Naoko

She said her name was Mitsuko, but it was definitely Naoko. An older Naoko, yes, a Naoko with an unnatural, smiling veneer, certainly, but still, it was Naoko all the same. Even through the years and the thick make-up Sato knew it was her. The geisha’s giggle and simpering servitude were Mitsuko, mama of the willow house, but the eyes – which simultaneously held both the fire of her temper and ice of her disdain – said Naoko.

Sato recognised her as soon as she entered the six-mat room at the back of the house – the quietest room. The make-up could disguise the line of the face, the shape of the nose and even the years of hard experience written into a woman’s face, but it couldn’t do anything about the eyes. Naoko’s were black, terribly black, and as soon as Sato saw them they instantly filled him with the familiar thrill of fear and excitement, as if it had been only yesterday he had last seen them, and not fifty years ago. If this tremble were not enough evidence in itself, when she bowed in a low kow-tow he saw the bubbling scar tissue on the nape of her neck – painted paler still than it already was.

There was no question as to whether Naoko had recognised him. His hair had grown white but his face – shiny with the ageless, hairless plasticity of burn scars – was unchanged from the ten-year-old slum boy who had first met her. His face had healed into a Noh mask, frozen in time, and was unmistakable.

Yet she bowed and introduced herself as “Mitsuko”. When Sato said, “It’s me: Sato” (his voice too was unmistakable – a rasping hiss, the relic of scarred lungs and vocal chords from inhaling searing black smoke), she simply replied that she was “honoured to meet the great Sato-san” and that her finest and most beautiful girls would wait on him and his friends – two junior members of the Shogunate he had been ordered to entertain. She bowed again and left.

Seated formally on the floor, Sato struggled to get onto his feet, both the age of his bones and his shock preventing him from moving properly.

“Let me help you, Sato-san,” said one of the young politicians – Mimura, was it?

“No, no, never mind.” He looked at the two men as if for the first time – the sudden appearance of Naoko in this most unexpected of places had quite knocked him out of the present reality. He could almost smell the ash on the summer air…

 

It hung around like a low, grey cloud for most of a month following the great fire. Then, when the rain finally broke, it ran in black rivulets between the cobbles of the streets. The wet, charred wood of razed houses gave off a smell like piss.

This smell was the first thing that came back to Sato after weeks of pure darkness. The stench crept into the empty void of his sleep, where he dreamed only to escape the pain that tore at him inside and out. The next thing to return was the patter of rain – the sound of it on the stones and tiptoeing on the surface of the river somewhere nearby. Soon he realised he couldn’t just hear the rain, he could feel it too, prickling the backs of his hands. Then he felt it soaking into his back from the ground and it wasn’t altogether unpleasant. He finally opened his eyes to a bruised sky. Blinking the raindrops out of his eyes, he knew wasn’t blind, and somewhere deep inside him he felt happy at this, before falling back asleep, on his back, on the ground, outside in the blissful rain.

He was in a sort of rough-shod field hospital. All of Asakusa was splinters and ash so the patients were mostly lying in the streets. Here and there sheets of cloth were slung over washing lines to provide cover but there were so few structures left to tie them to that most of the injured were getting wet.

For the first time Sato could taste the filthy cloth stuffed into his mouth to give him water. He sucked at it greedily. He felt the pain when the medicine-man swabbed his eyes with a rank-smelling tincture and peeled the bandages from his face. And he felt the kick in the ribs: “I should praise the gods that I didn’t turn out as bad as you, kid. Your face looks like the pimple on my chin.” The girl’s face swam in front of him, blocking out the sky and the rain. Her nose was turned up and a little flat, her front teeth were crooked, the spot on her chin stood out angry and red with a head of yellow pus, and her eyes were black as a funeral kimono. “Anyone in there?” Her finger poked at Sato’s face but he couldn’t feel it. What he could feel was her hands digging through his pockets, a sudden thrill as her fingers brushed the skin of his belly inside his tunic. “Someone’s already got to you, I reckon. See you around!” The face was gone, replaced by granite sky and rain, but it came back in his sleep again and again, filling his body with strength and energy and it wasn’t long until he was on his feet again.

He walked the streets with nowhere to go, every familiar place obliterated – wood and paper houses, all kindling and tobacco, really. No more embers floated on the drowsy air but all around was devastation. Homes, kabuki theatres, public baths – all gone. He had no money and at first relied on what little charity people had left in them. His appetite was tempered by the pain in his throat and chest, otherwise he would have starved.

