Yomogi (Wormwood)

 

By Mebae

Translated with permission by MJJ

 

Translator's Note: This story is based on the Saiyuuki Gaiden, which relates what happened to the Saiyuuki characters in their former existence up in Heaven, five hundred years before the action of Saiyuuki proper. At that time Sanzou was Konzen Douji, an aristocratic but terminally bored celestial bureaucrat. Hakkai was Tenpou Gensui, a bookish disorganized scholar who also happened to be a top-ranking officer in the heavenly army (Gensui = field marshal.) Gojou was his rambunctious subordinate, Kenren Taishou (General Kenren.) Into their peaceful and somewhat unsatisfying heavenly existence came the young Gokuu, cheerful, nave and quite unlike anything any of them had ever met before.

 

We still don't know what it was that Gokuu did which caused him to be imprisoned in his cave on Gogyouzan, nor why Konzen, Tenpou and Kenren were condemned to the cycle of birth and death here on earth. Mebae sensei has written a series of stories exploring what may have happened up in Heaven and down below to these characters. For those interested, her fics are located on her yakkai Hakkai webpage at

 

http://www.geocities.co.jp/AnimeComic-Ink/6385/

 

In her settei, the three celestials were sent to earth by entering the Mirror of Descent, which took their souls but left their bodies in Heaven. The thesis of the story here is that Tenpou alone remembers his past life as Tenpou Gensui. The story's title comes from the second kanji in Tenpou's name. 'Ten' means 'heaven' and 'pou' is the plant which the Japanese call yomogi. There are several translations of that in English, but one possibility, and a very suitable one for Tenpou's situation, is wormwood. Yomogi has certain poetic connotations in Chinese and Japanese that wormwood lacks in English, but these connotations are explained in the course of the story.

 

1.

 

'Forgetting would have been so much easier... Is this my punishment, that I must remember?'

 

How many times had he repeated those words through all his many rebirths?

He was weary of searching, alone in the darkness, with only the faintest of hopes to balance his despair

 

But still he went on looking for them, for the souls that had been separated from himself

--Kenren

--Konzen

 

Rain beat endlessly against the window, dreary and dispiriting. This was a wet country, he knew that, but it only added to his depression to watch it.

'I suppose I'll have to stay indoors today too.'

He'd glanced outside to see how the road looked, but as he turned back, murmuring in disappointment, his eye was caught by his reflection in the window glass.

He made his face smile.

Frown.

Glare in anger.

Look as if it was crying.

In the glass he had a hundred faces, but his thoughts were always the same ones. Through more lifetimes than he could count on both his fingers and toes, he'd kept the features and the memories of Tenpou Gensui. He was almost beginning to be sick of them, but they were the sign of who he was and it was impossible to let them go. It was a dilemma without resolution. He threw himself onto the bed, hoping to calm his desperate soul with sleep. But naturally sleep was impossible. Instead he found himself thinking about how it felt.

He'd been reborn on earth, and from his earliest years had realized that he still retained all his memories. But the souls that should have descended to earth with him... they were missing.

-- What had happened to them?

They must have gone to a different place and been reborn there. He didn't know who they'd turned into, but he felt sure he'd recognize them if they ever met again. He'd kept on looking for them as well as he could, but always death came to him first, and then another rebirth. However many years he wandered, within the brief span of his human lives he'd never once met them again. Each death and rebirth only made him realize each time how powerless he was.

 

"Could it be they've forgotten everything and are just leading ordinary lives somewhere?"

"Or maybe they remember heaven the way I do? Maybe they're looking for me as well?"

 

There'd been times when the search itself seemed pointless to him. He'd given it up and simply tried to enjoy life as much as he could. But the knowledge that yet another life was waiting for him after this one robbed the present life of all purpose. The memory of the thing he was constantly wishing for made life itself unbearably painful. And so there was no choice. All he could do was go on looking for the others, with only the faintest hope of success. He didn't even know any more if that was stubbornness in him, or simply inertia. But he felt that if he met them again something might begin at last for him, or maybe he'd find the answer to his ending.

"I miss them..."

He put his arms about his shoulders, hugging himself as if to protect his aching heart from any further pain.

