Sunday, July 31, 2011

Short Story: 'White Knife'

White Knife

When the merchant Master Rai came to the physician Master Ema’s house at the upper end of the village where the stream bubbled out of the mountains in a pale torrent, the snow was melting from the high slopes and the buds on the trees were just beginning to unfurl into tender pale young leaves. The physician’s house was set just aside from the stream, low and thatched, separated by a wide garden already bursting with early flowers and spices from the narrow but hard-packed road that went up from the village into the mountains’ hulking palisades. Master Rai came to the garden gate and swung it open with a boorish bang and went up to the front door, which went into the house by way of the apothecary, a perpetually dim room now lit through the slots under the eaves and at nighttime by water-lanterns and candles.
            The north wall of the apothecary was covered for the first six feet up, ending just about a handsbreadth beneath the slot at the bottom of the sloping ceiling, with row upon row on shelf upon shelf of small jars, some of native clay, some of Chinese porcelain or Dutch glass, bearing little paper labels on which Master Ema or his daughter had written the names of almost every manner of drug and medicinal herb in their small, spidery, nearly identical hands. On the south wall were anatomical charts from China and long lists and tables describing the properties of the ingredients on the north wall. In the middle of the room was a large low table; Master Ema was crouched over this table now, his thin back quivering in time with the work that his hands were doing. In his left hand was a lump of what looked like ginger, probably stored without air or moisture in one of the Dutch jars for the gods only knew how long; in his right hand was a short sharp knife that gleamed in the light from below the eaves. Every few seconds the right hand would come down on the left, cutting off another tiny chunk of ginger, which Master Ema would then almost mechanically pick up and cast into a small bowl.
            Master Ema was tall, over five and a half feet, and thin as a boating pole. His face was somewhat pinched, his nose long between the Chinese lenses in his oddly light eyes. Probably some of the blood of the furthest North ran through his veins. It took him well over a minute to notice Master Rai and several seconds beyond to follow through on his surprised grunt and look up from his cutting. By that point all but a little dirt-crusted butt of the ginger had been chopped up and put into the bowl.
            ‘Rai-san,’ Master Ema said. ‘I didn’t see you come in.’ He smiled. His smile was very thin and ironic and did not show even a hint of teeth. It was the smile of a man whose smile had to reassure without  being crass or accept without being unnerving. ‘What brings you here?’
            ‘I’m worried,’ Rai said. Rai was more cosmopolitan than Ema in one sense—he was from Osaka, the merchants’ capital, having come up to this little village to ply his trade with fur and fruit and timber after the birth of his daughter and the death of his wife. But he was blunter, less familiar in theory with the broader world even if he had lived and moved in it more than Ema had. So he did not gild his worry; he only said that he was worried and left it to Ema to pry out more.
            ‘About your health?’ Ema asked, a natural thing for him to assume considering his position and the fact that Rai was not by any means an especial friend of his. Their daughters, Rai Ohana and Ema Moko, were friends; but the daughters’ feelings did not translate upward through the years to the fathers, who knew each other and liked each other only as well as anybody else did in a village of a thousand so high in the hills. As this was still considerably well, Master Ema was intimately familiar with the strange history of Master Rai’s body and its health. In his youngest days healthy, he had had an accident along the shoreline of Mie twenty years ago, and his back had never been the same. The back was the spine of the core and moved the rest of the core as well as the appendages with it.
            ‘It’s not about my health,’ said Master Rai. He set about looking for a place to sit. If Master Ema was going to play the fool this might take a while. But Master Rai was cleverer than that.
            For the past two years since they had become very close Ohana had gone with Moko around the village or into the hills almost every day when there was no particular necessity for her at home. They were frequently seen thick almost as blood together on the roads and in the little shops in the middle of the one dusty track along which the cross-axis of the village had bloomed so long ago. Rai did not particularly mind this in the beginning but Ohana was now in her seventeenth year. It was very possible that within a year or two the time would come to find a match for her or at least begin a tentative line of half-formed wilderness omiai, and no father of course could ever be desirous that his daughter feel as if she were losing too much. Best to break things now as much as could be without destroying their admittedly perfectly good friendship. Things did not change very much in this world and Rai wanted nothing but the best within that.
