Wait in Vain
The rains had come again.
From her futon near the window, she could hear the ceaseless patter of drops on the roof of the enkiri-dera, water rushing down the gutters, trickling along the eaves, soaking the dry earth. Water everywhere, blurring the graceful lines of the temple into a wash with the woods, pouring and bubbling and racing in rivulets, blanketing them all with stillness.
It was in such a rain that Shino had come to the temple, her kimono dark and streaming from the downpour, her cheeks streaked with a different kind of wet. The opposite shore had disappeared into the night and the mist by the time the prow of the skiff struck the river bank, but her tears had blurred the motionless blue form of the samurai into the grey of the river and the rain long before.
The abbess had welcomed her, dirty and dripping, into the sanctum of the temple, offering clean, dry robes and refuge from her husband and the brothel. It was an exchange of one kind of prison for another, but a far gentler one. The first night had been unbearable, but eventually her tears had ceased, and she slept. The sun came out the next morning, and the dream was over.
Where are you, eel merchant? Is this rain falling on you too?
The enkiri-dera was a failsafe recourse for a wife seeking to leave her husband. A petitioner would be given sanctuary without question, and in exchange, she would serve the temple. After three years, she could leave unfettered by her husband, even if he had refused to write the letter of divorce.
He had given her that chance, her fairytale ronin.
As a refugee, Shino had not been required to shave her head and live as an ascetic, but she soon found that a good number of the women who sought sanctuary in the temple stayed as nuns. Having traded the horror of their lives for Buddha's peace, they were reluctant to leave their newfound serenity. Shino's story was common, but so were many other stories - beatings, bruisings, neglect, bad debts, bad luck. They were a sisterhood of sorts, bound together in a common desire to escape.
The wet breeze blew in through the window, fresh and cold against her skin, reminding her of another window and another rain. Shino breathed deeply, welcoming the memory in its immediacy, bittersweet as it was. A gust of wind ruffled her hair, and a temple bell sounded in the courtyard, high and pure.
A whisper behind her pulled her away from her memories of rain. "Shino-san? Are you awake?"
"Mmm." Shino sat up and yawned. "Good morning, Yuki-san."
"Did you forget?" the other woman scolded. "We have to help with the morning meal! Hurry, we're late!"
She had forgotten, distracted by her thoughts. "Sorry, sorry," she whispered back. "It's such a grey morning that it's made me lazy."
Yuki held up her underrobe, and Shino shrugged into it, following it with an indigo woven kimono. "Everyone's been slow this morning, so I don't think anyone will notice," the other woman replied, giving Shino's obi one more tug. "Let's go!"
With one last look at the rain, Shino rushed off to her chores.
Life at the temple was simple, but there was never any lack of work. If there wasn't cooking to be done, there was cleaning, or tending the temple garden, or laundry and mending. In the quiet times, the nuns welcomed the other residents to devotions, and Shino often joined them. She wrote out the Lotus Sutra in a fine hand, each stroke a prayer to the gods for the nuns who sheltered her, the women who lived with her, the souls of the departed. And, one small, selfish wish - that she might see him once more in this lifetime.
She did not allow herself to think about him often. The short time they had spent together was something precious and not to be wasted; there was enough sweetness to span a lifetime, measured out in small drops. There was no use in mooning over a lost love like a young girl, and Shino was not so young anymore. Three years older, three years wiser.
Yet with the scent of the rain eddying all around them, it was impossible not to remember. Shino hid a smile while she worked over the hot coals in the kitchen. He had tried so hard to cook for her, and it had been terrible. Hamatatsu must have hung his divine head in shame over the disgrace done to his treasure, but it was a wonderful memory. He had been so offended when she said it was bad. Shino raised her hand to her mouth and stifled a laugh.
"Almost done with the soup?" Yuki tapped her on the shoulder. "It's time."
The dreamy sense of unreality persisted throughout the day, following her through her prayers and dogging her every step. She would feel a presence at her back, see a shadow of blue outside the window, but when she moved to look, there was nothing there. Dusk fell on them, and the flicker of lanterns and the shushing sound of robes on the tatami mats reminded her of evenings in the joro-ya, dreading the sound of her flower- name.
Once, only once, had she welcomed it.
"Jin," she whispered, letting the rain swallow the sound.
Red parasol in the rain; a sweet small smile only for her, and the glint of one gold ryu. Where a vagrant samurai had found so much money, she didn't know, but the master of the brothel had drawn no distinctions. The sum had bought them a single, precious night – it was almost something out of the Tale of Genji, that he would spend so much only to talk with her. To her husband, Shino was nothing but a means to feed his addiction; to the rabble who sought her services, she was a warm body with a pretty face; to the joro-ya, she was another sad story in a pitiless world.
