Grandmother exhaled, slow and considered, when it was her turn. The smoke from her pipe unfurled slowly into the still, warm air. Even the crickets seemed to drowse in the late summer heatwave, but where her neighbours' brows were damp with sweat and furrowed with discomfort, Grandmother politely declined offers of cooling tea or a fan to chase away the heat.
"Tell us a real story," said Michiko, who was twelve, and secretly writing a history of the village.
"Well," said Grandmother, who always knew everyone's secrets. Her plum-blossom eyes smiled. "Let me tell you, then, of a story I heard as a girl."
The shadows against the wall lengthened as the others leaned closer. Grandmother was already old when the eldest of them was born, so old nobody remembered her before she became a widow. Her mouth curved with humour at their faces, but she obligingly set down her pipe and continued speaking, soft and quavery.
"Of course we can now never know if this is a true story, but the woman who told it to me believed it to be so. In those days, many things that are impossible now were as common as clouds in the sky..."
Once, a long time ago, there was a village hidden in the mountains of Hida. Outcasts and runaways alike drifted into the village in ones and twos – and sometimes away from it, leaving straw-thatched homes to be taken over by newcomers. Unhappy were their visage! Always looking back with fear at pursuers, real or imagined, while youkai and bandits lay in wait on the path before them.
Humans have always been admiringly resilient, and so it was that this village of strangers slowly became families who tended small fields of millet and daikon together. Homes that slumbered quietly through the night soon filled with the cries and demands of children. They played with wooden dolls and spun brightly-coloured tops carved by a childless toymaker, and as they grew older their parents tentatively thought of grandchildren.
One winter morning, soon after the first snowfall, Saburou the weaver was roused from his loom by the clatter of geta on stones and hard-packed dirt. The footsteps slowed as they passed through the village boundary, of which his hut was the marker, then stopped before his door. The expected greeting, pitched low and masculine, made him sigh with annoyance at the interruption to his work. Nevertheless, Saburou opened his door.
Blinking in the pale light, the floating colours before him coalesced into a flamboyant kimono – and, in it, a man with a smooth, youthful face. A peddler's chest was strapped to the man's back, and something within it rattled gently.
"I apologise for the trouble," said the man, "but I seem to be a little lost. I'll soon need to find my way again, but while I am here, surely there must be someone in this village in need of a humble medicine seller."
Word travelled through the village like a fire, and by midday the Medicine Seller was ensconced in the steep-roofed home of the toymaker: Takeki, a lithe, graying man whose beardless face creased into wrinkles when he smiled, which was often. His hands stitched together scraps of cloth for a doll as easily as they chopped firewood, though he sometimes stopped and stretched like a cat, rubbing his lower back with a rueful smile.
Izumi, his wife, accepted the Medicine Seller's offer of a poultice for Takeki's back with an equanimity that suggested long years of weary resignation at her husband's blithe disregard for his health. She rarely said more than a few words at a time, the melancholy cast of her narrow face little troubled by delight. Takeki left behind him a trail of jokes and laughter wherever he went, but Izumi was coolly uninterested in everyday chatter. Though no longer young, she still possessed a regal, graceful beauty that made their neighbours bend their heads in pity at the lack of daughters who would inherit her coal-black hair and shapely neck.
Need and curiousity drove a steady stream of villagers to the toymaker's home. The Medicine Seller dispensed loquat syrup and powdered dokudami to grateful parents, who traded goods and gossip in exchange.
"I heard Takeki was a samurai who gave up his sword," said Kazuo, who rubbed the chest of his coughing son with distracted concern. "We don't ask questions around here, but he's always been a good hand at bandit-killing – too good. Then there's his wife."
"She's a little strange," ventured Hana, the tofu-maker. Her two daughters blushed and whispered whenever they caught the Medicine Seller's gaze, though the eldest stared back boldly. "Not dangerous, just says the oddest things when she does say something other than pleasantries. Maybe they thought she was mad where she came from, and his family's ashamed that he married her."
Hachirou was dismissive when the conversation, made over the patient grinding of herbs, inevitably strayed to the topic of the Medicine Seller's hosts.
"It's all speculation – I believe what I see with my eyes," he said as he counted out worn copper coins. "Nobody told you not to leave after dark? I thought so. Don't. Last week we found a cloth-merchant in the forest. Murdered. He was just here a few days before he died."
The corners of the Medicine Seller's mouth lifted, ever so slightly.
"I assure you I value my life and my wares very highly," he said, and allowed himself to be persuaded by Takeki to stay the night, for the winter chill was sharp and unwelcoming.
