Fiction / June 2012 (Issue 17)

Winter Seclusion

by John Givens

They were cold, and they were tired; and after reaching the half-way point, they had foundered on: Night rain at the barrier gate, and along this road walks no one, an idea that seemed to offer no way out of the gloom they had created for themselves.

Old Master Bashō's white paper doors still glowed with reflected snow light, but the circle of linking poets sat buried in shadows like funerary sentinels. Some moved their lips, considering options or sifting through precedents; some tapped folded fans against the floor mats, checking rhythm against syllable-count and some—deep in thought or chilled into stupefaction—stared blankly at nothing.


It's all gone.

Tea then?

Pot's cold.

The session scribe offered to read back the half-finished sequence from the beginning, but the Old Master said no. If they couldn't recall their arrival, how could they hope to fashion a departure?

Although they had heard this criticism before, usually in the same or similar terms, the linking poets configured their faces in the manner of thoughtful persons who have just been provided with unexpected information, delaying, for the moment at least, the burden of the necessity of responding.

Whatever their teacher possessed was provided by them. Rolls of cotton cloth or silk cloth were left on his veranda, and writing paper and ink sticks added to the supply on his alcove shelf. The Old Master would find sacks of rice dumped into his rice bin, pickled vegetables stored in his larder and packets of tea poured into his tea caddy. Before formal group sessions, a cask of rice wine would appear inside his entryway gate, trays of rice cakes topped with strips of pressed fish would be delivered and, afterwards, a few silver coins would be found tucked away discreetly in odd corners.

"Walks no one," a voice intoned, "along this road walks …"

"No one," echoed another, but he too could do nothing with the bleak stanza.

Then the only woman in the room, Little Ohasu, swaddled like a bagworm in a winter robe too sombre for her profession and too large for her person, bowed formally, picked up her fan and, her hand trembling with consternation and the cold, suggested a link:

"A moonless dawn: in the icy clarity of the mountain stream, fingerlings."

The session scribe leaned forward to observe the shy little peony girl kneeling demurely at the bottom of the room. Ohasu had never before dared to speak, much less attempted to add a stanza of her own. "Along this road walks no one," then, "a moonless dawn?" He turned questioningly towards Old Master Bashō. "In the icy clarity of the mountain stream," the session scribe recited tentatively, as if requesting a clarification. "Fingerlings," wasn't it? But the old man said nothing, and those around him sat staring straight ahead, their fans lying untouched before them.

Ohasu picked up her fan again. Yes. To extend the emptiness of the road at the gate. But then to fill it in, add to it. So no moon. Because of the rain. And no sun yet either. But the first brightening of the dawn sky means the rain is ending. And with that light you can see enough to have a sense of … of things beginning again. And it's … like that.

I see, said the session scribe. "Fingerlings." And there would be a few of them, I suppose. So it moves the tone of the poem from solitude to convergence. A nice change.

Ohasu shot him a quick glance of gratitude then lowered her eyes. But he was no ally; she didn't have one here.

The silk merchant picked up his fan. Kichiji was a large, well-fed man who had accumulated an immense fortune over the years and detected within his talent for shrewd business practices an overall excellence of perception. It's as I've always said, said the silk merchant. The energising faculty of the engaged imagination generates its own transcendent experience. One has been awake all night no doubt, sitting beside a mountain stream and musing on the sadness of the beauty of the nature of things, hearing the changeless change of deep water moving deeply, as if welling up from within the mountain's dark depths …

Kichiji paused, overcome momentarily by the profundity of this explanation. He had paid for the Old Master's cottage, and he had also bought all its furnishings for him. Kichiji liked providing things to those who would appreciate his munificence, and he lifted his elegant fan in celebration of the subtlety of his thought and the generosity of his spirit then let it drop to his knee languidly, much in the way Old Master Bashō himself sometimes did.

And then, Kichiji continued, one becomes aware of the far bank of the stream as it emerges from the shadows and brings itself into one's consciousness gradually, gradually, like a butterfly fluttering out of an icy mist as it comes so exquisitely forward …

His voice trailed away again. He smiled to himself and lowered his eyes, too moved by his own eloquence to continue.

