Shinigami Chapter 24

Aki no nanakusa

Aki no nanakusa: The seven flowers of autumn

Hiro watched the wild ducks sporting in the lake at the edge of the clearing. 

“The water seems safe to drink,” Ryū said, “although we should boil it just to be sure.”

Hiro nodded. He could see fish swimming at the bottom, and others splashing on the surface in their dive for grub. Ryū had promised to try to catch some for dinner.

They’d been staying in the makeshift shelter for two weeks, and Ryū had made little improvements to it every morning. When the storms cleared and the moss was no longer soggy, he transferred large sections of it to cover and insulate the roof.

“Autumn brings the cold showers,” Ryū mused after he finished the new roof. “We should build a better shelter soon. This will not do for winter.”

“We don’t have any tools,” Hiro added.

Ryū smiled enigmatically and said, “The forest will provide. It provided for my father and me most of the time. I trust the forest.” He explained that he wanted to build a small hut using logs from the dead trees lying about. 

“Have you done this before?” Hiro asked.

“Many times,” Ryū said.

Many times. 

Hiro glared at the stretch of mountain forest. They had nothing. How could they build a hut with a sickle and a hunting knife? 

The lack of tools didn’t dissuade Ryū, though. He worked tirelessly from sunrise to sunset, gathering timber and rocks. He used the skinning knife to carve a small shovel out of a branch, and then he dug a pit in the ground. He told Hiro it was the foundation of their soon-to-be hut. Their new home.

Hiro’s inability to be useful took a toll on his mental health, which had already been frail since his exile. He wandered around the forest, wracking his brain to figure out what he could do to help Ryū. When nothing came, he slowly plunged into a deep depression that took his ability to eat or even get up from the rough straw mat. Sometimes he’d go days without sleeping, and other days he’d spend little time awake. His vision became misty and unfocused, and his mind began to shut down in an effort to hide its dangerous, dark thoughts. 

Ryū wisely gave Hiro space for a while, but he always made sure his master had something to eat at the end of each day. He brought him dinner—fish from the lake and a handful of rice—but he didn’t force him to eat, nor did he comment on the wasted food getting cold by Hiro’s feet. At night, he held Hiro to keep him warm.

“Master, you have a fever,” he said one morning. Ryū’s eyes were filled with concern. “I’ll make tea and return shortly.”

Hiro grunted, turned to his other side, and fell asleep again.

Ryū gently rocked his shoulder a couple minutes later. “Drink this, Master. It should make you feel better.”

“Hiro,” Hiro whispered. 

“Master?” 

“Call me Hiro, Ryū,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to hear my name on your lips,” he mumbled before drifting off once more.

Ryū put his hand beneath Hiro’s head to support it. “You must drink this before you go back to sleep.” He helped him sit up. “Please, Hiro.”

He handed Hiro a cup he’d made from a bamboo stalk and filled with some kind of heated liquid. Mechanically, Hiro’s fingers wrapped around it. He took a drink and gagged. “Blech. What in heaven’s name is this?”

“Kikyo root,” Ryū said with a smile. “When harvested in autumn, it cures the flu.”

Hiro drank again. It was bitter and twisted his empty stomach. But once he swallowed, and after the taste left his tongue, it had a soothing effect. 

“How do you know all these things?” Hiro asked between sips.

“I had to learn from Father at a young age. We wouldn’t have survived otherwise.”

Hiro looked at his dirty toes. He hadn’t had a bath since he left the sanctuary. He sighed with exhaustion. “You manage to impress me every single day. I feel like I know nothing about you.”

Ryū tilted his head. “What do you want to know? I will tell you.”

Hiro shrugged. “Anything, I guess.” He listened to the wind howling outside, announcing a stormy night. “What’s your favorite season?”

“That’s easy. Autumn.” 

Hiro raised an eyebrow. “Why autumn?”

“Because of the aki no nanakusa.”

“The what?”

