Ichinen: One year
On the last day of December, the Nakatomi priests from the Grand Shrine of Ise performed the ōharae, a ritual as old as Izanagi’s time on earth. The tradition was intended to purify the nation of their sins and pollution, welcoming the New Year with open hearts and virtuous souls. Izanagi himself performed the first ōharae after he escaped the Land of Yomi. At the river mouth near the orange trees, he washed away the stench and filth of death in a cleansing ritual that gave birth to Amaterasu, Tsukuyomi, and Susanoo.
New Year’s Day was the most important celebration in Yamato, and the Imperial Court would hold a three-day banquet. It was well known among both commoner and aristocrat that the proper beginning ensured an affluent and happy year. Jeweled brooms were distributed to the courtiers and ladies to encourage the growth of silkworms, one of the nation’s signs of prosperity. Pine, bamboo, and plum, symbols of resilience and perseverance in the cold winter days, adorned the doors of every household in the country.
The children played the game of hanetsuki, hitting beautifully painted shuttlecocks called hane with a hagoita paddle, trying to keep the hane from hitting the ground. The parents stayed busy preparing large feasts, and the grandparents watched the children play, reflecting on their own childhoods and the swift passage of time.
On the morning of New Year’s Eve, Hiro and Ryū’s first day as a married couple, they celebrated with salted fish and bowls of rice. Last night’s snowfall had covered the path to the lake, burying both man and yōkai footprints from the day before. A good sign, as deep snow at the beginning of the year promised a fruitful autumn for Yamato. They finished their meal and returned to bed, where they’d cheerfully remain as long as possible.
A month passed in lustful happiness. Then Heijo-kyo’s festival of Kagutsuchi and the fires on Mikasa came and went.
Paw and her cubs returned for a short while at the beginning of spring. The offspring helped their three-legged mother hunt, and they all worked as a pack to bring down fat rabbits, which meant Hiro and Ryū’s care was no longer needed.
But Ryū still played with the cubs every chance he got, and the little beasts loved him. When they saw him emerge from the hut, they sprinted over and surrounded him with yelps, pulling him down to the grass. As they climbed on his chest and licked his face, Hiro stood in the doorway grinning like an idiot, watching his husband get smothered by miniature, fluffy red-coated foxes.
On his wrist sparkled a bracelet of the crystal beads from the combs Ryū had worn during their marriage ceremony. His husband wore its pair made from Hiro’s combs. Ryū had made them as a symbol of their vows.
“If I am to die,” Ryū laughed, “I want it to be this way, with you at my side and a bunch of foxes licking my face.”
“If I am to die, I want it to be holding your hand.”
Fujiwara no Umakai waited all spring for his son to return. When summer came and there was still no sign of Hirotsugu, he sent Yoshitsugu with a small guard to bring him home.
It nearly killed me to do it, but I allowed Hiro a year of happiness with his husband as my wedding gift to him. Every time Yoshitsugu and his party reached Mount Kurama, I held them back with rain and lightning. I struck down old, thick-trunked trees to block the trail. I raised the kagerō to blind their way. I brought the floods and sickened their horses, and when winter came I called blizzards to hit Heijo-kyo.
Then a year had passed, and the week of New Year’s Day arrived again. With a heavy sigh, I waved my bone staff to withdraw the mists and stop the storm.
The hardest part of our journey was about to begin.