Juuni Kokuki — 十二国記
(The Twelve Kingdoms)
Seijō no Ran — 青条の蘭
(The Blue Orchids)
Translated by o6asan
There is snow falling quietly.
Before dawn, it is so cold. It goes into the freeze-up season. In a narrow room at a sooty inn, Hyōchū sits up in bed and can see his breath.
His body feels leaden but he turns up, crawls on the floor, and approaches the box in the corner of the room. After turning on a light, he opens a lid softly, the lid was made of fine bamboo knit.
The box, which is lacquered on the outside and is covered with silk and cotton in the inside, is made of fine bamboo knit as same as the lid. The box looks an expensive-looking item, but the only content in it is a log. Its thickness is enough to grasp with both hands and the length is close to the length of both palms. The log has an ordinary spotted bark, but in the middle of which has a knot made by breaking off a branch, and green leaves grow at the root of the knot. That log is almost buried in the middle of the sawdust.
Hyōchū checks to see if it has no damage, and breathes a small sigh of relief. He takes the log out from the box, and examines it carefully. He can see the dry bark and the dry cut, but also knows the log has still enough moisture when he has tapped it. He can see that the rot hasn’t begun on it. He can see that moss or fungus are not growing on it. There is no change to the green leaves at the root of the knot. A handful of slender fleshy leaves are growing close together, and the leaves very resemble orchid leaves. Hyōchū examines each leaf very carefully. The leaves have still kept shiny green. He thinks there are no sign of withering or dying.
―This is our only hope.
Therefore, when he wakes up in an inn, he is always anxious that it might be withered while he is asleep. So every day, the first thing he does is to examine its condition.
When he goes to bed each night, he is scared that tonight is the night when the plant would die. Though he is all exhausted, he cannot fall asleep because his fear prevents his sleep. Even asleep finally, the next morning he finds the plant died during the night―that kind of nightmare has visited him many times. He groans in his sleep and gets up, he confirms the plant has no change, and then he falls asleep. This has happened a number of times.
Today, the plant is still alive.
“Thanks.” Hyōchū murmurs and backfills the log in the sawdust carefully. He binds the orchid to the box, and makes the sawdust even to prevent the orchid to be buried. He covers the orchid with a basket which he has got off, in order to suppress it he packs side-by-side cotton pouches, and he spreads a cloth on the basket and puts a letter wrapped in oiled paper. He checks the official ribbon that hangs on the side of the box, pulls it in the box, and closes the lid. He winds the box up with a leather belt and packs it up carefully.
At a fraction of the time for his doing, his hands are being paralyzed with cold. Water in the tub which he got last night has thin ice on the edge of itself.
Hyōchū avoids the frozen edge and scoops handfuls of water, and washes his face. His fingertips almost freeze, and his knees pain in the cold air from the floor. Though he wants to warm himself, there is not even a charcoal burner in the room. Over the years, supply of the charcoal has become scarce. Common people cannot have it even if they want.
Reluctantly, Hyōchū pats his leg with both hands. The last month of this year is closer. In the cold season, people cannot get even a small amount of charcoal. This winter solstice passed, but the cold season will still continue. The first day of spring takes a while after New Year’s Day. It takes for a while until the cold lets up. Every year, a large amount of freezing to death comes out at that period.
After a bout of patting his legs, Hyōchū puts a fur coat on. He tries to wear his shoes which he removed and dried last night, but he cannot because his feet have a lot of swelling. He necessarily cuts a part of shoe with a knife, the part encumbers him while doing, and then he wears shoes. After that, he wraps his foot in cloth and straps it up. Recently, he had blood blisters on his feet with a trip. He has pain in knees and the low back, and he has difficulty straightening them. His shoulders which have continued to carry the box on have pains and his both hands have a lot of chaps.
―That’s not bad. Our hope is still alive.
In readiness for checking out, Hyōchū is out of the dark room with a boxy knapsack and other belongings.
It began with the discoloration of a beech.
At least more than ten years ago, Hyōchū noticed the beginning of a thing that was a beech in the beech forest of his hometown.
Hyōchū came from the State Kei, at the north of the country. His hometown was located at the north of Kei near a state border in steep mountains. After growing up in a poor village which was unblessed with climate, he worked his way through schools and into State College of Kei. And then, he luckily became a national public official in his mid-thirty. His position was Chikan Sekijin. His rank was Chūshi. It was a bottom lank petty official among the national public official system.
He was such a petty official, but when he returned Seiin, his hometown, people regarded him as a talented person and always knew he had a great success. At that time, his obtainment of Senseki was quite a recent date, so his parents and relatives were still in his hometown. The people he was familiar with from an early age were looking forward to seeing him, so he returned his hometown every New Year holidays. During that time, he found the strange color beech in the beech forest near the village.
