Chapter 4: Cook For Your Life!
(Hideyoshi's great tea-master Sen no Rikyu said once, If you do not follow the Way of Tea, it is as nothing.)
The crowd in the stands hushed as each competitor, representing the Kitsune, the Tengu, and the Tanuki respectively, began their preparations.
The Oden Fox had it simplest, calmly working at his wheeled oden stand as he had done for many decades, moving with the elegant efficiency of long practice. His son scurried about feeding sticks of wood to the fire and skewering tentacles, as needed.
The representative of the Tengu peeled potatoes with great flair, tossing each one high in the air. Then, flash, his sharp little knife skinned it and the pale raw body sank to sleep with the others in a bucket of water.
A small metal brazier had been set up on the grass of the baseball diamond, and a woven-straw mat laid out. Doumeki knelt there and considered. His arm was still in its sling. Little Tamame untied the sling's knot from his neck and let the arm drop. He could move the fingers a little: it would be enough. In the heat of the full sun he was starting to sweat. Seeing it, Tamame unlatched his high collar, baring his throat and a narrow white ribbon.
He smiled briefly at her. Tamame's furry cheeks blushed and she settled at another side of the square cloth. The Oden Fox's Son waved to her with a tentacle on a stick and she blushed again, until her father knocked her on the head with his knuckles and her large, jewel-like eyes hardened into flint.
Then the Generallisimo clutched at Doumeki's jacket and put a sharp point against a pulsing vein revealed by the open collar. "Remember," he hissed. "Bag us Billiken, or it's the gin-trap for you. Get me?"
Doumeki stared at him.
The Generallisimo let go awkwardly, stepped to the square-framed fire pit, and in a puff of steam transformed into a fat iron tea-kettle, its round belly already glowing a fierce, passionate red from the coals it sat over. Angry steam spurted from the spout.
At the judge's table, Watanuki had leapt to his feet, his spidery limbs and cracked little head spasming into a fit (a nice, zesty, angry one, as opposed to the 'Something's eating me!' the 'I am a lovesick and tactless fool,' or the 'One breath from hysteria' varieties. So it was all good.). Time to begin.
(Sen no Rikyu continued, The Way of Tea is this: First boil the water, then make the tea.)
"No no no no no no no no no no," exclaimed Watanuki, clutching desperately at his head. "He's wearing Himawari-chan's ribbon around his neck in a pretty little boooowww! I knew it! They've been bonding while my back was tuuuuuurned."
"There, there," said Ijyuin-san. "I'm sure he likes you best."
Watanuki spluttered, tripped on a leg of the chair and ended up falling to land face-down on the grass. "You sound like Himawari-chan," he mumbled.
"I'm sure she likes you best, too," Ijyuin-san said bracingly.
"'Mnot some kind of a pervert."
"Oh." Ijyuin-san cocked his head curiously. "Did you think love and sex were the same thing? Huh."
Watanuki spat grass from his mouth and looked up. His eyes narrowed. "There's blood on his throat," he said tensely, moving to rise.
A friendly but heavy foot between his shoulder-blades held him down. "Why don't we sit quietly and watch events unfold a little longer, hmm?"
It was easy in the austerities of making tea to lose oneself in the bowl and the whisk and the shush of breath through nostrils. But Doumeki did not like to not see things. He looked around.
To one side, delicious smells emanated from the oden stand. To the other, a little guy in a zoot suit shook an enormous frying pan over his fire with delicate movements of his deceptively pudgy wrists.
Watanuki had gotten up from rolling around in the grass and now sat at the table dangling a narrow white ribbon between two fingers and poking his tongue out. Idiot.
"What did you say?!" spluttered Watanuki.
Oh. Thinking out loud again. "Oi, I'm trying to work here."
Watanuki spluttered. Then, "Hey, how can you hear me?"
"Are you... alright?" Watanuki asked.
"You shouldn't be here," Doumeki said bluntly.
Watanuki flushed bright red and clenched the ribbon between both white-knuckled hands. Suddenly, Doumeki couldn't breathe. He clutched at the ribbon around his throat with his good hand as his vision pulsed red, then black...
