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Shiroi-Mimi-Usagi

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I

Upon a time some many centuries ago there lived, at Akamagaseki, in the temple consecrated there on the waterfront of that famously embattled strait, a blind man named Hōichi: a biwa-hōshi, or kind of itinerant lute-playing minstrel. Today the strait, and the modest city spread upon its northern shore, are called Shimonoseki; and as befell many of its like in the sweeping fervour of the Meiji spirit the temple there was sacked, and replaced by a purely Shintō shrine, briefly enjoying even the lofty rank of kanpei-taisha during the height of Emperor-worship for several years till its Shōwa-era abolition; but it had been, and was when Hōichi yet drew breath, a temple to Amitābha Buddha, called Amida-ji.

Blind from birth, Hōichi had therefore the opportunity to be educated from childhood in musical recitation and in the biwa, the four-stringed lute whose playing was the namesake vocation of the traditionally blind biwa-hōshi. By Hōichi’s time the biwa-hōshi had come to be known for heikyoku: their recitations of the epic of the Heike, or Taira clan, and the Genji, or Minamoto clan, whose contest for the rule of the nation had found its military conclusion in the very strait of Akamagaseki. In that strait was fought the grand sea battle at Dan-no-ura, where the Heike staged their final stand against a prosecuting Genji force of thrice their number, and perished utterly, their women, children, and infant Emperor alongside them—sooner given over to the wild waves of transmigration than into the hand of their enemy. So it was that Hōichi was learned in the recitation of this tale, and the lad was gifted of such a skill, surpassing even that of his teachers, that when he sang the song of Dan-no-ura, it was said, even the kijin could not refrain from tears.

But Hōichi began his career in penury, as discipleship within the guilds of the blind biwa-hōshi was not gained but by fee; and likewise was payment demanded for the study of each piece of music—and, for all his inborn talent, Hōichi had not the similar fortune to have escaped a rude birth. He had however a patron, and friend, in the priest of the Amida-ji, who had particular fondness for music and poetry, and who was taken with the rapturous skill of the lad; and his frequent invitations of Hōichi then to play and recite at the temple soon grew into an offer of food and permanent lodging, on the sole condition that he continue to oblige on those certain evenings when the priest was otherwise disengaged with his holy duties. Hōichi was gracious in accepting this offer, and thence took up residence at Amida-ji.

I wonder, briefly, what the truest intention of that priest had been, whose name has not survived to us as has that of Hōichi’s. We are to believe that the cause for such a lacuna was for simple sake of a parsimonious telling; in other words that the man, such as he was, was immaterial. And it is true that by his time the temple was no longer in receipt of any great imperial support; and had perhaps been divested of much of its tributary landholdings; and that its placatory rituals had ceased to be a matter of record in the imperial court. Yet it cannot be thought in light of his nonetheless abbacy of Amida-ji that this priest could have carried on somehow unawares of the danger in which he was to place the young Hōichi.

II

When first I came up to the once-temple and now shrine in Shimonoseki, I found my eyes drawn upwards against my better wishes to the vermillion eaves overhanging the pure white main gate, their corners gilt and hung with swaying bells. The plaque mounted upon them read in likewise gilded characters Suitenmon: the name of the fabled gate to the Dragon King’s Palace beneath the sea. In its construction the shrine gate was absolutely symmetrical to front and rear, and, strictly, I supposed, I stood at the rear of it, with the true Suitenmon facing inwards, for the fanciful notion that this was to be the gate to the paradisiacal Land of Immortality once glimpsed by Urashimako could only have been for the benefit of the child Emperor enshrined aface it. And who else could believe it, after all?—the gates of the true Capital of the Moon, it suffices to say, are inimitable. But thus was whispered with tenderness into the boy’s ear, that there is a Capital beneath the waves, too, before his drowning death in the arms of the Nun of Second Rank his grandmother. He had been six years of age.