After a moment Ohasu asked, But how is a stream bank like a butterfly?

It is a metaphor, replied the silk merchant.

Yes. But which for which?

Which for which?

Yes. Is the stream bank a metaphor for a butterfly? Or is the butterfly a metaphor for a stream bank?

Kichiji held himself upright, assembling the full magnitude of his dignity before lifting his fan again. The image comes into view as if released from the grip of the mountain's silence. And the trees and the rocks and the water grasses are still only patches of darkness even as the surface of the water begins to become visible, gradually, gradually, and then within that icy water, one becomes aware of the ineffable there-ness of fish. The silk merchant nodded in pleased agreement with himself. And so then thus, as it were, if I may say it, of the melancholy beauty of the burden of being.

I think it's simpler than that, said the session scribe; and someone else said, So do I.

Old Master Bashō waited, his bald head tilted off to one side like an ancient and imperturbable tortoise. "In the icy clarity of the mountain water, fingerlings," he recited then said: A very good link.

Indeed it is, said Kichiji, always quick to agree with his teacher.

If, for example, the provisional female-member had chosen "hatchlings" instead of "fingerlings," then the link would have been a failure.

The silk merchant returned Old Master Bashō's gaze then looked away. Yes, he said uncertainly. No doubt that's the case.

No doubt, said the Old Master. The question is why.

Yes. Why. That is indeed a question …

The circle of linking poets sat pondering the distinction between hatchlings and fingerlings or pretending to ponder it, their breaths pluming out whitely in the frigid air like some bizarre form of signalling device.

The Old Master would not force a new link. Nor would he do everything himself, for the method of his art was in the binding together of a group to fashion a poem that no one of them could have managed alone. If you don't understand why that image is the right choice, he said, then how can you create a stanza that connects to it?

The linking poets sat with their hands stuffed in their sleeves. Hatchlings? one said, and glanced around hopefully.

You praise the link but you don't understand it, said Old Master Bashō. So what is it that you're praising?

No one answered.

A crow alighted on a pine bough in the garden, knocking loose a glittering fall of ice crystals that dropped from branch to branch in a susurrant cascade and landed with a wet plop on the snow surface below, the sound of it followed by its silence.

Perhaps our little dancing mouse will create the next stanza herself? suggested the silk merchant humorously. Since she seems to understand such things so well.

Such things? said Ohasu.

Slimy things? Kichiji's people-pointing finger rose obscenely erect. Wet slippery things?

But they're just little fish, someone said; and the silk merchant explained that the term could also be used to refer to the generative organ of an adult male, particularly for one of modest dimensions. It's a vulgarity, Kichiji concluded, apparently common in the pleasure quarters. He himself wouldn't know.

Ohasu stared down at her empty hands cupped one inside the other.

Silence settled over the linking poets, all of whom had decided to pretend to be unaware of the provisional female-member's occupation.

Shall we abandon our poem, then? Old Master Bashō said finally. Was it too cold for them to continue? Did they want to go home? Sit by a nice fire? Suck on a jujube?

No one spoke. A scree of snow crystals had begun fanning out from a gap where two of the white paper doors failed to close properly, and the linking poets watched the small wedge grow.

Well, then, said the Old Master, perhaps this is as it must be. He would not save them. The formal winter session would be allowed to end as a failure.

Kichiji the silk merchant took up his fan again. The true path to an understanding of the art of the way of haikai linked poetry exists in the ability to perceive the subtlest nuances. He nodded to himself, pleased with this stipulation. It's not the flower that is precious, said Kichiji, nor the shadow of the flower, nor even the memory of the shadow of the flower, nor, for that matter, the yearning after that remembered shadow. No. Not that one. Nor that other. What must be captured is the poignancy of the memory of the yearning. And then, most precious of all, the sense of longing one feels for the loss of the soon-to-fade remembrance of that poignant yearning …

A faint wisp of steam still rose from the spout of the kettle in a frail, wavering line that broke apart before reaching the low ceiling.