When he opened his eyes he was looking up at the sky, with a side view of whiskers. Tamame helped him sit and fussed over him. It was really annoying. At the judge's table, Watanuki leaned back from his ribbon as if it were a snake, looking deeply unhappy.
Right. He propped a tea-bowl back into his bad hand and picked up the whisk. Then make the tea.
So after he almost murdered his friend with someone else's hair-ribbon, Watanuki didn't have much heart for paying attention to the proceedings. Still, eventually there was a plate full of black sludge mixed with potatoes sitting in front of him. (TenGU TenGU Yaaaaaayyyy!!!) He took an absent-minded bite. It was rather nice, with a good balance of spices and a solid heartiness to it and then his head blew up.
When he pulled himself back from the mushroom cloud, he saw Ijyuin bright red and shaking as beads of sweat crawled down his face. The Oden Fox and his son, trying a sample plate of their competitor's brewing, leaned weakly against the stall, their tails frizzing out as they vulpinely struggled to clean their plates. On the other hand, Doumeki munched stolidly through his serving and held his plate out for more. Watanuki felt it was probably maybe okay to hate him again now.
There was a plate of curry by the kokkuri board. With shaking hands, the two other judges worked a whiskey-glass planchette over the letters. "T H E S I G N S A R E N O T F A V O U R A B - Oh, the next entry?"
(Give me an O! Give me a D! Give me an E! Give me an N! Gimme gimme gimme some o' that tentaclllle.) There's nothing like a good box of oden to make a man's day: it's a classic. Watanuki found himself lost in visions - day after gentle day of working at the same stall, a stall replenished as each board of it wore out and was replaced yet always essentially the same, and the flow of customers weird and wonderful, a steady river of familiar faces gradually added to, and working, old sure paws in tandem with young uncertain ones, and the recurring oden, an existence of fresh raw ingredients and old familiar flavours...
The only thing to make it better would be a chilly day, to encourage a cold body to curl around the warmth of the oden. It was still pretty good.
"Y E S."
One more. Tamame-chan the little tanuki girl trotted forward and placed a cup on the table in front of each judge. (Do your best Watanuki-kun and Doumeki-kun!)
"Hmm, this is very interesting," said Ijyuin-san, turning his cup around delicately and sipping from it. "Is that overtones of bergamot? Nice legs. It has a lovely warmth to it. But I don't recognise the brand."
"It's tea of the river of life," said Watanuki, his voice strange. "That idiot made it for me once."
"Ah, for a special occasion?"
"No, not at all. I was just wet from the rain and walking under the cherry trees, and I gave my umbrella away, and, well, things. And he shoved this at me and dumped a towl on my head. Probably decade-old dusty leaves from his grandad's forgotten tea caddy," he added loudly. But he smiled, eyes dropping to the steaming cup his hands wrapped around.
Watanuki and Ijyuin-san put their fingers on the planchette and let it move quasi-erratically over the kokkuri board. "M Y S O U R C E S S A Y..." Watanuki spelled out, then paused. "N O. Oh well. Guess you lose, Doumeki!" Then he clapped a hand over his mouth. "Oh dear."
"That's it," shrieked the red-bellied tea-kettle, transforming back into the Generalissimo, "You die!" He drew a saber and dived for Doumeki who, legs numb from kneeling in front of the tea-things, was awkward to rise. The judges' table fell with a crash as Watanuki leapt over it, spidery legs moving desperately.
But the person who reached Doumeki first was Tamame-chan, who threw herself in-between, arms akimbo, her whiskers shaking with rage.
"I can't let you dishonour yourself, Dad."
"Get out of my way, girl. We will be avenged for this disgrace.
"No, Dad, no!"
The Generalissimo snarled and suddenly darted to the side, snatching up a white ribbon off the ground. He wrapped the ends about his paws and wrenched: distantly a girl screamed. Doumeki fell to his knees, choking. Watanuki frantically seized the ribbon from the Generalissimo. He realised he'd never actually beaten somebody to a bloody pulp before, but that it would be fun to try.
