10-6 The whistling wind blew the door open.
The girl jumped up and shut the door, hunching her shoulders against the cold draft. Holding the door closed, she secured a strand of twine around a nail in the jam. Still, with every gust, the door pulled hard on the twine and the freezing wind swept a swirl of snow inside the house.
Only a few days earlier, in order to provide a bit more protection from the wind, she’d hung two blankets in front of the door. But she took them down and instead tucked them around her older sister.
The girl retied the twine and tried to keep just a little bit less of the wind from stealing in, but had to give up when her fingertips started to grow numb. I can put up with it, she thought to herself as she returned to the back of the narrow room, where a bed was fashioned out of stack of firewood.
“Sorry about that. Are you cold?” she called out.
Her sister didn’t answer. She slept with the blankets wrapped around her. Her face pale, her lips slightly parted, her gaunt chest rose and fell with each shallow breath.
The girl sat next to the bed and added three thorn oak fruits to the hibachi. The hibachi sat at her sister’s feet, in hopes that the Gift of Kouki would keep her warm.
Her sister collapsed several days ago, the same day the young girl went with her father to the deep pool in the mountain valley to watch their offering get swept away. He had unexpectedly returned before dusk. The two of them trudged through the snow, the girl carrying a basket with a few berries and a small kerchief.
Before they left, her sister had taken out a jar and added a handful of walnuts and chestnuts and sweet acorns that rattled around in the basket.
Every time her father came across a dry branch, he broke it off and added it to the pack on his back. As a result, the trip took longer this time. The sky was black by the time they arrived. The girl lit her lantern. In the uncertain light, they watched the currents carry the basket into the black hole in the rock.
They returned home, her father carrying the branches that wouldn’t fit into the pack, to find her brother on the verge of tears. During their absence, her sister had fainted.
Her sister’s body had felt especially warm of late. The girl felt it keenly when they snuggled together at night. But that day when they got back to the hut, her skin was surprisingly hot to the touch. She exhaled excruciating breaths through cracked lips. They ran around fetching all the blankets in the hut and wrapped them around her. Her father added the branches he had just picked up to the hibachi to warm the interior. Her sister at last broke a sweat.
Her father cried out in dismay when the girl loosened her sister’s clothing to wipe off the sweat. She was no less taken aback. Her older sister torso had wasted away to skin and bones. Her ribs protruded from her skin.
“You haven’t been eating!” her father exclaimed.
That was when they realized the small portions of food she served them at dinner, always with that kind and teasing expression on her face, had been at the expense of her own.
She cut back on her own rations and divvied them up among her sister, brother, and father. Now that the girl thought back about her, since the snow started to fall, she hardly ever seen her older sister eating. And what she did eat would hardly sate a sparrow. While the rest of them were eating, she busied about replenishing the firewood and water and doing the household chores. She was always so busy she never had time to eat. Or so it seemed.
The truth of the matter was, she had grown so thin because of the extraordinary discipline she exercised to deny herself. Her condition had undoubtedly worsened several days before. And yet she put on a cheerful face as she brought water from the river, gathered kindling, stoked the fire, and made them dinner. Afterward, she straightened up the hut and stripped bark from the boughs.
The next day, their father departed, saying that he would return with food and medicine. He hadn’t come back since. He was likely looking for a second job so he could provide nourishing food for his daughter, medicine if possible, and if the fates smiled upon them, bring back a doctor or a priest. Perhaps, like the time when her brother got injured, he begged his usual employer for more work and would be boarding on the premises for several days to work off the hours.
There were so many poor people around, it was a struggle even to find day labor. The jobs that did turn up paid meager wages and not always in coin. He once spent a day cultivating new land only to bring home five servings of millet in a rice bowl.
“Simply having a job is blessing enough,” he said with a sad smile.
The nearest city was filled with people who didn’t have houses or jobs. Though their home was a cramped little hut, at least they had a place to live together as a family. They could be thankful for five servings of millet as payment for services rendered. Five servings of millet, mixed together with assorted grains, edible grasses, and tubers could feed the family for five days.
Except her sister hadn’t eaten her share.
The girl held her sister’s hand. It’s not enough, she remembered complaining. I can’t sleep when I’m hungry.
Her sister must have abstained because of her selfishness.
“I won’t behave like that after this. I promise.” Please. She held onto her sister with both hands and poured all of the energy in her soul into her. Please, God. Don’t take her from us.
As she prayed, she heard a small gasp. Raising her head with a start, she gazed at her sister’s face. Her sister exhaled a long and labored breath. As if attempting to disgorge everything wrong within her, her lips parted and a thin, hoarse whistle resonated from deep within her chest.
The girl called out to her, shook her by the shoulders, and flew out of the hut in a panic, crying for her brother. He was splitting wood next to the hut.
His face pale, her brother hurried back inside the hut. In the long moments it took for them to reach the side of the bed, their older sister had lapsed into silence. Her mouth opened as if to call out a greeting. The light vanished from her pale eyes and the emptiness rushed in.
Snow danced in the frigid evening breeze. The boy brushed off the stone with his hands. The stone was so large his arms barely fit around it. The flakes tumbled from the frozen surface.
Are you cold, Sir?
The boy gazed down at the indifferent stone face. His master slept beneath the stone. His physical condition had deteriorated that summer. He slept and awoke, slept and awoke. His life went on. In his lucid moments, the master said he was fine.
Back when it all began, six years before, the villagers said the master had suffered grievous bodily injuries that eventually exhausted all his strength.
The boy made an offering of the dagger before the gravestone. From his sickbed, the master instructed him in the art and craft of sharpening a blade. When the boy demonstrated an ability to follow and apply those instructions, the master gave him the dagger.
The master’s dagger had an edge completely different from the dull blades he had worked on before. The sharpening process was so unique it posed a steep challenge. The master patiently led him through the steps.
“It’s too hard,” he complained.
The master smiled. “You’ll figure it out soon enough.”
That was the last conversation between the two of them.
I figured it out.
The retired soldiers in the village taught him what he needed to know. The night before, they finally said he could present this dagger to the grave without any shame.
Once he learned how to hone a blade, the master promised to teach him the art of the sword. The boy resolved to practice long and hard so he could defend the master the way the master once saved his father.
He would fight on the master’s behalf and one day defeat the beast in Kouki.
But he hadn’t been able to save him.
The boy did not want to call him a liar. The master never intended to tell him falsehoods.
“You said that we would take back the palace together,” the boy muttered to himself.
The freezing wind whipped past him, swirling the snowflakes around the surface of the stone.