eishu, her close childhood friend, didn’t remember much about that day. Renka envied her forgetfulness. Everything that happened that spring would stay with her until the day she died.
The season was in full bloom. Renka had just turned fifteen. The day dawned clear and bright, not a cloud in the sky.
Summer was in the air. The white of her mother’s hemp tunic looked so refreshingly cool. In preparation for summer, she had the folding screens taken to the courtyard, laid out on the stone patio, and cleaned. Her mother had fussed over these quince wood fretwork screens for as long as Renka could remember.
During the winter, the rows of flower-shaped apertures were covered with paper to block the draft. By the end of the winter, the soot and smoke from the hibachi stained the screens gray. Her mother unfolded the screens, tipped them over in the courtyard, and sprinkled them with water drawn from the well.
Her sleeves rolled up, her plump arms drenched with water, her mother’s glossy white skin glistened in the sunlight. After allowing the sprinkled water to soak in, Renka followed behind her and peeled off the paper.
With the paper removed, the breezes could flow when the weather warmed. Every time she saw the open fretwork, Renka knew that summer was not far off.
She stripped away the sodden paper and rubbed the screens with straw. The tepid water felt good against her skin. The old paper scrubbed off like dirt, revealing the bright quince wood beneath.
As Renka scrubbed away, her young sister delighted in ripping the paper apart, laughing aloud each time she poked her finger through the paper.
“You’re only making it harder to remove,” Renka softly scolded her.
In response, her sister took hold of the edge of the hole with her small fingers, tore off a strip of damp paper, and held it out to Renka. She was either making a present of it or proving the value of her contribution.
Hard at her actual work, Renka ignored her, so her sister threw it away. Except the wet paper stuck to her fingers and wouldn’t come off. Flapping her arms around, she managed stick it to her nose. The sight made their mother laugh.
“Good heavens,” Renka muttered, as exasperated as she was amused.
Just then, a loud pounding sound came from the direction of the front yard. The reverberations echoed from the main gate. Sitting in the main hall that led to the gate, smiling as he watched over the activity in the courtyard, their old manservant paled and glanced over his shoulder.
A new door had been installed in the main hall. The old man got a chair, set it against the door, and peered through the peep hole, which allowed him an outside view. With his free hand, he made a frantic waving motion towards Renka and the others.
Go! it meant. Go and hide!
Her mother took a quick breath, scooped up Renka’s little sister, and held out her hand to Renka. Her plump white hand, still damp, soft palms and slender fingers. Renka reached out to take hold of her hand when it jerked away from her.
“Ah—” her mother gasped.
Renka raised her eyes. A spear pierced her mother and little sister like a needle pinning a butterfly a board.
Any sounds frozen in her throat, Renka felt the shadow fall upon her. She looked skyward. The shadow of a black beast floating above her. The mounted knight stared down with cold eyes.
Her mother’s body thumped to the ground. The black shadow above Renka’s head flapped its wings. An instant later it had soared off toward the north.
Renka remembered everything as if it had happened yesterday—the lukewarm water touching her skin, the drops of water scattering the sunlight, her mother’s voice, the smell in the air, her sister’s frayed and frazzled hair rustling in the wind, her smiling face, cheeks rosy as peaches.
But what took place after that was like riding the rapids in a small raft. Her mother and sister collapsed on the stone patio amidst rivers of blood. The old servant and her father came running. Screams rang out from neighboring houses.
Her father knelt next to her mother. The old man threw his arm around Renka and propelled her towards the back of the house. Renka wanted to stay but she couldn’t make herself stay still. Her body behaved like a marionette, with others tugging at the strings.
She ran, the old man hurrying her along. As they left the grounds of the estate, a side gate opened in the wall they shared with the adjoining house. Meishu, who lived next door, tottered out.
Like Renka, she was dressed in boy’s clothing. Her face was the color of pale wax, her eyes hollow. Her grandfather pushed her through the side gate. With one arm around Renka, the old servant drew Meishu close with his other. A girl on each hip, he kicked open the trap door built into the base of the wall and jumped in.
The trap door connected to a dimly-lit tunnel. It was a crudely constructed passageway, the earth removed and the roof supported with rough-hewn beams and boards. Mud caked the floor of the tunnel. The puddles of stagnant water stank.
Renka finally found her voice. She cried out for her mother, for her sister, for her father. Until the old man covered her mouth and dragged her down the tunnel. She tried to pull free even as he kept on going.
A thud resounded as another person dropped into the tunnel. This time it was the young woman from the house behind theirs. The year before, she’d gotten married to the young professor who lived there. Like Renka and Meishu, she was escaping through the trap door.
