She was not a princess. She might have been, if times and places had allowed, but for now she was no more than a daughter of a wealthy family.
Nevertheless, she liked to make her men call her Hime — Princess. She was not young enough to be called Princess, but she was beautiful; she was beautiful in the kimono her father bought her, and she was beautiful lying naked on her futon. Men would come to please her, and to accept the silver coins afterwards, which were as beautiful as the lady herself.
Sakichi was a new servant of the house. He was a gardener. One day he saw the lady come and sit on the porch, and he continued his snipping on a pine tree, his eyes constantly wandering to the porch where she sat and watched him.
An uncomfortable sound echoed throughout the garden, as if something too thick or strong for trimming scissors was cut off. “Sakichi! Sakichi! What are you doing?” a veteran gardener shouted.
The young gardener looked about the pine tree in front of him. Apparently he had cut the wrong branch, and too much of it.
The lady on the porch burst out laughing. She beckoned the embarrassed young man over.
“Come see me tonight,” she whispered, when he came near enough to smell her strange perfume. Before he could reply she slipped inside, leaving him blushed to the top of his head.
She watched him with relish as he gathered his coarse kimono around him. He wasn’t still quite sure if it had been a sensible thing to do, Sakichi said.
“Sensible? No sex is sensible, Sakichi!”
She laughed, a high, cackling laugh that was not sensible for a woman of her age and rank at all. Sakichi smiled, he couldn’t help it somehow. He knelt and bowed low, and was about to leave, before the dawn, before the people in the house started bustling around one by one.
“Wait,” she said, and pulled out a pouch the dusty red colour of azuki beans from under her pillow. She picked a few coins out of the pouch, and held them out for the gardener to take.
Sakichi looked slightly hurt. “No, Hime, I don’t need them.”
“Why? These are for your hours here.”
“Oh, no, Hime.” He took her hand in his, closing her slim fingers around the coins. “Much obliged, but no. There are things that cannot be bought with money, I suppose.”
She looked at her hand. “But what are they?”
Sakichi smiled, assuming she was joking. He bowed and left. She put the coins away; she would give them to another man. Maybe.
She didn’t care much for gardening. People in the house thought she did, because she loved to kneel on the porch and watch the stream flow into the little pond inhabited by golden carp, and to pretend to decipher the incomprehensible patterns that sands and moss made. But she would have sat there and stared if it had been a busy street, a heath, or even a plain, white wall. Anything spread before her.
“So,” Sakichi looked puzzled as he said, just like every other gardener who had come to the house, “Hime doesn’t mind anything done to her garden at all? Every decision is left to the gardeners, just like that?”
“Just like that. And it’s my father’s garden, anyway. Not mine.”
The wind was warm for the season that night, so they sat on her futon naked, with the screen door open a sun or so. She had laughed when the gardener embarrassedly hid his groin under her embroidered blanket, and if his skin hadn’t been tanned so deeply from many days’ work in the garden, every surface on him would have been crimson.
“So Hime always watches anything as it is laid before her.” The gardener nodded solemnly, his face still reddish-brown. “But has never come round to see it in other ways?”
“What are you talking about? Gardens are made to be admired from the porch, aren’t they?”
The gardener chuckled. “In theory, yes. But I assume there’s so much Hime hasn’t seen in the garden.”
Sakichi abruptly stood, still trying to hide his groin by gathering his kimono around his naked body. She was about to tease him again by pulling the thin clothing when he extended his arm, the palm facing the ceiling, waiting for her to take it.
“What is this?”
“Please,” was all he said.
So, she reluctantly let him bring her to her feet, and even more reluctantly let him wrap her in her cotton undergarment. They slipped through the screen door and the half-open shutter. Just below the porch there was a stone step. They found Sakichi’s shoes there.
“I don’t keep my shoes here,” she said. “I don’t usually need to come into the garden.”
“Umm.” Sakichi jumped to the ground. “Hime could use the gardener’s shoes, if it is not too rude a suggestion.”
She glanced at the sandals and at the gardener, then back again at the stone step. At first Sakichi believed she indeed thought this was a rude suggestion for a gardener to make. But soon she looked up and demanded: “What are you doing? Give me your hand again, and help me descend.”
