Shinigami Chapter 11


Kakitsubata: The purple rabbit-eared iris

In summer, nature was at its most beautiful in the dark, on the nights when there was no moon and the fireflies danced in flight, swaying to and fro. The heat of the day retreated once the sun descended behind Mikasa, Mount Kasuga’s grandest peak.

The kakitsubata bloomed in marshes and stagnant ponds, bursting with shades of blue and purple. Peasant girls gathered them in bouquets and sold them at the market, specifically to silken-clad maidens who longed for a husband of high rank. Secretly, the peasant girls always kept a wreath for themselves, for the kakitsubata was the symbol of ill-fated, illicit love—so miraculous that it bloomed in the foulness of a bog during summer. 

At the beginning of the fifth month, the cuckoo’s calls rang in the leafy treetops of Heijo-kyo. The clear streams around the city were brimming with singing frogs, who heralded the approach of the rainy season that would last for six weeks. Then the heat would come, and all living beings would crave shade, contemplating the mournful sound of the cicada.

When he was nine years old, Fujiwara no Hirotsugu moved into his grandfather’s mansion in Heijo-kyo. It was called a sanctuary rather than a palace, because the latter would have been insulting to the Tennō.

From his window on rainy days, Hiro could see clouds hovering over Mikasa. When it was sunny, he’d hear the kao birds crying in the garden’s orange trees. He could taste the mist that fell from Mount Kasuga in the morning and hear the murmur of the capital at noon.

Fourteen years after its rise, the Imperial City radiated. Every day, something was happening. Functions, temple services, banquets, and festivals made Heijo-kyo a place of perpetual celebration. To Hiro, finally living in this brilliant city was a dream come true. Since the attempted kidnapping, the palace on Mount Kasuga had become an unbearable prison.

His favorite moments were on his way home from the Academy, because that’s when he spotted the young warriors wearing silver-wrought swords and parading in front of the court ladies. Hiro imagined that one day, he would be pursuing crimson skirts along the tree-shaded avenues as well, trying to impress the beauties and glimpse the shy smiles they hid behind white paper fans.

And then sometimes, his eyes would seek the pillars of the Rajōmon gate, the southern entrance to the Imperial Capital, and wonder what was beyond.

His grandfather’s mansion was a haven for the family members who needed rest while serving in the Imperial Court. They would reach it by following a path that was lit by three thousand stone lanterns. 

Unlike Umakai’s hall, which had been situated to greet its masters as they entered the western gates, the main hall was in the rear of the sanctuary. Fuhito had lived and died there, so it had been fenced off to give his spirit ten years of solitude. It was painted red and covered in cypress bark, and it featured a gabled roof decorated with logs and forked finials. The hall had been built to mirror Tang architecture, just like the city of Heijo-kyo had been built to mirror Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Empire. A stream ran along the front, accented by bronze lanterns hanging from the roof of the veranda.

There were three other halls that echoed Fuhito’s in all but their smaller size. Hiro, his father, and eventually Yoshi shared the northwestern hall. Umakai’s brothers, Muchimaro and Fusasaki, lived in the other two, while Maro, their half-brother and Fuhito’s youngest son, kept a smaller hall closer to the sanctuary’s exit gates. 

Uncles Muchimaro and Fusasaki were high government officials with quarters in the Imperial Palace, so they rarely stayed at the sanctuary. Two years after Hiro began his studies at the Academy, Umakai received a more esteemed position at court and moved into the Imperial Palace as well. He visited often, but Hiro and Yoshi were mostly left with the servants and guards. Their grandfather’s sanctuary was their uninhibited playground.

Princess Abe came every other week, accompanied by her perennial guards. After all, it was her grandfather’s sanctuary as well, as her mother was Fuhito’s youngest daughter. Hiro didn’t like to dwell on the fact that Emperor Shōmu’s mother—Princess Abe’s grandmother—had been one of Fuhito’s daughters as well, because it gave him a headache. That would make Fuhito both Abe’s grandfather and great-grandfather. Headache, headache, headache.

