Tsuri-dōrō

Tsuri-dōrō: A lamp that hangs from the eaves of a roof

Credit: © Blanscape | Dreamstime.com

The seasons shifted, summer giving way to autumn and then winter. Hiro despised winter. There was nothing he liked about it. It was cold, everything was covered in snow that clung to his clothes, and the Academy was closed during blizzards.

During winters, Yoshi returned to the palace at the top of Mount Kasuga, leaving Hiro alone for three months. So he spent that time with Princess Abe.

When he was young, he was annoyed when he was forced to abide her, but now he quite enjoyed her presence. Life with Abe was always interesting, at minimum. She came up with the strangest ideas. Once she goaded him into stealing the deer hide ball used in the blessing ceremonies of a nearby Shinto shrine, just so she could kick it around and traumatize the deer in the park. Another time, she challenged him to catch a fish in a pond filled with snapping turtles. Using his bare hands. Hiro almost lost a finger with that one. 

When the snowfall made it difficult to return to the Imperial Palace at night, Abe was allowed to stay at the sanctuary. Armed men would guard the hall, but they were under secret order to keep their distance and allow Hiro and Abe to bond.

One night, when they were cooped up in Hiro’s room during a heavy snowfall, the princess had a wicked idea.

“Have you ever wondered what’s in Grandfather’s hall? What treasures are hiding there?”

Every day. “Sometimes,” he said.

“I bet it holds all kinds of secrets. Do you want to sneak in and see if it’s true?”

“But we aren’t allowed in there,” Hiro said. “We shouldn’t disturb Grandfather’s spirit.”

I leaned on the plum tree, stroking its warm bark with the backs of my fingers. The veil was open and mist surrounded the children’s hall. “I never thought you were a coward,” I whispered into Abe’s ear. 

“Come on, cousin. That’s something Yoshi would say. I never thought you were a coward, too.” That would push Hirotsugu into action faster than a flying arrow, which Abe well knew.

“We’ll sneak out at the hour of the ox,” Hiro said with determination.

The tree pulsed with life at my back. Above, it had lost some blossoms and had borne one single fruit. The plum was as small as a cherry, but blue light glowed from within.

“Search for a door with the image of Susanoo slaying the serpent,” I planted in Hiro’s mind. 

From the back of the throne, Fuhito’s eyeless skull glared at me. Underneath, misshapen and broken, was Kamatari’s skull.

“Rejoice,” I said to the dead in my possession. “It will be over soon.” 

I waved my staff and the guards fell asleep, leaning their shoulders on the walls they defended. A couple of them dropped onto the polished floor, startling Hiro and Abe.

They came out of the room to see about the noise.

“Some guards you have,” Hiro tittered.

Abe frowned. She nudged one of the snoring men with the tip of her sock-clad toe. “This has never happened before.” Then her eyes flashed with mischief. “Let’s go.”

“Now? But it’s not the hour of the ox yet.”

“Does it matter?”

“You don’t find this strange? What if this is a bad omen that we shouldn’t snoop around?”

“Fine. Stay here if you’re afraid. I’m going.”

“I’m not afraid!”

“You sure sound like it. Is Cousin Hiro afraid of Grandfather’s ghost? Would you rather get under the blankets and tremble like a mouse?”

Hiro gritted his teeth. “I am not a mouse,” he insisted.

“Then prove it.”

They made their way through the snow to Fuhito’s hall. The wooden door they found inside displayed a dragon carved in full relief. Crossing a small arched bridge, Hiro and Abe hesitated, eyeing the dragon warily. Within its mouth was a huge lock. The key must have been the length of a grown man’s arm.

“How do we open this?” Hiro asked. “We don’t know where the key is.”

I whistled through the veil and the door swung open.

Abe screamed and jumped behind Hiro. He didn’t feel any braver himself.

“This doesn’t feel right,” Hiro whispered, his cheeks the color of the falling snow. “Abe-hime, maybe we shouldn’t…” 

“It’s just the wind,” she said, pushing his back, forcing him to take minuscule steps toward the threatening darkness of the hall.

They should have brought a torch. It was pitch-black inside and shapes loomed freakishly in the corners. As they passed over the threshold, the floor creaked under their weight.

They gulped and stared at each other. Abe said, “You should fetch one of the tsuri-dōrō so we can see where we are going.”

“Do I really have to?”

“Yes!”

Hiro pondered the blizzard in the darkness outside. The only lanterns that had been lit were the ones back in his hall.

“Go,” Princess Abe demanded. “Before the guards wake up.” 

“Are you seriously not acknowledging that all of this is terribly peculiar?”

