Rain On Blank Pages: A Tale of the Kousetsu Hyaku Monogatari (One Hundred Stories)
(Note: This one belongs to stillcircee, 'cause she Ninja'd me, and to Icka, 'cause she deserves it.)
The story ends in a small room with a window facing west. Not an elegant room, especially; that is to say, the occupant didn't care much about appearances. If you were to be blunt you'd have to say that it belonged to someone with fairly neat habits but who tended to get sidetracked all too often if the number of open books, dog-eared notes, crumpled scraps of paper and unfinished cups of tea meant anything. Not to mention the dust: a sure sign of a person who emphatically disliked having their things disturbed.
Not that the room's occupant could have cared less; the view was the important thing—and the light coming in through the window, oh yes, of course; good lighting was vital; it made it that much easier to write. Or to think; that too.
And then there was the road below… It should have followed a gentle rise, ending when the swell of the horizon brought it to a peak some ways off past the bridge beside the rice fields. But this evening the rain and a low, ground-hugging mist took it to less of a conclusion that a possibility; it was a little unnerving, the way the road just vanished like that into a nothingness—it made your eyes stray after it, gave you a headache trying to follow the things that weren't there.
But roads were that way, weren't they? They were meant to be followed. All of them, no matter where they led… or they weren't really roads, just places to walk while you were lost.
They think I don't know, I guess. That I'm dying, I mean—and I do realize that they mean well, keeping it from me like this. But I really wish somebody would just SAY something about it. It's making me kind of nervous, the way they're being so careful around me.
Somebody's moving around in my room; I can hear them putting things away and neatening up. Wish they wouldn't do that, I don't like my books disturbed. It's probably Saiko—she's a good girl, even if she doesn't understand why I write. None of my children do, except for Natsucho, and she's as messy as I am, so I doubt it's her… and besides, seeing me like this hurts her. Poor thing, growing up without a mother, and now she won't have me either. The others won't cry much; I love them, but… Natsucho's more like me.
Stupid fever; I don't have time to be sick. I have writing to do.
But I think I'm out of time.
It could be worse, though… A fever isn't the most awful way to die; I should know, I've seen people die in ways that—but I wasn't going to think about those, was I? Think about something else, Momosuke. It's hard enough to think at all; feel like I'm burning up and freezing all at the same time.
So cold in here. Somebody should probably shut the window; it lets in the damp.
I like the view, though… I always have. Possibilities, roads are possibilities; they never end.
"Is he getting any better?" The scholar's youngest daughter asked the question of her older sister as the young woman slid the bedroom door closed as quietly as possible.
A silent headshake; Seiko looked resigned, wiping briefly at her eyes. "He's sleeping, I think. …Kou-chan, you know he's never been very strong since he fell through the ice last winter. And this fever—" She paused, one hand lingering on the door's latch as her tired gaze rested on her sibling's troubled face. "Something like this was bound to happen sooner or later. He's been so restless lately, and going out in that rain last week was… stupid." Seiko sounded almost angry. "Just stupid. Why does he always do such stupid things? Chasing after stories—"
"Don't call him stupid; he's our father." Natsucho's voice was muted by tears.
"It was still stupid," pointed out her sister with weary logic; "And he'd say so himself, father or not. And then he'd probably just go do it all over again, if there was something interesting out there." Seiko sighed, fingers sliding down the ricepaper surfaces of the door with a soft shushing sound, skin on smoothness. The hallway was dark outside their parent's room, lit only by a single lamp hanging to one side; dim red firelight spilled in from the staircase to the common room a story below a little ways away.
Natsucho was crying silently; tears slid down her young face as if mimicking the rain that had been falling steadily for days. After a moment, her older sister moved forward and wrapped her arms around her thin shoulders, pressing the child against her and resting her own chin on top of the young head. "Shhhh, shhhh… don't wake him, let him sleep…"
In the room, the man's hands clenched a little in his quilts, trying to grasp something solid; after a second, the weak fingers relaxed again, too feeble by now to hold on. In one corner a brazier glowed, steam rising from the pot of herbs and water that simmered there in the hopes of making his labored breathing easier.
Silence, except for the rain outside.
