Hyouchuu made his way toward the point of light. Within a windbreak of evergreens, he found an old man tending a fire. The bonfire burned in a clearing terraced into the rising slope at the base of the mountain.
He’d somehow made it across the plains and had arrived at the foot of the mountain he’d observed before the blizzard began in earnest.
The old man queried in a startled voice, “You just come through those wastelands?”
Hyouchuu nodded as he staggered up to the fire and sat down. The rising shoulder of the road was planed off like a levee. Along the top ran the row of low evergreens that formed a windbreak. Within the windbreak was a circle of blackened stones where the bonfire burned.
Two small huts sat at the back of the clearing. One must have a stove of sorts, for smoke curled from the chimney. A tea house for travelers perhaps. If so, this fire wouldn’t come free either. There was always a “firewood fee.”
“Spotting your fire saved me,” Hyouchuu said, holding out a handful of change.
The old man waved it off. “No, that’s okay. On a day like this, it’s on the house.”
No charge when a man’s life is on the line, he explained. The fire was his prairie lighthouse, where he could share the warmth and a hot cup of tea. And, depending on the circumstances, lend him use of a cot. One of the huts was little more than a cramped lean-to with a bare earth floor and covered with a tent. But at least he wouldn’t freeze to death in there.
“I’ll take money from the kind of person who drops by and wants to be waited on hand and foot. Anyways, warm yourself up. Why don’t you hand me your stones?”
Hyouchuu extracted the stones from his pockets and gratefully handed them over. The old man placed them in the fire. At the same time, an old woman approached carrying a bamboo cup filled with hot tea.
She said in a surprised voice, “So you came from Yosen, not San’you? Good job crossing all that wild prairie.”
Having quickly accustomed himself to their company, Hyouchuu cradled the warm bamboo cup in his hands and explained himself. His job often had him traveling across country. In the midst of bad weather, when the road ahead all but disappeared, he’d gotten used to relying on his compass and taking into account the direction of the wind. A good thing too, on this journey.
Hyouchuu asked, “How’s the road from here to San’you?”
A worried expression came to the old woman’s face. “Better going than what you went through getting here. But still hard going this time of year. The road’s lined with beech trees. Nothing to block the wind, you see.”
Those words sent a shiver down Hyouchuu’s back. “Beech trees—”
“The old man and me’s been planting trees for a windbreak around our hut, but this here’s as far as we got.”
“Have you seen any beech trees changing color of late?”
“Ah. That I definitely have,” the old woman answered.
The old man said, “They turn kind of white like the color’s gone. Makes me wonder if they’re dying off.”
“They haven’t yet?”
“Haven’t seen any that have so far. I’ve heard of beech trees falling over up north. They say the ones that do fetch a nice price.” The old man grinned. “Wouldn’t mind if a couple bit the dust right here.”
With a sign and a patient smile, the old woman shook her head at such foolish hopes. “A birch tree falls over and those government types descend in droves, that’s what I hear. All looking to sell it for themselves. Go sticking your nose in and it’ll just get bitten off.”
The old man grimaced. “The only time they get a thing done with a lick of speed. The mountain road ahead washed away in a bunch of places. Not so dangerous if you’re on foot, but impassable for a horse or cart. We keep asking them to fix it and they keep pretending we don’t exist.”
The old woman sighed again. “And if you keep pestering ’em, they’re gonna notice this little business we got running here.”
The couple came from a village out on the prairie. When the levees failed and the river overflowed its banks, their house and farmland washed away. All the scraping and scrimping in the world wasn’t going to save what they used to have. The town council and rike had long ceased to function. When the levees broke, the villagers scattered to the winds. With hardly anyone left, they had no choice but to head to other villages. Except those villages were in no less desperate straits.
“No matter where you end up, you gotta work your fingers to the bone just for a bite to eat. Nothing to spare for feeding strangers too. And when you get a lot of people in one place, well, next thing you know the youma show up.”
Hyouchuu nodded silently. Youma were known to target populated areas. That didn’t necessarily mean they’d overlook somebody camping out in a deserted village. His older brother back in Sei’in was residing in a poor hamlet when he was attacked by a youma. Nobody in the household survived. That happened shortly after Hyouchuu started looking for the medicinal herbs.
“You can get down on your hands and knees and beg and they won’t give you the time of day. So we built ourselves a hut and settled down here.”
