Juuni Kokuki — 十二国記
(The Twelve Kingdoms)
Seijō no Ran — 青条の蘭
(The Blue Orchids)
Translated by o6asan
Hyōchū comes down a narrow stairs of the inn, and sees some candles which give out dim lights in a downstairs dining room. The dirt floor room has big tables but doesn’t have any guests. The wooden door facing the street already opens but no guests have a breakfast probably because anybody does not depart so early. Only the cold air fills the dark space.
“Good morning.” a boy who works for the inn greets him. Maybe about 10 years old, he is an innocent child.
“Mister, you are so early.”
Hyōchū gives a nod and sits at the table the boy wipes, and orders tea and breakfast.
“The old man said ‘We are in for nasty weather.'”
The boy serves him a cup of hot tea and says so. Hyōchū gazes out the door and can see falling snowflakes. He also can see the thick and low hanging clouds in the early dawning sky beyond the roof of the opposite side distorted building. It might bring in nasty weather, indeed.
“Do you head south?”
The boy asks and Hyōchū nods.
“If you head south along the road, we think you cannot walk today.”
Hyōchū says so and gives a stone to the boy. They burn stones in ovens. In the cold season, only the stone in a inside pocket keeps them warm.
“I have to go. I need my breakfast than that.”
Even while warming his fingers across the teacup, the snow is harder and harder. The snow falls on the streets and goes into ruts or depressions of various places because slight winds sweep it.
It is a lord of the inn, who brings a bowl of rice porridge to him and is the old man in the boy-speak. The lord, about fifty years of age, puts the bowl down on the table,
“He told me you would have to depart, right?”
The lord asks so.
Hyōchū nods and answers, “I want to depart, as soon as the gate opens.”
“I got it. But you’d better not depart today. ―Do you go to San’yō?”
San’yō is a big town located south of the road.
“As far as possible.”
Heading south, and reaching town and town as far as possible.
The lord looks like shocked.
“Oh my! ―Does someone chase you, by any chance?”
Hyōchū shakes his head with a bitter smile.
“I just want going as far as possible.”
The porridge the lord brought is very hot as if Hyōchū burning his tongue. It is almost millet but a very little rice. To grow rice requires more work. Enough human resources to grow sufficient rice for common people was no longer in this country. The porridge just with chopped greens and dried mushrooms. But, Hyōchū thanks it because he froze to his bones while getting ready. From the long journey, he is in fatigue and feels his body to be heavy, but the porridge makes his body warm, which lets him be eased slightly.
“Why not use a wagon, if you rush so much? I do not recommend you walk. If with blizzards, the wasteland that lies ahead is very dangerous.”
“Do you have a wagon?”
Hyōchū returns the lord’s stare with expectation, the lord opens his mouth as a start and has thought for a while.
“Well…no. I think there is no horse. Few horses in the town. One of my acquaintances had a wagon for hire, but he said he gave up his horse the other day.”
‘I see.’ Hyōchū blows out a breath. ―It happens often. Horses carry loads and help farm work. They are valuable assets. But this assets requires to be fed. People cannot keep horses without feed. A lot of people would give up horses because they have no spare ability feeding the assets.
Hyōchū looks up the sky above the street.
“It looks like no blizzards. Well, I think it will snow hard.”
“Even if only snowing, dangerous. The way that snow covers is not visible.”
The lord says that the wide plains lie ahead. The plains was used as wide farmlands, but these days they are mere fields after long neglected. A flat way runs through flat fields. When the climate is more mild, the way runs through the fields has no problem. But if snow covers it, the way would become invisible. If with blizzards, travelers would lose their bearings. If they lose sight of the way, it is possible that they stray into swamps along the river.
“Previously, the river overflowed and the dam broke. We have not repaired it because there is no manpower.”
“I think it is O.K. that I won’t come close to the river.”
‘Ha’, the lord laughs.
“In this season, the river is frozen. If snow covers it, you cannot tell the river from the fields. The swamps were appeared and then neglected, so, even the people who are familiar with the area cannot tell the range of the swamps at all. Even the local people avoid using the way when they have snow. Still more do travelers.”
“I’ll watch my step very carefully.”
Hyōchū answers and the lord shakes his head in disagreement.
“You’d better not go. Why not look and wait the weather gets better? Even if you have to rush very much, it would make sense to freeze to death? And my conscience will bother me.”
Hyōchū does not answer him. To look or wait the weather gets better makes nothing different. Even if with blizzards, Hyōchū does depart.
“Why are you so rush?”
Hyōchū does not answer again.
The boy brings the stone burned in a wooden brazier at that instant. The boy has put the stone in a thick cloth bag, and Hyōchū takes and puts it in his inside pocket.
“Thanks. ―Are you his son?”
Hyōchū asks so and the boy nods no. The lord places his palm on the boy’s shoulder.