            ‘Where are our daughters?’ asked Master Rai. Master Ema at first said nothing; he brushed off and finished cutting the last bit of the ginger, put it in the bowl, and then poured some water into the bowl from a large brown jug, clapped a sieve over the bowl, and turned it on itself so that the water bore the dirt up against and through the sieve to the packed earth of the floor. ‘Where are our daughters?’ asked Master Rai again.
           ‘They have gone into the mountains,’ Master Ema replied, ‘where the snow still is, to pull the fresh arrowroot. When they get back I expect their hands will be chapped and fingertips cracked and red. I’ll wash them and dry them with a clean cloth.’
            ‘I’m concerned about that,’ said Master Rai.
            ‘About your daughter’s health? Ohana is such a strong and sprightly girl, Rai-san. But of course I understand a father’s concern.’
            ‘The concern is not about Ohana’s health,’ said Master Rai. ‘It’s about the way she spends her time.’
            ‘And how is that?’
            ‘Mostly with your daughter,’ said Rai. ‘Are you trying to get at me, Ema-san? I assure you that I’m not some idiot and so I know that neither are you.’
            ‘Is there something you are suspicious of?’ Ema dumped the chopped and rinsed ginger into a jar to dry again. Then he went over to the northern wall and got a jar labelled osake vinegar. He stood beneath the light gazing back over his shoulder at Rai, waiting for what Rai would say to him.
            ‘I’m not ‘suspicious’ of anything,’ said Rai. ‘Our daughters are each in their seventeenth year. I am sure you know the power and the danger of the passionate age of seventeen just as well as I do.’
            ‘When I was seventeen,’ said Ema, ‘I already knew, at least in the vague essence, what I wanted my life to be like.’
            ‘What was that,’ asked Rai, ‘and when was it?’
            ‘I knew that I wanted to be a doctor of physic and make people well,’ said Ema, ‘because in the village I lived in far to the north in the land of Oku we did not have anybody to save us when the plague struck except for the village wise-women.’
            ‘You wanted to replace the wise-women?’
            ‘Not replace. I wanted to be something like them. Rai-san, I grew up in a land so remote that it is as far beyond the Barrier of Shirakawa as the Barrier of Shirakawa is beyond Edo. That was where I found my bride, whom I took with me to the Capital to learn from Chinese and Dutch books. She bore me Moko in the Capital and died. We are not different, you and I.’
           Rai frowned. He had not asked to hear Ema’s life story; he had asked about the whereabouts of his daughter, whom he wanted to see more of, as much more of as he could. Ema seemed to like winding him up like this. It bothered him and added to his fears and concerns about Ohana and what she was doing with her life. She had always liked to run freely in the fields and hills and he had always let her; now what was to become of them with this sly barbarian who was facing him now?
            ‘It was in the third year when the Empress Go-Sakuramachi was on the throne,’ Ema said, ‘that Moko was born and my dear Eri died in the Capital. The next year I finished my studies and came to this village. We really are not different, any more than our daughters are.’
            ‘What is so much the same about our daughters?’ asked Rai.
            ‘Ask them,’ said Ema. ‘I hear them coming back right now.’
            Rai listened, and for the first few moments he could not hear it; but then indeed he could hear the chattering voices of his daughter and Ema Moko on the road back down from the mountains. ‘—so much of this arrowroot my arms scarcely can hold it all!’ ‘—beauty of the snow—’ ‘—up in the mountains, when you can see the whole world under you.’ ‘—my hands! See how chapped and cracked they are!’ ‘Your father will take care of that, I trust.’ ‘Naturally.’
            They came to the garden gate. Ema Moko was tall, as tall as her father if not taller, several inches at least taller than Rai. She was thin but not as thin as her father and possessed of a firm yet delicate beauty like the peaks that the snow never left glinting at sunset like peaches covered in salt. Rai Ohana was short and beautiful more in the fashionable way of Osaka or the Capital. Both girls wore simple brown kimono of thick low-grade silk, white snow melting into black patches of wetness in the folds. Both carried enormous armfuls of arrowroot from which also the snow was still melting. The broad many-angled leaves trailed down around their hands like overflowing bushels of flowers.
