Tokio smiled, and wiping her dirty hands on her kimono, stood to survey her new accomplishment with pride. It felt good doing some constructive labor; ever since her Aizu days she'd given up most meaningfully labor with the exclusion of her little plot at home. Saito was the one who traveled all over Japan and fought sensuous battles against evil; she was the housewife left to raise two unruly children. She knew some would consider her raising her children as hard work, but she didn't view it that way at all. Her children were her pride and joy and doing something like this was really partly a distraction from Tsutomu's unfortunate conscription and a way to feel usefully now that they were grown.
"Fujita-san," she turned to see Yamamoto Yaeko, a fellow Aizu native and participate of the Boshin War during the fall of Aizuwakamatsu, approach her. She led Yaeko over to the still unplanted cherry blossom trees. "They are going to look so wonderful once they reach ripe old age."
"They are like children," Tokio said with a wistful expression, "hard to plant and even harder to manage over the years, but so beautiful when they finally reach maturity."
"I agree completely."
"Do you remember when we met in Aizuwakamatsu, Fujita-san?"
"I remember you hated the haircut I gave you."
"When the castle was besieged in 1868 women were allowed to fight during the night. Before the sortie I started to cut my hair and you were there to help me finish it properly."
"It wasn't done very well."
"Nonsense. You were a great help and your brother Takagi-san as well."
"Morinosuke was a child pretending to be a man," she could still recall how happy he'd been to do his share during the upheaval of the siege. Even Morinosuke had seen the toll war was bringing those around him and had offered his assistance.
"I'm curious about something I heard of your husband Fujita-san."
"Is he really a Shinsengumi captain?" She met the woman's eyes with unease, wondering how she knew that, but after a moment concluded that Yaeko's Aizu connections had provided the pivotal information. After all both her and Saito actively kept in touch with former Aizu who might have let that information slip to Yaeko. It wasn't like she was untrustworthy, though Saito might have said otherwise.
"He was the third unit captain once."
"To even meet the man, much less marry him, must have been quite the honor. I heard Matsudaira-sama arranged it?"
"He was our go-between along with Hiroshi Yamakawa-san."
"I remember him! He was the one who did the lion dance. How wonderful it must be to know so many important Aizu men!"
"Having known Hiroshi and Katamori was a true blessing, but I wouldn't say that of Goro-san. He can be a real thorn in my side, case of point being his reluctance to even let me come to Aizu."
"He sounds delightful." She smiled stiffly, wondering if Yaeko just happened to admire all men of Aizu indiscriminately as she and the other nine women finished planting the cherry blossom trees for the Amida-ji Temple.
Tokio smiled as she left the Amida-ji Temple grounds with Yaeko and the other women. The fall air was crisp and her kimono felt insignificant against the chill, the leave covered path was another telltale sign it was inching closer to winter. Yaeko was talking about the past again, remembering them all of their time spent in Aizuwakamatsu. She glanced back, catching sight of the temple's tiered rooftop amidst the beautiful orange leaves. She threw her shoulders back, wondering why she felt so on edge this evening and hurried up to match Yaeko's pace.
"I think we should stop at the nearest teashop and discuss old times," Yaeko suggested.
"Sounds fun," Susumu agreed.
"It's not the worst idea," she smiled. The teashop was rundown, the prices were thrifty, which she absolutely loved because she hated spending too much and Saito would have appreciated it, and the company wasn't bad either.
Yaeko insisted Tsuruga Castle must be the topic of discussion when the conversation started to change to families. Susumu started on a sad story about one of the injured men she'd helped while taking care of the soldiers in Tsuruga. Tokio, half listening, wondered why Yaeko was so intent on talking about the past. She'd helped open the Doshisha University with her Christian husband Rev. Joseph Neesima and her brother Kakuma Yamamoto and when the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese Wars came she took part as a nurse. She had many accomplishments to her name before the Meiji and after so why this insistence on the past? She glanced at Yaeko and wondered if maybe she was putting emphasis on this topic merely because she was with women who'd planned minor parts in the Boshin War? Maybe she was this way with people who'd fought in the Russo-Japanese War too?