Sakichi quickly apologized and offered his hand. She took it and stepped on the huge, dirty sandals.
She started walking awkwardly, and laughed high. “I’m worse than a toddler, aren’t I?”
The gardener smiled, and led her some way and pointed.
The lady cocked her head, still clutching at his hand, and looked. To her surprise, previously hidden in the shadows of a box tree, there was a stone lantern about as tall as herself. It was an unsophisticated combination of odd curves and rough surfaces occasionally covered with moss. She had never imagined that something so ungraceful and out of place could exist in this garden, for decades, unnoticed. Puzzled, she looked to the gardener.
He chuckled again. “The hole, Hime.”
She looked. This lantern was built solely for an ornamental purpose, but it did have a hole in the middle of its head, so that a fire could be lit inside.
Through the hole, she now realized, she could see the moon casting its pale light. In the moon-tinted haze she saw the garden framed by the lantern’s hole, pine trees and maple leaves perfectly still, frozen and breathless.
The lady herself drew a long breath. “Looks like a simple but graceful piece of mother-of-pearl work.”
“Mother-of-pearl? Perhaps. I haven’t seen many of them, but if Hime says so.”
She nodded, and rested her head on his shoulder.
Behind the lantern’s hole, the moon’s descent was fast. They waited for it to drop completely off the round frame.
Soon the young gardener was frequenting her chamber. The men formerly called for visits and given the coins now ground their teeth. One night, when she was expecting no one, she heard some muffled movement outside her room. Just as she clutched her bell under her blanket, her door slid open.
A man who used to be her favourite was standing there.
“Nice kimono,” she remarked.
“Hime.” The man came in without permission. “Why is Hime doing this to me?”
“What are you talking about?”
“That gardener,” the man winced as he spat, “he’s just a servant! And he’s too young to be fooling around with, Hime, anyway. I have no idea why our Hime should place her favour on such a lowly child.”
“Are you saying,” she let out with a laugh, her eyes wide and one hand still gripping the bell, “that you are any better than him? What are you? You’re not even from a warrior’s family!”
She watched as his face turned from weather-free pale to the veiny red of a spider lily. He seemed about to strike her. She raised her bell; it only sighed ting because her fingers cupped its body. The man stopped.
“You’d better go away, before I ring this and people flood in. And never come back, ever.”
The man still wanted to hurt her; she could see it in his eyes. But eventually his reason prevailed, and he fled. When she heard the back gate close, she loosened her grip on the bell for the first time.
Her hands were shaking.
She replaced the bell with another ting. The screen doors were still open, and a servant peered in. “Ma’am? Is everything all right? I thought I heard voices.”
“Nothing to worry about,” she hastily replied. “Perhaps you can shut the door as you go? And the outer shutter, too. I’m a bit cold.”
Her paper lantern flickered as the doors shut. Usually she loved to have some fresh air through the gaps of the screen doors, but tonight, her hands were still shaking and so the shutters had to be locked firmly.
Next morning as she went to kneel on the porch, she saw that Sakichi was injured. When a superior asked, Sakichi answered he stumbled down a ditch this morning, walking half-asleep.
She had seen, when she was still a teenager, her then-favourite boy being assaulted by other men. Day by day the boy’s face had swollen, and he soon started to limp. One day he left the region without a word. She had been young and hadn’t paid enough attention. And she’d never thought of following him into the unknown.
Not that she could if she ever tried.
That night, as they made love, she heard Sakichi groan when she accidentally touched the raw wounds from the morning.
“Can you run errands?”
Sakichi laughed deeply and quietly. “Why, there’s nothing Sakichi here wouldn’t do for Hime.”
She buried her face in his uninjured shoulder. “There’s something I want. That I really want. And it might take you months to find it.”
She slowly pulled back. From under her thick futon she produced a pouch, but it was not her usual one in dusty red. From inside the coarse, indigo-dyed sachet she pulled out a purple cloth wrapped around something flat and huge. When unfolded, the cloth revealed a dozen golden coins.
Sakichi had never seen such a large sum of money in his life. It looked many times as large as the total sum he had earned so far as gardener. “Hime?”