At first they thought it was an earthquake that caused it, but as people put their stories together they realised it wasn’t a god of the ground they’d angered but one of the sky: Feng. The name spread in whispers around the neighbourhood almost as fast as the fire had. Sato remembered wings wreathed in flame, a golden flash and belching fire that roared like a hurricane wind. A month later they were still piling up the dead for burial – suffocation and infection carried off as many as the blaze. The smell of burning incense was ubiquitous. Sato knew instinctively not to ask where his family was.

Already there was the sound of building in Asakusa. “How resilient the people of Edo are!” cried a bedraggled, burned figure among the clang of hammers and thud of axes. “Especially when good Lord Feng pays them so well to get to work! Bow to your snake of a master!” The workers jeered at him. “Piss off, old man!” they shouted. “Cover that hideous face!” The old man was as badly damaged as Sato and peered out of thick welts of puckered scarring through one eye, the other fused over. Already they were rebuilding, recovering, forgetting, and already Sato began to notice the change in attitude towards those who had been marked by the storm of fire and brimstone. No longer were they lucky survivors, they were reminders of something everyone would rather forget, they were the Walking Dead.

“Die already, old man!” came the cry of a girl’s voice. A potato hit the old man on the back of the head, sending him sprawling into the sawdust that coated the streets like the first powdery snow of winter. The workmen jeered and howled with mocking laughter.

Sato’s heart leapt. There she was: the girl in his dream. For a time he’d started to think he’d imagined her in his delirium, but here she was, flesh and blood. Long black hair ran down almost to her waist, untied and blowing in a breeze he couldn’t feel on his own face. The charge of energy that had brought him back to life as he lay in the rain ran through him again. He desperately wanted to go up and speak to her – “See you around,” she’d said – but he was scared.

He followed her through the busy thoroughfares, winding between street vendors, and skirting through the remains of houses until she left the rubble of the slums behind completely and Sato no longer had any inkling at all as to where he was.

He started to draw stares from the well-dressed ladies shuffling past in their geta and summer kimonos, accessorised with hand-fans and parasols.

At length the girl wound her way to a temple – bigger than any Sato had ever seen, with beams painted brilliant red and a lantern hanging from the curved eaves of the roof that could eclipse the moon. She didn’t bow at the torii gate outside, nor did she wash her hands in the water of the temizuya. The forecourt was busy, monks were praying for the sick and injured of Asakusa, and begging others to do likewise.

Sato climbed the steps to the Butsuden after her, safe in the crowd. He watched her bow, clap twice and bow again, this time so low that her long hair dipped into the piles of coins left by the worshipers. He saw her hand slip in and out, half-hidden by the black veil of her hair, then she was off back down the stairs. She bowed on her way out.

They were back among the building works and bustle of Asakusa when she abruptly spun round to face him.

“What’s the idea, Pimple?” She flipped her hair – which had whipped round like a tail as she turned – back over her shoulder and stood with her hands on her hips and feet apart. She was a good deal taller than Sato, and those eyes were filled with menace and ugly humour.

Sato’s mouth flapped open and closed but in his surprise he couldn’t think of anything to say. She remembers you, he thought with stupid excitement.

“Come on, you’ve been following me all day. You got a problem? You not got anywhere better to be?”

Sato’s heart pumped so hard it made him giddy.

“Speak up, Pimple.”

“My – my name is… Sato.” Those were the first words he’d said since waking up. They came out broken and painful. He tried to smile and bowed his head.

“Actually, maybe go back to not speaking, Pimple, that voice of yours gives me the horrors. Look, you’ve made me shiver!”

“So s-sorry.”

“Stop! Yuck, look I can’t just have some Walking Dead kid following me around all the time. Haven’t you got somewhere to be?”

Sato shook his head, still hung low, unable to look again into her wonderful, mocking eyes.

“My name is Naoko.”

From then on he ran with Naoko and the band of urchins she held control over. They taught him how to pick pockets, how to shoplift, and how to scam money out of old ladies. All of them, besides Naoko, were orphans of the great fire, and as such were marked – some worse than others, none worse than Sato – so begging was out of the question. They took to their work with joy and enthusiasm. They robbed offerings from gods of all stripes and ran in fear of the watchmen. At night they would huddle under bridges or in the ruins of a house. Naoko was the warm centre – beautiful and undamaged. The other kids called Sato “Pimple” or “Naoko’s pet”, and indeed he followed her with the loyalty of a puppy. Looking back now, too late to matter, he knew he had been in love.

“My mum and dad are abroad,” Naoko would say. “When they come back to get me I’ll be leaving here forever.”