Ohasu's hand trembled as she picked up her fan. Because hatchlings are so tiny? Isn't that the reason? Because the image would be too pathetic?

An appreciation of the pathos of small things, murmured the silk merchant. Based on personal disappointments no doubt.

Old Master Bashō said nothing, but he was watching as the session scribe picked up his fan. I believe the provisional female-member is correct. Hatchlings under a cold, moonless dawn would have been too intense. It would stop the poetic sequence. What is needed is a sense of hope. An affirmation. Her link is successful for that reason.

The Old Master waited for further comments then said, I agree. What could follow an image like "hatchlings?" How could you build from it? But, "in the icy clarity of the mountain water, fingerlings," is just right. The water is cold but the fingerlings will endure it. So too are the lives of men cold in this cold world, yet we too must endure.

"Mountain stream," said Ohasu, if it's not improper of me to insist on it; and Old Master Bashō looked at her with narrowed eyes, seeing the unwanted daughter, the child sold to the pleasure quarters for a debt, the scrawny girl who would never marry, never become a wife or a mother, her pinched little face pale in the cold air and the rims of her nostrils pink with inflammation. Write it that way, he said. And sign it O-ha-su. But in kana. Not the kanji for her name.


On an old gilt screen the image of an ancient pine:

winter seclusion.


The low angle of the weak winter sun gave a slightly beige cast to the naked cherry trees that lined Middle Lane, as if the leafless branches were coated with fine particles of dust.

Ohasu counted the syllables on her fingertips since there was no one to catch her doing it then jotted down:

Evening cherries at full-bloom within the evanescence of dust …

Next to this she wrote, under the dust of evanescence then added, too delicate to survive the orange glow.

She studied both phrases then blotted them out. Too silly to survive being laughed at.

Ohasu sat behind the barred widow on the second floor of the assignations teahouse with an extra robe draped around her narrow shoulders. She had decided to end her first attempt at a thirty-six stanza solo sequence with an image of vernal serenity: cherry trees in full bloom at sunset. But now that she had worked her way to the last stanza, the sight of the bare trees on Middle Lane made her uncertain. Wasn't there an equivalent tranquillity in winter? Of course there was in reality, but in poetry? And the blossoms really did get dusty from the feet of strollers. So perhaps because the colour itself would appear drained away, as if exhausted by the need to … to what? Respond to the beauty of the day? The colours wearied by it? Was she really capable of thinking that way?

Ohasu felt like throwing her writing-brush out the window. But she'd just have to go downstairs and pick it up again. And the session scribe had informed her that although it was unlikely she would ever be accepted as a regular member, it wasn't impossible that her provisional status might be extended. He had advised her to persevere.

Ohasu corrected her brush tip, musing on colours and textures, blossoms and dust, only to become distracted by an outburst of love-shouting from down the hall. A grade-two back-worker was entertaining a regular visitor Ohasu detested. The other peony girls had gone off for an afternoon bath, and she had found the repulsive client perched on a stack of floor cushions with his robe open, fondling the squat red stump of his penis as if he thought she might become inflamed with desire at the sight of it.

Ohasu had distributed dishes of titbits and heated flasks of rice wine then checked the brazier and tossed in a few more chunks of charcoal. Will your honour require anything else?

What do you suggest? The client was a merchant who bought dried sardines in bulk to grind into fertiliser, and the stench of it never quite left him. You're a dancer, aren't you? How about a dance?

No performances in the afternoon.

How about dancing naked-islanders style?

Please enjoy yourselves leisurely. Ohasu had slapped closed their door a little more firmly than was necessary and scurried back to her room.

Blossoms drained of their colour …

But that had been said like that for hundreds and hundreds of years, the idea of blossoms yielding to their own transience.

And yet the flowers did get dusty. And dustiness meant something. The blossoms at sunset, as they are in the dust of the world

She looked at what she'd written then added, The blossoms as they are at sunset, repeating the phrasing to herself but not happy with any of it.

