Haru has always loved soil since the first time she was allowed to touch it.
Her father would have put a stop to matters immediately if he'd known. Any tutor who did not follow etiquette was to be terminated, not applauded. He never would have tolerated the sight of an Okumura child with their hands sunk deep in the dirt of a seedling tray, fingernails turning gritty and stained as they joyfully scattered clods all over the pristine fibers of the tatami mats.
But Haru's first ikebana instructor hadn't been aware of any restrictions. Her father never observed the lessons directly, leaving Haru free to voice her questions, asking where the flowers came from, why the petals looked like that. The tutor had thought that any request from the Okumura family was one to honor, and so she had obediently brought in pots and soil to their lessons, smiling at the girl's delight.
Dirt had no intended place in Haru's training. Like so many other things about the world, she learned about its importance only by reaching through the gaps in her curriculum. Flower arrangements taught her about mud. Tea ceremonies taught her about pottery. Calligraphy showed her ancient heartbreaks hidden between lines of poetry. The best techniques for smiling, for bowing, for keeping her hands neatly folded as she politely deferred to others -- even the smallest arts gave Haru hints of the dozens of ripples they connected to in life, where a proper dinner conversation could become a weapon, or a person's only defense.
Everything had been laid out precisely when Haru had turned seven. To celebrate her final Shichi-Go-San ceremony, her father had had a secretary develop a strict course list for her to embark on. As a young woman meant for wealthier society, it was vital for Haru to be perceived as desirable even as a teenager. Once she reached high school, her profile needed to be in perfect condition in order to be appropriately valuable during a marriage negotiation.
From seven to fifteen, Haru was expected to refine herself. From fifteen to seventeen, to be bartered for. If she behaved correctly, then, at eighteen -- once she had graduated high school -- she would be ready for marriage and for the children she was expected to bear.
Her father liked to plan ahead, after all.
Ikebana had been one of the default disciplines: a traditional requirement for a traditional life. Haru's first instructor was inevitably exchanged for another as Haru moved from style to style. As she was led through moribana guidelines, and then the rikka, Haru learned about principles of beauty which were defined through careful geometry and restraint. Even in gardens which emphasized elevation of the natural world rather than mastery over it, plants were not allowed to grow freely and choose their own directions. Here, too, nature was considered most breathtaking after it had been pruned by human hands.
Haru lives by the same rules. She will be considered beautiful by society, so long as she remains trimmed back into a pleasing form. She knows her future shape.
But as a child in the warm afternoons of the ikebana studios, Haru had gleefully absorbed every word her tutor had shared about roots and seeds instead: the living potential of each flower before it had been cut. Her mind had sought out those connections, wondering where each stem had come from before being spread out on her sterile worktable. Much like each Okumura hamburger, there was an unseen beginning to every flower, a bevy of workers which had clipped it, chosen it, tended it in the nursery from seed to exaltation. There were invisible hands which had passed each blossom forward, a chain of people with names and lives of their own, all so that Haru could have her tutorials in perfect, clandestine rooms without a speck of dirt inside them.
Haru knows she owes her lifestyle to thousands of people she will never see. Her father -- who prefers to never acknowledge any employee with a rank below director, who pretends that meals appear on his table every morning without any human intervention -- might know, but never speaks of it. He looks forward, relentlessly, and claims the company's successes as his own.
But Haru looks behind. She looks around. She sees the faces of the board members and factory workers alike, each equally feeding the lifeblood of the organization. She takes note of every stage of customer service, and reads up on shipping methods and weather patterns. It was as her teacher had told her, so long ago: every element, no matter small, has an impact upon the final harvest. Quality of earth is as important as water and sun. It cannot be taken for granted.
Haru knows, of course, of the many slurs associated with earth: mud, dirt, impurity. In some languages, night soil is a euphemism for human waste. Soiling is foulness; dirtied is pollution.
It is a paradox of meaning. The earth is all-providing, and yet filthy beyond belief.
The combination is much like how women are seen, she thinks, watching the view out the elevator windows as she and her father ascend to the top where their dinner reservation is waiting. Like the earth, women are called both life-givers, and whores.
Her fiance's hands are very clean.
She does not look at Sugimura's face directly even as she meets him for the first time. As is proper, her gaze is averted, deferential towards her future husband. The glistening leather of his shoes is in such perfect condition that they could have been stitched that morning; there are no scuffs, no signs to betray that he has walked anywhere other than on pavement and hotel carpet.
