Kanshigumi: The Ivory Lotus
The wildflowers growing next to the inn were nodding their heads, a forced agreement with the rain that had been pelting them since well before dawn. There was only one man in the street, his head moving in a similar but slower rhythm, as though he dozed while he walked. His straw hat leaked and trickles of water raced through the labyrinth of wrinkles on his cheeks. Each time he set one foot down, the other came up only with great, squelching effort. The package he was carrying shifted in his grip suddenly, sliding toward the ankle-deep mud. An inarticulate grunt of dismay escaped his lips, but the carefully wrapped box never hit the ground.
“Ohayou gozaimasu, ojii-san. Let me get that.” The woman was neither old nor young, neither ugly nor pretty. Her eyebrows were too thick, but the eyes beneath sparkled even on a gloomy day like this one. Her mouth was too large for her face, but she had a pleasant, earnest smile. Her body seemed gangly, arms and legs just a bit too long, but her movements were quick and graceful – quick enough to have caught the package even though she’d been on the porch of the inn when it began to fall. The yukata she wore was much too thin for the winter weather, but the patches were so beautifully integrated and carefully done that they seemed to belong there. She was also rapidly getting soaked.
“Iya da. Go back inside, musume-san.” The man regained a grip on his package, gnarled fingers twining in the knot of the furoshiki wrapping. He straightened his back as much as he could, defiantly not old.
“Please allow me,” she dipped her torso into a bow. “I have something to discuss with your daughter anyway.”
“You know Hirome-chan?” He eyed her suspiciously.
“Of course! She goes to the market every week and sometimes stops by the inn for hot tea when it gets cold. She doesn’t bring your grandson very often. He’s quite lively!” He relented in the face of her cheerful grin and swift answer.
“That he is.” The old man smiled back.
“Forgive me for my rudeness. I’m Koishi. Hajimemashite.”
Koishi refused to come past the tiled genkan when she arrived at the house, citing her muddy feet and dripping clothes. No, she really did have to get back to the inn. If Hirome-san could trouble herself to come out for just a moment?
Hirome, her ample belly and bosom straining against the lines of her thick winter kimono, frowned when she reached the entrance hall.
“Chichi-ue said a girl I knew had come,” she trailed off, waiting for the stranger’s explanation.
“Hai.” Koishi bowed low. “I have seen you and your son going past the Hinagiku Inn every week – I work there – but it is true that we’ve never been introduced. Forgive me. I wanted to help him home. The mud is thick today. I’m sorry if I’ve imposed.”
A strident young voice began chanting a children’s rhyme from several rooms away. Hirome glanced over her shoulder, but dragged her gaze back to the bedraggled thing in front of her. “You are too kind,” she said slowly. “Surely we can give you…”
“I really must be getting back. Thank you so much.” Koishi bowed again.
Sensing that no one was trying to fleece her today, Hirome softened a little. “A cup of warm sake, at least. Your teeth are chattering.”
“I’m sorry. You are a most generous woman. However, my employer will miss me if I’m gone much longer.” Another bow.
Something crashed and a child screamed, though whether it was in anger, fear, or pain was hard to tell. Hirome’s lips thinned and she sighed through flared nostrils. “Perhaps we can repay your kindness another time.”
“Doumo arigatou gozaimasu.” Koishi bowed deeply to Hirome’s back as the mother hurried into the recesses of the house. Then she took a moment to steel herself and stepped back into the frigid rain.
Jirou was staring out at the dark sky when she returned. “I suppose you’ve been having a nice walk?” he grumbled at her.
“Hai, Jirou-sama. Lovely!” She flashed him a chattering smile.
“Well, you’re lucky business is so slow on a day like this. I’ve a mind to make you work an hour longer to make up for time lost anyway.” Jirou’s scowl was not as scary as he wanted it to be.
“Gladly, if you think that’s fair.”
“Bah!” He did not. They both knew it. “I’m going back inside. You do as you please, crazy woman, as long as you get your chores done.”
After Jirou had retreated, Koishi sat on the stair to remove her sandals, utterly useless in a downpour and so caked with cold mud that it was hard to tell she was even wearing any. She rinsed her hands and feet by sticking them out into the river of icy water that surged from a corner of the roof.
Even though her shriveled extremities were stiff with cold, the woman stood for a moment on the porch. She watched a trickle of water leave a dark trail behind as it slid down the stones of the building’s foundation, shielded from the worst of the rain by the roof as they were. When the drop disappeared at the boards underfoot, she knelt and used her wet fingertips to trace characters on the light gray stones.
as they write; Will I also
when my ink is gone?
The kanji scrawled delicately down the face of the rock, irregularities appearing where her hand shook from chills. She solemnly contemplated what she had done for a few moments. Then a smile appeared on her face, a spring crack in a frozen pond, and she swiped a wet sleeve across the poem. With a backward glance at the unrelenting deluge, she went in to change.