 

...creak

The ill-fitting door opened slowly with an unpleasant screech. He must have forgotten to lock it. A small intruder came noiselessly over to the bed and peered over the side.

'O-niichan, are you asleep?'

It must be the granddaughter of the old couple who ran this inn. He pretended to be still sleeping, but she made her way up onto the bed regardless and climbed onto his stomach. Not having a choice, he opened one eye and growled softly at her. This only made her smile widely in delight. Her shining eyes and the grin that split her face reminded him of Gokuu. 'They must be about the same age...' he thought, comparing the two. He smiled back up at her and put an arm around her shoulders to stop her from falling off him as he sat upright.

'Rinfa wants to play!' she said

'Alright. But it's raining outside. We'll have to play in here.'

'OK!'

'Well then- shall we play the alphabet game?'

Rinfa seemed delighted that he'd take the time for her.

'Start with A, then. A is for animal.'

'B is for uhh ball.'

'C is for cat.'

'D is for dog.'

------------

'Y is for uhh- uhh--'

Twice through the alphabet used up her childish stock of words and she came to a halt, missing her turn. She shrieked at having lost and yelled happily, 'One more time! One more time!'

"Alright, alright," he said, stroking her hair. Some leaves had become caught in the back of her dress. He picked them off and looked at them.

'This is... wormwood.'

 

The name and the delicate scent acted like a keyword to unlock his memory, and the distant past came rushing back at him.

 

"'The heavenly beauty with the wormwood tongue who puts all Heaven in an uproar.' You've heard that one? That's what they're calling you," Kenren said, looking straight at him.

"That's not very nice, Kenren."

"Then there's this old saying about 'wormwood hair'," Kenren went on, running his fingers through Tenpou's. "The messy kind, like yours."

The poets used the word often as a metaphor for things going out of order, that he knew. No doubt it was merely an ironic reference to the plant that never grows straight but twists about at the mercy of the wind. Still, Tenpou didn't like the notion that his name might reflect the innate perverseness of his spirit. But when he said as much, Kenren gave him the flat reply, 'Inter herbas rectas crescens et artemisia recta fit.' (If it grows among straight plants, even wormwood will grow straight.) Tenpou's eyes widened in surprise at these totally unexpected words. "Y-you know some odd things," he stammered, giving Kenren an unbelieving look.

"Yeah, well. That reminds me of you. And it means that as long as you stay close to me you'll be fine, right?"

The corners of Kenren's mouth turned up in a sardonic grin that said clearly 'Stay real close.' Tenpou couldn't restrain a smile at Kenren's overweening self-confidence.

Now fallen and separated from Kenren because of their mutual crime, Tenpou had truly become the same as his namesake plant. 'Without you beside me I'm like the wormwood- I can't ever grow straight all on my own.'

'Kenren... where are you?'

 

'Wormwood- it also means 'wandering', doesn't it...' Tenpou spoke after a long silence. Rinfa looked at him with a worried expression.

'O-nii-chan, are you crying?'

'Does my face look like the crying one now?' Tenpou wondered. He made his mouth smile and shook his head. 'I'm just tired from my journey. Sorry, I didn't mean to worry you.' He wondered what he could possibly say to this child, but Rinfa started chattering away as children will, trying to change his dark mood.

"Y'know what-- y'know what-- Grampa, he was talking about you. He said, how come you're travelling all by yourself when you're still just a kid?"

Still just a kid... in the ordinary way of things, yes, he was. In this life he'd barely turned seventeen, hardly what you'd call an adult.

'I'm looking for some friends of mine.'

'Friends?' she said. 'I've got lots of friends...' and was about to go on when the door opened again and the landlady's energetic voice sounded through the room, 'Sir! Dinner's ready!!' But when she saw him with Rinfa her voice took on a note of anger. 'Rinfa! I was just wondering where you'd got to, and here you are bothering the guests again!!' Rinfa squealed and ran from the room with her arms above her head to protect it.

Her grandmother yelled at her back 'If you don't listen to me I'll shut you up in the cave!!' Rinfa only laughed.

'I'm sorry, sir. I hope she wasn't being naughty?'

