Dog in Winter
A Dog in Winter
Ghost Story/Historical Fiction
Genre: Ghost Story/Historical Fiction
of the 2008 Samurai Fiction Contest
Winner of the 2008 Samurai Fiction Contest
An abandoned wooden house stood behind a cluster of thin conifers about a half mile beyond the gate into the passes of the Seinaiji Road towards Iida and the Ina Valley; the snow had drifted halfway up the side of the faded cedar walls. No light shone inside, despite its isolated position and its being the only shelter along the harsh pass besides the odd cave or rock lee. The once-neat shoji slats were open, tatters of long-rotted rice paper flapping as a silent visual counterpoint to the howling mountain winds in this inhospitable place. In late December, almost no one traveled this route, high in the mountains of the Kiso, a secondary path leading toward the town of Iida and to the Ina valley beyond. In the other direction, if one was so lucky to reach the crossroads, the quaint and quiet post town of Tsumago stood watch, its absent castle residing in a ghost world along the path that led countless travelers from Edo to Kyoto or vice-versa—the great Nakasendo. Even there, the snow drifted up until it was nearly impassable up to Magome-Toge and peak whereby the entire range of central Honshu could be assayed by sightseers.
Even so, there seemed to be an audacious (or foolish!) few, leaving ephemeral footprints along the cliffs on the Seinaiji Road, their colorful haori flapping too quickly and violently in the wind to make out any characters upon them. Four men, two in front of the other two as if captive, and one, a child or a woman, smaller than the others, leading the way. Naomichi had been assigned to this barrier gate duty for only a short time. His predecessor had been obliged to commit seppuku to atone for having allowed the bulk of the Mito ronin to pass through his station. Perhaps knowing this fact predisposed the young man to visions of ghostly figures; he rubbed his eyes. As the new gatekeeper at the passage to Iida and Seinaiji watched the group, he wondered how long he could keep them in sight. He knew them well; they had been a familiar evening phenomenon. They appeared every evening around an hour before dusk, and they never managed to make it to the gate, but faded into mirage just yards in front of him, just at the point when he thought he might be able to make out the characters on a whipping banner or a mon on an unquiet haori. None of the other attendants reacted to the sight, so Naomichi said nothing. He had learned to say nothing after his first few days, when he had insisted on the veracity of his sight and cried out and jumped when it inevitably disappeared before his eyes.
Still, he studied the mirage. Their colors and bearing bespoke the Mito ronin who had passed through only weeks ago; they had been followed by the Shogun’s forces under Tanuma, who had condemned his predecessor to seppuku for allowing the ronin to pass through. Now, the pass was quiet; it was winter, and few travelers wished to brave the rigors and uncertainties of the snow-covered Seinaiji Road.
Besides Naomichi, there were two others who manned the gate, along with 30 men stationed in a rickety shack on the far hillside. Tokiya and Imasuke had both witnessed and aided with the passage of the ronin, whom they said had been nearly a thousand in number. The two men seemed to remember the look of the ronin slightly differently.
“They walked steadily, and I remember their bright haori—red and white, banners of Sonno Joi slogans, like moving pictures from a woodcut,” Tokiya, the elder of the two men remembered. Naomichi stared down the approach. Was he just seeing what Tokiya put into his head?
“There were women with them too, and their step was just as sure, I remember,” Imasuke, the younger man said. He sat on his heels with a dreamy expression. “I remember one of them; she wore men’s clothing, but that face never belonged to a man. It was white as the snow on the ground first thing in the morning.”
Of the three, only Imasuke had no wife. He was barely 18; this was his first assignment—the frontier. Tokiya had not only a wife, but children and grandchildren. At 58, he was nearing retirement age, but his eyes were sharper than either of his mates. He was the first to spot the two figures now emerging from the snowy distance—a man and his dog. The mirage of the four ronin led by a woman faded before Naomichi’s eyes as it had done every night previous, as the hunter and his dog emerged into focus. The man had bagged several pheasant and he barely made it back to the barrier station before closing time at dark; he was a familiar sight. After a short conversation with Tokiya, the man was allowed to pass, his Akita politely remaining three steps behind him. “Good night, Fukuro! Good night, Nagasaki!” The Akita turned a full circle, hearing his name, wagged his tail and sat for the scrap of rice cake Naomichi saved for him; then he joined his master as he waved in the distance, out of sight in the advancing darkness.
