In which Risuko, Emi, and Toumi learn a lot about knives — and rocks. (Teen Historical Adventure)
As I entered Kee Sun’s kitchen, I kept my face down so as not to catch Toumi’s eye, or Emi’s. I didn’t want either of them to see that I was upset. I took a stack of bowls and began to walk toward the dining hall to get ready for the mid-day meal, but Kee Sun stopped me. “No, girlie,” he chortled, his scar twisting, “Not to go in there this morning. Yeh don’t go in there while Lady Chiyome is running her ladies through their paces unless yeh want yehr head handed back to yeh in one of those bowls.”
I looked at him blankly.
“There’s classes yeh three aren’t welcome to join till yeh’re initiated,” he said with something like a smirk, “so we get ready in here and then run like wood demons to serve out the meal once they’re done. Now, set yehr little squirrel fingers to work.”
Toumi was sidling over toward the door, her face blank even of its usual anger.
Kee Sun didn’t even have to look up to stop her. “What they’re doing in there,” the cook said with a look halfway between a grin and a scowl, “is not for little girlies, yeh hear me? Now, yeh two, there, yehr gonna help Bright-eyes, here.”
Toumi bristled, and Emi frowned. But then, Emi always seemed to be frowning.
“What exactly are we doing, Kee Sun-san?” I asked.
Now the cook grinned—and it was definitely a grin this time. “Well, Bright-eyes,” he said, “are yeh any good with a blade?”
“A knife?” I asked.
Toumi suddenly looked much more interested in the conversation. Emi was still frowning.
“Think yeh’re up to attacking these long beans?” He gestured to a mound of long, thin bean pods.
“Beans?” Toumi spat.
“Beans,” said Kee Sun, his scar bending as his smile broadened. “I want yeh girlies to take this pile of beans, reduce its resistance, chop it into submission.”
Now Toumi could only snort.
“You ever handle a blade, Falcon-girlie?”
Her narrow eyes flickered.
“Come over here, all three of you,” he said, pointing to the cutting table, “and learn.”
Now, I wasn’t going to tell them that Oka-san had taught me how to chop vegetables, that I’d learned how to handle her long, lovingly sharpened kitchen knife years earlier, that I’d even started teaching my sister to use it. I didn’t want Toumi resenting me any more than she already did.
When Kee Sun brought out three gleaming curved blades, each no longer than my hand, even I didn’t need to pretend to gasp. The steel was polished to a high gleam. The edges were un-nicked and fine. Oto-san’s swords never looked more beautiful or more deadly.
Toumi reached out to grab one of the knives by the back of the blade.
“Don’t yeh ever let me see yeh treat a good blade that way!” barked Kee Sun. He plucked the knife from Toumi’s fingers and flourished the blade across a bamboo beam from which some herbs were drying. At first, the bamboo seemed unscarred, but suddenly it collapsed, neatly cut in two, spilling the herbs onto the table. “Yeh treat a knife with respect, yeh hear me?” He handed the knife back to a properly stunned Toumi, handle first.
Chastened, Emi and I carefully picked up our knives by the handles.
It wasn’t until much later that I wondered: if he had wanted us to take the blades by the handles in the first place, why had he put them down in front of us tip-first?
He then showed us—much as Mother had done, much as I had tried to do with Usako—how to rock the blade across what you’re trying to cut, using your other hand to control the food, careful to keep your fingers away from the blade. Soon, we were slicing away as he prepared the rest of the mid-day meal, occasionally giving us pointers on keeping the size uniform, on keeping from tiring too quickly.
It was soon obvious that Toumi was desperate that her pile be the largest of the three. I knew I could cut faster than she could, but, since I didn’t want her angry with me, I quietly shunted every third or fourth bunch of sliced beans into Emi’s pile, since she was working methodically, obviously concerned to have the sharp blade so close to her fingers.
Every once in a while, we heard a dull thud or bang coming through the grate near the ceiling that led the great hall. With the sharp blades in our hands, however, even these odd noises seemed less urgent than paying attention to what we were doing.
When the long beans were finally gone, Kee Sun sauntered over from where he had been preparing a huge pot of chicken stock. “Everyone got yehr fingers?” he asked. We all held out our hands. “Hmmm. No blood, no sliced nails? I think I’ll keep yeh all in the kitchen for quite a while!” He appraised the three piles. “Well done, Smiley! Yeh were working quickly!” When Emi and Toumi stared down at the piles, both perplexed that Emi’s pile should be larger than Toumi’s, Kee Sun winked at me.
At lunch that day, Mieko once again set out a bowl of rice beside her, and once again, plunged Kuniko’s chopsticks into them. She would continue to do this for the next seven weeks. It quickly became less eerie, more normal, which, as I think back on it now, is the whole point: repeating the ritual so that the person’s death seems real. Natural.
After, we were sent to clean out the baths. Mai and Shino taught us about draining them, rinsing them, and refilling them from the huge cistern where all of the compound’s water was stored. Shino told us—or rather, she told Toumi, since neither she nor Mai seemed at all interested in talking to me or to Emi—that the reservoir was filled by a spring, which was why Mochizuki had been built where it was, since even if the manor were surrounded, the defenders would never run out of water.
Once the baths were refilled, we lit a fire under the hot tub so that it would be ready for use that evening.
Our days quickly fell in to a pattern. Every morning we had breakfast duty, followed by a lesson of some sort—singing, dancing, playing instruments. Very few dealt directly with rituals. I assumed those would be taught to us when we had earned the initiate’s red-and-white sash.
The lessons were always led by one or more of the older women, who came and went often enough that we barely got to know their names. I do remember one named Mitsuki whose voice sounded like the scurrying of a mouse through dry leaves, leading us through an unbelievably boring morning learning how to walk in a lady-like fashion.
One of the oddest and most frustrating exarcises was carrying rocks. Each of us was given a waist-high pile of stones that we were to carry from one side of the courtyard to the other. The cold stones would leave our fingers raw and bloody. The next day, we would carry the stones back — in sun, rain, or snow.
Not surprisingly, I was always the last to finish.
We were almost always accompanied at these lessons by Mai and Shino— whom Emi had taken to calling the Horseradish Sisters—and by Fuyudori. The white-haired girl’s gentle encouragement often seemed crueler than the other two girls’ open derision.
Soon, the Horseradishes began taking Toumi under their wings, whispering to her whenever we were together. They always had something nasty to whisper to Toumi just when the teacher was occupied elsewhere. Once, while we were working on music, Sachi and Fuyudori were both trying to teach Emi how to arch her hands properly, and Shino, who was just behind me, whispered that Emi was more stupid than the flute, and perhaps it should try to play her. Toumi snickered, and so did Mai. But when Sachi turned to see what was so funny, they went right back to their playing.
Mai seemed to accept Toumi reluctantly, so long as she kept her place, and so long as Toumi was willing to make fun of me and Emi. In this, Toumi needed no encouragement.
Frequently, one or two of the older women would join us in our studies, though I think it was more to gauge just what dunces the three of us were than actually to work on their own skills, which were considerable.
Mieko never appeared at these sessions, however. During this time, I rarely saw her. Often, at dinner, I caught her and Lieutenant Masugu both following me with their eyes. Once they spotted each other, however, they spent the rest of the meal focusing on the bowls before them.
After morning lessons, we helped with the mid-day meal, cleaned and refilled the baths, and helped with the evening meal. Then off to the baths, off to bed… and ready to start all over again the next morning.