Tsukubai: The water fountain
Close to Hirotsugu’s ninth birthday, Prince Obito was crowned Emperor of Yamato, and a new imperial era was proclaimed. They called it Jinki—The Sacred Tortoise—to symbolize an era favored by the gods filled with longevity and good luck.
Prince Obito discarded his name to become Shōmu-tennō, meaning Holy Warlord and Heavenly Sovereign. Under the escort of a hundred royal guards, the priests of the Ise Grand Shrine brought the real Kusanagi to Heijo-kyo. In their possession were also the other two divine heirlooms, Amaterasu’s mirror and the jade jewel.
The folk gathered in the streets to cheer for the new Tennō. Some traveled from Naniwa and Kyō no Miyako, or from even farther away, closer to the continent.
Hiro was devastated when he was told not only that he couldn’t see Kusanagi, but that he couldn’t go to the enthronement either. He had to stay home with his siblings and the servants while the adults joined the festivities. Shōmu-tennō had Fujiwara blood coursing through his veins, and his rise to the throne consolidated the power of the Fujiwara clan. It was a moment for alliances and intrigue, and no place for children.
Despite spring’s arrival, gray clouds still hovered over Mount Kasuga, prolonging the life of snow that should have melted by now. The bleak weather reflected Hiro’s gloomy mood.
He no longer needed help up the ladders when he climbed the roofed wooden tower that guarded the western gates. He stood alone on the highest base and looked down at the guards below. They were forming two lines, and soon the horses and carts would pass through, carrying his family.
Even though he was disappointed, Hiro got swept up in the enthusiasm of the procession. His heartfelt cheers mixed with the voices of his brothers and sisters. Umakai had fathered nine children—six boys and three girls. Two of them were swaddled babies, in the arms of their nurses and crying for their mothers. Yoshitsugu was Hiro’s only full brother, since they were both the sons of Isonokami no Kunimina no Ōtoji, Umakai’s first wife.
Until Umakai returned, he’d named Hiro the master of the house and protector of his siblings. It was a great honor, but it was hard for him to care about that right now. All he’d ever wanted was to see Kusanagi. He didn’t even need to touch it. He would be happy to get a glimpse of it from afar. But he couldn’t, since he had to stay home.
As the temporary master of the house, he was determined to hide his anger by chewing his inner cheeks. So despite his brooding, all anyone saw was a lopsided and goofy look on his face.
The party left at a trot. As he passed through the gates, Umakai did not turn in the seat of his horse to wave at Hiro, not because he didn’t love his son, but just because this was not in his nature. Hiro had learned not to expect such displays from him.
There were other acknowledgements, though. His mother waved from her goshoguruma, and his father’s other wives followed suit.
“Be safe,” he called, waving back.
The road was a dirt path covered with moss-coated rocks protruding from the ground. It would have been wide enough for two carriages, but it was made smaller by the old cryptomerias growing out of the mountain slopes and sheltering the road with their thick branches.
When the last horse disappeared from view, Hiro turned to the other side of the tower. The wind ruffled the wolf fur stole around his shoulders as his hands gripped the railing. In the distance, his father’s land extended as far as the eye could see.
Overlooking Heijo-kyo in the west, the four buildings of Umakai’s palace were connected by thatched-roof bridges. The largest building was used for dining and entertaining, and it also housed Umakai’s personal quarters. Then came the bedrooms for the wives and consorts, followed by the ones for the Fujiwara children.
The most sumptuous of the buildings was a guest house, which was usually left empty. Since the palace had been constructed fourteen years ago—when the Yamato court had moved its capital to Heijo-kyo—only four people had stayed there: Hiro’s grandfather, Fuhito; Emperor Shōmu when he was still Prince Obito; and Princess Abe and her mother.
Hiro’s mind wandered to his imperial cousin, who was attending the enthronement and would probably get a glimpse of Kusanagi. He sniffed. Abe was born under a lucky star. She lived better, dressed better, and visited more places than he did. Hiro had been cooped up like a chicken all his life.
“It’s not fair,” he hissed. A bout of frustration overcame him, and he kicked the wooden pole that supported the railing. It upset a patch of snow that had begun to thaw on the roof, and the slush fell on his neck, making him yelp. An olive-bellied uguisu chirped cheerfully as it passed overhead. Hiro felt sure that it was laughing at him.
“Oh yeah?” Hiro threatened the bird with his ever-present stick. “You wouldn’t be so brave if I had a bow and arrow, you little snoop,” he cried. The uguisu made a loop in the air, tweeted one more time, and then dashed toward the snow-draped maple trees.
