He had been a warlord’s firstborn son but now he was an orphan. At the winter solstice he lay awake in the freezing room he shared with the other boys and the older monks, and realised it was weeks since anyone had called him by his name. They beckoned to him with open fingers or addressed him as hey you. It was clear his former life was over but he had no idea what would replace it.
His life had been spared on condition he never leave the temple but he could not really believe that the rest of his days would be spent here in the strict pattern of short nights and long days, fasting, meditation, study and self-denial.
He tried not to think about the things he missed so much: the big things were too overwhelming to dwell on, but on nights like these, when he could not sleep, he found himself yearning for the salty, oily taste of grilled fish, the sweetness of a persimmon, the feel of new silk robes on the first day of the year, the warm smell of his pony, the way she swung her head towards him and whickered at him.
It was completely dark. Around him he could hear the calm breathing of his companions, broken by coughing from his younger brother, once called Chikara, now as nameless as he was. He wanted to call out to him, to creep over to his mat and lie beside him, but they were forbidden to speak to each other, kept apart day and night. The windows were all shuttered, but the cold air penetrated the room. He could not get warm. If he exhaled he could see his own breath floating above him. He felt he was the only person awake. Now and then one or other of the boys spoke in sleep. He wondered what they saw in their dreams.
Just before midnight it seemed to grow very slightly warmer. A feathery sound came from outside, soothing him. He was on the verge of sleep when the bell sounded to rouse the monks for prayer.
Half-awake, he followed the boys along the corridor to the courtyard. One of them jostled him and whispered, ‘Arai traitor!’ It was not the first time. The boys often fell silent at his approach as if they had been talking about him, sharing rumours that he wanted to hear, but dreaded. They were not supposed to talk at all. Apart from the chanting, and their teacher’s dictation, silence enveloped Terayama, a silence that made the sounds of nature seem all the more intense: the wind in the ancient cedars, the harsh cawing of crows, the mournful owls, the sudden squeaking of mice beneath the floorboards.
It was snowing in large, steadily falling flakes that had already coated the ground, the lanterns, the branches of trees. Shafts of lamplight shone in the blackness, reflecting off the white curtain. Someone in the depths of the temple was playing a flute. A gong echoed from the main hall. Sudden beauty made him catch his breath. There were moments when he felt the pull of a life dedicated to prayer. A kick on the ankle was followed by another insult.
Rage burned in him and he spun around. But the eyes of his teacher, Gemba, were on him, and beneath that steady gaze both he and his tormentor subsided. He liked Gemba, and felt close to him for he knew Gemba had a deep affinity with the bears of the forest, and the bear’s paw was the symbol – had been the symbol – of his clan. Chikara was coughing again, struggling to catch his breath. He sounded really sick, but sickness rarely excused anyone from the routine of rising at midnight to chant and pray until sunrise. The discipline was meant to strengthen both body and spirit.
‘Your little bear cub isn’t going to see the New Year,’ Hisao whispered next to him, speaking out of the corner of his mouth, a strategy he had perfected. Hisao had nicknames for everyone. The boy’s aunt, who had brought him and his brother to the temple, Hisao called the Widow, and her daughter, Miki, Revenge. The boy wished he saw more of them – they were his family, after all – but they kept to the guest residence, where they continued mourning the dead. He wondered if Hisao had a name for him.
Hisao ignored Gemba’s reproving gaze, as he always did. He was disobedient beyond correction, often acting out of spite, deflecting any attempts to reach him, refusing appeals to his better nature. Gemba treated him with a gentle forbearance, found blocks of wood, cherry, peach and cypress, and gave him knives to carve them. Hisao drew animals out of the wood with effortless talent. The boy admired this. He also felt a complicated and painful pity and he did not respond to Hisao’s teasing, unlike the other boys who were afraid of his cruel tongue and unsettled by his open defiance of the older monks. An uneasy feeling had grown between them, not really friendship but not enmity either.
Hisao’s words troubled him for he felt they were true. At the first meal of the day he could see Chikara’s flushed cheeks and watery eyes. He coughed incessantly and hardly ate.