“What will happen to me?” Sato once asked.

“Maybe they’ll let me keep you,” she replied.

One day Naoko wasn’t fast enough. The nashi pear was in her hand but the vendor’s was tight around her skinny wrist before she’d even seen him move. She struggled but he was strong, with the solid build of a farmer and the dark skin of the lower caste (only the blistered skin of the “Walking Dead” was lower – branded by magical fire).

“Thief! I should cut this off,” he said, holding her hand up in the air for all in the street to see. In his other hand was a sharp paring knife. Naoko screamed. Sato was terrified, not just because of the knife and the burly shopkeeper, but because seeing Naoko in such a state of panic, her cool exterior melted, was somehow obscene. With all the strength he could muster, Sato pushed at the vegetable cart, a running shove with his shoulder tipping the whole thing over and him along with it. The shopkeeper let fly with wild string of curses and Sato felt those powerful fingers dig into his hair and scalp.

He was beaten badly, almost to death, but at least the watchmen didn’t come along to lock him up.

“When my parents come back and I tell them about this they’ll have that hideous darkie drowned in the moat right outside the Imperial Castle!” Naoko spat. She had half-carried Sato all the way back to their most recent hideout – a new-build family house of Lord Feng’s whose roof had caved in at the first summer thunderstorm. The sound of showers on tatami and the clink of a useless rain-chain out front were soothing at night.

“Where will you go, Naoko?” asked Sato.

“What?”

“When they come back you said you’d all go away together. Where will you go?”

In reply Naoko turned around and pulled up her long hair in a loose bun which spilled out over her face. The back of her neck, behind her ears, and what was visible of the top of her back were all covered in the thick, keloid scarring of badly healed burns, the familiar mark of a god’s wrath.

After that something changed in Naoko. She was always wild, always took risks, but they now tipped from bold to audacious, reckless. Her attitude towards adults became hostile and brazen, her outbursts of anger – mostly directed at beggars – grew in violence and ferocity and the treatment of her merry band of purse-snatchers was bullying and cruel to all except Sato, which made him all the more isolated from the rest of the group. She started up a scam where she’d dress like a hostess, walk straight into a gentlemen’s club or willow house and help herself to the coins left by traders and money-men to pay for their women and sake. There were plenty of such places and plenty of such men to hit – all grown fat from the fallout of the fire. Feng had come with a boom in more ways than one.

Sato and Naoko were in the Gai one day, Naoko preparing to do her hostess routine in one of the izakayas that lined every alleyway, when she pointed out a mark in the crowd.

“He’s a samurai,” said Naoko.

“What? How can you tell? Where’s his armour?”

“Look at the way his hair is tied up on his head like a sumo, and how broad his shoulders are.”

“Maybe he’s a sumo then,” Sato said, then added, “in training,” for the man was nowhere near as fat as even the smallest wrestler.

“No, look at the eyes. The sumo’s eyes are innocent, his are certainly evil!”

“Don’t talk nonsense!”

“Fine, don’t look at his eyes then, look at his hands.”

They were hidden in the sleeves of his kimono and Sato watched eagerly for a glimpse.

“Naoko, this is –”

“Look!”

As the man adjusted the obi around his robes Sato saw that the backs of his hands were covered in black ink patterns – scratched in by sharpened bamboo sticks.

“See: tattoos. I bet they go all the way up his arms. He’s a samurai all right, probably one of Feng’s personal guard.”

“Samurai don’t have tattoos. You’re thinking of gokudo.”

“They’re all the same these days – they all have the same master at any rate. What d’you bet he’s carrying a pretty penny on him?”

“Naoko, don’t –” but she was already slipping sideways through the crowds of afternoon drinkers towards him.

Sato had to hold his breath as he watched her brush up against the tattooed foot-soldier – the shoulder bump, the apology, the bow. He watched her travel the length of the street without once looking back and, turning at the bottom, she eventually returned by a twisting route through the alleyways of the Gai.

“Told ya!” She held up a leather coin pouch in front of Sato’s face before making it vanish inside her absurd hostess clothes. “It was hanging right on his obi, can you imagine that? Wearing your money on your belt in the Gai? Begging to be robbed!”

Sato was frozen in place. Right behind her: the tattooed man, his eyes up close were certainly evil as Naoko had said. His hand came down on her shoulder. As soon as she felt it she thrust backwards with her elbow, burying it in the villain’s groin. “Run!” she screeched.