Going! Going! I'm going, squealed the grade-two; and the fertiliser magnate began bellowing it out too, as if her faking of sexual frenzy might be authenticated by a similar fabrication of his own.

Ohasu checked back through her sequence of thirty-five stanzas, confirming that each was unique, each flowed out of the one before, with no awkward echoes or redundancies. Even if she remained only a provisional member, she would attend the formal sessions diligently and express her opinions when asked and never suggest that she felt unwanted in any way.

The shouts down the hall had reached their crescendo—the absurd volume meant to suggest that great gouts of love's bounty were being splashed about the room—and Ohasu bent over her low table and forced herself not to hear it, working out other variations, "… of the dust of the world on the blossoms…," the idea what she meant but the words tired. Perhaps she should come at it more directly? Say what a thing is and trust that the saying itself was sufficient?

Dusty blossoms at sunset, and the words for it also tired at the end of the day …

Something like that? Dust and the word "dust"? Or wasn't that too much like a novice calling attention to herself? Her sequence had to end with a mood of tranquillity, matching the sense of quiet expectation it had begun with and thus bracketing the turbulent middle sections where—

Writing smutty verses? The sardine-fertiliser client stood in her doorway, pulling up on his flaccid little man-stick to make it seem longer, his sack dangling, the maroon damsons deployed one below the other.

Is there something your honour needs?

What about what you need?

The grade-two had followed him as far as the hallway, also naked and shivering in the cold, her coif cocked off in a tangle as if she'd been dragged sideways through a hedge.

Is it more wine your honour requires?

How about you? A little wine help you relax?

Younger sister looks disappointed, Ohasu said. Did you have a misunderstanding with her? But surely, as anyone can see, it must have been a very small one, Ohasu said brightly; and the client turned away, penis-stub retracting, and stalked back to his room. Bring a cloth! And come do a wipe-up!

So, the moment between the orange warmth of sunset in spring and the first cool blues of spring twilight. With the sun gone from the horizon but with its light still colouring the pale cherry blossoms, the orange of it filtering out their pinkness …

And the dust of the world … the dust of the world …

That had to go away. Dust, the word dust, the idea of it.

Ohasu regretted the loss then stopped regretting it. She gazed down at Middle Lane for a moment, an image needed, perhaps only a single word ... the leafless boughs of the cherry trees wet and black in the settling twilight as early visitors began arriving; everyone bundled up against the cold; the samurai disguised in deep-brim basket hats or with head-cloths draped around cheeks and chins; priests fooling no one by costuming themselves as doctors or scholars and the townsmen with their faces exposed, striding along like owners, which of course they were.

A few peony girls in their gaudy-robes fluttered like sparrows near the entryway to the baths. Some wore oversized obis with front-tied sash-knots in emulation of courtesans, and some still costumed themselves more like serving maids. The little girls watched the older ones and tried to stand the way they stood, take short steps the way they did, copy how they tilted their heads or glanced slyly at young samurai striding along in the dying winter sun.

Ohasu spotted the girls from her house returning home. Some ignored the comments of loiterers, and some lagged behind, distracted by even the stupidest easy-way boy. They would be up here with their chatter soon. Pink at dawn so orange at sunset? She had told Old Master Bashō that she wanted to write about what her life was like. She knew such a topic was inappropriate for haikai linked poetry yet he had surprised her by agreeing that a way might be found.

And wouldn't the colour seem to fade in slanted light?

The entryway door was slapped open. She heard the rattle of girls kicking off their clogs, the sound of them bickering about who got to use the indoor privy and who had to go out to the communal facilities in the back garden.

Ohasu scanned one last time through the variations she had made then loaded her brush, corrected the tip, and wrote:

The slanted orange light of the setting sun presses pinkness out of the last of the blossoms.

And in the margin at the end of her sheet, she added the kana for O-ha-su just as her door was yanked open to cries of, She is! She's still doing it!


Pulling up the futon:

the coldness of a desolate night.


Kichiji took the seat closest to the brazier and settled himself comfortably. How cold it is, he said.