She dismissed the idea and sipped her tea, catching a brief glimpse of blue out of the corner of her eye. The person, whoever it was, had disappeared into a nearby shop. She frowned but disregarded the notion that someone was stalking her. She wasn't nearly as paranoid as her husband, his mantra however that paranoia served a purpose raddled in the back of her brain as she finished her first cup.
"Would you mind taking a little walk with me?"
"Certainly not." Yaeko linked their arms as they walked away from the confused women. "Did you notice our little shadow?"
"I wasn't certain about it. I thought maybe my mind was playing tricks on me, but if you noticed the person too…"
"I did notice a while back. I'm not generally paranoid, Fujita-san, but when someone has been following us all evening, from my residence when you picked me (if not sooner), up to Amida-ji and then the teashop, I've become a little anxious."
"Who do you think would follow us?"
"Disgruntled Ishin shishi?"
"That sounds…" like something Saito would say. "But why would they come after me?"
"That's a good question and to be honest I doubt they are after you. I was a gunner back remember?" Yaeko had sortied at night during the siege and having been taught by her father she'd used her knowledge of the gunnery to help defend the castle.
"I do not doubt it. I keep a kaiken on me at all times. You can never be too careful."
"Is that really going to be necessary?"
"If he attacks us I would wager it would definitely help."
"How do we even know it's a man?"
"We should assume a man because he'll be stronger," her hand clutched Tokio's arm tightly and then her pouch with the kaiken inside. Tokio's stomach did little flip-flops at the idea she'd see another death after all these years. Life had finally been peaceful and Saito had stopped personally going out to Aku Soku Zan people and now violence was lurking just around the corner.
"I really don't want this."
"You think I do?" Yaeko fired back angrily. She composed her face quickly, no doubt to ward off suspicion from their follower that anything was wrong. "All these years I've worked hard to make up for the killings I committed. I hated murdering people, but I couldn't stand by while my clan was attacked so I did the only thing I could…I fought and I protected the people important to me. When the Boshin War ended I was relieved, but bitter too. I'd lost a lot and my brother Kakuma-san lost his eyesight and suffered imprisonment too. He was a valiant man and the Meiji painted him and other soldiers like they were nothing more than vagrant criminals. I couldn't stand that, but I preserved and when I met Joseph I knew I'd found a place for me again. I turned Christian and devoted my time to the University we founded together. I did so much… I thought I had atoned by helping those wounded in the two Wars since and through my prayers, but apparently that isn't enough. Is this a test God?"
Tokio glanced away, feeling pity and anger all at once. Someone as kind as Yaeko didn't deserve the pain the Boshin War had inflicted on her and her anger surged venomously in opposition to this cruel world. Why did things of this magnitude happen to people like Hiroshi, Yaeko, and Saito? Why did they suffer such wounds and bear them from beginning to end? Could they never be freed of the burden of death and the pain it caused? That was human life, Tokio determined, living was struggle and fighting through life's trials was the mark of a great person. She squeezed Yaeko's hand and marveled at the woman's will to life; truly she'd only respected a few people to this extent before; Saito, Hiroshi, and Katamori topped her list but now she added Yaeko's.
"This is convenient," they both jumped, Yaeko's hand slipping into the pouch on her arm. "Please don't try and draw that silly kaiken. It won't work against someone as skilled as me."
"Goro-san!" Tokio said when she recognized the unmistakable voice of her husband.
"What are you doing in Aizu?"
"Well I was trying to spy on you, but it seems I failed horribly. I'm marking this one up to old age. I must be getting much worse because of this blasted knee."
"I can't believe you followed me all the way from Tokyo. What were you thinking?"
"I was thinking a woman traveling unaccompanied wasn't the smartest idea. Did I not tell you that when you departed?"
"Don't you dare turn this around on me, koishii, I'm the one who nearly had a heart attack and poor Yaeko here was practically having a breakdown."
"I was not," Yaeko crossed her arms. She scrutinized Saito with an unflinching look. "This is Goro Fujita?"
"Can you turn around?"
"Why?" He asked as he pulled a cigarette out.
"I want to admire every angle."
Saito raised an eyebrow at the suggestive tone in Yaeko's voice and gave Tokio a, 'is she serious and nuts?' look.
