The Palace Orphan
By John Givens
Followed by Q&A
Mugen Bonze liked walking. A cluster of metal rings at the top of his staff served as a jingle warning for insects that might wander into his path, and the front hem of his robe was tucked up under his obi sash in the manner of the old-style foot pilgrims. A pair of piebald goats on rice straw ropes ambled along behind him obediently, and he stopped when he got to a rogue samurai who was squatting at the roadside and tending a small comfort-fire.
Autumn’s the season for mountain rambling, said Mugen Bonze.
Hasegawa Torakage looked up at him but said nothing. Lean as a wind-dried mackerel, his robe patched and faded, and his topknot askew, the rogue samurai could have been mistaken for a common vagabond were it not for his fine pair of swords in black-lacquered scabbards. Sharkskin held in place by black silk cords covered the hilts of his long and small, and the fist guards were black iron and without ornamentation, a money-fighter’s choice.
A good season for napping, too, said the bonze, and for reading instructive books.
Hasegawa said nothing. His feet and shins were spattered with dried blood, and the skirts of his robe were stained with it.
Mugen Bonze moved his goats over to the lush grass on the road verge opposite, then looped each goat’s lead rope around the hind leg of the other and knotted it with a deft yank. Good for eating yam gruel, too, said the bonze, and fried dumplings.
Samurai without masters could be unpredictable, and sensible people avoided them. But Mugen Bonze was on his way back to his solitary hermitage; and although he had chosen the life of a recluse and wanted no other, he was a garrulous sort who enjoyed contact with his fellows. You can carve a Buddha-image out of rotten wood. It’s still rotten. But it’s also still a Buddha. Mugen accepted his inability to find release into the truth of the Dharma. That didn’t mean he wouldn’t get there. It just meant he wasn’t there yet. Mugen was practical—perhaps a bit too practical for a follower of the austere Zen sect—and he tolerated his shortcomings as he did his fleas and lice. You get rid of what you can. What you can’t, you keep.
The bonze told Hasegawa that he’d gone to preside at the funeral of a relative and come away in possession of the man’s goats. No one else had wanted them. They’d all just stood there looking at them. He said he hadn’t wanted them either, but the only other solution seemed to be to turn them loose or maybe kill them, and he didn’t want that. It wasn’t appropriate for a follower of the Way of Zen to own anything so he considered himself to be a guider of wayward goats. He said the word “wayward” described them well, as it did all sentient beings. If the goats were a nuisance at times, there was also a certain amount of pleasure to be gained from their company. Of course they get a little reeky, said the bonze, particularly when wet. But then I guess I get that way too.
Mugen dropped into a squat in the middle of the road. The stubble on his bald head was the same length as the stubble on his cheeks and chin, and his black monk’s robe was even shabbier than the robe worn by the rogue samurai.
Of course, they might become a hindrance on begging rounds. You could be standing there at the gate all solemn and deep, and with your alms bowl held out in this irresistible manner … and then realize that your goats were back there in granny’s garden feeding on radish tops.
The bonze waited for Hasegawa to laugh or smile or say something, then said, On the other hand, they might become a curiosity. He nodded in agreement with himself. Hard to predict how a person might feel about a goat.
The road through the barrier mountains led down to the shogun’s capital city of Edo, still several days’ walk away. The mountains were covered with dense conifer forests, and the silence of the morning was broken occasionally by the distant belling of a stag somewhere on the upper slopes. The road had been improved and extended after the civil wars ended in 1601, and the military outposts that had guarded strategic passes were replaced by travelers’ inns, public wineshops, teahouses, and brothels. Commercial traffic flowed where armies had once rampaged. Craftsmen fashioned arrows but sold them now as souvenirs. There was a certain amount of brigandage still, particularly in the remoter areas, and the remains of malefactors who had been caught by the shogunate decorated gibbets at bridge plazas or crossroads and served as a warning to others. Villages grew into towns; offer-makers lured the unwary; pleasure providers wore their obi sashes knotted loosely in front; easy-way boys followed drunks into shadows; and professional entertainers sought paying audiences at the sites of famous battles so that the spirits of local warriors who had died in the struggle against the Tokugawa family were obliged to find what comfort they could in plangent ballads praising self-sacrifice, accompanied by the rattle of copper coins in collection cups.
