The Duty of Birds

Evan Dicken

By day, Evan Dicken studies old Japanese maps and crunches data for all manner of fascinating medical research at The Ohio State University. By night, he does neither of these things. His fiction has most recently appeared in: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, and Strange Horizons, and he has stories forthcoming from publishers such as: Analog and The Black Library. Feel free to visit him at evandicken.com.

Part One: 鳥の義理


When I was very young my mother would tell me: "Do not cry, Chie. A samurai's daughter must never show such weakness." But my father cried often--when he fled Kyōto with Lord Katamori; when all the Aizu clan were declared traitors; when he killed a childhood friend at the siege of Tsuruga; when he abandoned his post to lead us from the burning castle. 


Before the war it pleased Princess Teru to keep nightingales in the castle garden. At first, she planted green bamboo, thinking they would nest, and they did. The castle echoed with beautiful song through the spring and summer months, but soon autumn came and the birds departed. 


Seeing his sister's sadness, Lord Katamori had cages built--delicate frames of wood with painted paper screens made to resemble the manors of the great lords and ladies of Edo. When the nightingales returned in the spring he had the servants capture them, but the birds would not sing. Instead, they fluttered around the cages, scratching holes in the lovely paper walls. Katamori had their wings bound and their legs hobbled with lengths of thin silver chain. The finest trainer was brought from Kyōto, a pinch-faced man with hair like pigeon feathers who lectured the birds on honor, obligation, and their place in things. It took weeks, but at last the nightingales sang, and it was said even the clouds must bow before Lord Katamori's will. 


But the songs were not as before. Grief threaded melody. The nightingales' mournful trills summoned visions of gray skies and cold winter winds rather than bright, burgeoning spring. Princess Teru and her handmaidens wept to hear their song. She ordered the cages smashed and the nightingales released. When Lord Katamori asked why, she said: "Men must kneel, but the duty of birds is only to the sky."    


The invaders' cannons did not spare the garden, but we didn't stay to see it burn. Father left his sword at Tsuruga castle and made us dress in servant's robes: rough straw cloaks and heavy bags across our backs like we were porters for some village merchant. We ran north, then west to avoid the fighting around Inawashiro, heading towards Ubagamori and the mountains where my Mother's people lived. There were many refugees on the northern road, all peasants and townsfolk. Samurai were expected to kill themselves rather than submit.


We would've traveled quicker but Father stopped at every rise and hill, staring back at Tsuruga with an expression as if he were walking on knives rather than earth. When he lingered too long Mother would take his arm and pull him on. Just before Tsuruga slipped from view for the last time Father looked to me, eyes red-rimmed and shining in the afternoon light, his voice settling into the familiar cadence of tanka verse:


"Seasons ever change.


Storm winds rage across Aizu.


Even birds must bow.


Wings broken, nests burnt, they ask:


Is this spring or autumn?"

We both wept, smoke spreading dark wings above the castle at our backs. I kept glancing to Mother, waiting for her reprimand. But she pressed a sleeve to her own eyes and said nothing. 


Not all tears are weakness.  

Part Two: 蛾は蛾でござる


There was nothing to do but run or die. We left the road and its flood of people just before nightfall, picking our way through heavy brush edged by deepening gloom. When it became too dark to see we took shelter in a grove of red pine. The ground was hard and rocky, so Mother and I cut boughs for us to sit upon. Although the autumn air was chill, father said we should not make a fire in case there were Imperial troops in the mountains. It was strange to hear him call them that. Just a few months ago we had been the Imperial army. 


We sat in the cool, humid dark, the forest silent but for the raspy calls of crows drawn to the slaughter. A few perched in the branches above our heads, cackling amongst themselves. Like drunks, crows were always either laughing or shouting.


"There are soldiers nearby." One of the larger crows hopped down, its voice high and gravelly like an old woman's. "Not friends, not far."

    
I looked to my parents, but neither replied.