The modest evening meal of stewed satoimo and pickled daikon must have eased Izumi's wariness, for she became more animated as they warmed themselves around the hearth. Or perhaps it was simply that the day marked something important to her, for she was dressed in a deep blue kimono with a pattern of white clouds, much finer than a commoner's simple clothing, and a sandalwood comb bound her long hair. Takeki himself wore a splendid black kimono with embroidered bamboo leaves upon its breast, his slim fingers caressing the sleeves as he smiled at his wife.
Despite the finery and Takeki's alleged samurai antecedents, their home housed few things that spoke of wealth, past or present. The Medicine Seller had glimpsed a mirror-chest of persimmon wood in their bedroom, and the sight of a staff wrapped in bulky cloth made him chuckle to himself, but the couple's simple bowls were not expensive Chinese porcelain, nor their chopsticks beautifully lacquered. A weaving loom crouched in a corner, and a shuttle lay on the wooden floor beside it. For all that the wooden shuttle had not yet taken on the gleaming patina of frequent use, the half-finished fabric mounted on the loom – soft green and pale yellow, with a spray of blossoming camellia flowers – was an accomplishment any master weaver would be proud of.
Takeki was bright-cheeked and merry after a few sips of buckwheat shochu, a gladly-received gift from the Medicine Seller. But his eyes were as keen as ever when he regarded the Medicine Seller, lapsing into a momentary solemnity.
"It's serendipitous that you should come here today, of all days," Takeki said. "They say that—well, my wife and I have lived alone for a long time, eh, Izumi? On the road and in this village. Alone long enough to have eccentric habits of our own making."
"It is the nature of people to take up ways that are the most convenient to desires already held, and call them normal," the Medicine Seller demurred.
"Well-said!" Takeki and Izumi glanced at each other. "My wife and I, we tell stories to steer us through the winter. To each, half a story upon the first snowfall; and from each, an ending to the story the other has told, soon after the first snowmelt."
"Ah, an equitable exchange!" said the Medicine Seller. "But are the endings always as sweet as the beginnings?"
Izumi hesitated, then started thus:
Before peace was pressed onto this land, it was not unknown for women to ride alongside their husbands into battle. We forget now their names except a chosen few, but the one of which this story tells, we shall call Hoshino – for she was the glittering light of her family, from a daimyo house that now rests as bones and ashes.
Hoshino was no great beauty, but she was quick-witted and strong in body and spirit, and in time wise suitors vied for her attention. Her father had indulged her in everything, from her schooling to marriage, and to please him she chose a man of equal rank and standing. The family rejoiced, excited chatter filling the house from room to room.
The wedding preparations had only just begun when war called Hoshino's groom and father to battle. Hoshino dried her mother's tears and left to join her brothers in the army, one of several women who donned the armour. Excelling in naginatajutsu and tantojutsu, Hoshino soon found herself in the thick of the fighting, the bodies of slain soldiers falling about her like rain onto the muddy ground.
How bitterly she wished for the miracle of Empress Jingu, that conquest could be had without bloodshed! Her house and its allies, vastly outnumbered, soon comprised of only a ragged band of the exhausted and dying. The highest-ranked surviving male was a mere boy of fourteen summers, whose voice cracked when he read a message from their enemy.
"They mean to spare the women and take you as wives, if captured alive," he said to Hoshino.
She was greatly troubled by this, her thoughts running to and fro. The enemies were amassing before them, banners fluttering brightly in the wind. From where they stood, Hoshino could hear the shouts of soldiers and the cries of the wounded. She thought of her mother, now likely dead as well, and her childhood home.
"Never," Hoshino vowed.
The two armies met again for the last time. Terrible was the slaughter, and wretched were those of her house. One by one they were killed, the boy among the first to be beheaded. A charging warhorse flung Hoshino into the thick reeds on a riverbank, where she lay insensible and hidden.
When she finally awoke, her kimono was soaked a bright, bright red. Not far from where she was lying, a group of samurai teased each other as they washed the severed heads of her father and brothers, blood running into the water.
Takeki was staring at his wife, a strange tension in his eyes. He set down his cup and recited, in his light, clear voice:
There was once a crane who lived deep in a dark marsh by the edge of a forest. The bakemono who made their homes nearby pitied her, for it was unnatural for her kind to live alone. A fat tanuki sometimes ambled by to ask after her, but she sent him away each time. A pair of giggling, mischievous kitsune failed to ease her sorrows.
To all, she said: the world was a cruel and capricious one, and she was content to be alone. During the night she would sometimes awaken, listening into the darkness for a sound only she could hear.
One winter's day, she took flight amidst the howling wind and the icy snow. Higher and higher she flew, but the fear and sadness that gripped her heart also chained her to the frozen earth. Her wings soon failed her and she plummeted to the ground, her fall broken by pine branches and snow. She wept.
