Hisho's Birds

Chapter 6

A short time later, Renka was lending Seihaku a hand on the third floor of the tall tower. The top of the tower was a cramped space the size of a small room. The walls consisted of little more than framing posts and windows. It really was only useful as an observation platform.

Seihaku had constructed a platform outside the windows. On the platform he mounted equipment to measure the direction and strength of the wind, the accumulation of rain and snow, and to collect pollen and dust particles. He periodically came up here to maintain and repair the devices. That’s what Renka was helping him with.

The floor was crowded with more apparatuses and shelves. Add Seihaku and Renka to the mix and there was barely any room left to move around. Renka cleared a place and sat down to clean some of the instruments when Seihaku raised his voice.

“What’s that?”

Renka turned in the direction of his voice. Seihaku leaned out the window, looking east toward Setsuyou. Curious, Renka jumped to her feet and followed his gaze.

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A mass of black dots, like that swarm of bumblebees, hovered over the city.

A frightening memory sprang to life in her mind. These were the farthest thing from peaceful, hardworking individuals like the bumblebees.

“The air cavalry,” she gasped, and seized Seihaku by the arm. “Forget all this! We’ve got to hide!”

“Why? What’s going on?”

It’s the provincial guard, she meant to say but the words froze in her throat. That old rekindled terror made her teeth chatter in fear.

Hide. In a place where they will never find us.

The black dots dove down out of the sky, rose up again, repeating the same actions over and over. Renka knew those movements well, having seen them in person once before.

“We’ve got to leave! We can’t stay here!”

Seihaku stood there dumbstruck. She grabbed hold of his hand. Scrambling down to the second floor, she paused to wonder where Shikyou was. As always, he must be meandering about the grounds of the agricultural preserve.

They descended to the first floor. Renka nervously opened the door and peeked outside. She spied Shikyou’s thin frame not far off. He was standing on one of the garden paths next to the lake.

“Shikyou-sama!” she called out, uncertain whether her voice would reach him. “Hide!”

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Shikyou turned around. Renka frantically waved at him. Hurry! Please hurry.

He tilted his head to the side in confusion, then trotted over. Unable to wait any longer, Renka ran outside. “Hurry up!”

She reached out her hand as a shadow silently fell over them. A ferocious creature resembling a horse sailed right past her.

“Shikyou-sama! Duck!”

Shikyou ran toward them as Renka launched herself at him, yanking at his arms. The shadow whooshed over their heads, across the lake, and banked into a steep turn.

Crouching down, Shikyou craned his eyes skyward. Silhouetted against the sky, the flying figures pivoted at the far shore and almost seemed to line up in succession before raining fire arrows down on the hamlet. They again swooped across the lake like a sudden squall, shot a volley of fire arrows into the manor house, and flew back to the city.

Shikyou and Renka shouted a chorus of dismay as they scrambled to their feet and set off running, except in opposite directions.

“Shikyou-sama, where are you going?”

“We have to put out the fire in the library!”

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“But there are fires to fight there too.” Renka pointed across the lake, where smoke curled up from the houses in the hamlet.”

With a start, Shikyou looked at the hamlet, then said, “You head there. And watch your step! I’ll go to the manor house. Our records are in the library. If nothing else, those must be preserved.”

What is more important? Renka wanted to shout at him. Just then, Seihaku came stumbling out of the high tower and sprinted toward the manor house. “Hurry!” he called out. Jolted into action, Shikyou chased after him. Renka glanced back at them and ran toward the far shore of the lake.

Renka arrived at the hamlet out of breath. One block of the village was already ablaze. People hurried back and forth to the lake. Several residents lay still on the ground.

“Uncle!” Renka called out to a familiar old man. He trotted along, a pail in one hand. He raised his free hand. “Are you okay? We’ve got some injured people over there. Look after them, will you?”

“The fire?”

“A barn caught fire. Nothing for you to worry about.”

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Renka nodded and raced off in the direction indicated. She spotted people gathered in front a hamlet house. Running up to them, she called out, “Are you all right?

One of the old women who’d just returned to the hamlet raised her tear-streaked face. She indicated a small body on the ground a short ways off. The child’s mother clung to the body, her frame wracked with sobs.

