Hisho's Birds

Chapter 2

The estate where Renka found refuge was called “Kaien.” It turned out to be less a wooded garden than a working agricultural preserve. Gardens and outbuildings lined the banks of the broad lake. Barns dotted the surrounding fields. The farmers that cultivated the land and raised the livestock even had a small village to themselves.

p. 297

Renka heard that a district viceroy had originally built the villa. Today, though, any trace of those times was gone. The building all looked tired and more than a few were devoid of life.

Kaien was occupied by the Keeper of the Calendar, along with three of his assistants and their subordinates, plus an elderly manservant who watched over them. And Renka. Several men and women lived in the community on the opposite side of the lake. But they remained independent of the estate and did not serve at Kaien.

“What do they do?” Renka asked.

“They tend their fields,” the manservant explained. His name was Choukou. “They raise cattle and go about their lives. They’re residents of Setsuyou, living here instead of in the hamlets.”

At the request of the Ministry of Spring, they lived here in communities on the Kaien estate instead of the outlying hamlets. For whatever reason, they had to be there for the Keeper to do his job.

According to Choukou, as one of the officials in the Ministry of Spring serving under the minister responsible for public rituals and festivals, the Keeper’s job was creating calendars and almanacs.

Speaking of which, Renka’s family had obtained a calendar from the town council every year. That way, they could keep track of the dates and changes in the seasons.

“So the master makes them!”

p. 298

To be in the presence of a real person who made calendars and almanacs was to Renka a revelation. She could easily imagine such things being printed. But the creation of a calendar was well beyond her grasp. It had never occurred to her that somebody actually made them every year.

For now, Renka’s job involved helping Choukou prepare three meals a day, serving Kakei and the others, and bringing them tea. The rest of the time, she could do as she pleased. According to Choukou, Kakei had stated as much.

“He knows you were ordered to leave the kingdom, set out on a long journey, and suffered much along the way. He wants you to rest and recuperate. Kakei-sama is a kind and generous man.”

Renka appreciated his concern, though she didn’t see the need to go looking for workers to fill a job like hers. More likely he took her on because he felt sorry for her. One morning she said as much to Choukou.

“Well, well,” he responded. “If informed of her dire straits, he is the kind of man who would take a poor waif under his wing.”

“Becoming a district minister must be good for the pocketbook.” Good enough, Renka implied, to look to the welfare of an orphan girl.

Choukou laughed. “He’s certainly not poor. Kakei-sama has no great fondness for wealth and luxury. More than that, Kakei-sama and the men he associates with have no interest in indulging themselves when it comes to food or clothing.”

p. 299

This wasn’t only about charity, he added. “My joints have been acting up of late. Must be my age. So I’ve been asking around. I once had a couple of maidservants but they left because of that edict. The household didn’t fly apart without them, so I have to wonder how necessary they were in the first place. Still, I have been thinking of retiring and settling down in the rika.”

As long as she kept her priorities straight, he reminded Renka, she didn’t have to work any harder than was necessary. He handed her a breakfast hamper. Renka nodded and carried it to the “tall tower” perched on a small rise. The tower was taller than it was large, two floors of one room each, topped by a smaller third floor that functioned as an observation platform.

When she arrived, Renka entered without announcing her presence, as the old man had instructed. She crossed the deserted first floor and climbed the creaky stairs to the second. The second floor looked out in all directions. The only person in the room was Seihaku, one of Kakei’s assistants. He was a forecaster of qi.

“I brought breakfast,” Renka said.

“Hmm,” Seihaku answered, still gazing out the window. He was a short and stout young man. As a district civil servant, he would be a wizard, so appearances said nothing about his real age, though he looked around thirty or so.

He was holding a long, narrow pane of glass in one hand. He raised it before his eyes and then took it away. He repeated this motion several times. He seemed to be comparing the scene before him as seen through the glass and with the naked eye.

p. 300

Renka tilted her head to the side, wondering to herself what he was up to. She cleared a space on the desk and set down the breakfast hamper. The second floor was overflowing with variety of miscellanea. She could see no evidence of any effort to tidy up the place, or make space on the desks or shelves.

As a result, the meals she brought to Seihaku included no tableware. The food was prepared to be eaten with one hand.

“Um, is it okay to place the hamper here?” she asked.

Whether he heard the question or not, “Hmm,” was his only response, as he continued to peer through the glass and take it away.

After observing this for a while longer, Renka timidly asked, “Um, what are you doing?”

Seihaku diverted his attention from the glass and glanced back at her. As if finally taking note of her presence, he blinked.

“I apologize if I’m poking my nose in where it doesn’t belong.”