            ‘Father!’ said Ohana with a smile. ‘What brings you here?’
            ‘I want you to come home with me,’ Rai said. ‘I worry about you, Ohana. I worry about what you do with your time and your choices.’
            ‘Excuse me?’ said Moko sweetly. ‘What’s wrong, Rai-san?’
            Rai frowned, his tongue working against his teeth and his teeth against the insides of his cheeks. ‘Moko-chan,’ he said, ‘your father comes from the land of Oku where the ways are different. He may not have taught you that the delights of childhood cannot last as far as the seventeenth year.’
            Moko thought about this for a minute and said whimsically ‘Why should delight be only of childhood?’ She went past Rai with a light bow, past her father with a slightly deeper one, into the house. ‘I am going to wash my arrowroot in the stream,’ she said. ‘The hard earth from the mountains is still on it.’
            ‘All right,’ Ema called. He looked back at Rai and his daughter. Ohana looked angry and slightly afraid. ‘Ohana-chan,’ Ema said, ‘what’s wrong?’
            ‘It’s him,’ Ohana said, very softly, and followed Moko into the house
            After that day Ohana scarcely came home any more except at night and Master Rai began to sleep on a pallet in his storehouse. He had not noticed before that the statue of Yakushi Nyōrai that he had in his storehouse to look over his wares was from the same maker as the statue of Yakushi Nyōrai in Master Ema’s apothecary. Somehow this came to bother him greatly.
            He worried about Ohana more and more. There was something waxing close and sly about her manner as there had scarcely ever been before, certainly not when she was an innocent child eager to learn at her father’s knee. Now she was nearly a woman grown and the second obedience would soon be upon her; she wanted to remain a child yet she would not listen to her father. What kind of unruly child did Ohana want to be? It bothered Master Rai and he could not imagine it stopping.
            Increasingly he noticed it when people did not look at him in the street of the little village, when people did not greet him. He became more and more suspicious of them and more and more convinced, or half convinced at least, that it was on account of his daughter who was so recalcitrant and strange. And she was a strange and wild one indeed, becoming increasingly so under the only increasing influence of that barbarian’s daughter, Capital-born or no. He would lie on his pallet long into the morning with the light streaming into the storehouse the same way it streamed into the apothecary until the first customers started to arrive, usually just before midday, and his apprentice Tōru had them come round knocking. He would lie there feeling the most intense worry for his daughter and dislike of Ema Moko. Try as he might he couldn’t really make himself dislike Master Ema himself. Disliking was tied to difference in his townsman’s mind.
            The day Master Rai decided to confront Master Ema again he was woken early during a dawn thunderstorm. The lightning traced along the serrated edge of the mountain basin in which the village faintly sprawled like an ungainly bird. The rain was cold, maybe only the tiniest bit above freezing as on the ground, which seemed to be a little colder than the air, was a treacherous pap of slush and frost. Rai pulled a thick furred coat around himself and ventured out into the cold. He trudged up to the apothecary cursing the rain, which was beginning to turn into snow after all.
            Not seeing Master Ema in the apothecary, Master Rai continued into the house. Ema was sitting with Ohana and Moko around a sunken brazier which glowed cherry-red beneath a gurgling kettle.
            ‘Oh, hello, father,’ said Ohana, a little too flatly for comfort. ‘We’re drinking tea. Moko and I are both on our second cup; Ema-sensei is on his third.’
            ‘Would you like some, Rai-san?’ asked Ema with a smile slightly broader than his usual but still closed and somewhat sly. Ema clearly did not see or did not care how angry Rai was becoming.
            ‘No, I would not,’ said Rai. ‘May I sit down, though?’
            ‘Of course.’
            Rai sat down, folding his thick legs beneath him and easing his creaking joints down into a stable sitting position, not as formal as Ema’s or the girls’. How was Ema sitting more formally than him? Ema wasn’t proper. Ema didn’t know how to be proper. Rai felt resentment boiling up in him at last. Finally—it made sense that way.
            ‘Ohana,’ said Rai.