“I saved him from falling down on the street. He seems to have lived in the next village. All of the village people died except him.”
“So, do you live in a village home of this town now?”
The boy nods no again.
“We have no village home here.” The lord answers instead again. “The building was destroyed by Yōma. We have neither Ryosho who lives there nor money to hold it.”
“You should have the budget of the village home from Rifu.”
‘Never’, the lord laughs and says in disgust.
“Rifu virtually doesn’t exist. Officials show up only when they collect tax, but they never attend there usually.”
‘I see…’, Hyōchū holds his tongue. It’s a familiar story. There is no tax revenue to maintain Rifu. The village officials gather tax, but the tax does not remain for them because the upper level sucks the revenue up. The village officials are unable to make a living there and break up, finally the office stops working. Nonetheless, someone who is probably the upper level always sends petty officials to the village at the time for the payment of a tax. Such a village really should have a subsidy, but the subsidy disappears somewhere and never reach to the village.
“They are very quick in movement. When they found money, they immediately show up and pick it up, and they disappear as soon as possible.”
Hyōchū nods yes in silence. This is the evaluation of officials by the people. Therefore, Hyōchū hides his official ribbon which shows his identity into the baggage.
“You are not going to be like them, son.” The lord says and is patting on the boy’s shoulder.
“Are you taking care of him now?”
If so, he is an applaudable man with the times.
“I lost all of my family, too. Both of us have no relatives. ―He works very well and he is very helpful.”
The lord says so, and the boy laughs happily to hear that. While his heart being torn apart to see the two, Hyōchū has a cloth around his neck and pulls it up to cover his nose. He wears the boxy knapsack and then fastens other belongings to his belly.
“Hey, are you serious?”
In the hands of the lord who tries to stop him, Hyōchū puts the meal charges.
“Don’t go, mister.”
The boy grabs his hand to stop him. Hyōchū is very painful as he looks down the boy whose face is filled with a big anxiety for him. If his nephew is not dead, the nephew would be the same age as the boy.
“I’m alright. Thanks a lot.”
He smiles and slides some change into the boy’s small chapped hand. The boy shows a wistful look on his face, but Hyōchū cuts it off by turning his back. He goes out on the empty street.
―On the New Year’s holidays which was two years later since Hyōchū saw the discoloration of a beech, he first met Hōkō at their hometown again in two years.
On the holidays Hyōchū came back home earlier than Hōkō. Hyōchū couldn’t come back home on the holidays of the previous year because he had to go the opposite side of the country. This year he caught up with family and friends who didn’t see him for a long time and Hōkō came back on the next day. Hōkō had scarcely met him when Hōkō told him to go to the mountain. Hōkō with a grim look on his face took Hyōchū at a quick pace to the deep pool in the beech forest.
When they arrived at the deep pool, Hōkō looked up at the beech. There was the beech whose branch had had a discoloration. When Hyōchū saw it, he finally remembered it was the beech which he had seen two years earlier. He had forgotten all about the beech.
“It is that beech. ―It has not changed.”
“No. The phenomenon is spreading.”
As soon as Hōkō said so, he climbed the tree. To find the tree had more discolorations didn’t occur to Hyōchū until Hōkō mentioned it. Half branches of the tree had discolorations. They were shiny like stones and glistened as if they were frosted. Hōkō overlooked the branches from a height and came down soon.
“Did you find out what this is?”
Hyōchū asked and Hōkō looked serious.
“I could not. Last year I came here again because of big worry and found it was spreading. Now, more spreading. I heard it was not just here.”
“In other places, too?”
According to Hōkō’s story, there were some beeches with discolorations among the forests here and there in the northern territory of the state Kei(継). After discoloration they changed into stone and died, and the symptoms were spreading if people left the branches died out there. He said only the way to stop it was to cut the dead branch which includes the healthy part.
“I believe so. But, I’ve not found out anybody who knows about this disease.”
‘I see.’ answered Hyōchū, but he played down the problem at the time. He thought diseases could attack trees. He also thought Hōkō knew about the diseases of trees very much but a disease that Hōkō had never seen might exist. Lives are like that. On the same holidays, Hyōchū’s father got sickened. Two years earlier his father cheerfully welcomed Hyōchū home, but the year, he had weak leg and was not mobile.
The next New Year’s holidays, Hyōchū found his father weakened more and more. It was the autumn of the year when he got news of his father’s death. As Hyōchū had wandered all over the country for duty, in the October he heard that his father had died in the summer.
Seiin was really a poor village, but it had the gift of mountains and the minimal devastation. ―Hyōchū had thought so but the situation was bad more than his recognition. Food shortage were chronic and serious, and everybody in his hometown had bad nutritional status. Hence, the elder people and children easily fell into a serious situation by petty illness. After receiving the news, gathering food as much as possible and dragging it behind a horse, Hyōchū came back home with only the barest necessities.
