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Authors: Kij Johnson

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BOOK: Fudoki
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It seems I have fallen asleep over my notebook. I do not recall the shift from awake to asleep. I was thinking of this small cat and all her losses, and then I was standing naked beside a cold river, in a place so far to the north that it has no name, watching blue-green fish tremble under the water’s surface. I did not seem to realize that I am old and cannot swim and have never been farther north than a visit to Funaoka hill, and that this must therefore have been a dream.

When I nodded off I trailed one of my sleeves in the ink, leaving dust on the dried ink stone and a feathery stain across my writing desk and this page. Worse, I dropped my favorite writing brush to the floor, where the wolf’s fur bent into an awkward curve and then dried. I am forced to switch to this brush, stiff-bristled and narrow-tipped, though I do not like the flightiness of its line. I loved that wolf brush, which gave my calligraphy a soft elegance that it doesn’t really deserve.

Shigeko woke me, entering my rooms to force the latest batch of herbs into me. Mercifully she was sidetracked into getting the ink cleaned up and replacing my outer robe with a clean and (I observe) darker one. She is no younger than I am, has been with me since I first came to court fifty? sixty? years ago; and she forgets things as much as I do. “I came to ask you”—she hovers before me, trying to think of why she came in; then guesses, incorrectly to my relief—“whether you wish to be read to?—though I see you are occupied.”

“I am,” I tell her, and hold up my brush, this irritating scratchy new brush. I have had to make new ink, which (since I am a princess and do not always have to suffer the effects of my actions) I am doing on a new ink stone, in preference to cleaning the old one. “Kneel. Keep me company.”

Shigeko eases herself down to her knees. I hear their cracking, like twigs in a fire. “I am so sorry, I should not have awakened you.”

I gesture with the brush to the floor beside me, still shining with water from the cleaning. “It’s better you did. Sleeping with ink is, well, dangerous. For my surroundings, anyway.”

“You shouldn’t have been writing at all, my lady: the healers say it is bad for your hands, and you need your sleep. More than writing, anyway.”

“No,” I say, and then smile at her, the old joke: “I can sleep when I’m dead.”

After all these years, she still does not find this amusing. Worse, she remembers the herbs and so I must now drink this vile tea.

—I see that I have ruined all the pages after this one in this notebook. No matter: I have others as empty as this one once was.

2. The Plum-Colored Notebook
 

The tortoiseshell woke
in the sheep’s hour, when the afternoon sun threaded through the trees beside the walkway and warmed her fur. For a moment everything was all right; she was basking by the midden heap with her cousins and aunts around her, though she couldn’t understand why she hurt everywhere. There had been a terrible nightmare, with flames and fear, but it made no sense for her to ache from running in a dream. She heard the breeze in a tree overhead, and she snapped awake. This was not the right tree, not
any
of the right trees, the trees of her garden.

She rolled upright and crouched there, gathering her bearings. There was packed earth under her sore feet, a ditch beside her. She smelled the air, and then opened her mouth to taste it: smoke; horses and oxen; cooking rice and radishes; stagnant water and rotting wood; a squirrel’s musk and the tiny fresh scent of a chewed twig. She also smelled the dog who had touched her and stood nervously, salivating involuntarily at the renewed pain. She saw no dogs, but beyond the ditch was Rokuj
avenue. Broad as it was, it seemed (to her) filled with people and animals and wheeled conveyances. In fact, it was not a busy day: the fire had not affected this corner of the capital, except as people from the north and east came here from their own, more damaged quarters. The
iroha
maple above her was untouched by flame.

She limped to a safe place under the raised floor of an ancient small building away from the road, where she inspected her front paws. The pads were sticky from blisters that had broken during her flight, and caked with ashes, dirt, shards of broken pottery, and splintered wood. The pads’ leather seemed torn away, leaving only raw flesh. She licked herself clean, biting at the clots of blood and pus that kept her claws from retracting. The pain made her queasy, and sometimes she had to stop and wait for the dizziness to ease, but after a long time her tongue found skin under the filth, and blood began to flow cleanly from the cuts and blisters, a soft comforting taste in her mouth.

Her flank was less damaged, only a broad sore area that made her flinch when she nosed there. The exhaustion was worse: every muscle and joint and bone ached, and grooming was a slow and painful process. Once finished, she looked about her.

A human is a reasoning creature, or so we would like to think. After disaster, we assess our situation and make plans: make sure the stored rice is untainted, rebuild the main house’s roof, borrow quilted robes from our sister until we can replace our ruined ones. The tortoiseshell’s idea was simpler: find home. She returned to the avenue, and looked about her, but everything was new, unfamiliar. She took a tentative step first one way, then the other. Nothing smelled or looked right; no way led home, to her
fudoki
and her cousins and aunts. She could not help the cry of sorrow that escaped her.

