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The Sound of the Rain

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It’s raining when the letter arrives. Hiromasa is playing his flute to the accompaniment of raindrops on the tiled roof, letting the rhythm of the summer shower dictate the melody. It starts slow then speeds up; the mournful tune with which he began becomes jaunty. He sways to the music, not quite dancing, and then turns to see a letter lying on the bridgeway. Taking the flute from his lips, he ventures along the covered walkway to examine the message. Pale grey paper, as grey as the swirling clouds, twisted and fastened with a cluster of white climbing roses, their hearts golden and their petals scattered with raindrops.

Hiromasa crouches, frees the spray of roses, and reads the message. As usual, Seimei ignores the conventions of polite letter-writing. No opening poem, no meandering around the point—just an invitation, two lines long: I am having a day of silence. Come and join me.

A day of silence sounds a bit monastic. Even worse, it sounds boring. Hiromasa wonders if he can invent a good excuse not to go. He enjoys visiting Seimei, of course he does, but usually his visits are accompanied by plentiful drinking and conversation, and though he supposes they could drink in silence, it seems rather pointless. Surely the point of drinking is to loosen the tongue and encourage gossip. The idea of a day without Seimei’s wit and laughter is sad and unappealing.

As Hiromasa rehearses his regretful reply, he notices another line at the bottom of the letter: Don’t even think about it.

Sometimes Hiromasa dislikes the fact that he’s so predictable.

*

He pulls his cloak over his head as he navigates the wilderness of Seimei’s garden. It’s still raining, and a wet, earthy smell surrounds him as he brushes past the azaleas and roses. The flowers leave stripes of silver on his dark brocade, then the droplets soak into the cloth. The cloak gets caught on a thorn, and Hiromasa spends some time trying to tug it free. The silk gives way, a thin tear running through the fabric. Hiromasa catches himself before he grumbles aloud.

He steps over the stream and approaches the steps onto the veranda. The bamboo blinds are rolled halfway down against the misty heat. It looks cool and dark within, and Hiromasa hurries. He slips on a moss-covered rock and stumbles, tripping up the steps. He almost curses, bites his lip to stop himself. He has to be quiet. No, he has to be silent.

This will be harder than he thought. He’s not a naturally silent person. Apparently he even talks in his sleep. Not just the occasional word or phrase but whole conversations. Hiromasa knows he’s the type of person who has to break a silence the way he has to fill a cup with wine. Emptiness of any kind is unnatural.

He rights himself, takes off his boots, and proceeds along the walkway in silence.

Seimei smiles at him from within the house. He’s seated at his desk, several books and scrolls open in front of him, brush and ink at hand. He lifts his eyebrows, a quirk up and down that Hiromasa takes as welcome, and then Seimei invites him, by means of graceful hand gestures, to make himself at home.

Hiromasa sits in his usual place and unfastens his cloak. It’s soaked through, forming a puddle around him, and he frets, looks about for Mitsumushi or a shikigami to take the cloak from him. But there’s no one else present but the two of them, and he can’t call for assistance, and he’s aware of Seimei watching him with interest. Awkward now, and a little embarrassed, Hiromasa gets up again and holds his wet cloak at arm’s length. It shushes along the floor as he moves, and he lifts it higher. He tries to creep around the house silently, but his footsteps sound heavy and the floorboards creak and his hakama and robes rustle with every step.

He throws a guilty, apologetic look at Seimei, but Seimei has resumed his reading and seems absorbed in his work. Hiromasa shuffles about in the half light, holding the wet cloak in one hand while he draws out a clothing rack and sets it in place with the other. A task that would usually be accomplished within moments seems to take forever, and Hiromasa is aware of the smallest scrape and squeak of the rack over the wooden floor. At last the rack is positioned to his satisfaction. Hiromasa drapes his cloak over it and returns to his seat. He lifts his feet carefully, this time avoiding the creaky floorboards.

He settles on the mat and stares out at the garden. The rain hisses, plinks on the roof, patters into the pond, swells the stream. The plants seem so lush, leaves and flowers vibrant despite the downpour. Hiromasa passes the time by identifying as many plants as he can. This doesn’t take very long, as the unidentifiable plants outnumber the ones he recognises.

