A tale of a simple ronin woman as she struggles to survive in her new surroundings within the Second City.
By Yoon Ha Lee
Edited by Fred Wan
It was another sweltering day in Journey’s End City. The monsoon season was winding down, but the air was still humid and heavy with the smells of the local flowers. The ronin Uesuko had already had two of the cool ginger drinks that were so popular here. She wished for another, but she had work to do. Even if the work came in the form of a recalcitrant booth. She wished she had thought this through better: she had traveled here thinking that she might be able to use her knowledge of small charms and prayers to comfort the lower classes, even if she was a failure as a shugenja. So far, she had managed to fall victim to gastrointestinal distress from eating fresh fruit, and a pair of heimin children had taken turns bringing her water and lentil soup until she recovered. It was a humbling start.
Now that she was better, she had hoped to set up her stall on this quiet street. She had obtained all the necessary permits; her father had always impressed upon her the importance of doing things through proper channels. All the minor prayers she had carefully written out and tied up in small cloth pouches were neatly arranged and weighted down with attractive pebbles. Now if only she could figure out how to get her banner to stay up. But every time she tried to nail it in, the nail bent, or went in sideways, or the banner fluttered out of the way as a breeze swept by. If she hadn’t known better, she would have said the kami were playing games with her. She knew better than to think they had any attention to spare for her, even for this. She had spent more time talking to people than at her studies as a child, and she was paying the price for it now.
“Goodness, that banner really doesn’t want to stay there, does it?” said a bright, cultured woman’s voice.
Uesuko startled in spite of herself. She was about to address the woman very politely–she had not been a ronin for very long, and she was still getting used to all the day-to-day implications–when the woman’s appearance sank in. She wore her hair elaborately coiffed, with a red-black lacquered hairpin set with two small ovals of iridescent abalone shell, and her face was flawlessly made up. There was a dark red beauty mark applied on her cheek; it looked charming rather than ridiculous. Her outer kimono was very traditional in cut, unusual for Journey’s End City, but made of sheer cotton gauze over a heavier mauve-and-pink inner layer of sheer silk.
“Forgive me for staring,” Uesuko said, aware of her own rudeness. She might not owe a geisha any particular courtesy, but the woman had done her no wrong, and there was every chance she was some dignitary’s favorite. “I haven’t seen such exquisite taste in hairpins since I arrived here.”
“You probably don’t look very hard, either,” the geisha said teasingly, “but that’s no matter. Shall I give you a hand? Nobody ever thinks I can do anything strenuous without breaking all my nails, but honestly, sometimes I long to just do something simple and straightforward.”
Uesuko looked ruefully at the banner, then at the hammer in her hand. She had borrowed it from a neighbor. The carpenter who had originally put the stall together had assured her that she should have no problem with the banner, and that he would come back later if she had any problems. He had never come back, naturally.
“Let me try,” the geisha said. “You’d never guess it to look at my hands now, but my father is a carpenter. I know the basics of the trade.”
“Would you give me the courtesy of your name?” Uesuko said as she handed the hammer over.
The geisha’s eyes were shrewd and not unkind. “That’s a Phoenix accent, isn’t it? You haven’t been a ronin long. No, don’t answer that, you have all sorts of reasons for your secrets, I’m sure. I’m Kanako.”
“I’m Uesuko,” Uesuko said. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet, Uesuko-san.” Still, the geisha got up on the rickety footstool with surprising agility, and when she hammered the banner in place it actually stay put.
Kanako got down and passed the hammer back. ”See, didn’t I tell you?”
“Thank you,” Uesuko said again.
“Don’t worry about it.” Kanako tilted her head back to study the banner. “Lovely calligraphy. Your hand?”
“Yes,” Uesuko said. “It’s one of the few skills I have.”
“‘Helping the Desperate,’” Kanako read aloud. “‘Charms and Prayers.’ What sorts of charms and prayers?”
Uesuko reminded herself that she was no longer living on her father’s largesse and that, in fact, the funds that she had brought with her from Phoenix lands were running uncomfortably low. “Good luck, warding away ill-wishers or overly importunate suitors, that sort of thing,” she said, trying to sound confident and mostly succeeding in sounding awkward. “But I don’t suppose you have a need for such things.”
She felt like a charlatan. Her father had intended greater things for her, but her affinity with the kami had never been strong enough, and that was that.
“I can see that we’re going to have to work on how you persuade your customers, Uesuko-san,” Kanako said, not sounding in the least deferential. Uesuko found that she didn’t mind. “You can start practicing with me. I have to provide entertainment at a party tonight, and I’m nervous that I’ll cause offense to a particular Lion dignitary, very traditional in outlook. You know how the Lion are. Is there anything you can offer me?”