He blinked again, obviously searching his mind for some clue as to her identity. Renka had been bringing him his meals three times a day for three days already.

“Not at all. So I take it you are the new assistant?”

“No. A mere maidservant.”

“Ah.” Seihaku gestured to the view outside the windows. “I am ascertaining how clear the air is.”

That explanation left Renka none the wiser. Rather, she was startled to realize that the girl bringing him his meals had not made upon him the slightest impression.

p. 301

“You don’t say,” she replied.

Then again, the first time they were introduced, he’d answered while peering through a tube on his desk. She wondered at the time whether her face and name registered. Apparently not at all.

He’s an odd one, she muttered to herself and bowed.

Seihaku spent his days here, from dawn to midnight. Kakei and the others lived in the main wing of the manor house. Seihaku returned there only to sleep. Many nights he didn’t return at all. There wasn’t a bedroom in the “high tower.” The only furniture that passed for a bed was a crude collapsible cot made of bamboo. Renka found it hard to believe that a district official would ever sleep on such a thing but saw no other place to lie down.

A really odd one, Renka thought as she returned to the manor house. Walking along, she spotted a slender figure in the thickets off to the side of the garden path. Like Seihaku, Shikyou was one of Kakei’s assistants, a forecaster of the wind. Seihaku’s physical opposite, he was thin and tall. Though he appeared a man in his mid-forties, at times he came across as younger, and at other times, older.

Like Seihaku, Shikyou spent little time in the main wing of the manor house. He showed up for meals and to sleep at night. He spent of most of his time outside. Right now he was hunched over in the thicket, searching for something.

“Good morning!” Renka called out.

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Shikyou started like a spooked deer and spun around. “Ah, good morning.” He glanced back toward the tall tower. “Oh, yes. You’ve just been to see Seihaku.” He smiled. “Thank you for all your hard work.”

He emerged from the thicket carrying a handbasket. Supposing he’d been picking berries, Renka asked, “So what have you been doing?”

Shikyou grinned and held out the handbasket. Renka nonchalantly peeked inside and reflexively recoiled. The handbasket was filled with the cast-off husks of cicadas.

“Those are—”

“Great, aren’t they! It didn’t take me long at all to gather this many.”

Though a polite and cheerful man, Shikyou could be no less incomprehensible than Seihaku.

“Those are cicadas.”

“Cicada husks. What, you don’t care for them?”

“Well, um. No, not really.”

“I see.” He seemed disappointed that she did not.

“What are doing with them?”

p. 303

“I’m collecting them.”

Collecting them to do what? She looked back at him blankly.

“I’ve been collecting them for a while now. I arrange them on board.”

“You arrange them?”

“Yes. In orderly rows.”

“I see,” Renka said. She had no idea what arranging cicada husks on a board was supposed to accomplish.

“Um, speaking of which, earlier Seihaku was looking through this piece of glass. What’s that all about?”

She wasn’t especially curious about the answer. She just wanted to talk about anything than those gross cicada husks.

“That piece of glass,” Shikyou repeated, glancing up at the tall tower. Even from here, they could make out Seihaku looking out from the second floor. “Ah, he must be investigating the clarity of the air.”

“Right,” Renka muttered in turn. The same thing Seihaku said. And she still didn’t understand.

“That pane of glass consists of layers of clouded glass of different lengths layered on top of each other. Moving in from the left edge, the glass is two layers thick, then three, and so forth.”

p. 304

Makes sense, Renka thought. Indeed, that’s what she’d observed about how the pane of glass was made.

Shikyou pointed at the high tower. “He first looks through the glass at the target attached to the railing. And then without the glass at the target on the watchtower across the lake. And then compares the two. That way he can ascertain how many layers of glass match the clarity of the air.”

Nodding as he spoke, Renka glanced across the lake, where the watchtower stood next to the lake. A round board was attached to the center of the outside wall. She’d wondered what it was doing there. She never would have guessed.

“I see.” She acknowledged her understanding, but had a hard time pretending she cared. The explanation did not arouse much more curiosity in her. “Thank you very much,” she said with a nod of her head.

She didn’t get the impression that Shikyou knew what Seihaku was up to either. Having ascertained that much, she gracefully made her exit.

That evening, dinner was held in the “Flower Room,” a two-story building that faced the lake. The projecting balcony looked out over the water. With the shutters opened in all four directions, the building was a pleasant place to spend a summer evening.

She and Choukou lit the lamps and set the food on a big dining table. Strangely enough, this evening, Kakei showed up with all three of his assistants.

p. 305

Kakei arrive first, carrying a stack of books under his arm. Observing Renka busy at work, he said, “You seem to have recovered nicely.”

