I cannot explain why I have it. I have honed this ability, of course, but Gen has honed his and Eiji's honed his – or he did, back before he became a drinking winker – and neither one of them was ever my equal.
But they tried hard, hard as I did, and if we've each tried equally hard and yet I am so much better..
...does that increase the worth of my skill or decrease it?
I don't know. I grit my teeth. I steal a moment's respite as I try and dry my gloves on the inside of my clothes.
Sometimes I think on things like this. Sometimes I think of my roots. When I was a child, mother died and father was drunk every day so my brother and I were left to ourselves. We learnt no trade, we were taught no knowledge. Everything I learnt, I learnt for myself. Sometimes I spent my time with Gen, sometimes I spent my time with my brother. He took me into the forests and the hills. He was two years older. He showed me snakes. He showed me hornets. We found the skull of a human being once, grey and stony and ancient, but neither one of us dared to touch it.
One day we were walking across a stony plateau when he happened to see a hole worn into the ground beneath our feet. It was a small hole. Very small. We could see the thickness of the stone and it was only an inch or so. It reminded us of eggshell. Were we standing on the tip of some giant egg? We got down on our bellies and we peered into the blackness of this small hole. My brother shouted down into the hollowness and his voice came back strange, strange enough that we both giggled. He leant down and stuck his arm through to see if he could feel anything, and felt, he said, something cold and slimy. I didn't dare to. Not then.
He grew bored. We got to our feet. We went home. Father had torn the floor of our hut up, looking for something but he had forgotten what.
My brother forgot about the hole. He had every right to. It was just a hole.
But I didn't.
The next fortnight, the rest of that summer, I found that all I could think about was that hole. All I could think about was its shape. All I could hear was its strange echo, all I could feel on my skin was its musky breath. I saw it behind my eyes, I poked its image into what was left of our rotting paper walls, I even dreamed about that hole. I am not lying. I dreamed about that hole, and what lay beneath it.
Later I would come to know this feeling, or something very much like it, as romance.
My first romance, my first obsession, was with a hole through stone my brother and I had stumbled upon.
Why? Have you ever known such strange romance? Can you explain why you felt it?
Can you explain why I felt it?
It took me a week to find the hole again. But I had to find it, and when I did I peered into it for an hour. This hole. It was just a hole. But I thought of whispering I am here with you down into that hole, the way I've whispered similar things into Gen's now severed ear. It was so small, this hole. It drew my eyes in, like a well draws in water. Suddenly the light changed, and in that moment I knew what I had to do. Clarity, I had a pure clarity - I knew that I had to get down into that hole. I knew that this hole was mine, that it was made for me. Who was I to reject this hole? I put my hand in, then an arm. I felt nothing. Then I stood up and I put one leg in, and I sat down and I tried to worm the other the leg through. No matter how I contorted, no matter how I twisted my pelvis I could not find a way to fit through it.
I looked at the hole, and then I guessed its secret.
The only way I could fit through, I realised, was if I went head first.
This was the hole's bargain with me. Dropping feet first into the unknown is scary, but going head first is an act of faith. That's an act of trust in the earth, in the world itself, that there's not some monstrous chasm waiting to swallow you, or that you won't drop six feet and crack your skull open upon a stalagmite. It's trusting that the world will love you and shelter you, because you're you. And it is quite something, I will tell you, to slide one arm in and then the other, to bow your head and dip your skull into blackness. It is quite something to wriggle the blades of of your shoulders back and forth, back and forth, inching forward til you have smothered all the light from your eyes with your own body. To hear your own breath now breathed entirely separate from the world you knew.
Blackness ahead. Only blackness.
It is an act of faith to keep going into that blackness. It is an act of faith to draw in your breath as tight as you may that you might shrink the breadth of your ribcage to allow you to roll yourself onwards left and right, left and right, wriggling, wriggling. Feel that cool stone, stronger than your bones, settle like a mouth upon your stomach. Will it bite? Will the earth shift, will I be snipped clean in two? I thought that thought, caught in blackness, my legs still above the surface, the blood in my body gathering behind my eyes. And then I thought, what if I were to become stuck here? My cries for help unheard, my body unfound? Caught like some plug, starving, suffocating? Half my bones above, half below.
If I'd done it now, of course, I'd have dropped a lit candle in first, but forgive me, I was a child captivated by forces I didn't understand.
