Shike – Day 271 of 306

“What is that?”

“Let us say that it does not surprise me that Eisen would assign a student that particular verse as a calligraphic exercise. And, now that I know you are a student of Eisen it doesn’t surprise me as much that you struck Hideyori with your slipper. Without thinking, as you put it.”

At Jebu’s mention of his father, Taniko said, “I was desolate at the news that your father died, Jebu. He was a wise, kindly man. The kind of man a father should be, not like mine.”

“There is no cause to grieve for Taitaro,” Jebu said. “He decided to die.”

“Yes, Moko described his death to me,” she said. “How strange and beautiful. What a marvellous man the old abbot was. You can’t imagine how happy I was to see him in Shangtu, the night Kublai had himself proclaimed Great Khan. It gave me hope for the first time since Horigawa took me to China. The only time I was happier in China was the day I found you again.”

Jebu nodded. “How odd that one of the happiest times of my life should have been in a foreign country. You and I had been through terrible things. We had no idea that even worse was in store for us. But we lived in our yurt and were content.”

“I was happier cooking and washing in a yurt than I am today living in a castle with hundreds of servants.” Her heart beat faster. His anger had vanished and his mood was warm, peaceful. It had something to do with the slipper and with Sametono’s verse. There was hope.

“When you mentioned the Great Wall last night, that brought it all back to me,” he said. “Our excursions into the Chinese countryside. That ruined temple where I tried to teach you that love of the body is holy. I thought then that one day you and I might be married and live together in a Zinja monastery somewhere. I remember my father even said that it would please him greatly.” She was amazed to see tears coursing down his cheeks, brown as carved hardwood.

The sight of him crying made her own eyes grow hot and blurred with tears as well. “Jebu, Jebu. It’s all my fault,” she sobbed. “We could have stayed together. But I had to go on blaming you for Kiyosi’s death. How different things would have been, if I’d never left you, instead of coming here to Kamakura. Oh, Jebu, ten years lost because of my foolishness.” She threw herself down on a cushion, her face buried in her arms.

“Don’t blame yourself,” said Jebu. “Taitaro showed Moko and me the pattern in these events. Things had to happen as they did.”

“Karma?”

“Not karma. It has nothing to do with being punished for wicked acts and rewarded for virtue. It’s just a pattern. Besides, you would have been quite bored, living in a monastery. I’m sure you’ve been happier as the Shogun’s wife.”

She laughed through her tears. “It was like being married to a mamushi, a poisonous snake. It is a dreadful thing to say, Jebu-san, but I’m much happier as the Shogun’s widow. From what I’ve heard about the monks and their women in the Zinja monasteries, I don’t think it would have been boring. Oh, my wild waterfowl, if everything had to happen as it did, then please stop judging me. Stop hating me. Accept me as I am.”

“‘There is no goodness. Such is merely a name.’ We are two faces of the same Self, I told you that long ago. How can I judge you? I would simply be judging myself. Many of my own acts won’t bear judging. Taniko, when I look into your eyes I want to become one with you. That’s why I’ve been so angry. Being cut off from you is too painful for me, as if I were being cut in two. I did hate you, Taniko, and for that you must forgive me. I hated you because I love you. I don’t accept you, I love you.”

At those words Taniko felt a melting warmth spread through her body. I never thought I could still have such feelings at my age, she thought. I feel the same hunger for him, and it feels just as new and strange and wonderful as it did that night when I was thirteen years old and he was seventeen and I lay with this man on Mount Higashi, looking down at Heian Kyo. Oh, Jebu, are we going to be lovers tonight? Oh, please take me in your arms, Jebu, crush me with the weight of your body. But, how can he want me when I am a hag with a face full of lines, sagging belly, sagging breasts, wrinkled hands? Perhaps if I can get the lamp put out in time he won’t notice how age has ruined my body. She reached for the small bronze oil lamp that burned beside them.

His lean, long hand reached out and seized her wrist. A thrill ran up her arm and through her body. His skin, so brown, against her white skin—beautiful.

“We want light, don’t we?” he said softly. She sighed with delighted anticipation. He did want to lie with her.

“Darkness creates the illusion of beauty,” she said, her eyes downcast.

“I want no illusions. I want you, exactly as you are.” His face was very close to hers, and she reached up and stroked the stiff hairs of the white beard with her fingertips. “We are beyond judgment now, you and I,” he said. “Judgment of good or evil, beautiful or ugly, young or old, that’s all behind us. Such worries are for youngsters.”

She relaxed with a sigh and lay back, her mouth yielding to the pressure of his mouth against hers, his rough hands massaging her breasts. Indeed, she didn’t care whether her breasts looked old and sagging or not. They were able to give pleasure; that was evident from the gentle, lingering movement of his hands on them. And they were very much able to receive pleasure, she thought, drawing in a shivering breath. And they were her breasts, and therefore he wanted them. He wanted her body as it was, and not any other woman’s. She now felt sure of that.

As their love progressed she made another delightful discovery. Somewhere in the years between thirteen and forty-five she had lost all shame. Even that beautiful first night on Mount Higashi had been alloyed by fears of what the world would think if they were suddenly discovered. Now, she thought, if all of Kamakura walked in here and saw us lying in this embrace, our clothes open, our bodies touching everywhere, I would let them watch. I think I might enjoy being watched. I am proud of this. Proud that I can excite this man, this warrior, and draw his passion into me. The years with Kiyosi, with Kublai Khan, in China with Jebu, even with Hideyori who needed so much coaxing—all that experience had taught her a great deal about the art of love. I am as much a master of this flowery combat as Jebu is a master of the sword, and I wish that the whole world could see us.

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