“All of a sudden, the fire arrows rained down.” The old woman seized hold of Renka’s arm. “Why? It was out of the blue. We hadn’t an inkling before the arrows started flying. And that child—”

She again collapsed in tears. Renka turned her attention to the child’s mother. As she wept, she continued to cover the tiny body with her own, as if to protect it from further danger. All around them wafted a smell like burnt hair.

The tempests are raging all around us.

Renka bit her lip. She recalled another time when this same realization struck her. Here, within the calm within the agricultural preserve, they let down their guard and forgot about the gathering storm. But look how simply the world could betray their expectations.

She buried her face in her hands. I was wrong. I misunderstood. I’m sorry. Next time I won’t forget. I won’t forget the wolf at the door, the disasters waiting around the corner. Please give that time back to me.

Just as she knew this wish would never be granted.

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“Anybody else hurt?” Renka swallowed the heartbreak and bitterness and went around to rest of the women assembled there, checking to see if they’d been injured. She was tending to a boy who’d gotten burned putting out the fires when someone shouted, “Look!”

Glancing in the direction of the voice, she saw columns of black smoke rising from Setsuyou. The city was on fire.

“Word is the province lord of Ken Province sided with the empress,” said the old man standing next to her. “But the mayor of Setsuyou said the empress was a pretender. That’s why.”

So bow down to the new empress or else. Renka winced to herself. She looked up to see Kakei and the others running over. One of the assistants approached them and asked how they were doing.

“We’re okay. The fires reached the manor house. We put them out before it caused any serious damage. How about here?”

The assistant shook his head. He nodded at Renka and the villagers, the bodies of the child and a young man covered with sheets. The child was struck by a fire arrow. The burning barn collapsed and crushed the young man.

“Renka-san, are you okay?”

Following soon after Kakei, Shikyou ran up. He reached out to her but she shrugged off the comforting hand. “It’s completely different for you!”

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Shikyou stopped in his tracks. Kakei and his companions turned around.

“We can’t so blithely put the real world out of our minds!” she cried out. “This is the real world!” She pointed at the two bodies on the ground. She pointed at the smoke rising above the city. “We shut ourselves away in this preserve and doing whatever suits our fancies. Except there’s a big, bad world out there and it’s not going to stop running rampant on our account. We’re in the midst of the maelstrom. When the dogs of war bare their fangs, all we do is run for cover. This is what happens when we look the other way!”

Shikyou and the rest of them scratched at their temples and avoided meeting her gaze.

“Don’t pretend I’m not standing here! Look at me! This is how your entire family gets killed and you lose everything! This is reality!”

More smoke rose from the city. Beneath the black and billowing clouds lay many casualties. The air cavalry had left, but the voices of distress echoed in the distance. Perhaps the battle was still underway. They saw no signs of an impending attack on them, perhaps only because they were located a considerable distance from the city and the district citadel.

“Except there isn’t anything more we can do,” Shikyou blurted out. “We can’t bring back your family. Neither can we stop wars or protect the world from the destruction wrought by such conflicts and calamities.”

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Even if they charged off to the city right then, he pointed out, they had not a single arrow to shoot against the soldiers.

“We are powerless here. These are our jobs and so we do them. This all we could do in any case. However—” Shikyou raised his head and looked right at Renka. “However, the almanacs are necessary, all the more necessary in this era. I have no doubts about that. Somebody has to make them. And so that is the job we will do.”

Many houses burned down that day. Many people died. Yet the damage could have been much worse. The mayor abruptly declared his intention to surrender to the new regime. Nobody actually agreed to anything, except that Setsuyou fell into the camp of the woman who claimed to be the empress.

Accompanied by Kakei’s assistants, Renka and the villagers traveled to the city and helped out the best they could. They transported the injured to safety, nursed them back to heath, rebuilt the wrecked houses and buried the dead.

During this time, as they had before, Kakei and his team confined themselves to the agricultural preserve, investigated the weather, and made their records.

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Little by little, life in the city settled down. Renka and her colleagues returned to their normal lives. Now rumors circulated that the whole business about the empress being a pretender must have been wrong. Not a pretender but the real thing, and the imperial ministers were standing in her way.

If true, why such useless damage? If they’d simply accepted the empress from the start, no one would have died.

Renka turned these thoughts over in her mind as she prepared the midday meal in the Flower Room. Kakei arrived and greeted her with a small nod. He didn’t have much more to say after that. Suiga arrived not much later. His typically restless and excitable demeanor cooled as soon as he saw Renka. He mumbled a few hellos.

