‘The Kimono’, Chapter 23


Very recently, I have been working on this novel, something that has dragged on for 4 years now.  It’s done in stops and starts because of the research needed: writing about culture in 17th century Japan is new to me.  I have a better idea now, over the last year, where this story is going; before, I just let the characters direct the flow. Now I know that this can be a big mistake. (Especially when you are dealing with tricky tengu. lol) Someone has to be in control of events, and it better be the writer.

In this chapter, Mari visits a shrine to the Lord Jizo.  He is a benevolent god, the protector of travelling pilgrims, women and children, especially babies who have died at birth.  Mari has lost her first and pregnancy at five months, and is just getting to mourn this. 

Lord Yoki is a bothersome Tengu: a supernatural creature that figures into Japanese mythology. He has been following Mari since the beginning of the book, and shows up unexpectedly.  His magic is more…developed….a shapeshifter and time travellor…something that Lord Mori, with his own bag of tricks (trained as Yamabushi) can’t do.  Lord Yoki is aligning himself with Lord Mori, but he’s a tricky devil.

Lady Nyo

(Where Mari goes to the Jizo temple to light incense, and meets Lord Yoki.)

Mari and Lady Nyo returned from their shopping, and Mari went to lie down. Her feet hurt in the high geta. It took careful steps and concentration not to twist an ankle.

When they were out, Lady Nyo told her of a small shrine close by, dedicated to Lord Jizo. Mari wanted to make an offering.  When they passed the shrine on the road a few days before, Mari was deeply moved.  She had lost her first and possibly only child and perhaps now she could face grief.  She put it out of mind because of the disruption, and mostly the shame.

Lord Mori and Lord Ekei disappeared during the morning.  Neither Mari or Lady Nyo had a clue where the men were.  They were just women and not to be informed. Lord Nyo was left in charge. Mari thought it a good time to approach Lady Nyo.  She wanted to walk the short way to the shrine, to spend some time in thought and she wanted to do it alone.  Lady Nyo’s expression upon hearing Mari’s words expressed concern, but she promised to talk to Lord Nyo.

Mari knew she would have to have protection, either in the form of Lady Nyo or one of the men of Lord Mori.  This was not of her choosing.  She had no say in these things.

Lady Nyo found her in the tiny garden in the back of the inn, watching goldfish in the small pond before her stone bench.

“Lady Mari”, she softly called.

At the sound of her voice, Mari looked up.  It was still early, just past the noon hour, and the day was overlaid with clouds.  It had turned misty, but Mari was still hopeful she could make her visit.

“My Lord Nyo has agreed and is to send you with two men and I will send you with a servant.  I will provide you with coin to buy incense.”

Mari smiled.  She knew Lady Nyo was risking much in not accompanying her, but Mari wanted some distance from everyone.  She wanted some privacy to think and to be alone.  It didn’t seem possible in this century.

Lady Nyo was kind.  She sensed what Mari needed.  After all, this foreign looking, foreign acting woman was full of secrets, and she knew in time the tight ball who was Lady Mari would unravel.  She was willing to wait.  There was something much bigger about this woman, this unusual and rather ugly favorite of Lord Mori.  What it was, Hana Nyo did not know, but sensed it was worth her patience. There were clues, but these were too fantastic to believe.

Mari set out with two armed guards and one of the two women servants. This time she wore her straw sandals and her traveling kimono, with an oiled paper cloak to protect from the rain.  Mari had not been raised in either Shinto or Buddhist beliefs, though her mother privately offered prayers and burned incense at a small family shrine set up in a corner of  their house Mari for a time had attended a Unitarian church, the religion of her father.  Who Lord Jizo was remained unclear to Mari. The only knowledge she had was that he was the patron ‘saint’ of unborn, miscarried and stillborn children.  It seemed enough of a starting place for her. Perhaps she wouldn’t feel so empty after offering prayers for her dead baby.

The walk to the shrine was not far, and the road was banked with mulberry trees and beyond the road, bamboo stands looking like small forests of waving greenery.  A drizzle had started; it served to dampen the dust on the road.