'Not at all. She just came in to play with me. But what you said about a cave- that's a bit unusual, isn't it?' If it had been a closet or a cupboard it would make sense, but he'd never heard of shutting children in a cave before. He wondered if the inn possibly possessed such a place.

'Ahh- hereabouts when the children are naughty, that's how we scold them.'

'Oh?'

'There's a sacred mountain nearby that people aren't supposed to go on, called Gogyouzan,' the hostess went on, telling him the local legends in a practised manner. 'And legend says up in a cave on the mountain there's a monkey who was shut away there hundreds of years ago for doing something bad up in Heaven. That's where it comes from.'

'What!'

At those words his heart bounded like a bell being struck. But her next sentence gave him such a shock he could barely stay on his feet.

'The tale says this monkey was born when the aura of the earth came together and took on form.'

The wormwood leaves he was holding in his hand fell to the floor and scattered there.

 

2.

 

'Haa...'

Whether that was breathlessness or just him sighing he was no longer able to tell. This was the third day since he'd started climbing Gogyouzan, and he was now well past the point of exhaustion. His feet and legs were a mass of blisters and scratches gained on the way. But what he'd heard was the most solid piece of information he'd ever had up till now, and all his energy was concentrated on that alone.

The legend of this mountain that he'd had from the inn's hostess fitted Gokuu too much for it to be anyone else. The words had made him dizzy and almost faint with shock. He'd made some excuse or other to his hostess and left at once in the pouring rain.

Suppose it really is Gokuu imprisoned in the cave...

And imagine me, doing something as rash as this, he thought to himself now. He looked upwards and saw the mountain's top shrouded in mist, its outlines only vaguely visible. On the lower levels he'd been able to walk up, more or less, but here as he approached the summit there was no path and the slope became steeper, so that more and more he found himself actually climbing. If that cave was indeed a heavenly ordained jail, then it was probably very near the top of the mountain. He looked up at it, measuring the distance with his eye, and began climbing yet again.

'Ah!'

A moment's carelessness as he rested one foot on a handy outcrop and reached for the next and-- His foot slipped on a patch made wet by the rain that had fallen until yesterday and he found himself hanging in midair by the one hand that still clung to the outcrop. Looking down he could see the naked rocks below him falling far away into tininess. He pulled all his strength together, grabbed the outcrop with his other hand and desperately wriggled himself upwards to safety.

'Nh--'

After a few minutes' struggle he finally reached a place where he was able to lie down. Letting his exhaustion overwhelm him at last he fell asleep where he was.

The next thing he knew the sun was already up. His body was too exhausted for one night's rest alone to cure it, and his sleep only left him feeling more tired.

'Ah well. Let's try to get to the top again,' he said. Giving action to his words, he stood up...

...and saw what he'd failed to realize the day before. A few metres away from where his head had been lying was a cave, apparently manmade, carved in the mountain face, with a set of iron bars before it.

It felt like it had just appeared out of the air.

Hesitatingly, anticipation mixing with unease, he went up to the bars and looked inside.

The morning sun shone only half-way in so he couldn't see everything, but in the cave's depths a familiar childish form was lying on its side asleep. 'Gokuu?... Gokuu! Gokuu!!"

At first he called the name uncertainly but almost at once his voice turned into a cry.

Gokuu rolled over in surprise and slowly opened his eyes. There was a languor in the way he did it that suggested that in this cave somehow space and time worked differently

'Gokuu?' Gokuu was still dull with sleep and could only look in his direction, but suddenly he smiled.

At last- at last he'd found him- one part of all the things that he'd lost.

'Who's that?' Even as he spoke Gokuu's face went blank again.

'...it's me, Gokuu. Tenpou. It's Ten-chan.'

True, because of his reincarnation he didn't look exactly like Tenpou, and he was much younger now than when Gokuu had known him. Surely that was why Gokuu, who was still a child, didn't recognize him right away?

'?? Tenchan?? Who's he? Is that someone I know?'

Gokuu got up and came to the bars. He looked up with a perplexed face.

'Gokuu...?' He reached between the bars, trying to erase his sudden sense of unease by touching Gokuu. "Angh!!' A shock like electricity stung his hand. He looked again at the cave and saw hex papers plastered all over it, most of them covering the bars. Charms carefully put in place to keep Gokuu inside and everyone else out.

