The Comfort

The Comfort

Autumn color flashed outside the swinging curtain of the wagon. As the wagon swayed, a different color could be seen. It was exciting to the little girl guessing which would be next. This was the first time Nakitsura had traveled away from her home. Her father, Kurotani Hanzo, had protested the little girl joining them. Her mother Reiko insisted it would be good for her daughter’s education.

The wagon belonged to a procession of Courtiers from the Scorpion Clan. The procession was delivering a letter to the Crane Clan. The letter stated The Scorpion Clan had of accepted a letter from the Crane Clan. The little girl Nakitsura, did not care why they were going, she was going somewhere. That was all she needed to know. The Scorpion rarely talk about why, they did as they were told. Her father was a Scorpion Samurai, but just a simple bookkeeper. He went where he was told.

Foot soldiers, wearing light blue kimono flashed by Nakitsura view. “Mother! Are those Crane??” she asked but was quickly pulled back by her father’s hand. “Be still” his voice lowered “quiet and still” his hand not releasing her. Nakitsura’s eyes darted to her mother. Her mother returned the glance with a serene glance and nod. Her mother wore a mask, a cloth of intricate red and gold flowers that draped from hair sticks. Only her pretty eyes showed over the cloth. Her fathers grip tightened. He wore a full porcelain mask. No words came from behind the mask. His grip forced Nakitsura down to the floor, his other hand gripping his sheathed wakisashi. The wagon slowed but did not stop.

After several minutes the wagons were back up to travel speed. Kurotani Hanzo finally released his grip. “Education” was the only word that came from behind the mask. His mask was lacquered red with gold highlights, ornate but not too much. Scorpion Samurai rarely went out in public without some kind of mask. Was her father angry? The mask showed nothing. There had been several loud discussions about her traveling on this trip. The silence was unsettling.

Mother was never harsh, the model of servitude and civility. If father seemed quarrelsome or opposed, her calm voice always won the day. The more father disagreed, the calmer mother sounded. At home, father did not wear his mask; Nakitsura had seen his true anger. She thought even the life of an accountant must be hard. Her father usually ended every argument saying, “Duty has no questions, it is duty” usually followed by him slinking away. Mother would say, “A civil tone can be as influential as the tip of a sword” , signaling victory. Nakitsura remembered her mother wore a wakishashi but she never drew it. Arguments were rare, but this one meant that she go to land of the Crane.

The sound of a horse rode next to the wagon and stayed near. Nakitsura looked nervously at her mother and father. She thought of peeking out under the curtains, but the pain of her father’s grip remained. After some time, “Is there a concern about supplies when we turn south? If we ride too long here, The Lion will certainly see us across the river.” A voice from outside replied, “Ho” Nakitsura tried to see past the curtains to put a face with the voice.

Her mother’s voice broke the awkward silence, “How could any Lion Bushi be alarmed if our procession went to Benten Seido? It is such a beautiful temple, and to the Fortune of Love? Certainly that would not be seen as suspicious?” Nakitsura’s mother had pulled her fan from her obi and covered her face. Her father seemed to nod in some kind of agreement. “We could afford to rest the horses if we reached Benten Seido before dark” her father said. Again a reply from outside “Ho” and the horseman rode off.

Soon after, the wagon sped up its pace. The wagon seemed to find more bumps now. A bag slightly opened and Nakitsura saw her mother’s Shakuhachi, and quickly tried to grab at the flute. A fast slap from her mother’s fan hit the back of her hand, pinning it in the bag. Her mother’s eyes fixed on her. The gaze relaxed after a moment, and she handed her daughter the flute. Only then did the fan release her hand.

Playing a tune was impossible because the wagon bounced too much. She closed her eyes and just fingered the notes, imagining she was playing. Her mother played beautifully, and was patient with a child’s lessons. That held her attention for almost an hour.

The next hour was filled with dolls in a grand battle. The mighty Crab warrior, armed only with a shakuhachi, defending the top of her father’s feet from an unknown evil monster, which looked strangely like a doll with its head turned backwards. But soon the battle was interrupted. The wagons slowed and Nakitsura quickly peeked under the curtain to see a beautiful Temple in the center of a neatly arranged town.

