The barley rain of the third month was falling, warm and pleasant, on the burgeoning green wilderness of Seimei's garden. Hiromasa watched it dreamily, remembering from time to time to take a sip from the cup in his hand. Beside him Seimei sat at his ease in a white hunting robe, leaning back against a pillar with his right leg up and his right arm resting on that knee. The silence between them was broken only by the plash of the rain on low-growing plants. A frog hopped out from the undergrowth and made its ungainly way towards the verandah they were sitting on before vanishing out of sight beneath it.
"Ahh," Hiromasa said, remembering something. "Seimei, was that a frog just now?"
"I mean, was it just a frog?"
Seimei gave him a look. Hiromasa frowned as he felt his face growing hot.
"I mean, things in your house-- they aren't always what they seem."
"So- was that just a frog?"
"Ahh. Good." Hiromasa reached for the wine jar.
"Why this sudden suspicion of my frogs?"
"I think you already know," Hiromasa muttered.
"Fujiwara no Tomoyori?"
Fujiwara no Tomoyori had taken to visiting a lady in the eastern part of the city. One evening he'd just turned into her street when an old man suddenly appeared in front of the carriage. The servants were startled as much by the extreme ugliness of his appearance as by its unexpectedness. He was short of stature and broad of chest, like a labourer or peasant. His features were flat and coarse, his mouth was wide, and his staring eyes showed an unhealthy yellow in their whites. But he was dressed in a magnificent hunting costume of green silk and a black silk court cap, and he held a gilded fan in his stubby fingers. This fan he snapped open in front of Tomoyori's ox, and in that instance it stopped dead and could not be goaded to move another step.
"Fellow, what does this mean!?" one of Tomoyori's retainers cried, making a threatening gesture at the old man. The man gave a deep sniggering laugh and darted away into the shadows, so swiftly that the servants were unable to see where he had gone.
There being no help for it, Tomoyori descended from the carriage to proceed on foot. But when he reached the ox's side he found his way blocked as by an invisible wall. He could not move a step forward. Greatly perturbed, but more angry than fearful, he ordered his men to take the carriage back. The ox turned placidly about when they pulled on its bridle and returned the way it had come without difficulty.
At the first cross-street Tomoyori had them turn right, and right again, intending to approach the house from the opposite direction. But as he came down the street, there again was the old man with the fan. The ox stopped once more and no pushing or cajoling could make it move. Tomoyori bit his lips in vexation.
He returned home and wrote a letter to the lady, with a poem attached. This he sent by one of his pages and told him to explain to the household the strange occurrence that prevented his master from arriving. But the boy was back within the hour, nearly in tears. When he was within sight of the house he too had found his way blocked by the invisible wall and himself unable to move an inch forward. Letters came from the woman but there was no way for Tomoyori to answer them: though he replied to each, his messengers were always unable to reach her house.
At last on the evening of the third day, Tomoyori's messenger found his way unimpeded. No old man appeared, nothing hindered him from entering the gate. He hastened to call to the servants within, only to be told that the lady, in great dudgeon, had quitted the place earlier that afternoon and returned to her parents' home in the countryside.
Tomoyori was crushed by this event and took to his bed. A doctor was called in. When he was told what had occasioned Tomoyori's collapse he consulted a certain diviner that he knew. The man made his calculations and told Tomoyori that the cause of his ill-luck lay in the south-east portion of his estate.
That area had been an uncultivated wilderness of grasses and trees until just lately, when Tomoyori caused a landscaped garden to be built around the small pond there. The garden was enclosed all about with rustic fences, following the lines of the poem about 'My eastern cottage within the brush-wood fence.' Tomoyori's servants could find nothing amiss within the garden itself, but in the long grass outside they noted an unusual number of frogs behaving in a strange and distracted fashion, hopping hither and thither without purpose. A gardener said that the frogs used to spawn in the pond in the spring but now their passage was blocked by the fence and they could not find a way through. The diviner declared that it was their resentment at finding their desires balked that led to the retribution Tomoyori experienced.
"It's a little hard on Tomoyori," Hiromasa said, "that simple thoughtlessness should have such a dire result."
"Dire? How so? There are other women in the capital for Tomoyori to pay court to, but the frogs had no other pond to spawn in."