When a pair of zunbe-clad feet crunched into the snow beside her, she reared back in alarm, striking blindly with her long, sharp beak. But she was injured and starved, and to her shame the human subdued her with ease.
She struggled nonetheless, straining to free her wings. One last burst of strength knocked back the human, who staggered and fell, still holding on to the crane. Droplets of blood stained the snow from a cut on the human's brow, visible now – with the human's straw hat ripped off and carried away by the wind – as was her long hair, spilling out in a dark, tangled mass.
"Oh," said the crane. "You're not him."
The Medicine Seller clapped his hands. His medicine chest, resting behind him, rattled with his movement.
"What wonderful stories," he said. "How I wish I will be here to hear the endings – why, Izumi-san, your tale was made for a storyteller with Takeki-san's beautiful cadence."
Izumi leaned forward, intent. "You must share a story too, Medicine Seller. Tell us something fantastic, and true."
"That is a little difficult." The Medicine Seller lifted his hand to his chin and pondered for a while. "Ah, no, I have it: a story about one of my customers. I will tell the entire story."
The samurai, though noble, were not always wise with their wealth. My customer's husband was a young samurai who was amiable but not clever. He slowly lost everything except his wife and his favourite hunting hawk, and they lived together in a house emptied of everything he could sell for gold.
His wife was extraordinarily beautiful. Poets wrote verses celebrating her slender hands, the gleaming coils of her hair; painters offered coins for half a day of her time. She was devoted to him, eking out what little money she had to buy my best healing salve for the wounds on his hand, where the hawk's claws pierced through his old glove.
Her husband was ashamed of his failures, that he cannot even afford to replace his wife's broken haircomb. He grew even more worried as her belly swelled with child, and only found peace in watching his hawk hunt for ducks in a nearby lake.
As winter slowly came to its end, her husband grew even more anxious. He was to present himself and his household to the daimyo for the hanami in the spring – how could he bear to see his wife embarrassed among the finery of the ladies? Amidst his agitation, an invitation for the last hunt of the winter came from the daimyo.
His wife grew quiet and somber at the invitation. A day before the hunt, she set off for the town, telling her husband she was buying vegetables for their meal. He waited until she was out of sight, then slipped out.
When he came home late in the evening, his wife was waiting for him. Her eyes were red and swollen, and a length of cloth covered her head, like a Buddhist nun.
"I have a gift for you, husband." She untied a package wrapped in cotton, and from it she drew out a deerskin glove, a hawk's hood, and two silk tassels for the bird's feet. "For tomorrow's hunt."
Her husband paled and cried, "But how did you pay for them?"
She reached up and took off the cloth – alas, her beautiful hair! Her head was shorn of all except a bare finger's length. She whispered, "I sold my hair."
Her husband took a step backward, stumbled, fell. The two treasures he secreted between his kimono and juban slid helplessly to the floor: wisteria-embroidered silk and an ivory comb, paid for with the sale of his hawk.
"A cautionary tale?" Takeki asked, his hands arrested mid-clap. Izumi’s dark eyes watched him, tracing his upraised hands, her sleeve pressed to her mouth.
"If you like," said the Medicine Teller. "I left the town soon after – I never knew happened to my customer and her husband. Certainly, self-sacrifice for the sake of another can go hand in hand with ignorance of that person's heart."
There seemed little to be said after that, and when the shochu was drunk to satisfaction all three retired to bed. The Medicine Seller listened to the quiet murmurs of his hosts and the metallic clinking inside his chest, smiled, and closed his eyes.
When he opened them again, it was the hour of the Tiger. The smaller drawers of his peddler’s chest were open, empty. He waited.
A woman’s cry broke the house’s slumber as decisively as a bell, thumps and a clatter echoing after it. The Medicine Seller rose, sword in hand, and glided quietly to his hosts' bedroom. Sliding the shoji door open, he beheld a futon with the blankets thrown back, a roll of hay wrapped in cloth lying on one side. The wrapped staff he noticed earlier was gone.
Izumi turned towards him, teeth bared. She was hastily dressed in her evening kimono, her hair flying wildly about her pale face.
“You knew this would happen,” she snarled.
“I suspected,” he said mildly. “Suspicion is not omniscience – I did try to warn him against confronting your pursuer on his own, without your knowledge.”
“The silly, brave fool,” she said, half in tears. “How would Takeki know how to fight him? That—it’s not human anymore, just greed and anger.”
Izumi made as if to brush past him, but the Medicine Teller was immovable; a cold, inhuman presence at her door.
“Tell me who he is,” said the Medicine Seller.
Her fists clenched. “He was my husband,” she whispered. “Once upon a time, he saved me. I tore my feathers to weave for him, and from it I gave him wealth and happiness. And then he said breaking his promise was no reason for me to break my ties to him. That he would have me no matter what, that he would have his hunting dogs and the respect of the town and I would live in gold combs and all the rice we could eat. I flew away.”