The restaurant lights are dim, allowing for modesty between the tables. Conversations are hushed. There is no one around with eyes willing to see as Sugimura steps forward, and reaches out his hand.
It is not polite of him to seize her chin, but he does so anyway, forcing her face up. Her eyes ache as she keeps her gaze directed downwards, waiting for him to finish his criticisms of her features. Some part of her knows she should listen carefully to his concerns, so she can go back and address them later, altering herself into an acceptable shape. Some part of her knows; she does not heed it.
They have never met before now. All the meetings between the matchmaker company her father had hired -- after numerous reviews and recommendations, of course, selecting only the best company for the best results -- had gone on strictly between him and her potential partners. Her father had attended all the omiai greetings without her, bringing one of his secretaries to handle the paperwork and photos. It makes sense, Haru knows. Her father wishes only the best for the future of the company. Her duty is not to be selfish, but to smooth the way between her husband and the future.
And now, at last, the results are here.
Her father asks Sugimura if he is satisfied, in the same tone of a man asking a market price for his livestock.
Sugimura releases her chin. Haru tightens her fingers together, pressing her hands in perfectly smooth leaves so that she cannot betray herself with whitened knuckles. She thinks of dirt, grave dirt, filling her mouth and keeping her silent. She holds stones upon her tongue. Grit packs her throat, forcing her to breathe shallowly around it. She is entombed in her obedience.
When they take their seats at the table, Sugimura is directly across from her father. Haru is to the side, where she cannot interrupt conversation by accident. When the waiter comes, her father begins to order her portion for her -- and then stops himself, chuckling.
"That's your job now, isn't it?" he asks Sugimura, and tilts his menu in invitation.
Her fiance leans back in his chair, his mouth curving with the amusement of a tiger. "I can already guess what she'd like," he promises. He dusts his fingers in an arbitrary skim over the entrees. For his own meal, he chooses a cut of Matsusaka beef, mirroring her father's selection. For her, he picks thinly sliced fish, sauteed vegetables, and fruits.
"Half-portions for her, if you'd be so kind," he smiles conspiratorially to the waiter. "My darling must learn to watch her weight, after all."
The meal is spent discussing business, not marriage. Haru feels her stomach tighten, but forces herself to eat slowly, matching the pace of the table so as not to appear as ravenous as she feels. Her father was overwhelmingly satisfied to be able to set the meeting up; it took him remarkably little time to find a suitable candidate. Haru is not yet seventeen, which means her father is ahead of schedule -- which means, cost savings. She has done well; she has come under budget for the company. She should be proud.
She is not yet seventeen. It's a young age to have achieved the highest expectation set out for her life. There is only one goal left, and it is to have enough children to secure the next generation of the Okumura line. After that, her life will be complete.
Her chopsticks pluck a slice of pepper off her plate. She makes sure to chew thoroughly, stretching out the flavor as long as she can.
Women in Japan, she knows, have few freedoms for their identities. Haru may be allowed to have hobbies now, but soon she will be expected to set them aside and prioritize her offspring and husband. That is the extent of her power, and since she is near the apex for her sex -- wealth, society, influence -- the expectations are inescapable, wielded by a society which enforces conformity through shame.
Japan may have advanced in technology, but Haru has seen the state of global politics. The televisions of her home run endless news feeds. Japan is far from the worst nation to live in -- Haru has no illusions of her luxuries, the comfort levels that she takes too often for granted -- but neither is it the pinnacle of civilization that it would like to claim to be. Haru will never be able to advance to the same business authority as her fiance. She will never run Okumura Foods and be respected as an equal. It is simply a fact of life.
Like the well-tamed earth, she lowers her gaze and endures.
If she had been born a man, she knows, her father would have molded her into his image as his heir. To do so when she is female would demean him in his eyes. She is too impure to stand by her father's side, yet too valuable a resource to ignore. But -- now that Sugimura will be his heir -- she can feel her father's attention waning even further, impatient to get on with his ambitions. She had already dwindled into something bordering on invisible. She is not sure what else is left to lose.
After the dinner is over, Haru bows politely and enunciates her joy and gratitude at her new fiance's acceptance of her. She barely listens to the plans that her father and Sugimura are already laying out for the rest of the winter.
That night after her bath, she stops to study herself in the mirror, pinching her skin and wondering what part of her Sugimura will criticize next.