"But he was most attached to the lady," Hiromasa protested.
"Though not attached enough to follow after her to her parents' house."
"Well, of course not! That would mean leaving the capital."
Seimei gave him a sardonic smile. Hiromasa flushed. He reached for the sake bottle and poured himself another cup.
"Naa, Seimei," he said when he'd taken a few sips and felt his spirits somewhat more composed, "maybe Tomoyori was somewhat to blame, but still. If spirits are always this vengeful, a man has to be constantly be on his guard not to offend them. Think how much work that involves."
"No more work than not giving offence at court, surely?"
"That's what I mean."
"What, you find that so difficult?" Seimei looked amused. "You watch your every word, you wait for others to speak first, you always agree with their opinions--"
"Of course not!"
"And do people like you the less for it?"
"Ahh-" Hiromasa blinked. "Well, but I'm sure they make fun of me for it, just as you do," and he scowled at Seimei.
"If others laugh at you it's because of your virtues, not your failings- because of your honesty and straightforward nature."
"You can call them virtues, but what you really mean is that I'm too stupid to know better," Hiromasa growled
"No, no. Openness of spirit isn't something a courtier can easily afford, much less someone in my trade. We're probably a little envious. Don't mind if you get laughed at a little for your bluntness. There's no malice in it."
"Hmph. Easily said when it's not you. There's no malice in the tricks of mischievous children either, but look at the bother they cause."
Seimei sat upright. "Hiromasa!"
"What? Seimei, what is it?!"
"Hiromasa." Seimei was staring at him wide-eyed. He blinked and then smiled. "Hiromasa, you're amazing."
"There you go again, laughing at me."
"I'm not. You're truly invaluable. Here I am puzzling my head over a problem and you dispel my darkness with a single word."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Hiromasa grunted, unappeased.
"Ahh. Come with me tonight and you'll see."
"The house of Minamoto no Fusahide."
Hiromasa jumped. He looked up at Seimei, white-eyed. "The junior third captain? The one who--?"
"Yes. The one who's had a youkai haunting his estate, wandering about the garden and peering in at the porch."
Hiromasa took a nervous gulp of sake. "I hear it has yellow eyes as big as cartwheels."
"That's certainly what the maidservants said. It comes up and chitters at them in their rooms. Since it can't use human speech there's no telling what it wants. A problem."
"And you're going to exorcise it?"
"I shall attempt to restore some order to Fusahide's mansion, certainly, and I think you've shown me the way. Will you come with me?"
"To battle a monster with eyes like cartwheels?"
"I doubt you'll be required to do anything quite so strenuous."
"Will you come?"
"Will you come, Hiromasa?"
Hiromasa sighed. "I'll come."
"Then let's be on our way."
The rain ended while they were travelling to Minamoto no Fusahide's house and a watery sun appeared, a round disc low in the sky. Fusahide greeted them with effusive relief and led them onto the open verandah.
"I was afraid you wouldn't arrive until after sunset. Please excuse the state of the place. I've had to send the women over to my wife's house, so the service is almost non-existent. But is there anything I can get you--?"
"Why yes," Seimei said. "A kemari ball. You do play, don't you? I see you have a proper kemari pitch out in the garden," and he nodded towards the four trees that marked the corners of the square playing field.
Fusahide blinked. "Yes-- yes I do. But why--" Seimei smiled at him and the bewildered Fusahide turned to give orders to a manservant within the house. Meanwhile Seimei wandered over to the verandah's edge and stood observing the garden's landscaped effects with approval.
"Seimei," Hiromasa whispered, joining him, "what are you going to do with a kemari ball?"
"Play kemari. You're welcome to join me, of course. It's a bit strenuous playing alone."
"But we're not dressed for it."
"That hardly matters. This is just a friendly game among ourselves."
The servingman returned with the deerskin ball.
"Will you join us in the bout, Fusahide-dono?" Seimei invited.
"If you like. But-- excuse me, Seimei-dono, but what has this to do with the youkai?"
