I was certain that Kee Sun wouldn’t let us eat until after all of the cleaning was done. But as we brought the last of the dishes in from the hall, we found the cook smiling and gesturing to the small feast that he had laid out for us on the low cutting table: grilled beef, kimchee, soybeans, rice—even sake—was set out just as it had been for the banquet.
“Magnificent!” crowed Kee Sun. “Perfect! Not a drop spilled, and everything served hot! The three of you girlies made the last two look like the clowns they are.”
We sat, and that was almost as glorious as the tempting smells wafting up from the table. We picked up our chopsticks and started serving ourselves. Emi picked up a handful of edamame and began shelling the soybeans directly into her mouth. I had the beef right in front of me, and so I slid the succulent-looking meat into my bowl along with a serving of rice.
Toumi, who had been denied the kimchee earlier in the evening, grabbed a huge clump of the pickled cabbage with her chopsticks and plopped it into her bowl.
As I began to lift my first bite of beef to my mouth, I saw Kee Sun start to say something, then turn away with a smirk on his face.
The beef was unlike anything I’d ever tasted—tender, juicy, sweet and peppery. It was the best food I’d ever had. Just as I was swallowing that first bite and reaching for the next, Toumi sputtered loudly, kimchee flying out of her mouth. She let out a howl, and grabbed for the sake.
Before she could drink it, however, Kee Sun handed her a huge cup of water, which she drained in heavy, rapid gulps. “What are you trying to do, kill us?” she gasped.
Kee Sun smirked. “Well, you wanted it so much before dinner, I thought yeh knew it was spicy.”
“Spicy!” yelled Toumi. “That’s pickled fire!”
The scar on Kee Sun’s face stretched and twisted as he rocked his head back and laughed. “Better get used to it, Falcon-girlie,” he said, shoveling rice into Toumi’s bowl. “’Cause the Old Lady loves my food, and the people here seem to also. Yeh Japanese and yehr food—yeh like everything sweet or as tasteless as the washing water.” Toumi was still panting, as if trying to blow out a flame inside her mouth. “Balance! Everything in balance, yeh hear? Eat the rice, Falcon-girl—it will take away the fire,” Kee Sun said.
“Mind,” he added, “I think yeh’re goin’ t’need to stay away from hot foods anyway. Yeh got too much heat in yeh. Anybody could see that.” He scratched his beard. “I think we’re goin’ to feed you up with some nice, cooling yin food.”
Toumi gawked at him as if he were speaking in gibberish—which, in fairness, he was. Then she gave a disgusted snort, and began shoveling rice into her mouth.
The rest of the meal passed uneventful and delicious. Emi and I even tried a little bit of the kimchee, which was very tasty and not really too hot to eat, especially if you knew what you were about to put into your mouth. It took Toumi a little while to get over her shock and discomfort and to trust the rest of the food, but hunger won out, and soon all three of us were groaning with contentment.
Kee Sun poured some of the rice wine into little sake cups and mixed ours with water. Then he poured a large mug-full for himself—undiluted of course. “Don’t think I’m going to be able to feed you like this every night,” he said. “But you certainly earned it.” Then he lifted his mug. “Wihayeo,” he said in Korean. “Cheers!”
We toasted him in response, sipping at our sweet wine, and feeling the warmth of it, so different from the heat of the spicy kimchee, spreading through our stomachs.
Even Emi was smiling as we finished cleaning the kitchen.
The night was clear, cold and bright. Shivering, we stumbled back to our room. An almost full moon was directly overhead, surrounded by a glowing circle of light. In the mountains, you can see so many more stars, and they are so bright that you feel as though you could climb right up the stars of the River of Heaven like a ladder.
As we went into the building, Fuyudori was sitting cross-legged on her bed, brushing her white hair. “You have done very well, for the first day,” she said, with her sweet, mocking smile. “After you have gone and bathed, you should sleep. I will do my best to make sure that you are ready for helping Kee Sun serve breakfast.”
We all groaned.
Her smile broadened. “Do not worry. Once you have finished your morning kitchen duty, you get to take a music lesson in the Tea House with Sachi-san.”
“A music lesson?” asked Toumi.
“With Sachi-san?” I said. She was, I gathered, one of the older women. The kunoichi.
“Yes, Risuko-chan. With Sachi-sensei. Since she will be acting as your teacher, she should be addressed as such.”
“But I would have thought Mieko…”
Fuyudori got her playful smile, the one that always let me know I wasn’t going to get a straight answer. “Mieko-san has other subjects to teach. But none that you will need just at the moment. Nor would you would want a music lesson from Mieko-sensei, I think. Shino, Mai, and I will be joining you for the lesson. Won’t that be lovely?”
The three of us looked at each other. It was clear that the other girls felt as I did: a music lesson didn’t sound lovely at all—and the idea of having the three older girls join didn’t make it any more appealing.
Fuyudori nodded, as if we had agreed with her. “Now off to the bathhouse with you,” she ordered, and we shuffled silently next door. It was my favorite building at Mochizuki, so far—as big as our sleeping quarters, but bare inside except for the two large tubs. The smell of damp wood filled the air like steam.
The fires that heated the water had burned low, but the huge wooden tubs were still warm. We bathed in silence, fighting the urge to fall asleep in the tepid water. When we were clean, we trouped back to our dormitory.
Fuyudori was seated on her mat. “Be quiet as you go to bed,” she said. “The others are already asleep.”
“Not surprising given how much sake they were drinking…” muttered Emi, and then realized that Fuyudori was looking at her disapprovingly. “Fuyudori-senpai. Ma’am.”
We tiptoed in and slid, exhausted, into our beds. As always, Emi was snoring within seconds of lying down.
I lay there, staring at the ceiling, listening to a squirrel scurry across the roof. I wish I could be up there with you, I thought. And then I, too, fell asleep.