“Please let me pass,” a high voice passed into Naomichi’s mind, loud as speech. The white-faced woman described by Imasuke emerged from the darkness, which was now complete. Her hair was loose, snow blowing through it in the moonlight. She wore hakama and haori, black and white in the dark. Slowly, details began to form around her floating face; a half-opened shoji-screened window, one square torn out, her eyes pleading silently through it. The young Mito woman. What was she doing here? The station was closed. He awoke with a start.
Naomichi felt the straw underneath him and slowly, he realized his head lay on his own straw pillow. He sat up suddenly, in his own bed in his own home, his wife dormant beside him, his six-year-old son’s arm and head draped across her right arm in the manner he repeated almost nightly in his child’s dreams. The safety and security of mother helped him through the night. He would grow out of it, and then mature to be her protector and his heir.
His breath condensed before him; it was fast, as if he had been running or climbing but slowed as he studied his sleeping son. Was this the remnant of the last gate keeper’s spirit bringing him, the newcomer and heir to his unfortunate position, the last sights or thoughts he had? Was it a curse? The gate guard at the opening to Seinaiji, along with the steward of Iida village, had accepted all the responsibility for the Ina area in the matter of the Mito ronin. They alone bore the stigma, and both of them acquitted themselves with honor. But had it been justice? Or was there a wrong yet to be addressed, something only he could be privy to, as he had been the only one to see the mirages that appeared nightly at the gate. His eyes adjusted to the low light and the white-faced woman’s visage faded into dream-memory. His own wife lay solidly next to him, his son, his future, his house around him.
The next morning, just before dawn, he greeted Imasuke and Tokiya at the Seinaiji barrier station, which glowed a snowy deep blue in the suggestion of dawn light. Rocks and tree skeletons resolved into their true shapes. No mirages coalesced as the scene lightened by slow degrees. It was a cold morning, and the clear sky promised a sharp and beautiful day to the three men at the gate and the troops who manned the area. Slowly, they filed out of the rickety structure up the hillside to their appointed positions, and the day began in accustomed silence. Usually, this season was extraordinarily slow. Tokiya had brought a book, which he held with gloved hands and turned the pages of shakily, one of the few signs of his advancing age.
“I hate mornings,” he opined to no one in particular. He focused his sharp old eyes on an ukiyo-e postcard print that doubled as a bookmark. The colorful outlined figures in playful array helped him wake up and face the mornings, he always said. But both Imasuke and Naomichi suspected it was the fact that the women in the print were half naked that helped the old fellow wake up every morning. Who could blame him?
Somewhat before noon, Fukuro and Nagasaki appeared, ready for another day of hunting on the pass. “Late morning, isn’t it?” Naomichi waved and threw a fragment of rice cake to Nagasaki, who caught it in mid-air. The two trudged on into the Seinaiji Road, a slow, burdened walk, not like the Mito ronin as Imasuke and Tokiya described or as he had remembered them in Iida. They were headed toward Kyoto and had been on the Kisokaido Road but were forced to turn to the secondary roads after a violent clash at the Wada Pass, to the Ina Road and Iida, over the Seinaiji Road, and then on to Tsumago, Magome, Nakatsugawa and points west.
Naomichi had been working in Iida when the ronin came through. He had witnessed a group of them rope-tying a prominent merchant, accusing him of traitorous activity. The man was a merchant; he profited from the Yokohama trade, the port where the Westerners began what the Mito men had called their “invasion” of Japan. Somehow, the shop full of trinkets didn’t strike Naomichi as much of an invasion, any more than the advent of Korean pottery or paintings had in earlier centuries. But the Mito men dragged this old fellow behind a horse like a common criminal, their upright and proud stance contrasting sharply with the man’s stumbling skips over his fine kimono, which frayed and tore with the stress of his sudden punishment. He remembered then—he had seen a woman in this group as well. Not the same woman; this one was older, at least 50. She walked beside the horse, upright, proud of carriage, her eyes hard-set in a solemn face. The men around her all mirrored her, and he had realized then that these proud marching masses of Mito ronin were lost in the world. They were marching to their doom.
And they doomed this man of Iida with them, remonstrating with him as he trudged on forced march. How could he ally himself with foreign devils? Had he no love for the Emperor? They called him a lower form of life, likening him to an eta leatherworker who was employed by the lords because of his skills but who was subhuman in every other way, a base creature that would turn on his lord if not controlled. Merchants worshipped money; all else was negotiable. Thus, he had to give up his money to the ronin—a lesson in the fleeting nature of wealth and fortune. The Mito ronin had themselves been established of well-to-do and some not so well-to-do samurai families and also many farmers and even some merchants, all from so far away. Uprooted by civil war and political strife, they seemed to carry the upheaval with them.