"Yaeko Yamamoto-san this is Goro-san."
"Yamamoto-san sounds familiar."
"I have a brother named Kakuma. He served Matsudaira-sama in Kyoto."
"I think I remember him vaguely. He was not a bad solider, but Yaeko sounds familiar too."
"I served in Tsuruga Castle as a gunner."
"You're that Yamamoto?"
"Fine woman," Saito lit his cigarette. "Tokio, you keep good company."
"Thank you." She found herself walking behind them as Saito and Yaeko started reminiscing about the old days. "Where are you staying?"
"Same inn as you."
"I'm still good at sneaking."
"That's terrible. How could you not notice?" Tokio felt her sense of inferiority rise as she ducked her head and kept walking. Saito was chuckling as Yaeko laughed.
"You've been quiet all night," Saito pointed out that night.
"I've been thinking."
"How happy you'd be if you'd married someone like Yaeko." Silence engulfed the tiny inn room she'd rented. Saito sat up in the futon, giving her 'are you serious' look as he reached for his cigarettes. "She's so much better than I am. She's a fighter, a real fighter, and she's resourceful, a great judge of character, and she plans ahead about everything."
"Are you done pitying yourself, Tokio?"
"You really overreact to inconsequential things. You realize that right? It's terribly annoying."
"You overreact too!"
"Only when a substantial amount of evidence is put forth. I talk to Yaeko once and you say I'd be better off with her? You are a nutcase, wife."
"I am not. Yaeko is only one of many women who'd suit you better."
He closed his eyes and she could see the annoyance in the set of his mouth and the lazy way his fingers pressed the cigarette to his mouth. "We've been married how many years, Tokio?"
"If I'd be happier with someone else do you think I would've stayed this long? Sure there are more resourceful women in fighting situations, there are better lovers, better housekeepers, better everything than you, but do you know what you do best?"
She smiled weakly, "Annoy you?"
"That and you are the damn best wife Goro Fujita could have ever asked for. Tsutomu and Tsuyoshi would say you're the best mother too."
"Now stop whining and let's sleep."
"What if I don't want to sleep?"
"Now you want futon time?"
"Are you complaining?"
"No," he smirked as he put his cigarette out. After all these years he knew how to correct Tokio's poor self-esteem moments and he always ultimately got what he wanted by doing this.
Tokio glanced out the window. The sky was clear and the sun twinkling. Some birds sang out of sight. How could birds sing so sweetly, uncaring of the world around them? The men had arrived earlier from the field and since then Matsudaira and Yamakawa were cooped up in discussion with some Shinsengumi members and other top officials. She had tried to understand what had happened during the fighting, but no one had been responsive to her questioning. Okura had finally grown sick of her sly asking over pouring their tea and waved her from the room. She was merely a woman after all and had no place in the society of men and their politics. Even Okura and Katamori who treated her well thought little of her inquiring nature.
She rested her head against the window pane, noticing a tall figure smoking below. She couldn't make out who it was, but it appeared to be wearing the blue haori of the Shinsengumi. She frowned, why should she be like a bird that did nothing but sing sweetly, absently gazing at the world, instead of doing something?
"Tokio-chan," Teru's voice echoed from the inner chamber. She withdrew from the window, knowing now was not the time to think of sour things and went to find her mistress and the other ladies. Likely they would gossip, their chatter much like the birds she'd been contemplating. But what would their fate be after today? Would Matsudaira surrender the castle? It was useless pondering, she wouldn't know until the last moment because she was a woman.
"Fujita-san?" Susumu called, Yaeko shook her head and Susumu, becoming feed up with her listless stare, snapped her fingers in her face to bring her back to reality.
"You were spacing out."
"Please forgive me."
"What were you thinking about?"
"Your story about Tomoe Gozen reminded me of the past. Don't worry about me," she smiled.
Saito frowned as he crouched on his knees, his bad one was acting up again, but he ignored it and instead focused on the word inscribed in stone. Byakkotai, their bodies thankfully allowed to be buried by the antagonistic Meiji government, laid beneath a monument erected some years ago by Aizu. Katamori, having heard of their loyalty to Aizu, their lord and families, had written a poem for them and inscribed it as his way of honoring them.
