Shipwreck — part 7

Jiro thought that he was fortunate in one respect: no one had actually seen him leave the house and take the direction that he had. Perhaps the villagers assumed he would take either of the ways along the coast. It was a steep, exhausting path, and he saw signs that it was used for woodcutting and other kinds of foraging. If the woman had told him the truth about how they traveled to the nearest town, the road where “people disappeared” would not be in favor. He was tired, hungry, wet… When no immediate pursuit came, his pace slackened to a weary trudge.

Finally, he had to admit that there was no path at all and when he came to a tree with an unusual fungus growing on it — that he had already seen and passed once, hours ago — he realized that he had walked in a great, exhausting circle. He was too disheartened to go further. What use to drive himself now? He did not even know where he was going, except that it was into wilderness where people disappeared. And no wonder. He flopped down under a dripping pine, leaned against the trunk, and went from resting to sleeping in a matter of minutes, exhaustion a substitute for a dry bed, comfort, and soft quilt.

It was not an easy sleep, however. He ran from demonic villagers with red-coal eyes, who carried forked spears and who were right on his heels, and he stumbled. Somehow, though, he didn’t die and found himself elsewhere, looking at a white fox with red ears and beautiful green eyes.

It sat looking back at him, with its soft plume tail curled around its forepaws, looking very self-possessed, and lowered its head courteously in greeting.

Jiro did the same.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” said the fox. “My name is First Dancer.”

Shipwreck — part 6

The village huddled on the last flat ground at the foot of a steep rise toward the mountains. Jiro found a path that led upward (to where, who knew?), climbed a short distance to a vantage where he could see the nearest houses, and watched.

He saw something move—away in the rain where one house was a gray half-real presence, a man darted quickly from one house to the next. Then, for a while, nothing. He continued to wait and watch. Finally, from this house, someone emerged. Then another, and another. Men and women, a group of at least a dozen, all holding oars, spears, and other objects that could be used as clubs. Jiro shrank behind his tree, and watched as they stealthily approached the house where he had been resting. Even the women! Yes, there among them was the woman who had given him the tea, and the warning, inadvertent though it had been. Run—no, wait.

The group made a rush to the door of the house and bunched up, all trying to get in.

Jiro took that moment as the best time to run.

Shipwreck — part 5

Could he wring any knowledge out of this woman without making them doubt his pose as an agent of the daimyo? He felt like he was traveling in the dark, afraid to kindle a light.

“Woman, how far is it to the closest town—where one would find trading establishments, or perhaps a government official in residence?” he asked.

She looked up at him for the barest instant, from her work of cutting up a fish, and then quickly dropped her gaze. “We go by boat to Tokushima. To walk takes two weeks, and many who walk disappear along the way.”

What was that look?

Jiro was so shocked by the woman’s expression that it was a moment before he could spare any thought on her words, which confirmed his worst fears. These people lived far from civilization. If he could have replicated that look, he would have used it for a demon-tengu character. There had been great feeling behind it, and fear was only part of it. Contempt? Maybe even… hatred.

She said nothing more, and the silence filled the small house. From outside came the sound of the rain. In the distance, he thought he heard a shout, but was not sure. Imagination, he told himself. You can hear all sorts of made-up sounds in falling water.

He was exhausted, and longed to take off his miserable, wet clothing, and lie down to sleep. But nagging in his mind was fear, fear of this demon-woman with the secrets behind her eyes, the hostility lurking under her obeisances.

“I must speak with the headman of your village,” said Jiro. “Go find him and bring him here.” He watched her intently.

She threw a handful of fish into the pot, bowed, and went out. Jiro exhaled a breath of relief. Just having her gone was an improvement. But there was an ominous quiet after the shout (that he had only imagined, he reminded himself). He went to the door and opened it partly, standing to the side and gazing out. There was no one visible. The rain fell and splashed on the ground. Jiro hugged his arms around him. Something urgent tugged at him. The woman was longer in returning than he expected. He opened the door wider and stepped out, then stepped back in and hesitated again. Finally, deciding at last, he snatched a wide straw hat from inside and went out, picking up a pair of shoes beside the door.

Shipwreck — part 4

“You must bear his body to a place where it is safe from the elements,” said Jiro. When no one moved, he kicked the man closest to him. “You! Is your village near here?”

“Yes—lord!”

“Then go quickly and come back with what is needed. The shipwreck is not to be touched except on my direction. Go!”

The man set off at a run.

Jiro stood watching him and wondered if he could keep these men in fear if he stopped giving them orders and gave them time to think. Why were they sneaking up on me? he thought. They mean harm; but why?

The intriguing little box he would have to examine later, in private. He tucked it securely into his obi. “Show me to your village,” he said to one of the remaining men. “And you—” (to the other one)—“wait here and make sure no harm comes to the body of the daimyo’s son.”

The first man rose to his feet and led the way, and Jiro followed.

As they came in sight of the village houses, they met the party going out to fetch the body. Jiro nodded to them, with cold hauteur, and passed on. He was ushered deferentially, even cringingly, out of the rain into a home where a terrified woman seated him in the guest’s place and served him tea, and began preparing some fish. It was a poor, threadbare place, this house—and the rest of the village had not promised any better.

He drank the tea, barely able to suppress a groan of relief, and wondered where he was.  The rain kept up a steady hissing on the thatch above and dripping onto the ground outside. He should have felt, would like to have felt, well, sheltered. But there was something about the woman that made him uneasy. She was afraid of him, yes. A peasant in a poor village would not look on a forced visit from a daimyo’s kin as a happy occasion, and death was always inauspicious. He would not have been troubled by that; it was natural and explainable. But there was a pall over the entire place, and this woman in particular he would swear had the same look of secret desperation as the men on the beach in that moment before they had dropped their weapons and abased themselves.

Who attacks a stranger upon sight? he wondered.