Read The Ghost Brush Online

Authors: Katherine Govier

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The Ghost Brush (9 page)

BOOK: The Ghost Brush
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“You won’t be the best forever; new artists are always coming up,” mused somebody.

“You mean those idiots who peek out from behind every screen in every brothel? Who crawl the streets like ants?” the great man droned. “They try to make up for want of brush power by dressing up their models in gorgeous costumes with painted faces. Whereas if I do a simple ink sketch, with the power of my brush, what I create will live forever.”

Downriver from us, a humped bridge with many feet, like a caterpillar, rose over the sluggish water. On the high point, you could just make out a thick, heavily clad figure on horseback in the midst of the men with their swords. A daimyo’s retinue was crossing.

“Look who’s coming.”

Everyone looked. It was Sadanobu. Sad-and-Noble, they called him. Famous author of edicts. Hater of the Yoshiwara and our lifestyle. He who—in the storyteller’s tale—punished the famous yakko. Was it our yakko? She wouldn’t say.

“No matter. He’s not important,” said Utamaro breezily.

Sadanobu had been councillor because the Shogun was a child. Now the Shogun was grown up and had taken over. As it happened the Shogun was more corrupt than we ever were. Things were back to normal.

“He can’t be ignored. He’s still got power.”

“I wonder what he does with his time?”

“Keeps busy with his martial arts. It fills the hours when he can’t make rulings.”

“If he makes more, so what? We’ll break them. Look at how many times they’ve ruled that there will be no publication of news. Notice how often Kawara-ban comes out?”

The little broadsheet and the criers who ran ahead of it announcing news had somehow survived the crackdown.

“The bakufu are cats—just choosing their moment to pounce.”

“I’ve been pounced on once,” said Kyoden. “That’s enough. Thereafter I became a mouse: obedient to the Way.”

Sad-and-Noble’s men had come to the tobacco store and bought a copy of his yellow-back novel about life in the pleasure district. The councillor had read it himself, they said. Then his men had come back and arrested Kyoden. Kyoden was the leader of the literary world. Sad-and-Noble decided to make an example of him. He was sent up to the White Sands for questioning, and his old father too.

He was charged with making ukiyo-e and depraved books.

Kyoden suffered his punishment of fines and manacles, and he became even more famous. His book disappeared for a while. Then it came back into print, even though the blocks had been burned. But he didn’t write satirical books anymore. At least not very often.

“Obedient? Is that what you call it? Gutless is what it is. You make moral tracts,” said Sanba, “and once in a blue moon pop out a racy little novelette. You can’t have it both ways.”

“Why not?” Kyoden was grinning. “Sad-and-Noble has it both ways.”

“He’s not so bad. He started a savings bank for the poor. And during the rice riots he released rice from the merchants’ hoarding places. He was even lenient to those who’d been caught doing violence to their betters.” Waki said that.

“He hates us, though.”

“That’s because he’s jealous.”

Yuko brought down her telescope. She pushed out her tiny red lips and breathed a mournful “who-who-who.” Her lover’s horse had not won the race. “My hopes are dashed.”

The men sighed in mock dismay.

She brightened. “But maybe it’s better this way. I will write a beautiful poem about it.”

“I ask you, how do you live with yourself, writing that rot?” Utamaro demanded of Kyoden. “And then you marry those shinzo? Those little girls are not even legal in brothels!”

Laughter, and they all lay back on the hillside. They called themselves old men—Kyoden; Hokusai, who was fifty years now—but they didn’t really mean they were old men. Only Utamaro truly was an old man. He had no wife.

“I marry them to save them from lives as courtesans,” said Kyoden.

The two of them doubled up together.

“I mean it!”

“An act of charity it is not. You marry shinzo for two reasons. You lust after little girls,” said Utamaro. “Then you pump them for information to use in your books.”

Kyoden only laughed. “And you? Who do you lust for? Little boys?”