“Flee for your life!” the professor shouted, followed by the sound of the door being latched and locked.
But the woman did not flee for her life. She reached up toward the trap door and called out her husband’s name. The old man left her behind and carried Renka and Meishu further down the tunnel.
Pressing on, they came to series of steps fashioned out of logs. They descended the staircase and entered a stone-lined cavern. Three men were already in the cavern, standing over another trap door in a corner. This door opened over a black hole. The men pushed Renka and Meishu into the hole, secured the door, and pushed heavy objects on top of it.
In the cramped darkness, Renka hugged her arms around Meishu. It was so quiet Meishu almost seemed not to be breathing. Several inches of water filled the muddy bottom of the hole. She wasn’t so much hugging Meishu as she was clinging to her, steeling her emotions to keep from sobbing. She could see nothing. There was nothing to see anyway, so she kept her eyes tightly shut.
Word had circulated that all women must leave the kingdom. Word was that a proclamation had gone out to that effect. But Renka didn’t want to leave her friends. Her mother didn’t want to leave her husband. And neither of them wanted to leave their home. The women in the city were no different. Girls like Renka dressed as boys. Older women hid inside their homes.
Just in case, they reinforced the front gates and built escape hatches into the walls and carved out caves and tunnels beneath their estates.
Nevertheless, none of them really expected a day of judgment to come.
They convinced themselves that staying inside and out of view was enough. The neighborhood children visited each other using the secret passageways. After confining herself to the buildings and courtyards of the estate, the only difference was that her mother didn’t go to the market anymore. She conducted her normal business around the house as usual, cooking, cleaning, and taking care of Renka, her sister, and their father.
Renka stopped going to school. But she and Meishu still played together. Renka watched after her little sister and helped her mother out around the house the same as she always did. Sorry that the girls could not run about as usual, whenever her father or the old man went out, they returned bearing gifts—little fish from the nearby river, flowers of the season—silly toys and pretty trifles.
Everyday life certainly wasn’t as convenient as it once was. And yet, as if guarded by some unseen force, a peculiar aura of peace and calm permeated their sequestered lives. Until the day the gales arrived, they dwelt in a safe place surrounded by their family.
Or so they believed. They had completely forgotten about the gathering storm.
They failed to understand that the peaceful eye of the typhoon only existed inside their home because of the tempests raging all around them, because world outside the walls of the estate was spiraling into ruin.
I’m sorry, Renka apologized over and over to no one. I was wrong. I’m sorry. The next time I will get it right. I mean it. With all my heart. Only give me back those days, those hours. Let me do everything over from the start. At least from this morning, from the moment I opened my eyes.
Holding Meishu in her arms, Renka uttered this silent prayer. As if her anguish were contagious, Meishu began to cry under her breath. “It can’t be true, it can’t be true,” she repeated in a small voice.
Renka didn’t answer and soon heard the soft breathing of sleep. Then Renka also began to doze off. Meishu stirred herself to ask, “You there?”
“I’m here,” Renka muttered in her dreams. A while later Meishu asked again. And Renka answered again. And again and again.
Several times, she roused herself awake and fell back asleep. The last time she heard scraping sounds overhead, objects being dragged across the trap door.
Renka held her breath and hugged Meishu tighter. Meishu opened her eyes. Her mouth opened in a scream she managed to stifle. The trap door opened. A beam of pale light slashed into the darkness.
“You okay?” came the question.
Awash with relief, “We’re okay,” they answered.
A middle-aged man opened the door. He lifted Renka and Meishu out of the hole, brought them out of the depths and back to the world of light. Renka and Meishu clung together and wept. Nothing was left of the lives they once lived.
Literally smoking out any women boarded up inside, the soldiers set fire to the whole neighborhood. Both houses burned to the ground in the conflagration, along with the people inside them. They alone had been spared. Renka and Meishu wandered, weeping, among the ruins. They picked through the charred remains, not knowing whose bones belong to whom. This was their funeral and their farewell.
The soldiers killed her father and the old man. Meishu’s mother and older sister were dead too. The air cavalry had arrived suddenly. With no forewarning they unleashed a volley of arrows. At the same time, a platoon broke down the front gates and stormed in. Meishu’s father and brother were killed ensuring she escaped. Her grandfather died in the fire, trapped inside the burning building.
Meishu said she didn’t remember a thing, not how the day began, not being shut away in that dark hole with Renka. She only remembered being pulled to safety.