In any case the provenance of this present gate could not have extended further than a paltry few decades past, as the shrine was entirely burned in an air raid then, and subsequently rebuilt; and its design was likewise unlikely to have predated the Meiji persecution of Amida-ji, and the shuttering away of the Emperor’s portrait statue as his divine body or goshintai. Despite the modernity of their contrivance, however, this arrangement of the gate and of the boy’s enshrinement, outside the Palace as it were, struck me as a cruel irony when I strode through the gate myself, a crossing which, I thought, was denied him here even in architecture. I knew not quite what to make of it at the time; but I was able to recollect it some years later in a chance moment of the Princess’ convenience, to which she reminded me simply thus, that Hōrai was oft also called Mirage: a vision of the intangible.

On the shrine grounds no trace remained of the old Amida-ji temple buildings save the shrine to Hachiman, divinity of shooting and war, which had been rebuilt largely in the place and according to the structure of its predecessor. Yet its object of veneration was no Great Bodhisattva Hachiman as it had for centuries been, but his modern triune canonisation as the Emperor Ōjin and his progenitors Chūai and Jingū. I must confess I was given over to some unsmall measure of relief for this fact whilst I gazed into the oratory hall from its threshold, for there are elsewhere in this country other shrines to Hachiman which still remember a yet ancienter he: one who was properly Yamatoyo, the deific union between Hoori and Toyotama-hime, daughter of Watatsumi. For this same reason however was I filled with a great bitterness and longing, and some buried part of me—I have not the right to call it traitorous—some remnant of innocence in me wished dearly for an excuse to linger here: to linger, and to notice somehow, only somehow, a sweet and subtlest redolence of bitten peaches from within, and to seize upon the flood of engendered memory and enter, heedless, frenzied, overcome, begging forgiveness through prayer from all those whom I had forsaken in my flight to Earth. But I could not summon the impetus on my own, and only continued past.

To the west of the shrine the mortuary complex of the former Amida-ji had been left undisturbed, and the rows of greenschist stelae stood intact and upright, albeit weathered intensely by years. Here, shaded beneath low and unbroken canopies of maple and magnolia, rested the Heike; or at least here lay the dead of Dan-no-ura: the ones who had escaped the ignominy suffered by their kin, of being paraded as caitiffs through thronging streets of Heian-kyō, or else hunted down to the ends of the land like so many wild mountain-dogs; in all cases summarily beheaded to the last. Yet it is said even now that these warriors have not found their perfect peace, and that their wandering spirits still haunt the strait so many centuries on, calling out to travellers in the night, or crawling ashore in the form of grimacing visages of chitin raised upon the backs of local crabs, which for that reason are called heike-gani; and in the past would they go so far as to capsize boats and pull swimmers down to their deaths, hoping, perhaps, to drag themselves thereby up and out from their interstitial half-plane of being; or perhaps they wished for nothing more than a resolution to the paradox, that there could live others who were alike as them as conscious, as ensouled, and yet who did not suffer as had they.

Further west, and shortly down a hill, lay the mausoleum and proper remains of their tragic Emperor, ringed and segregated from the waking world by three high walls of granite. I saw no cause to intrude these gates of his isolation, and merely turned away, finding myself once more overlooking the beach; or rather the highway which lay out its course all along the strand, and the paved lots on its consolidated edge. No strip of natural beach remained to either shore of the narrow strait, made only narrower by reclamation and breakwaters and narrower still by the newly-finished Kanmon-kyō suspension bridge, which spanned its whole width as a delicate lattice of girders hung between two slender towers of steel, as if the whole matter were only a trifle; in truth, as I recall, its completion had made it the tenth longest on the Earth. But one is soon accustomed to these trifles, whether they be the fancies of mortals or of gods, and easily thinks no more of them than any other connexion between two familiar points; in fact one thinks less of them than the shoddiest road, and nearly indiscernible from the surrounding heath, which leads one seemingly out to nowhere at all.