“Yes, I’m feeling quite well.” She appended a “Thank you” but she wasn’t sure how nicely she had recovered, and if she had, whether it was something to be thankful for. Only that she did not suffer physically and her job did not cause her any distress.

“I see,” Kakei said. He leaned forward and studied her face.

She had the feeling he could tell her answer wasn’t a lie but neither was it the truth. Renka self-consciously looked away.

“You must be feeling some distress. When you do, see that you talk to somebody about it.”

“Yes, sir,” Renka responded. She couldn’t tell whether he was referring to her work or to something else.

Trying to think of how to respond, she heard the patter of approaching footsteps. Suiga, the archivist, had arrived. Suiga was an old man with a striking mane of white hair. Despite his diminutive stature and fragile appearance, the man never slowed down. He was the third of Kakei’s assistants.

p. 305

Suiga was also rarely seen in the main wing. He mostly holed up in the library, surrounded by mountains of books and documents. Kakei did much the same, though while Kakei could settle down at his desk, Suiga was constantly on the move, never sitting down, flipping through papers over here and scribbling down notes over there.

He ate with a book in one hand. Whether sitting, standing, or talking, he was never getting it done fast enough.

“Renka, you’re in good spirits today.”

He said the same thing to her every day, whenever they met. And never stuck around long enough for her to reply. Today was no exception. Before Renka could open her mouth, he had deposited an armful of books and documents on the dinner table and extracted one volume from the pile. He hurried over the Kakei.

“Just as I thought. The record you were talking about is nowhere to be found.”

“That shouldn’t be.”

“I’m saying it is. You’re remembering it wrong. Add it up. Everything adds up.”

Continuing to castigate Kakei like a subordinate, Suiga thrust a book into his hands. Seihaku and Shikyou walked in, chatting about this and that. Seihaku as well had a bundle of documents under his arm. Shikyou, on the other hand, was carrying a slab of wood.

Shikyou placed the board on the dinning table. Renka leaned forward for a better look, gulped, and took a big step back.

The board was the size of two books placed side by side. He’d affixed the cicada husks to it, fastening them down with thread. They were indeed arranged in orderly rows.

“I can’t believe you’d bring that thing in here!” Suiga exclaimed. “The young lady is appalled.”

p. 307

“Really?” Shikyou blinked.

“Of course. Women have a natural loathing for bugs.”

“They’re not bugs. These are only the husks.”

“No difference. Same thing. Only an oaf would place that thing next to where food is being served. And only an oaf with rocks in his head would make a big production out of lining them up on a piece of wood and such.”

As he castigated Shikyou, Suiga strode forward, picked up the board, and set it on an empty chair. Then he hurried back next to Kakei and picked up his conversation from where he’d left off, hardly skipping a beat.

Renka sighed to herself. Suiga was no less a mystery than the rest of them.

“Do you really find them so distasteful?”

The dispirited expression with which Shikyou examined his board was such that Renka hastily shook her head. “No, not at all. But, um, what’s it for?”

“It’s to compare and contrast. This way, I can categorize them by type and kind, arrange them by size, and facilitate a visual comparison of the condition of the husks.”

“Ah.” Renka nodded. “So you compare and contrast them. And then?”

Shikyou looked at her blankly. “I compare and contrast them. That’s all.”

p. 308

For a moment, Renka gaped back at him, then took a breath and let it out. He really did have rocks in his head.

Suiga sat down and dug into the food for a few minutes, and then was back on his feet again, chatting with Kakei and Seihaku. Only while carrying on a conversation did Seihaku keep anyone’s company. When eating, he kept on writing. Kakei split his attention between Suiga and Shikyou, delving in the particulars of his cicada husks.

I’m surrounded by crazy people, Renka thought.

She felt a cold lump in the pit of her stomach. They really were a strange and other-worldly bunch. The world Renka came from was so cold and heartless. Her family murdered, Meishu drowned. And then the empress who promulgated such irrational rules and enforced them so cruelly received her just desserts and died, leaving the kingdom without a leader.

The decline and fall of the kingdom was well underway before Renka’s town got attacked. The adults in her life had long lamented that the good times were in the past. Now with the throne empty, things were going to get worse.

What did these men think of the world outside the agricultural preserve?

If they thought about it at all. She couldn’t recall hearing them talk about the outside world. Such subjects—the collapse of society beyond the preserve, the future of the kingdom itself—did not even amount to the value of a cicada’s husk.

p. 309

Feeling a bit steamed, Renka continued to wait upon them. They finished the meal, poured themselves glasses of wine and delve back into discussion while she cleared the table and observed them out of the corners of her eyes.

