by Koizumi Shinme (恋墨新芽)
In olden days the Tao masters were much revered in the capitol, where daily the fears of the highborn were averted only through the vigilance and skill of a few powerful men.
One such man was Seimei, who, coming out of his home one morning in early autumn, chanced to see a nobleman passing by in a carriage, followed by the shadow of a crow. Immediately, the Tao master plucked a blade of grass and blew on it. The grass became an arrow that shot forward and pierced the shadow, which fluttered to the ground as a piece of paper, cut neatly in two. The nobleman’s retinue froze, startled. The man himself lifted his curtain to see what was the matter.
Though the nobleman sat all in shadow, his voice was young and bright. “I thank you for your kindness, good Master. Is there any reward which you would seek for saving my life?”
“Nothing in particular,” Seimei said, watching the nobleman’s pale fingers where they held the curtain back. “But perhaps if you are on your way to the palace, you might allow me to accompany you?”
“Certainly,” the man exclaimed. “I would be glad of your company, after such a fright. Come,” he held the curtain open wider. “What servants have you? They may walk with mine.”
“None, my lord.”
“You travel alone?” The nobleman seemed distressed as Seimei stepped up into carriage, though he quickly moved aside for the Tao master to sit down. “That cannot be safe.”
“It is for me,” Seimei replied.
The contrast with his own somber black was most appealing. The young man hid his face in his sleeve to keep from staring, but peeked over the edge of the cloth almost immediately, his curiosity undaunted.
He wanted to ask, are you really the son of a fox? But that was too forward, beyond rude. Instead his mind skittered back to the bits of black paper that had lain in the dust, no more frightening than a child’s toy. Was that really a shikigami, sent to kill him?
“Forgive me if I speak out of turn, Master, but how did you bring the creature down? I never saw a bow in your hands.”
The Tao master raised an eyebrow and turned away, not quite smiling.
“Is it a secret?” the young man wondered. “Maybe it wasn’t a bow. Maybe it was a sword, but then, did it disappear into thin air after?”
The master settled in to listen, his knees just touching the young noble’s, though the man showed no signs of noticing. What an odd fellow, Seimei thought, but found himself captivated by the bumpy flow of words from the others’ lips. His mind is like a mountain stream, all here and there and nowhere at all. Still, the movement of black-clad arms and the trill of that voice were picturesque. I shall be disappointed if he turns out to be ugly.
“Perhaps it was another shikigami, sent to do battle. Can they do that?” The man stopped and covered his face. “Why, how silly of me to ask.”
Seimei laughed silently. Looking up, the noble joined him, and together they filled the carriage with the not-sound of their shared amusement, if not their shared understanding.
They alighted from the carriage to a scene of near-chaos, the normally fashionable parade of nobles completely disrupted by people rushing this way and that as though the palace were on fire, when it was merely that moths had gotten into the kimono fabrics the Empress set aside last year, and did anyone have more hagi growing in their own gardens, for the ones at the palace were wilted and frail!
Within the movement – or despite it – many of the men and even the serving girls found time to greet Seimei’s new acquaintance. In the light the young man turned out to be quite handsome and bright of eye, as Seimei had expected, but his poise had a kind of boyish charm to it, and it was certainly not his pretty face that had the girls smiling so openly in his direction. They barely even remembered to cover their mouths with their sleeves, and the chamberlain seemed just as delighted in everyone he met as they were in him.
Seimei looked again at his companion and found himself smiling as well. It was a helpless thing, what this young man did to people. Helpless on all sides, Seimei suspected.
The man was just turning, probably to thank him again, when Seimei felt a rush of power overhead and saw the shadow of a bird pass over the chamberlain’s face.
“Watch out-” he began, but the damage was already done. A white spot appeared on the man’s shoulder, followed by a streak along his back.
“Oh dear,” the man said, turning this way and that, trying to see all the mess. “This really is unfortunate.”
“In more ways than one,” Seimei murmured.
