The rain fell softly, thickening and blurring between snow and sleet. Flakes that found their way onto roof tops or eyes lids, disappeared in an instance into a watery grave. The small town of Hirani was perched high atop the steep cliffs that stuck out into the North Pacific Ocean like teeth. The wind would swell and batter the cliffs, but the town was usually protected from Mother Nature’s fury. And protecting, Hirani was in need of. At least the inhabitants. Steeped in history, Hirani was an old and superstitious place. The incense burned on everyone’s doorstep, warding off the spectres who would roam in the night, as many believed they did.
The tea house was the focal point for many. A noisy, bustling place where the locals and travellers each would go to relax and to be entertained. Geishas were in high demand here, and many could earn a lot of money from the Silent Storm Tea house, and those who frequented it.
On the other side of town, a line of row-houses led up a small hill. It was dark and gloomy, with many of the lanterns in the area never lit. The residents kept to themselves, many of them fisherman families who would sail out early in the morning and return home very late. One of these fisherman was returning home in the late hour, having stopped for refreshment in town. He was jovial; having had a good catch that day, and had drunk to his own congratulations. He moved up the hill with ease, despite the weather. He came to a fork in road where the houses all grouped themselves together, almost buckling. In his disorientation, he turned left instead of right, moving up a smaller hill that hovered over the town. He hadn’t realised he’d gone the wrong way until he found himself at the red door.
He quickly glanced around, noticing the huge figures to his left and right. Two Nio stone guardians guarded the entrance, proclaiming sacred ground. Hastening back, his eyes darting from the door which had a crude double triangle and diamond painted upon it, up to the small house beyond the gates. He let out a small yelp, and hurried off down the path back to the safety of the road and towards his own home.
Inside the house, Tomoryō watched the man as she sipped her tea. She smiled, knowing his story. She watched him depart and noticed the snow was getting thicker now in the lamp light. It was indeed late, but she could not sleep. She was on edge since seeing someone earlier that day, someone she thought she would never see again, and had hoped never to. Her mind ticked over as she took down a large book off the shelf and began to flick through the pages. At her feet, the small fox prowled, slipping in and out of the desk legs and those of Tomoryō. Finally falling asleep next to her.
To the world Tomoryō was a geisha, one of the best in the province. Her beauty was flawless, and her talent legendary. As was her reputation. For Tomoryō was also known as the witch of Hirani to those in the town and was feared by them also. The two triangles on her gate, which she had refused to remove, were the fox ears which labelled her so. Not everyone in the town of course believed she was a witch, but those who did not still erred on the side of caution. She lived alone, aside her fox Aitarō, in her old family residence; having adapted it over the years thanks to her improved income. As Tomoryō was very good at being a geisha.
She read deep into the early hours, eventually going to bed when the sun began to rise off on the horizon. The snow had stopped, and had blanketed the entire town in thick layer of white magic. While she slept, events in town began to unfold that would lead to Tomoryō to be known, not just in her small town, but in the whole of Japan.
Hirani was used to the snow, and the coldness it brought. The cool air coming off the sea whistled through the town, hardening the people who called it home. But life was good there. People were friendly and looked out for one another. With much of the town’s income coming from fishing, there was a strong sense of community and mindfulness to help each another when they could. It was this sense of community that also encouraged superstition within the small town. If someone was sick, it was because someone had put a curse on them, someone who was jealous of their success. If there was a fire in town, or an accident of some sort, it was due to a traveller who’d been spotted lurking about with evil intent. As nice as the people of Hirani were, they had a tendency to not take on their own responsibility. Scapegoats were currency for the inhabitants there.
As many cleared their doorways of the snowfall from the previous evening, the town awoke to a beautiful scene. In the town square, a travelling Kabuki theatre had arrived under the cloak of darkness. Its colourful caravan had occupied much of the square, and was busy alerting the town of its presence; putting up posters and talking to the locals. They had yet to acquire a performing space for their shows, and the owner of the theatre was busy speaking to the officials to secure a premise. There was a surprised, though pleasant, feeling all around to discover the trope in their small town that morning. It usually came around in the dying months of the year, but for some reason, had returned early. Everyone enjoyed the shows, and many came from far and wide to see the performances. It would be a good time for Hirani, and its traders.
Enko was just as excited as anyone else when she learnt of the theatre. She’d left early that day for an appointment with a businessman who had returned to Hirani for the month. He was throwing a small gathering at his home just on the outskirts of town. She’d stopped to see her friend Unoko, to whom she was borrowing a Kimono from.
“Did you see?” she said, stepping into the house and sliding the door shut behind her. Her face was fresh in the snowing morning, her eyes alive with excitement.