Ijyuin-san said suddenly, "This has all been very fun, but I am afraid that I must be going if I am to be home for dinner." He stood up, the last ropes about him falling away elegantly, and whipped away his blindfold. He replaced it with a domino mask that he pushed up his nose with one elegant finger, placed a tophat on his head, and removed a small bouquet of flowers from his buttonhole which he blew on gently. They blossomed into a flock of twittering, multi-coloured birds that pulled him into the sky as he waved cheerily down at them, the rays of the lowering sun glinting off a golden ring on his left hand.
"Hey!" said one of the tengu. "Where did the trophy go?" Indeed, the large wooden Billiken statue was nowhere to be seen.
"Look," said the Oden Fox's Son, pointing. Across the sky soared a banner, with the words The Man of Twenty Faces Always Gets His God scribed across it in friendly pink letters.
"Wow," said the tengu chef.
The Generalissimo and Tamame-chan looked at each other. They looked at the bare pedestal where the statue had leered. They looked at Watanuki trying to both bandage Doumeki's bleeding throat and strangle him to mewling, pitiful death simultaneously while their very own rented cheerleader looked on awkwardly, reaching out a hand only to snatch it back. Himawari raised a small, unhappy cheer. Doumeki pulled her into a sideways hug, and as she stiffened said, "That's my brave girl." She laughed shortly, dropped a peck of a kiss on his forehead, and ran away. Watanuki spluttered. "What, did you want one too? Erk. Can't. Breathe."
The Generalissimo and Tamame-chan looked back at each other, threw themselves into each other's arms, and started bawling.
"I think we've all come to a lovely, mellow place here," said Yuuko, who appeared suddenly, clapping her hands and smiling predatorily. "My bill will be at your burrow in the morning," she added to the Generalissimo, who simply nodded absently and patted his sobbing daughter on the back. Yuuko's smile widened. "Plus surcharges for late payment, inconvenience, rough handling, emotional hardship, and missing my afternoon shows." The Generalissimo waved a distracted hand.
"But we didn't do anything," Watanuki hissed frantically as he pulled the bandage around Doumeki's neck nice and tight.
"Ah, ah, ah," said Yuuko, lifting one admonishing finger. "It was ineffable." And she sauntered away, her long black braids swinging jauntily.
"Erk," said Doumeki.
The Zashiki-warashi tugged at Watanuki's sleeve and blushed. "Um. Would you maybe not be interested in the Go Fish and Fan Tan Showdown with the Edogawa Kappa Conglomerate next month?"
The last of the sun's orange rays slanted over the stands. "Hey! a shout shattered the calm of the tableau. "What the hell are you kids up to?" The moment shattered. Watanuki blinked, and found himself standing in the centre of the baseball diamond with Doumeki as a horde of small animals scattered from a caretaker brandishing a rake. A cloud of crows flew up around them. The schoolboys fled.
stumped along the street.
"So," said Watanuki. "Dinner at my place?"
"Hn," said Doumeki.
"Why is there a book labelled A History of Shogen Ryori, as Practiced in Three Great Monasteries sitting in my bag?"
white ribbons Okay, so couldn't fit an explanation without bogging down the story still further. In the story where Watanuki rescued a hydrangea bush, they used Himawari's hair-ribbons as a link to pull him out of the void under the hydrangeas. I s'pect Himawari was trying to pull a similar trick, it just didn't work out how she expected. But everybody's fine and nobody lost an eye. It was ineffable.
Erk. Can't. Breathe. Am arguing that Doumeki's blood transfusion shared his immunity to Himawari, thus diluting his own protection a little. Because it fits the plot that way.
Kappa Japanese water sprite. I think they need to cover their heads with bowls to keep their pates dry.
Edogawa 'Edogawa' literally means 'the Edo river' (Edo being the old name for Tokyo.) Also, check out the extra reference to Man of Many Faces. Go me!
And a very special thanks to:
Daisy Ninja Girl
You made me feel so much better about writing this.