They managed to make ends meet, providing a cup of steaming tea in the winter, a draught of cool water in the summer, a portion of food, and a place to sleep for travelers who arrived after the gates of the town closed.
They had a field next to the huts and went into the mountains to make charcoal and did it all themselves without any permits from the government. The relevant government agencies simply didn’t function here so officials turned a blind eye. But get on their nerves and they might drive off the squatters out of spite.
“But are you really okay here? When the beech trees wither, you’ll see more landslides and more wild animals invading the villages.”
Answering Hyouchuu concerns, the old man and woman both laughed. “That’s got nothing to do with the beeches.”
Hyouchuu held his tongue. Most people he encountered held the same opinion. No matter how many warnings he and his colleagues handed out to those living next to the mountains, they showed no inclination to move. What else could they do? Leaving the land meant losing their sole source of income.
His sister and his brother were no different. The residents of Sei’in were no different. Short of moving away from these dangerous places, he had no other options to offer.
Hyouchuu wrapped his arms around portable plant nursery he’d slung off his back. Their only salvation was inside this box.
This ray of hope shone down on them the year after his sister died. Four years after they commenced searching for the herb in earnest, Houkou came up with a solution.
“This is definitely the right plant,” Houkou said.
Hyouchuu and his colleagues had failed to produce a seedling that thrived. With every failure, Houkou gathered up the withered sprouts and tested them to see if they treated the birch disease. He boiled the leaves of the plant, reducing them to a thick extract, which he then diluted with water. Applying concoction to the roots of the affected trees, he confirmed that it halted the strange disease.
“Prune back the affected limbs to where the growth is still healthy and it should be enough to arrest the progression of the disease in the roots. If we can increase the supply, we should be able to save the mountains.”
This was good news indeed. At the same time, this good news contained a bitter pill—they couldn’t cultivate that critical seedlings. As if insistently proclaiming that here was the cure, the yaboku trees continued to grow the ranka. They spied outcroppings here and there on a regular basis, and although numerous, not nearly in the quantities necessary to save the beech trees.
Unless they could somehow coax it to take root, bloom, produce seeds, and grow naturally, it would never outstrip the progress of the disease.
A path forward finally opened to them the next year. And the first flower appeared a year after that. A transparent blue flower, resembling an orchid.
Though the bell-shaped stamen and pistils, and the outwardly arched petals, glimmered green and white where they joined the stem, a beautiful blue glow painted the petals themselves. Resembled white-striped medicinal orchids, only its fleshy leaves and the transparent blue flowers set them apart.
The similarities prompted Houkou to call it a blue orchid.
The blue orchid had much in common with the white, though its properties were completely different. The white orchid thrived on the banks of mountain streams where sunlight was abundant and the soil moist. The blue orchid shunned direct sunlight. More importantly, it rooted in wood. Soon after removing a seedling from the ground, it had to be grafted into a living tree. Not from a young tree but a tree with at least a century of growth behind it.
Especially from a tree like the beech, clad with bark not easily stripped away.
Kyoukei wondered aloud why he hadn’t noticed earlier than a flower the grew for the benefit of the beech should have a preference for beechwood. To be sure, Hyouchuu and his colleagues hadn’t overlooked the possibility. They repeatedly tested the soil of the beech groves, especially the poisons secreted by the roots of the beech.
Theorizing that the plant might have an affinity for these substances, they extracted the leaf humus from around the roots. They ground up the roots and composted the root material. The blue orchids definitely grew better than in normal soil.
Because the white orchid preferred soil laden with water, at first, it hadn’t occurred to them to graft the plant directly into a tree.
Nevertheless, at long last, their years of hard work were rewarded. Thanks to Houkou, the effectiveness of the medicine had been established. The disease also did not attack the limbs of the beech when a blue orchid was grafted onto the tree itself.
And yet the blue orchid remained a stubbornly difficult plant to cultivate in large numbers. When the flower bloomed and produced a seed, that seed would grow to a seeding only under the most demanding of conditions.
A seed couldn’t be inserted into the bark just anywhere. Aside from the knot where a limb had broken off, or the crotch where a limb joined the trunk, where moss and mold had gathered and decayed and turned to soil, the seedling would not send down roots. And if the seedling did send down roots and then the “soil” washed away before the roots could burrow beneath the bark, it would wither as well.