"Give us sweet beans and chestnuts or we'll call them down on you." It stared at us, black eyes glinting in the moonlight.


Father drew his dagger, but the crow only laughed and fluttered higher.


"Go." He said to Mother and I. "I will kill any of the enemy who follow."


"Don't be a fool," Mother said.


"Please." He turned to her, head bowed. "Let me go. I can't--"


Mother jerked him close and hissed something in his ear. The look on his face was the same as when he'd watched Tsuruga burn, but he put his dagger away.  


It might have been the way the moonlight threaded the pines or how the shadows fell across her robes, but when mother stood she seemed taller, her fingers long enough to pluck the crows from their high perches. She made a sound in the back of her throat--not the disapproving cluck I heard when I spilled tea or forgot to bank the coal at night, but the rasp of dry sticks rubbing together. For a moment, the air smelled like our storehouse, heavy with dust, millet, and drying beans. Her hair had come unbound, the long, dark strands waving like spider silk in the sudden breeze.


"Go," the wind said.


The crows quieted, mumbling rusty apologies as they slipped into the air. Mother knelt, resting on her heels, back bent as if she were very tired.


"You promised never again." Father was little more than a vague, dark shape in the moonlit shadow.


"Seasons ever change," Mother said without looking up.


With a whispered curse, Father stormed away. 


"Come, Chie, help me with my hair," Mother said after his footfalls had faded.


I wanted to ask what she had done but couldn't summon the nerve. We sat in silence for a while, the soft hiss of my comb like wind through the pines. 


"When I met your father, he was a lowly ashigaru." Mother said as I wound her hair back into a tight bun. "No name, no position, no stipend." 


That didn't seem right. We had always been shichū, samurai of the highest rank, just below Lord Katamori's personal councilors. My father had overseen defense of Tsuruga's northern gate. Our manor wasn't as large as some, but it was attractive and well-built--with fresh tatami on the floors and great beams of hinoki cypress trimmed with cedar that made the whole house smell like a forest. We had a garden with a stream and a small stand of magnolia that flowered white-pink every spring.

 
When I was a child Father would bring back old lanterns from the garrison. We hung them in the trees, pretending we were courtiers from distant Kyōto out for a moon viewing. The lantern light brought moths--gray, brown, and white. We sat on the porch drinking cool barley tea, the lulls in our conversation filled with the soft sound of dusty wings beating on paper. The moths would fly in ragged, broken circles, diving at the lights until they slipped inside and were burned or fell to the ground, dead.


I asked my father why they behaved so foolishly. 


He smiled, tugging at one ear the way he always did when he was happy. "Moths are the souls of the honored dead come back to look upon the living one last time. The light reminds them of the Pure Land and they cannot help but want to return to the Buddha."


The next morning, Mother caught me praying over the dead moths. She took my hand, kneeling down to look into my eyes. "They aren't spirits, Chie."


"But Father--"


"Your father is a fool," she said, smiling in a way that took all sting from the accusation. "He makes castles from clouds."


"And the moths?" I asked. "Why do they seek the light?"


She waved a hand as if brushing away a fly. "Moths are moths, they can't be anything but."


I thought of that as I combed Mother's hair beneath the spreading pines, imagining we were surrounded by lanterns and laughter and the smell of cedar, instead of darkness and silence and the sharp tang of bleeding sap.


"Go to sleep," Mother said after I'd finished. "We will reach Ubagamori tomorrow."


I wanted to ask her about Father, about the crows, about everything, but it wasn't my place. 


In the morning we found father dead. He lay slumped beneath a spreading maple just beside a little stream, belly slit, his cold, bloodless lips pressed into a tight line. Without paper, he had written his death poem into the rocky sand of the stream bank, but wind and the slow rush of water had worn most of it away.


I knelt, trembling, to pray for him. Mother laid a hand on my shoulder, her grip painfully tight even through the thick straw matting of my cape. I thought she would pull me away, but she didn't. 