People in the hometown were delighted, but Hyōchū found several familiar faces missing among them. Hōkō also returned home at the same night when Hyōchū came back. He first thought Hōkō came back to help him because he had told Hōkō about the circumstances and returning home. However, the reason Hōkō came back home was not only for it. Hōkō asked Hyōchū to go to the mountain and Hyōchū found the beech fell down near the deep pool. On New Year’s holidays of the year, the most branches of the tree had discolorations. So, Hyōchū had thought the tree would die in the near future like as his father who was very weakened.
However, the abnormal changes did not happen on the tree only. Beeches surrounding the tree fallen also had discolorations. Though it was too early for leaves to fall, the branches that were discoloring had no leaves.
“It is spilling over.”
Hōkō said very seriously. ―It was clear that this was an epidemic disease.
The tree fell from the base and died, which lost its colours and became hard like a stone. As it still had the texture of bark, it looked very strange. The cross-section of the base looked like crushed stone as the branch that he saw before. Hōkō digged the roots. Hyōchū saw the roots did not remain in the ground. Just sand and gravel were digged out. No, that was the ruin of the roots. The roots became stones in the ground, and were broken to pieces.
Hyōchū’s thought at the time was that’s dangerous. If there was anyone nearby when a tree would fall down. He did not think about it more than that. His mind was filled with his father’s death and the people that did not look well. He saw the fallen tree and wished it had at least given them a good harvest at times like this. A lot of beeches here. If the beeches had a good hervest the year, the people could have nutritious foods.
A thought flashed into his imagination at the same time, which was that they would not be able to expect a good harvest if most of all beeches had this epidemic disease and then fell down one after another.
On the next New Year’s holidays, he came back home with foods again. The people in the hometown had shining faces than before in spite that the abnormal changes of beeches were spreading out and they knew about it. He heard they were able to sell the fallen beeches at an unexpected high price.
Originally, beeches are not suitable for timber. Beeches grow up in large trees, however, not only its growth is very slow but also the height is the same as a child even if after five years from seeds. It takes more than a hundred years until a beech has armful trunk. Beeches are hard, heavy and homogeneous. But they don’t have the good grain and they are easily distorting and perishable. Because of this, they have almost no value as timber for buildings. They are just used to make general merchandise, but even in the case their handling and drying should be careful. So they, handy-sized blocks of them, are usually used for making charcoals. On the other hand, the beech which had the disease was very strong, non-distorted and non-perishable. Its drawback was the hardness and the poor flexibility. But, it became excellent timber by using good tools and works. Moreover, it had beautiful bark which was shiny like a stone. So it was sold at a good price.
The people that lived in Seiin were pleased. There were a lot of beeches in fields and mountains which surrounded the village. Hyōchū thought this was a kind of gift. Usually, he thought the divine gave only disasters to them at this Rulerless times.
But, only Hōkō had a grim face.
Looking back now, Hōkō had already foreseen the following disasters at that time. If so, Hōkō could not have talked about it to the people and Hyōchū who were delighted the epidemic disease innocently because he had no confirmation at that time―while feeling a sharp breeze Hyōchū recalls the days.
However, it would not have changed the result whatever he was told at that point. He rushes through the street while he thinks so. Just before the gate opens, normally travelers should have headed for there. But the street is empty. They might avoid travels because of worrying about the weather, but there is more. Streets are deadly calm, and the smoke of cooking is not visible to the chimney of houses.
The post town named Yosen Hyōchū arrived at late last night is mid-sized. The town faces the major road runs through the states Kei and Ji from north to south, so natualy it should have more bustles. But there are only two hotels which open in the town, one is a high-end hotel with stables and another is a cheap inn without decent beds where Hyōchū stayed last night. And even the inn seems to have very few guests other than him. Some buildings facing the road still put up the accommodations sign but they don’t have residents as well as guests. Though both sides of the road are lined with the buildings that would have been stores, most of them are closed now. Their roofs have declined and their windows have become mere broken holes. There is no building collapsed, but the devastation of the town is clear. The town is filled with invisible bad condition and bleak fatigue.
No matter what Hōkō foresaw and he said it or not, this devastation already existed at the time. It started in the era of late Ruler, and has progressed during interregnum. Hyōchū goes through the silent streets as if they’re frozen and he reaches the gate. But he cannot see other travelers even there. An old man with a tired look on his face finds Hyōchū and opens the gate in a hurry.
On the other side of the gate, Hyōchū catches a stronger wind probably because there are neither the buildings nor the town walls that have blocked the wind. There are a lot of bumps and quagmires on the road, also ice and frost needles here and there. He looks up to the sky. It has finally given first light, but, it is covered with heavy clouds as far as he can see. A blizzards really might hit him.
Even if it hits him, he has to go.
He checks the direction of the wind and begins to walk with long steps. He made two thirds of his journey. The rest is one third―it is all about luck to be in time or not.