When I think of the Ekio domain, I remember the late summer afternoons abuzz with wasps, the inviting pink of the sunset sky, the heat that ever promised one more day before abating. The moments rolled by in a scalding brightness, the phoenix-tail tree shimmered white, the wood planking of the verandah shone like a burnished mirror. Laziness perfumed the air, as it would be too hot for me practice martial arts. Poetry was the perfect play for the day. The height of harmony it was.
However, in the days following Toba’s fracas, harmony became uneasy, rather tenuous. I tried to sit composed at the verandah as Ogami would have, but a flame of excitement lashed—I had to see Toba again.
Exhausted with thinking, I jumped up from my seat, but I quickly demurred in my excitement. Thank Kendan, Ogami was not in sight to declaim my inelegant rising. Right foot first then left foot in a collected elegant manner always.
Our hut was a simple two-room abode, full of light and the brown sheen of woven mats covering the floor. At his usual corner, Ogami sat on his heels, carving ritual dolls. Dolls and banana leaves were scattered around him. He preferred me reading to working; I preferred him relaxing to working. In my begrudging embarrassment at his cragged hands scraping on camphor wood, I slunk to the central fire pit.
“Would you like some phoi?” I asked him.
Old hands stilled, the spindle wood stopped bobbing as he raised his glassy eyes to me. His face held the mask of a dispassionate laborer. His moustache drooped over his chin like whiskers. His hair, though thinning and grey, was bound up a fastidious knot high on his head. If he were hekare or kuge, the knot only needed a jade or gold bangle to keep it in place.
Ogami’s lips pursed on one side then he returned to carving in a sort of reluctant air. “No. We’re running low.”
Yes, if only we were rich and thick like the hekare cupheads. I remembered this time to sit composedly—left knee then right knee onto my heels. Ogami demanded grace and refinement in all endeavors, endeavors that were invariably his impositions. The elegance of a deadly sword stroke. The proper way to fold a letter to communicate intent. The mellifluent calligraphy that would gloss my base character into a cultivated soul.
Ogami’s hands stopped moving, and I shuddered. The silence was naked and billowing between us.
“When you have to drop off the dolls at the temple, may I follow you into the village?” I asked.
Ogami blinked at me dumbly. Yes, yes, a shunja following behind him might not be such a harmonious idea. I was not even allowed enter the temple.
“Toba and I can play with my sword together,” I said hopefully.
“Toba? Oh the boy with the bush rat.”
“Maybe you can teach us together how to use a sword,” I asked hopefully.
“Get the phoi,” Ogami said.
A foolish thing to ask. Padmi instructed the ifa to preserve her tapestry of life in order to maintain their gion, not cut and deal death. Did that mean I learnt the ways of death precisely because I had no gion? The room blurred to black for a moment before I stirred to prepare the phoi, but then a shadow fell over the wall in front of me.
“Our own hekare in this palace of mosquitoes,” a high voice came from the door. It could only be Sadhai Lenpaki, a green-clad married monk of sect devoted to Padmi. I always thought his pot belly to be filled with centipedes and millipedes. He must have come to trade our shards of souls for hekare dainties. An ivory ink brush? A book made of bamboo strips? A musical manuscript from the famed sadhais from the remote Cuole monastery?
Whatever his wants, they did not need my disharmonious presence. But was I to do? He was the door, I was stuck inside with my back to him. I stiffened.
“The shunja.” His voice faltered. “Ogami-Soi, it’s the reason for the pain at your side.” His voice rode to surety.
“It makes adequate phoi.” Ogami’s eyes were cast low; a bored expression crossed his face. “Shunja, get the hot water ready.”
His command was all I needed. Careful not meet Lenpaki’s eyes, I prepared a fire and boiled a pot of water.
A frown etching his face, Lenpaki bent his tattooed baldhead over the door frame, arms crossed over the green chest. He was stuck. Either the holy man shared room with disharmony or remained outside.
There was a disconcerting laughter from the door. “I had to see you today. Good fortune. Kendan will come down from his mount in our time … we received a missive from the most holy chieftess.”
Ogami jumbled his dolls aside and shook his head in a reclamation of some incongruity. “You mean the same Nicolenka Atsuika tomei-deme gave that prophecy?”
“How do you know her name?” Lenpaki began shift his staff over thing floor as in turns of thoughts. “Your waram taught you too much.”
“Padami Chawadan! How old is she now? Must be over eighty?”
“Being one with harmony keeps you well.” Lenpaki pointed his staff at me. “It will cut your life short, Ogami-soi.”
Ogami nodded in vague concession. I chewed my lip and stared at the grapeshot of bubbles rising to the surface of the water.
Lenpaki rose, clucked. “The waram spoilt you with hekare tastes”
“I must have pleased him exceedingly.”
“You?” Lenpaki let out an airy laugh. “Ogami-soi, I don’t see you making another burn.”