Uesuko personally doubted that the geisha was feeling any such attack of nerves, but she recognized the gesture for the kindness that it was and bent over the cloth satchels. “This one,” she said, picking up one that was fortuitously in a shade of subdued lilac that harmonized with Kanako’s outfit. “It’s a copy of a prayer to Benten that a famous Kakita poet wrote a hundred years ago. The Kakita needed a favor from the Lion and she needed to charm a particular emissary. Hold the prayer in your thoughts and you’re certain to succeed in your endeavors, whatever they are.” That last part came out rushed, but she had made it through her prepared speech.
Kanako was smiling lazily at her. “That sounds excellent, yes.” She dug around for her purse, a brocade silk affair with jade beads that was easily worth more than all of Uesuko’s possessions. After a moment’s thought, she dropped some coins into Uesuko’s hand.
Uesuko’s mouth went dry. That was a considerable sum for a geisha to be carrying around casually, let alone paying for a simple prayer. She sent the kami an earnest entreaty to send some genuine scrap of good luck Kanako’s way.
“I know it’s not what such a charm is worth,” Kanako said, a little warningly, “but then to help the desperate we have to start by helping ourselves, don’t we? And I’m sure you’ll see me for repeat business. I really must find out the name of whoever you got to make these bags. They would be utterly charming in this particular bolt of silk I got my hands on recently and one can never be too diligent about fashion accessories. In any case, I had better get going.”
“Carry the Fortunes,” Uesuko said.
“Carry the Fortunes,” the geisha echoed, and smiled warmly before she hurried off.
Business the rest of the day was slower, but with the coins safely tucked away, Uesuko found that she was able to relax a little. A woodworker came asking for help for his sick daughter. From the description of the symptoms, Uesuko suspected that the simple prayer to Jurojin was not going to be adequate, although the man insisted on buying the charm anyway, but she gave him the name of a local healer she had heard good things of. Not long after that, a young man sought a charm to catch the eye of a carter’s daughter. She ended up persuading him to save the money–Kanako would have been disappointed in her merchant skills, she couldn’t help thinking–and advising him to spend time listening to what the woman actually enjoyed rather than resorting to magical means. A minor Crane functionary came by, burst into laughter, and bought five prayers on the spot. He refused to explain why, but Uesuko assumed that it was for a prank of some sort. Just a few hours ago she would have been mortified or offended or both. Now, she supposed that the kami had a sense of humor and that at least someone was getting some use out of the trifles she had to offer.
More than those who came to buy prayers, however, Uesuko was struck by the people who stopped to chat with her as they ambled down the street. When people in Phoenix lands had talked to her in her past life, it was usually to discuss incantations or rituals or celestial alignments. Here, people talked to her about grouchy overseers, bent needles, and cantankerous horses. At first she was bewildered, barely able to stammer out responses, but then she realized that she was enjoying herself. She didn’t live as a recluse high in the mountains anymore; she was part of the city, too. She had to be careful what she revealed about herself–the accent was probably a lost cause, although at least she didn’t have to explain what private shame had brought her here–but she could tell vague stories about living in a lord’s household, and rock gardens, and maple trees. A lot of people were homesick for Rokugan, and appreciated even a haltingly told story about good landscaping.
Uesuko didn’t see Kanako again for the next week, but she told herself that a geisha of such poise and grace undoubtedly had many demands on her time. Still, she couldn’t help wondering how Kanako’s party had gone, and whether the charm had had any effect whatsoever. So she was preoccupied that evening when the wind picked up in one of the sudden bursts that she had yet to grow used to.
The problem was that the pebbles she had picked out were entirely inadequate for holding down the satchels–themselves not very heavy, even though she had taken the additional precaution of putting a polished river stone in each one–in the face of any significant wind. Uesuko was hurriedly snatching them up and putting them in her rucksack when she heard someone cry out.
A little distance away, an armored woman in drab colors was looming over a harried-looking peasant man with a new bruise. “You said you’d have the payment today,” the woman said very distinctly. “I am capable of infinite patience, but my masters feel differently.”
The other merchants in the street were carefully attending to their own business, and a group of children who had been playing with a rope had scampered behind a fruit-seller’s stall. Uesuko caught herself looking for a magistrate, but magistrates usually had better places to be, and she was well aware that some of them were corrupt anyway.
Some of her pouches had tumbled away and onto the street, but it couldn’t be helped. Uesuko gathered up her courage and walked toward the armored woman. A Spider, probably: once she got closer she could see the mon worked into the chestplate.