Poor thing; Natsucho, don't take it so hard. Things end—lives, stories, journeys. And then you start the next one, whatever it is. I left a book of blank pages on my desk; I hope you find it and write something in it for me… please, Natsucho? A new story… And endings-- they're just hard, endings are. It'd be nice to bypass them, take a shortcut and just… step aside, but I can't do that.
I remember the ones who could, though, the ones who walked on the side of the road instead of on it.
I remember… The last time I saw them was in a marketplace. It was about—nine? ten? --ten years ago; Sachiko was pregnant with Natsucho, and I bought her a fan with butterflies painted on it (that's where she got our daughter's name from, 'summer butterfly') at the market. I went to look at a used book seller's stall afterwards… They had a volume that I wanted, a book about odd customs in the Tzu Province, and I—
They were just there, with no fuss or flourish, just like they had been right beside me all the time. It was raining then too, just like now. I remember; it always seemed to be raining where they were. It shocked me later on, how little surprised I was to see them. It was as if I had been expecting them to show up sooner or later.
I suppose I had.
The man's harsh breathing deepened and slowed, moving into dreams or recollection so deep it might as well have been dreams. His lined face relaxed into calmness, the years seeming to flow away and pool into shadows around the bed, leaving him an appearance that almost mimicked youth.
It was raining then too...
"People who walk around with their noses in books tend to fall off cliffs a lot, don't they, Sensei?" The deep, rather sniggering voice had always sounded vaguely muffled, as if coming from a depth somewhat deeper than the surrounding air could afford. Momosuke hadn't even jumped, blinking past the edges of the volume he was peering into; afterwards, he could not have said why he hadn't. Somehow the brief jolt of astonishment seemed to be entirely swallowed up in an odd, half-terrified rush of –happiness? relief? –at the familiar voice.
"You ought to know; that's what I was doing the first time I saw you." With hands that only shook a little the scholar closed the book, carefully replacing it on the vendor's shelf and looking down through the rain-damp gloom. "It's been… ten years; you don't look any different." He shifted the books that he had chosen to buy carefully into a one-armed bundle in the crook of an elbow.
"Heh; we don't tend to, not much. Besides the usual, that is… Even actors have to put off their masks now and then." An amused eye glittered from the overhanging folds of the fuda-seller's dingy white wrappings. The eye considered him unblinkingly, crinkled slightly. "You've changed a bit, though; quite the published writer of note, aren't you, Sensei?"
Momosuke squirmed; somehow Mataichi could always make him feel pig-ignorant and naïve enough to squeak when he talked. "Ahh—they liked my Hundred Stories… and there's been three or four things since then—"
"Mmph. Nothing about us, I hope. Still chasing marsh-phantoms, Sensei? Bad for your health—" The fuda-seller's gaze dropped; he seemed to be rooting around in his pouch for something. Beyond them both, the book vendor (an elderly creature of indeterminate sex seemingly made of more bone than skin) squinted at them both with deep suspicion.
The writer sighed, wondering vaguely why he wasn't more shocked at the other's sudden showing up. "Not any more… or not as much. Every now and then I look into something but mostly I've been writing at home." He shifted restlessly, looking out into the rain. There were lines on his face that had not been there ten years past, but his expressions were still as curiously innocent as they ever had been. "Mataichi? Are—are Ogin-san and Chouji—"
A flash from that considering eye again, before it dipped back towards the pouch. One corner of the fuda-seller's mouth crooked up a little. "Oh, they're around… somewhere. Eh; here we are…"
He pulled out a thin slip of paper, marked in blood red and black against white; when he offered it to the scholar, Momosuke dropped his books and backed away instantly with his hands firmly behind him. His eyes were huge, and he shook his head frantically. "OH no. Not one of those, not for me. W-what've I done for you to—"
The short figure snickered low in the back of his throat. "Calm down, Sensei; excitement is bad for the liver. It's not one of my, ehh, usual charms; it's just a bit of paper and ink. You can think of it as a placeholder." Mataichi reached out with one inkstained hand and tucked the ofuda into the top book in the scholar's stack. "Useful; if you put it in something you can always find where you laid it down, no matter where you left it."
