They say that downriver, where the water spreads as far as the eye can see and beyond, lies another land. There are fish aplenty, but also monsters who upturn ships and drown unwary seafarers, tearing the surface with their great fins and men with their teeth. Kawa-jin was happy where he was - fishing on the river - with the hope of a fair catch and a good supper. Fishing was a welcome rest from the shôen. With water between himself and the farm lands he could forget the problems, the drudge of his days, the lack of labor on the farm, the demands of the palace...
He was looking at the point his line met the water and following its reflection in the pale dawn when he spied a form on the quiet water surface. Though the tales of great vengeful fish sprang to mind, this was something floating, not something swimming. He steered his boat closer. It was a tall black thing, not a fin, but a tall eboshi, a noble's hat: something thrown away from the palace, no doubt. He recognized it because the shôen supplied food for the nobility that lived cloistered behind its walls and he had briefly seen those people, the men at least, as they entered or left the city in fine carriages.
A little vexed at himself for wasting his time on this useless object, he turned his attention back to his line. But at that moment he saw something else; something else recognizable and altogether more frightening. He forgot all about the hat, all about the fish. It looked like there had been a terrible accident. Pulling on the oars he neared himself to a person he saw floating in the water, kept up by air caught in his robes, face blue with cold surrounded by an undulating cloud of hair. Was this man dead or simply chilled to unconsciousness?
In his sorrow, it was a question Sai had never asked himself: Is there Go after death? He had given himself to the water, welcoming its cold until it felt like warmth, accepting the biting until it dulled and he was surrounded, clothed in darkness he became one with.
But now he was dry, aching all over and lying on something hard. There was rough fabric against his skin and a smoke smell coming from somewhere near. His head throbbed. He had no idea what being dead was supposed to feel like but doubted it felt like this. And the anguish was still very much alive when he thought of his Go, tainted by injustice and shame.
"I have nothing."
"You're not only inept, you're dishonest."
How could people believe that of him? Anyone who loved Go as he did would never do such a thing. Go is my life.
There was a noise of someone moving close to him and he opened his eyes to see the face of an unfamiliar woman; a smiling face. Who was she? And where was he? Around him were the walls of a strange room with an earth floor. The woman's face was worn and looked older than those he had known in the city, but softer too. Sai tried to smile back, for her sake. She looked at a loss for words, relieved. Though his last days at the palace hovered in his mind, with alternate pangs of anger and despair, he realized, as he looked at this woman, that here was someone who was happy to see him alive.
The next time he awoke there were more women, talking together. Sitting up, he found his hair was all loose and spread about him and that he was wearing a shapeless grey tunic, the like of which he'd never seen. He must look terrible, but he felt better. They hadn't noticed he was awake. Sai had grown up among the women of the palace and was used to their company. As Go tutor he'd had the privilege of meeting them directly. When they weren't learning Go, the ladies at court often chatted with him. They would tease him about how they envied him his hair.
But these women here were different; they weren't only talking, but also working. It looked like they were beating reeds on the floor. With difficultly, he moved closer to watch them and saw they were collecting the tiny grains from the dried plants. He must be among commoners and this was probably their food. Hunger! Though his disgrace and exile he had been too morally sickened to eat at all, no wonder he felt so weak.
One of the women saw him standing watching. She made a sound and all of them looked up at once. In an instant he was surrounded by faces.
"Oh…the one from the city."
"You're better, beautiful one."
"Oh, the eyes he has."
"Look at his hands."
"Get him some soup."
"It was my husband who saved you," one of them said, "You fell in the water. Do you remember? We'll take care of you and take you back to the palace." Then she asked, hesitantly, "What should we call you?"
Her expression was kind, but the question stabbed him: his name, his family, his rank: all were meaningless. She only wanted to know how she should address him, but it brought his despair to the surface... "I can't go back there!" he replied. He hadn't the strength to say the rest: I don't belong there anymore. I have failed. I am nobody. His knees buckled and the floor came up to hit him as consciousness and the swarm of faces slipped away.
Author Notes: I wrote this story for the Blind Go challenge (round 10) on LiveJournal. I'd like to say a big thank you to my beta Awintea who gave me a lot of helpful advice.
Many details that Ive put in this story come from The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon and The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki - works written in the Heian era about the life among the nobles of the court - Yes, manga can lead you to read classical literature!
Other historical details I found either in library books or in different corners of the internet.
Shôen - A collective farm. All land technically belonged to the Heian emperor but was allocated to common people who farmed it. (From east-asian-history DOT net; textbook 480; chap5)
Heian women - In the manga we see Sai with a group of Heian women who he's teaching Go to (He refers to his past when he's telling Hikaru that yes girls can play Go). However, Ive since read many descriptions of these times, where women at the court would remain behind screens when speaking to men who were not members of their families. So I imagine that Sai's job as tutor must have allowed him special priveliges.
Sai's hair - In an illustration in The Tale of Genji (Penguin ed) there is a picture of Genji himself with long hair like Sai's, and so I never questoned the historical accuracy of Sai's look. However, apart from this, all the period pictures Ive seen of Heians with this long hair style have been of women. This is how I came on the idea that Sai would have been envied his hair by the women at court.
Disclaimer: Hikaru no go is the property of Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata. This is a nonprofit-making fanfiction.