            ‘What is it, father?’ she asked in a woolly tone that like Ema’s smile was obviously pasted on to deceive him.
            ‘You need to come home with me and stay home with me. I don’t want you spending so much time with Moko-chan.’
            Rai thought that Moko would finally become angry over this but she did not. She just flinched a little and sat drinking her tea. Was Ema Moko ever angry? Why would the barbarian girl not rage? Rai felt his heart beating harder and faster, felt some unidentifiable judging eye upon him. It wasn’t his fault! It was this girl, this girl, this girl, this girl, this girl…!
            ‘Why do you say that, father?’ Ohana asked, unable to hide the darkness from her voice. No, there was no darkness within it. It was light. It was light but it was a light that was cutting at him violently and with no regard for how much he cared, no regard for who really had her interests in mind in this world that of course was not changing.
            ‘I say that because you are in your seventeenth year,’ said Rai. ‘Ohana, I have been entirely too lenient with you in making it known that soon it will be time for you to marry and take the second obedience. You were always a dutiful daughter. Why will you not be a dutiful daughter now?’
            ‘Love,’ said Ohana simply, sipping her tea.
           ‘Love for who? What? You are bringing us shame, Ohana, do you understand that?’ Rai was on his feet now, and shouting. ‘Shame, Ohana, actual shame. Do you know the way people look away from me in the street, because I have so unruly and unpredictable a daughter? Do you know how you are destroying your own chances?’
            ‘How is anything that Ohana is doing bringing you shame, Rai-san?’ asked Ema with a cocked eye beneath those foreign lenses of his. How was the barbarian so worldly? How did the heathen not rage? ‘She is not lying with any man nor is she destroying the fortunes of your family.’
            ‘She is destroying the fortunes of our family,’ Rai said softly, weakly.
            ‘How is she doing that? Why do you say that she is doing that?’
            ‘Don’t play the fool any longer, Ema-san. You know the way the world works. You know what a woman needs to…’ He trailed off. He felt weak. He had no idea where this sudden weakness was coming from. There was something about the effects of light in the room, oddly white as the spring blizzard went on though the main source of the light was the cherry-coloured brazier.
            The four sat in silence for a moment and then Moko said airily, as if her mouth was in the clouds, ‘It’s days like this when you think that the yuki-onna might come down out of the mountains. Maybe with a flock of tengu or something, I don’t know.’ She shrugged and sipped some more of her tea.
            ‘What?’ said Rai.
            ‘Yuki-onna,’ said Moko. ‘She lives up in the mountains. She’s a lady of the snow, the spirit of a woman who died in the mountains a long time ago. Maybe she’s the ghost of a mountain witch.’
            ‘What does yuki-onna have to do with my daughter?’ Rai demanded. ‘Ema-san, your daughter is strange.’
            ‘I know it,’ said Ema.
            ‘Yuki-onna,’ said Moko again. ‘She lives up in the mountains.’ Moko poured herself another cup of tea, swishing it around a little in the plum-coloured clay cup before taking her first sip. Rai felt his eyebrows twitching. This woman was so sly. There was something much more profoundly strange about her than about her father, and his daughter was taking that into her own being.
            ‘I know the legends,’ said Rai.
‘The legends?’ said Moko.
‘The barbarian legends, the legends of people who live beyond the Barrier of Shirakawa and eat snow for food!’
            ‘Really? I first heard of such terror in the snow in the mountains around the Capital,’ said Moko, ‘when father and I went on a retreat at the famous temples of Mt Hiei. The lady of the cold is lonely. She’s in an environment always white and always cold. So when travellers come along she wants to stay with them, but as she has frozen to death they can only be ‘with’ her the same way.’
            ‘I’m not here to tell ghost stories, Ema-san,’ said Rai, his tone alternately furious and pleading even within this sentence.
            ‘Please address the person who is speaking to you,’ Ema said, decorous, fastidious. ‘Rai-san, I like you. The simple fact is that my daughter is probably trying to calm your daughter down.’
            ‘You’re not wrong,’ said Moko. She reached out, hand splayed like the points of a maple leaf. Ohana reached out also and their fingers met and twined. The two girls sat drinking tea in deepening silence inside while outside the last storm of winter raged all the more furiously. Rai felt suddenly cold inside.