It really was awful – the poor fellow had escaped this morning, only to be cursed now. And he was so well-received by everyone, so genuinely grateful for any assistance. Even as Seimei pondered the problem, servants poured around and between them; somewhere in the crowd, another gentleman shrugged off his own outer robe to be laid on the chamberlain’s shoulders. Everyone seemed very concerned for the young man. Seimei wondered which of them was plotting his death.
As the poor fellow was swept away to keep his appointments, Seimei pondered the dual problems of a curse brought by crow-shadows versus the simple elegance of pale fingers lifting a curtain and a bright, kind voice calling out its thanks.
They chose a corner of the veranda overlooking the dying summer garden, now pale and brown with seed. While even here some young lovers or friends might meet for a quiet tryst on a normal day, the festival prevented such things, and the whole view was empty but for themselves. The stood looking out at it, their hands side by side on the rail, and Seimei had to remind himself of the urgency of his speech.
Still looking out at the garden, he said, “I know it is rather forward of me to talk with you here, in this way, but I really must inquire as to your business at the palace today. You see, you mustn’t stay here. That shikigami I killed this morning was not alone. Three or four flew over when we left your carriage, and one of them dropped its mark on you. Even by removing your outer robe you did not evade the curse. I really must ask to be allowed to protect you.”
The man looked startled, but he recovered quickly. “Since my life is in your hands, I must do as you ask. If I take some time to make my excuses, will that endanger your purpose?”
“Make them,” Seimei agreed, “but be warned: we must be at your home with the gates barred before sunset.”
“Do you think the gates will keep out evil spirits?”
“No. Say, rather, no spirit moves without some mortal agency.”
“I have an enemy?” The man looked around the empty garden with its gently swaying susuki, bewilderment in his eyes.
Seimei sighed. “Who doesn’t? I myself have over twenty. Still living, that is.”
“Over twenty?” The man was laughing in surprise when Seimei saw a change come over that handsome face like a shadow. He turned.
A scattering of specks in the distance resolved themselves into crows, who normally do not flock together in large numbers, but now more than a dozen were gathered together and moving in their direction, across the palace grounds.
“Get behind me,” Seimei said, bringing his fingers to his lips, but before he could speak again the flock veered off abruptly and settled on one of the outbuildings. Both men watched it warily for some moments before catching each others’ eyes, one set slitted in non-amusement, the other wide.
“I- I’ll go make my excuses.” The chamberlain bobbed his head and fled.
With a whisper of breath over his two fingers, the Tao master spoke a word that had no form and brought both fingertips down to brush the man’s knee, then up over his heart.
“Wh- what?” the man asked, then gasped. “I feel – weightless, suddenly. Like a pine when the snow’s slid off the branches. How did you do that?”
“Just easing a curse,” Seimei said, brushing his fingers across the man’s chest once more, for no reason.
“Oh,” the man whispered, and spoke no more, though his breath was warm in the confines of the carriage.
“Have this cleaned,” the young man told an older woman, draping it over her arms like a precious piece of dyed brocade. She nodded understanding. Seimei thought she must be the kind of servant every man wants and is lucky to have, the old nurse or sister of a nurse who knows his mind without having to ask and who bullies the rest of the staff to get things right. The comfort of the house seemed to come from the young man’s knack for surrounding himself with the right kind of people.
“Who lives here?” Seimei asked his host as they sat in one corner, out of the way of the preparations.
“Besides the servants?” the man asked, and there was no hint of amusement in him, no sense that this was a joke. “My uncle owns the house. My sister and I live with him, as he is childless, and my brother-in-law and their two babies with her. I have these three rooms to myself, here on this side. My other sister used to live with me, but she went to work at the palace last year. That is everyone in the family.”
“No hangers-on? No distant relations?”
“None that I know of.” The man tilted his head and smiled. “They tell me very little of what happens on that side of the house.”
“But you know your uncle well.”
“Yes. We have always been close, since my father died.”
“And you and he both have regular visitors?”
“No, not since my youngest sister left.”
“Interesting. Ah, I think they are ready for us.”
