I do not own InuYasha or any of the characters created by Rumiko Takahashi

Chapter 209

Kaede's next stop was to give Daisuke his medicine. As usual, when the weather was fair, the old man was sitting outside. The morning found him sitting on a stump. He had a stick in his hand, and a knife, and was occasionally whittling on it. A very small group of wood flakes had piled up near his feet.

For the moment, things were quiet. A chicken meandered around the yard, scratching at the ground, and from time to time, raising her head to swallow something, while still keeping a sharp eye out on the cat who slept in the sun, curled up in a ball. The old man flicked a wood flake at the cat. She flicked her ear, opened her eyes briefly, then decided it wasn't worth moving.

Daisuke, though, was not so content. He looked down the road both ways, and frowned, then flaked another bit of wood off of his stick. "They're late today, aren't they?" he asked. "You're sure there's no baby coming today?" Lifting the piece of wood close to his face, he ran his finger over it and shook his head.

The cat flicked its ear, determining his speech wasn't aimed at her, but his daughter Hisako lifted her head. She was sitting in a sunny spot in front of the house, sewing. Pausing in mid-stitch, she gave her father an irritated look. "I'm sure, Otousan," Hisako replied. "Stop pouting. Why are you sitting in the shade? You ought to come sit in the sun. It'll do you good."

"I am not pouting." The old man shook his head and crossed his arms, the knife clenched in one fist, the wood in another. "I'm making chopsticks. This is where I like to sit when I do that."

"Is that what you call it?" Hisako said as she deftly worked her needle in. "It looks like you're being gloomy to me. I don't know why you're so gloomy today, Otousan."

"Bah. What do you know?" the old man said. He held the wood in his left hand and sliced off another flake. "My back is on fire today. And why? What are you doing, slipping sticks in my sleeping straw?"

"Hardly, Otousan." She shook her head. "You're too contrary as it is without doing anything like that. Maybe if you left your hut and walked to Tameo's house and saw someone once in a while, you'd feel better. And the moving would do you some good."

"And now you're trying to cripple me more, daughter." He put his wood and knife on the side, then with a satisfied sigh, scratched his stomach. That done, he looked down the path and saw something. The old man squinted, trying to make out the figures. "Who's that coming up here? I can't make them out."

Hisako lifted her head. "Kaede, Otousan, Kaede. Who else comes to see you with you talking like you do? And she has that pretty young miko with her, too." She squinted, shading her eyes. "Looks like the young miko's husband's with her, too."

"Her husband?" the old man asked. "Do I know him?"

She repositioned the cloth she was sewing over her lap. "Yes, Otousan, you know him, even if you've tried to chase him away a few times. Don't you remember? We talked about him the last time she came by. The man who brings you firewood."

"The man with the long white hair?" Daisuke squinted down the road, but they were all still fuzzy shapes to his eyes. "He sure seems to like red. Don't think I've ever seen him in any other color."

"I don't think anybody's seen him in any other color," Hisako said. "Time to give this up for a while. Someday, if you quit making me stop, you'll get a new under kosode." She stuck her needle in the cloth she was sewing, folded it and put it away in her basket.

"Feh. This shirt is still fine," the old man said.

"If you like to wear rags," his daughter said, moving the basket out of the way. The chicken, curious, began moving in her direction.

Daisuke began chuckling. "I bet that wife of his has seen him in more than red. Bet she's seen him in at least his skin color. Wonder if he's got white hair everywhere?"

"Otousan! Behave yourself, old man." Hisako stood up. "Who else is going to put up with your sorry self when you need wood and water, eh? You even chased off your great-grandson with that tongue of yours. I'm the only one besides Kaede willing to put up with it."

As she shook her head, he just chuckled some more and whittled away.

Soon the group of three walked up, and bowed their greetings to the old pair. The chicken, almost ready to peck at Hisako's basket, squawked at the newcomers, and headed back to the side of the house.

If InuYasha had heard Daisuke's off-color joke, he didn't act like it. Instead he merely smiled. "Hey, Daisuke-jiji," he said, looking down at the old man who was intentionally not looking at anybody. "How's your firewood? You ready for another load?"

"Don't know," the old man said. He did look up at his daughter, giving her a defiant glare. "Someone I know doesn't let me get near it."

Hisako used her walking stick to move towards the old man. The cat, almost hit by the old woman's cane, meowed once, then hurried out of the danger zone. For a moment, she licked a paw as if to deny being disturbed; then with tail held high, went to take over the spot that Hisako had just vacated.

"The last time you tried, Otousan," Hisako said, looking down at her father, "you were in your bed a week with your back. Some old men don't have the sense not to pick too much up. It's not like you don't complain with your back, anyway. I'm not going to let you make it worse." She shook her head. "So this old woman has to do it for you."

"Heh," Daisuke said, glaring at Hisako. "You just used that as an excuse to try to get me to walk more. 'No more than two sticks at a time, Otousan.' You were trying to two-stick me to death." He took a deep cut on the wood with his knife. "I'm not falling for it. You fetch it."

"It would be good for you if you did it that way, Otousan It'd help your aches," his daughter said, shaking her cane at the old man. She turned to InuYasha. "He's probably got plenty for the next tenday, but I'm not sure how much more. I could get one of the other men to chop it, InuYasha-sama. You've been kind, but don't feel like it's your job." She looked back over her shoulder at her father. "Some people don't appreciate it."

InuYasha had been trying hard not to laugh at how they bantered. Taking a deep breath, he managed to smooth his face. "I'll bring a load down in a few days," the hanyou said, ignoring her offer to find someone else. "It's already cut."

"You like chopping wood, do you?" Daisuke asked, looking at InuYasha, a wistful look on his face. "I remember when I was the best wood chopper in the village." He sighed, and rested his chin in his hand. "It seems like yesterday and forever ago."