He had heard the story of a man who had traveled with the ronin, a Tosa man who looted the home of some residents in a city on the Kisokaido. That man lost his head for it. And yet, here were the sanctioned officers of Tengu-to, doing the very same thing to this unfortunate man in broad daylight outside his own shop, and for the mere crime of trading with the wrong people. It was too easy to think too hard about things on a slow, cold day in the middle of nowhere--the Seinaiji Road and its dangerous passes, where clan, rank and loyalty meant nothing if you found yourself slipping off the rocky precipices, where all propriety and nicety met its ultimate challenge. Fukuro and Nagasaki, simple as they were, commoner and faithful dog, knew all about life and death. They introduced numerous pheasant to its simple truths every day. And the pheasant knew the score. No hidden truths, esoteric knowledge, no “Mito learning” was required to survive on the Pass, just basic survival skills. Any brute could learn manners in a court environment or even a honjin, where civilization’s rules were observed and there was no want. Even Nagasaki the dog showed basic civil behavior, sitting by rote when Naomichi showed him the treat of rice cake, obedient, trailing behind his master at three paces, never obtrusive. He had been trained well. But that same Akita was obviously capable of ripping out a man’s throat if he was starving on the mountain pass and the man the only food available. Was Man simply a step up on this brutal ladder, the Mito men using the threat of violence to extort money because they needed it desperately for their journey?
The sun rose and passed into decline for the crisp afternoon. Most of the snow on the rock faces had melted, and the puddles formed thereby had even begun to dry up. It was a fine day in late December of 1864, in the midst of nowhere. The shadows were few and the evergreens showed clear green and brown, sharply outlined. Naomichi was thus caught off guard when he saw the Mito group again, led by the white-faced woman. They walked in the endless approach, solid in appearance under the three-o-clock sun. As they approached, the neat red and white overgarments gave up their illusion of neatness and betrayed many rips, tears, dirt and even blood, a darker, more earthy red than the dyed brilliance of the Mito banners. Their faces were mask-like, no expressions; the woman was beyond pale now; her black eyes shone out of a dead white face, less an object of beauty than a corpselike visage. Her black hair whipped in matted sections. Naomichi gasped despite himself. He hadn’t remembered the details that showed now; the cracks and damage overlaid the fair illusion of the Mito rebel idealists, marching proudly for national pride, for the Emperor. The two men who stood “captive” also wore their haori proudly, and yet they were torn and bloodied, faces scratched as if by wild animals, four parallel claw-marks in one’s cheek. They were as white-faced as she; they all walked on in mirage, upright, ghostly suggestive of the spirit of the Mito ronin. The two taller men behind looked like brothers, both young, sharp-featured and grim; they still sported their forelocks.
Naomichi was so taken with the change in what he had begun to accept as mirage that he failed to notice that both Imasuke and Tokiya had stopped what they were doing and were standing beside him, mouths slightly agape. The vision just seemed to get more solid as the five pairs of feet silently approached the three men. Eyes and steel twinkled from the shack on the hillside. Somehow, the mirage was now visible to every last attendant of the gate, Naomichi began to think. But then, just as before, the image faded into the sunlight. This time, however, a group of three travelers resolved out of the rocky distance, wearing the same torn haori of red and white that he had imagined (had he imagined it?) on the grim mirage only seconds before.
The figure in front was shorter, and it was a woman. He remembered her, the 50-something from Iida; somehow, with only two companions and no horses and minimal baggage, she was returning over the Seinaiji Road, in the middle of the worst weather of the year. 1864 would close out as one of the strangest in Naomichi’s memory, he thought. Imasuke padded dutifully into the picture; he helped the woman to his seat at the gate and relieved one of the men of his baggage. Belatedly, Naomichi awoke to his duty, helping the other man with his burden.
“You’ve reached the gateway to Iida and the Ina Valley; you’re brave to have attempted that journey again, madam,” Naomichi found himself saying to the woman.
“Again?” The woman stared at him, her eyes narrowed. “You know me?”
“I saw you in Iida with the Mito ronin. I thought you had gone with them,” Naomichi couldn’t help himself. He went on, “I saw you walking near the merchant the men had roped to a horse. What did he do that was so bad?”
She shook her head, “He made the mistake of admitting that he made money in the Yokohama trade at a time when our group was in need of funds. It is a bad business, money, corrupts all it touches.”