She was lost, in every sense. There was only her. She recited the
fudoki
to herself, compulsively, one cat after another in their proper order: The Cat Who Ate Silk, The Thousand-Spotted Cat, The Cat Who Hid Things. But without a place and her cousins and aunts and fellow-wives to anchor it, the
fudoki
had no meaning, and the tortoiseshell was no one and nothing. She had been like a brazier balanced on three legs: tales, clan, and the ground they claimed. Each was necessary. Each was useless without the other two. Lose one, and she fell.

She was young and not very experienced and did not understand that one cannot simply tack on a new leg. In her thinking, if she had lost one home, perhaps she could find another. If she lost her clan, surely there were other clans. If she taught them her tales, they would somehow become part of the
fudoki,
which would settle easily over new ground, and she would be whole again.

Her burnt paws hurt, and she felt and smelled the beginnings of infection. She needed to find a safe range. The lot where she had cleaned her paw seemed unclaimed by any cat (or dog or human, either), but it was poorly drained, a reeking swamp even in drought. There would be food—frogs, insects; ducklings, come spring—but she would never be dry, and the heavy smells would dull her senses. The building’s support posts were spongy with moisture, riddled with beetles. Worse, there was no one here to learn the tale.

She limped east and south.

 

 

I cuddle pain to myself tonight. My woman Shigeko watches me in lamplight, her eyes dark with concern; but I say nothing to her, only smile and continue to write. I could tell her of the pain; but what would that accomplish? She would fuss and flutter, and despite all she would not ease it. And in some strange way I do not wish to share it with her, any more than I share these words I write. I had a nurse who used to say that a princess possessed only two things she did not need to share, her death and what she dreamt at night. There is little enough that is mine alone.

There is a day I remember, as precious as the Three Treasures to me. My half-brother the emperor (Shirakawa they call him now that he is dead—how can you be dead, my friend?) retreated to the Toba residence—scarcely an hour’s ride, but outside the city’s walls, and that meant it felt like an adventure. This must have been fifty years ago, when we were both young and grief had not stained us so deeply.

It was the third month, and we all complained about the cold damp everywhere, the moldy smell every trunk released when it was opened. Not even braziers seemed to help. I remember my toes were never once warm in the month we were there. The garden was ruined; day after day of heavy rain drowned the new growth and left slick-looking gray sludge where lawns and courtyards had been.

That day no one was out on the verandas, save the two of us, emperor and princess. My half-brother sat under the rain, his silks dark with water, his
eboshi
cap flattened. I had thrown an extra set of robes over my head and stayed huddled back from the eaves’ edge, but even so I was wet through and shivering.

And then I joined him under the sky, tipped back my face and drank rain with him, and laughed. I recall the taste of the rain, sweet and toothachingly cold; the tiny blows of drops striking my eyelids; my half-brother’s laughter rippling in my ears.

I do not know what exactly had happened that day. Did he send everyone away? Did he slip from their endless attentions? Why did he share this moment with me, with me alone? Why did I join him? What I remember is a moment of perfect joy, the taste of rain, and my half-brother’s presence beside me.

My half-brother is dead now. I suppose that makes this memory mine alone now. I would trade every secret I have ever hugged close for the sound of his laughter again.

I do not wish to think of my life just now. Oh, these dark nights.

 

 

“Who are you?” a voice hissed. “You do not belong here.” Another cat, a female. When the tortoiseshell turned her head slightly, she saw the strange cat crouched just overhead on a fence, a gray tabby with cold green eyes. The tabby poured off the fence to land a few steps away, and began to groom her tail.

“I am nothing and no one,” the tortoiseshell replied. She sat, turned her face away, and waited.

Cats have a sort of game they play when they meet. A player alternates between watching the strange cat and ignoring her, grooming or examining everything around herself—a dead leaf, a cloud—with complete absorption. It is almost accidental how the two cats approach, a sidelong step and then the sitting again. This often ends in a flurry of spitting and slashing claws, too fast to see clearly, and then one or the other (or both) of the cats leap out of range. The game can have one exchange or many—and is not so different from the first meetings of women.

The tortoiseshell and the tabby played this game, the tortoiseshell with deadly earnest, the tabby with unknowable motives. The tortoiseshell played well, for when they were done the tabby ignored her existence, and she was allowed to stay.