Hiro leaned on the railing and rested his chin on his palm.
“I wish I could be like you and fly over Yamato,” he said.
I chuckled. He had the power to ride wind dragons across the sky, yet he wanted to be a bird. I waved my staff to summon the plum tree. It was time to shake up Hiro’s world.
The gray clouds shifted and a gale brushed the tips of the maple trees.
Hiro narrowed his eyes. Then he straightened. He almost fell from the tower as he leaned over, because among the maple trees, close to the gardens, stood a glorious plum tree. It was covered in vivid blossoms of glowing red.
Hiro couldn’t count how many times he’d climbed the tower, but he would swear this was the first time he was seeing that tree. It was enormous, so how could he possibly have missed it all these years?
He descended the tower and ran to the garden. The slate stepping stones had been brushed free of snow, so he easily followed the path until he reached an intersection guarded by four stone lamps. Hiro wasn’t allowed past this juncture. If he went right, he would return to the pond. If he took a left, he would come to the edge of the maple forest. He crouched behind a bush and scoured the area for any servants who could discover him.
On each side of the path, lamps were placed every couple of steps, and tall bushes cast shadows over the wooden tiles. Hiro’s eyes wandered back to his left. His heart drummed in his chest, an impish smile flickering on his lips. He was going to do it. He was going to disobey his parents and go to the maple forest. At least something good would come from remaining at home. He made absolutely sure no one could see him, and then he took a left turn.
At the end of the path, he found a bamboo fence tied with thick rope made of rice straw. Near its gate was a tsukubai, a round water basin with the Fujiwara crest etched on the outside, and a bamboo spout was feeding it from a stream. A beautiful stone lantern sat next to the tsukubai.
Hiro pushed at the gate, and his heart skipped a beat. It was open. He hesitated. This was an important step for him. A step toward rebellion. He jumped the threshold as if it were on fire.
Now he faced a predicament. There were no stone tiles to show him the path because everything was covered in white, but the snow blanket had not been left untouched. There were prints of deer hooves and wolf paws, in addition to a pair of barefoot human footprints coming toward the garden but no pair going back out. Hiro frowned at that, but he didn’t ponder it long, because he finally spotted the glowing plum tree between two cryptomerias. He set his jaw and dashed toward it.
Moving through the snow under the tall maple trees, Hiro felt so small. He promised the trees, “In autumn, when the leaves are red, I will return here. With or without my father’s approval.” It was quiet in the forest, and at one point he had the strange feeling he was being watched by something.
“Monkeys?” he wondered. An exciting possibility, as he’d heard of them bathing in the warm springs in the province of Shinano and wished to see them with his own eyes. But no, there were no monkeys in these parts, and he couldn’t see anything unusual amid the branches.
He halted between the cryptomerias, staring agape at the awe-inspiring sight.
Hiro couldn’t imagine a more magnificent tree. He hadn’t known a plum tree could grow like this. Its branches dominated an entire glen. Its trunk was thick with a glossy shine, and its heavy branches had kept the snow from concealing the blanket of lush green moss below. The tree’s blossoms were the size of Hiro’s fist, and color pulsated from them as if a low fire burned within.
He reached out a hand to touch one of the blossoms. He was startled when the branch lowered to offer him better access to its flower.
“Interesting.” The voice came from all directions and resounded in the clearing.
Hiro jumped back, wielding his stick like a sword and gazing all around him. “Who’s there?”
“Don’t be afraid,” he heard from behind him. He turned and collided with a wall of white fur. Then he jumped, his foot slipped on the moss, and he tumbled backward with a cry.
The head of a fox as large as a horse appeared above him. “Are you all right, child?”
Hiro would have screamed. Would have screamed himself hoarse if he could, but the sound died in his throat. The fox’s long muzzle was near Hiro’s neck. He had to concentrate on controlling his bladder as the snout opened and gleaming white fangs emerged. Hiro whimpered and squeezed his eyes shut, certain he was going to die. He should have listened to his father and stayed where he belonged.
The fangs bit the front of his agekubi and pulled him upward, gently dropping him on his feet.
“There,” the beast said. “That’s better.”
On wobbly legs, Hiro found his voice. “Are you going to eat me?”
The fox laughed, and his humor echoed from other creatures in the surrounding trees.
“Why would I do that, young one?”
Hiro’s heart thrashed erratically and sounded loud in his ears. When he realized he might not be attacked, he took a deep breath and peered at the fox. “I’m not going to die today?”
Another bout of chuckling. “No, you little fool.”
