Lessons in Dance

Risuko — Chapter 21: Lessons in Dance

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21—Lessons in Dance

The day after we butchered the cow, we began a new set of morning lessons. As we cleared up the kitchen, Mai, who never entered the kitchen if she could help it, poked her head through the door and informed us that, for the first time, we would be taught by Mieko-san.

As she withdrew, Kee Sun asked whether Mai had actually walked into the kitchen before delivering her message. When Toumi snarled that no, she hadn’t—making it clear that no one in their right mind would enter Kee Sun’s domain willingly—the cook gave a nod and a grunt, saying, “That’s good. ‘Cause I told her if she ever stepped a foot in here again, I’d cut it off.”

It was always a bit difficult to know whether he was joking or not. To be honest, I was never quite able to work that out.

Nonetheless, I was excited by Mai’s news; I had hoped that we would be able to study with Mieko, not only because she was kind and lovely but because the other women in Chiyome-sama’s service seemed to respect her so. Even the boisterous ones listened quietly when she spoke.

As we finished cleaning up the kitchen and preparing it for the next meal, we all speculated in excited whispers. “Maybe we’ll learn Chinese for poetry and such,” Emi said.

Toumi snorted. “I just want her to teach us about knives.”

I remembered Mieko calmly wiping her blade as the bodies of her two attackers bled onto the floor of the Mount Fuji Inn beside her. Returning it calmly to its sheath.

Instead of leading us down to the teahouse as usual for our lesson that morning, Fuyudori walked us very solemnly to the stables of all places. As we entered the low building, we saw that the central space had been swept clean and the stalls on one side removed, leaving a large and open area that had been covered in tatami mats. Masugu-san had apparently taken his horse out for a morning ride so that the remaining stalls were empty, the spare saddles and other gear were all stored away, and a small charcoal stove had been lit, so that the usually drafty room was warm. Clad in a miko’s red and white robes, Mieko knelt on a mat in the center of the room, head bowed, looking quite at peace—much as she had on that awful morning at the Mount Fuji Inn.

All of the inhabitants of the Full Moon knelt around her, facing her—all but Masugu-san, Kee Sun, and Lady Chiyome herself, of course; like the lieutenant and the cook, the lady was absent.

Toumi’s joke had infected my imagination. I felt a quiver of anxious anticipation. Was Mieko going to teach us how she had defended herself from those two soldiers? Would she be teaching us yet another use for the knives with which Kee Sun had made us so proficient?

No harm, Murasaki, I heard Otō-san saying. Harm begets only harm. No fight; no blame. I tried to cleanse from my mind the image of lovely, graceful Mieko wiping the blood from her knife with as much poise as a samurai cleaning his katana.

And yet, in some secret part of me, I did not care what our father had taught us about how our actions affect us in this life and those to come.

Kneeling to the straw with the others, I shivered and lowered my eyes, waiting for Mieko to speak.

After a long, still silence, she addressed us in her musical, quiet voice. “Many of you have already approached this lesson. Our three novices and the young brother, however, have not, and we are fortunate that this is so: we shall be pursuing an art in which all of us are forever novices, and studying it again with a novice’s unsullied eyes is the best way to continue to grow in it. I will, therefore, begin at the beginning.”

Without saying another word, Mieko stood in that smooth, unfolding motion that always struck me as so breathtakingly impossible—as if the ground had lowered from her, rather than that Mieko had expended any effort to stand. She planted her feet at shoulder width and reached down without looking, pulling her red skirt up between her legs, tucking it into her sash as if she were one of the old grandmothers of the village getting ready to go and harvest rice.

The rest of the women—as well as the men—stood, none as smoothly as Mieko, but nearly all without a sound.

Beside me, Toumi was already springing to her feet, and Emi and I scrambled to join her. We, at least, had no robes to deal with and so we were able to fall into the oddly masculine stance at the same time as the rest of the women.

Mieko looked at me—at us—and smiled. It seemed a very sad smile, and yet it filled me with a funny tickle of pleasure that she had smiled at me. At us.

Her hands lifted slowly, so that it looked as if she were holding a ball immediately in front of her belly, and just as slowly she began to sway toward one foot and lift her hands above her head. “The Two Fields,” she whispered.

