The first time Lady Harue saw the ghost she wasn’t sure that it was anything at all. She was by herself looking out into the garden when she had a sense of another presence in the room. There was a movement just at the edge of sight. She turned her head; nothing was there. No one had entered or left the room, she was certain of that. It might have been her senses playing tricks on her, as they sometimes did, and under other circumstances she would have dismissed it as nothing more. But at that particular moment she was looking for something peculiar or out of place, something to confirm that the world around her was a fraud, and that the impossible things that seemed to be happening were not actually happening at all. That none of it was any more real than the events of an unpleasant dream.
This had occurred on the day of her father’s return from Kyoto to their home on Lake Kasumigaura in what was then the Shidanosho region of Hitachi provence. The year was 1600, the fifth year of Keicho. It was autumn, still too early for snow, but the mornings were crisp with frost. The late summer haze that softened the view across the lake and trapped the rich smell of cedar and pine, had been driven off by air so pure and clear that now the double peaks of distant Mount Tsukuba stood out against the blue sky, and its surrounding rows of wooded hills could be seen as distinctly as the reeds and waves close by.
The clarity had an unsettling effect, as if things meant to be concealed were coming into view, or possibly things that hadn’t existed at all might be emerging in the landscape. The entire world was undergoing a change at this time, and change invites the unknown, the unexpected, even the unimaginable. The Great Hideyoshi, omnipotent warlord of Japan, had died. The insuing power struggle had developed into a civil war. This, in itself, was not unusual. There had been other civil wars; it was assumed there would be more. There always were. Then, at the dawn of a recent morning near a small mountain village, the Great Army of the East and the Great Army of the West came together. It began in rain and fog, and when the day was done, when the cannon fell silent and the last crackel of musket fire echoed away into the surrounding hills, the victorious general surveyed his harvest. Through smoke that clung to the ground and with the growing darkness hid the ruinous scene from Heaven’s view, Tokugawa Ieyasu rode with his retainers across the field of Sekigahara, taking account. Sixty-thousand heads. Who was there to stand against him now? No one was left who had the power. It was a victory so final that there could be no more war.
This was the unimaginable. In a world where everything had hinged on the fortunes and hazards of war for centuries, there was to be no war. The established order of all things was suspended, waiting for some sign of what was to come. For everyone, the thoughts of what might emerge through the vanishing haze were troubling.
Although there was no war, there was the aftermath of war. There were winners and loosers. There were accounts to be settled. There were punishments and rewards to be dealt out. That was why Lady Harue’s father had been in Kyoto. Lady Harue’s father, Lord Nakasada, had not been involved in the final battle, although his clan, the Satake, had been supporting what was now the wrong side. Their leader, the Head Daimyô, switched the clan’s allegiance at the last moment, but by missing the battle, due to logistical complications, they were unable to demonstrate their new loyalty. The triumphant Ieyasu, being nobody’s fool, suspected that the Satake had simply decided to take the less risky course of sitting this one out. Whether that was true or not, it seemed to set a poor example, and people needed to understand that risk could not always be so avoided so easily. That was why Lord Nakasada, like other lesser Diamyô of his clan, found himself listed among unsettled accounts.
The assembly in the Imperial City of Kyoto was a demonstration of Ieyasu’s newly won power. Although he hadn’t yet been granted the title of Shogun by the Emperor, that was taken to be a matter of formality. Already Ieyasu had assumed the role of absolute military ruler. Events got off with the execution of the opposing general, Mitsunari, who had neglected to commit suicide during the interval between loosing the battle and being captured. Next was General Ekei, who shared the misfortune of being taken alive, and then General Yukinaga, who had been unable to kill himself because of religious convictions. Yukinaga was a Christian. The executions were performed in the riverbed as a public spectacle. Attendance was required, personal sensitivities notwithstanding. Lord Nakasada was disturbed by the proceeding. The message, uncomfortably pertinent, sent a wave of foreboding through him that caused the blood to drain from his face as if his head was already preparing itself for an impending removal. As the crowd withdrew a man next to him took note of Nakasada’s pallor.
“A little squeamish, eh?” Lord Nakasada turned and saw a broad smile behind a black beard. “At least when it’s your own head you don’t have to watch it rolling around.”
