Medieval Japan: a blind storyteller meets a ghost, falls in love, and discovers the truth.
|The poet paused on his walk to enjoy the sounds of the beach awakening: the thunk of tackle dropping into wooden hulls, the shouts of men pushing their boats over rough volcanic sand, and the splash of waves resisting their entry into the water. He loved the briny smell of fog blowing in from the early morning sea. Lifting his head to take a deep breath, he half opened his eyes. He tried to imagine how the world looked as a fog devoured shapes and colors, for he was blind. He sighed and listened, as the swish of oars pushing through water blurred and faded away.
The poet lingered a little longer, enjoying the idea that everyone’s sight was hampered. Perhaps, it made everyone feel alone as he did. He smiled for somehow this thought made him less lonely. Damp air crept into his kimono; he shivered, turned away from the sea, and headed back to the temple.
Back in his room, he prepared for his departure. Today, he planned to set out for the next town south. It would take him two days to walk the distance, but there was a village between the towns and the priest had given him a letter of introduction to his nephew there. He knew from past experience that he would be asked and even begged to tell a tale, for any entertainment that broke up the tedium of peaceful living was welcomed.
Memories filled his mind. It was ten years ago and he was fifteen. He heard there was a traveling storyteller in town, blind like himself, giving an account of fantastic events in a bizarre land on the farthest rim of the world. He listened and was captivated. He begged the stranger to take him on as an apprentice. It was the start of a long journey in two ways: one of legs gaining endurance, the other of a mind venturing into the realm of eloquence.
Eight years and finally his master was satisfied with his apprentice. A final bit of advice and they parted: the teacher to resume his solitary travels, his pupil to embark on his.
The increasing sound of bare feet approaching on polished hardwood broke his reverie. He put his palms on the floor, lifted his body, and swivelled to face the door. Hearing the priest lowering himself to the floor, he bowed nearly to the tatami. “I’m much obliged for your hospitality. Thanks to you my stay was such a pleasant one. But, now, it’s time for me to go. I only regret that you had to suffer my lack of skill in the telling of a tale.”
He felt a breeze as the priest waved his hand in front of his face in denial. “Nothing could be further from the truth, Annin-san. The tale was masterfully told. Won’t you stay another night and tell another tale?”
The poet smiled. “My soul hungers for travel, though my heart regrets that I must say farewell.”
The priest nodded. “Then travel safe and with speed. You have my letter?”
Annin patted the sleeve of his kimono. “Yes.”
They stood. The priest accompanied his departing guest to the gate, there he put a package of rice balls into the hands of the poet, who bowed and said, “Thank you. May you live long and well.”
“Tell my nephew to visit his lonely uncle sometimes.”
Smiling, he answered, “I will.” He straightened his posture, set his walking stick on the road, and went his way.
He had traveled less than an hour, when a young feminine voice accosted him from the shade at the side of the road. “Excuse me, Annin-san.”
He stopped, and cocked his head. “What would you ask of me?”
The woman bowed in fear of disrespect for infringing on his privacy. “Only that we share the road to the next town. I would feel safer and I could leave my loneliness here.”
He felt he was in a long corridor with two doors at the end. He sensed one would keep him on the familiar path, the other would alter his life forever. He had had the same vision ten years ago; then, he had chosen to travel with a poet. Now the choice was to let a woman travel with him or not. He chose and stepped through. “Come, travel with me.”
The woman stepped onto the road, and as she did, Annin sensed a faint scent of lilies. He said, “It seems there’s no need to introduce myself. What is your name?”
“Yuri is mine. I was in the audience at the temple, that’s how I knew your name. You told a marvelous tale. When I heard you were leaving, I had to see you. I must hear it again.”
“So, you’re going to the next town?”
“Yes, I have some cousins there. I could stay with them.”
“I’ve never done it while actually on the road.”
“Oh, you don’t have to do all of it. Just the part where the prince meets the farm girl and they fall in love.” She rushed forward and grabbed his hand. “Please?”
The chill of a woman’s hand startled him. He couldn’t resist. Putting his own loneliness and yearning for love into the telling, he gave the tale that she asked, lengthening and enhancing the meeting of the ill-fated lovers. By the time he finished, the sun had passed its zenith and his stomach was rumbling. He entered the shade of roadside trees and knelt to brush away any twigs. When he was satisfied, he rose, untied his cape, and placed it on the grass. “Let’s have lunch here. I have some rice balls the priest gave me. Please, join me.”
Yuri sat down. “Thank you... Annin, I’ve been wondering. But, I don’t want to be disrespectful.”
“Go ahead, what’s on your mind?”
“How can you express yourself so well, when you can’t see anything?”
Annin paused, for he had never been asked such a question. He wasn’t confident he knew the answer. “I have all the other senses, and because I can’t see I’ve honed them to a fine edge. But, I do wish I could see. I’d like to know how well I imagine things to the way they really are.”
“Annin, how do you imagine the sky?”
“I’ve been told it’s blue like the ocean. I think the sky is chilly and salty.”
Yuri laughed. “And the clouds?”