Over the course of the next week -- after the matchmaker company has been paid, and the pairing is assumed final -- she is finally allowed to see a copy of Sugimura’s history. It comes delivered inside a perfectly composed, crisp folder that lists the basics of his schooling, and then the degree of political involvement he's accomplished so far through his family. A few photos are included, well-lit and poised, and this is how Haru can finally stare at him directly, not hiding any boldness. The shape of his long face is an oval on which she can attempt to pin impressions of hands, shoes, teeth. His mouth is pinched tight in the corner, as if it had been clay improperly fixed from cracking. When she thinks about his voice and the clenching of his fingers on her skin, she thinks it might well be a smirk.
She lowers the photo, aware of her fingerprints on the glossy edges.
Already, she does not like him.
Sugimura is a man of high connections. He is not a first son, and can accept being adopted into the Okumura line and losing his original family name. He has had little in the way of direct campaign experience, but his relatives are involved with matters across Japan, extending as far as Italy and Brazil. Haru, reading the profile, easily identifies what her father found attractive: Sugimura is wealthy, easy to mold, ambitious. Most importantly, his family brings a stable platform of political influence that Haru's father never had the chance to achieve on his own.
Sugimura is a perfect picture of the son that her father wishes he had, and Haru can see why her father is not above wagering his current child to acquire him.
After reading through her fiance's history twice, she pushes herself to her feet, padding to the sideboard to pour herself another cup of tea. She understands. She tells herself she understands. It all comes down to numbers. As a woman in Japanese business, Haru is of limited value; she was always intended for this purpose. Her father is trading up.
It's a matter of caste. Of social values. Of custom. Haru is no different than anyone else, her worth established by others, rising and falling outside her control. Even farmers have fluctuated in status between different nations: alternately revered for being able to draw nourishment from the earth, and scorned for having to labor among roots and stone.
Even at sixteen, Haru knows she is closer to them than to the lofty men in their boardrooms. She is a farmer; she is of earth. She is a woman. She is besoiled.
In the crystallizing prison of Haru's senior year, it is -- surprisingly -- plants which slip through the bars to find her this time.
When one of the teachers asks her for a favor, Haru agrees automatically without thinking. She's so accustomed to saying yes in as pleasant a tone as possible that they've learned to come to her with any requests, knowing she will never protest. Between their hurry and her obedience, Haru is led all the way up to the rooftop before she realizes what is happening; she catches herself blinking uncertainly in the afternoon sun as the teacher thanks her for taking over the planters.
After the teacher has departed, Haru crouches and studies the neglected seedlings in their haphazard pots. The soil is cracked with poor watering habits. Erosion gaps yawn like miniature chasms. As nostalgia trickles in -- reminding her of childhood afternoons and laughter -- Haru's fingers are already reaching towards the stems, gently brushing aside the yellowing leaves and dehydrating petals.
No one thought you were worth spending any time on, she whispers to the struggling plants.
It's okay. I'm here now.
It’s been years since Haru's handled gardening soil, she realizes. Even though there are plants in their home, she's shied away from taking care of them, allowing the servants to handle that duty so as not to attract the notice of her father. But tonight, after she goes home from school -- after her father has already finished with dinner and has retired to his study -- she makes the rounds to each one. The leaves welcome her touch, forgiving her for her lapse. As she carefully checks the moisture and consistency of the soil, it feels as if she's never left.
Plants are her comfort and shield. They are a safe, neutral topic of conversation between her and Sugimura once the two of them begin attending dinners alone together. Plants are respectable enough when they reach a certain price tag -- orchids costing hundreds of thousands of yen, too delicate to be brought into plain air -- but Haru values the simpler ranges, the ones with haphazard pollinations and uncertain lineages. All of them struggle so hard to grow and thrive in the boundaries of their world. All of them reach for the sun.
She loves talking about the different kinds of soil consistency, the use of careful fertilizers. Her fiance's lip curls when she speaks. He calls it playing in the mud, citing grubs. Insects. Filth.
That much may be true. By taking to the garden, Haru would become wife to the festering things that crawl and skitter and burrow, winding around bones and crumbling logs. She would become a creature like the old stories of demon-hags in Yomi, servants to Izanami -- who was herself the tale of the original spurned woman, the one who was blamed for speaking first, who only in death is free of all obligations save hate. Haru keeps company with organisms which feast on rot.