Temple

Her mother’s fan again pushed the curtain back into place and her father, gently this time, drew her back with his feet. The dolls were still carefully balancing there on his feet. She quickly finished the fight “I am Crab and I will eat you!” said in as deep a voice as Nakitsura could muster. The evil backwards doll was struck several times with the flute and the monster squealed. Her mother commented, “Crab Bushi-chan please do not break that.” A tiny voice replied “Why?” and then the giggling gruff Crab doll said “Why?” “Well,” her mother replied thoughtfully, “besides the backwards monster eating you, you will have to learn a much heavier instrument.” They both laughed.

Nakitsura looked at her father and mother. They remained still and calm. Some voices outside shouted and the wagon lurched forward and moved only a short distance to stop again. Other wagons seemed to move around outside and horses and soldiers could be heard running back and forth. After 10 minutes of this, a voice from outside said “Dozo” and rode off. Father slid the curtain aside and stepped out with several scrolls under his arm.

Her mother fussed with Nakitsura’s hair for a moment, and adjusted her own hair sticks. They were the pretty opal sticks. Both stepped out of the wagon and stayed near the back. Nakitsura had learned early that staying behind your mother’s leg was best way to not be stepped on by men in armor or horses. Her mother seemed to slowly drift back from the crowd. After several minutes she moved and blended in with a group carrying baggage to one of the nearby compounds.

The gate, a Torii, to the compound was ornate painted wood. Inside were several houses to either side and a large two-story house straight ahead with a porch. Several Crane escorted the porters, politely directing them to their destinations. Nakitsura and her mother followed a group of three porters and a Crane to around behind the big house where there were several more houses.

Pulling at her mother’s kimono, “Do we get to stay here?” she squeaked in quiet excitement. Her mother bowed to the Crane, who hurried off to direct the next group. “We will only spend the night here, pay our respects in the morning and then be on our way again” her mother said, turning toward the door of their quarters where she stopped before entering. Was she was inspecting the outside of the little house, she only turned her head slightly. Nakitsura started toward the door but was stopped by her mother’s hand. Her other hand casually pulled the fan from her obi and opened it to cover her face. The lead porter, who carried only one bag, moved quickly to the door, slid it open and rushed in. The two others followed closely.

The lead porter soon returned to the door giving an almost imperceptible bow. Mother released her daughter and the two walked into the house. All the doors inside were opened and one porter was straightening up bedding, which appeared to be tossed about. He finished, stepped out closing the door. A quick bow and he proceeded to the next room. Nakitsura ran down the hall, wanting to explore the new place.

She almost collided with one of the porters. He did a cartwheel over top of her, barely stopping. He only turned and winked at the little girl then disappeared around the corner. At the end of the hall was a small house shrine. It was to Benten, the Fortune of Romantic Love, and Nakitsura guessed every house in this town had a shrine just like it. She stopped and bowed at the shrine, it was beautiful and had fresh flowers placed around it. Standing entranced for a few moments, the need to explore sprung again.

Her exploring had lead out to the back porch. She ran around the side and was surprised when a window opened and a porter popped out arms extended. “Nan nan nan” he said and his hands formed the mouth of a beast. Nakitsura squealed and slapped at the arms. The porter slowly drew back into the window making a hissing sound. She continued to run looking over her shoulder when she ran into her father’s legs.

He did not move. One of the several scroll cases he carried slipped and he almost dropped the satchel he carried. The masked face stared down. She picked the fallen case up and handed it back to him. “Please be more aware” he stated and walked into the front door. She stared after him, but no other words followed. That was reason enough to run off and explore more.

There was a side gate that several Crane attendants stood by discussing adult things. By the gate a Scorpion Bushi stood rigid in armor. Through the gate was the town crowned with the large temple to Benten up the hill. It was beautiful. She walked carefully positioning the Crane attendants between her and the Guard. Once through the gate, she looked back to see if anyone noticed. One of the Crane attendant’s eyes followed her, only a smile and chuckle. She giggled and ran between several houses.
Stopping at the corner of each building, she worked her way toward the temple. The temple became bigger and more beautiful the closer she got. Sometimes people would stroll by and she would duck back or crawl under the edge of the building. She pretended to be a Scorpion Warrior, sneaking up on a castle. She jumped out from beside a house shouting “HA” taking a fighting stance. Two people near by looked in her direction. Feeling her face go flush, she ran forward between the next houses.