Ryū paused and turned to gaze dreamily toward the forest. “I love autumn for its seven flowers blowing on the moorlands,” he said. “The kudzu is one of them. Its vine grows up the trees and strangles the life out of them. You help the tree survive when you remove it, and then the vine can be woven into cloth that helps you stay warm in winter.” He looked down and arranged his trousers, frowning at the dirt stains. “The lespedeza flower always grows close to the kudzu. When in bloom, they used to stain my legs as I passed through the moor searching for the vines. They showed me I was close. The lespedeza was a childhood friend,” he said with a small smile playing at the corners of his lips. He shook his head, bringing himself out of whatever reverie he was in. 

“Then there is the obana, with its bands of yellow across the leaves, and the fujibakama with its pinkish flowers. But I cherish the purple kikyo the most because of the medicinal powers of its root.” Ryū proudly watched Hiro drink the tea he’d prepared. “My father’s favorite was the nadeshiko, whose pink flowers could be eaten for their sweet nectar. He always said the nadeshiko reminded him of Mother because it looked so pure.” 

“And what’s the seventh?”

“The asagao. The morning glory. It was my mother’s favorite flower, and Father said it used to spread all over our garden.” Ryū sniffed. “When we had a home. And when I had a mother.”

Hiro finished the bitter tea. The wind pushed its way through the gaps in the walls and ruffled his hair.

“Ryū?” Hiro asked quietly. “What happened to her? Why were you homeless for such a long time?”

Ryū dropped his head. “War. What else? There’s always a skirmish between the lords somewhere in this country.” He straightened and looked at Hiro directly. “My father was a soldier, and he chose the wrong side. One day the opposition came, burned our house, and killed my mother. They left me to die in the flames, but by the grace of the gods, Father came home just in time to save me. I was only a baby.”

Hiro didn’t know what to say. What was there to say? 

“I’m sorry you never knew your mother,” he managed.

“Me too.” Ryū said softly. Then he cleared his throat. “I should return to work. There’s still light outside.” He rubbed his face with his palms and left the shelter. 

Hiro’s fever dropped the next day, leaving him dizzy and groggy.

“Hungry?” Ryū appeared at the entrance, holding a wooden bowl with steaming rice.

“Where did you get the bowl?” Hiro asked.

“I made it,” Ryū beamed. “Are you hungry?”

“Yes.” Hiro stretched out his hand for the food and moaned at the pain. Every joint and muscle hurt.

“Good. I’ll be waiting for you outside.” Ryū disappeared, taking the rice with him.

Hiro sighed and pushed himself upright. A few minutes passed before he managed to drag himself off the mat and out into the daylight. He scrunched his face in discomfort from the sun’s glare. 

Ryū was sitting on a boulder, staring out at the flowers in the field between them and the lake. Beside him sat two cups of warm tea and two bowls containing pieces of boiled bamboo stalk atop steaming rice. A small fire blazed nearby, and the remaining bamboo shoots simmered in the pot they’d brought from Heijo-kyo.

Hiro leaned back against the rock and stretched his legs. He wiped sweat from his brow. The walk had been tiresome.

“I like it here,” Ryū said as he handed him a bowl.

Hiro took a moment to thoughtfully examine the place. “It’s quiet,” he said.

“For now. In winter, we should hear the cranes calling their mates. They tend to gather around lakes. Maybe we’ll be lucky and get a visit from them.”

Hiro turned around the wooden bowl, admiring the beauty of its simplicity. “Is there anything you can’t make out of wood?”

Ryū laughed. “‘Necessity creates the best merchants,’ Father used to say.” He leaned back on his elbows and closed his eyes. Hiro watched the sun caress Ryū’s fair cheeks. His pink lips were shiny from the oily bamboo shoots. Hiro wished he were brave enough to lean in and taste the oil. 

“I look forward to hearing the cranes again,” Ryū said. “They’re my favorite birds. But no matter how much I love autumn, I also can’t wait for spring. That’s when the song of the uguisu will echo all day in the branches of the maples. I think it will be absolutely beautiful here.”

Hiro observed him for a long time. Ryū was so at home in the wilderness that he seemed cradled in its womb. He glowed from within. Here in the forest, Ryū was even more breathtaking than usual.

Hiro suffered. How could he be expected to survive at Ryū’s side every day with this want? His feelings for Ryū had been hibernating during the past weeks, flooded beneath the gloom. But Ryū’s company was a balm to Hiro’s soul. As the despair was driven away, everything else came rushing back to the surface.

“Would you show me the autumn flowers, Ryū?” he asked.