            ‘You need to come home with me, Ohana,’ he said, ‘right now, or I will involve the village headman. You are bringing our family down, whether your friend and her father understand why or not.’ He was becoming desperate. Now Ohana had gone beyond anger into calmness, while Moko and her father remained calm as they had been throughout this whole matter. ‘If there is any other way that you can think of,’ he said, ‘please tell me. I mean it. I would like to hear it, because I don’t want you to hate me since I care so much about you.’ His heart was breaking for his daughter.
            ‘If we think of it,’ said Moko, ‘we’ll let you know, Rai-san. I promise.’
            ‘I was asking her, not you.’
            ‘This is a matter that concerns both of us,’ said Moko, ‘because Ohana is a friend of mine. Probably she is the best I have ever had. The only other person is yuki-onna, though I’ve never met her. Yet there she is in this white world.’
            Rai, frustrated, burst out ‘Capital-born barbarian! You have no world! How could you possibly understand what somebody who has to live in reality is dealing with? This world will never be any better for people like you, and you will only be sadder, never any wiser, until the end of the samsara!’
            Nobody said anything for several minutes. The only sounds were the brazier and the storm. The sleet was melting from Rai’s coat, which he had not taken off when he came in. Ema’s eyes were cold in their greyness behind the glasses. Rai knew that he was no longer welcome in this place but he was waiting until somebody said so. He would never leave his daughter of his own volition again. He felt defeated.
            Ema sealed his defeat. ‘Please go home, Rai-san,’ he said. ‘You don’t look well. You shouldn’t have come all this way through the storm. I can give you some leeks and ginger tea and that should help you feel better.’
            ‘It…wasn’t as stormy when I was making my way here,’ said Rai.
            Ema nodded. ‘I understand.’
            The two men stood up and went out into the apothecary. Ema took some of the chopped and rinsed and re-dried ginger from the last time Rai had visited and mixed it with tea leaves. He measured out a portion of this, wrapped it in thin rice paper, and handed it to Rai. ‘Thank you,’ said Rai. Then Ema went back into the house, said something to the girls which Rai could not make out, and came back out with a leek. This he also handed to Rai. ‘Thank you,’ said Rai. There was nothing else he could say to Master Ema any more.
            Rai left and trudged back out through the garden. As he swung the gate open and shut and went back out into the road he heard a certain flare or roar from the brazier, a flare or roar the likes of which he had not heard since the time he had burned his hand in the winter of his eleventh year. That was twenty-seven years past now. Time got so much away from him. He heard a girl’s voice wailing and Master Ema’s voice hissing something and Master Ema running back out into the apothecary again. Master Rai shrugged and trudged on home. As he walked he began to weep.
            The next day Rai did not get up even when his apprentice came to wake him. ‘You deal with them, Tōru,’ he said, his voice weak. It was sunny out again to-day. After Tōru went back out Rai took a knife and cut into the leek that Ema had given him and held it over a fire until it started weeping moisture. He took the moist, flaccid, warm strips of leek and laid them over his throat and went back to bed that way.
            It was another few hours before he heard another knock at his door. ‘Tōru, I told you to deal with them to-day!’ he shouted.
            ‘It’s not Tōru,’ came a soft voice with a tempered thrill like the mountain wind. ‘May we please come in, Rai-san?’
            ‘Moko-chan,’ he said. No longer did he say it with anger or hate. He had a premonition that soon those feelings would go away, to be replaced he knew not with what. Were they bringing him his only child back at last? Would his household be restored? Would Ohana have the three obediences and the security that they would give her after all? He got up, peeled the leeks off of his throat, which did in fact feel a bit better now, and went to open the door of the storehouse.
            All three of them were there, the girls with their heads in blue hoods. How strange. It wasn’t raining or snowing any more. ‘I’m sorry about this, Rai,’ said Ema, ‘but it does solve the problem, you will admit. Nobody will refuse to look at you in the street any more, I’d wager. That isn’t why I suggested this initially, though. I suggested it because my old great-aunt did the same thing.’
