The Tokaido Road
A Novel of Feudal Japan
By Lucia St. Clair Robson
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 1991 Lucia St. Clair Robson
All rights reserved.
BEWARE THE STOPPING MIND
Next to Cat's room in the House of the Perfumed Lotus a game of Naked Islanders was in riotous progress. Five of Old Jug Face's third-rank courtesans were dancing to the thin, rhythmic whap of a hand drum and the staccato notes of a samisen's catgut strings. When the music stopped the women froze. Anyone who moved had to take something off.
As the jars of rice wine emptied and were refilled by silent attendants, the dancers found it more difficult to stay motionless during the drum's silences. Around the women's feet, their silk robes and underrobes and their long brocade sashes swirled in a shimmering lake of color. Their stiff, white, split-toed cotton socks floated like ducks on top.
The game had reached the point where the guests joined in. Apparently one of the men was dancing with an undergarment draped over his head. Cat could hear its owner's giggles and playful slaps as she tried to retrieve it.
As Cat knelt, watching her own guest die, she heard the merrymaking as she would have heard a distant waterfall or a windstorm. She was still wearing her thinly quilted lavender silk robe and a heavy brocade sash. Over it she wore a full, plum-colored satin coat embroidered with peacocks and crimson maple leaves. It kept her warm in the chill of the eleventh month. Its heavy, trailing sleeves were folded neatly across her thighs, as though she were a guest at a tea ceremony.
The soft light of the floor lantern outlined the long slope of Cat's neck rising into the glossy black loops and wings of her hairdo. The collars of her robes were set far back to reveal the most alluring part of a woman's body, the sensuous, vulnerable curve of spine and nape. The rush light glowed on Cat's face, delicate and slender as a melon seed. The gold of its flame was reflected in the dark brown irises of Cat's eyes.
Cat had swallow's eyes, long and curved. Her feathery black eyebrows arched high and symmetrical as a silkworm moth's antennae. She had brows that physiognomists said belonged to someone who made plans and carried them out. Her narrow, high-bridged nose and the full lips of her small mouth cast shadows across her chalky-white cheek.
Cat was as cultured as she was beautiful. She was the secret daughter of a daimyo, Lord Asano, and his outside-wife. She had been trained in music and literature and art. She had never thought she would use her skills in a house of assignation in Edo's pleasure district, but then she couldn't have foreseen the tragedy that had brought ruin and disgrace to her mother and father.
A year ago Cat, whose real name was Kinume, Golden Plum, had arrived here on foot. Palanquins were not allowed in Edo's pleasure district, the Yoshiwara. She had hidden herself under a striped travel cloak and large-brimmed hat of woven sedge. Two of her dead father's former box bearers had followed single file with a large wicker chest slung on a pole between them. The chest had held Cat's remaining silk robes and sashes and her favorite books and scrolls, her matched, lacquered cosmetic set, her writing box, and a few precious keepsakes.
Cat herself had signed the contract with the owner of the House of the Carp where she would live. By the time her grief-stricken mother learned what she had done, it was too late to change her decision.
When Cat's high wooden pattens clattered across the slate paving of the House of the Carp's entryway, she had been struck by doubt so sudden and intense, she had almost turned around and left. But Cat's nature wasn't to quit what she had begun. She had hidden her fear and grief and loneliness behind a lovely, impassive mask ever since.
The usual custom was to give oneself a new name when starting out on an important enterprise. A different name was especially vital in Cat's case, to keep her real identity a secret. Her friend Plover had begun calling her Koneko, Little Cat.
Plover used the nickname affectionately, and it caught on. Others began calling her Cat because she was as graceful and aloof and unpredictable as her namesake. But Golden Plum couldn't replace her sorrow the way the nickname Cat replaced her old name and identity. She could only do her duty as the daughter of a lord and a warrior and endure her fate without complaint or self-pity.
She moved through her duties in the assignation house called the Perfumed Lotus with the grace and reserve of her class and breeding. She already had attained the second rank here, but she preferred to act the part of tayu, grand courtesan — to dazzle her guests with her wit, to stand on ceremony, to talk little, and to be hard to please.
She'd often been known to refuse to grant her favors, a luxury only the tayu, enjoyed. And always, Cat's guests had to spend a long time charming her before she would consent to undo her sash. So it had been this evening. Now it seemed she would be spared the necessity of politely spurning this guest.
With her legs demurely under her and the toes of one white-clad foot overlapping those of the other, Cat sat back on her ankles. The cool, tight weave of the thick, rigid tatami mats covering the wooden floor gave slightly under the pressure of her toes and knees. Cat leaned forward almost imperceptibly to study the guest.
