Monday, May 04, 2009


Homage to Koizumi Yakumo

The old woman was sweeping the dust out of her doorway when she caught sight of the traveler approaching along the crest of the ridge. She was not alarmed. Visitors to her windswept plot of ground were uncommon, but not unknown. She was quite certain that none had yet come this year, before today, but she thought she remembered one the year before. Or maybe it had been longer than that; she wasn't sure.

The traveler had risen that morning in the chill of dawn in the village where he had spent the night. He had asked someone to point the way and then climbed through the morning fog, walking-stick in hand, until he reached the high ground. When the forest thinned out and the last wisps of mist danced away he paused for a moment to take in the view, which stretched all the way to blue water and tree-covered islands in the distance.

A plume of gray smoke was slowly drifting upwards from the solitary windowless hut, which occupied the center of a little hollow protected from the summit's fiercest winds. Surrounding the hut on all sides was a field of knee-high barley, still green and not ready to bear.

He hailed her as he approached the clearing, and she bowed and beckoned him to sit. He squatted for a moment, then sat back against the wall of the hut, just outside the door. The woman disappeared within, and when she came out again, which was almost immediately, she was cradling a wooden bowl filled with barley in her hands. There was a wooden spoon -- more of a paddle really -- in the bowl; he knew that she had probably just used it herself but didn't mind. He smiled and nodded his gratitude. She stood beside him, beaming, as he began to eat, cooling the steaming gruel with his breath.

She remained a little wary of the stranger. She thought that he seemed like he might be some kind of ghost, and that his travels might be enforced expiation for his sins in a past life, but he didn't seem like a gaki or any other class of suffering demon, so perhaps his misdeeds had not after all been so serious. There were many kinds of spirits on the mountain and she knew that most would offer her no harm. He didn't seem to require anything of her. He was wearing a heavy, dark overcoat and was bearded, like an Emishi -- she had seen members of that tribe once or twice in her youth -- and although he spoke the ordinary language he spoke it in an odd way, and some of what he said she couldn't understand, though she pretended to and he didn't seem to notice. She decided that he must have come from afar, from another island even.

She went back inside the hut and returned to the stove. Grasping the handle of her iron kettle with a cloth she poured water over powdered tea in the only cup she owned, then beat it with a whisk she had fashioned from a twig. When she emerged again, reaching the tea towards him, she saw that he had taken a little book from his pocket and was writing in it with a pencil. She stood above him and watched this activity with great interest, though if she had ever learned in her long-distant youth how to interpret the signs he was making she had by now forgotten. She thought that perhaps he was keeping an accounting of the sins that he was purging off, one by one, as he traveled, and it made her happy to think that he was recording an ample number of them even as she watched. He paid no attention to her and seemed very intent on what he was doing, sipping the tea at intervals, until at last he folded the book closed, returned it to his pocket, and nodded at her with satisfaction. He had drained the cup and when she scuttled inside and filled it again he did not refuse a second; the walk had made him thirsty and the hot liquid produced a welcome warmth inside his chest.

When he was done he stood, picked up his walking-stick, and dusted off his coat. The woman spoke a blessing, he pronounced one on her in return, and he continued on his way without further formalities. She watched him until he was out of sight.

He continued along the ridge for another hour or more, until the terrain began to break up into a jumble of jagged, inaccessible outcroppings. At the end of the afternoon, after a rugged descent, he came into a village in a clearing at the base of the ridge. When he spoke to the villagers of his visit to the old woman's hut they were quite insistent that there was no such dwelling and no such woman, that no one had ever lived on the summit of the mountain, certainly not within their lifetimes.

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