           ‘What did they do?’ asked Rai. The girls came into the storehouse and he saw that their faces were bandaged. ‘Wait. Did they hurt themselves somehow? Are they all right?’ The sentiment of concern was coming back to him, now for the other girl as well as his own. He wished that he could feel glad about this but with concern there was coming something else, something that made his stomach roil and jump.
            ‘They’re all right,’ said Ema. ‘This part was not my idea, actually.’ He frowned. ‘They will be all right, though.’
            ‘Wait,’ said Rai. ‘Did they deliberately…’ He grabbed Ema by the shoulders and shook the thin man to and fro like a cloth doll. ‘What kind of a fool are you? What kind of a fool do you take me for, you barbarian?’
            ‘Please stop shaking me,’ said Ema. Rai nodded. Rai sat down and Ema sat down with him. They sat on old stumps just outside the storehouse, looking up into the sky, blue from the three circumscribed horizons of the mountains right down to a bank of wispy grey clouds where the valley fell to the south. The sun was just past its highest point, just beginning to sink in the direction of Ema’s house.
            ‘What did they do?’ asked Rai.
            ‘Turn around,’ said Ema.
            Rai turned around. The girls had taken their hoods off. Their heads were shaven back past the crown, red domes rearing up above their brows, the redness from the irritation of shaving those parts for the first time already beginning to fade back into the normal clouded whiteness of their skin. The bandages wrapped around their faces in the middle and at the bottom, covering noses, cheekbones, chins. Some little tips of angry purple that poked out around the edges of the bandages were clearly blisters or the remains of blisters and as he gazed, shocked, upon them he saw that there were shadows of more blisters in great clusters strewn across their faces underneath the thin cloth of the bandages. ‘Sorry,’ said Moko simply.
            It was then that Rai understood everything that the girls had done and intended. When he had left they had put their faces to the brazier. The blisters would heal but scars would remain, deep knotted scars all over their noses and all over their chins and speckled across the most prominent parts of their cheeks. No amount of makeup would be able to hide them for omiai. They had shaved their heads as the nuns did at the convent three valleys over, on the way north to Sarashina and Nagano. To be sure it was not shameful to him; to be sure he would be respected. Revered, even, perhaps, if he was to become the father of a saint.
            Even so, Rai stood up with tears streaming down his cheeks and splattering on to his clothes and his shoes and the ground beneath his feet. ‘Why?’ he said. ‘—Why?’
            ‘We couldn’t simply run away,’ said Ohana, her voice strained a little from the obvious pain that her chin straining against the bandages gave her as she spoke. ‘That would have brought real shame to you, I don’t doubt. So renouncing the world, which as you said would make me do certain things—and Moko, too, down the line, I am sure—was the other option. I think it’s a better option.’
            ‘You never went to the shrine when I did! You’ve never been strong in the faith of that convent.’
            ‘Anybody can become strong,’ said Ohana. ‘You do it by exercising. My body became strong running in the mountains with Moko as I have. Now my soul might become strong as well. I hope so much that it does.’
            Rai noticed that his daughter was avoiding meeting his eyes. ‘Look at me,’ he said. ‘Please, Ohana.’
            ‘You don’t want me to,’ Ohana said.
            ‘Yes I do! I want you to look at me just this once, Ohana. I love you. You’re my only daughter and I know the ways of the world too well to think I can ever have a son now, ever love anybody else the way I loved your mother enough. So I wanted you to marry so that I could have an heir.’ His voice was weaker and weaker.
            ‘I understand that,’ said Ohana, picking up a pelt from the far north and looking at it with a vaguely curious and vaguely interested smile.
            ‘Tōru is good,’ said Rai. ‘I understand your decision. I really do.’
            ‘Somehow I doubt so,’ said Ohana. Rai looked around and saw that Ema had gone into another part of the storehouse and was idly looking at a piece of driftwood that a traveller had brought through and sold to Rai for a few bits of bronze.
            ‘Ema-san,’ said Rai, ‘can you help me here?’
            ‘Help you do what?’ asked Ema. ‘I want to help you. I hope I helped you by coming up with this solution. Our daughters want to be together, Rai, and we’ll have to find apprentices rather than sons.’