At that moment Lord Nakasada took some comfort from being in the company of someone so obviously indifferent to death. He introduced himself and learned that his companion was a samurai commander from Kyushu, Lord Higekuro, a man known throughout Japan as one of its most ferocious warriors. In the hope of absorbing some of the man’s legendary courage he stayed at the great warrior’s side and made conversation as they walked through streets crowded with vagrant samurai, prostitutes of various status, Portuguese merchants in European dress, Buddhist monks, lords, ladies, and vendors of everything from halberds to hairpins. Everywhere people recognized Higekuro, whose enormous eyes and bristling hair were almost as frightening as his reputation. He was acknowledged with respect and a wide berth.
When they passed by a tavern Lord Nakasada asked Lord Higekuro to join him in a cup of sakê. The offer was accepted, a cup was followed by another, and to his delight Lord Nakasada discovered that his companion’s courage was indeed rubbing off on him. When Higekuro suggested they amuse themselves with a game of dice, Nakasada ordered a full bottle and said he could think of nothing more enjoyable. Between each throw they drank a cup to avail their luck, and when the bottle was emptied they sent for another. Lord Higekuro seemed as indifferent to the effects of drink as he was to the sight of bloodshed, but Lord Nakasada found that his head was becoming progressively lighter as his anxieties drifted off into the shadowy oblivion of faces, noise, and strong aromas that filled the space around him.
When Lord Higekuro suggested raising the stakes, Lord Nakasada could hardly refuse. So the stakes went up, and then up again, and then again, and when the next bottle was emptied Lord Nakasada’s courage was complete. He wagered like a true hero, as though all the world could be won or lost and mean nothing to him at all.
The next morning Lord Nakasada took stock of what he owed, and was astounded by the amount. Not that it troubled him. Even if he should survive the judgment of Ieyasu, he knew that Lord Higekuro would not. Higekuro was a principle retainer of Yukinaga, the Christian general whose head was now decorating the end of a pike by the riverbed. Higekuro was also a Christian, which was why he hadn’t killed himself. Why Ieyasu hadn’t killed him yet was presumably just a matter of scheduling. Much of the respect being shown to Lord Higekuro was for his honor, or perhaps arrogance, in coming there of his own accord to accept Ieyasu’s judgment.
That judgment, it turned out, was more shrewd than vengeful. The Christian Daimyô controlled the port of Nagasaki and the Portuguese trade. They were an influence Ieyasu would eliminate when the time was right, but for now he chose to conceal his intentions by showing them some favor. Ieyasu had known Higekuro from the time they fought together in Korea under the Taiko. He didn’t believe the man was deeply spiritual, and he assumed the religious conviction was mostly a matter of loyalty to his former commander. But he knew Higekuro to be honorable, so rather than having him executed, Ieyasu forgave him his recent errors — for the sake of their past association, he said — issued a token fine, and gave him a new command, enrolling him into the reorganized army at the rank of general. A very capable and Christian general.
For Lord Nakasada this unexpected turn was a catastrophe. His own case, it turned out, was not important enough to warrant a judgment at that time, but he was informed by one of Ieyasu’s aids that there would at the very least be a fine involved, and it would certainly be substantial. His life was spared, for now, but the debt he owed Lord Higekuro would reduce him to poverty. Whatever payment Ieyasu required would be impossible to raise, and a default could mean death or slavery for his entire family. His only hope was to appeal to Lord Higekuro for compassion.
Despite his Christian affiliation, Lord Higekuro did not feel inclined toward compassion. He understood that Nakasada had assumed that the debt was meaningless. He had thought so himself. But then again, wasn’t that part of the wager — that the creditor wouldn’t live to collect. And on that count Nakasada had legitimately lost. On the other hand, he knew that with a judgment still pending, it might seem underhanded to make a preemptive claim on Nakasada’s assets. Still, it didn’t seem proper to just drop the matter. Honor and custom both demanded settlement, and so something meaningful would have to be paid.
“Don’t you understand what a fantastic honor this is?” Lord Nakasada adjusted his stance to appear more resolute. “An honor. Yes. And I won’t hear a word against it. Not a word.”