The tabby was part of a clan, a dozen females whose ground overlapped in the back garden of a dirty and poorly run inn. There was room and food enough; they had lost three females to the cat distemper of the summer, and the tortoiseshell threatened no one. She slipped into the space between the ranges claimed by the tabby and one of her sisters, a gray-and-white female.

She explored her new range, which was smaller than she was used to. The inn’s storehouse had a crack in its floorboards, and the mice had found this and prospered, so food was plentiful, and she did not need much ground to survive. There were moles as well, and birds, and sometimes people threw out spoiled meat or bones. The moon had turned and it was early in the ninth month, so that there was more color in the early-changing trees around her: the gold of gingko, the red of
urushi
-lacquer. Her favorite retreat was a fallen tree trunk, where she slept curled warm and tight against the tang of autumn in the air, and the rain that fell all one day and into the next.

The tortoiseshell pushed at the undrawn lines between her territory and her neighbors’. Whenever she saw one of the other cats, they played the meeting-game again. They hissed and complained, but she was desperate and they were not. After a few days they started ignoring her in earnest, and the game and the fighting were no longer necessary.

She spent a lot of time keeping her paws clean. The scabs became thick and healthy, and she walked easily, if still with pain. She slept a lot, but not well. Her dreams were uneasy, full of burning cats that stretched their mouths to speak, though she heard nothing but the crackle of flames, and the deep scream of a shrine bell breaking in the fire’s heat.

One afternoon she sat high in a larch, where she looked into the inn’s back garden and saw the cats there, touching noses as they greeted one another, dozing in untidy heaps, telling their tale.
Soon,
she thought. Soon they would accept her. They would become her clan, and she would approach the garden and teach them her
fudoki.
The world would become stable again.

The tabby spoke with the tortoiseshell sometimes now, when their wanderings brought them close together, sharing the things cats find interesting: a hanging pheasant in the storehouse (regrettably inaccessible, but one could hope), the male’s visit after many days away, someone staying at the inn who had tried (and failed) to catch her gray-and-white sister. She said little about the fire, which had been only a strange bitterness to the air here, for they’d been out of the wind’s reach.

The tortoiseshell approached the cats’ gathering place slowly, over days. There were some flattened ears and sparring, and she responded with humility or ferocity, as required. But each time the females gathered she came closer.

There was a day when the oldest cat was teaching her daughter their
fudoki,
and the tortoiseshell crept forward to listen.

As she listened she shivered, and her fur lifted from her back. The tale was told in the correct way; the chronicles of one cat followed another in neat progression: The Cat Inside the
Biwa
-Lute, The Cat Born with One Eye, The Cat Who Ate a Poem. But these were the wrong cats, the wrong tales. They grated against her ears, and she felt parts of herself scraped away. Her stomach heaved, pushing gagging noises past her rigid throat. She could not move, her muscles locked in a tension that hurt like a cramp. This was
wrong,
as wrong as if it had been a dog’s tale, if such an abomination could be.

She suddenly realized: her
fudoki
would never belong here. They had their own, and it was a thousand, a million cats long. There was no room for her tale and all its cats. They would never learn it, for it was irrelevant to their lives. And if she stayed, and was accepted and became part of their world, she would no longer be
her,
but another cat in her shape, The Cat After the Fire or The Burned-Paw Cat—a cat in a different
fudoki
.

Where was
her
tale? Gone, the cats dead, the ground lost. She arched and backed away, tail shivering, teeth bared; and when she was far enough from the terrible stories, she turned and bolted. Howling as she ran, she streaked across Suzaku avenue, midway between the great gates that began and ended the avenue. Suzaku avenue is very broad; grief began her crossing, and her fear of an approaching bullock completed it. She slipped over a wall and into the east half of the city, and ran on.

She stopped in the east market. It was a large place, perhaps a hundred acres, and even this did not serve all the people of the capital: the west market, marshy as it was, had its share of workshops and storehouses, and there were other manufactories and shops throughout the capital, on the Street of Cloth and elsewhere.

It had been seven days since the fire had ruined the parts of the east market. Many of the storehouses and merchants’ residences had collapsed, no longer identifiable save for a wall here, a fallen outbuilding there. The more temporary structures—tents, fences to hold in cattle or horses—had vanished altogether, though new ones sprang up to take their place, like mushrooms in rain. The air smelled of ash and wet flax and new dung and cooked (and now rotting) vegetables, where a vendor had lost his entire stock of early
taro
roots. New construction was everywhere, but the tortoiseshell found a quiet corner, crouched in the shadow of a blackened stone.

BOOK: Fudoki
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