Ryū’s smile was dazzling. “It would be my pleasure.”

∆∆∆

It took Hiro four days to recover his strength. On the fifth day, he gritted his teeth and asked how he could help build their new home. Ryū had already dug four holes in the ground for the corners of the hut, and he pointed to four large poles lying close by. He’d used the sickle to carve them from the trunks of small beech trees.

“Can you help me raise them?” 

“Yes. What else?”

“We need bamboo stalks to elevate our sleeping area,” Ryū said. “We should also gather kudzu vines while the weather lasts, and I’ll make a blanket from them.” 

Ryū had all sorts of ideas for making the exile as comfortable as possible, and his enthusiasm was contagious. They found the kudzu vines close to the lake, strangling several cryptomeria. Ryū climbed the trunks and pulled them down with ease. Back at the clearing, they used some of the vines to secure the bamboo stalks to the structure poles. Others were employed to tie the bamboo poles for their bed. Their bed.

Hiro was returning to his old self.

He followed Ryū’s instructions to the letter and enjoyed finally feeling useful. It took a lot of work, but they managed to finish the walls before the rains came, and they even formed the moss roof on their little hut.

They laughed when they realized they forgot windows. 

“We should make an irori, right?” Hiro was proud of remembering that important feature, at least. They dug a square pit in the dirt floor, making sure the hole was deep enough for the flames not to burn the house down, and then they covered the sides with rocks.

That evening, they celebrated their success with a bowl of rice and a trout cooked over the irori. They ate kneeling on a long rough mat made of kudzu vines. The entire hut was smaller than Hiro’s own room at the sanctuary in Heijo-kyo, but the fire pit made it cozy and warm. 

“Do you want the tail?” Ryū asked, holding the tidbit to Hiro’s mouth.

Hiro paused. If he opened his mouth to accept the fish, his lips would touch Ryū’s fingers. If he didn’t accept, he would be a fool, because he wanted his lips to touch Ryū’s fingers.

“Is it good?” he asked, stalling.

Ryū nodded. “It’s the best.”

Hiro prayed that his drumming heart was only loud to his own ears. When he opened his mouth, Ryū placed the morsel on his tongue. He closed his lips around Ryū’s fingers and licked them clean, taking his time.

“Thank you,” Hiro murmured.

Ryū’s eyes darkened, and he didn’t move them from Hiro’s lips. 

“More?” he asked Hiro quietly.

Hiro took another bite, sucking Ryū’s fingertips slightly as he removed them. 

“We should go to sleep.” Ryū looked away, and Hiro wondered if he’d pushed too far.

They didn’t have a blanket yet, so they layered themselves in the winter robes from Hiro’s family. In the lean-to, they’d often slept in an embrace to keep warm. The space had been narrow and Hiro had been sick with fever. Now in the hut, there were no such excuses.

Hiro felt self-conscious as he lowered himself onto the sleeping mat. Ryū also sat awkwardly, his features tense with thoughts Hiro would have paid to know.

“It’s cold at night in the mountains,” Ryū said.

“It is,” Hiro admitted, watching the fire in the irori.

“It would be smart if we slept close together to share warmth.”

“I was thinking exactly the same.”

“Mmm, so…”

“So…”

What is wrong with you? Hiro thought. You are a Fujiwara. If you want something, you take it.

“Ryū?” Hiro called, drawing the attention of the pair of brown eyes that haunted his dreams.

“Yes?”

Hiro reached toward him. “Can I hold you in my arms while I sleep?”

Ryū lit up and nodded, his smile crinkling the corners of his eyes. He reclined in Hiro’s arms, his winter robe nudging Hiro’s cheek. They both needed a bath urgently, but it didn’t matter at that point.

“Ryū?”

“Mmm?”

“How old are you?”

“Seventeen,” he mumbled.

He was two years older than Hiro, which was surprising. He was half a head shorter, and his skinny body was half Hiro’s size.

“Good night, Ryū.”

“Good night, Hiro.”

Hiro focused on Ryū’s breathing, listening for him to fall asleep.

“Ryū?” He waited for a heartbeat for an answer. When Ryū didn’t stir, he kissed the boy’s neck. “Thank you for saving my life.”

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