Afterwards the older brother was given the task of sweeping away the flurries of snow that lay on the verandahs, melting in the morning sun. The sky had cleared. In the surrounding forest the trees were heavy with the white blossom of winter. Snowy peaks soared in the distance, pink and gold in the morning light. One of the monks, a tall lean man, was brushing snow off logs and piling them in a basket. It was hard to tell the monks apart; there were so many of them, and with their shaved heads and sombre-coloured robes, they all looked alike. The other boys were occupied with morning chores or study but Hisao sat in the sunlight. He was carving; the boy watched rapt, his broom forgotten, as the bear cub emerged from the wood.
‘It’s a miracle how you do that.’ His whisper sounded like a shout. A pheasant called in its shrill insistent way from the forest. He could hear the clatter of wooden bowls and the sigh of steel knives, the pounding of rice. It was the season to make rice cakes for offerings for the New Year. The Great Cold was slowly giving way to the Opening of Spring. There were buds on the butterbur flowers at the foot of the steps. He could taste the rice cakes on his tongue, but the idea that Chikara might not live to taste them filled him with apprehension.
‘I’ve always been able to make things,’ Hisao replied. ‘I like tools. A good knife like this has a life of its own. All weapons do. They have their purpose, no matter what hand holds them. If you understand that you have power over them and they have to submit to your will. The knife knows what it wants from the wood. They talk to each other and this is the result.’ He held out the half-finished cub. ‘If I finish it, and if he’s not dead, I’ll give it to your brother.’
‘You never finish things.’
‘You’re right. I don’t.’ Hisao smiled to himself. The boy studied him. He was almost a grown man, seven or eight years older, with smooth dark-toned skin and thick black hair like a raven’s wing. His mouth was rather wide and his brow low, above shrewd, wary eyes.
‘What are you staring at?’ Hisao’s voice was challenging. The boy began sweeping again. ‘Well, what?’
‘Just wondering. About you, who you really are, why you are here, when you hate it all so much, if you have to stay here, like I do.’
‘We’re not supposed to talk about ourselves,’ Hisao began, mocking Miyoshi Gemba.
‘You’re right. I’m sorry.’ The broom was wet from the melting snow and left marks like claws.
‘So I’ll tell you.’ Hisao gave a short scornful laugh. ‘I’m the son of Otori Takeo.’
‘My uncle? The one who died?’
‘Yes, he died. My mother’s dead too. She was from the Tribe. Do you know what that means?’
‘Yes,’ he said, his heartbeat quickening. All his life he’d heard snatches of conversation, whispers on that subject. And because he wanted to impress Hisao he said, ‘My other uncle, before he died, was in the Tribe.’
Hisao laughed again. ‘You say it like it was a choice. You are not in the Tribe. You are of it, born into it, never allowed to escape.’ Then he paused and said in a different voice, ‘I had forgotten Taku was your uncle.’
‘You knew him?’
‘I killed him, you idiot. Didn’t you know that?’ Hisao stared directly at him, his eyes bright with malevolence. ‘On your father’s orders, of course. Your father betrayed many people. Taku was only the first.’
When the boy said nothing, Hisao went on. ‘That’s what brothers are really like.’ He looked at the carving resting in his palm, almost finished, exquisite, and made a crude gash with the knife, severing the bear cub’s head. ‘Chikara won’t get it after all. What a shame.’ He threw the two pieces out into the garden, where they fell into the snow leaving small dark holes.
The boy stood unmoving, the broom still in his hands. ‘But your uncle is tricky. He’s Tribe through and through, even in death. He won’t leave me alone.’ Hisao’s eyes still glittered, but his voice had changed again and the boy heard in it something close to terror. The air behind him seemed suddenly unnaturally dense. The snow-covered bushes in the garden became hazy and obscured. It was bright sunlight, and yet it was dark.
There is someone there, the boy thought. But perhaps it was just a crow’s shadow on the snow. He heard the sudden flap of wings, and then behind him Gemba’s voice. ‘What are you doing out here chattering? Inside. In silence.’