Lord Nakasada was not an imposing figure. He had a smooth, round face, narrow shoulders, and a belly that hung over the sash of his robe. It was the look of a well fed priest or The Jovial Buddha. To compensate for his appearance he relied on assertive posturing and a manner of speaking that was fortified with gutturals and growls. His show of resolve at this moment was directed toward his much more formidable looking wife, Lady Yanagi. She was sitting on the mat with her back straight and her legs folded under a low table that had been prepared for the Ceremony of Tea that had become part of the routine in every respectable home. She glared back at her husband. Her face, powdered white and painted for the occasion, showed no more expression than the stoneware pot steaming with hot water.
“Better than we could have hoped for, that’s all I can say.” Which was about all he could think of saying, not knowing how to force an issue against such damning silence. He tried shifting his posture again.
Lady Harue had been watching from the doorway. She steadied herself against the shoji screen while her father pressed on with his feeble attempt to make the situation sound reasonable.
“The alliance is brilliant. It gives us—” he grasped for the appropriate words. “Power— Protection— Yes, protection. Ieyasu would look much more favorably on us if we were connected with one of his generals. He would!” Lady Yanagi was unmoved. “For the life of me, I can’t understand why you’re not as enthusiastic about this match as I am.”
Lady Yanagi finally stifled her anger enough to speak. Her voice was calm, but with a slight quaver suggesting the strain. “It is a poor alliance when only one side stands to gain.” Her eyes were fixed on the table as her hands worked mechanically at whisking the powdered tea and pouring the water. It was enough that she would criticize her husband, to look at him while she did it would be indecent. “Whatever Ieyasu allows us to keep out of deference to Lord Higekuro will become Lord Higekuro’s. We get nothing, and Higekuro gets control of our remaining lands and revenues.”
“There! Now there I think you’re wrong.” At last this gave Lord Nakasada something to respond to. “You are wrong.” He took a combative stride forward. “Lord Higekuro is much too involved with his army and all that to go mixing up in our affairs. He’ll be off in the mountains. Off fighting bandits and renegades for Ieyasu. Who knows where?” he gestured with his hand to indicate someplace far removed.
“And his managers and overseers? Where will they be?” His wife’s face was starting to war with her cosmetics, and the shadows of creases stood out against the white foundation. “Looking after his estates. Will they not? And that will include us. His in-laws. You’re a fool if you don’t see that.” She lifted her head and looked him straight in the eye. His face went red at the impertinence. “Please, excuse me. But why else do you think he would make such an arrangement? Out of generosity? This is an acquisition, a bloodless conquest. Or nearly so.” She cast a suggestive glance at Lady Harue, then poured the tea into two small cups and held one out as an offering to her husband. He looked at her and she bowed her head. The gesture was entirely perfunctory. He took the cup from her hand and set it back on the table as a rebuff, then immediately regretted it. That was going too far. He knew that his wife was right, and it was unworthy of him to shame her like that. His posture deflated.
“I don’t see how there’s an alternative.”
Lady Harue had remained silent through this whole exchange. One hand still clung to the side of the shoji screen while the other rubbed nervously at the cool silk of her kimono. It was the finest she owned, the color of fresh cream. Over the kimono she wore a robe of red and orange brocade, embroidered with hollyhocks and trimmed with gold. The front of the robe was open so that the hem had trailed behind as she stepped into the room. It was a spectacular entrance, meant to impress her father. But her father had barely glanced at her. He hadn’t even given her a greeting or explained what was going on. Not that it took more than a moment to figure that out. She knew that it was not her place to voice an opinion on the matter, but when she heard her father say that there was no alternative, the strict rule of filial piety was no longer enough to hold back her tongue.
She addressed her father respectfully. “Otôsan….” Lord Nakasada gave her a surprised look, as if he had forgotten she was in the room. “What if Lord Higekuro should find me unacceptable?” She thought that at least it might be a hope. She could make herself appallingly unpleasant when she wanted to.
Her father ran his hand over his balding head and tugged at the thin topknot, gathered and tied in the samurai fashion. “If Lord Higekuro isn’t pleased,” he said matter-of-factly. “Well, then he won’t have you. That’s all. The settlement will default, we will be required to pay a debt that exceeds our worth, and we will incur the wrath of Ieyasu. We will certainly be exiled or forced into servitude.” He didn’t mention execution, although the possibility was implied.