III

It must have been on such a summer night, the Sun perhaps set to dusk but the air unyielding of any respite from the lingering heat of the day, the sea-soaked air heavy and suffocating, though it were already the late hour of the Dog—it must have been on such a night that it happened. Nights such as these have a way of seeming eternal, in their own way, a way quite unlike the fair and sweet constancy of the true Moon. On nights like these one thinks oneself already somewhere between life and death.

So much the more must Hōichi have found himself, for the blind have been known to possess an especial closeness to the liminal and to the hereafter. But he was prepared, as far as he could be; his consciousness was set in resolve; he sat out on the veranda; his body was painted to the last inch of skin with the holy text of the Prajnā-Pāramitā-Hrdaya. Form itself is emptiness, and emptiness itself is form; his form was not different from emptiness, and emptiness was not different from his form; in this emptiness there is no form, no perception, no name, no concepts, no knowledge; he had no eyes, no nose, no tongue, no body, no thoughts.

But, alas!—his ears!—they had been passed over in haste, and now they revealed him to the ghost of the Heike, who took them in full iron grip and, as the eager, bloody proof that he had not been derelict in his duty, tore them directly off the head of poor Hōichi.

Great as the pain was, he gave no cry. … From either side of his head, the blind man felt a thick warm trickling; but he dared not lift his hands. …

I veiled my eyes with a black cloth, and sat as he must have sat then, soundless, and motionless, but surely—surely consumed by an inner trembling. Here had I returned, to Amida-ji, to the tomb of the Heike; and with the knowledge that I was to give myself willingly into the power of the dead tonight what had seemed during the day as an almost companionable sepulture now struck me as nothing less than the stone-toothed maw of some forgotten primordial beast, its head bursting up from underground even as its tail hung shedding night-soil over some darkest pit of Yomi; and—listen!—there the midnight call of the thrush, who doubtless would alight to pick the charnels from its gums once it had glutted itself with the fool rabbit wandering into its gullet, seeking the trace of some mythical Eastern fantasy-land … Curse that Hearn; that Yakumo.

But what choice had I?—I knew too little. Nigh on seven years of hollow exile upon this forsaken planet, among this forsaken race, had not revealed to me the least hint of the whereabouts of the banished Princess and the traitor sage, save this—this Gensō-kyō, this promised land of the yōkai sages’ devising. And where the path to the true Moon leads one in contemplation through the profundities of his Seas and storming Ocean, it seemed to the limit of my investigations that the path to this Eastern Wonderland began first of all with the muted realm of ghosts. Perhaps after that would it lead one through all the eighty windings of the road, and straight over the Even Pass of Yomi—it could have hardly surprised me anymore.

In any case I had but one objective tonight, in reënacting this old kwaidan: to photograph the Netherworld, and escape with both ears securely attached. To that end I had with me the Apollo Hasselblad by my right, which I had retained on a whim rather than abandoned to litter the Lunar surface, and whose crudity was lesser at least than any other camera I might have obtained here on Earth; and by my left rested a biwa in lacquered rosewood, of no great provenance. Of course I had not the legendary skill such as to reduce a demon to tears; but I had practised long enough till the instrument no longer spited my every attempt, and my other ability would serve well enough to make up the difference—or well enough, at least, to wake the resting dead.

For one long minute I envisaged the ghost: the unnameable Heike revenant whom I was to summon now. I saw him war-laden in his ruined hitatare and the remnants of his armament, his sword rotted by seawater into a jagged saw and his bow long lost, consigned to the deeps. I watched his eyes, black, hollow, long since decayed away, as nonetheless they watched my own; and so too were his other features obliterated of all identity, so that one could not tell whether he had been a retainer or a general or a provincial governor in life. But—and still I do not know quite why this was—I felt his ghoulish face was somehow yet serene, and I imagined his every word likewise whispered and becalming.

When I took up the biwa at the last, it was with chilled, but untrembling hands therefore.

Slowly I drew the broad edge of its plectrum across the strings, producing a low, colourless hiss … and raised up the song of Dan-no-ura.