"Someone has to do it," the hanyou replied, not unkindly.

Suddenly, the old man looked up. "How about splitting logs?" the old man said, and then, thinking about what he was about to say, he gave a low, snickering laugh. "I hear some logs have long and pretty branches, with a really hot center. I hear those are the best." He dropped his head back into his hand, sighing regretfully once again. "Been too long since I got to play with one of those. Those were sweet days. Some of'em said I was best at that, too."

"Otousan!" Hisako said. She rolled her eyes.

InuYasha's narrowed his at first, and then he just shook his head. A smile touched his lips as glanced at his wife. "Old man, maybe you have a point."

Kagome's cheeks colored as she realized what the old man was talking about. Kaede shook her head. Daisuke's regret over lost time vanished as he watched them, and he laughed.

"Otousan, no wonder you don't have anybody who wants to visit you," Hisako said. She picked up her sewing basket. "Only those of us who are stupid enough to be related to you, or have business even bother."

"Bah," said the old man. But he seemed very pleased with himself. "Give me my medicine, Kaede-chan." Daisuke, still chuckling, had a broad grin plastered over his wrinkled face. He held out his hand. "You need to bring these two around more often. Makes an old man laugh. That can't be bad."

Hisako just shook her head.

Elsewhere in the village, Maeme, Seiji's wife, was anything but mirthful. She stepped out of her house on the edge of the village and began walking towards the river, a basket of clothes in her arms. For a moment, she turned around and looked at the building she was leaving.

Her house was not the largest of the houses in the village by any means, nor was it the smallest, but it was beginning to be run down. The roof beam sagged a little, and two of the outer boards showed the marks of where her husband had kicked them in a fit of anger.

Still, she did what she could do to keep the grounds as nice as she had the means for. A neat kitchen garden grew not far from the house in a sunny patch between her home and the small house where her brother-in-law lived. That one was more ramshackle than hers, but it was empty at the moment. She had watched Yoshimi take off earlier, a jug strapped across his chest and an axe in his hand, off to do whatever it was he did in the woods instead of tending to his share of the family fields.

As usual when she was at home, her face was guarded out of reflex, a solemn face that neither looked to challenge anyone, nor offer any resistance, nor revealed its true thoughts. Even now, when there was no one to watch her, she wore it, although her feelings leaked from her face's mask. Her eyes glistened, as if she was close to tears, but not quite ready to let them go.

Turning away from her home, she stepped out on a path that few used beside her. It wandered past the family's dryland fields and a small wood lot, to meander at last to her washing place at the river. There were other places that women who were not close to a well went to wash their clothes in the flowing waters. On fine days, there might even be three or four or five of them at a time, working their laundry. Those places could be friendly, gatherings of shared work and companionship.

But for Maeme, they might as well not have existed. Although she missed the gossip and the sharing, the women who would listen to her problems or try to comfort her after one of her particularly bad times, she had learned long ago that Seiji didn't approve of her going there, especially after the day she showed up with a dark bruise on her left cheek, setting the village gossip chain on fire. After he had added several more bruises to her collection to make his point clear, she had explored the river bank and found another place, far from the others. It wasn't a bad place for laundry. It had rocks along the bank, and a swift little rivulet that kept the mud away. There was a space free of tall trees with low shrubs she could stretch the wet cloth on to drain until she was ready to go home and hang it on the line. It did the job.

Although the work was harder when she did it alone, the place was peaceful, and she didn't have to find excuses when Seiji had one of his fits. Besides, her husband with his disdain for anything he considered women's work usually would leave her alone, at least for the time it took to wash her things, and she would have a bit of quiet away from any need to tiptoe around her husband.

Reaching the bank, she set down the basket on a flat piece of stone she had dragged to the sight a long time ago, and then she tied her sleeves back. Taking out the first piece of cloth, she knelt down and dunked it into the water. As she worked the cloth clean on a scrubbing stick, she began to sing in time with her motions:

"I look over the sea,
and my tears fall like rain,
I envy the seabird
who fly away over the waters."

Only when she was sure she was alone would she sing these songs. When she was at home and her husband or brother-in-law was around, she did nothing to attract their attention if she could help it.

"I look at the mountains,
and my tears fall again,
I envy the eagle
who flies over the mountain."

All of her songs were about grief and sadness any more. It was her rebellion, to admit to herself that things weren't right, to refuse to paper over the darkness that was taking her over more and more with each day, but it was only something she felt safe to indulge on when she was very sure she wouldn't be overheard.

"How long I ask,
walking through the rain,
to the shrine in the mountains,
but the kami are silent.

"I look at my place,
and my tears fall like rain,
my wings are clipped
and I will stay in this cage."

She sighed, and began to drub more in earnest, humming the tune, but not adding to the verses. She stood and lifted up the cloth, and began to wring out the white length, and as she did, she repeated the final stanza.

"I look at my place,
and my tears fall like rain,
my wings are clipped
and I will stay in this cage."

She readjusted her hold on the cloth. "I dare not start to cry." As the water squeezed out and splashed back into the river, she gave a bitter smile. "So, sheet, I'll let you cry for me instead."
Done, she stretched the cloth out over the closest bushes, and began another, this time, drubbing and wringing in silence. Once she was finished that, she had to walk further to get to open bushes to dry her clothes. She did this a lot; she knew just which bushes to do to. They were almost like old friends. While she was there, she heard a splashing in the water. For a moment she froze.

"Tell me again, Otousan, why we had to come to this spot on the river?" a man's voice said.

"Because," said the second voice, sounding older and more gravelly, "Shinjiro, my son, it's the best fishing hole near the village."