But she feels this is not much different from the boardroom, at times. Not of Okumura Foods, necessarily -- some of the older managers seem to wish a degree of genuine kindness upon her, though she knows to be reasonably wary and not trust surface appearances. She is, after all, what she is. And they are who they are: businessmen.
Everyone's roles are clear-cut.
Haru is freshly seventeen now, tiptoeing through her final year of high school. Her father is already having her attend regular reviews at fertility clinics. It's hardly an uncommon problem in Japan these days -- yet the visits are performed as quietly as possible to avoid the shame of any gossip, the potential that she might have a problem. If such an implication got out, Sugimura might be able to decline the marriage. Her father cannot afford to have that.
She's not unfamiliar with these kinds of doctors. She's been having examinations since she first bled at thirteen, measuring her hips and the projected narrowness for birth. Some of that data had surely made its way into the matchmaker documents. She's been trained to keep track of her cycles in spreadsheets, saved on the home network for her father to access. It's for her family's benefit, she knows. She's lucky that her father does not want to invite rumors, or else she'd already be attending consultations to plan on artificial methods, with calendars for conceiving on schedule.
In the meantime, she has a regime of vitamins to take every day, so that pregnancy will not sap her too much and cause her to lose any physical charms. In the worst case, if she is ruined too much, well -- then it will be announced that she has retired away from polite company, dedicating her life to raising her children as a good Japanese mother should. Her husband will be freed to dwell with all manner of mistresses upon his arm. She may never have to see him again, except during formal portraits which he will take with his children for publicity purposes.
She thinks, darkly, about the earth the next morning as she lines up her vitamins dutifully beside her plate. The earth gives life -- but also takes it, breaking it down into its basic components and granting that material to other forms. It does not matter how rich or powerful a corpse might have been. Beetles and larva heed no social laws. The same insects Sugimura detests will sup upon him along with her someday.
Or rather, that should have been the case. These days, cremations are the standard in Japanese society. No one goes into the earth intact.
It must be lonely to be cremated, Haru thinks, remembering the tidy container of ashes and bones that her mother became before they entombed her. It will be lonely for Haru as well, buried alongside her future husband. He will be allowed in the Okumura grave thanks to her, embedded forever within the family line.
Her mother gives her no advice for how to endure. Her mother is ash and char. Her mother -- like Izanami -- is free of all obligations save death, and even in that, she must serve as a lonely reminder of the path that Haru must follow now.
For offerings, on the next trip to the family grave, Haru brings flowers which she grows herself: flowers which would have been rejected from her clean, pristine ikebana arrangements for being bruised, or too inelegant, too damaged. Petals lopsided, leaves half-hearted. Too untamed.
Her fiance tells her they are ugly. Implied as well: that Haru is failing her duty to have taste. Her father tells her nothing. She, in turn, does not tell either of them why she does it: in the language of flowers, she is redefining all the words as rebellion.
At home, she begins to use the houseplants in personal arrangements. Sheltered in the privacy of her rooms, Haru slides slim pots together in different orders, like soldiers too confused to stand in straight lines. She does not pluck any flowers; she leaves the roots and stems intact.
In a further violation of propriety, she dispenses entirely with the rules of the moribana style, not caring about proportions or measurements or angles. She arranges the pots as closely together as their rims allow. The arrangements explode outwards like stars, shifting their combinations depending on which angle she studies the center point from.
One of the most useful things about her unorthodoxy is that she leaves behind no evidence of her actions. Once she is finished, Haru simply moves the pots back into order on the shelves, and everything is hidden once more.
"It took your mother years to conceive you, Haru."
When her father announces this, it comes without prelude during breakfast. It's only halfway through the school year, halfway to Haru's expected marriage preparations. June has become lost underneath a confusion of rumors which endlessly repeat tales of domestic accidents and criminals. Shujin Academy is still reeling after the arrest of Kamoshida. Haru's father is determined to ignore it; his attention is barely on Okumura Foods, already looking forward to the winter elections.
He's studying the news on his tablet over a half-eaten plate of toast, scrambled eggs, and imported sausages. Western-style meals have been his request for the last six months; he has been attempting to adopt a taste for them in the belief that it will train him to better converse with overseas politicians. "That's why you were so precious to us."
Haru lowers her chopsticks. Her surprise goes instinctively hidden as she studies her place settings, careful not to let anything show. Her breakfast is traditional; she had her egg raw over rice, and has already finished her miso.
In the silence, she knows she is expected to speak. "Thank you, Father."