“See what?” Unoko asked, taking Enko’s small umbrella.
“The theatre is back, they’ve arrived in the night.” She replied, taking off her geta sandals and sliding on the slippers before her before going through to main room.
“Why have they returned so soon, and not informed us!?” Unoko replied, concern across her face. The Kimono hung by the side, the beautiful white fabric flowing down to the floor like a snowy waterfall.
“Who cares, this will be great. And good business for us.” Enko said. Unoko looked worried though. She was known for her preparation, and did not like surprises.
“Is your kimono able to be salvaged?” Unoko asked her, cautiously. Enko’s eyebrows narrowed, the smile slipping momentarily.
“I just don’t believe what happened to it. It’s cleaned the same way each time. But now, Jiji said she can’t get the colour back, it’s ruined Unoko. And without it, I’m fucked.” She said, looking away.
“Well, we can share mine until we get you a new one, I’m happy to move some events around. No need for drama, it will work itself out. You could ask Tomoryō for one of hers, she has so many and some are just lovely!” Unoko replied. Poor Unoko, so sweet and naïve. Enko spun around to her, a fresh spirit in her face.
“She was there that night you know, the last time I wore it. I remember now seeing her in the Silent Storm.” Enko said, her words hurrying off her tongue.
“Lots of people were there, it was spring festival.” Unoko said, looking bemused.
“Yes, but she bumped into me as we were leaving. Do you not remember? I nearly dropped the blossoms I had. She’s cursed me, I just know it.” Enko said, now slightly animated.
“I don’t know. She’s always so nice Enko. I don’t believe she’s a witch like they say. I remember she helped me with my…” but she was cut off.
“It’s her Unoko, I just know it. I will go to Miyata later to get an omamori now, but we need to teach her a lesson too.” Enko said, her eyes filling with mischief.
“If it is her, is it wise to be messing around with her?” Unoko suggested, but it was lost on Enko now. Her mind was busy scheming. Which in a way was harmless, until she proposed;
“We should kill her.” Enko said suddenly, her face serious. It was true that Enko was a beautiful geisha, if not a little immature, but in that moment she looked quite horrid. Unoko couldn’t believe what she’d said, she looked to her windows noticing some were ajar.
“What!” she said, in disbelief, hurrying over to close the shutter.
“Kill her, well not really us. We’ll let some else do the messy bit. But we’re doing the right thing, for us and everyone. No one wants that witch putting curses and the like on everyone all the time!” she said.
“Enko, you’re crazy. No. I won’t be a part of this. You can borrow my Kimono, keep it if you like. I will sort another out, but this…this is madness.” She said, clearly distressed by the suggestion. Enko studied her for a moment, and turned towards the kimono.
“Okay. I was only joking you know.” She said, not looking at her friend. Unoko let the silence hang a little.
“Good, though I didn’t find it funny.” She replied. Enko turned and smiled.
“Oh Unoko, lighten up. I was fooling around. No, she’ll get what’s coming to her before long anyway.” She joked. Unoko still looked suspicious, but let it go.
“Do you have time for some tea?” She suggested.
“Of course.” She said, smiling. “I will take your offer of the Kimono though, I’ve always liked yours. She said, stroking the material tenderly, smiling to herself.
Masao watched as some of the scenery was inspected in the morning sun. Though made to be robust for its travelling nature, it was a practice to check all the scenery at each new stop. He smoked a cigarette as the huge screens were moved one by one and checked over He had driven in the night, and was tired, though he knew it would be a long day ahead preparing. He watched as one of the men moved a huge decorative mirror from the truck. He was dressed differently from the rest of the workers, only slightly, but Masao noticed. He noticed everything this man did, because he knew he should not be trusted.
They had picked him up a few towns ago, much as they had last year in this region. He remembered him, and was unhappy about his arrival again. He was a man for hire, good at carpentry and strong. The company needed men like him to move and repair the things that were in constant need of maintenance. It had been years since anything had been bought anew. The company were paid just enough to get by on, many of them doing the job for the love of Kabuki more than the wage. Masao was different, he was stuck. His father owned the theatre group, and he’d been working in it since her was a boy. As soon as his father died, Masao planned to quit; not caring at all for taking over the travelling circus. He’d had enough of moving around and performance egos.
He watched as the man inspected the mirror, polishing the glass slightly with a rag before moving away and heading off down one of the alleyways. Slipping away unnoticed. But Masao had noticed, and decided to follow him and see where his suspicious friend was headed.
Despite sleeping late, Tomoryō woke just after midday, her stomach lurching to the lack of food the day before. She dressed quickly and went to the kitchen to make herself and Aitarō something to eat. Aitarō followed her, jumping up onto the small stool she had by the back door. She’d had such strange and cursed dreams, and she knew what they meant to her. Change was coming, something ominous that would challenge her and require all her strength.
