Red House Saga – Chapter 6

It wasn’t exactly snow, but white cold dust covering the hill on the way to The Red House. Two men – a young and an old one – slowly advanced towards the top. It was the first day of the New Year and it was very quiet here, unlike down in the village where street comedians were entertaining the crowds that hurried to see them. Everyone in Haruido was out, celebrating and in high spirits. Except for the new villager. She hadn’t paid a visit to anyone or sent a card. No one really knew what she’d been up to in the months before winter settled. She was the talk of the town when she first arrived in the beginning of autumn. She is a woman of mystery and never got out of her big red home that was very far away from the village. And since Ishibashi san hadn’t visited her, no one had news from her and she was more or less forgotten.

But a few weeks before New Year’s day, Ishibashi received a letter. Lady Miyasai was ready to meet the artist he had told her about. She was curious about him and eager for him to start working on her room. The letter reached Ishibashi as he was drinking afternoon tea at Okuda’s.

“I see you’ve promised her quite the master”, Okuda observed after his friend read the letter and told him what happened when he’d last visited The Red House. “And where on earth are you going to find the person who’ll devote his days to this strenuous task?”

“I don’t have to search too hard, my dear Okuda. In fact, I knew who that would be long before I suggested it. I’ll bring to her the best artists I know”, Ishibashi said calmly and sipped on his green tea.

“I see, and who’s that?”, Okuda asked, with a slight mock in his voice.

“My nephew”, Ishibashi answered calmly.

That happened as Okuda was going to enjoy some tea as well but sadly as he heard the answer, he chocked so hard that Ishibashi had to help him as he was coughing and spitting tea all over his kimono.

“You must be joking!”, Okuda said, as he was wiping tea from his nose. “Zenji! You want Zenji to carry out the ordeal of painting scenes in Lady Miyasai’s room!”

“Yes, I do actually”, Ishibashi retorted. “No objections from you, I hope.”

Okuda was stunned. He couldn’t wrap his head around this idea and cast his gaze across the garden as he was trying to find meaning in it. It had been a dark rainy day but the grasses looked strangely fresh and the haystacks smelled of autumn. Small drops where dripping from the roof onto the orange chrysanthemums beneath. Okuda’s wife silently came out and brought two lanterns to lit before nightfall.

“I like Zenji, don’t get me wrong”, Okuda said, turning back to his friend. “And I know how much you believe in him. But he is a solitary young man and doesn’t like meeting people much. He even gave up his teacher’s job to do simple building tasks. Do you think he’s suitable to be around a rich lonely aristocrat’s house? You don’t want to set him up to fail and let him start a job he will get tired of and not finish.”

“It is very suitable for him I’d say”, replied Ishibashi. “It is a solitary job for a solitary man. He won’t be in lady Miyasai’s way and she’ll be busy with her life to even remember he’s there. As long as she’s happy with his work, that’ll bring him good income and he’ll do paintings which he loves the most.”

“I can’t help but suspect there’s more to this…”, Okuda said and cast a suspicious glance at his friend.

Ishibashi smiled.

“You know me too well, my friend. Yes, there is more to this and I’ll tell you in good time.”

“Is it one of your schemes?”

“You could say so.”

“Will anyone see your plan coming?”

Snow at Asakusa, Yedo, Musashi Province print in high resolution by Hiroaki Takahashi (1871–1945). Original from The Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

“Not if we play it right.”

Okuda sighed.

“That’s why you are a shugo[1] and I’m only a jizamurai[2]

That was about two months ago and Ishibashi remembered it with a smile as he was climbing the hill with Zenji. He looked at the young man who was walking with his head down. He looked very humble in his white kimono.

It was cold and the withering wind was stronger here than down in Haruido. But they were advancing steadily and before long, reached the gates of The Red House.

“Zenji”, Ishibashi san turned to him “are you ready for the task ahead? I believe in you but it will be difficult.”

“I am ready”, the young man answered in a soft but firm voice. “In a strange way, I look forward to the obstacles ahead.”

Ishibashi smiled.

“I have no doubt you’ll be successful in what you have to do.”

After saying this, the old shugo turned to the gates and landed three strong knocks.

NOTES:

[1] Shugo (守護), commonly translated as “(military) governor,” “protector,” or “constable,” was a title given to certain officials in feudal Japan. They were each appointed by the shōgun to oversee one or more of the provinces of Japan. The position gave way to the emergence of the daimyōs (大名, feudal lords) in the late 15th century, as shugo began to claim power over lands themselves, rather than serving simply as governors on behalf of the shogunate.

[2] Jizamurai (地侍) were lords of smaller rural domains in feudal Japan.[1] They often used their relatively small plots of land for intensive and diversified forms of agriculture.

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