"You take after her," he adds.
The words snap Haru's concentration; her gaze is yanked towards his face. She cannot read the expression framed by his glasses, half-hidden by the corner of his tablet. It is remote, distant, sharing nothing about what might have caused his heart to stir towards the past.
His next words shred through her hopes. "Therefore, I expect you'll be prone to the same condition. It's your responsibility to keep it from becoming a similar problem. I expect you to do your duty far more quickly, Haru. Your husband can't possibly dote on you if he's going to take over the company on schedule."
Grains of rice sit like boulders in her throat. She doesn't want to swallow, for fear of vomiting. Haru's father hasn't dwelled on her mother in years -- but this is not a memory. This is not regret. Her mother has been neatly translated away from being a person, turned into simply another potential obstacle to her father's glorious future.
Haru gathers her composure, breathing steadily, as she has been taught. "Yes, Father. I understand."
Haru knows that the standards of the family company are plummeting. She has seen her father ignoring the reports of worker treatment, the budding lawsuits that are barely stifled. Popularity for Okumura Foods has taken a steep dive, spurred on by stories of the vigilantes known as the Phantom Thieves, who target those they deem criminals for reformation.
The board of directors is concerned; one by one, they have begun to hold huddled meetings with her father in his home office, meetings that Sugimura is already attending. Haru can hear their muffled voices down the hall from where she waits, checking upon their coffee and tea and other refreshments at regular intervals. The servants have prepared the refreshments, but it would send the wrong message for one of them to intrude when Haru is at hand: she should be the one to serve.
Haru is the only child of her parents. By rights, she should be sitting in that room instead of Sugimura. If she were allowed to inherit the reins of the company, she could seek to turn things around. At times, she fantasizes about it: if things were to be different, if she had been born in another body or a future time, or even another country. The signs are clear. The earth of the company must be turned over, allowed to renew itself, to allow the rot to process and be turned into fuel for new growth.
But none of those dreams are real. She is prepared for that. Her father has been having her trained for years, drilling her in what she can provide to others while expecting nothing back. She is like the earth, expected to provide nourishment and accept being tilled, split open and sown, growing only what she has been told.
And the earth, of course, is passive.
Haru regards the serving tray, the coffee still hot and leaking steam. Even with no one else around, her hands are folded perfectly in her lap. Her back is straight. Her training is her only company.
When most people think of the earth, they imagine soil that has been cleaved, already tamed and folded over, ready for use. Sometimes, they think of unruly dirt that must be smoothed down properly so that pavement can go over it and support roads, houses, businesses. They forget the weeds. They forget that growth can happen without their hands, that careful gardens are unnatural, that nature is not endlessly giving and endlessly harmless. They forget that plants can be as stubborn and ruthless as any other creature: that plants, too, are hungry to live.
Haru has seen how vines can crawl up fences and poles. She has seen growth burrowing around older homes, fences and farms devoured, grass eroding the edges of asphalt. She has seen stubbled stalks poking through the most rigidly cultivated lawns, refusing to be eradicated by chemicals forever: fighting always to burst out of the soil and reclaim the land for their own.
But it is gardens which are thought of as beautiful. Gardens, made natural because they have been unnaturally placed. Gardens are pure.
Weeds are not.
Haru -- with her hands in her lap, her nails clean of any imperfection -- is the very picture of the filial child that her father auctioned off in a marriage profile. She has been a dutiful daughter, and will be a dutiful wife. After that, it will be a short step to dutiful motherhood, for her value is weighted by her ability to bear in more ways than one. Society will bury her alive in a grave she has never been allowed to climb out from, entombed from birth to death in proper silence.
But she is messy on the inside, full of insects and grubs and worms. She is full of awareness for the invisible lives which lift her up, rich with ideas that society considers filth. She is an Okumura. Her father has always said that that name is something to be proud of, and though he referred to himself, Haru sees no reason why that should not apply to her as well.
The knowledge spreads its roots inside her veins. It nests in every inch of her body, a second skeleton underneath her skin. It is not ash -- it was buried intact.
Haru is an Okumura child. She is not a thing to be used, producing crops on command and considered empty otherwise. The cultivation of her form is a mere surface illusion; beneath the pristine facade that her father has shaped, Haru holds the bones of indignities that refuse to splinter beneath the plow. Obedience is merely one layer of topsoil. Pride and resistance are the waiting seeds inside the dirt of her soul.
They have no shortage of fuel.