Oshaberi-San was making the next year's stock of Umeshu, green plum wine. June had arrived with its hazy heat and the house had already been redecorated for the summer. Gone were the heavy wool curtains and cushions. In their place were light straw mats and cotton pillows. Even the scrolls featuring autumn and winter scenes had been replaced with summer subjects.
This was the time of year that the plum trees were heavy with the little golden fruits and the young boys of the household were sent out to gather great baskets of them, being sure to always leave some to ripen on the tree. So this was the time of year that Oshaberi-San could be found in the cool of the spring house, rinsing the green plums under the running cold water and carefully easing their stems out with a pick. She would place them in layers in clean crocks with rock sugar and pour white liquor over them and store them in the cool of the back of the spring house to wait to be decanted the next summer.
The girl sat in the corner watching as she had every summer that she could remember. Her mother had told her that she had watched Oshaberi-San in her childhood also and her mother before that. For Oshaberi-San was ridiculously old. It was said that she was older than eighty and there was little reason to disbelieve it for the old lady lived up to her name of "chatterbox" and kept up a soft running commentary of gossip and reminiscence from morning 'til night that was encyclopedic in its scope.
On this day the girl was sitting, picking stems out of plums in her chosen corner of the cool dimness, when she suddenly interrupted the garrulous old woman's latest train of free-association with a question, "Oshaberi-San, have you ever heard of Izayoi-Hime?"
The old woman plunked the bowl of plums that she was working smack down in the water and several floated off unnoticed on the stream. "Izayoi-Hime? That's Izayoi-Genkai that you mean, isn't it?"
"Oh no, I don't think so, " the girl returned calmly enough. "That's that horrible old ghost story. I think I mean a real person."
"Izayoi was a real person, right enough. I met her. Well, in a manner of speaking, I did."
The girl knew that to pause in stemming the plums was to risk having the thread of the story be lost so she kept busily at it. "Well, then, tell me the real story of Izayoi-Genkai."
"That hasn't been spoken of in years. It's now just a story to frighten children with on stormy summer nights."
The girl pointed her pick at the old servant threateningly, "Obachan…"
"OK, ok. She was a fine lady here, you know? I had it from my great grandmother who used to serve her in the old days." The old woman cackled at the girl's look of astonishment and continued, "Back then she was Izayoi-Hime and a normal enough young lady, if an odd one. My great grandmother was a young woman and had her hands full with her. Ah, but she was very beautiful though, very beautiful, I well remember her bright and shining youth."
"But that's not possible. If your great grandmother was young when she served her, then you could hardly have..."
"Look, are you telling this story or am I?" snapped the old woman.
"You." said the girl.
"Fine then, get the rock sugar and the crocks and we'll start filling them." After a few minutes of work, the thread of the story was resumed, "As I say, my great grandmother worked as her nurse and had a hard time of it with the young lady's fits and starts. She used to do things like cut off the heads of her dolls and bury them in the back garden and then play house with the headless bodies on the grave stones in the cemetery.
"My great grandmother also said she would sometimes burn her dolls on the sly but she could never prove it. Try as she might." The old woman grunted to her self as she heaved a finished basket over to the side. "It seems Izayoi-Hime got away with a great deal. But time always does get you in the end. I've found that out myself. Where is my youth, and where are my old friends? I ask you.
"Her noble father overindulged her with education and she could write just like a man with all of those complex symbols that a proper young lady can't get her head around. As she grew older and the young men started to send notes she would reply back to them that way. Whatever she said in those return notes it worked for none of them ever came around a second time.
"Someone did though. The screens would be pushed aside at night and Izayoi-Sama very rumpled in the morning. My great grandmother took to coming in and drawing back the screen to where Izayoi was sleeping at an earlier and earlier hour of the morning until finally she caught him. He must have been distracted by what he was doing with Izayoi-Hime for they were in the midst of making clouds and rain. Great grandmother fetched Izayoi's father right away and they confronted him as he left the sleeping place. It was a good hour after dawn and blatant enough.
"He came out adjusting his clothes, calm as a cucumber. It was Izayoi's honored sire that went reeling in shock for this was no nobleman's son but rather a member of the fairies, a youkai lord with yellow eyes and a sword. He had long white hair but he appeared young enough and was dressed splendidly. He bowed to Izayoi's father as if he had won a point in some game and Izayoi sat with her hair streaming behind her on the futon and laughed for all the world to hear.
"That was the start of it. For the morning was not far advanced when the first of the gifts arrived, all in very proper form, on the front porch. Izayoi's father stared at them for a long time before having them carried into the house. Perhaps he was afraid of offending such a powerful being.
"Izayoi-Hime carried it all off with a high hand and baked the nuptial cakes to be served during the third night herself. It was all very irregular and set the whole house by the ears.