They couldn’t wait for the plants to proliferate on their own. Beeches in the northern quarter of Kei Province were falling over at an alarming rate, disappearing from before their eyes.
That first summer, as they puzzled over how best to cultivate the orchid, welcome news came their way.
A new emperor had ascended to the throne.
“This is how we can increase the numbers,” said Houkou, his eyes sparkling. “Entreat the emperor to petition the roboku. The next year, the fruit would appear on the Imperial riboku. Then we only have to provide instructions of how to grow the seeds.”
If simply producing medicine was the objective, they could fell a healthy beech tree, let it rot, and plant the seeds. They’d have nothing to harvest in the time it took to bud, flower and bear fruit, but cultivating the seedlings in sufficient numbers should provide plenty to produce the medicine.
Hyouchuu and his colleagues rejoiced. Alas, making it happen turned out to be far more difficult than they imagined.
At some point having sunk into his thoughts, Hyouchuu must have looked a thoroughly despondent man. Perhaps thinking him dejected because they had shown no inclination to heed his advice, the old man and woman gathered around the fire and consoled him.
“Well, then, see that you watch your step in the mountains.”
The old woman added, “That’s right. Like you can see, no neighbors around to rush to anybody’s aid.”
“Don’t the two of you have anywhere else you can go?”
The old man flashed a bitter smile and shook his head. “No friends, you see. No relatives neither. If we can’t live here, well, I suppose we could find a village somewhere. Unlike when we lost our village the first time, people these days aren’t so distrusting of strangers.”
Hyouchuu nodded. With the enthronement of a new emperor, most people rejoiced that things were on the mend. In fact, when it came to the hardships of daily life, not much had changed. But these rising expectations in the new emperor manifested themselves in a bit more generosity of spirit.
The old man muttered to himself, “Better times are right around the corner. I’m sure of it.”
To be sure, the natural disasters had somewhat abated. Today’s blizzard was a setback but hardly out of character for winter. Unimaginable calamities were commonplace when the imperial throne was empty, such as massive levee failures. Or such unbelievable amounts of rain falling downstream that rivers changed course and flowed upstream
“Until then, we’ll stay here and keep a watch on the road.”
The old man spoke in a calm voice. The occasional misfortune notwithstanding, a little peace and quiet was all they needed for a happy life. This realization made Hyouchuu’s heart ache. Mulling over this feeling, he realized that he had turned into the wet blanket here.
“You see, the beech trees falling over is a sign of bad things to come. You’ll see landslides and wild animals will invade the villages, bears attacking people in their homes, rats overrunning the granaries.”
The old woman only grinned. “Oh, we got plenty of rats around here. A new emperor means better crops and a better harvest. So it stands to reason there’ll be more of them critters. Seeing as there wasn’t any rats before, that’s a good sign.”
Hyouchuu didn’t have anything to add to that. He had a hard time explaining the workings of the mountains to the people of the plains. No matter how many times he and his crew laid out the facts, the typical reaction was humor. Even when they got their audiences to take them seriously, they simply couldn’t communicate the magnitude of the danger.
The enthronement of a new emperor made it all the more difficult to explain these hypothetical risks to people full of new hope. It was even possible that the accession of the emperor could make things that much worse in the short term.
These thoughts on his mind, Hyouchuu accepted the warmed stones from the old man and placed them in his pockets. When he got to his feet, the couple eyed him dubiously.
“So what’s your plan?”
“Good heavens, are you pressing on in these conditions?” The flustered old man grabbed hold of him. “You can’t keep going. Not on a day like today. Our little hut isn’t much, but you’d be better off staying the night.”
“That is something I cannot do.” Hyouchuu expressed his thanks. “I am deeply grateful. The two of you really came to the rescue. I say this out of genuine concern, but when you see muddy water coursing down the mountainside, take extra precautions. That’s evidence of a mountain slide in the making. Especially when the snow begins to melt,” he added, and started walking.
They ran after him for a little ways and tried to stop him, but he politely shook them off and climbed the mountain road.
The wind picked up to a howl as soon as he left the clearing surrounding the little huts. Thankfully, the blizzard appeared to have entered a lull and he could make out the road ahead.
Keep on your toes, he warned himself. After this, things could really get dangerous. He tightened the straps holding the portable plant nursery onto his back.