This didn’t leave much of an alternative. Exactly how her father had incurred this debt hadn’t been mentioned, but the expressions on both her parents’ faces indicated that he had done something atrociously stupid. Now she was going to have to suffer for it. Everyone knew about Lord Higekuro. He was called Ôni, the Demon, Ôni Higekuro. People said that he cared for nothing but war, rejected all comforts as unmanly, and was as coarse and hairy as an ape. That he lived on millet and radishes, and slept in his armor with the severed heads of enemies beneeth his knees. He even worshiped a barbarian god and engaged in blood feasts. This was no match for a thirteen-year-old girl with all of the refinement that good breeding and proper instruction could produce.
“And why would Lord Higekuro find you unacceptable?” her mother said. “When you have so much to offer to a man of such rare sophistication.” Her voice was so cold and sarcastic that it made her husband wince. Lady Harue registered nothing. She looked back and forth at her parents, then bowed and begged to be excused.
As she stepped out of the room and drew the screen, Lady Harue heard her father calling for a servant to bring sakê. The sound of his voice struck her like a gust of wind that seemed to thrust her down the corridor. There were other voices. Footsteps. She started to run, but the hem of her kimono was tangling her feet so that she stumbled and lurched like a drunkard. But she couldn’t slow down, her legs wouldn’t stop moving. Turning a corner she fell and slid along the mat, the woven straw scraped the skin off her knees where the kimono had ridden up. The pain made her furious. It was everything, she thought, her family, her house, even her clothing, everything was conspiring against her. She scrambled along the mat until she was able to get back on her feet, then she forced herself on with no idea where she was going.
When she found herself in a far room by the main garden she collapsed into a heap and lay there, her face buried in her sleeves, her long hair trailing out like a black stream flowing from her head. I could keep on running, she thought. But where? And how would I live? And wouldn’t I be caught? And wouldn’t that make things even worse?
Then she would kill herself. Why not? She knew how. Whatever remorse and misfortune might plague her father as a result would be no more than he deserved. But would it end there? And was killing yourself really as quick and painless as she had been told? The pain in her knees led her to imagine a knife cutting her flesh, and that was enough to prompt a less drastic train of thought. The alternative existence. It meant that the course of her life, which didn’t include impossibilities like this, had somehow become entangled with some other life that did include them. A wayward and disconnected life that was reshaping her whole world with impossibilities. And that meant there could be a way out. She had escaped from nightmares by finding something in the dream that would tell her that it was a dream. Some inconsistency, something out of order. Then she would wake up. If she could find such a thing now it would expose this apparent world for the twisted imitation that it was. Then she would be able to break free.
She thought of the garden. That would be the place to look for it. The key. The impossible flaw. A flower blooming out of season. A ripe apple on the bronze-leafed plum. A bat swimming in the pond, or a fish sitting in a tree. She had seen things as unusual in her dreams.
Nothing of the sort revealed itself now. No matter how hard she looked the garden showed her nothing but its relentless perfection with everything correct to its season and habit. That was when she felt the presence in the room. Or thought she did. It raised her hopes for a moment, but when it passed without revealing anything she turned back to the garden. It was still the same. Still a flawless mimic of the persistent world. Nothing was out of place. There was no key. There was no way out.
But there was a ghost.
This is her story.
Chapter Two (beginning)
The story begins eight hundred years before the time of Lady Harue, on the twenty-ninth day of the eleventh moon of the eighteenth year of Jôgan, year of the Elder Fire and Monkey. On that day in the Imperial city of Heian-kyô, Crown Prince Sadaakira ascended the Throne and became the Emperor Yôzei-Tennô. On the same day, at approximately the same time, Lady Shôshô, principle wife of Taira-no-Ason-no-Yorinaka, a court official of the Junior Fifth Rank Lower Grade, gave birth to a daughter.
When the new emperor was informed of this remarkably synchronistic event, he was convinced that his destiny as a ruler was in some way linked with the Taira child. The matter was referred to the Bureau of Divination where the Yin-Yang Masters read the signs, and where the court astrologers made an exhaustive study of the heavens. And while it appeared that the prospects for this child were not very bright, they could find nothing that connected her with the affairs of the empire. This made the emperor suspicious. He believed the astrologers and the Yin-Yang priests were lying so that certain parties at court could manipulate the fated child to serve their own purposes. To thwart his presumed enemies he demanded an immediate betrothal so that she would grow up under his personal guidance and control.