As the years passed, the games between Hiro, Yoshi, and Abe changed, and the “Adventures of Susanoo” shifted with their interests. Instead of throwing yarn balls, they practiced archery. And rather than listening to bedtime stories, they read passages aloud from the Kojiki while reclining in the shade of the verandas, hiding from the summer heat. They learned how to swim in the pond in the adjacent deer park, and they mastered horseback riding in the stables of the Imperial Palace. When rain kept them indoors, Princess Abe taught Hiro to play the koto, while Yoshi banged his hands on a small drum called a tsudzumi.

When Hirotsugu turned thirteen, Umakai decided it was time for his son to accompany him to the rice fields. The paddies had been established in the sunny south, where no shade would hinder the sprout’s growth, and a river had been redirected to provide them the necessary flooding.

Umakai also gifted him with his first horse that day, a dark brown Taishū shipped from the Tsu island. As they passed through the Rajōmon gate, Hiro was excited to be viewing the outskirts of capital for the first time. But he knew he must remain composed during this outing.

Before reaching the green paddies, they stopped for a census of the fields planted with melon seeds and millet. The expanse of land stretching toward the horizon was overwhelming.

“Is this all… ours, Father?” he dared to ask.

“All that exists in the south, Hirotsugu, is owned by the Fujiwara clan.”

How could one family have so much, when the poor in Heijo-kyo were unable to clothe their children? Hiro bit his tongue to refrain from asking.

Others were riding alongside them, including a variety of guards, narrowing their eyes at every passing traveler, and clerks who scribbled furiously on large clay pads as orderlies dictated to them regarding the allocation in each field. Umakai didn’t pay any attention to them. Instead, he chose to give his son a history lesson. 

“My son,” Umakai said, “our wealth, power, and name come from your great-grandfather, Fujiwara no Kamatari.” He gestured toward the fields. “He was the beginning of us all, the reason why you and I were born to live among the most powerful men in Yamato.”

Umakai told Hiro how Kamatari had taken the lands from preeminent families that had wronged the Fujiwara clan. Then his second son, Fuhito, became the head of the family after his first son took the cloth. Raised at the Kamatari’s heel, Fuhito knew how to inspire respectful fear inside the Imperial Court, so that even the gossiping whispers of ghosts died in their enemies’ halls.

“What did Grandfather do that brought such fear to shut down gossip, Father?” Hiro asked.

“He reminded everyone about the Soga clan and the Isshi no Hen.”

“Oh. I see.”

The demise of the Soga at the hands of Fujiwara Kamatari was a legendary story that Hiro had known as long as he could remember. 

Over a hundred years ago, when the word ‘fujiwara’ only referred to the wisteria flower, Kamatari had been born under another name. Nakatomi no Kamatari. 

The Nakatomi clan may not have been the richest in Yamato, nor did they own the most extensive lands, but they were descendants of the gods—only a degree less sublime in ancestry than the Yamato Imperial Dynasty. Since the beginning of Jimmu’s reign as Yamato’s first Emperor, they’d held the most important office in the country, that of Saishu, meaning Master of Shinto Ritual Ceremonies. They spoke to the gods and the gods spoke back, as many generations of high Shinto priests ran in their blood.

The clan was not as strong in Hiro’s time as they had been a century ago, but their high priests still ruled over the Grand Shrine of Ise, and the people loved and respected them. Their rituals cleansed the human spirit of its impurities, while keeping the demons at bay and the gods happy. And in the land of Yamato, there was nothing more feared than demons and the gods’ punishment. 

“Your great-grandfather was born different than the rest of the Nakatomi clan,” Umakai said. “He could not speak to the gods, nor could he see them. During his childhood, this made him and his mother pariahs among their family. He was the firstborn son of the Nakatomi clan, meant to become the Imperial High Priest after his father’s death. But he was deemed unfit for it and was shunned.”

Hiro couldn’t imagine how hard Kamatari’s childhood must have been, knowing he was a failure to the family. He hoped never to live such a dreadful experience.

“Thankfully, he had something his clansmen didn’t—an unparalleled ambition and a hunger for knowledge and power. Observing his quick wit and understanding of the Shinto scrolls, his father and grandfather decided to keep his weakness hidden, and the entire clan was sworn to secrecy. The others still gossiped behind his back, thinking him inadequate to bear the Nakatomi name, but nothing escaped their walls. When his father died, Kamatari became the Jingi no Haku, the Head of the Council of God Affairs.