It started to rain. Big, fat drops bled through my clothes to draw icy lines down my chest and back. I kept expecting Father to rise, tugging at his ear to let me know this had been nothing more than a joke. 


It was only when we heard the crack of distant rifles that Mother turned away. I heard her splash into the stream but didn't follow. Instead, I leaned in to pry Father's dagger from his iron-cold hands then pressed it to my neck.  


When the Imperial troops had invaded Odayama over two-hundred Aizu women took their lives rather than accept defeat--women I had known, women I had practiced spear fighting with, women who had laughed and joked over torn kimono, and kites, and spring plantings. I could feel the weight of their sacrifice pressing down around me like a cold mist. One quick slash and I could join them in eternal honor.  


"Come along." Mother kicked a spray of icy water at me. "There will be time to mourn when we reach Ubagamori."


I slipped Father's dagger into my sleeve, stumbling in the stream on legs that had gone cold and wooden while I knelt.


We walked upstream to hide our tracks even though the cold mountain water made my feet hurt. Before the trees hid him from view, I looked back at Father one last time, not sure whether to feel sad, or angry, or proud. Samurai were defined by their duty--expected to die rather than submit. I'd thought his love for Mother and I made him different, but I was wrong. 


In the end, moths are moths.    
 
Part Three: 蜘蛛が巣しか織らぬ


Ubagamori was unlike any other forest. It wasn't the trees--a gnarled mix of ancient cedar, keyaki, honey locust, and pine--but rather a sense of quiet expectation, as if the tangled web of branches above was poised to drop on us like a net. 


A knot of gray squirrels watched us brazenly from the shadows, tails twitching into shapes that looked like words but weren't. Hazy forms moved at the edges of my vision, bleeding back into shadow whenever I turned to face them. I could hear the distant patter of rain on the leaves overhead but barely a drop found its way to the forest floor. The air was cold, yet humid, and I found myself sweating despite the chill.


I drew closer to Mother. "This place is haunted."


"It is." She walked on, seemingly unafraid even as the long, red hand of an akateko reached down from a low-hanging branch to brush the top of her hair. I kept my arms in my sleeves, Father's dagger a comforting weight in my palm.


A brace of seven-tailed foxes loped alongside us, poking their red and white heads around bushes and tree roots to regard Mother and I with canny eyes. 


"You're back," said one, just as the other asked, "Is this your daughter?"


"I am, and she is." Mother kept walking.


"So young," said one. 


"So curious," said the other. 


"So frightened," they said together. Slinking from the shadows they swept around me, tails like silk upon my ankles. Not quite knowing why, I reached down to brush the long, soft fur on their backs. My hand came away bright with blood. 


I brandished Father's dagger at the foxes, and they fled between the tree roots, laughing.


"They're only playing." Mother took my hand and held it before my face. There was no blood, just red paint, already flaking away. "Don't fear. You're safer in Ubagamori than anywhere else."


We walked for some time, the forest edging in around us. Gone was the thunder of distant cannons, the shouts of warriors, the cries of peasants caught in the fighting. The breeze came threaded with the scents of earth and dry leaves rather than gun smoke and ash. It wasn't any warmer under the trees, but I realized I'd stopped shivering.


After some time we came to a cave on a hillside shrouded with wisteria and cobwebs. Mother brushed them away then ducked inside, turning to offer me her hand with a shy smile.


To my surprise, the cave was warm, dry, and well-lit, with a floor of hard-packed earth and burning coal braziers set into the walls. I couldn't see the back, and the chamber was large enough for me to stand, even to raise my hands above my head if I wanted. 


Mother knelt upon the floor, gesturing for me to join her. 


From the rear of the cave came a spider larger than a horse, with legs long as house-beams, wide-staring eyes, and a slick black carapace dotted with what I thought to be pale stones but resolved into grinning skulls as the creature approached. 