At first she had thought, with relief, that he had passed out from drinking too much of Old Jug Face's watered sake. That would have been fortuitous. He was one of those guests in whom unconsciousness was the most desirable trait.
Cat had planned to leave him there, sprawled on the thick mattresses piled three deep on the tatami. But that was when she had assumed he would awaken the next morning with a headache, nausea writhing like a tangle of squid in his stomach and a rueful realization that he would have to pay a great deal for the privilege of feeling so bad.
The heavy robe of wadded yellow cotton bearing the crest of the House of the Perfumed Lotus was bunched up under him, revealing bowed, hairy legs that sprawled carelessly. Saliva oozed in a froth from his half-opened lips and dangled in a thin rope from his chin. His wiry black topknot was askew. His eyes were open.
Without rising from her knees, Cat moved closer. She laid two pale, slender, impeccably manicured fingers on his neck. Nothing. Not a flutter of a heartbeat. The customer had left his homely body, never to return. The next occupants would be small, white, and legless. Already a hardy fly, an emigre from the privy, was circling solicitously.
Cat felt panic rising from the seat of her soul, behind her navel. She drew several deep breaths. She needed to be calm. She needed to think.
Soon the watchman would strike midnight, the hour of the Rat, on his wooden clappers. At midnight Centipede would close the small door in the Great Gate. He would lock the corpse into the pleasure district and into Cat's company until cock's crow.
Cat was sure the guest had been murdered. The murder weapon, or what was left of it, lay on the lacquered tray that also served as a table. The blowfish had been cleaned carelessly for a deadly purpose.
Only a single slice of fugu, blowfish, remained. It was paper thin and transparent enough for Cat to see the deep blue waves painted on the porcelain platter under it. Unless cleaned correctly, a speck of the poison in the fish's ovaries and liver could kill a person.
As the numbness spread through his body, the guest had been able to think clearly but unable to talk. He probably had known he was dying when he'd lost control of his arms and legs and then his lungs and sphincter.
Kira, Cat thought. He won't be content until he's killed me.
Tomorrow was the fourteenth, the monthly anniversary of her father's suicide. Lord Kira Kozuke-no-suke Yoshinaka had been responsible for that suicide. Maybe Kira feared Cat would do something rash on the fourteenth. Maybe he thought she was plotting revenge. Maybe he merely had decided to ensure that Cat bore no children to threaten him in the future.
With a chopstick Cat poked the last slice of fugu. Not often did death arrive in such a lovely package. The filmy slices of pale flesh had been artistically arranged in the form of a flying crane. It was the sort of ironic gesture Lord Kira would make. The crane was a symbol of longevity. But fugu was also a powerful aphrodisiac, which was why the customer had eaten with such gusto. A pinch of death was spice for fornication as well as for food.
Except for the inconvenience his corpse caused, Cat wasn't sorry the guest was dead. He had recently come into an inheritance and had been scattering it like rice chaff about the Yoshiwara. He was a clerk in the government finance office, a bannerman with ambitions.
He had bad breath, a face like a pickle jar, and his poetry was trite and contrived. Cat regarded him as she would a slug that had invaded her rooms and left a trail of slime behind it. His remains would cause a great deal of trouble to Old Jug Face, the auntie of the Perfumed Lotus, but he was still inconsequential. The important problem was that Lord Kira was trying to kill Cat.
As Cat knelt on the wheat-colored tatami in the pool of pale golden light thrown by the night lantern, she withdrew into herself.
We lock infinity into a square foot of silk;
Pour a deluge from the inch-space of the heart.
The ancient poem calmed her. Behind her closed eyelids Cat could see the ink-laden brush drawing it out in bold, black strokes. For a moment she dwelt in the inch-space of her heart, the core of her being. She didn't stay there long because in his Water Book Miyamoto Musashi warned to beware the stopping-mind. Cat knew she had to act.
Slender and graceful as an iris, she rose in a murmur of silk and glided across the elegant room, her purple satin overrobe billowing behind her. She slid aside a panel of the paper wall and slipped into the small dressing room. It was as homey and cluttered as the entertaining room was bare.
Cat's toiletries lay scattered about the freestanding black-lacquered shelves. The mirrors, the combs, the jars and boxes and brush handles, matched the shelves. All bore, in mother-of-pearl, the Asano family crest of crossed feathers. In a corner, a big orange cat slept on a second set of shelves that held books and the long-necked samisen Cat had been learning to play.
Cat moved to the screen standing in the opposite corner. The steep black ravines and gray clouds, the prickly pine trees and silver swirls of mist painted on the screen looked inviting. Cat wished she could walk into the landscape and disappear among the pines.