Utamaro just waved his hand. He did not deign to answer.

“I may be false to principles,” said Kyoden, “and to most of my friends. But there is one thing I’m true to. I’m true to type. I’m an Edoite—just let me live one more day. I’ll write to the bakufu tune. I’ll write to sell. It’s called the Way of Survival. When I have enough money, then I will write what I want to say.”

“And when will that day come?”

“Maybe never. When do Edoites have enough money to buy back their virtue?”

“Good question; a purchase of that nature would be very expensive.”

The Mad Poets chortled away, and wet their brushes, and wrote their verses. They knew everything. They had seen it or done it, or they knew someone who had done it, and it was all funny. They had high-flying opinions of themselves, and they never stopped trying to slice one another’s kite strings in order to keep their own sailing highest.

“I feel for all men who cannot afford virtue,” my father said.

They sniffed, suspicious that he was putting himself above them. He was painting a dead duck with an abalone shell. He never wanted to make the kind of pictures the others made.

“I suppose you can be sympathetic; you don’t have much to lose,” said Kyoden.

My father grinned amiably. “Not much to lose. That’s the secret.”

He wasn’t the most popular artist in Edo, it was true. But he did sell his prints to the Dutch, and that made people jealous. It was impossible to insult my old man. He believed he would one day prove himself to be greater than all the others. So did I.

At the foot of the bridge, the ranks broke around Sad-and-Noble and he stopped. He seemed to be looking right down on us. The samurai milled around. There was some holdup with his horse. His foot must have been caught. Clumsily, he dismounted and began to walk in our direction.

“Speak of the devil!”

“Look at the has-been slumming it down here in the quarter!”

I agreed with those who said Utamaro was wrong. Sadanobu might no longer be senior councillor, but he would never lose power: his grandfather had been Shogun. They called him a hypocrite because he loved the brothels and the drinking life, even though he preached against them.

We stared as he loomed up. The tobacconist murmured, “I wonder if he’s still reading my books.”

Laughter broke out, and it carried in the air.

“No, he isn’t,” said Sanba. “He’s going to bed early because he has to get up early to practise jujitsu with his sensei. That’s before he delivers lectures on Confucian fealty. No time for reading.”

“No more writing either, I guess.”

“I really do wish I’d published that miserable little novel he wrote when I had the chance,” murmured Tsutaya while they all watched the large, clumsy man. “You know he offered it to me? But he was just a sappy young lord who was going to inherit some faraway domain—who cared? I passed on it. Now I hear he’s destroyed it.”

“Don’t believe it. No writer ever destroys his work. He’s got a copy,” said Kyoden. “A secret part of him believes it will be discovered one day, and he’ll be seen as a genius.”

“Probably the loyal retainer has it.”

“I remember one line,” said Tsutaya dreamily. “‘The truth dawned on me: words of praise that had been showered on me were nothing but flattery from those who wanted my favour. I had neither talent nor good memory.’”

Everyone laughed. “He got that right.”

Now Sadanobu was within earshot.

The Mad Poets all turned their backs and became fascinated with the troupe of dancers in the riverbed. I saw that Waki was trembling, and that sweat came from his temples.

We felt, rather than saw, Sadanobu stop. He was breathing heavily. He was big, and from the side he bulged like a pregnant woman.

“I have a message,” he said. Nobody moved. “A message for the man called Utamaro.”

“No such man here,” Utamaro called out. “No such man at all. The artist of that name is an immortal.”

More heavy silence.

“When you meet him next”—heavy irony here—“kindly tell him he should take care. He treads close to the line.”

“Close to the line? With what?”

“His pictures of the courtesans. He makes their faces known, as if they were heroines of legend. As you all know, the brothel world brings shame on our realm. It has long been forbidden to put out pictures of these evils. He has been warned.” The heavy man was out of breath.

No one said anything. The retainers folded Sad-and-Noble back in their midst and set off.

