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Authors: Kij Johnson

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BOOK: Fudoki
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Life does not stop because of tragedy. People must eat. They must wear clothes to warm them or protect them from the sun; they must earn enough to pay their taxes; they must purchase and take medicines; they must continue with their lives. The time for people to mourn and tear at their clothes was past, and except for a few ancient grandmothers who yet bemoaned their lot, the people of the market were full of direction and mission. Some were dead or their wares ruined, but most had saved some stock, or brought new from storehouses elsewhere, outside the capital, away from the all-too-common fires.

Life does not stop because of tragedy—but it can be gutted, left light and hollow as a winter gourd. The tortoiseshell’s tale was dead: she knew that now. She had told the tabby that she was nothing and no one, but she had not believed it. The pain that immobilized her had no material remedy, no torn flesh to clean, but her body didn’t seem to realize this. Her second eyelids half-closed, as they did when she was wounded, and her chest ached as if she had strained her heart running. She
ed, the weak frightened noise of an injured newborn. She longed for her life to end, for the pain to stop. At least then she might find the ghosts of her kin. Perhaps the
would go on in Hell, wherever and whatever that was.

She didn’t hear the dogs approach. Unsettled by the activity around them, a pack of feral dogs that had claimed the market milled from site to site, looking for scraps and mischief. Instead they found her, absorbed in her misery. They weren’t hungry, and cats are not much food for a dog, let alone a pack of them; but cats generally stayed out of reach, and one sitting absentminded on the ground proved irresistible. They barked at her—“Cat! Cat! Cat!”—and lunged.

She did not make a decision to live; her body made it for her. All claws and teeth, she scratched the first dog across the nose, and when he fell backward, she tore away, the pack yapping at her heels. Her instincts might have led her up high, but she still limped from the wounds left by the last time she had tried this. The market was full of hiding places, but it was also full of people and motion; there was no place safe. She found herself running faster than she ever had before. The scabs on her paws cracked. She might have been caught, but a gap between two foundation stones appeared, too obvious for her to miss. She streaked into the crack, which was deep enough to keep her from their mouths.

After barking insults at her for a time, the dogs wandered off (dogs are easily distracted from what appear to be fruitless situations). She slipped from her safe place, and continued south at a walking pace, leaving bloody paw prints where she stepped. When she came to the great Raj
gate, she climbed it and rested.

The Raj
gate is collapsing from age and neglect, and has been broken for many years now, but when she was there it towered a hundred feet or more, taller than most trees in the capital, and broad as a temple, with an impressive tiled roof. Back then, it must have been safe to climb. If one were inclined to do so, one would have ascended a ladder within the gate’s structure, into a series of rooms above the passageways.

I do not know all this about the Raj
gate, precisely; but when I was young and first-come to the court, I ran away to explore the Red Sparrow gate. There were several narrow rooms with tall ceilings, and passages that went from one to the other. Some had guards in them and I avoided these. Another was empty except for an enormous cracked porcelain bowl gathering rainwater from a leak in the ceiling and, more mysteriously, a bale of silk fabric, riddled with (what I assumed were) mouse holes. The gate was full of mystery, like sneaking into storehouses when I was a girl, but so much more exciting because it was truly forbidden. Nothing happened; I was found by my old nurse and one of the menservants, and returned to my rooms before anyone realized I was not just in seclusion.

The tortoiseshell climbed a forgotten
cypress notch-ladder, and then climbed through the rooms of the Raj
gate until she found herself at its highest unfallen part, the hand-wide platform created by the roof’s peak, which had been flattened in the Chinese style.

From here she could look down at the capital. Ours is not the biggest city in the world—great Chang-an is that, which tales say is a hundred miles around its boundaries—but we are the heart of our empire, and we spread for miles in each direction. Softened by late-afternoon light the warm pink of peonies, the city glowed before her, tucked in its valley. The path the fire had cut was clear, a blackened fan broken by the paler gridwork of streets and avenues. Far to the north, beyond the Red Sparrow gate, were the soaring roofs of the great palace buildings and, beyond that, Funaoka hill, which shelters the emperor (and us all) from ill.

She had climbed high in trees before this, but she had never seen the city in its entirety, cradled between the Kamo and Katsura rivers, cuddled in this hollow of the mountains. She had small imagination, and little ability to understand the significance of what she saw. She only knew that the city was far larger than she had realized. She would never have found her way back home; the loss of hope had been an appropriate response.

She turned her head and looked south, away from the city. There were buildings everywhere, and paths and roads threading through fields and copses in a thousand directions. To the south, the Kamo and the Katsura joined beside the abandoned capital Nagaoka. The city’s tidy grid of roads was still visible after centuries, a subtle brocade of lighter and darker grasses.

One road was greater than the others, broad enough for ox-carts to pass. It marched off east to merge with another that marched north beside the city and then lost itself in the hills.
recognize this road immediately, even if we have never seen it before, even if we have never left our dark rooms in the court and the residences of our fathers and husbands, because we are raised with the romantic tales of the savage east ringing in our ears. She was a cat, and her stories are different from ours; she could not know that this was the T
, the great road that begins at Raj
gate and skirts the sea for what seems a million miles before ending in distant Mutsu province. She only recognized that the T
had a direction, a meaning, and that this made it unlike her.

BOOK: Fudoki
13.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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