She said nothing as she refolded the cloth around the coins and pushed them back into the pouch. Earlier that day she bid a woman in the house to sew the pouch out of a leftover cloth. It would look appropriate when Sakichi held it in his kimono.
“I heard a rumour,” she finally said, “that there exists a fabric called lightworm silk.” She looked down at his hand, and made it hold the money. “It’s nothing like normal silk, they say. It’s made from the thread that lightworms spit, and the worms glow in the dark. So does the fabric. Only the noble, the beautiful can wear it. And there is a village in the mountain that is famous for their lightworm silk.”
Sakichi, clutching the sachet tightly in his hand, realized there was something underneath the coins. He looked into the sachet and found a small pair of scissors.
“Yes,” she said, “when you need more money, find a pine tree identical to this one” — she indicated a bonsai pine tree placed in the alcove, small but strong in its blue ceramic bowl — “and cut a branch. It will be reflected in this bowl. If you cut three, I’ll bury three coins between the roots.”
Lost for words, Sakichi looked into the lady’s eyes. Something seemed to shimmer in them, but she looked away, towards the door. Morning grey filtered through the paper screen.
She had kept him here unusually long tonight.
“And where is this village?” Sakichi asked.
“North,” she said, her eyes still on the screen door. “Somewhere in Joshu region. That’s what I heard.”
He bowed low, and clad himself in his coarse kimono and put the pouch securely in the bosom. He stepped out of the room and bowed low again just before closing the door. When he looked up to slide the door shut, the lady stared past him. He wondered what she was thinking.
Light enough, was what she thought. Safe enough. But Sakichi would never know.
Soon Sakichi was gone. Some men flirted and tried to get back with the lady, but she wasn’t interested anymore. The man who broke into her room the other night visited her one day, from the garden side of the house.
“Hime has sent him away,” he said, by way of greeting, “so that he would not be attacked…by…some kind of, well, dark minds?”
The lady let out a small laugh, her eyes on the garden. “Oh, yes, dark minds! They wear nice kimono, don’t they!”
The man groaned. “But why? What did he do to attract Hime so much? What exactly did he have?”
She looked at the garden. “You were right,” she said. “He is young. He is a gardener. You cannot deprive him of his arms — his only tools.”
“But — ”
“We are both merchants’ children.” She looked up into the man’s eyes. “What do we have? What can we do? We only see the world as we want — through the holes of the copper coins, perhaps, while other people cook and sew and clean and arrange the garden.”
The man scratched his chin. “Well. What’s wrong with that?”
She laughed. “Nothing. Nothing’s wrong.”
The man stared.
“I want to walk around the garden,” she suddenly decided. “Can you lend me your shoes?”
“Oh, I can’t go around barefooted myself — hey!” he shouted at one of the servants. “Bring a pair of Hime’s shoes over here!”
The servant boy soon came back with her shoes, which he placed neatly on the stone step below the porch. She sighed. “Well, can you at least lend me a hand?”
She took the man’s pale hand. As soon as she was safely on the ground, she let go. She trotted towards the pond and stood there, looking at her reflection. She was not as young as she used to be, and her behaviour was widely known around the region. Many people liked to please her, but no one wanted her to be his wife.
At some point she began to wonder if Sakichi had ever existed at all. She spent days looking at the bonsai tree, leaving her room less and less even to admire the garden. She sometimes thought she saw some overgrown twigs and leaves trimmed on the bonsai, but no branch was cut off. Not that she expected him to do as she had told him, or to come back with the gift for her. He was too young to be relied upon with such a large amount of money. But somewhere deep in herself, she still waited.
That was why she didn’t notice the changes in the house. Walls peeled away, and corridors were no longer waxed. But she just stared at the tiny tree, and everything else was mere background.
Before she knew it, winter arrived. Only a few rooms, including hers, were now kept warm. She was reading one day, occasionally eyeing the tree, when, beneath the gusts of wind and the house’s rattling, she heard sighs of scissors from the corridor.
She peered out of her screen door and shivered, amazed by how cold it was out there. There she found a young servant named Kimi sitting beside the door to the next room. “What are you doing?” the lady asked.
The girl jumped to her feet. “Oh! I am terribly sorry. Did I disturb Hime?”
The lady shook her head. “Just wondered. What are you doing?”