Jin had reminded her that she was not a thing to be bought and sold, but rather a woman who could choose.
In the end, she had chosen for both of them. He had returned her kiss with surprising delicacy, and the moment drew them both in. Her world contracted to his mouth on hers, seeking; his hands tangled in her unbound hair, the urgency of his body against hers There had been no need to pretend, to act; no need at all.
His suggestion to run away had been so preposterous and naïve. No brothel girl was ever let go without a fight, or a large sum of money. But he'd shown her she was worth something, worth loving, worth protecting. The world isn't that convenient, snarled her boss, but Jin didn't play by those rules. Even weaponless, he was formidable, and there was something exhilarating and terrifying about a man who would fight for her, kill for her.
And then? Shino rolled over on her futon towards the open window, staring into the darkness. Jin couldn't have come with her. The rules were not open for debate - no men were welcome in the temple. Perhaps there were journeys they both needed to complete before their paths crossed again.
If they crossed again at all.
The constant drumming of rain on the roof was soothing, and she slept.
The rain continued through the week, and water was everywhere. Tempers frayed at the constant damp, but Shino found it peaceful. The feeling of timelessness had not left her since the first day of the rains, and so the unexpected summons from the abbess surprised her.
"Shino." The tiny, wizened woman gestured towards a pillow on the floor. "Please sit."
"Thank you, Mother." Shino made the proper obeisance and dropped to her knees, drinking in the aura of peace and enlightenment that surrounded the abbess, and the nun touched her head in benediction.
"I have asked you here today to discuss what is to happen to you next." Shino looked up sharply, and the abbess continued. "Do you realize that three years have passed since you joined us?"
Shino thought on it. "I had not," she admitted. "Time seems so irrelevant here."
The abbess smiled. "And so it is," she said, "because life is an illusion. But seasons change despite it, and indeed, three years have gone by. Your term of service is complete."
She found herself almost unable to speak. "What happens now, Mother?"
"You have a choice. You may renounce the world and stay among us for the rest of your life. Certainly many women here do so, and I am impressed by your devotions. But." The abbess held up one thin finger. "I believe that you are not yet ready to leave the world completely, that you have unfinished business. Is it not so?"
The old woman was perceptive, and Shino nodded. "It is so."
"We will miss you here, child. You have borne your term with such grace." The abbess motioned with her hand, and Shino rose, pressing her palms together and bowing. "You may stay until you are ready to leave. Buddha's peace be on you, Shino."
Her new life. She had not considered it up until now. Grateful for the simple repetition of temple life, Shino was free to let her mind worry at the problem while her hands performed their assigned tasks. She had no money, no prospects. Her family would probably take her in, but her husband would have considered that route. While he had no legal claim on her, he could be a nuisance if the yakuza hadn't gotten to him already. She had a fine head for business, so perhaps she could find work keeping records or some such.
How could she stay at the temple, knowing that Jin was out there somewhere? How could she leave, if this were the only place he would know to look for her? How would she know whether he was alive or not, or if he would even care?
She wouldn't, she decided. Hard as it was, she had to take Jin's gift at face value. She had been privileged enough to live through one fairy tale. It wouldn't happen twice.
When the rain stopped, she would leave.
Polishing the floor in the front hallway was tedious work, but Shino had never minded it. Although no men were allowed into the temple, there were still travelers who visited, bringing news and gossip to overhear. When traffic was light - and with the rain, there had been none at all - the other women chattered among themselves, and once her work was done, she could join them.
She listened with half an ear to the cluster of women gathered around the window, watching the road for any activity. "This rain is so boring!" one of them complained. "No one to look at, nothing to see except wet."
"You won't say that when the rain goes away and people start coming again," her friend sniffed. "Then you'll be unhappy with cleaning up after them."
"Oh, be quiet." Silence for a while. Shino moved on to a new spot on the floor.
"Look, someone's coming. Are you happy now?"
A rustle of fabric as the women at the window jockeyed for position. Shino rose to her knees, but too many curious heads blocked her view.
Someone laughed. "It's a man with a red parasol!"
Her cloth dropped from her hands.
"Men don't carry red parasols," scoffed one of the women. "Move over."
"How many women do you know who wear hakama?" demanded another. "Look, he's carrying twin swords. Good family."
She wanted to rise, but her knees were shaking.
"Not so good. No crests on his kimono."
Shino found her way to her feet. "Let me see," she said, but the women weren't listening. She had to know. "Let me see!"