Of course, a lot of people don’t even know that we have goats in this country. Probably came from Korea originally, or maybe China. Or Mongolia. He scratched himself. Or some other such place.
Mugen Bonze waited for the morose young samurai to say something, then got tired of waiting and said, I came from a funeral, but you look like the one in mourning.
Hasegawa poked at his fire but said nothing.
The goats had moved off in opposite directions, each following his own inclination as to where the autumn grass would be sweetest; and they were soon bucking and hauling at each other, so the bonze had to hurry over and restore order. He squatted back down where he’d been. I guess you don’t want to talk about it.
Hasegawa added a stick to his fire. He told him he’d killed some people.
I mean just recently. This morning.
In a fight?
A fight. He thought about it. An unfair fight.
You said some people?
And that was the unfairness? Five against one?
The unfairness was that I knew how to kill them, but they didn’t know how to kill me.
I see, said the bonze. He gazed around at the dense forest that lined both sides of the road. You don’t seem remorseful.
But you aren’t pleased about it either.
Hasegawa poked at his fire, sending up a flurry of sparks. I’d do it again. But I’m sorry I did it. He levered one burning stick up onto another. But I’d kill them again. So I guess that doesn’t make much sense.
The bonze watched him. You hated them that much?
Hasegawa began shoving the unburned ends of sticks onto the center of his fire. I guess so.
But now you have doubts?
I guess I knew that doing it wouldn’t make me feel any better about things, but I did it anyway.
Because not doing it would have been worse?
Maybe that’s it.
You don’t sound sure.
No. I don’t.
They harmed you?
They killed a woman who was in my care.
I see. So it was a serious matter then.
But you aren’t satisfied with your decision.
No. I am.
You don’t seem it.
I guess not.
The bonze nodded to himself, considering options, as if squatting on a mountain road with a melancholy assassin was an occupation for which he had developed a certain affinity. Crow thinks he’s a cormorant. Until he gets in the water.
I guess that must just about be the case of it, said Hasegawa somberly. And when Mugen asked why the men had killed the woman, he told him that they had fucked her without permission and were afraid she would tell someone who could do something about it.
And this all happened this morning?
Last summer. I just found them this morning. He poked at his fire, cracking it open. They were hard to find.
Because they knew you’d come looking for them?
Hasegawa poked at his fire.
I always heard that samurai will still kill for pride.
Some probably do.
But not you?
I guess that’s something else I haven’t quite worked out yet.
The bonze picked out a stick and began arranging his side of the fire, moving things around in a helpful manner before tossing the stick back into the flames.
So now their souls are getting ready for the hovering part. Forty-nine days of shivering with anticipation. Lined up like ants in a food file. Although probably they won’t come back very well. He watched Hasegawa staring into the shifting architecture of his fire. Probably you won’t either.
All right. The bonze shoved his hand into the front flap of his robe and scratched himself thoughtfully. So a flea, a horsefly, a wasp, something such as that might be about as good as you wrathful types can hope for. You were told the truth but you didn’t hear it. Do the right things. Live the right way. Simple enough when you think about it. But even if you’re only a horsefly on the next loop through, you can still be a good one.
A good one?
A horsefly has a horsefly’s virtues.
Probably you’ve never had horses in warm weather. The way they’re tormented by them.
Horseflies are a horse’s fate.
I’d kill every one of them if I could.
Well! Another step down the slippery road to hell.
Hasegawa looked at him, then looked away. Probably I’m just missing what I used to have.
Things to look forward to.
People to be with, I guess. Occurrences and events. Or even just something that I can say I chose for myself. The rogue samurai sat poking his fire, then said, You really believe that about their souls?
All our souls.
All our souls? That it’s a return to the next turn? Each connected to the one coming?
Thread has to go where the needle went.
