Time In Remission (cont)
Tomoe stared at the other woman as she poured the tea. That story had had a familiar ring to it. She closed her eyes and she could almost hear her grandmother’s voice telling it. Grandma told the best stories, she thought to herself. Full of strong women. The last news she’d gotten, Grandma was still alive. Still in prison, but alive and, no doubt, still telling stories.
Her favorite, when she was young, had been “The Mountain of Mirrors”, about a young lady in waiting who avenges the death of her mistress, but there were other tales of brave women. When she was older, it had been the story of her namesake – Tomoe Gozen – and she’d stayed awake many nights, riding into battle beside her noble lord.
She’d almost forgotten those dreams. They had been dashed to pieces on the rocks of reality many years ago. Some of them she was better off without, she knew that much, but dreaming had been so simple then, with no voice of experience to pick at the impossibility of it all. She’d forgotten what happened to that Tomoe.
If only she could dream like that again.
“Are you awake?”
Tomoe opened her eyes slowly.
“Yes.” She sat up a little more, surprised at how clear her head was and how little the wounds hurt her now. She knew how badly she’d been cut and how close to death she’d been. A little tea couldn’t have revived her this much, yet everything seemed so sharp and sitting up was not too uncomfortable.
Tomoe looked at Izumi again, trying to see in the other woman’s face, some clue to her nature. Another warrior, that she could see that from her confidence and the smooth power of her movements, yet something about her disturbed Tomoe. Something in the oddness of her speech, the formal phrasing that would have been laughable had it not flowed so naturally. Or her clothes, which were simple yet rich, and old-fashioned, as if she were a spirit from the past.
Tomoe shivered at the thought, but shook it off. She had felt the woman’s touch and her hands had been warm and firm. No, what made her shiver was not the woman facing her, but the time and the place. The glow of the fire pit and the soft yellow light of the candle defined a small circle of warmth and safety that contrasted with the dark, bitter cold that surrounded them.
If something unnatural was happening, they were in it together. Tomoe knew that Izumi was someone she could trust with her life and so she let that part of herself that was always wary keep its watch from the back of her mind. This woman will understand my life, she thought and found herself wanting to share it.
“My father,” she began, “was a retainer, in Mito, with a stipend of 120 koku. Enough to live on, but not enough to hire servants or full time retainers of his own, so he taught to make ends meet. He was quite a scholar and earned a few ryo more each year, working on the history of Japan that Nariaki had commissioned.”
“Nariaki?” Izumi asked.
“Tokugawa Nariaki. The lord of Mito,” Tomoe replied, “before I was born.”
Izumi frowned. She thought she knew the ruling families of the major domains, but the name was unfamiliar. Still, Mito was a long way from Kyoto and, though it made her uneasy, she let it pass.
“My brother”, Tomoe continued, “had no patience with scholarship, so my father taught me to read and write Kanji and I often helped him by finding the places in old texts that held whatever bit of information he needed at the moment. At first it was just work, but in time I came to love it.
“My father would sometimes catch me lost in the story of some battle or other and chide me for it, though sometimes he could not quite hide his smile. For years I dreamed myself into those stories and those dreams are probably the reason I became fascinated with swords.”
“When I finally found the courage to ask my father if I could learn, he got very stern and said that the sword was not for women and that I should content myself with learning the naginata, like any good Bushi daughter, but in my dreams it was always the sword that I carried.”
Izumi found herself wondering what it would have been like to have had such dreams. She could not remember what she had dreamed as a child, if, indeed, she ever had. The dreams she remembered had come later, when the possibility doing what she wanted had become a reality. And those dreams had never included being a famous warrior.
“And you did learn, didn’t you?” She asked.
Tomoe nodded. “Our family compound was rather large, much larger than we could afford to keep up, so father rented part of it out to his friend, Hirosuke, who taught swordsmanship. We used the money to keep the grounds neat and tidy, and my father’s students did not have to cross town to go from their studies to sword practice, which made both my father and Hirosuke very popular teachers.
“But seeing the boys practicing outside every day, made it harder to forget the dreams and easier to see myself standing at the center of those bright arcs of flashing steel. Every chance I got, I would find some vantage point from which I could watch them practice and listened to Hirosuke correcting their form, or telling them cautionary tales of Bushi who’d been killed, or wounded, by forgetting some simple precept.”
How can I explain it, Tomoe thought. The desire to learn that graceful dance of flesh and steel. Would this reluctant warrior ever understand?
“My hands ached for the feel of a sword, even a wooden practice sword and I would run down by the lake every chance I got to practice with sticks of driftwood. I practiced until I got calluses on my hands and my mother made me grind them off with pumice and oil until they were smooth again.”
“She knew, then?” Izumi asked.
Tomoe shrugged. “I never really understood my mother. It was she who named me after a famous warrior and, as much as she talked about Japan needing strong men and women to drive off the foreigners, she still seemed determined to make me into a good Bushi wife. Yet she let me run off every afternoon to ‘play’ by the lake and never asked where the calluses came from, even though she must have seen the same ones on my brother’s hands.
Izumi smiled. She could see the determined child Tomoe had been and rather envied her.
“I wish I’d known what I wanted so early in life.” She said. “But, then, I never really wanted to be a warrior. It just sort of happened.”
Here it was again, the reluctance.
“You seem sad.”
“Not really,” Izumi replied. “It earned me the respect I needed to live my life the way I wanted, but…”
“I wish there’d been another way.”