The proprietor of the assignations teahouse bustled about adjusting things in a demonstration of sincerity.

Stop doing that, Kichiji said. Order some wine.

I'll bring it right away.

You have a girl here named Ohasu, the silk merchant said. Have her do it.

There are richer blossoms in our garden, deeper wells that—

Have her bring it to me.

Kichiji had long supplied the elegant robes and sashes worn in the pleasure quarters. The massive silk garments grand courtesans required were certainly lucrative, but Kichiji had realised that even richer profits would come from expanding the market. Great courtesans were rare. Reaching that level of female perfection required years of training. But the supply of young girls willing to display themselves seemed endless. Some floated through, some soared, some stumbled and fell. It didn't matter. For Kichiji, girls' functionality was as occupants of gaudy-robes. Replace a weak one with a better one, and the robe's desirability would be renewed. The silk merchant trusted the idea of penetration. Control the costume and you own the gate to the market. New kimono patterns, new fabrics, new obi styles all could be launched in the pleasure quarters before being made available in the dry-goods emporiums that were becoming popular in Edo. A girl who showed poorly could be stripped and discarded without loss since no investment in her had been made.

Kichiji had spotted inefficiencies in the assignations teahouse. Traffic was not optimised, turnover neglected, pricing static. He knew better management would double earnings, and he had quietly bought up the proprietor's debts until he owned him.

The proprietor scurried back into Kichiji's presence after issuing orders. But I beg to remind you that other girls are more lively and better able to delight guests …

Kichiji turned his heavy face towards the man. I am not your guest.

Of course not! I'm well aware of our—

Of course you are.

Kichiji had reached a position in society where he had to behave discreetly, and he used the assignations teahouse when engaged in unsavoury business affairs.

It is only meant as a term of respect, and to—

You talk too much.

And to indicate that our expertise in the ways of giving pleasure is—

And I don't need you to tell me what is done here, said Kichiji.

The door slid open. Ohasu on her knees shoved a tray with titbits in small dishes and flasks of heated rice wine inside. She crawled in behind it and bowed deeply in welcome, touching her forehead to the tatami mat.

Shut the door, said Kichiji. There's a draft.

Ohasu served the silk merchant then began to back out the doorway when he stopped her. The proprietor, too, was told to remain; and he and the peony girl knelt side by side against the far wall so as not to presume to benefit from the warmth of the brazier.

Kichiji drank then placed his empty cup beside the heated flask. Ohasu crawled forward to refill it for him then crawled back to where she had been. He emptied his cup again, obliging her to crawl to him, but he poured it full himself when she got there, and she bowed and apologised for being too slow.

One has learned not to expect anything from you, Kichiji said. He smiled benignly and waited for Ohasu to return to where she was kneeling.

I'm going to tell you something new, Kichiji said. And you are going to do something you haven't done before.

The silk merchant laid a recent woodblock-print gazette on the tatami mat. Portraits of courtesans were ranked according to desirability, with specific talents and unique charm-points listed, as well as price bands, current availability, and the most probable routes of access.

Your customers use this sort of thing to negotiate the complexities of the floating world of desire, Kichiji said; but he had also discovered that these gazettes were also being kept as souvenirs, and that the wives of night-visitors also studied them, avid for the fashions and foibles of the pleasure quarters.

Even a dullard such as yourself can see the opportunity here, said the silk merchant.

The teahouse proprietor didn't. You like pictures?

Kichiji pointed out that the supply of the purveyors of gratification for the emotions of love was restricted by the size of the pleasure quarters and the allotment of its venues. This produced a demand larger than could be satisfied. Yet with increased leisure came expanded curiosity. A strong economy produced a willingness to spend at all levels. Even those who were unable to participate in the more elegant pastimes of the pleasure quarters at New Yoshiwara would nevertheless pay to know what participation felt like.

I don't understand, said the proprietor.

No. You seem not to.

What do I have to do?

Publish, said Kichiji, and he held out his wine cup for Ohasu to crawl over and refill.