I did those things. I felt that fear, I persevered. By the time I had worked my hips through my reaching hands had felt the ground below, and I did not tumble but rather turned myself about and slid down a small chute. I slid into warm dried grasses and leaves. I suffered not a single scratch. I stood and looked up into the circle of light. The strange shape of the hole, I could draw it for you. I remember the shape of it that well, because now that I had gone through that ordeal, now that I had fulfilled the romance the hole begged of me, this little chamber down here...
...it became mine.
No. It didn't, for it always mine. It was made for me, and I had found it. None but me could find this place, and none but me could fit in here. I'd share it with the animals, no-one else. I went there to sleep. I went there to eat. But the hole, it turned out, was not done with me.
What happened was I then developed the strange urge to fill that hole.
It felt empty and unloved, to me. Just me and dead leaves. It deserved more. It needed more. I brought at first a pillow and a blanket, and yes, then the candles I should have brought the first time. I brought fruits up there, apples, pears. I brought fine things I found within the woods, stones with fossils in them, the glimmering husks of cicadas, . My father kept drinking. My brother didn't know. Even Gen didn't know. But I needed more. The hole deserved more. There was a whittler in the village, and he whittled little figures out of wood. The hole deserved a whittled figure. The first thing I ever stole, I stole on account of that hole, just to place this little whittled fisherman on top of a cairn of flat slate stones I'd made. The figure belonged there. I belonged there. I felt that and I did these things, but what matters is that I did not know why I felt or did these things.
I think that constitutes the act of praying.
I think that hole was the first and only altar of my life.
Sometimes I think when I die, it would be right and proper to have my bones to put into that hole. Wouldn't it?
But that would mean telling someone else where the hole is, and all the apples in there are rotted now anyway.
My question remains however: why did I have that urge at all? Why does a human being have any urge of that sort? It makes no sense. An animal would probe that hole in order to find a home. I had a home already. An animal would probe that hole in order to find food. I had food already. There is no reason any other creature on this earth would do what I did for the reasons that I did it: the hole was there, I had to enter it. Even though I could have died doing it. This of course, in prior moments of respite, has led me down a spiritual discourse the answer of which I'm still not entirely certain of.
What I sometimes think is, was I meant to find that hole? If I'd not found that hole, if I'd not filled it with treasures, would I have walked this same path? Would I have learnt to climb and to sneak and to steal into other people's holes, as I have come to do?
What I wonder is, did finding that hole put the urge into me, or was it the urge that was already within that told me I needed the hole?
If I'd not found that hole, would I be able to do what I'm doing now, which is grasping at the edge of wet slate with both hands and swinging my body out like this?
Would I be able to do what I'm doing now, which is kicking my heels off the cliff face and feeling them slip not once, but twice, but catching something on the third try, like this?
Would I be able to do what I'm doing now, which is grabbing at a fresh nook over my head and feeling it loosen the moment I trust it enough to put my full weight upon it like this, the little yelp of shock I let escape behind my mask like this, the mad skittering ascent I make as I throw myself against the wall like a lizard, grasping it with my entire body, my thighs, my stomach, my elbows, my chin, and somehow ascending ten feet without knowing how on earth it is I am actually doing it...
Would I need to be doing it?
I allow myself to breathe. There was that feeling. That indescribable moment of pure action, pure consequence, of which I was just a witness. That nameless thing that stopped me from falling, and has granted me this safe purchase for a moment.
If I could be as that in every single moment, I think I could climb to the moon itself on nothing but clouds and light.
I rest my head against the stone.
Gen, you beautiful, hotheaded fool, how much you owe me.
I look up. Through the rain I see that I am close to the top now. To my left, there's another trunk that's been snapped by a gale, and it grows straight up close to the cliff face, and I'd guess if I were to just edge myself over to it and wedge my body between it and the slope, and then brace my legs like so, with one foot against the wood and one against the stone and begin to try and worm my way upward like this, bit by bit by bit...
pushing with the left...
I drag my body over the final rocky ridge and allow myself to lie still for twenty seconds.
I can see the dais, I can see the temple. Rain falls upon me. It's growing worse, the air is damp and pregnant...
...but I think beneath my bandana I am smiling.
