“Ishibashi san, I’ll kill you… as soon as I catch up with you….”
Okuda could hear his friend’s laughter echo through the trees, travelling through the crowns with blighted leaves and making full circle back to him. They were climbing the path towards the Red House in the warm afternoon but Okuda didn’t seem to enjoy the scenic view.
“If you’re struggling, just give up!”, Ishibashi shouted back to his friend, “I didn’t force you into coming with me.”
“But what did you expect!.. That I’ll just… sit there… and wait patiently… while… The Red…House… is being prepared… for the new owner…”
Panting, Okuda was making slow progress up the steep path, relying heavily on his bamboo cane. At least the forest around was thick enough and was sheltering him from the heat that was still in the air of the early autumn. He stopped for a minute and looked back. They’ve come a long way and Haruido was now nowhere in sight. They’d be able to see it again when they reach the top. In the tree shades, it was cool and calm, and around him, Okuda could hear a choir of cicadas. Their incessant buzzing was somewhat spellbinding, as if a thousand monks were monotonously reciting a sutra.
“Fall behind and you’ll be tricked by a Fox Spirit!”, Ishibashi’s voice echoed from afar.
“I’ll give you a Fox Spirit!”, Okuda muttered, starting to climb again. “Which reminds me – did you find out anything about this mysterious woman who’s gonna live here? That sounds like a Fox Spirit to…”
His head was down and he couldn’t see that his friend had stopped so Okuda bumped into him.
“Damn it, Ishibashi, you can’t just stop in the middle of a narrow path!”
But his friend ignored his remark.
And indeed they had reached the top of the small hill where the building was. In front of them, The Red House towered big and proud – and also slightly scary, because everyone knew it hides secrets.
“Goodness!”, Okuda explained, “It sure looks huge from town but once you’re in front of it… I feel shivers, Ishibashi san!”
“So you should…”, Ishibashi whispered under his breath.
But before Okuda could ask him what that means, the heavy gates of the house opened and a small woman peaked from behind.
“You are late!”, she said to the men and pointed angrily at them with the broomstick in her hand.
“A thousand of apologies, Ane san!”, Ishibashi said with a deep bow. “It’s not easy when you walk with an old man who has to stop often.”
“Who do you call an old man!”, exclaimed Okuda, still trying to catch his breath while leaning on the cane.
“You better hurry up!”, said Ane san. “We have work to do while you two are just walking around!”
Okuda, Ishibashi and Ane san walked across the beautiful yard, where plants, trees and flowers were competing with each other which one is more precious. Kudzu flowers, morning-glory, grasses in bloom – the coming of autumn accelerated their beauty.
“She even wanted koi fish. The pond is alive again”, said Ane san, pointing to the other side of the yard where the pond was. They crossed to take a better look. Koi of different sizes and colours – red, black and yellow – were dashing about in the clear water.
“It was in such bad shape”, Ane san said. “But all pristinely clean now.”
“Wait, did you just say “she”- as in a woman is really the new owner of the place!”, exclaimed Okuda san.
Ishibashi san appeared to be in something of a trans, staring at the koi from the edge of the pond. Actually, he was listening but there was a thought that had been bothering him.
“Yes, The Red House now has a mistress”, confirmed Ane san. “Now hurry up you two! We still have work to do and it’s not long left of the day. I want to get out of here before sundown.”
“You seem to be nervous about the house, Ane san”, started Ishibashi.
“I am”, the old woman confirmed. “Only someone mad would want to live in such a creepy place, and on top of everything I hear she’ll be living on her own. Servants will be allowed only once a week.”
“Alone! A woman in a house like that alone!”, Ishibashi couldn’t believe his ears.
“Yes, she is choosing a life of solitude for the most part”, said Ishibashi.
They were now inside the building and Ane san was leading them up a set of stairs. The house was empty but they could easily imagine what the space would look like with the important lady’s precious possessions.
“You seem to know much more than you’re willing to let on, Ishibashi”, Okuda observed but they have reached the top.
Ane san opened a sliding door.
“This will be her working room where she wants to create art”, she said.
Ishibashi san walked in. That was certainly a huge space. Any other house in Haruido could only dream of having so much room. It was spreading out in front of him and when it finally got to a wall, it was a plain white wall, with only a small round hole with bars centered at its top. Ishibashi slowly walked the distance from the door to the wall and stayed there for a few minutes just staring at it.
“That surely isn’t very inspiring…”, he whispered.
“Ishibashi, come a have a look!”, Okuda called him from outside.
Ishibashi left the room, crossed the corridor and found himself on the first floor balcony. A few women and children lead by Ane san were sweeping, scrubbing, dusting and running around to finish as many chores as possible ahead of the new owner’s arrival.
“I’ll have to leave you to it”, said Ane san to Ishibashi. She was coming towards him carrying a big plant pot and was heading inside. “There’s a lot to do and there are only about 12 of us. No way we’ll stay until sunset. We just have to to get on with sweeping and leave the rest for tomorrow.”
“I understand Ane san. Are all these women and children related to you?”
“Yes”, said Ane san, beaming. “Daughters, daughters in law and their kids.”
“You’re truly blessed with such big family! This way, you’ll never be short of helping hand.”
“We’ll be paid well for all this.”, Ane san said walking ahead now. She then turned round and added “But you’re also not unlucky yourself, aren’t you, Ishibashi san.”
Then she smiled and before the bewildered man could respond, hurried up downstairs.
He turned around and joined his friend at the balcony railing.
“You can see the whole Haruido!”, Okuda said, not taking his eyes of the view, “I can see now why she wants to live here. But truly, Ishibashi, ” he said while turning to his friend, “when will you tell me who she is?”
The other man remained silent for a few moments, hands behind his back and a pensive look on his face.
“All in good time, my friend”, he finally said. “but I can tell you right now – this is the beginning of a whole new cycle of the life of this place.”
Around them the kids were sliding on the floor, polishing it clean with white cloths, bumping into each other and laughing out loud. Their mothers were rushing in and out trying to tidy up the house quickly.
“It’s sure bringing some life and vitality to this godforsaken place”, Okuda observed while all this was happening around them.
“I wonder…”, Ishibashi started but didn’t finish his thought out loud. His friend didn’t ask him further.
In front of them, a flock of migrating bird in a V shape crossed the sky and disappeared in the distance.