Returning from the precipice of death gave Hiro some of his courage back. Was this a dream? Or was he really speaking to a giant fox? Had there been something wrong with the fish he’d eaten that morning?
“Who are you?”
The fox sat on the moss and considered Hiro with ancient golden eyes. “I am the god Inari.”
Hiro stared at him. Turned the thought over in his mind. He was in the presence of a god. He began to laugh, but it dwindled like a dying candle as soon as he saw the fox’s expression. Hiro glanced at the tree. Then back at the fox.
It had taken him too long to register that he should show some kind of respect. But the notion that he was in front of a huge, talking, white fox—and that the fox was also a god—had made him a little slow. With alarm, he remembered all the stories his old servant used to tell him before bed. Tales of gods punishing humans and bringing misfortune down on them for any number of reasons.
Hiro gasped and dropped to his knees faster than any servant had ever done in front of him. His forehead fell to the moss bed as he said, “I am not worthy.” He had seen his father utter the same words in front of Amaterasu’s shrine and guessed all gods wanted to be greeted like that.
“Stand, boy,” the amused god said.
Hiro scrambled to his feet, keeping his back straight but his eyes on the floor, as he had learned to present himself to a royal member. There was no special etiquette for meeting gods, was there? What if he was disrespecting the god? Dear gods! What if he got his family cursed?
As full-blown panic began to take root in his stomach, the god spoke again.
“You intrigue me, Hirotsugu.”
Hiro gaped. Of course the god already knew his name. He was a god.
“You have a scent I don’t recognize, and I wonder why.”
“Yes. You smell almost human, but not quite. There is something else I can’t identify. There might be something special about you.”
Hiro surreptitiously sniffed his clothes. Inari threw his head back and laughed. “It’s the scent of your soul I’m talking about, silly child.”
Embarrassed, Hiro swallowed back his next inquiry.
Inari-sama tilted his head. “You have a question. Ask it.”
Hiro played with the seam of his robe, not meeting his eyes. “Does my soul tell you if I will be a great warrior one day, Kami-sama?” His own boldness embarrassed him slightly, but it was what he truly wanted to know.
The fox chuckled. “You might. Or you might not. It all depends on you.”
As he pondered that, Hiro finally remembered why he had come to the forest. “I’ve never seen a tree so enormous before.”
“I have, but never a plum tree.” Inari regarded him. “This tree also appeared the day you were born. Curious.”
Hiro glanced around. “Why would it have anything to do with me?”
“That, my boy, is the big question.”
I had waited nine years for them to meet again. It was done now. I waved my hand and the tree disappeared.
“It vanished,” Hiro said, looking at the open sky.
“It did,” the god agreed. He stood and shook out his fur. “Well, it’s time for me to go. Until we meet again, Fujiwara no Hirotsugu.”
“Until we meet again, god Inari.”
With his head in the clouds, Hiro returned to the gate that led to the gardens. He stopped in front of the tsukubai and rinsed his hands in the icy water that dripped from the bamboo stem. The cold pressed into him like pins, and he wrapped the stole more snugly around his shoulders. He realized he hadn’t felt any discomfort while he was with the god, but now he shivered in his wet socks.
He bolted the gate and cleaned the snow from his wooden clogs by lightly tapping them on the tsukubai. He started toward home, but after a couple of steps, he stilled and listened.
He could hear quickly approaching feet slapping on the stone tiles. Hiro jumped behind one of the azalea shrubs just as a panting blur passed by him. The runner crashed into the sturdy gate, expecting it to be open.
Keeping a grip on his stick, Hiro stepped away from his hiding place. He glared down at a scrawny boy sprawled on the ground. His left hand was curled into a tight fist that held onto something for dear life. His right had opened to brace his fall, relinquishing the rice that was now scattered on the ground.
“What are you? A thief?” Hiro asked.
The boy took one look at Hiro’s aristocratic clothes and scurried to his knees, dropping his head at Hiro’s feet.
“I’m sorry, my lord! Please don’t kill me!”
Hiro was stupefied. “Why…” He shook his head. Hadn’t he been in a similar conversation with a giant fox only moments ago? “Why would I kill you?”
“Because I stole your rice.” He said it with such honesty that Hiro bit back a chuckle. The boy continued to hold his fist against his chest, refusing to drop even a grain of his remaining bounty.
Hiro surveyed him from head to toe. Despite the snow, he was barefoot. His clothes were dirty, patched, and sleeveless. Hiro could see his skin through the thin material. His shaggy hair had been cut short, probably with a sword or a knife, and his limbs were covered in scratches and scabs.