Mother made a triangle of her hands, bowing so her forehead touched the floor. Not knowing what else to do, I bowed with her. When I looked up, the spider was gone. In its place stood an old woman dressed in fine silk brocade, all knobby knees and crooked fingers, her face dark and wrinkled as a dried persimmon.


"Chie," Mother said to me. "Allow me to introduce your grandmother."


"Daughter." The old woman, my grandmother, knelt to kiss Mother on the forehead. When she pulled back the was a faint shimmer in the air, the barest hint of thin, silvery thread connecting them, gone as quick as a heat mirage. 


She turned to me, taking my hands in her small papery ones. I could see her then, woman and spider, images overlaid like a reused handbill. 


"We are tsuchigumo--earth spiders," she said softly, answering my question before I could give it voice.


"I'm sorry I couldn't tell you, Chie," Mother said. "But I made a promise."


"Minamoto no Yorimitsu was not the first to hunt us," Grandmother stood. "Humans have been killing our people since the ancient days, better to be secret, hidden."


"Am I a spider?" I asked.


Grandmother gave a little grin. "That remains to be seen."


"And Father?" I asked, hating the tremble in my voice.


"Just a man--a brave, foolish man," Mother said with a sad smile. "I wove him castles from clouds."


"Forget about all that, my dear." Grandmother put an arm around her, beckoning to me. "Their world brings only pain, but you're home now." 


"I'm sorry," Mother said, voice cracking. "I should never have left--"


"Hush, hush." She cradled Mother, stroking her hair, dimming the braziers, and pulling me close all at once. This surprised me, until I remembered Grandmother had eight arms, not two.


Mother wept then, great wracking sobs that filled the cave until I could feel the sound deep within my chest. Grandmother made sympathetic noises, all the while whispering to me, "I will teach you to weave, little one, to spin and shape. Anything you can dream, anything you want, worlds bound by the warp and weft of your desire."


I found myself nodding along--who wouldn't want to create worlds?


In Edo there are many swordsmiths, some famous, some not. The one who made my father's sword was named Kiyomaro. One could come to his shop near Nihonbashi and pay three ryō to enter into a lottery. Every month Kiyomaro would make swords--sometimes one, sometimes several, depending on how often he was at the forge and how often he was drunk. At the end of the month his apprentice would draw names from the lottery box and those samurai would be given blades while the rest went away empty-handed.


Everything went well until one month, Kiyomaro's apprentice accidentally drew two names from the box when there was only one sword to give. The bladeless samurai was hatamoto to Shogun Iemochi, whereas the man who had been given a blade was a low-ranking kashi from the Tosa Clan. Kiyomaro offered to forge a blade for the hatamoto, but the man was incensed, demanding the kashi relinquish his blade. When he refused, the hatamoto grew angry, threatening Kiyomaro. 
Tired of the hatamoto's rudeness, Kiyomaro said he had a sword for the man, if only they could step out back of the shop away from the crowd. Although the hatamoto suspected a trick, he was keen to acquire a Kiyomaro blade and confident in his ability to defeat a lone kashi and a drunken swordsmith.


When the three of them went out back, Kiyomaro picked up the pan he used to fry noodles and offered it to the hatamoto.


"That is not a sword!" he said.


"It is," said Kiyomaro, showing him the maker's mark.


The hatamoto made to draw his blade.


With that, Kiyomaro slashed him across the throat, blood blossoming like spider lilies at the barest touch of the sharp-edged pan. The hatamoto fell to the ground, dead.


Astonished, the kashi looked from the pan to the corpse, asking how such a thing was possible.


Kiyomaro simply shrugged. "I am a swordsmith. Everything I make is a sword." 


I learned much from Grandmother--how to bend my shape to appear as a monk, or a peasant, or a lord; how to draw forms and figures from the smoke by rolling it between my fingers like spun cotton; how to speak in such a way that my words would bind the thoughts of any who heard them. I spent days in waking dreams, flying kites with old friends woven from air and fallen branches, watching the magnolias blossom, hanging lanterns with Father. It wasn't the same, though. No matter how cleverly I made them, the phantoms could only ever do as I wanted.