"Oh yes. Really, Sensei. It works for other things besides books, too." The ofuda looked innocuous enough, at least… thin lines twisting and curving, tangling and crossing and then coming together to a single point of black and scarlet. The always-present eye was there, right below the blot; but this time there was no suggestion of blood or death about it… for once.
Gingerly he touched it with one fingertip; it seemed to almost nudge him back in a friendly way, like a cat. "Er… "
The fuda-seller laughed low in the back of his throat, turning to glance out towards the rain. "Don't thank me, Sensei. You can if you want to, later on."
"Never mind, Sensei."
Restlessly the man twisted a little beneath the covers; his breathing deepened and slowed, grew harsher than before and then settled into quiet, rasping gasps. The lamplight shivered across his desk, throwing shadows from the piled books and glittering from the occasional line of ink.
Mist was stealing in through the window now like thin, tendrilly fingers, the ghosts of dead vines. It slid through the air in long coils, wrapped around books and furniture and bed, touched paper and brushes with vaporous curiosity.
Something fluttered from inside a book; the mist swirled and twisted away, not touching.
I don't want to die yet.
So much I want to write about; so many stories I haven't put down on paper because I had to take care of the family business or deal with our children or-- So much… The stories were only a drop in a very deep bucket. I want to write more, see more, go places. Is that selfish of me? I should be thinking 'I want to stay with my family' or—or—but what else do we have at the end of our lives? And I don't want to die yet.
I don't want to LEAVE.
Cold… Somebody really needs to close that window. The mist must be getting in; when I open my eyes, I can barely see the bridge only a few hundred feet away.
Does everybody who dies peacefully feel like this? Almost angry, beneath the stillness? I don't—feel very peaceful, even lying here. Staying alive seems less important than being able to just go, just follow the road and the stories. But I can't do one without the other, now, can I?
I almost did once, though.
(…..almost, with them….)
The rain was beating harder now: on roofs, on the river, on the fields, on the closed shutters of windows. Shadows rippled and dappled in the downpour, moving, still, moving—
Shadows lived in the rain. Rain gave them movement where daylight tethered them to stillness. Almost anything could happen in the rain.
I wonder if I'll see them?
Probably not; they're probably… busy, doing what they do. At least I suppose they're still out there, wandering in the dark, going where they're sent. I almost went with them that time, almost stepped off the edge… to where they are.
…but they wouldn't let me. They told me to go back—even Ogin-san. And I did, I went back out of the darkness into the daylight and I lived my life; I married Sachiko, published my book, wrote so many other things, raised four children (Oh Sachiko, why couldn't you have lived longer? We weren't as close as we could have been, the writing came first, but I miss you) and lived, just like they said I should. Lived, instead of going with them out into their world.
(I wonder if Sachiko's waiting for me?)
I'm so cold. I wish someone would come in and close the window. I can hear the windchimes hanging outside, ringing in the rain.
Did they know that I regretted not going with them? Just now and then, but… I'm such an idiot. So stupid sometimes… Mataichi would say something like 'Still so naïve, Sensei? You should watch that.' They lied to me, led me on, laughed at me, terrified me, nearly killed me over and over—
--saved me, made me wonder, made me think—
--showed me the truth—
--let me live—
I remember talking with Mataichi later that afternoon in the market; it was funny, I kept expecting to turn around and find him gone… but he stayed right there, poking around in the books. I stumbled over a box at one point, and he grabbed me by the elbow; I had forgotten how strong he was and how cold his hands were, but he helped me up and shook his head like—like I had been saved by somebody normal.
And then he said "Sensei, doesn't it ever bother you that you're on such close terms with Death?" And I blinked at him and told him No, I just considered myself as having a head-start on everybody else. And he laughed at me again and said "I always did like you. I also always thought you were an idiot."
And then I think I said something like "You were probably right about that, too."
He left later; I didn't see him go, and I never did see the other two. I never found out what they had been doing there, either. I wanted to—
I wanted to go with them… or at least part of me did. Wanted to step off the ledge and fall, leave the world behind like leaping off a cliff into cold water. At least once you've leaped you don't have a reason to be afraid of falling anymore; maybe that's why I wanted to go. When you become one of the things walking in the dark, then the darkness isn't as scary anymore.
