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Authors: Kij Johnson

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BOOK: Fudoki
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“I just told you,” it said, “though perhaps you did not listen very carefully. I am this road, and—”

“Never mind,” she said. “I don’t see what the point of a god is.”

The kami said, “I do not see what the point of a cat is,” and the tortoiseshell awoke.

 

 

When I was a girl, I longed for the voice of the gods—any kami, any Buddha or bodhisattva or saint. I prayed to a statue of Kannon my mother ordered erected in her room before she died. I thought I prayed for her health, but in truth I did not know her well—losing my nurse would have been much sadder—and what I really wanted was a sign that gods—any god—existed. I wanted to see the robes we had draped over the statue move as she reached out with one of her thousand hands to touch my mother. This did not happen. My mother died.

After that I made up a kami. I have never said so to anyone, but I wanted a god of my own and so I picked a little pink-and-black-and-white rock in the garden, no larger than a cat, and I honored it. I made a little hut over it, and smuggled it a bit of rice each day. I gave it flowers I stole from elsewhere in the garden, and I wrote prayers on slips of fabric in my childish writing:
Let me be pretty when I am grown. May my nurse let me keep my collection of moth’s wings. Let my half-brother the heir like me.

When my nurse found out, she rapped my hands with a piece of bamboo and insisted that I never visit that rock again; but I did, and I found that others had begun to leave flowers and scraps of fabric there; and the hut had been remade, and better. I
knew
I made up the kami of that stone, and yet others worshiped it, as well. After thinking on this for some years, I decided that I was wrong: is not everything filled with kami, every stick and rock and leaf? Perhaps I had been the first to recognize and worship this kami, but that did not mean it had not been there, lonely and hungry for attention, like a bored little girl.

Now, so many decades later that I do not choose to count them up, I think there may be another truth to this—that the rock was worthy of worship because it had been worshiped—that every shrine in the world began as mine did, with someone’s longing for something greater than herself. I wonder if the shrine to the little rock is still there, and I wonder if, a thousand years hence, it will be as honored and hoary as the shrine at Ise.

The tortoiseshell hears kami because I cannot, and even though I created her (as perhaps I created the kami of that little rock), I envy her. For her they may be strange, but they are as close and immediate as dirt.

3. The Grass-Character Notebook
 

How many
notebooks have I filled in my life? I have trunks filled with them—and the other odds and ends of my life: old letters and calligraphy samples; fans and robes; hundred-pace incense, long dead but still haunted by scent; a man’s sash forgotten before a dawn forty years ago; scrolls and fan-folded notebooks of the poetry collections I gathered when I was first at court, before I gave up even the appearance of interest in poetry; a set of shallow lacquered boxes filled with moths’ wings; a sutra that I began to copy when I was twenty and never finished.

I discard these once-precious things more easily than I could have dreamt. I empty the shallow boxes, and moths’ wings flutter to the ground, a momentary illusion of life. Even the notebooks are taken apart and dropped like autumn leaves into my brazier; without sadness I watch them flare and then vanish into smoke. The sutra has more merit than the rest; to die working to finish it would indicate virtuous intention, at least.

And yet I fill one notebook and start another. I am dying, but there are still many things to say—to myself, if no one else.

 

 

The tortoiseshell woke in the ox’s hour, after the moon had set. She clawed her way down the Raj
gate’s south face, and dropped to her feet on its wood steps. There were several guardsmen there, and one called softly to her, “Sneaking out to meet a lover, little one?” Another guard chuckled, and the first crouched down and made meaningless noises to her, tickling the dirt under his fingers. She crouched there watching him, unsure. She was unused to kindness from humans (the servants at the residence of her
fudoki
had a tendency to throw things, and caught up in their own problems, everyone else had ignored her as she fled across the city), but his voice sounded a little like the warm sounds that a mother cat makes when she is grooming, and his hand’s movements were strangely intriguing.

“She’s not going to come to you,” the other guard said. “She’s wild, can’t you see that?”