“My, my. Aren’t you one miffed little girl,” Choukou said. He was in the kitchen washing the dishes. “Don’t tell me you’ve got it in for Shikyou too.”

“No, no, no.” Renka forced a smile to her face. “I’m not upset about those husk things. I just don’t understand a single word any of them says. It gets exhausting.”

“Does it, now?”

“What do Kakei-sama and the rest of them actually do all day long?”

“Oh, they investigate all sorts of things.”

“Investigate?”

“Of course. Almanacs and calendars don’t write themselves. It’s a job, don’t you know.” Choukou washed the dishes with practiced hands and explained, “Every day, day after day, they observe the weather and the winds, examine the conditions of the animals and the plants, write down everything and compare it with their historical records.”

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“Doing all that is necessary for making an almanac?”

“Naturally.” Choukou smiled. “Ah, I take it your family was in business. You didn’t till the land.”

Renka nodded. Her parents leased out their house and allotment in the hamlet and ran a business in the city.

“The calendars are compiled by astronomical observers. The imperial astronomers specifically observe the sun and the moon and the stars and calculate the length of the years and months and days. The winter solstice and the summer solstice and the other divisions of the solar year are listed on the calendar, along with astrological notices about auspicious and inauspicious dates. All of these are determined by astronomers who observe the heavens and make calculations and predictions.”

“They determine the dates too?”

“Indeed they do. For example, astronomers determined that this year didn’t need an intercalary month. The calendar produced as a result is edited and amended in each district. A keeper of the calendar in each district makes additional annotations, which are further revised and distributed to each prefecture. That’s why calendars are usually published by the prefectures.”

Now that he mentioned it, Renka recalled that the calendars distributed by the town council were inscribed with a prefectural seal.

“Ah, there you are,” Choukou muttered, searching a shelf in a corner of the kitchen. “Renka, have you seen a standard almanac?”

Renka cocked her head to the side. “There’s more than one kind?”

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“A guy like me is content to get next year’s calendar at the end of this year and be done with it.”

“Same with our family.”

“Right? But this is a farmer’s almanac.”

Choukou dragged out a one-volume book. Renka blinked. The calendar her parents always got from the village council was printed on a single large sheet of paper. The older folk in the neighborhood often teamed up to get their hands on a pamphlet printed on onionskin paper. This was an “annotated” calendar, a substantial portion of which was devoted to astrology and divination.

But the almanac that Choukou produced was many times thicker. The title on the cover said Sen’in Almanac.

“This is Sen’in Prefecture?”

“That’s right. We’re well into August by now. Look here. The middle of the eighth month is known as the ripening period.”

Renka looked on the page where Choukou was pointing and nodded.

“In other words, this is the optimal time of year to expect the rice to become ready for harvest, which is about all a guy like me needs to know. But look at the fine print.”

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Renka leaned closer to get a better look. She read aloud the tiny characters at the tip of Choukou’s finger. “Drain the paddies. Sparrows rather than boars. Harvest at the first signs of rain.”

“That’s right. At this point, the paddies should have been drained. This year, sparrows are a greater threat to the grain than boars. And when the storm clouds threaten, a long rain is sure to follow, so if you have any doubts, it’s best to begin the harvest. Such advice is the result of the Keeper and his assistants doing all that research.”

Observing Renka’s surprised reaction, Choukou continued, “The kingdom is large, with its frigid provinces and its warm regions. That’s why there are keepers of the calendar in every district observing the way things actually are on the ground, and then forecasting what the climate will be like. Hence these annotations. The notes made by the district keepers are further amended in each province before being published. The farmers depend on them to do their job.”

Renka thumbed through the almanac Choukou had handed her. No end of fine details filled the almanac, little essays on the best way to sow seeds, to harvest a crop, on the maintenance of paddies and fields, what to watch out for in the care and keeping of domestic animals. Cautionary points about the consumption of edible fish, and when preparing for natural disasters, where the real dangers lay.

“The almanacs we’re accustomed to are excerpted from these volumes. Those are the condensed or abridged versions. Unlike the condensed manuscripts, the unabridged almanacs are revised over and over. With fresh revisions being introduced on practically a seasonal basis, that information must be ready for publication no less often. Especially after this, those revisions are going to increase. The almanacs will become all the more important, now that the throne is empty.”

p. 313.

Renka raised her eyes with a start. Choukou nodded gravely. “Even the existence or absence of an empress such as her matters. After this, the heavens will grow disturbed. Calamities will continue. When the farmers err, the people starve.”

Renka hugged the almanac to her chest.

“You see, the Keeper and his assistants truly have an important job to do.”

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.