“Perhaps my grandfather would have remained unknown to history, the Fujiwara clan nothing but dust. But a new plague was spreading in the Imperial Court.” 

“What plague, Father?” Hiro asked, although he knew. 

“Buddhism,” Umakai said.

Hiro had been six years old when he first heard his father’s wives gossip about the Isshi no Hen. They were proud to remind themselves of their marriage to a man who descended from the great Kamatari. Hiro listened to their stories carefully and memorized every word. 

His father’s voice hitched with emotion as he scanned the lands the Fujiwara clan owned. Hiro could have quoted him.

“The Nakatomi clan was made of kites who loved the gods, and every breath they took was for the august ones in Heaven. One day, they gave birth to a hawk who could fly higher than any man before him, and he was capable of seeing further into the future than the highest Shinto priest. He was among the first to spot the threat coming from the west under the guise of a new religion, brought on the wings of black crows. The crows were the Soga family, the most influential clan at the court ruled by Empress Kōgyoku.

“As every hawk with talent hides its talons, so did my grandfather conceal his hatred for the Soga spreading Buddhism inside the Imperial Palace. He worked in the shadows to convince the Empress’s second son to join him in his noble cause. They plotted and schemed, and finally, eighty-four years ago, on the twelfth day of the sixth month, with the blessing of the gods, the prince and my grandfather assassinated the devious head of the Soga clan. During a ceremony, in front of the entire Imperial Court. They cut off Soga no Iruka’s head and threw it in a lake as an offering to the gods who’d watched over them. Thus, the Imperial Palace was saved from turning their backs on the true gods and dooming the country to unimaginable wrath.

“Several years later, the prince became Emperor, and he honored our grandfather with a new clan name: Fujiwara. The name serves as a reminder of Wisteria Arbor, where they first met to plan the salvation of Yamato and the destruction of the Shinto betrayers.”

The end of the story made Hiro’s stomach roil every time. “Couldn’t it have been done without the bloodshed, Father?” he asked.

“No,” Umakai answered. “We wouldn’t have become who we are today without blood coating all our sleeves.” 

They were quiet after that. As Hiro looked over the fields, he noticed that for every six peasants, a man on horseback was giving orders. One of the workers was a young girl. She had stopped working and was peering at Hiro with awed curiosity. She couldn’t have been any older than he was.

Hiro smiled at her. He took a copper coin from the pocket of his sleeve and beckoned her closer. He was accustomed to carrying money for beggars in the capital. She wasn’t a beggar, but he reckoned she would be happy to receive the coin anyway.

When she hesitated, he showed her the coin. She stood and approached, still wary.

“Don’t be afraid,” Hiro said. “Take it.”

She took a few more steps before the lash of a whip brought her to her knees. The orderly drove his horse toward her and screamed at her to go back to work.

Hiro paled and grabbed his father’s sleeve. “Father, stop him!”

“Why?” Umakai asked. “She was supposed to be working.”

“I called her over to give her a coin. Why would you allow him to hit her when it’s my fault?” 

“Then she is paying for your mistake.”

“What mistake?”

“Hirotsugu,” his father said. “A Fujiwara should not bother with the life of servants, peasants, and slaves, nor feel pity for them. They’re beneath us. Be true to whom you were born to be. A crow imitating a cormorant drowns in the water.”

Hiro had only wanted to show her a little kindness. Suddenly, memories rushed over him. He had extended benevolence to others before, and it had only caused them suffering. The uguisu he’d hoped to feed from his own hand, killed by his younger half-brothers with rocks. The boy he’d tried to clothe, who would have been hung for robbery if he’d been found wearing the expensive silk.

The orderly was still hitting the girl.

“Father, please make him stop. I won’t do it again.”

Umakai raised his hand, and the man stopped. The girl lay crying in the field, curled over the green rice sprouts. 

“Let this be a lesson to you.” His father spurred his horse forward. “Let’s ride. We still have more fields to see.”I watched as Hirotsugu furtively wiped away a tear. Kind touches bring agony, and I’d give anything to protect him from learning that lesson. Yet again.

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