Irori: The traditional fire pit built in the center of a room
The snow had started in the morning with a slow drift, but at noon it was falling heavily. By evening, the snow heaps had reached the raised veranda outside Hiro’s bedroom.
It was one of those days when no one wanted to be outside. He would have spent it tucked into a cozy woolen robe and close to a hibachi, but he had something else on his mind that troubled him. Or rather, someone else.
In a corner of his room sat a basket containing eggs, a large bag of uncooked rice, sakura tea, a small kettle, and two honey cakes. He’d also included a bag of medicine he’d pilfered from his mother’s storage. Only one thing was missing, and Hiro had no idea what to do about it. He wanted to give the boy clothes, but he didn’t have anything that wouldn’t raise suspicion.
He opened the screen that divided his bedroom from the others and called for his old faithful servant.
“Obachan, do I have any clothes made from hemp?” It dawned on him that he didn’t even know what clothes he owned. He was pathetic.
“Hemp, Young Master? Why would you have anything like that? It would be an insult to your family to wear the clothes of commoners.”
“Then what is the least expensive clothing I own?” Hiro asked impatiently.
“Least expensive, Young Master?”
It was hopeless. He couldn’t take any of the servants’ garments because they all displayed the Sagarifuji. If the boy was seen wearing those, it would definitely raise suspicion.
“There is a nightgown you didn’t want to wear last year.”
Hiro grabbed her hands, his eyes shining. “Obachan, bring it to me.”
She bowed. “As Young Master desires.”
It was a white linen robe with dark blue clouds painted on it. The material was heavy and itchy to the touch, unlike the soft and smooth silk Hiro preferred. No wonder he hadn’t liked it. “Can you make me a hitatare from this?” he asked her.
“I think so. In your size?”
“Yes. When can it be finished?”
“I can ask the girls to finish it by tomorrow.”
“Make them finish by this afternoon.”
The old woman eyed the basket. “What are you going to do with it?”
“None of your concern.”
When the afternoon arrived, he emerged from the cocoon of his room to trek through the snow to the bamboo fence at the back of the garden. He found the boy already there, shivering. The sight of his shabby sleeveless clothes made Hiro nauseated. He noticed that at least the boy was wearing the socks and clogs.
“Here,” he said. “There is medicine inside. Melt some snow in the kettle and give your father a pinch after the water boils.”
The boy took the basket without speaking.
“I brought clothes too, and this time you can’t refuse.” He pulled the newly-made hitatare out of the bag.
“But, my lord, I…”
“Come here. I don’t want to hear it.” He arranged the hitatare on the boy’s shoulders and helped him pull the sleeves over his stiff hands. He finished by securing it around his waist with a hemp rope. “There.”
The boy was half a head shorter than Hiro. He turned around in the oversized hitatare, fingering the fabric and marveling at the clouds on it. He straightened and his eyes dropped to the ground. “Thank you, my lord.” He sniffed and rubbed his nose on the sleeve, leaving the garment slightly smudged.
Hiro sighed. “When was the last time you took a bath?”
“Last summer,” the boy answered, pulling at the rope to tighten it a little more. He was so skinny. Hiro wished there was something else he could do.
“No one has ever treated me as more than vermin before,” the boy said.
Hiro felt tears threaten behind his eyelids, so he changed the subject. “How long will you be on Mount Kasuga? And where are you staying?”
“We found an old shrine close to the base of the cliff. The back wall has fallen, but it’s a good shelter. It has an irori and it helps keep Father warm.”
“Can I see it?”
“My lord, I don’t think that would be safe.”
“Because I’ve heard there are thieves in these parts.”
Hiro raised an eyebrow in amusement. “You stole my rice. Aren’t you a thief yourself?”
“I’m not. I just…” His shoulders shook. “I didn’t know what else to do. If Father died, I would have no one else. I don’t want to be alone.”
He was so sincere, his needs so simple. Hiro felt ashamed for getting upset over things like not being able to see a sword.
Hiro jumped when he heard someone calling his name. He said to the boy, “It’s getting late. Go back to your father. I’ll see you again tomorrow.” Then he turned, seeking the voice.
It was Yoshi, waving at him from beside the pond. Hiro approached him and saw that he was holding a letter.
“From Father,” Yoshi explained. “What does it say?” Yoshi was still learning to read and write, and he wouldn’t be able to decipher any letters until next year.
Hiro broke the scroll’s seal and read the vertical columns of symbols from right to left. “Father has hired a sensei,” he said, “who will be arriving in two days.”
“What about Father? Is he coming home soon?”
“It doesn’t say.”
“Why do we need a sensei? Father was teaching us the letters.”
Hiro shrugged. “I guess it’s because we are supposed to start the Imperial Academy soon.”
This wasn’t a pleasant reminder for Yoshi. “We will have to leave the mountain,” he pouted.
“I don’t want to.”
Hiro scrutinized his brother. “You don’t?”
“This is our home. I don’t like Heijo-kyo.”
“We have no choice, Yoshitsugu. We’re part of the Fujiwara clan and are meant to gather where the power lies. And currently it lies where the Emperor lives, in the Imperial Capital.”
I gazed at my bone staff that held the ethereal might of the shinigami.
Power. I wondered if he would enjoy it or despise it? Only time would tell.