Admit it, Momosuke: You still want to go with them, even now.
And why not? You're falling. You're dying.
What have you got left to lose?
His favorite books were piled beside the bed; they had afforded him a distraction when he had been well enough to read them, but the scholar had been too weak to read for several days now. In the one on the top, though (a rare edition of traveler's stories that he had bought from a passing bookseller's cart), there was a thin slip of paper—a bookmark, probably.
There was no reason whatsoever for it to make the occasional rustling noise. It was probably the draft from under the door, or mice. Or something.
And then it stopped.
(Find me. I'm here.)
Everything feels so far away now; muffled, distant. I don't even hurt much anymore. I wonder if that's a good thing?
Probably not, if I was going to live. But I'm not.
There was somebody here earlier, crying; one of my daughters? I'm so sorry, Seiko, Natsucho… I never did have sense enough to come in out of the rain. But don't worry; you're good girls, you'll be alright and so will the boys. Momochirou will do fine, running the business. He'll take care of you all.
Everything's grey, though; not black: grey, even though my eyes are closed. Funny. Grey like mist, the way the fog gathers at the base of the road where it climbs the little hill by the rice fields… I can see it behind my eyelids, just like Mataichi once described how a person was supposed to see the revolving-lantern show of their life when they died.
Where's my revolving-lantern show? Don't I rate one?
………so far away from everything now. Doesn't seem to matter much, the pain in my chest; it's far away too. Good.
I guess I'm dying now, aren't I?
Well? If I am, won't I feel it?
…… I hope it doesn't hurt………………
………………………………..well, that's not very impressive………
Uh, hello? I'm ready to go now—
This is stupid. I'm lying here, waiting to see what dying feels like. Momosuke, you ARE an idiot. All I feel is… I don't know, coldness. Grey fog. No lantern show for me, I guess.
Mataichi, you were wrong. It's just grey, with the sound of the rain on the windchimes and not much else.
I hear footsteps outside in the hall; people coming towards my room, talking softly. Familiar voices? Must be the doctor again. Go away, just leave me alone in the fog, please; I don't hurt anymore, or not as much. Not at all, really; everything's still and quiet, calm like the mist.
The door's sliding back; something taps on the floor, something chimes like metal ringing against metal. Doesn't seem worthwhile to try to open my eyes, though; everything's so still.
"Found you." A brief crumple of paper and a laugh. "Useful little thing… Sensei? --It's been a long time, hasn't it, Sensei?" There is a slow grin in the words as eyes flicker open, almost shocked. Almost.
"…..heh; you look so surprised. What, did you think we had forgotten you? What do you think, Ogin?"
"Mm. He's still the same. Such a bother to be looking after..." A soft, sultry laugh. "Oh well. Things will be a little different now, I suppose. Help him up, Chouji." A pause, then, as someone stands up easily on the wooden floor.
Then silence, and nothing else.
A door slid open. "……..Father? Father, are you awake? I've brought more medicine….." Footsteps crossed the floor, moving lightly. There is a pause, a long one, and a cup is very carefully sat down on a desk before the child sinks down in hysterics beside her father's empty bed. The sheets are still warm, but there is no-one there, no-one living or dead or anything else. People come running; there are shouts of consternation and wonder and a search begins (as if it could do any good), but—
Rain beats as hard as fists on the window, which has been closed all this time.
In the rain, the four huddled a little back under an overhang beside a dango-seller. Mataichi glanced sideways and up at the young man standing uncertainly beside him; he nudged a pointy elbow up into ribs. "Here, Sensei."
The scholar took the dango with the air of someone who expects it to fall straight through their fingers; when it stayed right where it should have, he blinked and took a bite. "Was that…. all? I mean, all? I thought….. It, it didn't hurt or anything….."
The overlarge man on his other side shot him a dark, toothy grin. "Would you feel better if it had? Can arrange something—" The woman beside him made a delicate snort in the shadows of her rain-cape.
"Good." Chouji chomped an entire dango with one bite; the confection disappeared between white, too-sharp teeth. "Got business to take care of two valleys over." Without another word, he dropped his empty dango-stick into the mud and moved out into the rain. Ojin sighed, then glanced at her two companions with a small, red-lipped smile before pulling her hood down and following. Her gaze lingered last on the young man; there was something glittering in her eyes, dark and promising and full of amusement. And, just perhaps, a very small touch of approval.