There were few travelers today.  When they got to the shrine, Mari was surprised how primitive it was; not more than a raised open shed, a stone pillar with a carved face set back from the entrance.   There were offerings of toys, incense, pebbles, a few small coins. Children’s clothes were folded and laid at the base of Lord Jizo.  One mother had put a red bib around his neck and a white, knitted hat sat on his head.

The men and the servant stood back by the road, but not so far they couldn’t see Mari.  She walked up the few wooden stairs to kneel on the rough wooden floor.  There was a crow in the rafters, who looked at Mari, curious as to her presence.

Mari placed her unlit incense in the bowl of sand in front of the statue.  She raised her eyes to his face, and realized his features were faint, dissolved by time.  A small, smiling mouth, long earlobes, closed eyes.  Mari felt tears forming and gulped to swallow them.   She didn’t know what to say, what to pray for.  She had not been a religious person back in her own century, and things were too disrupted and strange to even contemplate the spiritual now.  The presence of magic had destroyed her belief in comforting things.

A strange sensation came over her.   She did not recognize it at first, but soon realized she was feeling more than the usual emptiness. She felt—filled with something, and at first she didn’t  understand.  Tears coursed down her face, and raising her eyes to Jizo these ancient details dissolved even more.  Whether it was her tears or some magic, she was looking at the face of a laughing baby.  She clasped her hands to her chest and uttered a soft, marveling cry.  Then, the vague stone features of Lord Jizo reappeared.

Mari was deeply moved, but frightened.  Perhaps it was the dim light of the shrine playing tricks or perhaps it was her confused mind. Whatever it was, she felt a peace, something she had not felt in a long time.  She felt as if a heavy burden had been lifted from her heart.

The faint sound of a flute came to her ears.  Sad, consoling music.  She looked up in the rafters to the left of the Jizo statue and saw a monk sitting there,  or what she thought was a monk.  He was playing a bamboo flute and floated down like a dust mote.  Mari looked around at the men and the girl outside. They seemed oblivious to anything happening inside the shrine.  In fact, they weren’t moving.  They looked frozen.

“Do not be afraid”.  The monk, a very dirty, dusty man in a ripped kimono, spoke in a raspy voice, clearing cobwebs from his face as he stood there.

Mari for some reason did not feel afraid.  Perhaps she was enchanted and this was a spell?

“Nah, you‘re under no spell.  But the men outside are.”  He giggled.

Mari blanched.  This monk could read her mind? 

The monk coughed, and spat, very unmonk-like behavior in a shrine.

“Were you the crow in the rafters?”  Mari’s voice was soft, disbelief making it hard to speak.

“You’re a fast study, girl.”  The monk laughed, seeing the astonishment on Mari’s face.

“What are you?”

“Ah….you are  a rude one! Perhaps the shock of seeing a crow transform into a man has robbed you of manners?”

“But what are you?”

“You already asked that.  I am Lord Yoki.”

“You obviously are not human.  Are you a figment of my mind?”

“Oh, I am much more than that, girl.  I am a Tengu.  Are you familiar with tengus?”

Mari shook her head, eyes wide in shock, now beyond speech.

“Ah….we have met before, Mari.”

“How do you know my name?”

The tengu laughed, a raspy sound from a thin, wizen throat.  Mari’s eyes traveled over his kimono.  It was patched and stained, none too clean for a monk.  He was barefoot and his nails were very long, in fact they had grown over his straw sandals and seemed more like bird claws. He was scratching at his hindquarters, too.

Lord Yoki smiled, blinked, and closed his eyes to mere slits.  Mari noticed his nose was very long and red.  Probably drank too much sake.

“You were visiting a friend in Kyoto. Coming home one night, I called out to you.”

 Mari couldn’t think of where she had seen this creature.

“Ah…your friend, Miko? “

Mari gasped.  Miko was back home…in her century, the 21st, not the 17th!  What was happening here? Was she losing her mind?

Suddenly, she remembered.  There was a large bird on a wire high above her one cold night.  She remembered that night with Miko, telling her about the dream….a dream that turned out to be another reality.  She remembered being scared by a voice, and looking up in the dark, she saw a huge bird with a long red beak.

“Yup, at your service.”  The tengu bowed and giggled, like a girl would.

“But, but….how?”  That was another century, hundreds of years from now.  “How are you here?”

“Better you ask me why.”