The girl hesitated for a moment. “Well, ma’am, I am mending the screen.”
She walked closer to the girl, her breath fogging and her feet soon sore from the cold floor. There were a few holes in the screen door near the servant, towards the bottom. “A sparrow. Seems to have tried to break in, because it’s warmer here,” Kimi explained.
“You. Mending? Alone?” The lady frowned. The replacement of screen paper was supposed to be carried out by more than two people as a rule, because it was much easier to apply the rice glue to the wood grids before it dried, and to spread the huge sheet of paper without crinkling it.
Yet the girl answered: “Yes, ma’am.”
The lady looked down. Scattered on the floor were colourful sheets of paper, some plain, some with patterns.
“Well, I thought it might be better,” Kimi said and vaguely gestured at the paper, “rather than replacing the entire sheet, if I glued on paper flowers, leaves and fruits to hide the holes. I found many sheets of unused coloured paper in the storeroom, ma’am. This way we’d save money and labour.”
She had never heard the word save spoken in this house.
“Oh, but I really shouldn’t have kept Hime in the cold!” the girl exclaimed. “Please, the warm room is waiting for Hime.” She rubbed her own hands unconsciously, and the lady could see they were badly chapped.
The lady said nothing for a while, and the girl worried she didn’t like the idea of paper cut-outs at all. But this — saving every resource — was an order from the lady’s father, and there was no disobeying him.
But the lady’s response was nothing the girl could expect: “Kimi, can you teach me how to do it?”
“I just want to try. Mending. I’ve never mended anything.”
The servant fell silent, long enough for the lady to burst out laughing. “You look like a fool, really; close your mouth now! It’s only one of my whims. If I don’t like it I’ll throw it back at you.”
Kimi somehow managed to smile. “Understood, ma’am.” Then she fetched a brazier and a flat cushion for the lady, and they both started cutting the paper.
All the lady could manage with her slim, clumsy fingers was a thread ball, which was only a round cut with colourful patterns, while the servant cut cherry blossoms out of the plain pink paper. To the servant’s great surprise, the lady seemed to be enjoying herself immensely. After they had hidden the holes and the young girl had wiped the glue off their hands with a wet towel, the lady looked proud of what she had achieved.
The next day, Kimi was summoned to the lady’s room. “Kimi, can you teach me sewing? My purse needs mending.”
“Oh, ma’am, I can have it mended — ”
“No, I want to do it. You teach me something I’ve never done, and I’ll teach you flower arrangement and tea ceremony, if you want. What do you say?”
Kimi wanted to ask why, but she swallowed it. “Yes, ma’am, I’ll see to it.”
“Good girl, Kimi.” The lady smiled.
Spring came and the pine tree turned into soft green, always neatly trimmed but no branches cut. Relatives’ children visited the house for the season’s festivals and departed, leaving many holes in the screens they had made while running and stumbling. The lady declared she would tend all the holes. When it was all done, she began turning a worn-out cotton garment into cleaning cloths. She needed something to do. Something to keep her mind occupied, away from the changing world.
Still, sometimes, she had to wonder what Sakichi would think if he saw the doors with flowers and thread balls, and pouches and covers, things she had mended herself.
If he ever returned.
Her heart sank at the sight of the garden. One by one, trees and stones were removed and sold. By now she had no doubt: her father was going bankrupt. There were no fish in the pond, the water was never replaced and the soil at the bottom of the pool was slimy. Only a few unhealthy pine trees remained. The box tree had been sold, as well, and the stone lantern was now visible from the porch. Servants were leaving.
A man approached her from the almost-bare garden.
“Nice kimono,” she said without looking up.
“Is that all you can say to me?” the man replied. “You know what I just said to your father?”
“What did you say?”
“I said,” the man looked at the garden, with a hint of pity in his eyes, “that I’m willing to welcome you into my house, if you like.”
Her gaze was still locked on the garden before her. “So you would have me as a mistress. Not even a proper wife.”
“I already have a wife.”
The man scratched his cheek. “Oh, by the way, a servant of mine recently went to Joshu, and found Sakichi there.”
Too stunned to pretend, she looked up.
“He is married to a silkworm farmer’s daughter, the servant said. He’s wasting his skills, don’t you think?”