That didn’t answer my question.
I’m not sure you really asked it yet.
The rogue samurai poked at his fire. He said he did not believe that there was a place for him other than the one he occupied. He said he awoke to the sun in the morning and went to sleep with the moon at night. He said he’d heard things said. Promises and justifications and warnings. But he’d never found anything he thought more true than the simple assurance that when spring comes, grass grows by itself.
By which I guess you mean you think you can’t change.
I guess that’s just about it.
The bonze watched his goats like a person confirming an hypothesis, then turned back to the rogue samurai and his fire. Tell me again why you killed them.
I told you.
Tell me better.
Hasegawa stayed with his fire, adjusting it, scraping it around, the smoke rising up into the dark green shadows of the cedars.
Because she was unacknowledged. An orphan of the palace, unwanted and unprotected. With no hope for a future and no reason even to wish for one. And because I was being paid to take her to a place she didn’t want to go. And then one night I found her in some bushes in a ditch. What she looked like lying there. Slashed and hacked. Bloody gouts of long black hair. Gauze robes shredded like war banners shrieking in the wind. Her throat cut so deeply her head hung sideways…
So she did mean something to you…
Some evenings we had to bivouac by the roadside. And I listened as she told me things. She said she didn’t want me to do anything differently. She just wanted me to know what I was doing.
He said she told him she had been born into a world a samurai could never imagine. It was a world of unwavering requirements and ancient precedents, a world of women without function, women who waited behind screens in anticipation of moments of formal intensity that they would assess with an antique rigor, demanding the same of others and admitting no deviations. She told him there were combinations of colors that if worn together would result in a humiliation that could never be erased, notes plucked on a koto that would illicit endless jeers, written words shaped in such a way that the woman with the brush in her hand would be ostracized and not even death could relieve the shamefulness of her ineptitude. She told him that for women like her, redemption lay in the perfection of the art of the way of withholding. Women like her lived in harmony with the past, and their only necessity was to refine the expression of their acceptance of the inevitable.
She said I was too far away from her to understand such things. She said she couldn’t imagine what a man like me might do. And when I told her I would do whatever was required to deliver her to her destination, she made no reply.
And did you know why?
One night we got caught in a rainstorm and took shelter in an old shrine. I woke up to find her close beside me, raised up on her elbows, her long black hair combed straight back over her shoulders and separating into ink-dark wings. No sneak assassin with a slash knife could have crept up on me like that but she had done it.
He told him how he’d traced the shape of her nose, the curve of her lips, the soft swelling of her cheeks and the hollow under her jaw. The rain was pounding the roof tiles and bits of spray bounced in through gaps on the side walls. He told him that her eyebrows had been removed in the old style of the original court. He said her ears were small and lay flat against her head. Her neck and the nape of her neck tasted faintly of the salt of her body. Her tongue touched his, invited it, moved with it; and he eased her back and sank down beside her, her vulva moist under his hand. She sighed at the offer of his finger sliding into her and drew one scented sleeve up over her face. The silver-white haze of her night-wrapper lifted away as her legs came apart. Her thighs and belly were damp and warm in the summer darkness. She had found him with her hand and guided him inside her, and she had asked him to go slowly and feel it with her and not hurry anything, the promise he was building with the woman he had been paid to deliver was being built by her back up to him, seeking him, grasping him as he held her, asking him not to rush the wordless questions he was asking her.
The rogue samurai poked at his fire.
Her voice was like dead leaves rustling in a dry wind. She said she and girls like her had been raised among women who sat all their lives in empty rooms and waited for something that they knew would never happen. They called older women their mothers and were allowed to do so. Sometimes she pretended one of them really was her own mother, and she tried to model herself after the woman she’d selected. But she knew it was foolish. And fraudulent. And she soon learned to hide her yearning, and to force herself to accept not knowing.
And did she ask you to help her?
And did you think of doing it yourself?