Princess Abe would have entertained that possibility, yes. But not that night. Her will, and the words she spoke, were mine. 

“Fate aids the courageous,” I said, and Abe repeated it.

A shiver traveled down Hiro’s spine, the reflection of a memory he couldn’t place. He rubbed his arms and reluctantly went after the lantern, cursing his own foolishness. He struggled with a pole to bring one down, making sure not to burn his hand. The bronze had a ring on top, which Hiro connected to a hooked iron hilt. He held the lantern in front of him and gingerly carried it back through the snow.

“See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?” Abe said. Hiro glowered.

The light drove away the shadows to reveal a bracketed ceiling inlaid with white pearls. The pearls adorned the heads of beautiful gods gathered around a grotto. Amaterasu was centered at the entrance and surrounded by a halo, her hands opened in blessing.

“This must be the moment when Amaterasu was persuaded to leave the cave, after Susanoo destroyed her rice fields,” Abe said.

“Did you see the gifts the gods brought her? At your father’s coronation?” Hiro asked.

“The mirror and the jewel?” she asked.

“Yes.”

She chewed her lower lip and scrunched her nose in annoyance. “I wasn’t allowed. Only Father and the High Priest of Ise could see them.”

“Oh,” Hiro said, feeling a little bad for having still been secretly upset about that. “I’m sorry.”

She shook her head. “No need. One day I will become Empress and see them for myself.” She glanced at him. “And I will show them to you too. If you want.”

“I would love that. Kusanagi too?”

Abe grinned. “Especially Kusanagi.”

They pulled away dividers and peeked in the mostly empty rooms. Hiro’s eyes kept being drawn to an extremely ominous corridor on his right. “What do you think is down there?” 

“Only one way to find out,” she said.

They made their way down the corridor, passing shuttered windows on their left and a wall of dark planks on their right. This was unusual, because houses in Yamato usually used wood just for the exterior, with dividers for the interior walls. At the end of the corridor, they reached a sliding door. Hiro pulled at it with both hands, and after some forceful back and forth, it slid open.

And revealed an empty room.

“This is… disappointing,” Abe said. 

“What’s that?” Hiro used the lantern to illuminate a large coin-shaped brass structure with an image on it. They dropped to their knees and wiped at the dust with their sleeves. The portrayal was of Susanoo, the Storm God, slaying the eight heads of the Yamata no Orochi serpent.

Hiro’s heart started beating faster. The image displayed Susanoo tricking the serpent and drugging it with a sleeping draught. When it fell asleep, Susanoo had severed its many heads. A sword dropped out of the head in the middle, and the god named it Kusanagi the Grass Slasher.

Something was written around the edges. Hiro and Abe dropped their noses close to the symbols. 

“Thus, do I defile my body, and make myself thy mime forever.”

“What does it mean?”

“I think it’s from the Nihon Shoki,” Abe said.

“I’ve never read that. I only had access to the Kojiki. How is it?”

“The same thing, but better. I’ll show it to you next time you come to the Imperial Palace. They don’t allow anyone to take it out of the library.”

“So, you know what this means?”

“Something about a god teaching someone’s brother to whistle to raise the wind.”

“Hmm…” Hiro shrugged. “Maybe we should try it.”

“Try what?”

“Whistling? Let’s just do it. See what happens,” Hiro said.

Abe’s cheeks grew red. “I don’t know how.”

“You don’t know how to whistle? It’s like this.” Hiro inhaled deeply and blew through his puckered lips, a low whistle resounding in the room.

The brass coin moved a hand’s span to the side.

“Do it again,” Princess Abe said, clapping her hands.

With a combination of whistles and pushing, they managed to open the entrance to an underground room. 

“I knew it!” Abe cried. “I knew the rumors were true!”

“Eh? What rumors?”

“This must be the Fujiwara secret library. Mother once told me a story about it. As Kamatari became old and frail, he began to lose his memory, so he wrote down his life. That became a custom of all males in the Fujiwara clan. Hiro, you are Umakai’s heir. How did you not know this?”

Hiro felt a stab of hurt. “Maybe Father was waiting for me to grow up?” 

“Maybe. Let’s get down there.”

Hiro peered into the darkness, wondering what horrors lurked within. He’d never told his family about the apparition in the chrysanthemum clearing. His father’s reaction to the desecrated bodies had scared him, and Hiro feared he might be forced to undergo some unpleasant cleansing rituals. Frankly, four years later, he questioned whether it all had been the fruit of his imagination, pile of bodies ripped to pieces notwithstanding. A pack of wolves could have attacked the men. Maybe he saw a bear and his eyes had played tricks on him in the mist. He might never know for sure, and that was probably best.