She knew the theatre had come to town, she’d known before anyone else. Travelling back from a small function the previous night, the caravan and her own transport had crossed paths. She’d sensed something before about the day in the early morning, when she’s noticed the wind had suddenly changed direction. She was mindful of such omens. Though shocked, she was not surprised. And she slipped away without anyone noticing her.
Tomoryō operated alone, and though this was not how she liked it, it was how it was. She was kind and helpful to whomever she came in contact with though, and looked for the best in people. Hoping others would do the same. She’d been forced to leave her Okiya a few years ago under a shadow of scandal and mystery. The death of her older ‘sister’ had been hushed up as best as it could be, as best as money could hush things up, but word had gotten out that Tomoryō was involved. Though this wasn’t really the whole truth. The Okiya’s mother had been a cruel and tyrannical woman, and though many of the Geisha in the town had boarded there, few believed that she herself had not been involved in some way. Knowing the close calls in the past that many had had with her. Yet, with smoke there is always fire, which was why there was a suspicion towards Tomoryō, but not complete belief that she was a witch. Many had turned against her, those who were jealous of her beauty and talent, and those who were superstitious thought it was bad luck not to think she was a witch. Err on the side of caution.
Tomoryō was forced back to her family home, which she turned into a small compound, shutting herself away as much as she needed to, to protect herself. Before long, she had re-emerged and began her geisha duties once more. She was truly the most beautiful woman in the region, and though many kept their distance, many men could not resist. She worked well with those travelling through the town, or those who came back for business. Outsiders who did not know or care to know her history in the small time they spent with the forbidden flower. Her isolation gave her too her independence, and she was able to charge the most for her services, ones of which she had more choice over. She never burned bridges with the other geisha in Hirani, or their Okiya, but there was always a wall there, one sometimes hard to scale.
She made some tea and went upstairs to the small reading room she had at the top of her house. Aitarō followed, licking the drips of tea that fell from the cup which had a small crack in the bottom. She should throw it away, but couldn’t bring herself to. It had been mother’s favourite. She opened the shutters and looked out over the town. From her view she could see the rising mountains off in the distance. The sleeping ojiisan (grandfather), which loomed over the region like an old man in a chair. The day was bright and harsh, the light reflecting off the snowfall. She could see smoke rising from the square, fires from the market and the theatre group no doubt. She placed the tea next to her and took a sheet of paper. Her mother had taught origami when she was a child, and though she enjoyed it, she now used it for more practical purposes. She closed her eyes and muttered some words under her breath as she slid the thick red paper between her fingers, going back and forth a few times. She opened her eyes and began to make the small figure.
She had made a miniature version of the town out of paper. The small houses and shrine, the market place and people of interest we all represented. It had taken her ages, but it was a task that had cleansed her mind and spirit. She finished the red figure and placed it down in the centre of the town square. None of the other figures were done in the red paper, and the figure glared out from the earthy tones of the others and from the small buildings. She stood back and looked at the model, knowing all too well whole the figure was. She had been reluctant to make any quick decisive decision, lest it hurt her reputation, but she had formulated a plan in her mind that would now need some action. She finished her tea, and began to get ready, choosing the bright red kimono she saved for her best performances.
Masao knew the streets of Hirani pretty well. He remembered most of the towns he travelled through, and unlike the rest of the trope who would say all the places looked the same after a while, he usual found one distinction with each new place to make it unique and memorable. His remembrance of Hirani was down to one thing, and that was the Silent Storm Tea House. The Silent Storm was similar to many other tea houses in japan, save for one unique feature. It was built around a small waterfall which cascaded down from the small river and rocks, right through the teahouse. Transparent screens had been built around it so the view from within captured the elegance and power of the flow of water. The area surrounding the teahouse had been built into a lush, if not tiny formal garden, which was far removed from the humble shacks and fisherman houses that made up most of the town. It was located not far from the main square, and was in the much more affluent area of the town with the main passing road through to the north and south nearby.
Masao had a feeling it was the Silent storm that the man was headed to. He was surprised however, the wages he know the man to be on were not those to afford such luxuries as a visit to a Teahouse. Yet as he followed him down the small passageways, it was the Teahouse that he came to, and he watched him as he went over the small bridge leading to the main entrance. He paused momentarily, removing his hat and slicking back his dark hair with his hand before disappearing inside. Masao hesitated himself, then followed him in.