The selection of Imperial wives was a matter for the Great Council of State, which would usually concur with an emperor’s choice out of deference to his authority as God King. But in this case Yôzei’s authority was preempted by his uncle, the regent. Because of the emperor’s age (he was only eight years old at the time) no imperial demand could go forward without the regent’s approval. The regent, Fujiwara-no-Motosune, had his own plans. The Fujiwara held high positions at court and were on the way to establishing a monopoly on power. One of their strategies was marriage. An emperor’s first wife would be a Fujiwara so that the principle heir would have a Fujiwara mother and a Fujiwara grandfather along with lots of Fujiwara aunts and uncles. Regents and Chancellors would, naturally, be appointed from among the trusted members of the family. This accumulated influence, unburdened by the customs and protocols that constrained the reigning emperors, would make the Fujiwara virtual rulers of Japan. Up until now it had been going well, and so Fujiwara-no-Motosune was not going to see the process disrupted by the new emperor’s first wife being a Taira. No matter how young she was. The Taira were of imperial lineage. They had been removed from the line of succession, but the blood of past emperors nourished their ambitions. Certainly they would attempt to capitalize on any matrimonial priority. Yôzei’s demand was overruled.
The emperor raged. The high ministers and counselors averted their eyes while he ran up and down the wide stairs that rose from the vast inner courtyard to the imperial throne, howling defiance and flapping the voluminous black sleeves of his robe like wings. When he finally gained enough equilibrium to stand still he brandished the imperial scepter. In his shrill voice he ordered his high ministers and counselors to prostrate themselves like obsequious dogs. And dogs is what he called them. Dogs and scoundrels and traitors. He shouted at their bowed heads and eminent bottoms. He swore that no one would undermine his destiny by making him relinquish his claim on the newborn child. It was an embarrassing display. When the outburst subsided Lord Motosune went to the emperor, straightened the front of the child’s robe and discreetly instructed him to behave in a more dignified manner. Yôzei withdrew to an inner chamber to sulk.
The immediate desire of all of the assembled nobles was to forget what they had just witnessed. The emperors behavior was so unseemly that simply mentioning it would be a breach of decorum. Not even the Taira ministers, whose interests stood to benefit from the emperors demand, were willing to broach the subject. Everyone remained silent, until Uji Fearsome Minister of the Left Kazuhira spoke up with a matter of business regarding the selection of some young ladies to grace an upcoming ceremony of medicinal offerings. Names were suggested for a list to be submitted to the Ministry of Protocol, and the mood of the court was almost back to normal when the order was called for everyone to grovel. The Son of Heaven had returned.
While he had been brooding in the inner chamber Yôzei had concocted a plan. He seemed more composed now, and was so eager to present this plan that the regent took the risk of letting him address the council.
“She has not been born,” he said.
Lord Motosune was perplexed by this. “Indeed, it would appear that she has,” he protested.
Yôzei was undeterred by the regent’s opinion. “Exactly when a person is born is a matter for the Emperor to decide,” he said. “I have decided that she has not been born, and therefore she has not. And will not be until I have decided otherwise.”
“And when might that be?” the regent asked, suspecting that the young emperor merely intended to transfer the recorded day of the girl’s birth to a calendar date that was less portentous.
“When my reign is complete and my heir is seated on the throne.”
Lord Motosune could have dismissed the emperor’s plan as nothing more than the delusional raving of an angry child, but was afraid that doing so would provoke another outburst. Still, he had to respond somehow. The council was waiting for a decision. Then it occurred to him that as ridiculous as the emperor’s plan was, it would solve the problem. Or at least put it out of the way. The Taira lords would be unhappy, but the other prominent families, Minamoto, Ariwara, Tachibana, none of them would even want to deliberate on a matter so absurd. It would be confirmed, then put out of mind, impossible to discuss without impugning the fitness of the emperor. And no one would ever to do that. An emperor attained the throne after having upheld the Ten Virtuous Acts in his previous life, so no one could question his fitness without assailing the whole karmic framework of existence. At least not publicly.
To everyone’s astonishment the regent gave his consent. After a bit of subdued grumbling The Great Council of State agreed that a proclamation should be drafted for the Ministry of Central Affairs, then it went back to discussing the relative virtues of their favorite young ladies. The Child Emperor sat contentedly on his throne, the Fujiwara hegemony was firmly on track, and a course of events had been set in motion that would come to a grim culmination at a wedding feast hundreds of years in the future and hundreds of miles away.
The end of this selection.