The whole group mirrored her actions, and Emi and I tried to follow. Toumi jerked herself so that she reached Mieko’s final position before we did; I could see a smile on her lips too, and I was sure again that I was its cause, but this smile did not fill me with pleasure.

When we had caught up to her, Mieko remained still for a breath, and then shifted to the opposite foot, stepping to the side on it and extending that invisible ball held in her hands over her head. “The Bamboo Bud.”

We all mirrored Mieko, stepping to one side and bringing that invisible ball above our heads.

Next, Mieko stepped toward us, lifting what had been her trailing leg, and then bringing it and her hands down. “The Key to Heaven.”

Again we followed; again Toumi made sure to finish before us.

Her smirk ceased to bother me soon enough, however. First, it became clear that moving quickly was not the point—the more Toumi rushed, the more Mieko seemed to slow down, flowing from one movement to the next so that you could not tell where one movement ended and the next began.

Second, my mind was fully occupied. Between the movements themselves, which became slowly more challenging, though always as slow and flowing as if in a dream, and the fact that there seemed no point to what we were doing, I had no room in my head to think of Toumi at all.

Dance. It was a dance. We had learned other dances at the Full Moon—dances that I recognized as going along with some of the ceremonies and songs that we were learning. Yet this dance was so slow and so unlike any that I had ever seen that I was bewildered.

I was bewildered too because as much as it didn’t seem like any dance that I had ever seen, nonetheless, after a time of following the ice-slow flow of arms and legs, I began to feel as if I knew the movements—as if I could anticipate them before Mieko began to lead us into the next step, the next sweep of the arms, the next gentle lunge.

As the lesson went on, I found that, no matter how quickly Toumi raced, I had always anticipated the movement that Mieko was about to show us, and reached the next shape before Toumi could.

Was I simply growing accustomed to this peculiar dance? In the moment I could only have told you that I felt as if I were remembering it from another lifetime, which made me think of Otō-san, and that it gave me a deep feeling of peace.

As we moved, I found myself remembering the couple whose voices I’d heard outside in the woods. Masugu-san, perhaps? And who else?

After a time, Mieko returned us to the first position—The Two Fields, feet wide, hands before our bellies. “Again,” she said, and lead us back into the flowing pattern of movements that felt as comfortable to me as walking or as climbing a tree.

She led the whole company through the dance eight more times, so that after a while even Emi and Toumi were beginning to move with the rest of us, rather than looking to see what the next movement might be. In the end, Mieko stood for a moment in the beginning posture, but instead of saying “Again” and continuing, she brought her feet together, placed her hands on the fronts of her thighs, and bowed. We all bowed with her, as if we were her mirror. It was a startling feeling—that some twenty people were moving, not as individuals, but as a single being. We straightened and stood.

There was no sound but the hiss of the wood burning in the little stove.

Without a word, Mieko left, followed by the Little Brothers, with Aimaru trailing behind them, blinking.

The rest of us stayed to return the stable to its normal, cluttered state. We had just finished when Masugu-san rode in, his horse sweaty and covered in mud, his eyes bright as I had not seen them in weeks.

As soon as we left the stable, Toumi snarled, “What kind of idiotic nonsense was that?”

Mai and Shino pulled her aside, whispering urgently—clearly trying to help Toumi avoid one of the older women overhearing—but they needn’t have bothered. One of the older kunoichi made a sour face and clicked her tongue before turning toward the great hall. Looking like a dog that’s just been hit, Toumi ran toward her least favorite spot in the Full Moon, the kitchen.

“Well,” whispered Emi as we followed in Toumi’s wake, “I guess she could have found a more polite way to ask, but I have to say I’m just as confused. You knew the moves. Do you know what that was about?”

I shook my head. “I don’t even know that I really knew the dance, or whatever it was. It just felt… as if I just knew what she meant us to do.”

Emi stopped and looked at me, frowning. Of course, Emi was always frowning, so it wasn’t easy to know what she was thinking. “You’ve really never seen that.”

“No. At least, I don’t think so.”

Emi nodded, but as we both walked up toward Kee Sun’s domain, her frown hadn’t lessened at all.


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Risuko: A Kunoichi Tale

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