Hearing voices behind her she turned and slowly backed around the side of a house. A bench tripped her and she fell backwards but she did not hit the ground. An old man in light blue robes looked down at her. It was strange because it seemed the man did not look directly down at her. “Child!” the man laughed, “I am the one who trips over things, what is your excuse?” He was weather worn and bald. His hands ran lightly over her face. “Hmm, I don’t recognize you. And there is a cinnamon smell about you.”

His eyes were cloudy. He was blind thought Nakitsura. She was safe, he could not tell her parents. She struggled a bit but he had firm but gentle grip on her. “Fortunes smile on chance” he said in a soothing voice. “A lost child so far away from the land of the Scorpion, why do you sneak about? Are you hungry? You don’t feel like you are wanting for food” he added. She looked at him, his eyes never moved. How did he know she was a Scorpion?

She protested “please let me go grandfather, I am just exploring!” but the grip seemed firm. She felt sad about his eyes. She touched his face and ran her fingers over his closed eyes. He lifted his head with a smile, the grip turned into a small hug and he lifted her and put her down on the ground. He looked in her direction grabbing a walking stick beside him. He slid the stick and tapped her foot, and then raised the stick. The stick tapped her neck and then on top of her head.

Nakitsura grabbed at the end of the stick but the man lifted the stick just out of her reach. She jumped again grabbing and giggling. She jumped a few more times and looked straight at the setting sun. She stopped and looked around. The man set the stick down “A trouble child?” he asked. “Um, the sun is going down, will you be able to get home?” She wondered. The man let out a long laugh, “I only miss the warmth, I have no need for light. You have a kind heart, a surprise I did not expect.” He slowly stood up with the help of his stick, “We should be more concerned about you. Please walk with me” and he headed toward the big temple.

She walked slowly behind the old man. She slowed and so did he, finally he stopped. The stick that probed in front of him spun and lightly touched her shin. He encouraged her to move up next to him. “Walking with is not walking behind” he said with a disarming smile.

The man’s face took a questioning expression “Scorpion child, do you ever get to play? Or do they make you work as soon as you can walk?” he asked. Nakitsura thought it an odd question; “I do learn lessons” she said then cheerfully added, “I am learning my characters!” She bent down and drew the characters for Sun and Moon in the dirt. “See! Sun and Moon” she announced proudly. Then she remembered his eyes. “Oh Grandfather! I, please, forgive me” she bowed, expecting the worst.

“Could you draw a box around what you wrote?” he asked. She did as he asked. The old man knelt and waved his hand over the ground. As he came to the edge of the box he reoriented his body, and with another wave of his hands, the old man turned to the characters inside. “Those are very well done for one so young,” he grinned.

Nakitsura beamed, she loved writing and reading very much. Her father moaned that she would put him in debtors prison with all the paper she used. He gave her a writing stone that she could practice with water. The characters would slowly evaporate and she could write as many as she wanted. Her parents taught her characters, and her instructor did too. They all said she remembered everything with the first few tries. She remembered stories very well too.

The old man squatted by the characters holding his hand over them “Do you mind?” indicating he was about to erase her work. “Oh no father, please I can…you should not get your hands…” Nakitsura leaned forward but the mans stick intervened. “Thank you child for the thought,” he chuckled “but if my parents were still alive, they would be telling me to stop playing in the dirt.”

He did not directly rub the characters out, but said a small chant, clapped twice, bowed then erased the characters. He stood with the help of his stick, and step squarely to the box in the dirt. Using his walking stick he drew a character. It was one she had not seen before. “This is the Fortune Benten’s character, Love,” he said with a reverent air in his voice.

She smiled looking at the character, and drew a new box next to it. She lifted his stick and placed it in the position of the first stroke. “Please father, one more time!” she giggled, “I want the stroke order to be correct.” And she stared at the end of the stick, waiting. The old man shifted his body over and drew the character again, a perfect copy to her eye.

She laughed out loud and drew another box. Drawing the character with her thumb and finger together, she reproduced the lines. Only once did she steal a look at the original. The old man lowered himself to the ground, gliding his hand over her work. “Nicely done, how many times did you peek?” finishing with a quick prayer, he erased all three characters.

He stood and drew a box, then gently spun Nakitsura around by the arm. She spun like a top and then continued with her arms out, giggling. The old man set his stick on her head “Stop and try drawing now” he challenged. The world rolled and wobbled, she saw the box but she could not walk straight to it. She dropped to her knees with an “ouff” and crawled the remaining foot to the box. The character was drawn a bit sideways, and some lines were long but she was fairly sure she remembered them all.