Renka bowed in return. However she might not agree with the way they conducted their lives, she had nowhere else to go. She’d have a hard time living any kind of a life if she couldn’t work here.

She finished setting the table and was about to withdraw when Shikyou came galloping in from the far doorway. He ran straight up to Kakei.

“The swallows have returned!” he practically shouted, as if this were the most exciting news in the whole wide world. He didn’t even notice Renka standing there.

“They’re coming back to their nests in the eaves of homes in the hamlet. Even in the city, they’re building nests in the eaves of wrecked and abandoned houses.”

“They have? So they’ve returned?”

This information clearly delighted both Kakei and Suiga.

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“This is good,” said Suiga. “Very good. The city got attacked just after the eggs hatched, you see. Going forward, the hatchlings should leave the nest with time to spare.”

“Definitely.” Shikyou grinned. He noticed Renka standing there, quickly wiped the smile from his face and hung his head. Renka said nothing and left the Flower Room.

Those men are never going to change. Isolated from the “real world,” they never had to grow up. Perhaps grasping something of her thoughts, everybody walked on eggshells around her.

Renka bit her tongue and did her job. Observing her attitude, Choukou sighed every time they crossed paths, though he didn’t say anything in particular to her. Now and then it seemed he had a few choice words he wished to share with her, but always thought better of it. Perhaps Kakei told him to leave well enough alone.

If they didn’t think they were in the wrong, she’d wished they’d simply carry on as usual. It really was like being around a bunch of boys who never grew up.

I don’t want to grow up to become a grown-up like that, Renka told herself, and did her best to behave as if nothing were amiss. Then one day, in the course of their everyday activities, Seihaku hesitantly asked her to assist him as she had before.

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Kakei and Suiga soon followed suit, hesitantly making similar entreaties. She didn’t often cross paths with Shikyou of late, probably because he was doing research outside the preserve. And when they did meet, he always averted his gaze in an apologetic manner.

Except for one day when he seemed to rethink things, raised his head, and walked up to her. “Renka-san—” he started to say, and then backpedaled as he was wont to do. “No, that’s okay.”

Renka sighed to herself. “What? Look, it’s fine with me if you just talk to me the way you did before. Come right out and say what you have to say. It’s my job, after all.”

Shikyou answered in his typically rueful manner, “Well, then. If you wouldn’t mind.”

Shikyou had Renka accompany him outside the preserve to observe the swallows and confirm the number of hatchlings.

“I’ll make a count on this side of the road. You take the other.”

Every day that week, small stepladders under their arms, they strolled back and forth on the main street outside the main gate of the preserve, counting the nests in the eaves of the eaves of the houses. If the parents were attending the nests, they waited until they had flown off before peeking into the nests. Renka added up the eggs and chicks and recorded the numbers in her notebook.

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As usual, dealing with the diffident Shikyou could get dreary after a while. But she enjoyed spying on the swallows. Sometimes when she climbed the ladder and sneaked a peak into a nest, she encountered a swallow sitting there and staring right back at her with its big black eyes. Other times, hatchlings mistook her for their parents and lined up, their mouths agape, squawking at her to hurry up and feed them. That always made Renka smile.

“Miss, what are you doing up there?”

She’d set her ladder in front of a second-hand clothing shop when a child called out. A boy stood at the foot of the ladder, gaping at her.

That is a very good question, she thought to herself. She answered aloud, “I’m counting the swallow hatchlings.”

Next to him, the boy’s mother looked quite worn out. “Ah,” she said, looking at the nests. She held a bundle of old clothes in her arms. She must have come to the shop to buy the boy some clothes. “Now that you mention it, one day out of the blue it seems that all the swallows returned.”

“That’s right.” Renka nodded.

For several minutes, the tired-looking mother absentmindedly gazed at the eaves. Renka paid them no mind and climbed the ladder. Beneath the sagging eaves was a new nest. Peeking inside, as per usual, the hatchlings took her for their parents and raised a clamor. She made her count, descended the ladder, and recorded the numbers in her notebook.

When she closed the notebook and turned around, the mother was still standing there looking up at the nest. Her eyes brimmed with tears.

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“Um, is something wrong?”

“What?” she answered in a small voice. Then touched her cheeks and, finally noticing, daubing the tears away. “Good heavens, what’s gotten into me?” She wiped her face with her hands.

“Mommy, what’s going on?”