'I can't do it- I can't take these charms off. There's only one person who can free Gokuu from this place.'

Gokuu's eyes looked uneasy.

"Gokuu, wait for me- please wait. I'll bring Konzen here. We'll get you out of here- I promise!'

He reached between the bars, bearing the pain of the hex papers as best he could. When at last his hand touched Gokuu's face his fingers were so numb he couldn't even feel that he felt. The sight alone had to be enough for him.

With a feeling of self-reproach that was close to regret, he put the cave behind him.

 

Even Gokuu had forgotten.

Why- why hadn't he realized? Thinking of it now, he realized at the time they'd passed through the Mirror of Descent to begin their new lives, Konzen had avoided talking about Gokuu. Of his own will Konzen had become involved in this through Kenren and himself- but what of Gokuu? What about what he had done? It should have been obvious enough. Konzen was the sun in the sky to Gokuu, and of course Gokuu would follow after him. But Gokuu was not a celestial by birth, and for him there could be no reincarnation. Unlike themselves, his punishment had been to be imprisoned in this cave.

'Gokuu, have you been alone all along? Were you waiting like me for this time to come?'

Gokuu's face, unseen for so long, showed clearly that he'd forgotten how to smile. It hurt- Tenpou's heart hurt him. That smile of Gokuu's- the smile he'd longed to see through how many lifetimes- had been lost through the crime he himself had committed. To bring it back he had to find the others as soon as possible. Quickly he hastened back down the mountain.

 

'Huh!? There's a human here?!'

'Right out of the frying pan into our fire.'

He was halfway down the mountain when two youkai suddenly appeared before him.

Oh no-- why now---

Within him there sounded the warning that his present life had reached its end. Yes, of course. In all his previous lives, he'd never once lived to become fully adult. Through his many existences, he'd developed a premonition of the moment at which his death approached. And this was the death he'd sensed for himself this time.

As he turned to flee they seized him. All that remained for him was to become their meal later on.

'Y'know, before we eat him I'd like to see what he tastes like.'

'He's a guy-- but still, pretty enough that I don't care.'

Muttering these obscene words they sent the buttons of his shirt flying with their long claws.

'No!'

He grabbed his knife from his pocket and swung at them impulsively.

'Gyaa!'

'What the fuck are you doing?!'

Not stopping to look back at them, he fled from the spot...

Panting for breath he discovered that he'd come to the edge of a cliff. He looked down it. There were no footholds at all to help his descent. Left and right the sheer rock face continued upwards.

The only way he could go was back, into the arms of the pursuing youkai.

Why- why had this happened? He couldn't die now. He had to rescue Gokuu from his cave. And in his next life- would he be searching for the others still? Would he ever find them? In nearly 500 years had he ever once found them?

'Emperor of Heaven! Do you hear me!"

He looked overhead and cried aloud to the sky.

'Is this the punishment for my crime? That you won't allow me even to go on looking for them now?'

 

Was that his punishment as well, that he continued to remember?

 

'I beg you. Hear my last request. Bring Konzen here. Please- bring Konzen to Gokuu. And in return-- I'll forget.'

His cry fell to the level of a murmur.

'I'll forget-- all of it.'

With these words he fell to the ground. He could feel the tears wetting his cheeks and his sight growing dim. From the depths of his heart he cursed his powerlessness before Heaven. Cursed himself too for making that last uncharacteristic plea.

'There he is!'

'Nowhere to run to now!'

The youkai were coming up on him, more ferocious than before. Slowly he looked down from the sky in their direction. An odd sense of confidence took hold of him, and he gave them a wide smile.

'My body's not so worthless to me that I'd let the likes of you do what they liked with it.'

'Whaat? You got a nerve! You get ready--'

Not waiting for the youkai to finish speaking, he threw himself backwards into the air, with the sun behind him.

Let me fall into the earth. Let me cease to be Tenpou. Let me end this lost and wandering existence.

 

'Even if we're someone else, I'd like us to be together.'

'Oh, I'll find you. So...'

'Give me a smile when we meet again.'

'I'll come to meet you, Kenren. You can count on it.'