I steal between the gloom of the trees. I have no time to waste. The ugly light is perfect but will not remain so for long. The rain is now my ally, massive as it sounds on my hood. Everything is hazed and murky and I keep myself low, moving at a pace a little faster than walking. The key when doing something such as this is not to dash from spot to spot to spot when you think it safe to do so. If someone is actively searching for you, then yes, do just that. But when you are trespassing and no-one yet knows you're there the key is to plot a course and drift through it, passing from those same spots without ever actually stopping at a single one. Sudden motion draws the eye. Fluid motion beguiles like the wind, especially in the half-light like this.
I am nothing.
I am a spectre.
The compound is quiet. A lantern flares into ignition behind a paper wall. I can see the little guardhouse, and I can see three of the guards sitting beneath a canopy wondering if the rain is going to grow worse. They don't want to venture outside, and that is fine by me. They are looking to the sky, they are looking to the gate and the road beyond. They have no care for the cliff face behind them, for who is it that's going to appear from there?
It's me, I want to tell them.
The hardest part, sometimes, is trying not to laugh.
I have spent a third of the hour upon the climb. That leaves me two thirds of an hour to search for the prize. As I glide my sodden spectral glide, I guess that the clergy here would not keep venal treasure in either the temple itself or the dark pagoda. I guess that though they have the temerity to sell false enlightenment, they would not actually dare to keep the spoils of such within their holiest sites. Everything is too well tended here to suggest they have truly abandoned their belief.
Forgive them holy Buddha, they were caught in their delusions.
Neither do I think they would keep the prize in the long, low dormitory. That would place it too close to too many people, and if these monks have been tempted to take a celestial bribe in the first place, then what's to say a few of them wouldn't be further tempted to help themselves to a little more of it than was fair?
O forgive them, holy Buddha!
They know not what they do!
That leaves me three other buildings, humble, mortal, and hopefully unpeopled Now that I can drift closer to them without being herded in a crowd, I determine the first is their storehouse. No. That is too humble. Too common. One of the other buildings is to my left, the other to my right. I choose the larger of the pair. It stands on stilts. As I draw near I can smell the thatch of its roof is in need of replacing. I come and I bring myself to the raised wooden porch that surrounds the entirety of the building and there with nothing more than my eyes raised above it I circle the building quickly, watching, listening. The building is surrounded by a bed of pale pebbles. Whatever sound my feet make upon them is hidden by the rain.
There are lights within. Male voices. Two of them, but the sound of rain on my hood smothers what they're saying exactly.
I stop. I watch the compound.
The spearmen are out of my sight.
Rain slides down the five tiers of the pagoda, gathering mass until it falls from the very lowest roof in beads heavy and fat as pearls.
I decide to go in.
I raise myself up onto the porch. All the doors are closed against the weather. I slide my feet along the boards as I draw up near to one. There I wait for a while before I dare to attempt to slide it open. Just as my fingers are closing on the frame, I hear something terribly familiar. It's faint, but clearer than the voices. Someone is moving, but its not the sound of feet I am hearing. I listen.
I listen harder.
Don-don-don go the hammers.
Shut up, hammers!
No, I hear it now, beyond the rain, beyond the hammers: scree... scree... scree... perfectly in time to the pace of a man walking calmly.
This is not a single loose floorboard crying out for mending. It carries on much too long and much too identically. I realise what they have in there is something called a nightingale floor. Beneath each floorboard is set a carefully manufactured spring. When weight is put upon the spring, it cries out crisply and clearly in a high pitched creak. They ought to have called it a grasshopper floor, I sometimes think. It is a thing invented and designed specifically to stop people such as myself intruding upon places they should not be.
You might, therefore, guess my opinion of them.
Behind my bandana, my lips move but say nothing. If I cannot walk in then I'll have to go through the roof. That'll add on time, and I've got no time to even rue the fact that this will add on time. I ghost away from the door immediately and start looking. I see what I need nearby, a cistern on which I climb, which takes me halfway up, and then with a half-hop and a half-a-roll I am up upon the roof and sinking into soaking, rotting thatch. The topmost layer of reeds remains sharp and brittle, but beneath it lies a stinking mulch. It smells exactly like what it is, a strata of bog filth pinned here much too long ago. I don't care. My mask shields me.
At the peak of the roof after a little search I find what I seek: a little mullioned flue for hearthsmoke to escape through. It is concealed, barely visible and designed to be so, but it is it there. I slide a hand inside, probe it quickly, and I feel ashes and wood and nothing that would impede my entry.
From its bottom to its top, I reckon I could make about three fists, one on top of the other, and no more.