Hisao did not move. The boy, blushing as he always did when reprimanded, went to hang the broom in its place under the eaves. He was shaking, near tears. He stood for a few moments, trying to control himself. The monk from the garden passed by, carrying the basket of logs, and seemed as if he would speak, but then Gemba appeared saying, ‘Our Abbot wishes to see you.’
‘Because I was talking to Hisao?’ ‘He himself will explain his reasons.’
He followed Gemba down the long passageway, worrying about what the Abbot wanted and hoping he was not going to miss the midday meal. He had not been to this part of the temple and had not realised how many smaller rooms lay behind the main halls, divided from the passage by screens. There were also many alcoves and niches which held statues and scrolls. Oil lamps burned before them throwing a warm glow on the dark polished wood floor.
At the end of the passageway they crossed the courtyard behind the main gate and the guardhouse and turned into the cloister that ran down to the hall where the Sesshu paintings were kept. His spirits lifted a little. At least he would get a glimpse of the paintings which he had seen once and had never forgotten.
The Abbot sat on the floor of this hall, overlooking the garden where the rocks that symbolised the mountains of the Three Countries were capped with snow, dazzling in the sunlight. He had once been a feared warrior but he had laid aside his weapons to follow the Way of the Houou. His name had been Makoto, and even though as an Abbot he now had another name, this was how the boy always thought of him.
Makoto wore a robe of dull-coloured hemp that did not quite conceal his broad shoulders and strong arms. A small tabby cat lay curled in the folds.
‘I’ve brought Arai Sunaomi to you,’ Gemba said and indicated that the boy should kneel.
After a few moments Makoto told him to sit up. He stared at the boy’s face and said, ‘Arai Sunaomi. This must be the last time anyone will call you by that name.’ He turned to Gemba and said, ‘He resembles his mother and the Shirakawa, more than the Arai.’
‘That is a protection in some ways but a danger in others,’ Gemba said enigmatically.
‘I agree. You can leave us now. I want to talk to him alone.’ When Gemba had gone, Makoto addressed the boy again. ‘Well, you must forget your parents, and everything from your former life. Erase it from your memory. Lord Saga Hideki, who now rules the Eight Islands in the name of the Emperor, has spared your life and your brother’s on condition that you remain confined within Terayama. It may seem like a harsh fate, but I remember when Lord Otori brought you here that you expressed a desire to return and study with us. You entrusted this to us.’ He picked up a golden feather and held it out to the boy. It was from a houou, the sacred bird that dwelt in the forest around Terayama. The boy remembered clearly the day he had seen the houou, heard their magic call, and found the feather. He nodded. He looked away from the Abbot and fixed his eyes on the paintings, the misty landscapes, the horse, the sparrows.
Makoto smiled slightly but his voice was full of sorrow. ‘Times have changed since that day and many who were with us have passed on to the next world. But I hope that the same desire will sustain you and make what might seem bitter easier to endure. Gemba tells me you are an unusual child with a great spirit. We must believe that this road, though you might not have chosen it, will prove to be the right one for your life. Even without parents, a child grows up, it is said. We will be as parents to you from now on.’ The bright call of a pheasant echoed through the garden. Makoto said, ‘It is a sign that spring is coming. I know it is the pheasant but every time I hear it my heart hopes it will be the houou. They have gone and who knows if they will ever return?’
‘Must I forget I saw them?’ the boy said, turning his eyes once more on the Abbot.
‘You may remember that one thing.’
A wave of emotion rose within him, so strong he was afraid he was going to sob. He took a gulp of air and said, ‘If I must forget my name what am I to be called?’
‘I thought perhaps Sozo, and your brother Kasho.’ ‘Could I be Kasho?’