 

The words he and Kenren had exchanged long ago were still in his heart--

--as he let go of this life and all the memories of Tenpou Gensui.

 

 

3 Postscript

.

Please. I'll forget. I'll forget all of it.

 

His voice, like a melancholy cry, had already melted into the width of the sky. Only the thought lingered on in this place like an afterglow.

 

'It's alright.

There's nothing to trouble you any more.

Be easy now. Rest in peace at last.'

 

The chant of the sutra rang solemnly from the little foothill and, carried on the wind, reverberated against the side of the mountain

 

'Koumyou Sanzou-sama, truly, our thanks to you.'

'Surely that poor young man's soul will be carried up to heaven by the prayers of such a virtuous monk.'

The villagers looked with pitying eyes at the little mound of earth that marked the young man's grave.

Koumyou Sanzou finished chanting the sutra and fell silent for a long moment. At last he opened his eyes and looked too at the grave.

 

It was as they were returning from business to their own far off monastery. The dreary unceasing rain had forced Koumyou Sanzou and his companions to halt for a while in this little village. Seeing that the weather had cleared at last they set out on the homeward way. That was when it happened. As they approached the holy mountain of Gogyouzan, some men from a nearby village appeared and begged this unknown Buddhist monk to conduct a funeral for them. His companions were against it, saying that this would further their delay in returning to the monastery. Koumyou admonished the monks with a smile and told the villagers that he would follow them, to where the already cold body of a young man was lying at the foot of the mountain. Under Koumyou's direction they gave him loving burial where he lay.

 

Koumyou looked up the steep mountain face.

'...he fell from near that crag up there?'

'His clothing had been ripped by something sharp. He must have slipped and fallen as he was being attacked by youkai."

'From that high up... It's strange. For someone who'd fallen all the way down a mountain, his body suffered no serious outward harm, and even his face was undamaged. Truly in death he seemed most beautiful.'

'He was so young- that poor boy...'

To Koumyou's wondering remarks the villagers could only murmur the same response.

'I think I sense him still...'

'What?!'

The villagers all turned to him at once.

'This young man's feelings... yes, they're still quite strong.'

He opened his hands as if feeling the air itself.

What had he been thinking, what had he been feeling as he died...

 

Regret

Sadness

And a plea

 

In Koumyou's ears that voice cried still, faintly, and his skin shivered with the sense of the young man's thoughts

'Sa- Sanzou-sama..?'

The surrounding villagers felt a strange sense of dread and began to look at each other nervously. Sanzou gave a small laugh.

'Don't worry. He hasn't become a ghost that will stay and haunt this region.' He smiled again at the collective sigh of relief that rose from the villagers

'However, it looks like the weather's turning bad again. Let's go back.'

But as they reached the road he'd originally come along, from far off they heard an infant's wailing voice, and then the helpless voices of Koumyou's companion monks.

'Sanzou-sama- Koumyou Sanzou-samaaa!!'

The monks who should have been waiting for Sanzou were coming along the road with distracted faces.

'Why, whatever's the matter?'

'He just started crying when you went off... We can't do anything with him...'

It was obvious from the way they looked askance at the child that they had indeed had their hands full with him, and were now at their wits' end.

'He almost never cries-- I can't think what's the matter...'

Koumyou hastened over to the monk who was holding the baby and took the child in his arms.

The villagers, perplexed at seeing a baby so out of place among the ranks of the monks, asked, 'Sanzou-sama-- we did wonder before-- what child is that?' Koumyou Sanzou answered with a benevolent smile, "Ahh, this? It's a baby I picked up along the way. From that river that's been swollen by the recent rain.'

Koumyou Sanzou held the child so that its face was free. Instantly the baby stopped crying and gazed up at the sky, waving its little hand energetically.

'Kouryuu? Do you sense something too?'

The moment the lavender eyes met Koumyou's the baby at once began to cry again.

It stretched out its arm as if to call back the soul it had just failed to meet, and until they left that place it never ceased its heart-broken wailing.

 

'I beg you. Hear my last request.

Bring Konzen here. Please- bring Konzen to Gokuu.

And in return-- I'll forget.

I'll forget all of it.'

 

But the one who'd spoken those words was no longer here.

 

 

The End