When I arrived back at our cabin, Fuyudori was standing just inside of the door looking pinched and pale in the dim light of the entryway. “What took you so long?”
“I could ask you the same thing. Where did you disappear to?” I snapped, much to my own surprise.
She seemed as shocked as I was at my outburst. “I… Lieutenant Masugu came out and walked right toward where I was standing. I gave the signal, but then I had to hide behind the Retreat. When I came back, you were gone. I assumed that, since he had already left, you must have climbed back down, but you’ve been gone so long, I was beginning to be worried.”
I looked up into her face and realized suddenly that she was lying to me. Not in a large way, but for some reason she wasn’t telling me the entire truth. I decided to return the favor. “I reached the top, but it was quiet. I listened to see if anything was going on, but when I didn’t hear anything, I went up to the roof and climbed down from there. It’s not easy climbing down a slick wall in the middle of winter, you know.”
Her eyes narrowed, but she nodded and said, “Well, it’s a good thing you didn’t fall. Sleep well, Risuko-chan.”
The next morning, Toumi looked quite pleased with herself, watching Fuyudori, Lady Chiyome and Masugu-san, and making nasty comments to me about finally getting my payback. She had clearly told on me—whether about talking with the lieutenant or sneaking out at night, I couldn’t be certain. I waited for punishment to fall.
No one mentioned anything.
Through the days that followed I found myself looking over my shoulder, sure that someone was going to take me to task for my activities that night, though Lady Chiyome certainly hadn’t seemed terribly upset.
It became clear that I wasn’t going to get in any trouble. And it was entertaining watching Toumi’s frustration grow.
A few nights later, as the other girls lay in their bedrolls, huddling against the cold and snoring, I woke Emi and told her about everything that had happened—everything but the bit about our fathers. She blinked at me, scowling. Then she broke into a rare grin. “Serves Fuyudori right, making you do her dirty work for her,” she whispered. “And I bet that’s why Toumi’s been sniffing around like a dog waiting for a rice cake to fall.”
I nodded. “But no one seems to be itching to punish me.”
“That must be awful for poor Toumi,” tittered Emi, before rolling over and going back to sleep. I finally managed to follow her not long after, but didn’t sleep soundly.
Toumi remained in a foul mood for days.
Somehow, though I was amused, I wasn’t relieved.
One afternoon, as we shuffled into Kee Sun’s kitchen to take up our evening duties, we were presented with a new challenge. Once again, each of us had a knife, laid with ritual precision across the bottom of a cutting board. Where we had always had piles of vegetables or butchered meats, however, each of us was presented with a trio of slaughtered chickens.
Emi made a face, and Toumi grumbled, but I knew how to start at least—this much mother had taught us, on days when we were fortunate enough to catch a bird, or one of Irochi-san’s hens was no good for eggs any more: I began plucking the feathers from the flesh.
“There yeh go, girlies!” laughed Kee Sun. “Bright-eyes’s got the idea! Can’t eat feathers, now can yeh?”
We stripped our carcasses—Toumi never stopped grumbling, nor did her expression lose any of its edge. Emi, however, was so engrossed in the unpleasant, difficult job that her usual scowl faded. Her face seemed as blank and neutral as a Jizo-bosatsu’s statue.
Once we had each stripped the carcasses of their feathers—the mess now filled baskets at our feet—Kee Sun called out happily, “Well, it’s about time, girlies! Now you’re going to learn the proper use of a blade.”
With glee, he proceeded to instruct us in the technique for gutting, cleaning, skinning, and butchering a chicken.
I won’t pretend that Emi and I didn’t throw up.
Toumi did too. Twice.
So it was that we—orphaned samurai girls not yet in our first womanhood—began to become master butchers. Over the next days, after our lessons in music, dance or calligraphy, we learned with great effort to reduce the bounteous meat, poultry and fish that graced Lady Chiyome’s dining table to edible portions. Chickens first, then ducks and geese; trout and boney carp; pigs, which were much heavier, obviously, and required us to work together; I took great care to keep an eye out for Toumi’s blade on those occasions.
It was smelly, disgusting work, but soon enough the odors became as familiar as the scent of pine I so associate with my childhood home.
The amount of food that we prepared—that we and Chiyome-sama’s other servants consumed—was overwhelming. We ate three full meals a day, with some sort of meat served at least once a day, and often twice. Frequently, we were able to serve fresh vegetables as well—huge daikon radishes or soy beans that Kee Sun had carefully packed up in the storerooms by the Bull Pen, or that were brought up the muddy, icy road to Mochizuki by exceedingly respectful farmers.
I had peered in the windows at Lord Imagawa’s castle often enough to know that, except for the occasional banquet, even they didn’t eat anywhere nearly as richly as Lady Chiyome and her household—even Lord Imagawa himself and the fancy ladies mostly ate rice and occasionally some bits of fish and poultry. It looked like much nicer rice and much finer flesh than what we were used to down in the village, and I know they’d occasionally buy one of old Naru’s pigs to slaughter, but I doubt they were eating meat anywhere nearly as often as the inhabitants of Lady Chiyome’s compound.