I thought of it…
But because she didn’t ask it…
She told me how their mothers were mocked as dreary by those who had displaced them, and their gardens and reception chambers and boudoirs had become so unfashionable that even the night visits of violators had dwindled away to nothing. Then one day it was announced that a maple tree judged to be the oldest and finest in the palace compound was to be viewed, and the divination of an unfavorable direction on the date selected meant that a circuitous route had to be followed in order to avoid provoking malign influences. The detour would pass directly along the main veranda-corridor in the part of the western chambers allocated to unwanted women. No event could have seemed more auspicious. The sliding doors on the inside edge of this corridor were replaced by hanging reed blinds with space left open at the bottom. The women configured their many-layered court robes in a manner befitting the season, and they practiced arranging their sleeve-bundles artfully so that portions of the fabrics might be glimpsed under the blinds. They studied the effects of various combinations, hoping to arrive at a mixture of colors and textures that would stimulate the august curiosity and perhaps lead eventually to an inquiry.
None of them slept well the night before the viewing, so filled were they with yearning. She said all were in place behind the reed blinds early, their sleeves positioned as had been agreed. Finally, they could hear the sliding feet of the seneschals on the polished wooden floors and the twanging of bowstrings in the garden as guardsmen saluted what for them could only have been dim shapes moving behind white paper doors. As the procession grew nearer, the women fell silent, their heads down, their hearts pounding. But just as the august arrival began to occur, it was remarked by a trailing courtier that the weather was fine that day; and attention was awarded to the external side of the veranda-corridor in demonstration of an awareness of the source of the beauty of the afternoon glow. The procession passed by. Their display had gone unnoticed.
She told me that after that, the tedium of normal days had returned; and in the weeks and months and years that followed, the women began dying, smothered by the necessity of doing the same thing each day at the same hour and in the same way, with no possibility for any change ever.
And you were taking her back to that?
Hasegawa picked at his fire. That was what I was being paid to do.
The bonze waited until he was sure he had nothing more to say on the subject, then got up and went to retrieve his goats. He stood for a moment studying the rogue samurai who seemed to him like a man willing to sit by the edge of the road until the world itself shuddered to its end. Why’d you kill all of them?
Hasegawa poked at his fire.
You have a group like that, and one or two will be the cause of such evil deeds, and one or two will just go along with it. But there’s also every possibility that at least one of them didn’t really deserve to die.
Well, I don’t know. No way for me to know.
Me either. He looked at him. I guess that’s another thing for me to feel bad about. I already had quite a few.
Native Californian John Givens teaches fiction writing at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin. He got his MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Korea for two years, studied art and language in Kyoto for four years, and worked in Tokyo as a writer and editor for eight years. Givens’s published novels are: Sons of the Pioneers, A Friend in the Police, and Living Alone. A short story collection, The Plum Rains, has just been published by The Liffey Press in Ireland. Other stories have appeared in various publications in the US, Japan and Europe.
Q: What was the inspiration for this story:
A: “The Palace Orphan” is one of a group of interlocking stories set in Japan in the last decade of the 17th century. It makes use of a convention of the Noh theater, in which an itinerant priest hears the confession of a protagonist who is struggling to accept his or her fate. My intention with these stories is to adapt classic Japanese literary forms and create a world that is self-consistent, credible and populated by believable characters authentic to their time and place.
Q: Who were you, or who do you wish you had been, in a past life?
A: Probably some guy about 11,000 years ago who stopped half-way across the Bering Land Bridge, unable to decide if he should continue on to the New World or head back to the safety and security of good old Asia and Europe.
Q: Straight road? Or winding road?
A: Various straight roads overlapping and interlacing in such a way that little actual travel occurs yet lots gets noticed along the way.
Q: What's your favorite part of the writing process?
A: Editing and rewriting is by far the most pleasurable since there's often a point at the nth draft when you finally get that first slight hint of what the story might be about.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: Two novels, one set in the same time frame as this story ("The Palace Orphan") and detailing the adventures of my morose rogue samurai, Hasegawa. The other is set in Kyoto in the 1970s and plunders the oddity of loving a culture not your own. I also have a half-dozen short stories in various stages of development and/or disintegration.