The old man examined the writing and he smiled. “No writing can really describe love, but in my years, this is the closest, not perfect, but written with an innocent joy” he mused with a wide grin. She could not wait to practice on her writing stone. She could surprise her mother and father.

A gasp escaped from her mouth, mother and father she thought. She was certainly in trouble now and she was in an unfamiliar place. “What troubles you child?” the old man consoled her. She looked around in a panic. “It is getting dark and I, um, I am not sure” she was cut short. “Then let us go,” said the old man, straightening himself and walking toward the front of the large temple. There were several young monks in robes sitting outside by the gate.

All but one on the end stood at the approach of the old man. His neighbor kicked the sleeping man. He woke with a start and almost jumped up. Walking to about the center, the old man calmly said “I was wondering if there was a disciple who could find the pavilion that the newly arrived Scorpion procession is staying” he raised his stick and poked the sleepy monk between the eyes, “and escort our little guest to there? And inform them she has been a delightful guest” The monks looked to one another. The old man poked the sleepy monk again who responded “Oh, yes yes yes. Right away” the monk walked up next to Nakitsura. “Oh and it should be done before the sun sets, so please carry her on your shoulders,” the old man instructed. The monk dropped down with his back to Nakitsura. She climbed onto his shoulders and he ran off.

Several chuckles from the other monks drew a quick stick to the top of the head. “Remember her,” suggested the old man, “she could teach you all something” and he walked through the gate passed the neatly groomed rocks. The old man poked and dragged his stick through the rocks, “Oh and the rock garden needs to be redone, the Kami may wish a clean bed to sleep in before it is too dark” he called back to the monks. The group sighed in unison.

Nakitsura bounced on the monk’s shoulders as he ran down the street. Her laugh bounced too, and it made her laugh more. She enjoyed the view from the monk’s shoulders, until they neared the gate where the processing was staying. Two porters and a guard rushed toward the monk. One porter launched himself into the air, which made the monk stop. The airborne porter grabbed Nakitsura and rolled off to the side. The other porter and the guard roughly grabbed the monk. “No!” she pleaded, and then she saw her father walking toward the group. “Father he did nothing!” she screamed “It was me!” tears fell down her face.

Kurotani Hanzo stopped before the monk. “May I ask the meaning of this?” he said in a gentle tone that surprised Nakitsura. The monk, bewildered, replied “I was asked by the Head Master to return the girl to you before sunset” implored the monk, “I ran as fast as I could” he added. The mask on the Scorpion’s face made the monk shiver. “Please send my thanks, and most sincere apologies to his Holiness for the trouble she caused. She is a child after all.” Her father nodded and the two men released their grip on the monk. The monk bowed, crawled backwards, bowed again. When he felt sufficiently out of range, the monk stood and ran away.

There was a long silence. She was certain her father was furious, but he sounded serene, almost apologetic. He turned to her, “I have work to do, please do not do foolish things,” he said. He spun in place and walked back, followed by the guard. The two porters remained and stood behind the little girl, saying nothing. She walked slowly through the gate, wiping the tears from her face.

When they reached the little house one of the porters stepped forward and opened the door. Walking into the main room found it to be empty. One room to the right had an open door, her mother sat alone in the room. She did not look up but motioned her had beside her. Slowly walking into the room , she sat beside her mother. The door closed behind her. There was another long silence.

Her mother opened her fan and placed it over her face. “Winter Flower,” she said very quietly. That name meant she was in trouble; only her mother and father used it. “Did you learn anything while you were out?” her mother continued. The question confused the little girl who was preparing for the worst. “What? I didn’t…learn? Am I in trouble?” fumbling over words.

Her mother may have laughed but it was followed by “yes very much so, but we are here as ambassadors of good will, and your father has other duties…duties that cannot be disrupted by his own daughter”, the calm of her mothers voice strained through the last part. “Child we are not even to Kyuden Doji, much will,” she paused choosing words,” much can happen until you return home.” Her mother’s voice seemed to level and focus. “Please do not make me suggest sending you home” she finished. Her mother slowly closed the fan and set it in front of her.

To Be Continued…

The Comfort

L5R : Jade Winds buckleyj