I crafted our old house from leaves and river mud, weaving light and sound to capture the essence of the place. It took hours, but I even got the smell of cedar and cypress just right. 


I brought Mother, thinking it might make her happy again, but it only deepened the lines around her mouth. I tried to have Father tell a joke, but forgot the ending halfway through.


She just smiled her sad smile and cupped my cheek, then walked away.


When I went to Grandmother she said Mother had become trapped by the world. It would take her a while to forget her sorrow.


Dreams were boring when there was no one to share them with, so I sought out foxes and squirrels and tanuki, and later, akateko and kappa and the other yōkai who haunted the dark corners of Ubagamori. It was satisfying for a time, but the minds of spirits do not walk the same paths as mortals and I found their games childish, even cruel.


The edges of the forest became like a cage. More and more my thoughts drifted beyond the trees. Grandmother warned of dangers outside--men with blades and torches and great smoking cannons that would make a ruin of Ubagamori as they had Tsuruga. Why seek such pain when you could create whatever you wished?  


I tried to explain it to her, but she didn't understand. She offered to spin dreams for me, magical worlds peopled with characters that would surprise and delight, entire lives woven from whole cloth. By then I knew better than to accept her offer. 


Grandmother was a spider. Everything she made was a web.
    
Part Four: 井の中の蛙


"The world is changing," Kenjiro said, eyes bright in the afternoon light. We sat upon a low hillside, shaded from the summer sun by the branches of an old and twisted cypress. He'd brought me kozuyu, walking for hours with a heavy iron pot full of the rich, salty stew. It was a meal meant for celebrations, which was how I knew he was working up to something. 


"The Aizu have been given permission to continue as a clan." He bent to ladle out steaming portions thick with carrots, mushrooms, ginko nuts, and other delicious things. The stew smelled of home, and yet I couldn't seem to take my eyes from his thin, long-fingered hands. Kenjiro said he'd been a member of the Byakkōtai, that he'd fought in the siege of Tsuruga, but he had a scholar's hands. 


That was what had piqued my interest when I'd found him at the edge of Ubagamori, carving a poem into the trunk of a cedar tree. His composition wasn't very good and his imagery a bit clumsy, but his verse had an earnestness I found appealing. 


He'd fallen to his knees when I'd introduced myself as the daughter of Commander Nakagawa, pressing his forehead to the grass. That was how I'd learned the clan believed my father had died in the siege, bravely defending the northern gate. It made me happy to hear the lie. I think it would've made Father happy, too. 


After Kenjiro left I'd stood for hours running my fingers over the poem etched in rough bark, eyes closed, drinking in the smell of fresh-cut cedar. There had been many, many meetings after that. Just as I'd wanted, he'd brought gifts of fruit, sweets, and now, kozuyu.


"Aizu is to be given a small fief in northern Mutsu," Kenjiro said, holding the bowls out as if asking me to choose. "They want our clan to fade, but we will rebuild, we will grow, we will show the emperor we are not traitors." 


I smiled, not so much at his words but the passion with which he spoke them. Kenjiro was like the kozuyu--so rich, so real--and I was starving on a diet of silken dreams.


Our fingers touched when I took the bowl from him and for a brief moment there was a shimmer between them, the shadow of a thread drawing taut.

 

Kenjiro stared at me, open-mouthed. 


"This is delicious." I said, and I wasn't lying.   


He blinked. "I hoped it might remind you of home. I know my family is only middle-rank, but the world is changing, and I thought, well, perhaps you might..."


He flushed.


We finished our kozuyu in silence.


I could see the question lurking behind his nervous smile. We had been meeting like this for months, long enough for me to bind him tight. There was nothing else he could want.


