Serpent of Time

Chapter 8

The Public Bath

The biggest difference between wealth and poverty, Ryô quickly concluded, was the difference between comfort and cold.

Kishiwada was fifty miles south of Kyôto’s mountain-ringed basin. Snow that fell here on the coast quickly melted. But the chill never left her bones. Once she got moving, the stiffness shaken out of her legs, Ryô could forget the worst of each morning’s battle—to haul herself from under the futons and scurry off to the latrine, her breath clouding the air.

The siege of Sakai painted a permanent charcoal smudge across the northern horizon. Now and then the shifting winds brought more acrid reminders, though they were soon dispersed by the salty breezes blowing off the bay.

Ryô visited the town square every day, hoping for more information about Sakai than gossip from the landlady and Haru, the live-in maid. The first time she was scanning the bulletins, an older man sidled up to her and said, nodding at the signboard, “You can read?”

Her initial reaction was one of surprise, before the honest intention behind the question sank in. Glancing around, she realized it was a common practice. Doing her best to affect Haru’s plain speaking style, she read aloud the notices papering the signboard.

The war reports contained much fancy falderal about “renewed assaults” and “inevitable victory,” but she had seen the battle lines for herself. This was a duel between a burrowing squirrel and a patient hawk.

She stopped by Kishiwada’s Tenshô-ji temple, tossed a copper into the donation box, rang the bell, and prayed for her father and Sen.

“Ah, you’ve settled in all right, I hope?” a familiar voice said behind her.

It took Ryô a moment to connect the round face beaming at her with the monk who’d come to her rescue the night before. She’d met more new people in a single night than in a year back in Kyôto. Besides Sen, this was the first person who’d helped her for no reward aside from human kindness.

“Thank you,” she said and bowed, not the kind of pro forma bow she’d come to mindlessly execute in Kyôto’s high city. For perhaps the first time in her life, she bowed with sincerity to a stranger.

And then she had to hurry back to the inn or she’d catch a scolding from the landlady. Ryô hated being scolded, and the work did stave off the boredom.

The landlady took the end-of-year cleaning rituals seriously. So did Ryô, except she’d never had to do them before. The other two borders worked for low city merchants who could afford servants but not live-in help. They were being run ragged at their places of employment. Haru and Ryô were expected to pick up the slack at the inn.

Even being in her period won her no sympathy. The landlady’s advice was to “work it off.” She sounded like General Yanagi, Ryô’s old fencing instructor. Except that all of her training with the long sword and the lance never left such calluses on her hands or made her muscles ache so.

Haru’s prescription was steaming hot miso soup, which proved more effective, though it was also quite effective at filling her bladder. Thanks to the landlady’s fastidiousness, Ryô could use the attached latrine without utter revulsion.

On New Year’s Eve, the temple bells tolled a hundred and eight times, dispelling the hundred and eight human sins and worldly desires at the root of human suffering. New Year’s Day began with the traditional temple visit, then a meal of fish cakes, sweet potatoes with chestnuts, boiled black soybeans, and lotus roots simmered in soy sauce.

After that, life went back to what increasingly passed for “normal.” Ryô fell into a routine and found herself looking forward to the most mundane activities. Like bathing. The weather was nothing to the torment of not being able to bathe on a regular basis.

When Ryô broached the subject with Haru, Haru assured her there was a time reserved for the women at the neighborhood bath house. Well, not so much reserved. The women in the neighborhood all showed up together, along with their litters of little boys and girls.

Amidst the crowd of naked bodies, it was hard for Ryô to worry about her modesty, especially when she ducked out of the chilly changing room—

“They watch the changing room like a hawk,” Haru explained. “Any sign of thievery would be bad for business.”

—and through the tiny door into the bathing area. The blast of hot and humid air nearly knocked her over. It was a steam bath. The only light leaked in through the tiny windows near the roof that vented the broiling air. She could barely see the hand in front of her face.

“Oh, there’s a Kyôto accent I haven’t heard in a while!”

A pair of bodies loomed out of the steamy gloom like a pair of sweaty cows. Ryô shrank back in alarm. “One of your new borders?” the lumpier of the two women said to Haru. Haru cheerfully nodded. The pudgy face turned to Ryô. “How did you end up here, deary?”

Ryô studied her wrecked fingernails and wracked her brains for a version of the truth she could relate with conviction.

“Ooh, what’s this?” One of the ladies took note of the blue birthmark snaking up Ryô’s back, though not clearly enough to tell what it was. “Your master beat you, did he?”

Her head still slumped, Ryô lied by telling the truth. “My mistress got on the wrong side of a Hatakeyama.”

“Hatakeyama!” her audience buzzed. They knew the name. The shogun had rewarded the governorship of Kii Province to the Hatakeyama clan.

“Not a real Hatakeyama. A pretend samurai. His father bought him the title.” Ryô shook her head, anger welling up with the rekindled memories. “Merchant moneylenders,” she hissed between her teeth.

No sooner had the words dripped from her lips but she felt a cold shock down her spine. The public bath was packed with the daughters and wives and maidservants of low city merchants and artisans. The two well-fed women flanking her certainly weren’t farmers.

“Oh, them high city types!” Her questioner gave Ryô a hearty slap of agreement. “They all think they’re better than the rest of us!”

The clouds wavered as heads bobbed up and down in agreement. No class of human beings hesitated at drawing distinctions between themselves and those above and below them on the social ladder. There were castes inside of castes from the top of society down to the bottom.

Ryô sighed in relief. The attention drifted away from herself. This wasn’t the first time she’d provoked curiosity. Haru treated her like a friendly stray cat wandering in from a faraway place, while others seemed intent on ferreting out every incongruity that didn’t add up. Ryô was sure she could hear them thinking, “With a kimono like that—

Her Kyôto accent was barely the half of it. The necessity of speaking up to people required words completely foreign to her vocabulary. She constantly had to interrupt the flow of language between her brain and her mouth in order to correctly apply the honorific flourishes that had once been directed to her.

She’d never felt so out of place in Kyôto, even surrounded by her enemies. She didn’t belong here.

You will never belong here.

Ryô shivered and glanced about the bath house—and thought she caught the flicker of a dragon’s tail weaving amongst the busy, talkative women. Then a child laughed and slapped a puddle of water. The tail was only a stout woman’s arm.

Once again came that strangely familiar whisper in her ear and tingle down her spine. “Your only refuge is me.

Copyright Eugene Woodbury. All rights reserved.