The boy looked up at her, concern in his eyes. “Oh, nothing.” She patted his head. “Certainly nothing worth crying about. But the way they open their mouths so wide and chirp away is so unbearably cute.”

“Painfully so?”

“Not at all. I was only thinking how nice it is to have these chicks here.” The mother addressed her son and then wiped her face again and looked at Renka. A joyful smile rose to her tired face. “Even in times like these, here they are, making nests and raising the little ones.”

The mother laughed. Renka thought back to spring. Not the spring a year ago when she lost everything. More recently, when she’d seen the bumblebees hard at work. Now the tears welled up in her eyes too, and likely for the same reasons as this mother.

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“You’re right about that.”

“All the better if they can raise them in peace,” the mother mused. “I wonder if they’ll all leave the nest in good form.” She returned her attention to the nest.

That was when Shikyou made his entrance. “How’s it going? Have you finished?”

“Yes.” Renka nodded.

Shikyou gave the three of them a curious look. He asked, nodding at Renka, “Did she do something?”

“Not at all,” the mother said with a wave of her hand. “How should I put this? For some reason, observing the swallows brings a lump to my throat. Wars are being waged and houses destroyed and yet they build their nests. It is such a noble and heroic effort.”

She spoke with heartfelt emotions and again patted her son’s head.

“They must have built their nests before all that fighting broke out. I’ve seen nests around our place. Some of those houses burned down, along with the hatchlings—” She stopped and composed herself. “Being born in a such a time, it breaks your heart. But they came back and started over from scratch. This time, they’ll build their nests and raise their young in safety.”

“Yes, they will,” Shikyou agreed.

The boy tugged on Shikyou’s hand and pointed at the eaves. “There are a bunch of chicks in there.”

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“Sure are.” Shikyou grinned.

“Are they going to get wrecked by another big fight?”

“Nope.” Shikyou grabbed him around the waist and hoisted him up so he could see inside the next. “How many chicks you see in there?”

“One—two—um—um—five and six.”

Renka nodded. She’d counted six hatchlings in this nest.

“Filled to the brim.” Shikyou put down the child. “There’s a nest on the other side of the road with eight. Many more than last year.”

“A lot more?”

“Sure are.” Shikyou turned to the mother and declared, “This kingdom has a new sovereign.”

“Eh?” Renka and the mother chorused together.

Shikyou explained, “I don’t know if the empress some call the pretender is the real thing or not. But without a doubt, somewhere in this world, our new leader has arrived. That is why nature has begun to return to normal. That is why the sparrows are having bigger broods.”

Renka clutched her notebook. “Really, Shikyou-sama?”

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“Really,” he stated emphatically. “There are so many more sparrows than even an average year.”

“You don’t say,” said the mother, clasping her son to her side. She looked up at Shikyou. “The sparrows are multiplying. That means these hard times will soon come to an end.”

Shikyou smiled. “We should follow the example of the sparrows and raise our spirits.”

“Yes, indeed.” The mother smiled broadly, her glistening cheeks rosy.

Shikyou bowed politely and watched as she and her child disappeared down the bustling street. Then he picked up his stepladder and set off himself.

“Shikyou-sama—” Renka ran after him, not entirely sure of what she wanted to say.

Shikyou slackened his pace until she came alongside him. “When a sparrow’s nest is destroyed while raising its young, they hatch a second brood of eggs, though the hatchlings are inevitably smaller. However, this time, they are larger, and in greater number than the typical year. Because the yaboku has produced that much richer a crop of soran.”

The yaboku—”

The heavens are at peace, so go ahead and raise your young. That’s what the sparrows teach us. They are proclaiming it to the world.

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A black bird grazed the top of Shikyou’s head. He glanced back over his shoulder as a pair of forked tails disappeared beneath the eaves of a half fallen-down house.

“Just be patient a little while longer.”

Renka nodded. For some reason, tears spotted the cover of the notebook clasped to her chest.

“You too, Renka-san. You’ve been through hard times. But better days are right around the corner.”

“Yes,” she said.

Shikyou pulled her into his arms and stroked her head, the way the mother had with her child.

If only it were so.

It probably would be so. After all, Shikyou was a forecaster of the wind. Anticipating the coming year and making the most accurate almanacs possible was his job.

On that early summer day, Renka thought back about her parents and sister, now long dead and buried. For the first time, she truly wept for them and not for herself.

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.