When the horses’ hoofs could no longer be heard, the laughter began.

“You see?” Utamaro preened. “I am the best. That proves it.”

No one rose to the bait. The wine was gone. A chill rose from the grass. I felt it through my kimono. The waitress kneeled on the bank picking up glasses. The birds pipped; it was dusk. A sadness welled. Yuko sat with her hands folded in her lap, with no expression on her face. Only Utamaro went on.

“Let him say what he wants. I know I’m safe. I’ve been painting these women for how many years? So many. And never been touched. Kyoden was arrested because he used words. Words are flagrant and can’t be ignored. But pictures,” Utamaro was saying, as we all packed up, “pictures can be as I please. Strictly speaking, they are forbidden, but that means nothing when it is a question of greatness.”

“Bring your picture, Ei,” said my father gently. He lifted it and looked at it carefully. “It’s not so very bad. We might be able to put it in the book.”

I
SAT WITH SHINO IN HER ROOM
, making characters with brush and ink. She was heating water for tea on the small grill. She was a proper courtesan now. She’d debuted and had her own clients. Her contract would have been up, but she had debts and she had to work until she paid them off. No matter how careful a courtesan was, the debt built up and ate the earnings. She was always tired, but she tried to teach me manners. Right now she was telling me not to peek around the screen that divided her room from Fumi’s. But I was doing it.

I saw Fumi’s bare back. I saw fat fingers parting the hair on her beautiful nape and beginning to knead her flesh. She had called in the masseur. It was the blind man I had often seen in the crowds watching the courtesans’ parade. I poked my head farther in. His pear-shaped face wore an expression of rapture. I doubted it was because of her matted and stiff hair or her thin shoulders. I doubted it was even her smell.

“Ei, away from there,” Shino hissed. “Here—tea! Sit and we will have conversation.”

I withdrew and sat squinting though the crack. The blind man’s backside looked like a big sack of rice and his fingers were pale parsnips. His white eyes rolled up. He smiled as he heard Shino, confirming my suspicions. However softly she spoke to me, her voice caused that look to drift across his otherwise remote face.

His hands moved down the senior courtesan’s spine. Fumi grunted. He pushed his thumbs in between the bones. She made a soft moan. Shino pulled me away. We sat across from each other with our teacups while she tried to lead me in a polite exchange: it was her mission to teach me charm.

“The cup of tea is so very warm in my hands and helps to keep the cold at bay.”

“It does, and so does your smile on a winter afternoon,” I answered automatically. I added, “I hate the blind man.”

“You will regret that. The gods do not smile on those who despise the afflicted.”

I could have argued that I didn’t hate all blind men, only this one. He was trying to steal her. Shino belonged to my father, even though he could not pay to be her client. And to me. I knew they met. I didn’t know how or where; they were secretive. But she was right that I regretted my hatred. It was so fierce and hot it had drawn him here. It was like a branding iron, which, as it hissed, clamped to its target.

His footfall came from the corridor.

“Where is the yakko?” he said, though he knew. His voice was penetrating, making up for his blank eyes. “I have something for her.”

Shino gave me a glance. She tucked her heels under her hips and rose, with perfect grace, opening our screen. He pulled a sack from his backpack. “It would please me if you would take this and prepare yourself a meal,” he said.

“You are kind,” Shino said, “but it is quite impossible for me to take a gift.”

“It’s a fish,” he said.

I heard a giggle come from behind the screens. I knew what the other girls would be saying: “Hear that? He brought a fish!”

Little whoops of merriment echoed down the hall.

“Smelly, izn it?”

“He’z in luv . . . He wants her, izn it?”

He heard, of course. He was blind, not deaf. The mockery made Shino even more polite.

“It is so considerate of you,” Shino said. “A fish is the one thing I could not refuse. If I had a place to cook it. But alas I do not . . .”

BOOK: The Ghost Brush
11.47Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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