No sooner had Sato turned to go than he heard her cry out again, this time in pain. Tattoo-man had tripped her as she tried to run. He pulled her up by the length of her long, black hair and belted her across the face with the back of his hand. Sato ran at him headlong, as he had done with the vegetable cart, and met with a dizzying blow to the head. His face had no sensation – the nerve-endings frazzled beyond use – but the punch rattled his brain like a die in a cup and sent him reeling to the ground. From the gutter he watched them disappear among a parting crowd.

He struggled to his feet among a wide circle of people staring at him. From the end of the street came two watchmen dressed in mock-samurai style, short swords like stunted katanas on their belts, Lord Feng’s serpentine emblem freshly painted on their armour. He ran blind until they were no longer behind him.

Sato looked all over Asakusa, asking around all the kids he knew if they had seen her – but by this point most didn’t care and without her by his side Sato had little standing with them. He wandered until he was lost, he even risked going back to the Gai, but she was nowhere. He spent a miserable night alone, abandoned again, and dreamed of fire. Over the crack of breaking timber, a woman screamed – mother? sister? Naoko? When he woke he dearly wished he’d just died in his sleep.

At this low ebb he realised that he would happily die to find her, to see her again. A plan began to form. He just might die, come to think of it.

There were guards posted day and night on the bridge leading to the Imperial Gardens. During the day they would shepherd the queues of people waiting to speak to Lord Feng in the treasury – sometimes to pay debts, mostly to beg. However, Feng wasn’t seriously in need of protection. Not because he didn’t have enemies – he had a great many – but because he could quite easily defend himself; he had proved that much on his arrival in Edo. So it was that during long nights the guards weren’t particularly vigilant and often utilised the old soldier’s trick of sleeping while standing upright, and that night neither of them noticed the young boy with the brutally disfigured face slipping into the moat.

If Lord Feng’s men had taken Naoko somewhere, Sato would just have to ask him directly.

Keeping under the arches of the bridge as best he could, Sato paddled through the lotuses that covered the surface of the moat, disturbing the carp which about-turned with a playful splash. Shivering from the bracing cold of the water – fed in fresh from the Sumida – he hauled himself up onto the bank on the other side, digging his fingers knuckle-deep into the earth.

The bricks of the outer wall hadn’t been replaced in some time and the loose cracks provided regular handholds. While the wall’s angled face – leaning in towards the garden – made the going easier, by the time he reached the top his fingernails were torn and bleeding, the skin of his knees scraped raw. From the top he climbed onto the sturdy branch of a massive zelkova which spilled over the parapet. He shimmied down the thick trunk as best he could and fell the last five feet to the ground, sending a Kingfisher – roosting among the leaves – up in alarm. Its striking blue and orange feathers were rendered silver by the moonlight.

While he caught his breath he listened to the sounds of the garden. Over the gentle lap of the moat was the warm buzz of insect life, the tapping of a pygmy woodpecker against the centuries-old trees. No footsteps. Still, he kept off the paths and crept among the foliage – fireflies lighting the way – skirting around the back of the round music hall – its walls a mosaic of tiles and its domed, copper roof green with age.

Over the tops of a row of black pines in the distance he could see the shingled rooftops of the Imperial Castle, separated by yet another wall. Luckily that wasn’t his destination. Everybody knew Lord Feng slept with his gold in the treasury.

There were no guards posted there. Feng detested the smell of them, apparently. Sato climbed another tree, carefully avoiding the coils of a rat snake twisted around an upper branch. A short jump and he was in through the window of the treasury – a building which contained a single room, no bigger than the music hall, its space broken only by a handful of pillars to hold up the roof.

He landed on coins. Gold coins, a sea of them which lapped up high against every wall. Their glow lit up the room. Sato was sinking up to his knees in ingots – some he recognised, others with foreign stamps, all of them heavy and beautiful. And here and there were the glimmer of diamonds, of blood red rubies and emeralds the colour of some ideal, perfect surf lying against a pure white beach. Sato was transfixed and for a time he could do nothing but stare, then on impulse he plunged his hands up to his wrists in the brilliant, shining ocean. Inside him beat the heart of a thief, damaged by loss and guilt, forever seeking something it couldn’t describe or define. Maybe, just maybe, this was it.

Then there was an earthquake, an avalanche of treasure.

#

“Sato-san?”

“Hmm?” Sato blinked his eyes. The two young men in their fine formal-wear were staring expectantly at him over the low table. Sato blinked again to try and bring the room back into focus. He took in the sake cups and the teapot sitting over a lit candle. There were empty dishes in front of them so they must have eaten. In fact, there were still chopsticks in Sato’s hand.  “Sorry, what was that again… Mimura?”

