The routine was almost reassuring: lessons, work, Toumi growling—all of it flowed from one day to the next like a line of ducks swimming up-river. Even the rock-carrying became routine. Occasionally, one or two figures in miko’s robes wandered in through the front gate; just as often, one or more of the women would leave after the morning meal. Yet the little community remained very much the same.
The odd sounds from the great hall were different every day, and always infuriatingly fascinating: sometimes grunts, sometime shouting, and once what sounded like breaking wood. But we weren’t allowed to look, and so this too became part of the pattern.
One day, when the great hall was unusually silent, we were sorting dried mushrooms by color. Kee Sun was very particular about the mix of colors and flavors in all of the food that we prepared. Once we were well into the boring work, he informed us that he had to “go visit the King,” a phrase we never understood, and never wanted to. However, we knew that he would be gone some time. When he had gone, Emi’s sharp elbow bounced against my ribs.
Without looking up, she elbowed me again.
She sighed. I looked around. Toumi was pointing up to the grate near the ceiling.
Oh! I mouthed. I didn’t need to be told what to do. Springing up into the rafters from which herbs and pots hung, I tiptoed along the beam that came into the wall right below the ventilation grate. I felt exhilaration, not at doing something we weren’t supposed to do, but just to be up above the ground for the first time since we arrived at Mochizuki.
As I approached the grate, I ducked down so that I wouldn’t be seen.
A low murmur of voices echoed from the great hall. I carefully raised my head so that I could just see into the big room.
The tables were pushed back. A battered suit of armor was propped up against the men’s table. In front of it, the women were standing in a circle around Mieko, who seemed to be…
She was taking out hairpins. At least, that’s what it looked like. She held the two objects, which looked like short, flat chopsticks, and then inserted them back into the neat bun on the back of her head. The other women took out their own hairpins and copied her.
Perplexed, I made my way back down to the kitchen. Something about what Mieko had been showing the others looked familiar, but I couldn’t think what.
“Well?” Emi and Toumi both asked as soon as my feet hit the stone floor.
I told them what I’d seen.
“That’s boring,” said Emi, her everlasting frown deepening. Toumi and I both nodded, and had just gotten back to sorting our mushrooms when Kee Sun returned. “Isn’t this fun!” he chuckled.
We didn’t bother nodding at him, but settled back into the pattern of our day.
A few weeks after we arrived at Mochizuki, however, the routine suddenly broke.
One morning, we prepared breakfast as usual, but when we brought the meal in to the great hall, there were just nine kunoichi at the table along with Lady Chiyome and the men. Four of the older women were missing, as were all three initiates. When I returned, perplexed, to the kitchen with the left over food, Kee Sun scowled at me. “Did yeh spit in my good food, Bright-eyes?”
“No!” I said, staring down at the half-full bowls. Toumi sniggered as she scrubbed the rice-pot clean, preparing it for the mid-day meal.
Emi came in behind me, frowning even more deeply than usual. Her bowls were just as full as mine. “Why would they all leave without eating?” she asked.
“Leave?” Kee Sun said, scratching at his neck.
“Well,” Emi said, “Fuyudori and the other initiates weren’t at breakfast, and some of the other women were gone. Why would they have gone… doing… whatever they do, without eating?”
Kee Sun scowled at her, and back at me. Then he did something I’d never seen him do: his ears, his cheeks, his forehead and the neck below his beard turned a bright, cherry red. He swore in what I assumed was Korean, his voice higher than usual, and stabbed his knife into the table. “Should have known! Yeh lot comin’ threw me off so’s I lost count!”
Emi and I exchanged a look; even Toumi was looking as if Kee Sun had suddenly sprouted horns and a furry tail.
Seeing us all looking confused, Kee Sun cleared his throat and growled. “Well, don’t just stand there letting the food get cold!” He thrust a scarred finger toward the door. “Bring it to the Retreat, d’yeh hear? Bright-eyes, Smiley—now! Get!”
I remembered the building, of course, but I couldn’t understand what he meant—that building was always empty. “The…?”
Leaving his knife wobbling in the wood, he reached up and grabbed lids for the bowls that we were carrying. “GET!”
We took the lids, we slammed them on the bowls, and we got. As we scooted past the well, Emi suddenly slammed to a stop. “Oh!”
I turned and looked at her. “What?”
“The Retreat!” She stared back at me, eyes owl-wide. “It’s where the women go during their moon time!”
“Moon…? Oh!” We both looked back down at the bowls in our hands. “Oh.”
We started to walk toward the rear corner of the compound, back behind the huge hemlock tree, when Emi halted again.
“What?” I whispered.
“All at once?”
I stared at her.
“Well, I mean,” Emi sputtered, “would they all have, you know, started their… time, at the same… time?”
I shrugged at Emi, she shrugged back at me, and we continued on our way—not quite as quickly now.
When we approached the Retreat, I noticed that there was smoke curling from the covered chimney. I put my serving bowl down on the threshold and knocked.
“What?” snapped a sharp voice from inside.
“F-food,” stammered Emi.
“Leave it,” answered another voice. This was a voice that I’d always heard pitched low and kindly; Mieko’s voice didn’t sound particularly kindly now. “Leave it on the stoop.”