Although the snow that fell made the town look beautiful, it was really an added torture for many. The freezing cold and blanket of toil left many desperate in Hirani. Enko was lucky, she hard worked her way up to be a popular geisha, earning a lot of money for her Okiya which took care of her. She was outgoing and a lot of fun to those who booked her services. Though many closer to her would say she was somewhat reckless, she was known for being eager to try new things and was usually where the most spirited events were in the town.
It wasn’t that she had a particular grudge against Tomoryō. She, like many, were really in awe of her and her beauty. They had studied together growing up, and had known one another for a long time; jumped through the same hoops and mastered the arts as two sisters might. But inside of Enko, there was always fresh seeds ready to sprout, and jealousy was one that was easily watered. It wasn’t just her beauty or success, or even the reverence Tomoryō received. It was that she had something that was far more lacking within Enko. Self-respect.
People called her a witch because Tomoryō didn’t do all the things that were asked of her, especially from men. She had bucked the system and carved her own living through being a Geisha, which she clearly found some happiness within. A circumstance really more than a calling. Enko had been thrust into this life, and though she messily navigated her way through with bad decisions, she was angry that she herself could not be as strong willed as Tomoryō.
To see Tomoryō brought down to everyone else’s level, would give Enko the satisfaction that being where she was, doing what she is told to do, is how it should be.
But it was more than that.
And it was more than that that she had suggested to Unoko. Did she really mean to have Tomoryō killed? Well, it would remove her completely, destroy the beacon of individuality that she had cultivated, which really had no place in the world of Geisha. There had not been much back and forth in her mind whether it was wrong to have Tomoryō murdered. Enko, reckless as ever, had launched to that conclusion by the time she had left Unoko’s. Guilt was not something Enko dwelled too much on, and it was a lot cleaner than merely teaching her a lesson. It was this sinister side within her that had grown when she was a child. Competing with the other children to have the best toys, the most attention. It was this side of her that had tricked the little girl when she was only five years old herself to go down the well near her childhood home, and to leave her there for two days. It was always there really, ready to spring to action like a crouching mantis. Enko could be a lot of fun, but she was also very conniving.
She had dispensed with the moral debate in her mind by the time she had reached the small house. Mindful of the time, as she did not want to be late for her appointment with the businessman, so she knocked hastily on the door. She had come to one of the more shabby areas of Hirani, with the small line houses squeezed up against one another like crooked teeth. Enko, in her Kimono looked out of place in the bleakness of her surroundings, like a lotus flower on a sea of mud. She knocked again sharply, louder this time until the door slid open. A small woman stood there, her eyes narrowed on a face that snarled back at her.
“You’re far from the garden little flower.” The older woman said. She held a pipe in her hand, and puffed the smoke towards Enko.
“Oh knock it off Madoka, and let me in.” Enko said, barging her way into the small entrance room. The room smelled of fish that was likely bubbling away on a stove nearby. But she didn’t plan to stay too long, so she endured it.
“What do you want?” Madoka asked her, looking her up and down.
“I want you to do what you’re best at.” Enko said, retrieving some money from the inside of her sleeve. She handed it over to her, mindful not to touch Madoka’s hands which were stained with black and ash from her pipe.
“And who’s the lucky soul this time? Some fisherman who couldn’t keep his mouth shut?” Madoka said, enjoying the moment. She liked to antagonise her. Her own defence against being bought by some silly geisha with more style than brains. But bought she was, for very specific services.
“Oh, someone you know pretty well. That’s only half of what you’ll get you see, the rest will come when the job is complete.” Enko said, wiping the smirk off her face. Madoka looked again at the money, realising now how much she’d been given.
“Who?” she said, faintly now with unease.
“Tomoryō.” Enko said, eager to see her eyes when she understood who it was.
“Keep it.” She said, throwing the money back towards her where it landed on the floor. Enko’s smile waivered slightly, she stared at the money now on the dirty floor. She nudge some of it with her foot, looking at the ground she said.
“You’ll do it Madoka, and you’ll do it quickly and quietly. Unless you want me to lead everyone to your other misdemeanours.” She said sweetly. Most people knew how much of unsavoury character Madoka was, it was not a huge secret that she was not to be trusted. But there were many things they didn’t know, things that were a lot more serious than petty theft; and Enko knew them, she knew all of them.
And Madoka knew she knew.
She lowered her eyes as if in shame, but it was merely to look again at the money on the floor. She bent down to pick it up.
“Any requests?” She said, putting the money in her pocket and puffing again on her pipe.
“Make it look like she did it herself, and do something about that pretty face of hers.” Enko said, turning around and kicking the money that lay on the floor. She slid the door open and disappeared off into the snow, a walking plum on a sea of white rice.
Madoka watched her depart up the road, cursing having let her in today, and fearing what she had to do.