That was new. Lots of things were.
Mataichi splashed out through a puddle, apparently assuming as usual that the scholar would follow; still more than a little hesitant, the young man walked gingerly through the rain after him. A laugh bubbled up into his throat as he stared at his hands, dripping with water, and then at the muddy footprints he was leaving. "I don't believe it… Nothing's different, nothing's lost. I can feel, move, eat, breathe…"
The ofuda-seller stopped in his tracks; one ironic eye regarded him. "'Nothing's lost?' Really, Sensei? What about that?" And he nodded down the way they had come, towards the two-story building with the lit window on the second floor.
There was a silhouette in the window, a small one.
For a long moment the young man hung back, half-unwillingly, half-torn; his eyes grew bleak, and all the pain that he had wondered at not feeling suddenly wrote itself across his face in words of anguish. "Can't I at least--?"
"No. You go with us, or you go on." Mataichi tugged his dingy white wrappings down, huddling deeper into the damp cloth. "We never look back, not even Ogin." He was silent. "Don't think that it hurts any less, being the way you are now; it doesn't."
"H-how….. Being the way I am now…..? So, I AM d—"
"Are you? Does it matter? We don't care, either way, so long as you don't rot." Mataichi grinned sideways up at him in that familiar way. "We bookmarked you, Scholar-san; put our seal on you when you were alive and then we caught you when you were on the knife-edge of death. Why would we care if you fell to either side of the blade?" Laughter in the rain, then, and for a moment it was as if the intervening years had never happened, the sound was so familiar.
"So come with us now, boy, or go on alone. No going back, not even for us. Never for us." Ogin-san's words were hollow against the falling rain; her head was bowed as she pulled her hood up, tucking a strand of loose hair inside, and she stepped out to stand beside the Trickster, a rain-damp swirl of grey cloak wrapping a form that showed its beguiling shape even through the folds. "Never for us," she repeated softly, and this time the hollowness was filled with something less cold and a little gentler. And not for you either, if you come along this time." She turned her head, a line of light edging her cheekbone. "Or are you tired of stories at last?"
Chouji said nothing, just grinned and stepped out as well to stand massive and dripping beside the others. The quick gesture he made might have been taken as an invitation, though.
"Why… why do you want me, anyway?" The young man shivered suddenly against a chill that was more internal than external. "Why come back for me? What good am I to you?"
It was Ogin that responded, uncharacteristically; she smiled, white teeth flashing in the gloom of her hood. "You always had one quality that we're lacking in, boy, something that we've managed to forget: compassion."
"Compassion? I don't understand—"
She shook her head in exasperation; two white hands reached out and caught the scholar's, pulling him out into the rain. He let her pull him, let her take him to stand with them—
(--as if he had been waiting for it. He supposed he had.)
"Pervert writer. Always such a bother… Never mind." Ogin-san pulled her hood back down; the young man could see her smile beneath the folds. "You'll understand sooner or later. You've got plenty of time to think about it now, after all."
And they set off walking together, four indistinct figures in the rain. The road beneath their feet faded out into darkness ahead of them, but it was easy enough to see where they were walking.
The story ended in the very early hours of the morning, with a young girl pillowing her head on her father's desk, weeping. Outside, the rain tapped at the shutters of the closed window, rattling them with an occasional gust of wind.
After a little while, breath still hitching and unsteady, Natsucho turns her head to look back at the empty bed for a long moment; and then, face still wet, she opens the blank book lying beside her on the desk, dips her father's pen into the ink, and begins to write…
Owari ja nai.
Ysabet's Notes: Sigh… I started this story a long time ago, after my friend Icka got me thoroughly hooked on the '100 Stories' series. Warped, weird, whatever you want to call it—I loved it, even the times I watched it from behind a VERY large sofa-pillow with one eye hidden (just like Momosuke). Sometimes you just need creeping out, I guess. And sometimes you just HAVE to write the next bit… so please pardon my little flight of fancy here; it's been bugging me for ages to get it finished, and tonight was the night.