Mari went to rise, and fell back on her backside.  Her legs would not support her.

“And….you speak English!  I must be losing my mind!”

“Oh, don’t get overly excited, girl”, he said, making a dismissive gesture with his hand.  “Weirder things have happened.”

The tengu grimaced, scratched at his scraggly beard . “Lice”, he said flatly.

Mari twisted from the floor, trying to see the men outside.  They had not moved an inch.

“Oh, don’t worry about them.  We have thing to talk about.”

The tengu folded his legs and sat facing her, tucking his flute into his robe.

“I am sure you have some questions for me?”  He looked at her expectantly.

“What questions could I have for you?”  Mari’s shock was lessening and she began to feel danger.

“Perhaps you would like to know what your husband Steven is up to.”

Steven!  Mari gasped, her eyes opening wide.  What would this old man, if he was one, know of Steven?

“Well, why don’t we start by you asking me some questions?  I bet I know more than you could guess.”  He folded his hands in front of him, looking rather pleased with himself.

Mari swallowed hard, wishing she had some water.  Her throat was dry.

“What could you know about my husband?”

The monk lifted his eyebrows a few times and winked.  Mari almost laughed.  He looked like Groucho Marx.

“I travel in many circles, girl.  I get around.”

Mari would have dismissed him as insane, but uttering Steven’s name meant something else.

“Then tell me what he is doing.  Is he worried about me?  Is he ok?”

The monk ‘s face softened.

“You don’t understand much about this time travel, do you?  Has no one explained to you what happens?”

Mari remembered only that Lord Mori said a year here in this century would be like a minute in hers.

Haltingly Mari told the monk what she knew.

“Yes, yes, that is part of it.  Going back and forth can be confusing, but do not worry.  You have no reason for concern about husband Steven.  See those men out there? And your servant? “

Mari saw the men and woman in the same position.  Still frozen.

“That is how your disappearance has seemed to Lord Steven.  He doesn’t have a clue.”

The monk chortled and the hair stood on the back of Mari’s neck.

Mari wrapped her arms around herself and looked at the floor.  Tears started to form.  What had she done to Steven, to her marriage?  Was she already dead and this was some kind of Hell?

“Mari”, said the monk in a soft voice.  “You are caught up in a web of magic, and none of this is of your doing.  You only bought a kimono having some history and you fell under its power.  What happens now is out of your control. From the  beginning, it was your fate.”

“What is going to happen to me?”  Mari raised her eyes to the monk, her face full of despair.

The monk, or tengu, or whatever he was, almost scowled, and spit again on the boards of the shrine.

“Do I look like a fortune teller?  I have no idea, girl, what is to be your destiny, but I know you are a pawn in a larger game.”

“One of Lord Mori’s making?”

“Lord Mori is also a pawn, but a much more important pawn.  We all are pawns in this present game, Mari.”

“What does he want of me?”

Lord Yoki looked at Mari, studying her face, but said nothing for a few seconds.

“Our Lord Mori is a complex man.  He can wield his own small magic, more tricks than anything else. There are other forces at work and our Lord is determined to find them out. This, in part, is the reason for this pilgrimage to Gassan Mountain.”

“But how do I figure in all of this?” 

The monk laid his head to one side and narrowed his eyes as he looked at Mari.  He looked like a blinking owl.

“I have no answers for you, girl.  I just know that you do. You will have to cultivate patience. You have no control or power as to what happens. “

Mari did not get much from his answers.  At least she now knew something about Steven, if she could believe this monk.  If it was true her absence had gone unnoticed by him, then perhaps there was something good in this.

What her role was to be here, in this century, in the presence of Lord Mori and the others, there had to be an answer for her.  At least she had the small comfort about Steven. If she could believe the monk.

She looked at him, but he had vanished. In less than a blink of the eye, he was gone.  Mari stretched out a hand to where he had been sitting.  Had she dreamed all this?  Was she also under a spell?

She heard voices. The men were talking amongst themselves, leaning on their nagatas.  The woman servant was plaiting reeds from her basket.

Mari left the shrine, only turning back once to look at Lord Jizo.  She still had no  answers, but for some strange reason, she felt comforted.  Whether it was Lord Jizo or the monk, she didn’t know.

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