The three of them descended into the area marked by the cherry, maple, willow and pine tree. Fusahide kicked the ball into the air, once, twice, and the third time passed it to Hiromasa. He in turn kicked it over to Seimei. It was difficult with only three players but they managed to keep the ball from touching the ground. Hiromasa and Fusahide did most of the work, since Seimei was evidently not experienced in the game. Of necessity Hiromasa's attention became focussed on the location of the ball, which became harder to see as the daylight faded and was replaced by uncertain torchlight held by the serving men. He had eyes for nothing else until an odd sound came from close by, like the cooing of a pigeon, only louder.
Fusahide gave a cry and pointed beyond the cherry tree a few metres away. Hiromasa looked over and froze.
"Seimei-!! A tanuki!"
Dim in the gloom a round furry shape, as high as a man's chest, was ambling awkwardly across the grass towards them.
"Not quite," Seimei said, unperturbed. "Look closer." The thing had come into the light of the pitch. Hiromasa watched its approach with a mouth gone oddly dry. There were the great round eyes, yellow and bright, but not, thank heaven, as large as cartwheels. The face below, he now saw, was hairless, marked by a small flat nose and a wide flat mouth. The fur of the body was smooth and yellowish, not a badger's brindled coat. A monkey. Some kind of monkey spirit. Hiromasa felt momentarily relieved. Only a monkey. But then he remembered Fujiwara no Tomoyori. That had been only a frog. And even ordinary monkeys could make mischief enough, and this one was so big...
The monkey-thing stopped and bounced a little up and down, clumsy on its short legs. "Baww- baww-" it said in its high-pitched cooing voice.
"Hiromasa," Seimei's voice came. Hiromasa turned distracted eyes on him. "Shall we continue? I believe it wants to play with us."
Moving stiffly, Hiromasa picked up the kemari ball from where it had fallen and kicked it towards the yellow monkey. It stuck out an awkward leg and sent it to Fusahide. Fusahide kicked it a few times to gain control and sent it to Seimei. But at this the monkey waved its arms about in distress and cried, "Baww! Baww!" in an agitated tone. Seimei kicked the ball to the youkai, who sent it to Hiromasa.
"Kick it back to the youkai," Seimei said in a low voice. "This isn't kemari that it's playing."
And so the game went. The monkey kicked to one of them, jumping up and down in delight and clapping its paws together as the ball went through the air. They kicked back and it gurgled happily as it ran to intercept. "Rara baww. Rara baww."
It was coming on full dark and Hiromasa was sweating heavily from the exercise. Seimei, just how long is this going on? And then the monkey kicked the ball to Seimei, who caught it in his hands instead.
The monkey made a disappointed noise. "Aww...."
Seimei smiled, and spoke:
Down the western sky
The sun makes its tired way.
Darkness comes to earth.
Friends too say farewell and go
To where dark sleep awaits.
"Aww..." The monkey hung its head, shoulders slumping. Hiromasa blinked in shock. It had a horn in the middle of its head, golden and twisted as a kirin's. *Was* it a monkey, then? Or was it....
"Bawww..." the thing said sadly.
Seimei went over to it and put the kemari ball in its hands.
"Baww!" it said, and smiled into Seimei's face. Seimei nodded smiling back. The youkai turned and pattered away towards the trees, cooing "Rara baww rara baww" as it went. Somewhere just past the cherry tree both shape and voice disappeared. Hiromasa looked at the spot where the thing had vanished. His chest still heaved and sweat trickled down from under his cap in the humid night.
After a moment Fusahide whispered, "Is it gone? For good?"
"Ssh." Seimei's dancing eyes were watching the tree. Silence. Then a giggle. The youkai appeared again from behind the trunk, smiling happily with the kemari ball in its arms.
"Uh-oh!!" it said.
Seimei shook his head. "No, no," he said gently:
"Friends too say farewell and go
To where dark sleep awaits."
The youkai shrugged in resignation. It raised one hand and flapped it in the air, turned and disappeared.
"There," Seimei said. "It's gone, and only for the cost of a kemari ball."
"I- I'm glad," Fusahide said. "But what did it want?"
"Someone to play with," Seimei said. "It's just a child, after all."
August- Sep '05
Note: Kemari is a form of football played from Heian times onwards. It's sort of like hackysack, in that the object is to keep the ball in the air. The ball is made of deerskin and filled with sawdust, and consequently doesn't bounce. More information can be found at http://www.footballnetwork.org/dev/historyoffootball/history2.asp