"Butterfly." Cat knelt beside the pallet behind the screen. She gently shook the child sleeping under a pair of thin quilts.
"Earthquake?" The girl sat bolt upright, then fell back with a thud against the pillow stand when she realized the roof tiles weren't chattering in the throes of a tremor.
"What hour is it, mistress?" Butterfly mumbled.
Cat glanced at the slow-burning incense joss on the bookshelf. It was perfuming time as well as marking it. "Almost midway through the hour of the Boar. Centipede will lock the Great Gate soon. We have to hurry."
"Where are we going?" Butterfly was confused. The hour was too late to promenade or to run an errand. And she had not gone outside the walls of the Yoshiwara pleasure district since her distraught and impoverished mother had sold her to a procurer two years before, when the girl was seven years old. As far as Butterfly knew, her mistress, Cat, had left it only a few times. Almost none of the white-necked ones left the Yoshiwara unless they were dead or dying. Was her mistress dying?
"I need you to comb out my hair," Cat whispered over her shoulder as she brought the rough earthenware jug of water from beside the shelves.
Butterfly hastily wrapped an apron around her wadded cotton sleeping robe, tied back her sleeves, and pondered this latest surprise. Cat never drew her own water. Old Jug Face employed a small army of maids and servants and apprentices to do that sort of work.
Cat obviously wasn't going to explain anything, and the child dared not ask more questions. She knelt behind Cat, who sat in front of the big round mirror on its lacquered stand. While Butterfly untied the hidden paper ribbons that held the tiers of coils and falls of Cat's hairdo in place, Cat scrubbed the white makeup from her face.
"How shall I fix it, mistress?" Butterfly asked softly. The soft, glossy mass of hair lay across her palm, and she continued combing it almost reverently.
"Simply tie it."
Butterfly wound a flat, red paper ribbon around the hair, catching it just above Cat's waist in a style no longer in fashion. The thick cascade made her appear archaic, like a lady of the royal court.
When Cat finished washing the thick layer of powder off her face, neck, arms, and hands, she dipped a brush into the jar of black paint and thickened her arched eyebrows. With her heavy eyebrows and the few freckles scattered across her nose, Cat looked like a demon, a very beautiful demon.
The festivities next door had grown more boisterous. They were having so much fun, in fact, that the party on the other side of them slid back a section of the paper-paneled wall between the rooms and joined them. A guest had pulled the bumpy skin of a sea slug over his erect ano mono, "that thing." One of the women had drawn a face on it with her teeth-blackening paint. Now it was preceding its owner, leading them all in a game of Follow the Leader. The drum beat steadily, and the paper walls vibrated as they danced in a long, tipsy, naked line around the enlarged room.
"Help me drag him out of here." Cat pulled the big, soiled quilt around the customer as efficiently as if she were changing dirty linen.
The quilt was shaped like a large kimono, and Cat brought the bottom edge up between his spraddled legs and put it together with the sleeves. It formed a bulky sling with the customer's skinny shins sticking out in opposite directions. With his staring eyes and his open mouth, he seemed about to protest the indignity.
"I might wake him." Butterfly inadvertently touched his hand. It was as rigid as a bamboo back scratcher. She squealed.
"Only the Beloved Amida, Buddha Himself, can wake him now." Cat rapped Butterfly lightly on the crown of her head with a folded fan to recall her from death's distractions. "He certainly doesn't care what you do. And I didn't kill him. The fugu wasn't cleaned properly."
Butterfly looked in horror at the flimsy tissue of blowfish whose edges were curling up slightly as it dried. A dead fly lay on it.
When Cat and Butterfly dragged the body off the pile of mattresses, it landed with a thud and knocked over a tall iron candle holder. Trapped gas escaped in a noisome explosion from the guest's bowels. Butterfly giggled nervously into the palms of her hands. Cat looked around in alarm.
She needn't have worried. Against the ranks of sliding paper wall panels receding into the brothel's dim interior, the writhing shadows and rustlings of professional courtship went on unabated. The laughter and drumming continued. Distant music cascaded from a samisen.
"See if anyone is in the storeroom." Cat was much stronger than her slender body looked. She dragged the bundle across the slick tatami to the opening through which Butterfly had just disappeared. She peered into the narrow servants' corridor. For once, she was glad Old Jug Face had spitefully assigned her these rooms at the rear of the house.
Butterfly scurried back, her feet snapping the hem of her robe. "It's empty."
"Now find a candle on the shelf next to the books. Light it and bring it."
"Will you hide him in there?" Butterfly nodded toward the dark doorway of the storeroom.
"I'm going to pickle him like an eggplant." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Tokaido Road by Lucia St. Clair Robson. Copyright © 1991 Lucia St. Clair Robson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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