Naomichi could swear she was near tears but he said nothing. She held herself like a samurai, an obviously proud woman but equally obvious was her distress. Something had brought her back to Iida despite the danger and the fact that her group was pursued by the forces of many provinces all along their route of march. Why had she come back through this obvious danger, both from the inhospitable winter mountain passes and the danger from those who hunted her and the rest of the Mito ronin?
“You’re going to ask me what my business is here, aren’t you.” She stood and looked at all three of the men; Tokiya had come up from a pit brazier near the gate with warm tea for the travelers; he handed it out, serving the lady first. She had the air of command, despite her age and small stature. “You seem to realize these men are my servants and I am in command. This is of necessity. I was forced to break off from the Mito ronin; they were obliged to take the mountain passes toward Echizen, whereas I, a mere old woman with only two servants and no horse, would pass more easily along the Nakasendo on the direct route to Kyoto. They sent me out as one of several small groups to try to carry their message to Kyoto, directly to Hitotsubashi to appeal if they could not make it. And it seems they were smart to do so. They had not appeared in Kyoto by the time I left. When I realized (too late) that it was Hitotsubashi himself sending out the troops against them, I despaired and finally decided to return here.”
Naomichi stood listening; she wanted to go on; he would let her. The warm tea in her hands seemed to loosen her tongue and allow her to shake off the rigors of the mountain pass, to remember the civilization she once represented with the Mito ronin.
“I remember your face now,” she turned to Naomichi. “You were in Iida, and you watched the merchant being led away. You don’t know half the story; can one pass judgment on truths only half-realized?”
Naomichi strained to remember. The man had been led out of a ryokan, not his shop. And he had struggled, punching one of the shoji papers out. That had been the sound that had attracted Naomichi’s attention, that crisp *POP* and scuffle, unseen behind the remaining obscuring screen. The dark eyes that stared from the missing square…the white-faced woman’s eyes were there.
Naomichi stared at the old woman; she stood up and drew back a step, bowing formally. “I am Sadako, of the Maruyama of Ina Valley. I am from here, but I am not surprised you do not recognize me. I traveled only rarely and only after beginning my studies in the Mito school of learning. I was returning to Iida after the flight from Nakaminato at the time.” She finished with a slight scowl and shake of her head.
“But duty to not only my family but those innocent people who know nothing of civilization brought me back. At first I had left, ready to die with the Mito ronin for high ideals, for the preservation of the Japanese nation, for the restoration of the Emperor. I still believe in the right of the Emperor, but somehow I think some of my Mito companions lost sight of what is right in favor of what is so-called patriotic.”
“That man, the merchant, held on tighter than an owl to its prey, that is, until one of our number saw fit to offer him an incentive he could not have bought or approached for himself. She had traveled along with me from Mito, a young adherent, full of energy and somewhat desperate for a cause. Her brothers were both Tengu-to men; her mother and father were dead, and there were no younger siblings to care for. I always wonder if she became Tengu so she wouldn’t have to part from her family, or whether she really understood the ideas her brothers had taught her. They were all her elders, she barely 16 and seeing the country for the first time in a unique way—then she watched her brothers cut down at the Wada Pass. She grew up fast. Her name was Tsurumi, and she was lithe and beautiful like her name. Every man wanted her. But until her brothers died, no one dared approach her.”
Naomichi listened, his mind half-absorbed with the memory of the eyes behind the window screen; he had only glimpsed them for a mere second, and they had haunted him day and night, at the pass and at night in his bed. While Sadako spoke, he forgot all his surroundings, heedless of his duties, of his two companions who leaned against the station barrier wall, attentive but not rapt like he was.
“Tsurumi carried the heads of her brothers herself from the battlefields near Shimo Suwa. She wielded her brother’s sword with unrealized skill, unable to provide proper burial for the remains of her only kin. She separated the heads from their bodies herself and wrapped them in the haori they had worn. By the time she got to Iida, they were more red than white, she more white than ever. Her big, dark eyes became haunted, but she was soft-spoken and polite, samurai that she was. In her grief, she became even more beautiful, and she caught the eye of the merchant, who used his money to entice a couple of unscrupulous men among the proud Mito warriors to deliver her to him in exchange for a thousand ryo and (it turned out) his life. At first, they held him at sword point, demanding the money he had got by ill-means, traitorous trader with outlanders that he was. He, canny moneygrubber, held out, realizing how desperate the Mito men must be after their brutal losses. These two men gave her to him, and he gave them 1000 ryo.”