"All right, no need to be pushy." Reluctantly, the cluster parted to let her through. She drove her fingernails into the windowsill and stared.
Red parasol in the rain and a sweet small smile only for her.
"Jin." The name caught in her throat, and she tried again. "Jin."
"Do you know him, Shino-san?" The women around her gaped with amazement. "Who is he?"
"A dream," she whispered, raising the back of her hand to her lips to stave off the tears.
"I'll say." One of the older women had turned back to the window and was looking on in frank appreciation. "Lucky, lucky! Not everyone gains the attention of a samurai."
"They're not any better than any other man." The speaker, a thin, haunted woman, melted back into the shadows.
Shoes. She would need geta to stand above the muddy path, and she had not set foot over the threshold in three years. Shino stared down at her stocking feet, at her utilitarian kimono - how she had changed from the proper married woman she had been! She put a hand to her hair, tied in a simple knot, and reddened. She looked like a peasant, not a proper lady.
"Shino." The quiet voice of the abbess intruded on her worry. She carried a pair of zori sandals Shino recognized as her own, along with a fresh pair of tabi socks. "You might need these, if you wish to go outside."
"Mother..." Shino took her shoes back, struggling for composure. "I do not know if I am ready yet."
"Remember, Shino. It is all an illusion. Your appearance does not change anything." The abbess gave Shino an encouraging smile. "Go on. He's standing out in the rain."
The sudden touch of the rain was shocking, dampening the indigo cotton of her kimono to black. Water traced down her back in cold rivulets, but she didn't mind. The feeling meant that she was real, that this was happening, that she wasn't imagining taking one muddy step at a time away from the temple. Her tabi were ruined already, and her sodden hair was uncurling itself from its knot.
Against the haze of the forest, Jin was an indistinct shape of gray and blue, but this time he did not fade into the distance with the movement of a boat. The parasol was a shocking splash of brightness, a solid point to focus on while the world spun.
She halted a few paces away and let three years of peace settle around her.
"It's been a long time since we last met, eel merchant." Her words floated on the dense air, light and casual, as if they were meeting one another on the street running errands in town and not out in the middle of a downpour. "Do you always travel in the rain?"
"Sun, rain, or arrows." There was a ghost of amusement in his level, controlled voice. The parasol tilted up, and dark eyes met hers. "The umbrella helps."
The years had refined and matured his lean aristocrat's face, but there was little else noble-looking about him except the twin swords - his hair was as ragged as before, and the crests had disappeared from his kimono. "You're looking well. What happened to your glasses?"
"Lost near Nagasaki," he replied. "It's all right. I don't need them any more."
"Nagasaki..." she murmured. "So far. All the way there and back again, to meet me here at the temple gates? Have you come to return my umbrella? Today of all days is the first I might need it again." Her tone changed from coy to something quieter. "But, you knew that, didn't you."
"You've come a long way, Jin." His name was strange on her tongue and tasted of water. "Will you leave when the rain stops?"
"Not alone." The parasol dropped, and the simple truth of his heart shone through the stoic exterior. "Shino."
The tears that had threatened since she had first seen him at the window brimmed up at the corners of her eyes. "You're getting wet," she said softly. Taking the last few steps towards him, she lifted a hand and brushed damp black hair away from his face. His callused fingers wrapped around hers.
There was so much she wanted to say, so much to tell him, but all she could do was stare. Jin raised the parasol, and she leaned against him, her cheek against his chest. The cotton of his kimono was soft, and it carried the faint scent of sandalwood. It seemed a shame to ruin his clean dry clothing, but the gentle arm over her shoulder told her he didn't mind.
"Do you want to leave here?" he asked, letting her go.
"I have a few things left inside," she replied. "Will you wait?"
A wry look was his only response. Hiding a smile, Shino went to gather her things.
There was almost nothing to pack. Shino wrapped up what few belongings she had, pinned her soaking hair up with a comb, and replaced her sodden temple clothing with the kimono she had been wearing when she arrived. She had begun to consider how to tie her obi in the taiko knot without help when a familiar voice interrupted.
"Here, let me help you with that." Yuki took the end of her obi out of her hands. "You'll never be able to do this alone."
"Thank you, Yuki-san." Shino stood motionless as Yuki tucked and pulled, shaping the knot. "You've been so kind to me. It seems wrong to leave quickly like this."
"Ah, don't say that. You're lucky to have someone come to get you." Yuki draped one end of the obi over Shino's shoulder.
"I didn't think I would, you know. Three years is a long time. I might have waited in vain."