"What a clamor was made when he came to visit, for he no longer troubled to come and go quietly. He'd show up in the courtyard complete with attendants and a great barking of dogs, for they were always included in his retinue. The Izayoi would run about clapping her hands and demanding this and that for their entertainment.
"He never stayed very long, thank the kami, and things would be rather quieter between times, but Izayoi-Hime began to argue with her parents. It was the presents, you see. He would leave great bolts of stuff, clothing of all colors and gifts of the most wonderful incense. Izayoi seemed to think they were all for herself and refused to share so much as an incense stick let alone any gifts of clothes with her servants. Not even my great grandmother, imagine that!" Oshaberi-San nodded her old head briskly and the girl quickly made some noise of assent. They had loaded the crocks and were preparing to pour in the white liquor, its sharp sting making their eyes water.
"Well, things went on like that for a few years and finally they had all had enough. After one particularly bad argument, Izayoi-Hime packed up all of her things in bags and boxes and the next time the youkai lord arrived, she went back home with him.
"The entire family heaved a sigh of relief and got on with life. Things were peaceful and Izayoi's parents were starting to get old when she suddenly came for a visit. She stayed only a few days and was quiet enough but it was a shock all the same. She hadn't aged like everyone else. Not a bit of it. Her manners hadn't gotten much better either and she teased everyone. She must have felt some compunction though for she left behind a great store of goods that kept the family going for quite a while.
"Every few years she would come back, unannounced, and visit for a short time. But she never aged and never explained what her life was like. People stopped calling her Izayoi-Hime and took to calling her Izayoi-Genkai behind her back. Which was very natural, given the circumstances, for she really was disturbingly strange.
"Well, time passed, and in the manner of all things, except for her, people aged. Her parents passed away one winter and the house was taken by a nephew. When she next showed up for a visit her parents had been in their graves a good five years and more. She just stared at everyone, her face very white and left without saying anything. Everyone could see she was pregnant.
"She didn't return for quite awhile. And, when she did, she had a little son with her. I saw them when they arrived. I was younger then than you are yourself. She stepped out of her carriage looking as fresh as a daisy, a young woman wearing a white gossamer kosode and over it a purplish robe which was left open rather carelessly to show her red hakama. Her hair was rich and thick and very long, quite beautiful in the sunlight. She took no trouble to cover her face and instead stood holding her little son's hand as she directed the servants to carry this trunk and that trunk to her old rooms in the north wing.
The old woman sucked on her remaining teeth for a moment, "Basically, she was a bit of a shock. She lost no time in ejecting the furniture and the nephew's koto collection from her old rooms and we had a hard time of it running back and forth finding a place for everything elsewhere. Her little son she kept close to her side, almost hidden in her long sleeves. But I managed to creep close and got a better look than most at him."
It was time to lid the crocks to last until the next year and they set about stretching the thick cotton covers and winding several loops of wet leather cord around them, twisting them tight with a stick. It was only as they were starting to apply the thick layer of clay that the girl felt she could press for more information, "Well, what did he look like?"
"What did who look like, Dear?"
"Izayoi-Genkai's little son."
"Oh, him! He was a hanyou. As you would expect."
A hanyou, a half youkai, and as cute as a puppy. Indeed, he had sweet little puppy ears standing up out of his hair just like Hiroko-Chan's akita."
The girl stopped, and stared at Oshaberi-San, waiting for more.
It wasn't long in coming, "He was a handsome little fellow to be sure, and I mean not just in face and form. But that he had eyes that seemed all shiny gold and hair as white as snow. He seemed to be about six and very shy and timid the way wild things are. I thought he was beautiful and wanted to play with him badly but he never got far from Izayoi's side. He seemed lively enough when he played but if any of us other children came near she would call him back to her immediately and occupy him with some task. She made him count and practice calligraphy with a brush. She tried an old koto on him but he kept breaking the strings for some reason.
"Left alone, he would do things like climb the trees to their highest branches and he took to throwing persimmons at some of the older boys. They gathered around the base of the tree one day when his mother was taking a nap and tried to get him down, teasing him with his odd appearance. He got very angry and started to climb down but his foot slipped and he fell the rest of the way. It was a long fall and we heard an awful crack when he landed. I was sure he had broken his neck.
"I ran to wake his mother from her nap but she was already up and out in the garden like a fury. I declare she called us every name in the book and was just about to start picking up rocks from the ground and start throwing them at us when the little boy sat up crying. She grabbed him up like he was a sack of rice more than a hurt child and strode off towards the house.
"There was a lot of yelling going on in the master's rooms that night and her voice was lifted over all. I tell you it was strange; I've never heard a woman act like that since. It was very unnatural.