That is what I shall have to fit myself through, and this is another example of a thing no-one else I know can do. They are much too big, they are much too cumbersome. But me, I roll onto my back and I turn my head to the side, and then guiding myself with my outstretched hands I begin to work my body out of the rain and into the flue slowly and patiently, careful not to make a noise. Wood now presses on either side of my skull at the same time. That'd drive you mad, if you endured it too long. What's worse is the entry of my chest. My ribs bend inward. My lungs can no longer inflate as they want to. I must hold my breath as I can, then breathe in only quarter-breaths when I must. The body panics when it wants a full lungful but is impeded unnaturally. There's not many that can kill this panic, but I can. Breathe in through the mouth and out through the nose. Patient and certain, I advance. Even though I am suffocating, even though I feel rotten, turgid thatch creeping down the neck of my hood, I do not make a noise. It smells like a swamp, it feels like runny shit, I feel it crawling deeper and deeper across my body, but I do not make a noise.
Oh, Gen, you're going to bathe me in rosewater for this.
The motion I must make to even move in such a small space does not come from my feet. It begins with the hips, a serpentine shuffle that pushes me forward a half-inch at a time. Half-inches, half-breaths, half-light. Doused with rain then painted with sludge then dredged in dry ashes. My hands emerge on the other side, then my head, then my chest, my hips... That first breath, that first true breath when the lungs are free once more, it is tempting to gasp at it. But I do not. I have learnt not to. I feel my chest inflate, and then I allow myself to draw in breath through my nose, no more. Heaven, it's a sweeter breath of air than any you can breathe.
Go ask the drowning, if you must.
I am now in the rafters.
I lie with my arms and my legs wrapped around a single beam. There's perhaps a foot of space between myself and the ceiling of thatch. The black beams stretch out before me in shadow. Four rooms of size, a few smaller ones. Light in but a single one. I shuffle forward. Again, it is a similar motion from the hips. I must not raise the weight of my body and let it fall on the beam, for that may cause it to groan or to snap in its holdings. It may cause dust to fall. What I must do is to keep the entirety of my weight balanced upon it at all times, and push with the toes and pull with the fingers and wind with my waist.
I can hear, every ten heartbeats or so, the loud, resonant impact of a drip of rainwater falling into a half-full iron pot.
An expensive nightingale floor, a leak in the rotting roof.
These men have definite priorities.
I work my way towards the nexus of the rafter beams. Candlelight ahead. I pull my hood up and cover my eyes with one hand before I allow myself to look down into the room from which it shines. The glimmer of flame in eyes can be stark in shadow, and so when I look down I look down through one eye only, peeking through the barest sliver between my fingers. I see a priest and an acolyte, or a lesser priest, or an apprentice, or whatever it is they are called. The bald priest is sat cross-legged, a half-written letter on an easel before him. I cannot read what the letter says, for I cannot read. The priest wears robes black as the ink of his brush.
The acolyte stands to one side, wearing a humble jerkin of grey.
The priest turns his head and says, “When I have written this, I would care to shave.”
The acolyte says, “I shall heat water.”
The priest says, “I meant, I would care for you shave me.”
The acolyte does not say anything for a moment, a moment in which single drop of rain strikes the pot of water in another room.
Through the crevice of my fingers, I witness the acolyte say, “I thought I was to be spared...”
The priest says, slowly, coyly, “Who was it that spared you?”
The acolyte says, “You, master.”
The priest says, “Then, quite obviously, you are no longer spared.”
The acolyte bows his head. The priest resumes his writing.
Behind my mask, in a silent voice, with lips that do not move, I say: You're going to walk five hundred miles for Tottori peaches, Gen.
There is nothing I can see within the room that might hold a chest of gold. But when the priest holds his hand out for a seal and the acolyte crosses the room to fetch it for him, I do not hear the creaking of a nightingale floor. This grants me hope. Perhaps, I think, it is just the corridors that have been nightingaled. I retreat to examine the other rooms. The edges of the rafters grow sharp beneath me, digging into my flesh. I worry for the light outside. I must be quick now, quicker. I see a simple bedroom with a litter and a pillow and no more. I see another room with another easel and a thousand imperfect attempts at drawing a perfect circle scattered in frustration across the floor. Then I see a room that is lined with shelves and with cupboards and with chests.
If the prize would be anywhere, I suppose it would be here.