Beeches had shed their leaves. The desolate season of winter, they stretched their treetops at the mountain areas. A fine mountain stream ran through the forest, and the stream had a small waterfall. When he was young, he caught fishes at a deep pool which the waterfall poured into. The place was surrounded by the beech forest and low cliffs, which was a cozy place indeed. A beech stood nearby the deep pool and had the shining end of a branch which looked as if it was frozen.
“―what is that?”
Hyōchū looked up at the end of the branch high above and talked to an old friend who stood by him.
The old friend whose name was Hōkō. He was also born in Seiin and went to the State College together. He finished the State College a year earlier than Hyōchū, and then became a local public official of the prefecture Sekka where their hometown was included.
Following Hyōchū’s eyes, Hōkō looked up at the branch of the beech.
“I don’t think it is frost. That branch faces south.”
Hyōchū nodded. The branch faced open and sunny area, so it looked to be glowing. For that reason, it was impossible that frost formed there only or it was impossible that morning frost remained until such time in the afternoon.
“It seems like glowing for me.”
“Yeah.” Hōkō nodded, climbed the cliffs nimbly, and looked up at the branch from different places here and there. Soon, he hung on to the stem and was climbing the tree skillfully using a leather belt that he had wrapped around his waist.
Hyōchū was a bitter smile to see the figure of Hōkō.
Hōkō loved playing in hills and valleys from his childhood. He freely ranged over the mountains near their hometown and was also familiar with the vegetation and the terrain. Where were any trees and any grass growing? Where did any animals live? About that, Hōkō was familiar as his own backyard. He was able to keep seeing a tree with strong interest, and also watching birds and insects all day. Such Hōkō graduated from the State College and became a Sanshi of the prefecture. Sanshi belong to Kakan Shōko, and are responsible for conservation of fields and mountains. It would be a calling for Hōkō.
Hōkō climbed like a nimble monkey, remained in a thick branch and stared towards the discolored branch for a while, and then unbent himself and shook the leather belt for knocking it down. Hyōchū waved to Hōkō and looked for the branch among the undergrowth, then picked it up.
It was a twig of about a finger length. He was able to find the twig easily even among the withered undergrowth because its color was very different from usual. It had a strange sheen as if it was made of a solid stone. When he picked it up, his fingertips felt the coldness of it. It had hard texture and was like a stone as he expected. The broken edge was also different from usual. It looked like broken crystals rather than torn fibers.
“―What do you think?”
As Hōkō was coming close and talking aloud to Hyōchū, Hyōchū tilted his head and held out the twig. Hōkō took it and was with stars in his eyes.
“…interesting. As if it’s a stone.”
“How about other branches on the tree?”
“They are similar to it. The branches look to have hardened into stone. And they are losing colors.”
“Hmm.” Hyōchū murmured. The color of the twig that Hōkō dropped was off-white, but this would not be so strange because it is the original color of beech bark. The color of beech bark is from dark gray to off-white originally. Beech bark is smooth and there is nothing like a split. Because of this or not, moss and algae or mold often cover the bark. Beech bark never falls off, so, these which covered the young beech bark remain, make some patterns, and become white, gray, green and brown figures. To lose colors is to lose the figures? The twig Hōkō dropped maybe grew this year, so it still had the original color.
“I think it is dead. ―What happened? This is the first time for me.”
Hōkō said and broke the twig. It was broken and crushed with making small high-hard noise.
“Is it frozen dead twig?”
“I don’t think so.”
Hōkō said and wrapped pieces up in his towel he took out from his inside pocket. He was going to examine it after taking out it in his home. His profile looked happily somehow. It was the eyes of a child who found a rare insect. Hyōchū thought this guy was exactly the same as he had been a little boy.
Mountains which Sanshi has jurisdiction over was deep, and the mountains had nothing to do with living of people. Mountains as a place where people live were under the jurisdiction of Chikan. The mountains in the deeper area are not directly related to people’s lives, but the damage extends to the people if an avalanche or a fire happen once. In order to prevent such disasters, it is the Sanshi that control mountains and forests which are out of ordinary people reach, understand the terrain, and perform the conservation if necessary. The Sanshi as a prefecture official is located in the foot of them, and takes control of the fields and mountains in the prefecture. The duty of Sanshi of a country is only to control Sanshi of the Nine States, the duty of Sanshi of a state is only to control Sanshi of each istrict, and the duty of Sanshi of a district is only to control Sanshi of each prefecture, but the Sanshi of the prefecture enters into mountains of the prefecture and they defend the mountains by themselves. Hōkō made a thorough survey of the mountains of the prefecture, like had been familiar with the mountains of his hometown. Once he went the mountains, he did not come back for a month or two. While he encamped himself, he went through one mountain after another where was great open space.