At that moment the door to the chamberlain’s room was pulled open. Inside, a dozen candles lit the dark, forming a wide circle around the bedroll that seemed a bit fancier than the chamberlain remembered. Indeed, as he drew closer he became dismayed, realizing it was a guest roll, the fanciest in the house, meant for when a prince should grace them with a visit or for wedding nights, though to his knowledge it had never been used for either purpose, but had sat in a closet like these things do, collecting dust and reassuring everyone that if they needed it, it would be there.
Apparently, a Tao master was the equal of a prince in the servants’ eyes.
To cover his embarrassment, the chamberlain moved into the room, inspecting the changes and nodding as if these made sense to him, all the while desperately trying to see how he should lie there and sleep like an offering to Kannon, lit up through the night to keep the demons away.
With a start he head the door thump shut and realized he was alone in the room with the master.
“Good Sir-” he began.
“Fear not,” Seimei told him, moving towards a writing desk laid out in the corner. “Sit inside the circle – yes, on the bed there – and remove your outer robes.” Stiffly the young man knelt on the fancy bedroll and shrugged off his outer robe, letting it fall in a pool of black around him. “And the next,” Seimei insisted, not turning around. Blushing, the chamberlain complied.
“We must hurry now.” Seimei turned, flourishing a handful of papers. He caught sight of the chamberlain and frowned. “Unbind your hair. You can hardly seem to be prepared for bed still wearing your court hat.” As if to emphasize the point, he removed his own and set it upright beside the writing desk.
Clumsily, the chamberlain reached his arms up and pulled at the pins while Seimei move purposefully about the room, sticking the papers to the walls and shutters with muttered spells the chamberlain knew he wouldn’t understand even if he heard them. His fingers kept slipping as he pulled at the pins; he bit his lip in frustration.
That was the ungainly pose he was wearing when Master Seimei turned around, focusing on him at last.
“Oh dear,” said the master, lips pressed tight to prevent a smile. “Allow me.” The white robe swept forward, the white sleeves coming up to circle his head in a bright world that smelled faintly of peaches and maple. He felt the bindings on his hair loosen, and then it was falling around him, past his shoulders, and the white robe was falling, too, leaving the master dressed all in deepest purple, standing before him in the candlelight like some strange conjuring or a bodhisattva in a dream.
Exactly like a prince of old, the chamberlain thought, and wondered with uncovered eyes.
“It is sunset,” the vision murmured. “Time to sleep.” The young man lay down obediently, curling on his side. There came a rustle, then warmth as a body nestled in behind his and silk-clad arms wrapped around his chest, holding him safe.
The murmurs began.
For a long while he was carried on a wind of sound, rocked like a babe in its nurse’s arms, careless of the night and the smell of burning tallow and the sound of wings, the flutter of wings-
His heart sped up. He opened his eyes.
They were coming, their hoarse cries awful in the distance, more awful as they closed in. He feared a moment for the servants – he hadn’t told them to go to the other side, had he? – and then he feared for himself, as the first tearing, scraping sound came from the shutters. Beak or claw, he couldn’t tell. He closed his eyes and moaned.
“Hush,” Seimei ordered. The chamberlain bit his lip, holding as still as he could with the wings beating like heartbeats too fast against the cage of his ribs, the shutters of the room, and the terrible cries filling his mind with the image of his blood on black feathers, his flesh torn by cruel beaks.
The scratching at the shutters increased, became a frantic scrabbling that echoed in his hollow breathing and in the flickering of the candles that guttered and went out, one by one, until all seemed made of darkness and sound and sense – the scratching, the near-silent muttering of Seimei, the harshness of his own breaths rushing in and out of lungs restricted by the tight bands of Seimei’s arms wrapped fiercely around his rigid form. He sweated and panted and rolled his eyes at the dark that crept through his thoughts and tore at the folds of his robe; it was not the house they sought to enter, but his body. He could sense that and groaned as Seimei tightened his hold, though the act seemed impossible but a moment before.