Inari-sama would have known, but Hiro couldn’t visit him. He’d found the passage to the maple forest blocked by guards every time he returned to the palace on Mount Kasuga.

Hiro took the stairs slowly, one after another. Princess Abe was close behind. He held the lantern in front of him and prayed no ghosts would jump out. The last thing he wanted was to drop it and burn the house down. The madness of one monster would be welcome in comparison to the wrath of his entire clan, both living and dead.

They descended into the bowels of the earth. It was cold and dark, and Hiro could barely see the next step below him. He led the way but held tightly to Abe’s hand. This staircase was going on forever. 

“Here it is,” Abe finally said.

He raised his lamp, and it poorly lighted a shelf filled with scroll boxes. “You were right,” he said in amazement. “This is a library. A massive one.”

The room was the size of the whole hall above it. Small lanterns were hanging by bronze sconces pinned into the walls. Hiro lit them, and he and Abe stood mesmerized, gazing at hundreds of shelves lining the walls and bending under the weight of the boxes. It would take Hiro three lifetimes to explore every one.

“I don’t understand why there are so many scrolls,” Hiro said. “Since Great-Grandfather’s death, there have only been five other Fujiwara.” He started counting them. “His son Fuhito, and his four sons Muchimaro, Fusasaki, Umakai, and Maro.”

Abe blew the dust off a shelf and coughed. “These are labeled cousins Toyonari and Nakamaro, Uncle Muchimaro’s sons.” She moved to a lower shelf. “But I don’t recognize these names.” 

Hiro came closer. “They must be Muchimaro’s bastard sons. The ones that died from smallpox when they were young.”

“It’s going to be so exciting to snoop in all these diaries,” Abe said, rubbing her hands.

“Aren’t you worried it would anger their spirits?” Hiro asked. He looked around, almost expecting a furious ancestor to appear and scold them.

“I don’t believe in such superstition. Oy, look at this,” Abe said.

A dais lay just beyond the shelves, an alter sitting on it. A small carved box was in front of the altar, and a mural on the wall above it showed Kamatari solemnly watching over his library. A beautiful woman stood in a quiet lake behind him, her long dark hair gathered to one side and reaching down to the water. A shy smile played on her lips, and her brown eyes gazed lovingly at her mirrored image on the surface of the lake. On the right side of the mural, a poem was written in black brushstrokes.

Oh, Yasumiko I have won! 

 Mine is she whom all men, 

 They say, have sought in vain. 

 Yasumiko I have won!

 “I thought Kamatari’s wife was called Ōkimi,” Hiro said.

“This must be one of the consorts whose name we don’t know.”

Hiro regarded the mural closely. She had been painted in the colors of summer. Her orange skirt was covered in crimson and gold, and she wore a cross-collared, long-sleeved purple tarikubi with a flower motif. Her full lips were pink, like the waterlilies that surrounded her on the lake. The shore was covered in kakitsubata.

“She’s beautiful,” Hiro said.

“Hmm.” Princess Abe’s lips curved down in disapproval. “What do you think is in the box?” she said conspiratorially to shift his attention.

Why not? They had already broken all the rules. “Let’s open it,” Hiro said, taking initiative for once.

They knelt on the polished rock floor and each grabbed a corner of the lid. Hiro took a deep breath. “On three. One. Two.”

Abe pulled the lid open. A skull lay amid red silk and glared up at them. A foul-smelling breeze filled the library. Some of the lanterns flickered and died. 

Hiro’s inner alarm urged him to leave. Perhaps it was the way the shadows bounced around the skull from the dancing flames, but Hiro thought he saw dark transparent smoke covering the white bone.

“We should get out of here,” he said, standing and pulling at Abe’s hand.

“We should,” she said. But she didn’t move. She was transfixed, unable to look away from the skull’s empty sockets. Hiro shut the lid and took her arm, dragging her after him.

“Let’s go. Right now.”

They ran up the stairs and quickly reached the surface. “Oh no, we forgot to put out the lanterns!” Hiro turned to go back down.

I whistled and the lamps were extinguished with a hiss, casting the library in blackness.

“We shouldn’t have come here,” Abe said.

Hiro didn’t have the time to tell her ‘I told you so.’ Speechless and pale, he shoved the brass door closed and then sped out of the house with Abe close beside him. They hurriedly shut the dragon door and pushed through the accumulated snow, hand in hand, stricken and panting.

The moment Hiro’s foot touched the threshold of his room, the guards woke up.

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