‘You may choose which you prefer. They are just names.’ Kasho he said to himself, and realised in that moment that he was neither Sunaomi nor Kasho. He was not the slender boy on the threshold of manhood who knelt before the Abbot, not the mind that thought and remembered, not even the heart that loved and mourned. He came face to face with something else, indestructible, blazing. He looked around the room with awakened eyes. Everything shimmered with light. Everything, even the snowy rocks and the black-trunked trees, was flowing, in harmony with the great pulse of life. His gaze encompassed the paintings. The artist had made time stand still, but nothing remains still forever. In the end everything is released. The horse flashed its eyes at him and stamped its foot. The wind shook the trees in the landscape and snow fell from the branches. The sparrows turned their heads and fluttered their wings. The cat woke, gave a low growl and crouched, its eyes fixed on the little birds, ready to spring.
The Abbot put out a hand to restrain it and said quietly, ‘It seems Gemba was right.’
His voice brought the boy, Kasho, back into his body. Everything became still. The sparrows chirped once and moved no more. The cat blinked, bewildered, and then began to purr under the Abbot’s fingers.
‘What happened?’ Kasho said.
‘Maybe a kind of miracle.’ Makoto’s gaze was full of concern and pity. ‘Don’t speak of it to anyone. And if anything like this happens again, come to me or to Gemba.’
Kasho bowed and stood up.
‘I am glad you came here,’ the Abbot said. ‘I hope we can keep you safe.’
Kasho felt drained and light-headed as he left. There was no sign of Gemba and he wondered if he would find his way back to the hall and if there would be still be any food. As he walked through the cloister he saw the main gate was open. Someone was arriving; porters were lowering a palanquin. He wanted to loiter to see who it was but the gardener monk was walking across the courtyard towards him, carrying a bowl.
‘I saved some food for you,’ the man said.
‘Thank you,’ he replied. ‘I am to be called Kasho.’
The monk made a movement as if he was going to bow but then thought better of it.
‘It is a fine name,’ he said gravely. ‘Come, I’ll show you the way back.’
Hisao was still sitting on the verandah, tossing the knife idly from palm to palm. The temple was quiet. Melting snow dripped from the eaves. The sky was clear; already the sun was slipping towards the west. It would be a cold night with a deep frost; the snowmelt would form icicles. From far away Kasho could hear the droning sound of one of the teachers dictating a sacred script. It should not be like that, so dry and dull. It should be full of joy. He felt an overwhelming desire to sing the words. He kept his mouth firmly shut, not wanting Hisao to mock him. ‘Sit down and eat,’ the monk said. ‘I must go back to work, and then you must join the other boys.’ He turned to Hisao. ‘Shouldn’t you be at your studies too?’
‘It’s been decided that I am unteachable,’ Hisao replied. ‘So there’s no point in me being bored for hours.’
‘Just lounging here must be more boring,’ the monk observed.
‘What right do you have to judge me?’ Hisao retorted. ‘Don’t you know I’m Lord Otori’s son?’
The other did not reply but gave Hisao a look of such contempt that it hurt Kasho to see it. He put all his attention on the food – a gruel of millet with arrowroot tubers and a few sprigs of mizuna.
‘He’s taken a fancy to you,’ Hisao said as the monk walked away with his slow deliberate stride. ‘Not surprising, a pretty boy like you. Watch out or he’ll have his hands all over you. They’re all the same. Did the Abbot try anything?’
‘Of course not!’ Kasho vowed he would never tell Hisao or anyone else what had happened, already fearing it would all fade and he would forget it, along with everything else. ‘I wonder who that fellow is,’ Hisao said. ‘He doesn’t look like a monk to me.’
‘Well, he is a gardener. He probably isn’t a proper monk.’ ‘He must want something from you.’
‘He was being kind, that’s all.’ Kasho drank the last mouthful of gruel and stood up. As he walked away Hisao called after him, ‘No one’s kind for no reason. Everyone expects something in exchange.’
Brand Manager and Head of the Realm at Hachette Australia Books. Mutant power: Aggressive humour. Lifelong Trekkie (I don’t find that offensive) comic book reader and former proud bookseller. Likes: Literary, contemporary and speculative fiction. Dislikes: Haters. Ideal date: My birthday.