“I’ve been told they’re sometimes white and fluffy like cotton, thin and long like the crest of waves, black and rising like smoke, and pink like a baby’s skin. I think clouds are alive and very emotional.”
“Maybe it’s better that you’re blind... Annin, have you ever experienced a woman’s desire?”
She pressed her body against his. Her warmth changed into a streak of lightning in his flesh and a throbbing drum in his chest. Within his desires were flames. He pulled her to the ground and they embraced. Sensations of urgent need and, finally, of extreme pleasure filled the mind of Annin. Unaware, he fell asleep.
He woke in the shade alone. Calling out her name, he yearned for a reply, yet received none. Dazed and bewildered, he picked up his kimono and put it on. From within the folds a scent of lilies floated up, and Annin felt a hollowness in his chest. He cried out, “Yuri!” and waited; no voice did he hear.
He gathered his belongings, rose, and stepped out into the road. He raised his hands in front of his face to block the rays of the sun, and from the angle, he guessed he had slept two or three hours. He started to the village, but after a few steps, he turned around and headed for the town, then he stopped. He couldn’t decide which way to go, for he wanted to follow Yumi. Finally, he decided to keep to his original plan. Even though he lived in darkness, he wanted to reach lodgings before nightfall and the village was closer.
As he walked, he began to wonder; who was Yuri and what had her intentions been? Were the spirits of the forest playing tricks on him? What was going on? These were some of the thoughts going through his mind when he smelled the welcome aroma of cooking. Soon, he heard the sounds of people conversing. He sensed a woman near. “Excuse me, could you direct me to the temple?”
The woman who had been watching the approach of the cane tapping traveler spoke. “It’s on the small rise to your left.”
“Will this road lead me there?”
She pointed down the road. “The road will fork about four hundred paces from here, from there it’s a further two hundred. Will you be spending the night there?”
“Indeed I shall. Thank you for your help.” Annin bowed and began to count his steps to the fork; there, the scent of incense guided him to the temple.
Arriving at the temple and entering the grounds, a faint scent of lilies sent a surge of tingling energy to every pore of his body. He chased the scent into an area shaded by tall trees. A familiar voice greeted him, “Annin, I’m so glad to see you. You look worn out, please come in and rest.”
Annin let out a deep breath. “I was afraid I’d never meet you again. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t ever want to feel so deprived.”
He entered her home. Yuri took his hand and moved forward, pulling him along. “I’ll always be with you. Forever and ever.”
Annin felt the softness of a bed under his feet. Yuri pressed herself against him. He embraced her in his arms, and felt such pleasure he thought he would explode. In a frenzy, they began pulling off each other’s clothes.
From the sleeve of Annin’s kimono the letter from the priest to his nephew dropped out. Unintentionally, Yuri's arm flung it high. Unfolding in air and revealing its contents, it floated down to the floor. Yuri saw the Chinese characters of a Buddhist sutra. She let out an agonizing screech. Hearing or reading them, would banish her forever. Even the few she had seen made her eyes bulge. Clutching her throat, she struggled to breathe. Backing away, she hissed, “We would have been together. Why do you wish to destroy me?”
The house vanished. A whirlwind spun Annin and flung him into the air. He screamed. His head was slammed against the ground and he knew no more.
Sometime later, he knew not how long, he felt a delicate breeze caress his face and meander downward. Curving and criss-crossing, it explored his body. Finally, the wind left and he floated among the cloud of emotions.
The band of insects in the garden, tuning up for a day of singing, woke Annin. He listened in a daze before jerking up wide awake. He shouted, “Am I dead?”
He heard a chuckle. “Not unless we all are, dear Annin-san.
“Where am I?”
The priest spoke, “You’re in my nephew’s home. You’d been sleeping for two nights and a day. Yesterday morning a messenger delivered a letter from my nephew telling me he had heard terrible noises in the cemetery here. With great fear he went to investigate and found you injured and unconscious.”
Annin became aware of the bandage around his head, touched it, and winced. “I don’t understand. Is Yuri alright?”
“She was a ghost. The letter I gave you contained a sutra to rest her soul and keep her in the afterlife. It was meant to be read by my nephew at her grave. Unfortunately, she has awakened, and perhaps, been waiting for the right moment to appear. This was due to my laxness in advising my nephew to pray diligently for her. I also did not foresee that she would be attracted to you and take advantage of your blindness. Please, forgive me. Had the letter not unfolded, she would have killed you and imprisoned your soul. For here, where her remains rest, all her powers are available.“
“Yuri was a ghost?”
“Yes, a century ago a farmer’s daughter was lured away by dreams of fame on stage. Apparently, she was so beautiful that upon seeing her, words would vanish from the minds of men. Alas, her dreams were never realized. Her battered body was found beside the road you traveled on. The murderer was never identified.”
The priest paused to sip some tea. “While you were unconscious, my nephew feared that she would come back to kill you. So, he wrote the sutra all over your body.”
Annin groaned. “I fear I’ll be forever badgered to tell a tale I wish to forget.”