“Thank you.” The Medicine Teller was silent for a heartbeat, then shifted aside, the gleam of his sword bright in the dimness. “We must hurry, but there is yet time.”
The night was bracingly cold and bright with moonlight, illuminating their path as they ran into the forest. His tiny, jeweled scales tinkled, directing them this way and that. A howl echoed through the mountainside, rattling loose snow from pine branches and frightening flocks of nervous birds into flight. Izumi breathed rapidly beside him, her feet treading lightly on the snow.
The Medicine Seller’s sword was still sheathed, but not for long, not for long.
Takeki was standing in a clearing, feet planted apart, the blade of his naginata pointed at something that was once, possibly, human. The Medicine Seller's eyes widened.
The creature lunged, claws extended—
"Stand aside, you can't hurt it!"
—but Izumi reached Takeki first, screaming, "Don't you dare touch her! Leave us alone!"
Takeki caught her arms, his— her voice thick with desperation, "I thought I told you to run, if it ever came to this."
"I can't, never, I won't." The sleeves of Izumi's blue kimono lengthened, flaring out to become white, feathered wings. In place of the woman known as Izumi, a majestic crane rose from the snowy drifts, snapping her beak at the creature. It shrieked back at her, and the force of its rage was like a hammer.
"Haven't you taken enough from me?" Izumi demanded, as Takeki slashed at a claw. "I took from my own body for the cloth you demanded, and you— you broke your promise. Why? Why do you still hunt me?"
The creature pulled itself up into its full height, knotted sinew held together by hate and hungry greed, its eyes like burning coals. Its breath stank as it rasped, "Mine."
Its body swelled, as if readying itself for another assault, but too late: Takeki and Izumi were ringed by a barrier of ofuda, flaring red with power. The creature roared, heaving as it turned to face the Medicine Seller.
"The Sword of Exorcism cannot be drawn without the knowledge of a mononoke's Shape, Truth and Reason." A click, and the jaws of the lion's head on the hilt of the sword opened. "I know yours now."
"What happened then?" Michiko demanded, her small face reddening with outrage as Grandmother continued to smoke placidly from her pipe.
"In one version of the story, Takeki and Izumi lived happily for the rest of their lives."
"And in the other?"
"That too, but differently. Listen."
Years later, in the drought of a hot summer, a covered oxcart drew up beside the Medicine Seller. The driver tipped back her sugegasa and grinned at him.
“Long time no see, Medicine Seller.”
"Why, it's Takeki the toymaker."
"It's Takeki the farmer now." The wrinkles in her face had deepened and her hair more white than gray, but Takeki's smile was as playful as he remembered. "Climb up, I'll take you to the next village – my village."
"Convincing me there're better lives than a simple farmer," Takeki said. Unasked, she went on, "We had to leave the village you found us in, when the others noticed she wasn't aging as much as she should."
"How unfortunate," said the Medicine Seller. "I was assured no one asked questions."
"Well, they asked this question." Takeki laughed. "We're thinking of trying one of the cities next. Yokohama, perhaps. I've never been to a city, but from what I heard— I think I can even dress as a woman again."
The Medicine Seller seemed amused. "Do you want to?"
"I never thought about it. Not since the day I decided to live as a man." She flicked the reins of her ox. "Why waste time on regrets? We both had plenty of them, at the time. Now? We're only living as best we can."
The Medicine Seller gazed out at the endless, sun-baked road. "Then I wish you well."
Grandmother sat and smoked on the balcony overlooking the garden long after everyone else, yawning in-between protests of wakefulness, finally went to bed. When the moon was full in the sky, she tapped out the ashes of her pipe and said, "You can come out now."
"I haven't seen you around for a while, have I?" The Medicine Seller slipped out of his geta and stepped onto the balcony. His chest rattled noisily, but the house remained in slumber. "It's been a long time since I met someone already convinced of the quality of my wares. Would Grandmother like to purchase gennoshoko tea? Koojusan?"
"Perhaps tomorrow night." Her strained, pale face belied her cool words. "I had a terrible time placating them while I waited for you – stories were the best I could do, at my age."
"Ah, but you left the best stories till the last night." Scales tinkled as the drawers of his chest slid open. "You may stay, if you like, but I can't protect you."
She rose to her feet, still with the gracefulness of her youth. "I expected none." She hesitated. "It's not their fault this house entrapped them."
The Medicine Seller's brows rose. "This... is not about blame."
"No, of course not." She smiled. "It's simply that stories of Takeki make me think about what she would say, if she were here."
Tucking her pipe into her obi's pipecase, Izumi walked out into the overgrown garden, not looking back.