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The Peachwood Flute (sample)
Brook and Julia West
Originally printed in The Shimmering Door, edited by Katharine Kerr and Martin H. Greenberg, HarperPrism, August 1996.
Two weeks without rain had turned the Takeda road to dust that puffed up at every step and clung to the folds of Mitaka Noriaki's patched and shabby clothing. Ricefields shimmered bright green in the heat, and the shrill buzzing of cicadas so filled the air that Noriaki could not have said when the flute-player joined them. The music gradually emerged from the background drone until first Noriaki, then the other travelers, glanced back to see the gray-clad musician striding along behind them, face shadowed by a reed hat.
The flute music added to Noriaki's annoyance—awakening longing and bitter memories, reminding him why he was now ronin, a masterless samurai. Once he, too, had played the flute.
The others seemed to enjoy it; Taro the laborer's pregnant wife, Kiku, turned again to smile at the flute-player and Taro, carrying bundles hung from a shoulder-pole, nodded his head in time with the music.
Rikichi, the gambler who had hired Noriaki to guard him on the road, mimed a flute of his own—much to the amusement of his friend, Saburo.
Curling his hands into fists, Noriaki suppressed the urge to shout "Begone!" at the flute-player.
"Make way! Make way!" came from behind. Noriaki stepped aside and his fellow travelers scattered to the roadside. The flute-player drifted after them, never missing a note or even seeming to notice the two bearers and their jolting kago palanquin. Noriaki almost smiled at the passenger's grimace.
The travelers returned to the road. "Must be an important samurai," said Saburo.
"Too important for comfort," snickered Rikichi. "The state of his backside showed on his face."
Noriaki fell in behind Taro and, to control his annoyance, concentrated on the bamboo-patterned cloth wrapping Taro's bundles. He found his fingers running over his sword grip—back and forth, like his thoughts. He tried to empty his mind, as the sorcerer-monk Asahiko had taught him to do in those dark days after Noriaki's dying lord had cursed him.
"Where are we?" The bewilderment in Kiku's voice—and the fact that Taro's bundles had ceased swaying—brought Noriaki back to himself. "This isn't Matsugo."
Rickety houses straggled alongside the path. Uphill, dry weed stalks stood tall in neglected vegetable patches.
Kiku hurried on down the path, hands clutching her swollen belly. "This is not Matsugo," she said. She stopped short before the last house—or what remained of it. It had burned to the ground—long ago, judging by the plants growing between the remnants of charred timbers. "Where are we? There's no village on the road between Kumano and Matsugo."
"Whatever village this was, no one lives here now—let's go on," Noriaki said.
"Right," said Rikichi. "This place makes my bones crawl."
Behind them on the road came the sound of pounding feet, and "Make way, make way!"
"Another kago?" said Saburo. "Don't often see one in a day—let alone two in less than an hour."
They moved off the road again, avoiding the charred timbers of the burned house. The kago looked like—it was—the same one. The samurai's expression had gone from peevish to apprehensive.
"Stop!" he said. The bearers set down the kago, eyes wide as they stared at the ruins. "You. Ronin." He pointed at Noriaki. "I just passed you but here you are again. This village, this house . . . passed them, too. Does the road circle back here?"
Noriaki bowed slightly. "I do not know. The laborer and his wife are local. They say this is not Matsugo, the village we should have come to."
The bearers, probably a relay hired at the last post town, glanced at one another and then quickly away.
The samurai grunted, looked from one bewildered face to another. "On to Matsugo, then," he said. "My message cannot wait."
Noriaki watched the kago disappear around a bend in the path. Hmmm. This was not the main road, merely a path up a valley. Somehow they had strayed from the road. He hadn't been paying attention—had merely followed Taro, trying to ignore the flute music.
"Flute-player—do you know this place?" He glanced around when there was no answer. "Where's the flute-player?" He looked up the overgrown path, past the burned house and weed-choked paddies. The gray-clad man in the reed hat was gone. Perhaps he lived further up this path, and, intent on his music, they had followed him into this valley.
"Flute-player? Don't remember seeing him since we stopped here to look around," Rikichi said.
"We seem to have followed him right off the main road," said Noriaki. "We should return quickly, before nightfall."
Kiku took a long, shuddering breath. "Let's go. I don't like this place." She adjusted the folds of her kimono and set off, back the way they had come. Taro, Rikichi and Saburo followed, walking quickly and casting worried glances to each side.
Noriaki followed slowly, hand on his swordhilt again, uneasiness crawling down his spine. His training, both as a samurai and a priest, told him something was wrong. Every movement of a weedstalk in the wind, every mouse scampering across a deserted courtyard caught his eye. Something very wrong here.
"Make way, make…." The pounding of feet came from ahead of them this time, and the five huddled on the roadside, staring at the kago that stopped, without its passenger's request, in the road before them.
The samurai's face was white now, eyes staring. "Hora! You again. This village is accursed!" The bearers set the chair down, and he stepped out. "This is the only road, but every time I pass the headman's house, it leads back here."
"This looks like a side road," said Noriaki. "If you turn around, you might find your way back to the main road."
"True." The samurai stepped back into the kago, the bearers lifted it, turned, and started off.
"Wait," said Noriaki. "I think we'll see them again." The group stood quietly, breathing hard and staring around, but not panicked. Not yet.
It didn't take long. The kago, moving slowly now, came into view. The bearers shook with more than exhaustion—their dusty faces were chalky with fear.
"As I thought," Noriaki said. "We cannot leave."
"He can't leave!" said Rikichi. "Doesn't mean we can't." He set off down the path at a dead run, Saburo trailing behind him.
The samurai stepped out of the kago, glanced at the running gamblers, and said to Noriaki, "Seems we are here for the night, ronin." The setting sun's rays cast copper highlights on the samurai's jacket. "The headman's house is not so tumbledown as these. All of you—better come with me."
When Rikichi and Saburo joined them, no one said a word.
Cover design by Danica B. West, all rights reserved. Photomanipulated from a detail in the triptych "Fujiwara no Yasumasa Playing the Flute by Moonlight," 1883, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, public domain.
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This page created 22 September 2011
Last update 21 March 2014