            Rai growled and felt anger surging in him again, for the last time he once again hoped. He strode up to the girls and looked down into his daughter’s face. She cast her eyes down. ‘Please,’ he said, and then she finally looked up and looked him in the eye and skewered him all through with her gaze.
            Ohana’s gaze was determined and steady and cold. It had in it all the character of the mountains, all the sharpness and hardness of a knife. But it was a mountain that was one with the witches and the yuki-onna and the tengu and the people who dwelt in its bosom, a knife that would never cut a flower from the wilderness that would be Ohana and Moko’s home. Rai stood stock-still, unable to move, unable to strike or shout at his daughter who had such a stern and austere holiness surging in her being. He had never expected this. Ohana had never been like this. There was no way, no way this was the way it was. Rai stood stock-still until at last he turned.
            ‘Ema!’ he shouted, leaving out the honorific which would take too much away from the rawness and urgency of his cry. Master Ema looked up. Rai charged at him, fists raised.
            ‘Father!’ snapped Ohana. Master Rai stopped. He let his arms flop down and swing uselessly as Master Ema looked away from him with a sort of morose crinkle of his brow. Ema rose and the two men stood facing in opposite directions, neither looking directly at or away from their daughters. Moko and Ohana were looking directly at each other, trying to take stock of what their faces would look like once their wounds healed and they went off to the convent three valleys away. Rai wondered how long they had been thinking about this solution. It could not have been spur of the moment. There was too much constancy somehow, too much certainty in the holiness of her gaze.
            ‘I need to see a patient,’ Ema said. ‘Rai-san, can you come back in five days so I can see how your cold is doing?’
            Rai nodded. ‘Certainly,’ he said.
            ‘What about you, girls?’ Ema asked. ‘Do you want to stay and talk to Rai-san some more or shall we go back and continue your preparations?’
            ‘I’d like to say just one last thing,’ Ohana said. ‘Then let’s go back.’ Ema gave a murmur of assent and left the storehouse. Rai, glancing at the girls out of the corner of his vision, saw them walk to a point just inside the door and then turn towards him.
            ‘What is it, Ohana?’ Rai asked.
            ‘I do love you, father,’ Ohana said. Rai made a weak sound in his hurting throat, a sound that was clearly meant as an ‘I know’. Ohana sniffled and from a little glint of light beneath her eyes Rai saw that she was crying a little. Moko was facing in another direction but her back was shaking the same way her father’s sometimes did; Rai was sure that she was crying too.
            The girls left and Rai prepared some of Ema’s ginger tea. Then he ate a slice of bread, drank the tea, and prepared more of the leek poultice before going back to bed. He would sleep this off. He would sleep it off and he hoped be well enough to see off the girls whenever they left for the convent.
            Lying there, though, unable to sleep, he felt the anger and hate die forever, and he knew for the first time what was going to replace them. He felt the first blush of the new emotion that would consume him whenever he thought of his daughter, or her friend, or the physician who lived up the road, for as long as he should live. Remembering his daughter’s eyes he felt her gaze again upon him, like a white knife cutting through him and laying bare his mind and blood as he sprawled out on his pallet the way the physician’s knife laid bare a patient on the low apothecary table. He knew that if he lived to a hundred and eight it wouldn’t change a thing. All it would mean was that he would spend seventy years naked and pale before a holy terror that stripped the world away from him as cleanly and purely as a whiteout when the mountain snows came down again.
            He was awake but still almost all day, moving only to drink more of the tea or eat more of the bread or put a new poultice on his throat. Once or twice Tōru came to ask for instructions, and Rai gave them, but by rote, his mind so absolutely elsewhere that if anybody ever asked him what he remembered of the instructions he would be able to call up exactly as much as if asked about happenings a thousand miles away. At night, before he put his light out and finally went to sleep, he noticed again the statue of Yakushi Nyōrai. Its base was out of his eyeline so it looked almost as if it was hovering above him, ready to at the very next moment fall down upon him to give him the agonising burden of compassion which he knew it would one day, inevitably, deign to make him bear.

No comments:

Post a Comment