“Kagawa, sir.”

“Sorry, yes, Kagawa, of course.”

“I was just asking what you thought of the Shogun’s proposal to open trade routes up in Hokkaido? I was telling Mimura earlier that it would depend whether Lord Feng could guarantee safety of transport that far from home.”

“Yes, yes, of course he could. Don’t talk such nonsense, boy. Lord Feng has old connections up there, and even if he didn’t there would still be no problems with pirates or bandits or whoever…”

This caused a lively discussion to break out between the two young men which Sato half participated in. His master often asked him to take out any new additions to the Shogunate and pump them for information – come on friendly and wise (even slightly intimidating if necessary) but find out where they stood, where their loyalties lay: with money or with ideals. With money there was no problem. Today he had utterly failed in his task as he had barely paid – Kagawa and Mimura, was it?­ – any attention at all. Over fifty years and now, back in Asakusa where it all started, among the willow houses and the bars and the theatres, she had just appeared in front of him like a vision: Naoko.

When the girl – as heavily made up as Naoko/Mitsuko was – had cleared away their cups, Sato walked the two men outside into the dull afternoon. The street was all willow houses, some traditional where the geishas told stories and played games, others new which sold sex for those who could afford a high price. Sato made his excuses and returned to the house. He spotted the geisha who had entertained them – he didn’t catch her name – and asked where he could find the mama of the house.

He followed her directions to the rock garden out back. There was Naoko, sweeping stones with a willow branch brush, her hair tied up on top of her head, the back of her neck exposed.

“Naoko, I know it’s you. I wanted to see you. All this time I –”

“Well I don’t want to see you, Pimple. It has been a long time and let’s leave it at that.”

“But what happened to you that day? I looked everywhere, Naoko. Everywhere.”

“Things I won’t tell you. Things I won’t tell anyone. I don’t want to speak to you, Pimple. Your terrible voice still gives me the horrors.”

“You’re angry that I’m no longer ‘Naoko’s pet’?”

Naoko turned to face him and he immediately wished she hadn’t. Those black eyes were on him, he could feel their pressure bearing down. Even in her bare feet she was still taller than him.

“No you’re not. Now you’re Lord Feng’s pet, though what that animal needs with one is beyond my understanding.”

“I did what I had to do to survive.” Sato’s temper flashed, then was cowed by Naoko’s black stare, “…It’s what we always did back then.”

“Back then? We were children back then. But we’ve grown up now, yet you’re still selfish as a child, looking after only yourself, at any cost.”

“Oh, and what have you ever done to help your fellow man, eh? Still spitting at beggars in the street?”

A flicker of rage passed over Naoko’s face and for a second Sato thought she might spit at him. “I don’t pick the prettiest girls to work in this house,” she said.

“I did think their war paint was a little thick –”

“Shut up, Pimple. The girls are orphans. I find them on the streets or working in brothels. I bring them here and give them a home.”

“Where they simper and smile at the very men who enslave them?”

“You talk to me about slaves? You, a lackey, a stooge, hah! It’s the best I can do for them for now. I have limited options.”

“Tell me.”

“Get out. Get out now, Pimple. And go back to your life as the great Sato-san.” The pressure of her gaze, her terrible eyes, now pushed him right back out onto the street.

Naoko: what had happened?

 

The ground just about opened up under ten-year-old Sato. A great pile of coins grew nearly up to the ceiling and exploded downwards. And then Lord Feng was towering above him – scales glowing red and orange, wings stretching out until the tips scraped the walls – woken from his sleep under the quilt of treasure. He had the face and voice of a devil, a snake, and the heat, the heat of him! Memories came flooding back to Sato – a tornado of fire, the house coming down on top of him, and the all-consuming heat, like being bathed in scalding tea.

A dragon, a demi god: Lord Feng. He looked upon his work: a burnt child, a thief with handfuls of his gold ingots.

Sato felt the power radiating from Feng, and from the money and gems that he covered himself with. Power. And it was better than love.

For the next fifty years Sato had lived by the dragon’s side, helping him accumulate, extort, and pursue, not just wealth, but power too. In that time the memory of Naoko had grown fainter until he couldn’t picture her at all. Now, seeing her again, the image of the young, wild girl was sharp again, more real than memory, more real, even, than the street in front of his very eyes. Above the porch of the willow house where Sato stood, somewhere among the blackening clouds, thunder rumbled. The rain came light at first. Rain, he’d always loved the rain. That had never changed.

END

by Callum McSorley

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