She let out a sudden, high laugh. “You, really, are the best man to count on for hurting people! You know that?”
He stared back at the woman who once, long ago, refused out of pride to be his wife. “Hime, why? I had no idea that could hurt you.”
She stopped laughing. She wiped a few drops of tears which she wanted to believe came from laughing too much, nothing else. “No, you’re right. That couldn’t hurt me.”
The man adjusted his kimono unnecessarily. “Just let me know when you are ready. I’ll send someone.” He left without bowing.
She looked back at the garden. It looked terribly hurt. She wanted to know how to mend it.
That same day, a servant from the man’s house brought something for the lady. She met him at the entrance, because there was no servant available to greet him and lead him into the house. “Yes?”
“Ma’am,” the servant bowed low, “first, please, it should be understood, that I came here without my master’s knowing. And I do not intend to inform him of this visit.”
“I shouldn’t have told my master that I saw Sakichi in Joshu, in the first place. Sakichi didn’t want me to tell anyone, at least for a while. He entrusted this to me, and asked me to give it to the lady when things settled and the lady seemed to have forgotten about the gardener.”
He pushed a bundle towards her. It was wrapped in a piece of pure silk, tied with a beautifully knitted silk string.
“But now that the lady knows where he is, I saw no need to wait.”
“I see. Thank you.” She nodded. “I promise I will not tell your master that you were here.”
“Much obliged, ma’am.” The servant took his leave.
She took the bundle to her room and opened it.
It was an ornamental hair stick made of tortoiseshell, shaped as a ginkgo leaf. It was a beautiful piece, and a girl would have been flattered to receive such a gift from a boy. But she wasn’t a girl and had plenty of these — many of them of much better quality. And she had wanted lightworm silk, not a tortoiseshell hair stick. She abruptly stood up, shuffled across the room, and, following nothing but impulse, threw the thing off the porch.
With a plop, the stick fell to the bottom of the pond.
She turned her back to the pond, to the garden, and shut the screen doors behind her. Then she looked, for one last time, at the tiny pine tree. She had wanted to make sure Sakichi still worked in some way as a gardener, that her decision to protect his arms wasn’t wasted. But somewhere between late spring and early summer she had realized — and ignored the fact — that it was no longer even trimmed, the twigs sticking out here and there, some leaves even going brown. The bowl was too heavy for her to carry. After some thought she blanketed the tree with her best kimono so that it would gradually die from lack of light.
Even Kimi was leaving. She had been hired at a well-paying house, because she was good at flower arrangement and knew a little about tea ceremony.
She came to say goodbye to the lady sitting on the porch. The garden was now a mess. All that remained were fallen pine trees, a pond without water, and an old-fashioned, dirty stone. The pond would soon be filled with soil and flattened. The hair stick, which sank to the slimy bottom, would never be found.
“Hime,” the girl said, though she knew the woman was now nothing even close to a princess. “I’m really, really grateful for everything Hime has taught me. And really sorry that I cannot stay.”
“Nothing to worry about, Kimi. I’ll be fine. You’ll be fine.”
They remained there for some time, watching the sunset. The golden light pierced the lantern’s hole.
“Well, ma’am, I rather liked that stone lantern,” Kimi said, shading her eyes with her hand. “Does Hime remember Sakichi, the gardener? He showed it to me, at dusk, with the light coming through the hole — beautiful, isn’t it? Like, golden ‘tortoiseshell’ candy melting.”
The lady only nodded at the girl. Tortoiseshell, she thought. Tortoiseshell.
Well, he was young enough to make that sort of stupid mistake.
She tried to catch a glimpse, a glitter, of the hair stick. She couldn’t. It was much, much cheaper than what she might have bought with the money she had given him. At least he had gone to Joshu, exactly where she had told him to, where he found his new life.
Story copyright © 2014 by Yukimi Ogawa
Artwork copyright © 2014 by Sebyth
Yukimi Ogawa lives in a small town in Tokyo, where she writes in English but never speaks the language. She still wonders why it works that way. One of her stories was picked up for The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2014.
Sebyth is old and usually unseen. Sebyth draws stuff and plays video games and doesn’t get out much. There are whispers of elves and strange games.