"We didn't see hide nor hair of them for several days after that and then they were gone. In fact I think it was the day of the Boar that year that her husband showed up out of a cloud in the sky and collected her. I didn't get to see that, I was in bed with the toothache. When he was gone, they were gone; bag and baggage."
Oshaberi-San sighed, "I wonder if we were right to feel so, but the fact is that all of the household, including me, were glad that they were gone. They were so very strange you see." She paused and there was a silence as they rinsed their clay covered hands in the cold water of the spring. There was a long moment before Oshaberi-San spoke again, "Still, it was a shock when the end came. None of us were expecting it."
The girl sent a glance out of the doorway. The sun had moved during the story and the light on the lintel was that of early afternoon. She was late; would they wait for her? This was what they had wanted to hear.
Suddenly, Oshaberi-San spoke again, "It was a mess. I was pregnant for the first time, so I guess that was about six years later. Yes, that would be right, me in my first marriage. It was about this time of year and we had lots of rain. The weather was very bad. I remember it was raining and thundering when Izayoi-Genkai showed up at the house for the last time."
The old woman seemed to gather herself, as if preparing for a plunge into cold water. "It was late and there was a pounding at the front door. I was in what was then the west hall finishing my duties and watched as the guardsmen opened the door to the rain outside. I recognized the boy right away, he was older but that was about all. He looked to be about twelve and was dressed all in scarlet. They were unattended and he was supporting Izayoi-Genkai by one arm over his shoulder. Who knows how they had gotten there, perhaps he had carried her all the way on his back for there was no horse in the courtyard.
"They fell in through the door rather than stepped though it and there was obviously something very wrong about Izayoi-Sama. She…she was changing before our eyes. She lifted her head and looked at me a moment and I all I could see were her eyes. They were bright and speaking at first and then the lids fell away and they started to drip with fluid, showing the inner sides of the lids. She seemed to be trying to speak but only a groaning wheeze came out. One of the guards had stepped forward to lend his assistance but when she made that noise he dropped her arm with a shout. She tumbled to the ground. I dropped to my knees, my legs were so weak with fear.
"The boy spoke to her comfortingly and shifted her to lay in the hall, looking around for help. The guards had backed away and only I was near." The old woman twisted her fingers around and stared at them, "I wish I had been braver, but I was pregnant with my first child and very defensive. I crawled away from them only to find my forehead against the wall.
"I had to look around then to find another way out. But she had crawled after me. Her face was right next to mine and her eyes were yellow and seemed to be melting like wax. She seemed to see me even so and pulled back, kneeling upright on her knees She tried to say something but what came out was all garbled and then there was her son, trying to put his hands on her shoulders. She just seemed to pop and a terrible stench came out and the body dropped forward out of is hands landing on its face. The scanty hair on its head was snow white and the hand that I could see was like a bundle of twigs.
"We both jumped up and ran from the smell and as I pushed the door shut between us and that thing I could see he was crying. As was I. He tried to reach out to it, saying 'I'm sorry,' but I slapped his hands away from the door and ran. I always have wondered if my cowardice then was why Tojo was born to be such a disappointment.
"Others had come in response to the disturbance and eventually someone was found to collect the remains and a priest was gotten up out of bed. I am told that the remains cremated were those of a very old woman. The boy did not stay long after that and as no one would now use that hall in the west wing for fear of its evil influence it was knocked down the following year and replaced with a porch. Even so, that porch has a reputation for being haunted despite the best efforts of a soothsayer and a whole bevy of monks repeating the sutras over the years."
Oshaberi-San sighed heavily and fell silent, thinking of things in the distant past that only she now remembered. The girl waited quietly for a bit but nothing more seemed forthcoming and the work was done with. The last of the crocks having been sealed while the old servant spoke. With a murmur of thanks the girl left the springhouse and made her way to the crest of the hill where the main road south passed by the old manor.
Even though the appointed hour of their meeting was long past the oddly-assorted pair that had been asking about Izayoi-Hime were still waiting in the evening light. The girl bit her lips and with a heavy heart went to meet them, "I'm sorry, if there ever was such a person here it must have been a long time ago." she said immediately. "No one remembers anyone of that name these days."
The pretty face of the young woman who had asked her for the information fell a bit and she thanked her in a soft voice for going though the trouble to ask around. She then walked over to her waiting companion with a shake of her head and the two walked off along the road. Her companion looked back over his shoulder once, golden eyes sliding from hers to a slow survey of the manor and its surrounding lands but he said nothing and with the flick of a scarlet sleeve turned away.
The girl watched them go with an odd mixture of emotion. The couple seemed happy together and she could see that they now walked hand in hand as they turned a bend in the road before disappearing from sight. They seemed happy, why disturb that happiness with a memory of old sorrows? What good would it do? Shaking her head to free herself of such thoughts the girl trotted back down the hill to the old manor house in silence.