Boredom creeps in, and with it comes the desire to talk. He wonders how long he was staring at the garden. He glances at Seimei, who’s studying him with his head slightly tilted and an almost quizzical expression on his face. Hiromasa thinks of a hundred things to say, but can’t say a word. He tries to communicate with his hands instead. His sleeves flap and flutter with the same amount of vigour he applies to his court dances, and Hiromasa fears he’s making a fool of himself.

Seimei rocks with silent laughter. Hiromasa wishes he could laugh silently, too. His laughter is always loud and spontaneous. Now he’s thinking about it, he can feel a bubble of hilarity building inside him. He tries to keep it in, looks to Seimei for help. Seimei’s expression turns severe, his eyebrows lowering to a frown. Hiromasa clamps a hand across his mouth and swallows his laughter.

Seimei nods, a pleased glint in his eyes. He gets to his feet and glides silently—how can he walk without making even the slightest sound?—vanishes behind a screen in his study and reappears holding a jar of wine and two cups. There’s a gentle susurrus of silk as he kneels, then comes the scrape of his fingernail on the wax sealing the stopper of the jar.

Hiromasa leans forward, inhales the dark perfume of the wine as the stopper is loosened. All of his senses seem heightened by the imposition of silence. The scent of the rain, of the earth and wet wood and the sweetness of wine; the crawl of moisture on his skin, the weight of his summer layers; the gurgle and glug of wine as it’s poured out; Seimei’s teasing expression as he offers the cup.

The wine rolls over Hiromasa’s tongue, its flavour exquisite. It’s not the first time he’s drunk wine from Mount Koya, but it’s the first time he remembers it tasting this good. Maybe there’s something to be said for silence after all, if it makes good wine taste heavenly.

Hiromasa drains his cup, holds it out for more. Seimei obliges. They smile at each other. Seimei has very expressive eyes, Hiromasa realises. Seimei is the stillest person he’s ever encountered, yet even in his stillness he communicates more clearly than anyone else in the capital. The court nobles say Seimei is blank and unreadable, but Hiromasa has always managed to interpret Seimei’s looks. Well, perhaps not always—but with time and patience, Hiromasa has discovered that, really, Seimei is remarkably easy to read.

Like now. Now he’s amused, chin down and eyebrows slightly raised, his smile hidden behind the rim of the cup. His gaze flicks up at Hiromasa and then drops, then lifts again, and Hiromasa is filled with warmth and contentment just from that look.

They drink in silence, finish the jar in silence. Then they simply sit together in silence and listen to the hushing sound of the rain.

Hiromasa begins to feel the pleasant effects of the wine. His eyelids droop and he leans back against the pillar. His mind clouds. The rain lulls him, almost a sensation rather than a sound. He’d thought it would be difficult to stay silent all day, but now he knows it’s easy. He couldn’t be silent with everyone, but with Seimei things are different. It’s not just that he has the impression that Seimei could, if he wanted, read his mind; it’s more that Hiromasa feels safe here. Safe and comfortable, and there’s no pressure on him to be entertaining in word or deed. Here with Seimei, he can just be. It’s an incredible freedom, and Hiromasa arranges himself on the mat, stretches out on the floor, and enjoys the experience of being.

He stares up at the roof, admires its construction of interlocking beams, then shifts his attention to the lamp swinging in the breeze. It almost touches the blinds, describing a graceful arc as it sways back and forth, back and forth. The silence deepens, Hiromasa’s focus turning inward. He hears the rustle of foliage, the murmur of the stream, the falling rain. Rather than break the silence, these sounds add to it.

The silence curls around him. He can feel it now, heavy and warm. He closes his eyes and lets himself drift. The silence is hypnotic, pulling him under. His senses sing with an awareness so sharp it almost hurts, as if he’s teetering on the edge of something—oblivion, or joy, or...

Hiromasa drags himself back when he feels Seimei settle beside him. He looks up; Seimei looks down, his eyes brilliant, a question held in their depths. Hiromasa says nothing. He doesn’t need to. Seimei kisses him, silently. Hiromasa draws in a breath and kisses him back, slowly. He focuses on the sensation of the kiss, the warmth of Seimei’s lips, the angle of his mouth, his taste, his scent, the weight of his body. The silence crawls inside their kiss, dictates it, lets it run on and on and on.

Seimei lays his head on Hiromasa’s chest. They lie in silence and listen to the sound of the rain.