“I expect my older sister would have been with my mother,” she said. “But I can’t even remember what they were doing.” She envied Renka, who remembered every trivial detail.
Except the smile on her mother’s face. Renka knew her mother laughed at her little sister’s antics. A bright and carefree smile, was the impression that stayed with her. But she couldn’t clearly recall her face from that moment.
The water spilling down her mother’s arms to her elbows—the screens sprinkled with water and scrubbed until the wood glistened—these images remained crystal clear in her mind.
Why hadn’t she retained memories of more depth and importance? She wished she had more closely watched the faces of her mother and father and sister. From the moment she woke that day until the moment the nightmare became real—she wished she had spent those humdrum hours forming a mental picture of everything she saw.
Turning these regrets in her mind, she walked on, hand in hand with Meishu. They couldn’t stay in their home town. The townspeople had chosen to protect their womenfolk. As a result, they’d been made an example of.
The provincial army—whose sworn duty under normal circumstances was to protect them—attacked the town, killing every woman they saw and any men who resisted. The only recourse the survivors had was to send the remaining women somewhere else.
The group Renka and Meishu were in, which included even an old grandmother and an infant child, moved south. From Sei Province across the provincial border to Ken Province, and from there to the port in Baku Province, from which they would leave the kingdom. They could do nothing else and go nowhere else.
And so they kept on walking.
Not long after reaching Ken Province, Renka awoke one morning in the inn to find that Meishu was not in the bed beside her. They hastily organized a search party and found her floating in a nearby canal.
“The poor child must have slipped,” the old grandmother grieved.
Renka knew better. The night before, Meishu gave Renka her prized ring. Meishu had lost a good deal a weight during their journey and said she feared it would fall off on its own.
“I’d feel a fool if I lost it. You’d best take care of it.”
Renka came away with the impression that Meishu didn’t expect ever to see it again. She was parting with more than just the ring.
They buried her childhood friend in unknown soil and once again began walking. Along the way, their numbers fell by half. Some died, some couldn’t go on because of illness. And some simply weren’t there anymore, either setting off on their own, or turning back knowing that a certain death awaited them. Or, like Meishu, they lost the will to take another step.
Renka and the rest of them continued on like a funeral procession.
Then, on a street corner in Setsuyou, a town near the border with Baku Province, they observed the flags and banners flying at half-mast. The empress who had robbed them of everything they had was dead.
That day, for the first time since starting on her journey, Renka cried to the heavens. If such an empress could fall so easily, why did her parents and sister have to die? If they could only have lasted a few more months, the old manservant, Meishu and her family, and the residents of their neighborhood would all still be alive.
A high fever and her wracking grief confined her to a bed. Nightmares haunted her sleep. When the fever finally broke, she felt hollow inside. The world appeared like the faded backdrop on a stage, devoid of depth and substance. Nothing seemed real. Even her memories and emotions felt distant and estranged.
The women looking after her rejoiced that they could return home. Not Renka. She had no home to return to. She had no one waiting for her.
“But—” her caretakers objected, and then fell silent.
“Here is fine. There is nowhere else for me to go.”
It was time for her journey to end. Unlike Meishu, she had not resolved to throw everything away. But she had no desire to let the currents of fate sweep her further down this road.
And so Renka came to reside in Setsuyou. The women looked for a place for her to stay. Renka hadn’t been born there so she couldn’t stay in the rika. Instead, they found an estate willing to take her on as a maidservant.
Now she was truly on her own.
Summer and all its bounties was in the offing, but Setsuyou was bedraggled town. Though unmarked by the ravages of war, its population had waned. Many of the fields surrounding the town lay fallow.
A middle-aged man escorted Renka to a wooded garden on the outskirts of the town. She didn’t see the estate, only the dense woods and the dark shade of the trees. The cicadas raised a clamorous racket. Through the undergrowth, Renka could just make out the shores of a large lake.
Renka followed the man beneath the overhanging limb of a large pine tree and through a big gate. They crossed an expansive but untended front yard. A man in his mid-fifties was waiting them in the vestibule of the house.
The man’s name was Kakei. He was the Keeper of the Calendar for the district Ministry of Spring. Renka had no idea what that meant. She only wondered why he didn’t live in the district citadel. Why this unkempt stretch of woods on the outskirts of the town? Was this his villa?
As she turned these questions over in her mind, Kakei warmly introduced her to an older man, who would teach her about her duties.
“I know you may require some time getting used to your new surroundings. Take it easy for a while, if you need to.”
Renka got that he sympathized with her plight. “Thank you very much,” she replied, and absently thought to herself that the demands of the job should not be too trying.