Red House Saga – Chapter 3

That day, the streets of Haruido were busier than usual. It was a market day and the vendors with different goods to offer – salmon, mushrooms, pheasants, grapes, tofu.

But the market wasn’t the only reason why the whole town seemed to be out, flocking the narrow street. Actually, it was just an excuse. The big event of the day was the arrival of the new owner of the Red House. Yes, that creepy, deserted place at the top of the hill.

“And would you believe it, it’s a woman!”, Okuda san heard one goldfish seller whisper to his friend as they were passing by.

“Even the botefuri[1]  know more than I do”, Okuda said sulking, as he took a sip of his miso soup.

“You may not believe me but I’ve told you everything I know myself, Okuda san”, said Ishibashi who was sitting across him.

They had positioned themselves in front of a small noodle shop and were watching the world go by them. But they were also here to witness the arrival of the new citizen.

“You know more than you let on”, Okuda challenged his friend. He looked him in the eye and took a bite of a daikon radish. “Or at least – you suspect something that you’re not talking about.”

Ishibashi turned his gaze to the sky. It was a sunny day with mackerel clouds stretching as far as the eye can see on the horizon. The street hubbub was somewhat monotonous. Chiming sounds were floating from somewhere nearby. People were wearing their best kimonos as if it were a festival day. That showed how important it’s become for them to welcome the new citizen. But what will happen? What will she be like? Will she stop on the street and greet everyone who’s bothered to come over just to take a glimpse of her. Nobody knew. If Ishibashi could guess….

“Ishibashi – there it is!”, Okuda pulled him from their table onto the street where the crowds were pushing forward like a tidal wave. In the distance, about half a mile from the town, you could see a palanquin[2] , carried by four strong bearers was making its way down the hill. They were making quick progress and behind them, two people were following on horseback.

A loud whisper “it’s happening, she’s almost here” was lingering above the market street of Haruido, as young and old were trying to get ahead and have a peek at what was happening.

“I can’t see anything!”, Okuda was complaining while his taller friend Ishibashi was assuring him “It’s still too far away, you’re not missing anything.”

“Still, I’m trying to get some of the view and all I see is the back of someone’s tall hat!”

Ishibashi smiled at himself. That’s what he loved about Okuda – even in midlife, he was still a child at heart.

“I wonder though”, Ishibashi was thinking, “I just wonder….”

But the crowd was now pressing them further. Elbows and knees were fighting their way forward and both men were pushed forward and the next thing they saw were the two men on horseback and the palanquin arrive at the top of the street. There was a collective gasp at the sight of the golden palanquin and the white horses that broke their stride just before the wall of people who had gathered there. There was a cloud of dust and when it settled there was complete silence.

One of the men got off his horse and cast a stern look at the crowd. He caught Ishibashi’s eye and after a brief second, he seemed to recognise him and smiled. Ishibashi answered with a slight bow. The other man also had his eyes fixed on Ishibashi but didn’t greet him. When Ishibashi looked at him, he averted his gaze.

The four bearers lowered the palanquin to the ground.

The man who’d got off his horse stood in front of the amazed crowd. Hundreds of eyes were pinned on him as he took out a scroll and read with a big, booming voice:

“Today, the people of Haruido gain a new neighbour and the Red House – a new owner. From today on, Haruido will be home of Lady Miyasai, a court lady of the Imperial Palace.”

No one moved and not a single sound was uttered. Time seemed to have frozen and all the people of the crowd could do is stare at newcomers with open mouths, and the newcomers were waiting some sort of reaction. Everyone was in complete stupor when the palanquin shook slightly and a quiet female voice uttered “Stop it! Don’t be silly!”. But it was so quiet that only the people in front could hear it.

Not a second later, the doors of the palanquin opened and a small white cat rushed out from inside. It looked so delicate with red collar around its neck and tiny paws wandering around. It looked around and when it saw so many people piled up, peeking from behind shoulders and pushing forward, the cat let out a confused “Meow!”. But then it noticed a ribbon on the ground, probably torn away from a shop front or a vendor’s box, and attacked it with all the fierceness of tiger attacking a rabbit.

No one knew how what to say or do when an elegant hand stretched out from the palanquin and the same low voice called out:

“Nadare! Nadare, come back!”

The cat turned back and hesitantly walked back. Its owner stretched out both her hands now and the cat leaped in. The doors of the palanquin closed in an instant and the four bearers lifted it up again.

As if by command, the still dismayed crowd split in two and the bearers made their way through it, followed by the two officials. They hurried down and turned round the corner towards the Red House.

The crowd slowly started to disperse, amongst whispers, bewildered glances and shaking of heads.

Ishibashi and Okuda also left and walked in silence for a while before Okuda hesitantly muttered:

“Well, that was that then…”

“Yes,” Ishibashi said, his face more pensive than it was.

When they arrived in front of Okuda’s house, he couldn’t help but ask:

“What do you think about all this? What’s gonna happen now?”

At first, it seemed that Ishibashi doesn’t want to say anything but he finally put his scattered thoughts together and looked at Okuda:

“I think, my friend, that it’s going to be a very melancholic autumn.”

NOTES:

[1] botefuri – street vendors in Japan during the Edo Period, carrying boxes on their shoulders and selling everything from fish to brooms

[2] palanquin –  a covered vehicle without wheels that requires at least four strong people to carry it

A White Cat Playing with a String, 1863, Utagawa Hiroshige II, Woodblock print (nishiki-e); ink and color on paper

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