I don't know anything about making such things. The assignations man noticed that Ohasu had pulled the neckband of her kimono up against the cold, and he eased it back down to expose her nape. Nor about how to sell them.

You won't have to.

I won't?

The silk merchant explained that he was putting together a stable of painters and woodblock carvers and print-makers and page binders. They would work together at a single location and issue new volumes rapidly.

You're not talking about linked poetry books?

No, said Kichiji. He drank then held out his cup. Each page of our new gazette will have a single image, drawn in a lively style, and with a poem beside it, amplifying its reach. Kichiji nodded to himself, pleased by this explanation. It is the collection of images that will create continuity.

The assignations teahouse proprietor looked back at him blankly, and Kichiji pulled out a sketch of a young woman gazing wistfully at the moon. Beside her was a poem about longing for an absent lover. The woman's face was casually drawn and conventionally pretty, with fat round cheeks and slits for eyes; but her robe was rendered in meticulous detail, as was her obi and hair ornaments, all of which were currently fashionable.

The proprietor bent forward but didn't dare to touch it. You've done a better job with the fabric than her face, he said.

Both are as they should be, said Kichiji. The world of desire is enriched by ambiguity, but the world of fashion requires clarity. That robe design is one of my most popular.

So you intend to make a series of these?

You will organise your girls and their poems, said Kichiji. Once that's done, my artists will come out here and make their drawings.

Kichiji folded back his silk pongee sleeves to reveal a lining of rare ice-green Chinese satin that caught in the candle light with the silvery sheen of the winter moon. As the publisher, you will manage the process. The selling you can leave to me.

But these girls don't write poems, said the teahouse proprietor. Kichiji leaned forward and held out his cup. One of them does.

Kichiji wouldn't spend the night in the pleasure quarters, and he wouldn't walk to the gate unescorted. Unsavoury types congregated there.

The assignations man sent one of his door touts to accompany him, but the silk merchant insisted that Ohasu come too.

Middle Lane was deserted, the night too cold for promenading although the insides of the assignations teahouses were filled with music and laughter.

Nighthawks kneeling in side alleys and cul-de-sacs burbled offers as the silk merchant strode past. They let their rolled-up back mats protrude into his path but didn't try to seize his hems or touch his feet.

Friends of yours? Kichiji said humorously. Ohasu made no reply.

One of the women squatted at the edge of the lane as if pissing, her skirts bundled up.

Kichiji stopped in front of her then said, What do you think I might do?

Anything for twenty coppers, said the nighthawk, her voice quavering in the cold.

No. Not what you will do. What do you think I might do?

The woman didn't understand. She held her back mat clutched against her chest as if some warmth might be found in it.

Kichiji towered over her, massive in his heavy winter over-robe, his sleek hair shining in the winter darkness. You can't answer because you can't imagine what I am, he said.

Ten coppers then …

Kichiji pushed on and Ohasu came trotting along behind him. You should consider your life, Kichiji said, not looking back at her. You could end up like that.

They stood in the gate while the door tout went to find a palanquin. Did you hear what I said?

Yes …

The black dome of the night sky was spangled with stars, and the berm road leading back into the shogun's city lay under it like a strip of frozen bone. You will manage the poems, Kichiji said.

Of course. If you want me to …

Nothing serious. We want doggerel. Puns, double entendres, obscene jokes. He looked at her. You know the kind of thing I mean.

It's not what I usually—

You know, the silk merchant said, what I mean.

There were several lively parties underway when Ohasu got back to the teahouse, but she went past them and climbed up to her room. It was cold. There was no charcoal for her brazier, so she spread her quilts then undressed and climbed in, the damp cotton clammy against her skin.


The poems in the text:

"On an old gilt screen the image of an ancient pine: / winter seclusion."

(The author's translation of Bashō's Kinbyo no matsu no furusa yo fuyugomori.)


"Pulling up the futon: / the coldness of a desolate night."

(The author's translation of Bashō's Kazuki fusu futon ya samuki yo ya sugoki.)

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