It was the second year of Genryaku, the third month and twenty-fourth day, the early hour of the Hare:
the Genji and Heike exchanged opening arrows in the strait between Moji and Akama. …

At last was battle joined all along the line, and thundering rose their battle cries—
the noise must surely have been heard by High Heaven above;
it must surely have startled the Dragon King below.

So I continued, delivering the speech of Tomomori to his saburai; and there I thought I faltered somewhat, but recovered soon enough in narrating the contest of distant shooting. The biwa under my hands seemed to oblige me from then on, and with the barest prompting did it all but simulate the whistling overhead of signal-arrows, and the thudding true of killing ones.

After this they set their faces against each other, and fought in reckless disregard for their lives, neither giving way an inch … The Heike pressed their advantage from the prevailing current; the white banner descended from the heavens; Yoshitsune performed obeisance; the omen of dolphins presaged the fall of the Heike—I continued the oration apace.

But when I narrated the treason of the Heike general Shigeyoshi I was interrupted with a snort of utter contempt, and my veins ran cold as the Mare Frigoris.

IS THIS HOW THE MOON REMEMBERS?—spoke the ghost.

With these words alone I could have been startled into a phantom myself. But in the space of my frozen silence it demanded of me whether I sought Taira no Tomomori, who died by shouldering an anchor and sinking himself into the sea; or Taira no Noritsune, who laid about himself hewing with sword and glaive till he was finally overcome, and then leapt overboard with an enemy grasped beneath each arm; or if I sought the brothers Norimori and Tsunemori; or Sukemori; or Arimori; or Yukimori; or any of the others whose death painted the white foam incarnadine, and whose banners and insignia flecked the surface of the strait as like autumn leaves upon the river Tatsuta. It demanded whether I had murdered the shrine’s priests behind me rather than alert them to my presence, for murdering is what the Moon does—murder, aye, like had been done to the whole of the Heike at Dan-no-ura by the machination of Go-Shirakawa, that scrupleless tengu of a Cloistered Emperor, under the spell of the brilliant jewelled stick of the udonge and the sway of the Lunar emissary who had presented it to him. It demanded whether I had simply come to gloat, and cajoled me to sing the secret chapter of the Swords, which it assured me I would certainly relish singing, for it detailed the Moon’s spitefully-engineered destruction of one-third of the imperial regalia, the holy sword Kusanagi, by submerging it beneath the waves, together with Taira no Tokiko and the infant Emperor—murder, and murder, and murder thrice over.

But when it began to abuse the daughters of Watatsumi luxuriant and good, I grew incensed; and when it finally suggested that I had been sent to assassinate the survivors from a thousand years ago I knew that it had been no ghost at all. I tore the blindfold from my eyes, and was met with the sight of no ethereal man-at-arms—but an enormous crab perched upon the tombs of the Heike, its back livid with the snarling face of now Tomomori; now Noritsune, shifting its form from one Taira spectre to another; and all about it was benighted with a shifting black fog.

A monster.

No—my memory availed.

An illusion.

Yōkai.

“Assassin!” it reproached me once more, eyes dancing wildly as if maddened; never daring to meet my own.

“Hypocrite,” I replied, ice of a different kind now filling my chest. “Or were you not to have been the assassin of Go-Shirakawa, but that you were thwarted by the arrow of Yorimasa?”

Its carapace flushed ink-black at the charge. “Do not speak that name! … I would only to have rid the country of that scheming goblin!—The both of them!—goblins!”

So I had been correct.

I will speak it,” I hissed, perhaps gratuitously, till the next words came to me. “… So you say. But when have monsters ever cared for the affairs of court?”

“When they have come down from the Moon,” returned the crab.

“You have gained a taste for glory,” I charged it further. “For the triumph and renown and pillage known only to warriors, and never to provincial yōkai. Therefore you threw your lot in with the Heike. Therefore you dissemble even now to be one of them.”