“Yes,” Emi and I said. She lay her bowls beside mine, and we scooted quickly back to the kitchen.
Toumi was still scrubbing at the huge rice pot, but she wasn’t smirking any more—her face looked the thin grey of spring snow and she didn’t look up at all when we came in.
“Might as well get used to it,” grumbled Kee Sun. “By this evening they’ll all be in there but yeh lot and the lady.” He wrenched the knife free from the table, only to stab it in again so hard that the metal of the blade sang with the impact. “Blah!” he muttered. “Women!”
Kee Sun was right. By the time that our lessons were over, three more of the women had gone to the Retreat. As we brought the food to the cabin for the mid-day meal, I could only think that it must be awfully crowded in there.
And they didn’t sound as if they were in a terribly good mood.
By the time we served that evening’s meal, only Lady Chiyome, Lieutenant Masugu, the Little Brothers and Aimaru were seated at the three-sided table. Aimaru looked exceedingly uncomfortable when we served him.
Emi seemed as if she were about to ask him something, but Chiyome-sama broke in first, her face twisted in a wicked smirk. “It is so lovely to be in the company of men, from time to time. Don’t you agree, Lieutenant?”
Masugu–san shrugged. “Certainly, my lady—a soldier learns to enjoy the companionship of his fellows. Yet I must admit that I am pleased still to enjoy the beauteous company of ladies.” He lifted his sake cup, first to Lady Chiyome, and then to Emi and me.
I found heat rising up my neck to my ears.
“Flatterer,” said Lady Chiyome, still smirking, as I backed away, trying to hide my shame at my shame.
The women remained in the Retreat for four more days, during which time our lessons were suspended; our teachers were all gone, and we had all the duties of Lady Chiyome’s women to attend to.
I’d never been so tired, nor so happy to go back to working in the kitchen. At least there it was always warm.
On the fourth night, as we were settling into our beds, Emi poked me. When I yelped, she shushed me. “Toumi!” she whispered.
“What? Why aren’t you already asleep?”
“Wanted to tell you something.” She looked over at Toumi, who had fallen into her bedroll and begun her high-pitched saw of a snore. “I talked to Aimaru today, when I was fetching water for the baths,” she whispered.
“Aimaru?” I mumbled. I’d hardly seen him in days.
“Shh!” she hissed. “At the well.”
“Some of us were working.”
“I was working.” It was hard to tell in the dark, but her face seemed to get darker. “He said that Masugu-san told him that women who lived close together over a long period would begin to enter their moon time together.”
I leaned up on one elbow. “Really?”
“Yes.” Emi nodded. “I guess Lord Imagawa has a whole flock of daughters. Masugu-san lived with them for a while as a kid. He learned to avoid the women’s quarters during their, you know, time, because he could count on a less than a friendly welcome.”
“Good night, Murasaki.”
“Good night, Emi,” I answered, but as always, she was already asleep.
Mieko and the rest slowly returned from their seclusion over the next few days in twos and fours as if nothing had happened.
One night soon after, as Emi, Toumi and I stumbled out of the kitchen, we realized that it was finally snowing again. But it wasn’t the wet, hard snow we got on the coast, near home; these mountain flakes were big as a fingernail, light, and almost dry. The three of us stared up at the white sky. I tried to catch a flake on my tongue—and soon the three of us were spinning around, arms outstretched and mouths open, trying to catch the tumbling flakes on any part of our bodies. Giggling, we careened around in front of the bathhouse.
Then I slammed into Toumi. The habitual sneer pulled Toumi’s features back out of shape, and she stumbled in to take a bath. Emi laid a hand on my shoulder, and then followed her.
I remained outside in the fast-falling snow and began to cry. For just a moment I had forgotten flat-nosed Shino, and sharp-nosed Mai; I’d forgotten the isolation of this place, forgotten to mourn my shamed father, my banishment from home, the hole that Mother and Usako used to fill. I had forgotten it all in a blanket of white. But for just a fleeting moment…
I did not hear anyone walking—the snow was already muffling the sound of feet on the gravel—so when a heavy hand came down on my shoulder, I let out a squeak and leapt in the air.
“What’s the matter, Murasaki-san?” asked Lieutenant Masugu.
I found myself weeping against his chest.
Masugu-san sighed, patting me stiffly on the back. “Murasaki-san,” he said, “you are here for a reason. I am sorry that you had to leave your mother and your sister and your childhood behind. Your mother wouldn’t have let you go for nothing—and I don’t just mean money. And Chiyome-sama wouldn’t have paid so high a price for you without a very good reason.” He held my shoulders and looked down into my face; his own was grim. “Think of what your father would have done, what he would have wanted you to do. Lady Chiyome wants to give you a chance to redeem your family honor.”
I stood there, sniveling, not knowing what to say. With a sad smile and a pat to my shoulder, he turned and began to walk away.
I had almost reached the warmth of the bathhouse when he called back to me.
“Murasaki-san!” I turned back toward him in the darkening snowfall. “You haven’t been to visit me, have you?”
Perplexed, I shook my head.
“I wondered,” he said. “Someone has been in my room. But it wasn’t you?” When I shook my head again, he held up his hand and wished me good night.