Please, he thought, the word never taking form on his lips, but Seimei seemed to hear and rolled atop him, pressing him down and, he realized dimly, shielding him bodily from the thundering wing-shadows. Words spoken now not to the fearful dark but to his ear, soft words, incomprehensible but sweet, courting, plying him open with the sound of water, of wind through summer stalks. The scrabbling receded, became indistinct as he whimpered and let himself be lured by those sounds, trembling like a dove held in warm hands, waiting for flight.
And those hands were moving, a pair of fingers extended from each: one pair slipped under the folds of his robe, across the back of his thigh and further; the other brushed his shoulder and jaw before settling on his lips.
“Om,” Seimei said, and some other things he could not hear for the roaring that echoed in his ears and the odd taste in his mouth, and then his body was convulsing and Seimei’s arms were tight around him once more, squeezing the breath from his lungs, the breath and something that tasted like dust and old rice, coming up out of his mouth as he exhaled helplessly, forced on by Seimei’s vice-like grip.
His head tipped back, his neck arching as if seeking to see the moon-face of his captor perched behind and above him.
“Om,” Seimei said again, and he whimpered through a tight throat, opening his eyes to see a greenish cloud hovering before him, lit from within. He whimpered again.
The cloud stretched like horrid silk, then snapped, shooting away between two shutters. Outside, a bird screamed and went silent.
Inside, darkness receded. Seimei muttered a word and flames guttered, sending shadows to leap and dance along the wall. Someone moved inside the house. The eaves dripped. The chamberlain’s head fell slowly back to earth, easing the pressure on his strained throat. All was silence, inside and out, for long moments.
Seimei blew across his lips, reminding him to breathe again – a deep gasp that started the reaction, shudders and whimpers and weakness that he would never want anyone to see, but Seimei held him as tightly as before until the fear slowly leaked out of him, more gently than the curse had. Calm took its place, easing in through cracks in his self left by the strange events. It showed him their clothes lying in disarray, their outer-robe blankets scattered about, his savior still pinning him between the warmth of a human body and the slightly damp coolness of the bedroll.
Behind the calm something else crouched, waiting.
Many a man had asked things of him that he but dimly understood. Yet none had pressed, each certain he already bestowed such favors on another. And why not? He was beautiful. They all said so. But in truth he never had, had always shivered in some slight fear at what must become of himself were he to give this last part of it away, to permit this final breach of his thinly held walls of the self.
Fear, though, had been wrung out of him tonight. He lay, empty and exhausted, and thought, I might be full.
And so, instead of hinting at a desire to be free, he acknowledged his need for that precious warmth behind him, curled into it as he never had before. But though Seimei’s body trembled and its proof of desire lay nestled snugly against the entrance to his body, all was stillness behind him, without even the slightest movement to take possession.
“Why do you stop?” he asked, after taking a moment to find his trembling voice. Why do you stop, when I have finally started?
Seimei replied, breath harsh in his ears now as it was sweet before, “You have not said I may.”
“Ah.” He considered this. “And if I say it?”
Seimei’s hand curled over his where it clutched the edge of some half-discarded robe. That was all the answer he needed.
“Yes,” he whispered, and Seimei surged, muffling his cry with a handful of that same robe.
They moved in strange undulations, one then the other, a rhythm like and unlike dancing, like and unlike anything he had ever done with women. They slid together upon the silk of the bed, cool and warm at turns, but always between them the warmth of bodies pressed together. If he had felt opened before, he had not understood: this was open, spread wide and given to the one possessing as a flower is given to the one who plucks it from the stem. He felt plucked, taken, cherished. He thought he might be set upon a table as a work of art.
When a flock of cranes flew overhead, calling to one another, he could not at first place the sound. He thought it must be something to do with Seimei, in him, over him, and nothing to do with the season unless night be a season all its own.
“Please,” he said, echoing his earlier silent cries, though he knew not what he asked for but that this moment continue, in some fashion, for eternity.