“How much is a person worth, you ask? No whore ever went for that much. The merchant was buying a samurai woman, but even then, many samurai in Mito never saw that much money in their lives. She struggled and actually wounded one of the men who sold her off. They bound her and took her brothers’ heads from her, the last, grisly though they were, reminders of her family, familiar faces from Mito, her past. The merchant thankfully only had one night with her, for the two men double-crossed him, dragging him out of the ryokan the next morning. You saw what they did to him, although even I don’t know his ultimate fate. But you did not see her. I did; she straggled behind the Mito train, pitiful ghost of what she had been. I’ve never been squeamish; I retrieved her brothers’ heads and returned them to her, hoping that would give her focus and the will to continue. She was with us when we passed your station. Another man was here and passed us through.”
She looked at Imasuke and Tokiya, both of whom stared wide-eyed at her, their focus slightly off her face. Tokiya spoke first.
“We remember her. Sad-faced, dressed as a man in hakama and haori, with bundles under each arm. Her brothers’ heads…poor girl…” Tokiya trailed off. He had closed his book long ago, the jaunty ukiyo-e forgotten.
“You weren’t here then,” she said to Naomichi. “It was an older man, a samurai like you. He passed us through, helping Tsurumi along as she trailed behind. He even offered her a horse, but she wouldn’t ride. I wish I could thank him for his kindness.”
Imasuke shook his head slowly. “You’ll have to wait until you meet him in the next world, Maruyama-sama. He accepted responsibility for the passage of the ronin through the Seinaiji barrier. He committed seppuku, but I believe he helped save the village area from reprisals. Naomichi here is his replacement.”
Naomichi tried to look her in the eye but found it near impossible. She spoke again. “War followed the Mito men; I followed them. Tsurumi unfortunately followed them. It is easy to blame the sterile scholars of Mito who have long since died for the violent spark implanted in their disciples, but that would be too easy. Most of the Mito men maintained a high standard of behavior. But war is hell, and it offers too many opportunities for the lower sorts to take advantage of those who are caught unprotected. Tsurumi didn’t cry or complain; she just walked out of Iida and on to the Seinaiji Road, her brothers’ heads under each arm, her head high. But when we neared the crossroads at Tsumago, we realized she was no longer with us. No one remembered seeing her leave, or fall from the narrow passes. She was there one moment and gone the next. Several others did not survive that passage. But we were pressed, and I was drafted to break off from the main group, so that someone could get a message to Kyoto.”
“I made it, but the news that the group was mired in the frozen passes above Echizen was disheartening. I could only sit in hiding in vast Kyoto, unable to reach my contacts, as they, too, had been arrested and proud Hitotsubashi aligned against us despite being one of us… and wonder at the brutalities of war, the pettiness of some men, the nobility of others. Ideals just don’t hold up in the face of such stresses.”
“But I had to return; not only is Iida my home, but I couldn’t go about a regular life not knowing what happened to Tsurumi; I suspect she fell from the pass here near Seinaiji, buried in rocks where only hawks and foxes might find her. I would give her and her brothers proper burial in my family’s plot; it is not much, but it is the least I can do.”
Naomichi looked at her and then out at the pass beyond; the light was failing, and snow had begun yet again to fall, patching the ground, then blanketing it. Darkness was not far; the station would close soon. Tokiya looked at Naomichi and then at Imasuke.
“Do you realize something strange?” Tokiya’s eyes squinted into the distance. “It is already dusk, and Fukuro and Nagasaki aren’t back.”
Naomichi looked at Tokiya and, with a curt bow to Mrs. Maruyama, sprinted a short way down the pass, around the bend. “NAGASAKI! Come on boy! Fukuro! You coming?” Naomichi watched as the Akita, spattered with mud and snow, branches caught in his thick fur, emerged panting from the far edge of the bend, from over the side.
“Fukuro! You down there?” Naomichi ventured a glimpse over the edge. Fukuro stood 20 feet down a steep incline of rocks and a few horizontally growing trees. A vague sheet of red and white surrounded his waving form. He called up to Naomichi.
“Nagasaki up there yet? I found a couple of Mito men here, or what is left of them. Bad shape, been here awhile. Two of ‘em. Probably dead since the mass of ronin passed through awhile back. There’s another haori torn on a branch about another hundred feet away. But this is a cold scene. No one is going to be down here who can tell about it.”
Naomichi helped Fukuro up the side with a rope and the welcome help of Nagasaki, who was even stronger than he looked. The Akita held the rope steady around a tree, while Naomichi pulled Fukuro up the side, somewhat the worse for wear, but hardy and resilient as the common folk of the Ina Valley and Seinaiji area tended to be.