When I asked Kee Sun about that, he just smirked. “Lady’s orders,” he said. “She says to feed yeh like my lord used to feed his troops before battle, and that’s the way yeh’re gonna be fed. Right, Smiley?” He threw the knucklebone of the pig we were cutting up at Emi, who looked up, blinking, and caught it on the fly. “It certainly agrees with the lot of yeh!”
It was true. I was much less skinny than I had been when I met the others. Though the constant work kept the new muscle that was beginning to cling to my bones from ever growing soft, my ribs no longer stuck out of my chest like maple boughs in winter. Even Toumi had fleshed out a bit, so that it no longer looked as if you would cut your hand if you were to touch her. Not that I was ever tempted to touch her.
Though at first it seemed as if Emi had changed the least—her face still in a perpetual frown, her hands and feet still bigger than her arms and legs could seem to carry—I realized that the hand that had caught that bone was now well clear of the sleeve of the jacket that she wore. Looking down at her feet, I realized that the cuffs of the pants didn’t reach anywhere near her ankles.
Carefully placing the knuckle in the offal bucket, Emi looked at me—looked down at me—and scowled. She didn’t seem to know how to react to her growth. I certainly didn’t know either.
After every meal, we brought the unusable bits out to the rubbish pit out the back entrance of Mochizuki. As much as the pit itself stank, giving off steam even on the coldest days, I loved being out near the woods. Outside of the little world of the compound.
One day, as Emi and I were coming back from dumping fish bones and scales in the pit, Emi stopped, her nose twitching. “Do you smell smoke?”
Frowning I nodded. “Could be from the kitchen.”
Emi shook her head. “Wind’s blowing the other way.” She pointed up at the Mochizuki wall, where the smoke from the kitchen fire was clearly blowing away from us. “Farmer?”
“Don’t think so. They’re all too far away. Someone must be in the woods.” We both peered at the groves that choked either side of the ridge. The smoke certainly wasn’t coming down the cliff behind us.
We looked at each other.
“I don’t suppose,” Emi said, “that you could…?” She pointed at the thick woods that hemmed Mochizuki in on either side of the ridge.
Nodding, I said, “Tell Kee Sun I’m, um, ‘visiting the King’ or whatever—I’ll be right back.”
The trees were tangled oak and bay that weren’t easy to climb through, yet didn’t provide a much cover in the winter. I clambered carefully toward the faint smell of smoke—but stopped when I heard the faint whicker of a horse and a voice: a man’s voice. And then another, fainter in the wind, but higher. A woman. Who?
Before I could get any closer, however, I heard Kee Sun’s voice calling my name. Quietly cursing, I made my way back to the back entrance.
“Bring me any acorns, did yeh, Bright-eyes?” The cook’s arms were crossed and a scarred eyebrow raised.
Chastened, I followed him back to the kitchen.
After days spent up to our elbows in fins and feathers and intestines, we entered the kitchen the next morning to find the entire space between the cooking fire and the pantry taken up with the carcass of a cow. Groaning at the size of the beast, we looked to Kee Sun for instruction.
The cook, who was sitting atop the barrel that held the brewing rice wine, simply laughed his peculiar laugh and gestured to the worktable. Knives were laid out as usual, gleaming.
Toumi started to complain, but Emi shook her head. “No point,” she said, her voice matching her glum face for once. Squaring her shoulders, she walked to the cutting table and picked up the largest knife I had ever seen.
Nervously, I looked over at Toumi. She seemed as overwhelmed as I felt, but when she saw me peering at her, she narrowed her eyes, grabbed a sword-sized cleaver and a thin blade for skinning, and strode over to where Emi was already starting the process of reducing the animal to food.
I looked at Kee Sun and he looked back, unflinching. His face was blank and his eyes empty of their usual humor. Gulping quickly through my mouth so that I wouldn’t have to smell the animal, I picked up my knives and went to help out.
And so that is how we spent the entire day, for Kee Sun told us with great glee that we would be spared from our usual lessons—as if that were a favor. He made breakfast and lunch, whistling and singing.
Whatever lesson Mieko was teaching to the women in the great hall that day had them all howling with laughter, which didn’t brighten our moods in the kitchen. We worked away, butchering that enormous creature, carefully skinning it and laying aside the hide for tanning, cleaning the carcass, dividing it into workable portions, removing all of the edible bits—there are edible parts of a cow that you wouldn’t even want to begin to think about—and delivering them to Kee Sun in neat, evenly cut cubes and leaf-wrapped packages, all by the time that Kee Sun had begun to chop the vegetables and clean the rice for that evening’s meal. We were covered in blood, and the stench there in the kitchen was awful, but I think we all felt a certain amount of pride at having completed the gruesome chore.
“Well done!” he called, and once again we received a portion of rice wine with our meal after everyone else had eaten.
I enjoyed the meal. All but the beef. I couldn’t eat the beef.