I hear the priest say, “I miss you. No-one shaves me with your skill. I get so coarse.”
But I wonder, has this room been spared the telltale springs?
I hear the priest say, “Heaven resides within my motes, child. In the smallest parts of me, in my meanest hairs from my scalp and elsewhere...”
A drop of rain echoes through the building like a bell.
There is only one way to find out.
I prepare to lower myself in the way that I was taught. The man who taught me said that using this method, one could lower themselves from anywhere onto anything and never be detected. He called it the Arrow-Leaf technique. The man who taught me was not Eiji or Gen. The man who taught me is elsewhere now. Truthfully he was elsewhere in his spirit when he taught me this also. But I remember what he showed me, of how one must manoeuvre oneself so that the beam or bough or whatever it is you happen to be lowering yourself from runs across your chest. Then you must reach down and around and grab the far side of the beam from beneath you. You are now coiled like a knot around this beam, and what you must do is cross your feet at the ankle and then bring your legs over your head and then lower your body downwards.
You must not swing, for you may swing into something you do not intend to.
You must not fall, for the bones of your arms may pop in their sockets.
You must lower yourself as calmly and as fluidly as you must move between trees. The strength this requires is significant. It is the use of every muscle in the body at once. I roll forward, bringing my head down around the beam towards my hands and my body follows. My shoulders, my hips, my thighs. I keep my legs straight, my ankles crossed, my stomach taut as drumskin. I am careful not to strike the ceiling with my calfs or my heels in my rotation. I hang there for a moment, my fingers on the beam, my chin between them, my legs held perfectly parallel to the ground. Then I lower myself through my arms, til I am holding myself at almost full stretch – but crucially not hanging, you understand, where my ligaments might creak, but rather holding myself at the precise position that lies as close to hanging as is possible – and then I lower my legs towards the floor.
My gloved hands now dig into the beam, my feet hover a foot above the boards below.
I wait for the drop of rain to come again.
I wait, fire in my spine, my shoulders, my fingers. I wait, because you cannot simply fall into the landing. You must see it not as falling but rather as casting yourself like an arrow, in a way. This is why it is called the Arrow-Leaf technique. It is a definite motion between one position and the next, a transition between not-hanging into landing, trusting yourself and not the laws of the world. When you strike the ground you must sink immediately, with every muscle moving as one, into a crouch, with your weight on your toes and your knees spread wide and your fingertips resting on the ground. The assumption of this stance is crucial. Your mass and your velocity must be dispersed through the length of you as you sink into the stance, killing this energy without stumbling, without staggering. It took me months of attempts before I first achieved it.
It feels like months again, hanging here. Were my fingers not covered in gloves, my nails would be gouging notches into the beam right now.
I wait for the rain, I worry over nightingales, I count eight-nine-ten...
The only sound that resonates through the hallways is: splot
In my immaculate crouch, I look immediately to the shadows on the paper walls. The heads of the priest and his skilled barber boy do not turn. The floor is silent. I am spared. I am invisible still. I move quickly. No time. No time. On the shelves are ledgers and oddities. An ox horn, a red-beaded abacus, a plaster cat of good fortune that has his head turned to an odd angle. In the corner of the room sits a straw cask of rice. I ignore it. The first cupboard I open I find theatre masks hung upon hooks. A tiny-mouthed maiden, a bristle-browed tengu, a yellow-eyed namahage. I close the door, reset the latch. In the chests I find papers. I am beginning to grow worried. Is one of these a vow for five hundred years of rice? I search everything, I undo locks, I fret over the rust of hinges, I slide and I shimmy and I probe and I pry, and in all these chests and all these drawers I find nothing but leftovers and relics and refuse. I am about to escape to try the next building in whatever meagre span of minutes I have left, when my eyes fall on the straw cask of rice once more.
It's then that I think, Why would a straw cask of rice be in here, and not in the storeroom?
Great lord Buddha, forgive these amateurs for they know not what they do. I take off the lid of the cask and inside this straw cask I find a polished redwood chest with a black iron handle.
The chest is not even locked. The lid slides lasciviously open…
...and within I see the exact amount of golden coins it takes to enter heaven.
You're going to smile at me the way you do, Gen.