“Found a scribbled bill of sale (I think) and about 200 ryo on one of ‘em.” Fukuro was an honest man. He handed the plunder over to Naomichi, who brought it back to the station and showed it to the assembled group.
“Received 1000 ryo from the merchant Matsumoto Asagoro for exchange of goods…” Maruyama Sadako read slowly. She turned to the hunter Fukuro. “What did these men look like?” Her face had become hard and unreadable. He bowed by reflex and told her.
“Well, ma’am, they were all cut up from the fall, but there was too much blood for just that. Each one of them had been stabbed through the heart, real precise-looking, like they must have been killed first and then thrown over the side. I’m guessing the third haori belongs to the man who killed them.” Fukuro looked disgruntled. He had been obliged to drop his catch for the day in the pursuit of this business, but upon looking into the face of Sadako, he realized that he had probably done the right thing.
“That must have been her, Tsurumi; she must have done it. Those men sold her, a samurai woman, to a merchant for 1000 ryo; then they turned around and dragged him away despite the agreement on that piece of paper. She has her revenge. But no sign of her? Nothing in the other haori?”
Fukuro drew out a wadded lump of paper and handed it to Sadako. “I’m sorry, ma’am, I can’t read it.”
She flattened it out on the ground, kneeling in the advancing darkness. It was a larger square of paper. Imasuke brought a lantern around the bend. The light flickered even through the protective housing, but they managed to read:
A curse upon the Mito ronin and all causes that place ideals above humans. A nation is dead if no one remains to enforce its laws and ideals. Let no one mourn my fate, but let those who will remember me when the Tengu-to meets its fate. This curse I do not originate but merely voice from the truths long present, hidden from the self-seeking, the blind idealists, the venturesome Mito samurai whose families will be killed at home in the name of maintaining order, a germ for endless reprisal. This is the curse of war, and I, Tsurumi, know all its forms and will become one of its mysteries. No one will ever find this or me; my brothers unmourned but by the silent heavens.
Then followed a haiku:
Dead trees and dead paths
Bright colors dragged to dark caves
A dog in winter.
The gate keepers were just 500 feet around a bend from their station, which by now should be closed up, the records put away and the men sent home to their families. The scattered sentries who regrouped at the end of the working day in the shack up the hillside now gathered at the small gatehouse, awaiting their permission to depart for the day. Around the bend, Tokiya held the flickering lantern and the group of officials of the gate, the woman Sadako, the commoner Fukuro and the dog Nagasaki slowly turned back toward the station. The four brightly-clad men approached, this time from the gate direction, from Seinaiji. Naomichi was used to the sight, but it caught him off guard that it should be approaching from the direction of the gate this time. He looked around. No one seemed to see it but him. Two men stood behind the other two, the small white-faced woman in front. The men behind looked related. Naomichi decided to describe them to Sadako, on a chance…
“Maruyama-sama, were the brothers both very tall with thin noses, large eyes like their sister and pointed chins, and did they wear their hair in the chonmage with forelock? Wore the Mito haori but it was rather too short for them.” She looked sharply at Naomichi.
“Did you know Tsurumi’s brothers?” Sadako asked in clipped tones.
“No, but I see them every day, walking with her and two men who are covered with blood with them, as if captives.” Naomichi stopped about 25 feet short of the gate. “They stand at the gate even now, and in a moment, they’ll fade into it and disappear. They have appeared every day since I’ve been posted here. I stopped mentioning it to Imasuke and Tokiya, because they might begin to think I’m unstable and not cut out for this job. “
“Maybe because you’re new here, they wanted to show themselves to you, who might not judge them as others would.” Sadako shook her head. “It seems proof enough that they are in the next world. Please try to find their remains and help me to bury them properly. Until then, I think you will see them every day. Call on me in Iida if you find them.”
“I don’t mind their presence,” Naomichi said. “They only seem sad, as if they’re trying to say something that people just won’t listen to. But I will do as you ask.”
“You listened, and that was enough,” Sadako said. She took her leave with her two servants, towards Iida and her family, but not before she had given Fukuro a couple of bu for his trouble and to compensate for his lost pheasants. Fukuro bowed in thanks and followed after her small party; Nagasaki walked obediently behind him, stopping briefly to sniff hopefully at Naomichi’s kimono sleeve, where he habitually kept a fragment of the day’s lunch for just such an occasion. He tossed the fragment, which Nagasaki caught neatly in his powerful jaws, carefully controlled, perfectly polite.