“But she’s tempted, isn’t she?” The guard inched forward, and she stood up and tensed to run.

“Oh, leave her alone. Some girls just aren’t susceptible to your charm.”

“I suppose.” The guard straightened and dusted his fingers off on his thigh. “Good luck, little one. When you return come find me. I’m here every night. Maybe I can show you around, hmm?”

She trotted into the shadows of a low shrub and watched him for a long time, but he did nothing else incomprehensible. The stars were fading when she crossed the bridge over the moat and moved on.

One generally travels with a goal. Even noblewomen travel to a purpose, however minor the journey ends up being: be at the banquet-pine grove by midday to view the cherry blossoms; be at the lady Ch
nagon’s rooms by dusk to watch the moonrise. This generates a sense of mission and of urgency, however spurious. The tortoiseshell had no goal. She traveled because with no
fudoki
one place was just like another, and there are small edible animals everywhere. It was easier to move than to stay still, for movement eases pain—or distracts one, anyway. She had not yet lived through a winter, so she did not know the comfort of a familiar warm sleeping-place; winter was months away, at any event—as incomprehensible to her as gods.

She followed the T
kaid
’s first miles more by accident than anything, and her pace was so slow that it was a fortnight and more before she came to the great Buddha just beyond the Osaka barrier, and that is only a handful of miles from the capital. The road was very busy in the daylight hours and into the evenings, and so she hid in trees and underbrush, and slept and watched passersby, and sometimes the little boats on Biwa lake.

She stayed with the T
kaid
because its sense of direction and meaning were attractive to a cat with neither—even though the food was not quite so good as it might have been farther afield, where there were seed eaters in the fields. She caught a lot of squirrels. It was the time of year when squirrels seem to lose all the little sense they had, to run stupidly into the centers of kitchen yards and under the hooves of horses, and into the waiting claws and teeth of cats. She found them so easy to catch that she was not often hungry. Sometimes she caught them just to taste them, to learn what she could of the country she passed through, and she caught hints of
taro
root and horseradish.

A dog that loses a leg learns to cope, and after a time no longer seems to remember its loss. But on cold nights, when it is brought inside to doze beside the hearth pit, it licks the stump where its leg once was, and when it dreams, its remaining legs gallop in the pattern of a four-legged dog, instead of the three-legged gait that fills its waking hours. The tortoiseshell learned to cope with the loss of herself, and even found occasional joy—when she actually caught a fluttering
oban
-coot, or when she found a freshly dead fawn, miraculously unclaimed. But in quiet times, when she dozed or sat, the empty place filled her with despair.

She did not move far in any day: dogs and horses are designed to lope for endless miles, but cats are as brief-moving as an arrow. She would have lost interest quickly in any sort of disciplined movement, which in any event did not occur to her. It was just that the squirrels she decided to stalk were usually east of her, and when she was thirsty the water to her east always smelled better than the other possibilities. And there were times, at dusk or dawn, or during a lull in the middle of a beautiful afternoon, when she followed the road with nothing else on her mind but the even flow of yards into miles. The voices of the eight million kami still chittered and chanted in her mind—
despair, hut, flowering fortunes, she was dead, monkey
—but they offered no guidance; did not seem to know of her existence. Perhaps the road’s kami led her, though if so she was unaware of this.

The T
kaid
is a great road, of course; it connects us with our most distant lands to the east, and binds our empire together. But it is not a
large
road, not in comparison to the broad streets of our capital. It begins impressively, just beyond the capital; but it thins and becomes hard-packed earth, wide enough for carts to pass; and farther east, past the Fuwa barrier and the ferry at Nogami, it becomes still narrower. I have never known anyone who has been to the end of the T
kaid
. Perhaps it runs straight through Mutsu province and off our island, into the sea and along its bottom never to appear in the lands of the living again. Perhaps it does not end but tapers off: a road, then a path, then a deer’s trail, and then a rabbit’s, and then it is no more than a traveler’s imagination.

BOOK: Fudoki
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