“You really like mountains.”
Hyōchū said and Hōkō laughed like getting shy.
At the moment,
“Oh, you two!”
They heard a woman’s voice. They turned around and found the women of their village who were following a worn line and coming down from the beech forest. Hyōchū’s mother and Hōkō’s were in their midst. Everyone carried a small basket on the back.
“How did you two get here?”
“Well”, said Hyōchū and Hōkō, and the women laughed.
“We came to pick up nuts. I’m afraid they are not delicious food.”
Said the woman, then Hōkō looked in her basket and laughed “They are beechnuts.”
“You picked up almost enough. I think they are a kind of feast.”
“No, no. We have a bad year for them again.”
She said and,
“I think your fathers and others miss you, so you two should be back as soon as possible.”
She left word with them and went down the mountain.
A beechnut has a triangle shape like a buckwheat seed, people can eat it even if it is uncooked because it does not have poison nor astringency. It is nutritious and tastes good. In the village, they usually parched the beechnuts to eat, sometimes made a piece of beechnut cake with crushed, or made a cake wrapped in bamboo leaves. In the mountain village with poor crops, the beechnuts are a kind of feast, but they were borne rarely. It’s not always but it usually has a bad year, and it just becomes a good year once in a few years or decades.
“This year, we have a bad year for them again. I know it but we rarely have a good year for them.”
Said Hyōchū and Hōkō laughed.
“I remember little to eat my fill of beechnuts.”
Normally, nuts repeat good or bad years on a regular basis, but beeches do not have this regular wave. Nobody knows the next good year could be a year later or a decade later. Nobody knows why, but a good year for them happens all over the country when it is good, and a bad also happens all over the country when it is bad. A tree for nuts is good and a tree for nuts is poor which are never mixed at the same time.
“In a few years at least, if a good year regularly comes, we could be depend on them for food.”
“If so, we, like you and me, would eat them up. Probably, I think beeches would defend themselves.”
Said Hōkō, and laughed. Hyōchū tilted his head.
“―Don’t you think so? I think this is the reason why tree nuts have their good and bad years. If tree nuts have a good year, the animals eat nuts, like field mice, which will more survive than usual. Then the following year, a lot of mice will eat nuts up. If the following year is bad for nuts, mice will starve and decrease. And then, in the next good year, more nuts could survive.”
“Oh, I see. But, what do you think about beeches have good and bad years irregularly? Usually, good years of the nuts will come on regularly.”
“Yeah. Beeches are strange trees. Maybe, they have some reasons we don’t know. The difference of poor year and good year are very big, so which might be the reason why beech forests have the same age trees.”
“The same age trees?”
Hōkō nodded and showed beech forests surrounding.
“There are a variety of sizes from small to big, but the beeches are almost the same age in the forests. In this forest, around 100 year-old.”
“Oh”, Hyōchū looked out over around. Definitely, trees of the similar size orderly stood in rows.
“According to your story, all of them sprouted about 100 years ago when beechnuts were good.”
“Maybe, you’re right. And a beech has toxin in its roots and the toxin kills other trees. So, younger beeches are killed if they grow densely. As a result, similar sized trees grow at similar intervals. Even different kinds of trees are hard to grow, so beech forests are formed by pure beech trees.”
“Therefore, beech forests are not dark.” said Hōkō. Undergrowth grows well and has a variety of species because it can get enough sun. Beechnuts are small amount but mushrooms grow in the bountiful soil under the beeches, and many kind of animals gather to eat the undergrowth. Beech forests with good visibility are good hunting grounds.
“Rich and comfortable. I love beeches.”
“I see.” and, Hyōchū looked around the forests. A little more than 100 years ago, the beeches sprouted all together. Beeches have a long life-span. They live for about 100 years to come.
“…Your mother got old.”
Hyōchū said quietly. Human lives are much shorter than tree ones.
“Yeah…And, your mother, too.”
Hōkō nodded and said. Both Hyōchū and Hōkō were officials on duty, so they had Senseki. If they wanted, they could let their parents have Senseki, but their mothers and fathers did not want it. Usually, parents do not want Senseki. In accordance with the precedent, parents, spouse and children can have Senseki. On the other hand, siblings and relatives cannot have it. If someone becomes a high-ranking official, he might let another people have Senseki, but it is impossible he gives Senseki to all the people he wants to register. So, he must draw a line somewhere. Usually, people do not want such a line in the family. Actually, Hyōchū had an elder brother and sisters. For his parents to have Senseki meant to leave their children at the mortal world.