Yuki pulled the end of the obi back over. "You waited for the same thing everyone here waits for - a fresh start without a burden. Hold these." She passed the ends of the obi-jime forward, and Shino held the cords taut. "Maybe when my three years are up, I'll visit you, eh?"
Shino smiled. "I would like that." A pat from behind signaled that her obi was finished, and she tied the two cords in her hands together with a square knot. "Goodbye, Yuki."
Her possessions in hand, Shino hurried back to the entrance of the temple. A glance out the window showed that Jin stood patiently in the middle of the path, the red parasol sheltering him from the rain. In the atrium, the abbess was waiting for her, flanked by a host of curious eyes.
"Mother," Shino murmured, making a reverence.
"Shino." The abbess handed her a small, well-wrapped bundle – the documents that recorded her years of service. "Go in peace."
"Thank you," Shino replied, her gaze lifting beyond the saffron-clad woman before her to all the women of the enkiri-dera, who had lived and loved and laughed with her while wounds healed and freedom waited. "Thank you for everything." She dropped to her knees and bowed, three years' worth of gratitude in one movement.
Outside, her new life waited.
Much later, in the room at the ryokan, she had every reason to believe that her new life was going to be a good one. In his courtly way, Jin had assumed nothing, and there had been two rooms available when they arrived at the inn that night. She had decided to save questions about the cost for later, as the allure of a long soak in a hot spring was too much to resist. The food had been good, and to her delight, he had been sure to specify kabayaki.
Once the dishes had been cleared, and they were left alone with cups of green tea and a lovely view of the gardens, she had closed the shoji screen and shown him that two rooms had been quite, quite unnecessary.
Now, they lay together on the futon, her head pillowed on his shoulder, her unbound hair falling together with his, deepest brown on inky black. Dim light from a lamp spilled over the tangle of cotton and silk on the floor and flickered warmly on bare skin.
"Shino." Jin propped himself up on one arm, and she turned to face him, pulling the quilts over her chest. "I have nothing to offer you."
"Except yourself?" she returned, reaching up to touch him in reassurance. "Then I have nothing to lose."
The uncertainty in his expression changed to a quiet happiness. "Do you have somewhere you want to go?"
"If I'm with you, it's all the same to me." She smiled. "What about you?"
"I want to go back to Nagasaki." He paused. "I have friends there. Maybe," he amended.
Shino dimly remembered a girl in a pink kimono and a wild-haired felon. "Your traveling companions?"
"Yes. But they may not be there for a while. I don't know, but I can wait." Jin pulled a small drawstring bag out of the rumpled clothing on the floor and proffered it. "Look. There may be enough to start a dojo, outside of town."
She opened the bag and the gleam of gold winked back in the lamplight. "Jin!" she gasped, startled. "Where did you get all this money?"
"And?" she prodded.
One eyebrow twitched. "Shogi."
"Well, eel merchant, as long as you have more talent for teaching than you do for grilling eel, you will succeed," she said, amused by the sour look he gave her. "You might need someone to keep the books and take care of things."
"The former mistress of the dry goods store must know something about that."
"And you'll need a good cook, too. You're much too thin." Shino sat up and mock-frowned at the lean body next to hers. It had changed since they had last lain together - there was a terrible deep scar on his left side and a long shallow slash along his ribs. "Someone to keep house for you and mend your kimono."
"Shino." Dark serious eyes studied her. "I do not want you to have to do anything else that is painful."
She leaned down to kiss him and shivered, warming at the light brush of his tongue. "With you," she said softly, "I do not believe that will happen."
He drew her down to him, and then there were no more words.
The next morning started overcast and grey, and if the two of them had shown up late for breakfast, it was understandable given the lack of sun - even if the sun had nothing to do with it. Shino stood by the road outside the ryokan, savoring the hustle and bustle of travelers. Fresh from three years of solitude, she found the busy flow of traffic exciting.
This time, it was her turn to go on a journey.
"Have you got everything?" Jin adjusted the set of his swords.
"I'm ready." Shino shielded her eyes with her hand. "Look. The sun is coming out."
"Hmm." Jin extended a hand, and she took it, stepping delicately over a puddle. "Better for traveling."
"You'll have to tell me your story on the way," she said.
"It's a long story."
"It's a long way to Nagasaki."
Jin smiled at her, rare and bright as the sunbeam filtering through the clouds. "Then we'd better get started."
Ignoring the scandalized glances of their fellow travelers, they set out on a new journey, hand in hand.
Reviews and constructive criticism are always welcome!
Many thanks to Tiggy for the critique and beta read.
email arafel oceandreaming. com (remove spaces)