“It never ceases to amaze me that you can find idealists in every crevice of the world,” the Spider said dryly. “What’s your interest?”
“Excuse me, honorable samurai,” Uesuko said, “but I was wondering how much this man owed. I thought perhaps an accommodation could be reached.”
She made the mistake of looking into the other woman’s eyes. The Spider was taller than she was, and built like a Crab, and there was an unmistakable shadow of torment in those eyes. She couldn’t help wonder what story the Spider had and what had brought her to the colonies.
“You sell those trinkets over there, don’t you?” the Spider said. “Charms and prayers. I can’t imagine you make much from them, even in a place like this. Save your koku, little shugenja.” To the peasant, she said, “Two more hours. You know where to bring the money. And don’t bring her money, you don’t want to compound the miseries of this world. Take responsibility for your own fecklessness.” She shoved the peasant, not as hard as she could have, but hard enough, and strode off.
“I can–” Uesuko said to the man as soon as the Spider was out of earshot. She wished she could have cowed the Spider, but it wasn’t as though she could call down the wrath of Osano-Wo.
But the man was shaking his head vehemently. “No, no. It’s bad enough that I’m tangled up in this. She’s right.”
They argued back and forth for a little while, but it was clear that he wouldn’t be swayed, and Uesuko had to admire his steadfastness, even though she thought it foolhardy.
“At least take a charm for your troubles?” Uesuko said, feeling wretched.
The man grinned crookedly at her. “If it makes you feel better.” He set about helping her retrieve most of the fallen charms. Some of them were missing, but all in all Uesuko was surprised that thieves hadn’t made off with more of them. At her insistence, the man took a charm in a red satchel, although she didn’t think he needed more courage than he already had.
“Don’t you fret,” the man said, “you’ll see me here tomorrow. It was a kind thought, and I should have known better than to take that loan.”
There was something mortifying about being comforted by someone you had tried, however gauchely, to help. But Uesuko smiled at him. “Carry the fortunes,” she said, a little wanly.
“Carry the fortunes,” he called back over his shoulder.
Watching him, Uesuko couldn’t help but remember Kanako’s words. To help the desperate, we have to start by helping ourselves. She wouldn’t have thought of it, but it was true. She had to become stronger–even if it wasn’t strength measured in swords or scrolls–so that she could do what she had come here to do.
Uesuko reflected that she would never have thought to find enlightenment from the mouth of a geisha. Clearly, she had much to learn about the ways of the world.
Humming to herself, she continued putting everything away for the night. Perhaps tomorrow she would see Kanako again, or the man, or even the Spider, who had shown such curious solicitude for a bystander, by Spider standards. And tomorrow she could try again to bring comfort where she could.
It was a tranquil evening in Isawa Nori’s house, but all he could think of was how quiet the place had become since his wife died. They had had two children, neither of whom lived here anymore. The older had a respectable position at a nearby temple, and despite his rambunctiousness as a child, had grown into a sober, thoughtful young scholar.
As for the younger–
Nori made his customary circuit of the rock garden. He had raked it this morning, and there was poetry to be had in the simple undulating curves, the calm round pebbles, the soft sand. Leaves had fallen during the day. He picked two up, beautifully formed red maple leaves, crisp at the edges. He would remove the rest tomorrow as he did his walking meditation, but for now he contemplated them as part of the arrangement, set there by the wind’s own hands.
He found no peace here, but he had not expected to. When he had been younger, he would have spent ever-longer hours of meditation seeking to suppress any thoughts about the hole in his family. Now, he was wise enough to know that it was better to acknowledge his bitterness so that it didn’t grow to consume him.
After the sun tipped over the horizon, he headed back inside and to the family shrine. An old nemuranai resided there, in the shape of a wide bowl. It was painted with summer flowers and cicadas; it had awakened to virtue in the hands of one of his revered ancestors. Nori’s great-uncle had originally broken the nemuranai by betraying his lord. Nori himself, knowing his limits, had regarded the silent nemuranai as a trust: someday someone from his line would be able to soothe the item’s spirit and reawaken its virtue. It might even have happened in his lifetime if his daughter, desperate for his approval and disappointingly small of talent, had not made the attempt herself and offended the spirit. The widened crack in the bowl’s center was a constant reminder of her.
Nori kept portraits of his wife and son in the family shrine, along with those of his parents, but none of his daughter. Uesuko had failed him, despite the prestigious life he had planned for her, and he would never forgive her for her shame.
But he left the two maple leaves by the nemuranai’s side, because Uesuko had loved maples, and because he missed her.
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