“I needed to make only one burn.”
“And the important one too.” Lenpaki repositioned his green robe over his left shoulder. He must have been tired standing there. I was a bit sorry. Perhaps the water would boil faster.
“I remember one pot-bellied sadhai being red-eyed over me when I was eleven.” An untamed smile appeared on Lenpaki’s face. “I fled back to my parent’s house.”
Ogami pulled his hands into his wide brown sleeves and brooded. “Happiness is surrendering to your fate to cause of harmony.”
“A fate of hekare fantasies in the bush!” Lenpaki jeered. “Isn’t better if you never tasted of rich things than to taste of them and never be able to afford?”
Ogami mused at his carving knife and the wood peels on the floor. “It’s better to surrender to the will of harmony.”
The conversation escaped much of my young mind, but the much I understood, that much I held fast like a eagle clawing its prey. Ogami had a low rank like me. Certainly not a lowly shunja like me, but he began low as another’s catamite and soared high. That was encouraging. If Ogami could overcome a low status through education and refinement then I could prevail. Gion was within my grasp. Who knows? Ogami might decided to claim me as his own and give me the sanli. The realization elated me to smiling and humming over the simmering pot.
Ogami stumbled to his feet and arose like a brown-draped owl. He went to the corner with the larder, retrieved the cups and bowls for phoi, then sat by me. There were two tiny cups, like thimbles really, white and rimmed with green.
He looked over to Lenpaki’s bemused stare. “Are you having any?”
“Is the Shunja making it?”
But in my clumsiness, I splashed water on the ground as I tried to ladle hot water into the bowl. The splatter missed Ogami’s wrinkled finger; in a grunting shuffle, he raised cool eyes to me. “You’re right to decline,” he said to Lenpaki. “I can’t guarantee its excellence today.”
Before I could fall headlong into brooding, Ogami grabbed the bamboo ladle from me. With tidy, efficient movements, he brewed the broken pieces of phoi bark. His back was always high, his yawning sleeves never bothersome, never the errant twitch or grimace on his face. He was unapproachably perfect. I felt myself slide down a cavernous decline, but then two cups were ready and steaming.
The delicate white of the cup contrasted the steaming fulvous liquid. The room was aloft with the scent of fennel and cinnamon. Ogami forwarded a cup to me. I bit my upper lip to hide a grimace—Ogami offered, and so I would accept gracefully.
“Che! Wasting good phoi on it,” Lenpaki said.
I determined to drink with as much elegance as Ogami would praise. Right hand on cup, left hand holding back the right sleeve. Savor, not guzzle. Eyes hard and unyielding at the host, not drooping and pusillanimous. Be careful with the cup made by a genius sadhai potter. We had eaten nothing but root vegetables for three months to afford it.
They say phoi is good for the soul, not because it is bitter, but because you must conjure sweetness to elide its unpleasantness. I could conjure no sweetness, not with Ogami’s graven eyes on me. Even my hands quivered a little on setting the cup down.
“To fehimsa,” I mumbled the salutation.
Ogami grunted in turn as he prepared another cup for himself. But Lenpaki was at the door still inconvenienced by my presence, so I got up as collected as I could be and slithered to the inner chamber.
Inside the relative dimness of the inner chamber, I slid down against the wall and gathered the sleeves to myself. Light rayed from the one window over the mat weaving on the ground. The room had a gloomy smallness to it; I disliked being confined in it.
Laughter rang through the door. It was Lenpaki’s, had to be. Ogami would never laugh that freely, or for that matter laugh at all.
“The tomei-deme gave the same prophecy when I was child,” Ogami said dimly, “Nothing happened.”
“There was the plague and then the flood.”
“Bodies were swept out in the hoary sea, and Kendan did not come.”
“My father claimed the palace dome in Jommon fell.” Lenpaki’s voice thinned raspy.
“It did. The court ladies flounced out into the streets without their veils. And the roofs fell on them, cracked their skulls and black teeth.”
“Padmi will guide us to fehimsa!” There was a loud slurp.
There was a loud mournful sigh, probably from Ogami. “What does it matter?”
“I suppose you’re right. The Kabiyesi will leads us to fehimsa. We have gion.”
Heat rose up my gullet. Gion. Even though Ogami may have raised his station, he always had gion. And I … how would I stand when Kendan descends from his mount and lead all with gion to the pure land of fehimsa. How? The phoi and its bitter memories flooded my tongue.
Later that night, after Lenpaki had long gone, and supper had long been eaten, I and Ogami lay in the simmering darkness of the inner chamber, counting the howls of jackals.
“When Kendan comes, do you think the world will end? Is that it?” I asked.
Snores, more guttural snores.
There was the hard ground pressed against my lower back, and above me the Cimmerian sea aglow with my imaginations of apocalypse. I fell asleep, eventually.