"No matter how many people wash the stones with their tears," he began.
"These names will never vanish from the world," the man who'd spoken the last words approached and crouched down beside him. He carried a bouquet of small chrysanthemums, lilies, and Sakaki and laid them on the right and left side of the monument. "Do you know any of them?"
"No," Saito answered.
"Do you know the tale?"
"They were a part of the Byakkotai. The Byakkotai were a group of high, middle, and lower class boys between sixteen and seventeen fighting during the War of Aizu. The Byakkotai middle class boys were cut off from the rest of the group and climbing Iimori Hill they saw what appeared to be the castle on fire."
"Then realizing their lord and families were gone they committed seppuku. Only one survived the encounter due to a failed attempt and was saved by a peasant."
"What was his name?"
"Sadakichi Iinuma," the man pressed a hand to the monument, "do you remember me Hajime Saito?"
"Well you remember me," Saito narrowed his eyes at the man and wondered how he recognized him after all these years. "You're Iinuma-san?"
"We never met but I remember seeing you around the castle. All you Shinsengumi had a frightening air, but you were the worse of them all next to Hijikata-san."
"Do you come here all the time?"
"I live in Sendai and once a year I like to drop by around this time."
"I'm sure if they were alive they'd say they appreciate you not forgetting about them."
"How could I ever forget?" He smiled wistfully. "Most of them were my friends and my comrades, I'd never forget them. A lot of people don't understand why I still hold the memory of them so close to my heart; they think after so many years the memories would fade and I'd give up thinking about them."
"Only those who have never lost anyone can think so idiotically."
"You might be right."
"For me the Shinsengumi will always be remembered until the day I pass on. The world has changed and I've changed right along with it, but I'll never forget how much they influenced me."
"They helped make me who I am today." Sadakichi, holding back his tears a moment ago, let them out with a heavy breath. Saito sat down in seiza as Sadakichi pressed his kimono to his cheeks and making hiccupping noises.
"I never tried seppuku," he said at last, "but I bet it hurts like a bitch."
"It does," Sadakichi said with a chuckle. He closed his eyes and settled into seiza beside him. "Are you from Aizu?"
"No. I'm here because my wife, Tokio-san, is helping honor the dead Aizu by planting cherry trees at the Amida-ji Temple."
"Tokio-san is your wife?"
"You know her?"
"When Yaeko Yamamoto heard I was going to be in Aizu and about the cherry trees she rushed from Kyoto to be here to greet me. I met Tokio Fujita-san that day too."
"You know Yamamoto-san well?"
"Not really. She just keeps tabs on a lot of the old Bakufu and Aizu supporters. She likes to help people, but to be honest I find her kind of intimidating for a woman."
"I'd wager that's good instinct on your part, Iinuma-san."
"I plan on staying away from her. Fujita-san seemed nice. I find it hard to believe you're married."
"I get that a lot."
"Now if you had children I'd really be blown away."
"I do." Sadakichi stared wide eyed at him for a long moment before bursting out laughing. "What's so damn funny?"
"Nothing," Sadakichi smiled impishly as he scratched the back of his head and looked away. Saito scowled and reached for his cigarettes. For a man in his thirties Sadakichi sure acted like a child, but then again he'd tried to commit seppuku at a tender age when most grown adults would have been too afraid to, even Saito was somewhat impressed with the Byakkotai's bravery and loyalty.
Japanese words this chapter:
Byakkotai-19 boys age 16-17 years old who committed suicide when they mistakenly thought Tsuruga Castle had fallen.
Kaiken-a dagger carried by samurai men and women. Useful for self-defense indoors when a katana and wakizashi were too inconvenient. Women carried them in their obi or in a brocade pouch with drawstrings for easy access. The kaiken was usually given to women as a wedding gift.
Lion Dance-a military tactic employed by Hiroshi Yamakawa during the war to get the troops into Tsuruga Castle. He disguised them as a marching band and snuck right pass the besiegers. Katamori himself was moved to tears and morale increased due to this brilliant ploy.
Sakaki-flowering evergreen tree native to Japan, Korea, and China.
Tomoe Gozen- late 12th century female warrior and concubine to Minamoto no Yoshinaka.