“You think me a liar?—you, sent from the Moon?” it said, and imitated my own voice with unsettling precision: “Hypocrite.

I resisted, of course, the urge to retort; but all the same I knew not how to interrogate it further. In my own silence however I found that there came, then, a subtle vibration from the biwa in my lap, which I had hereto forgotten—a sound unbidden, and far below the threshold of ordinary hearing; and I would have dismissed it as the effect of some wind, except that they were in waveforms unmistakeably that of speech. It seemed as if the biwa itself were echoing the blistering rant of the yōkai—or imitating, rather, in the manner of an infant; prompted, perhaps, by example.

painted the white foam incarnadine
for murdering is what the Moon does
brilliant jewelled stick of the udonge
survivors from a thousand years ago
when have monsters ever cared
when they have come down from the Moon

When they have come down from the Moon.

Of course.

Yakumo’s invasion.

How could I have forgotten?

“You do not deny it!” exclaimed the crab towards my silence, and made itself livid again, but stilled when I only shook my head in agreement.

“… Indeed,” I said, slowly, “I seek the survivor of that battle. Indeed I seek the Taira no Munemori of a thousand years ago. Indeed I seek the coward who had not the martial virtue to topple yourself into the sea of tranquillity, but lay hidden amongst the valiant dead to nurse a poison in your breast.”

So I spoke, and readied myself for an outburst of violence, in case the accusation landed true—but none was forthcoming.

“Then,” tremoured the crab instead, “Yakumo hath purchased thee once again.”

It sighed grandly then, and underwent a great transformation: it seemed to crumple downward, on legs that had lost their strength; its carapace faded to an ashen blue; and its ‘face’, too, shed all traces of youth, as if centuries of life had been exhaled in the sigh.

Finally it rested its cataracted eyes on mine, and said: “How cheaply sold you rabbits are.”

I activated my Lunatic Eyes, to no avail. Then its eyes had been false eyes. But belatedly the import of its words arrived to me, and I questioned, “Sold?”

“Aye—sold. Or believest thou that thy masters had sent thee to die forwhence they needed thee?—to defend thy seas and Capital?—against only yōkai? … Thy lords; thy priests: perhaps they had some restless spirits in their own rear gardens which they had hoped to quell, by the sale of a few pairs of ears.”

“… And,” I said, breathing deliberately, or else I might have stopped altogether—“and you, then, had been sold dearly?”

“Fool question,” said the crab, and shifted its gaze curiously. “If thou hadst asked thou didst not remember, and canst not.”

“Gensō-kyō,”—the word slipped from my tongue. “Yakumo’s Eastern Wonderland.”

“It is much too late to speak of that.” The crab sighed again, and then clicked its claw sardonically, as if to applaud: “But thou hast done well to uncover me.”

“You will die,” I said desperately, regretting the baseness of the appeal even as I uttered it.

“I may,” said the crab, and leapt.

I snatched up the Hasselblad and clicked off a shot, thinking to blind the yōkai with the flash cartridge no matter where its true eyes had been hidden. But in the flood of zirconium white I saw the crab dissolve into a monkey; then a tiger; then a dog; then a snake, and finally something very small which I could hardly describe, before fading at last to nothing at all, together with the light that had captured its true form.

A minute passed me by, till the afterimage in my own eyes, too, had gone.

The old nue—for that was what it was; or perhaps it was only the lingering shade of one—in any case, this fractured survivor of Yakumo’s enormity—was dead.

… But, buried in the midst of its rantings, and repeated even now by the nascent biwa-bokuboku in my lap, it had spoken a name: one unique among all the others it had invoked, and as ancient as the Lord Tsukuyomi's himself. It had spoken the name of Iwanaga-hime, in denying me—in denying the Lunarians rather—her domain of true immortality.

And if its conviction in this was founded on any true knowledge of the matter …

… she must have hidden herself there.

Yes; there.

Yatsugatake.

* * *