The heavy breaths behind him changed in timber, as if a mouth had opened. “I cannot promise-” Seimei panted, but the chamberlain clutched at the hand over his to stop all words, clutched at the silk under fingers and lips, clung with his body to the yang of the master in lieu of promises that might well be broken in the light of day. He was alive and he was here, with a warmth become heat in his belly that linked the two of them together more tightly than arms ever could, with a dance learned by touch alone, and though Seimei muffled the chamberlain’s cries he could not stop his own from echoing softly in the flame-edged dark. Shadows moved and silk moved and their bodies swayed like branches in an autumn wind, heat matching heat until it rushed forward and exploded out of them, leaving their shuddering limbs to soften in the night air.
Seimei recovered first. He sighed and pulled gently from the younger man’s body, reaching for the discarded robe- it was his own, the master realized – to wrap around them both before settling the other’s sleepy head against his chest.
With a word he doused the candles, and all was peaceful dark.
“What?” he asked, sleepy and confused. What had happened in the short time since dawn?
“Perhaps you should send for the messenger,” Seimei suggested kindly. The chamberlain nodded, and someone ran out.
He had but a moment or two to set himself to rights; it wasn’t nearly enough time. Besides, people were moving in and out of his room – someone took an entire shutter off the wall, requiring two men to lift it. As they moved past, he saw that one side was gouged in dozens of places. He shivered.
Now his room was open to the garden beyond and he did not dare move for fear of exposing himself and what he had done the night before. No one came with a curtain. This was the first time in his life he thought he might understand why women would want screens about them, to shield them from this. And Seimei, who should have been his shield, sat calmly to one side and let the world in.
Into this mess a complete stranger stepped uncertainly, not from any natural timidity, his looks suggested, but because he truly did not know who was the master of the house to whose side he was called.
“Speak,” said the chamberlain, harshness seeping in where fear and embarrassment left their trails.
“Begging your lordship’s pardon,” said the rough stranger, turning to face the chamberlain. “As I told the gentleman there-” he gestured vaguely to Seimei without actually pointing, “my master set a curse on you last night. He was up all hours with the muttering. An hour or two before dawn, he started shouting and waving his arms. Then a jumble of shadows came arrowing in through the screens and killed him. Cut him all up. He bled to death.”
The chamberlain shivered and pulled his wild assortment of robes tighter about him. “And do you know who hired your master?”
“Begging your pardon, sir, but it was your brother-in-law. I carried the messages.”
“Give this man a reward,” the chamberlain ordered. “Something light that he can carry.”
“Thank your lordship, if it please you. I’ll have no more of this city life, but return to the village where I was born.”
“Give him such tools as will be useful there,” said the chamberlain, and watched as his nurse’s sister nodded and collected the man, ushering him out.
The chamberlain sagged, chin dropping to his chest. “I am all worn out. What a night.” He blushed at his own words and hid his face more deeply.
“Then I will leave you to recover,” Seimei said gently.
The chamberlain’s head flew up. Leave? But Seimei had already collected himself and stood, though the chamberlain could not rise courteously to follow. “I must – I must call you a carriage.”
“Not at all. It is a fine day to walk.”
“Good day.” And with that, Seimei was gone like a fox in the night.
As he left the room to dress, he also looked back at the guest bedroll, rucked and misshapen now from its abuse, and thought with a kind of hysterical humor that the servants would all pretend the damage was done protecting him. They must smell it, though. His nurse’s sister, the laundry girls, they all must know.
He could not move fast enough into the other room.
Once there, he ordered everyone out and changed his own clothes, one layer at a time until he felt dignity return to him slowly, a long-absent friend.
But it was not the servants’ knowing that upset him. It was rather a sense of loss, of being cheated at dice. Was he so green that fate and a Tao master could make such mockery of him? But no, he had known differently last night. He clung to that. It had been different, last night.
Perhaps this was his punishment for all those affections he carefully did not return, both men’s and women’s, in the years since he had first put on hakama. So many people. He had thought that being kind, not mocking, making clear his lack of intentions – he had thought that would keep him from hurting them. But Master Seimei had done all that. Had insisted on no promises. Had asked for exactly what he wanted and made it clear that that was all.
It was a bitter medicine that his only recourse now was to wait like a woman in her chamber, pining for the moon.