To get a position as an official is to leave from the mortal world. Even if petty officials like Hyōchū and Hōkō. Someday, his parents pass away, his siblings and his friends from his childhood get very old, and then to come back his hometown would give him pains than pleasures. No, Hyōchū had Hōkō. If he did not have Hōkō, he would have already stopped coming back his hometown.
On this understanding, he became an official. His family put him out despite they also knew it. Therefore, as much as possible, he wanted to be useful for the family―no, he had to be useful. At the moment, they had no ruler in their country.
The Ruler died the year Hyōchū was born. The Ruler was a cruelest one, but remote and backward mountainous villages like Hyōchū’s hometown did not get into even more trouble. However, the country is ravaged by dynastic collapse. The country is more devastated by interregnum. The country was ravaged, and the people suffered from poverty everywhere. Much more suffering for poor villages like Seiin. Cultivating poor lands brought a little harvest to them, so they obtained crops from mountains to fill in gaps. With that, they barely survived by this time. Hereafter, they survive or not depend on Hyōchū and Hōkō’s hands.
“…I heard,” Hōkō said in a low tone, “a rumor that they had a very serious matter in a capital.”
“So did I.” Hyōchū answered. Though Hyōchū was a national public official, he always stayed around provincial areas, so he had less of a sense of the capital. But he also heard the rumor that people of on clouds were thrown into confusion because of a serious incident.
“Where can we go?…we, our country.”
Hyōchū could not answer Hōkō. Seiin is a poor village, but it is surrounded by rich mountains. If Yōma did not appear, the people were able to survive. But the devastation of other places which do not have such rich mountains was unspeakable. Cultivated lands were desolate. People, who were not able to make a living any longer, crowded around cities and tried to get wages somehow. But the cities did not have enough jobs and foods for all the people gathered. Widespread plagues, hunger, and crimes continued there. Furthermore, some Yōma appeared and aimed at the people crowded.
People needed the government help at such times, however, officials who should help the people were busy to help themselves. It was no exception at the national government.
Hyōchū graduated the State College and aimed to be an official, and then he was employed as a national public official by unexpected good luck. Under normal circumstances, it must be a big success. But, actually, he slipped into a part of large vacancy which was made as the result of the former Ruler killing a lot of officials. As a matter of fact, the country never had such ability to employ new officials because it was in bad conditions. However, each government department gets budget allocation depending on the number of officials. So, all superiors who wanted to feather their nest rushed to fill vacant seats. It brought “unexpected good luck” to Hyōchū.
His position was Chikan Sekijin and he worked under Chikan Kajō. Kajō controls rare products coming from various regions. The duty of Sekijin is to gather wildlife and vegetation which Yaboku bear. Though local public officials did the actual work, Hyōchū had to visit regions frequently and understand the current situation in detail. ―No! Maybe, they must have taken him out of the capital on such a pretext.
Hyōchū was almost absent himself from the capital. He always went around provincial areas. He had his own domain because he was an official, but he had never visited the domain. He seldom returned to the capital, so he was not able to control his domain that existed in the Capital State. So, Kajō took Hyōchū’s duty. Kajō controlled his domain, converted tax revenue to money and gave him. ―in principle at least.
Actually, all petty officials knew the fact. Though their position was a national public official, in fact, they were hired in wages like an underling. All revenue from their domains was sucked into Kajō’s pocket. From the pocket Kajō paid the minimum wage to them. Or, all things that had entered Kajō’s pocket might have disappeared by sucked up from the top. That’s the fact, so, Hyōchū should not have stayed at the capital. He always went around local Chikan governments and made local officials feel awkward. The petty officials, who were blown away from the central and who had no place to go, filled each local government at each region.
It’s useless to blame this situation. In this age, he had a job, which was so lucky. Deciding to be an official, he had vaguely known about such circumstances. He became an official with knowledge of such circumstances. The reason, honestly, was for a living. Even if the minimum wage, which for an national public official is a goodly amount of money. So, he was able to support his parents and siblings in the hometown. Where he went around was only remote regions, so, new devastations were minimal and troubles with the central were also minimal. Therefore, his living was poor but free from care if he got used to it. Besides, he originally grew in a mountainous village, he did not have a lot of pains in living around remote regions. Besides, to live in remote regions was not painful for Hyōchū because he was originally raised in a mountainous poor village. No. If anything, he liked it.
However, he would not continue this forever if he want.
Hyōchū looked up at the beeches in the forests and looked back down. From the deep pool, where Hyōchū and Hōkō were, they saw a deep valley and the village poised on the valley floor in the distance.
He thought, ‘After this, no matter what happens,’
‘I want to protect the hometown at the very least. My hometown, and just good old people who live there.’