It's not rice, it's not salt, it's gold, actual gold, already shaped into coins, coins that Senju will gleefully accept. The chest is bigger than I thought. Much too big for me to carry or to fit through the flue in the roof through which I entered. I have anticipated this. I have with me a velvet bag and I take this out and with great care, one by one I place the coins within the bag. I do not drop the coins. I spread the bag open on the floor, and place them within one by one. I stack them in two neat rows each a foot high, and when these rows are done I take the bag and draw it up around the columns, and then fold it tight as I can around them. I draw it tight as skin around bone. I will not reveal myself with a rattle. I slip the bag over my shoulder and it hangs there steady and silent as a club.
Steady as Senju's hammer.
It's half of what I could have taken, but it's more than enough to pay what Gen owes, and pay Eiji for his help. That's all I need. I am not greedy. I am focused. I must be focused. I am focused as I make my exit. I am focused as I wrap my thighs around the pillar and cross my ankles and draw myself up to the rafters once again. I am focused as I slide along the black beams, listening to the slap of rainwater and the murmuring of a hairy, coarse priest. I am focused as I place the taut bag of coins out through the flue first, I am focused as I roll onto my back and worm my way back out through the filth and the scratching reeds with the exact same patience and silence and suffocation as with which I entered. I am focused as I reclaim my bag of coins, as I reset it across my shoulder. I am focused in the rain and in the gloom of twilight once more, so very focused as I roll my body down to the roof's edge and grab a handful of thatch, as I roll my legs away and out, as I lower my body slowly down.
I am so focused in this moment, that when I land upon the porch I suddenly feel a terrible alertness.
I trust the instinct, even though there's not another person within my sight. I stop where I am. I wait, I watch, I listen. The first thing you must know about running is that if you intend to run, first you must know the direction from which you are running from. Has someone noticed the theft? No. That cannot be. They would have cried out.
Everything seems as it was.
Why is it then, that I have this feeling?
I wait. I listen. I sink low into an even lower crouch. The rain whispers as it falls from the eaves. I hear no footfall. I hear no nightingale spring sigh.
But I remain aware of something.
I remain entirely. completely aware of a presence.
It moves me enough to slowly draw my dirk. The dirk's a thing I'm not supposed to have, a thing I've never had cause to use, but I keep it on the back of my left forearm in a sheathe all the same. Its blade is six inches long, thin as a needle, and it has a wicked sharp point. It eases into my right hand smoothly. I hold it, I wait. Where is this noise coming from? Where is this presence?
I hold my breath, I listen, I wait.
It's drawing nearer. I can feel it.
I can feel...
I realise, then, that the sound is seeping up from below me.
It is creeping up through the floorboards. Something is beneath the house. I look now between them and I can see a shape or a shadow down there. It's a dog or a bear or a pig, the way it is breathing. The way it lurches ponderously. I feel the wood I stand on shudder. It's knocked into one of the foundations. It doesn't care. It has mass, it has weight. What is it? A dog? A man on his hands and knees? I watch the shape as it lumbers beneath me, not daring to move, not wanting to let it know I am here, I watch it as it draws to the edge of the platform, I hear the sound of the rain change as it begins to fall upon this thing that is emerging...
...and then it rises up suddenly and I swear to you that its nothing but ink.
It's ink, it's a cloud, it's, it's... I fall over backwards. I drop my dirk. The thing rears up. It is slow and it is torpid and it has no bones it has no hands it has no head it has no shape. It is groaning, moaning at me. Or is it looking at the garden? Where are its eyes? The light is dying and here is its death. There's a human voice beneath the groaning. It's trying to speak but I do not want to listen. I have no ears for it. I have Gengoro's ear in a case in a sleeve against my breast but I will not listen. I have no ears, I have no mouth. I begin to scrabble backwards on the heels of my feet and the heels of my hands. The thing remains where it is, bubbling, sighing. The wood is slick and wet. I pick up my dirk from where it fell and throw it the thing. My throw is short. I throw the coins I have stolen at it. It isn't turning, I don't know if it's coming for me, I don't know, I don't know, but if it isn't coming for me than why has it risen? It is coming, it turns in its oily torpor and I throw the coins in their bag at it and then I get to my feet and I run.
I run quick enough that the spearmen have not even turned their heads before I'm past them.
I run through the gate and the men shout behind me, but they're not going to chase me, not in this weather.
I run down the darkening path, I run until I see lights once again, and there, soaked and breathless and streaked with wet clay, I place my hands upon my knees and I bend double and I allow myself to vomit.
The hammers, of course, are going don-don-don.