By late morning he could finally retreat to that chamber, his room, noting that the tallow had been cleaned from the floor and the damaged shutters already replaced. He could not even tell that anything had happened the night before, except that the brush in his writing desk was still slightly damp. Mixing up some fresh ink, he took a strip of paper and wrote:
Where were the rice cakes and sake this morning?
The night leaves a bitter taste without them
He stared at the poem for a moment, then lit the stump of a candle and set fire to the page, watching it burn.
Licking his singed fingers after, he wondered what kind of fool am I? Surely there was someone he needed to visit, someone who would welcome him after a long absence. It was simply that he had no experience in limited affections. The world had been so kind to him. He needed to learn what life was like for those on whom fortune did not smile. In his heart, he had felt pity for his brother-in-law; now he felt sympathy as well.
He went to visit his sister.
“No,” the chamberlain said, hands shivering in expectation. “No, it has seeds in it. See?”
His uncle peered closely and saw the seeds, then looked at his face and saw something else. “Are you sure you want me to let that villain come back? Perhaps it’s just some whim, brought on by a changeable mood. You were frightened enough last night, I’m sure!”
“Yes,” the chamberlain agreed absently, “but I was well cared for.” He looked up from the stalk, eyes bright. “If you would do this mercy for me, uncle, it would make me very happy.”
“And now you’ll no doubt want to go and read your love note. Shoo, shoo!” his uncle gestured like he was a schoolboy being sent out to play, but after all these years, he knew the affection in that pose.
“Thank you,” he said, bowing, and retired.
The house where he had stopped the morning before – was it only the morning before? – bore an imposing gate, but once he was admitted, he found the garden to be a barely-tamed jungle with no gardeners in sight. No one trimmed the wild foliage, nor bent the turning maple to more pleasing angles. Amaryllis sprang up between dying stalks of iris, and he thought he saw, in the distance, camellias preparing to bloom. It was as if he had stepped into a hillside forest, where nature alone tended her colorful children.
Through the garden he wandered bemused, following the path to a veranda that sat like a cleft of civilization jutting into the ocean of greenery all around. Seated there was a man dressed in white, and the chamberlain’s heart began its own wild beat, a whirling dance in his chest that carried him forward and up the steps without a thought.
As he neared, he heard something like bells or laughter, but Seimei was alone. He was offered a seat and some sweet sake. Was the warmth in his belly from that, or from Seimei’s knowing smile? He could not tell.
A serving girl smothered in her kimono came out bearing a tray, and Seimei offered him sweet rice cakes from it. The chamberlain reached for one, then froze, recalling his poem from the morning.
Seimei’s eyes, when he could bear to meet them, were knowing and kind.
With a flourish the Tao master produced a piece of paper from between the layers of his kimono and presented it to the chamberlain, face up. The chamberlain leaned forward, but hardly needed to. He knew the shape of those lines intimately, for they had come from himself.
“You wrote it on my paper,” Seimei told him. “Anything that was once mine returns to me.”
The chamberlain thought about this with the part of his mind that had woken in the forest garden, and he understood it to be true. Even a wild beast returns to the den it has marked ‘home’. Even a human heart returns to the place it has made for itself within the rustling of kimono fabrics. Even he, who made his home a little in all men and all in none – even he might find a place to settle into in his time.
With a smile, he reached for the sweet rice cakes and offered one to Seimei. “Will you not eat?” he asked, and Seimei accepted with a gracious nod.
I will go on eating here, the chamberlain thought, watching the sun sink across the autumn foliage, until the night is no longer a season unto itself. Tasting the sweetness of cake under the clear bite of sake, he thought that that might be a very long time indeed.
Language Note: I have followed Tyler’s word choices except in the following cases: “yin-yang master” becomes “Tao master”, though neither is exactly correct for the Japanese interpretation. I switch only to make a connection for some readers to the trickster aspect of the Tao masters in Chinese folklore. Also, “genie” returns to “shikigami” because there is simply no translation that bears even the slightest resemblance, as evinced by Tyler’s desperate use of a word from another language and culture altogether.
Any remaining inaccuracies are my own. – Koisumi Shinme