“Aren’t you cold?” Hiro asked.
“Does it matter, my lord?” The boy’s shoulders quivered as he fought to keep his sobs inside.
“Well, aren’t you? Do you want me to call a servant to—?”
He lunged toward Hiro and clutched his sleeve with alarming speed. “Please don’t call anyone, my lord. They will kill me. Please show mercy. My father is sick and needs food. I’m not a thief. I’ve been begging in the city for days and no one cares and I…”
“Stop. You’re going to rip my clothes off. Where is your father now? And how did you get up here?”
Fujiwara no Umakai’s castle had been built on a plateau on the Kasuga Mountain. With the exception of the well-guarded western and eastern gates, the castle was surrounded on all sides by steep bottomless defiles that were impossible to climb, according to his father’s boasts.
“I climbed,” the boy said.
“Yes, my lord.”
“I don’t believe you.”
The boy shrugged. “Still, I climbed.” Hiro looked back and forth from the boy’s small hand to the rice scattered on the ground. It was barely enough for a couple of mouthfuls. The haunting memory returned—starving children chasing his carriage—and he made a prompt decision.
“Wait here,” he ordered. “No, you’d better wait behind the shrubs so no one sees you. I’ll be right back.”
The boy reluctantly let his sleeve go. “Please don’t bring the guards,” he whispered, eyes welling up with tears. “They will kill me.”
He broke Hiro’s heart. “No one is killing anyone,” he said with exasperation.
He stormed into the kitchens, startling the servants preparing that evening’s dinner. He ordered them to load a basket with two bowls of rice and salted fish. When a young woman dared to ask what Young Master was going to do with it, Hiro snapped that he was going to offer it to the Inari god for blessing, which received murmurs of appreciation.
Hiro rushed to his room and picked out a couple of winter robes, two pairs of socks, and his second-best wooden clogs. He shoved everything into a bag, returned to the kitchens to pick the basket, and made his way to the azalea shrub where the little thief waited.
“Take these,” Hiro said, handing him the items.
The boy regarded the basket cautiously, but his eyes widened at the steaming bounty he found inside. He embraced it as if it were a gift from the heavens. “May the gods bless you, my lord!”
The boy’s face darkened when he examined the contents of the bag. “Thank you, my lord. But I can’t take this.” He handed the clothes back to Hiro.
“Why not?” Hiro asked. “Are they not good enough?”
“They are too good for a poor boy like me. People will think I stole them, and they will take me to the city guards to hang.”
“No one would hang a child for something like that.”
Hiro shivered at the long look he received from the boy. His face was filled with pain and sadness, and at that moment, Fujiwara no Hirotsugu realized he knew nothing of the world.
“Come back tomorrow,” Hiro said. “I will bring you something more fitting. Take the socks and clogs at least. You can’t walk barefoot in the snow.”
“But I’ve walked barefoot all my life.”
Despite the gifts, the boy still held the single fistful of rice. Thorns poked inside Hiro’s throat. “Come back tomorrow,” he grunted. He stormed off down the path, no longer able to look at the child who was protected from the cold by only a piece of cloth that barely reached his thighs.
The plum tree pulsed behind me. As the boys separated, I watched them both through the veil. The future was being set into motion.
That evening, Hiro’s dinner tasted like river rocks. He sat on his father’s cushion, contemplating the dais built for the Tennō. A hibachi fire holder had been placed on the floor next to him to keep him warm. Its dark color contrasted with the soft yellow of the straw mats on the floor beneath the table.
A female attendant was taking care of his needs. He didn’t even need to stretch out his hand to dish up his food. He just pointed to what he wanted, and she brought it to his bowl. She used a bamboo-handled kettle to fill his tea cup when it was empty. Umakai had ordered the kettle to be shipped all the way from the Empire of Tang.
The table was covered in all sorts of delicacies, from sea slugs from Naniwa to ocean fish cooked slowly over a fire. Rice was abundant. Two of his brothers were playing by throwing balls of it at each other.
“Stop that!” Hiro cried as he stood up, his breathing shallow.
His younger half-brothers, who were only four and three and slow to understand authority, seemed confused.
“Are you all right, brother?” Yoshi asked, placing a reassuring hand on his arm.
“I am,” Hiro huffed, sitting back down. “But they shouldn’t be wasting their food.”
“You are harsh to them, Hiro-chan. We used to play with our food all the time.”
The servants cleared away a half-eaten dinner and brought out honeyed rice cakes, but Hiro had completely lost his appetite.