"Many lords died in the war." Kenjiro's words tumbled into the anxious hush. "There will be opportunities for men of talent and intellect to advance themselves."


And there would be. I saw it then, filaments trembling with promise. I could make of Kenjiro whatever I chose. I could bind myself to him and weave a future for the Aizu, a story of redemption and glory--of fire, and steel, and ash. 


Nothing is easier than showing men what they want to see.


"Forgive my presumption." He bowed low, mistaking my silence for displeasure. "It was foolish of me to come here."


"Foolish…and brave." I laid a hand on his arm, his shoulder, his knee, his cheek, and I kept them folded in my lap. I had so many hands.

 

"I will stake my life to--" He blew at a moth fluttering around his face. It circled about then came right back. "I will--"


I wanted to devour him. Instead, I stood, ducking out from under the tree. "Give me time to consider." 


"Of course." Kenjiro bowed. When he rose, the hope in his eyes was almost too much to bear.  


"Tomorrow?" he asked.


"Perhaps." I walked away, hating the part of me that enjoyed ensnaring him.


Ubagamori was not far and I had plenty of time. For all her cunning and craft, a life of lies had made Grandmother strangely trusting. I'd fashioned another me from moss, rocks, and a twist of vine--a dutiful granddaughter to care for, to laugh and scheme with, a girl who would never leave her side. My only concern was Mother, who would see through my ruse in an instant.


I found her standing at the edge of Ubagamori, half-shadowed by the fall of branches. 


"You caught a boy." It wasn't a question.


My stomach clenched at her words, and I reached, as I always did when I was nervous, for father's dagger.


"Did you--? Is Kenjiro--?" I asked. Grandmother's lies were wild, grandiose things, the work of a spider who caught moths but could never understand them. Mother's lies were small and careful, threaded with just enough truth to make them believable. 


"He's real." She stepped from the shadows. "As real as anything."


We stood for quite some time, sweating in the hot summer sun.


"Your grandmother is right," she said, at last. "He will bring you sadness in the end. Even your happiest memories will turn sharp as a new blade."


"Perhaps not. The world is changing."


"Seasons change, the world does not. Finally, I understand why your grandmother was so afraid." She sighed. "Will you go with him?" 


The choice sat like a stone in my stomach, perhaps the first real decision I'd ever made. 


Our lives are not our own. We are born into obligation--to our family, our lord, our clan, our class. Some take to it, clinging like a child to its mother, comfortable in the path it has laid out for them. Others struggle against their duty and become bitter and cold like tea steeped too long.


The weight of obligation pressed in on me from all sides. I could be a moth or a spider, and yet I felt as a frog in a well, unaware of the great sea that swirled just beyond my gaze. How could I chart the heavens when I saw but a small part of them? 


And there it was. The answer came soft as a summer breeze--unexpected, quiet, but oh so welcome. 


I drew Father's dagger. Mother took a small, worried step towards me, then paused as I held up a hand. 


With a quick motion, I turned to Ubagamori and swept my arm in a circle like I was winding loose silk. There was a brief sense of resistance when I brought the dagger down, as if I were drawing the blade through water rather than air. To be honest, I didn't know if it had worked until I saw Mother's surprise. She looked from the forest, to the knife, to me, eyes wide and unbelieving. 


Not giving her time to speak, I turned and chopped the blade towards Aizu, towards Kenjiro. It went quicker this time, and after a moment's work they were free.  

 
"And me?" Mother said with a sad tilt of her head.


Not knowing what to say, I took three quick steps forward and drew her close. She tensed at my touch: only small children hugged their parents like that, but I held tight until all propriety drained from her.


"What are you?" She shook her head, finally returning my embrace.


"We are birds." I brushed her tears away, then pressed Father's dagger into her hands, leaning in to whisper. "And it is spring."  
 

 

Copyright © The Year After LLC 2020. All Rights Reserved.

Background Art by Ferdinand Ladera

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