7-2 They stopped at the next city and got a room at an inn. As soon as Rakushun finished writing the letter, they rushed over to the municipal building.
If the letter was received, Rakushun said, a reply would be sent to the inn. Youko still was not convinced of the gravity of the situation, to say nothing of the complete lack of any feeling that there was anything “imperial” about her. But she didn’t stop Rakushun from doing what he was doing, and did as he asked with all due diligence.
“How long do you think it will take?”
“Hard to say. I’ve described our circumstances and requested an audience with the Saiho. I have no idea how long it will take to get his attention. We’re dealing with something I have no experience with.”
“Can’t we go grab a bureaucrat and do a lot of begging and pleading?”
Rakushun laughed. “Do something like that and they’ll throw us out on our butts.”
“And what if they ignore us?”
“We’ll keep on calling until they pay attention. This letter I’m sending gets straight to the point.”
“Do you really think they’ll go to the bother?”
“I don’t know of any other way.”
“This is all a pain in the ass.”
“We’re talking about the real important big shots, here. It’s their way or the highway.”
Finding herself in the eye of a hurricane certainly gave her a different view of things.
After leaving the municipal building—it was the local county ward building—instead of returning to the inn, Rakushun started off for the plaza.
“Where are we going?”
“You’ll see. I think you will find it quite interesting.”
The municipal building was located in the heart of the city, facing the town plaza. Rakushun headed across the plaza. Youko tagged along behind him, scratching her head in confusion. Rakushun went to the front entrance of a white building. The alabaster stone walls were adorned with gold and richly-colored bas-relief engravings. The roof tile was gorgeous blue enamel. The name of the city was Youshou. On the gates to the building was hung a framed sign that read “Youshou Shrine.” All the cities they had visited so far had such a shrine. It was the central civic institution.
“Here is it.”
“A shrine, it says. For worshiping a god? The Tentei?”
“Once you see, you’ll understand.”
Rakushun gave her a reassuring smile. They went inside. Inside the gates were a pair of guards. “Just observing,” Rakushun said. They were asked for and presented their identification papers.
Through the gate was a narrow garden, and further on toward the heart of the shrine, a big building. The handiwork of the doors was exceedingly fine. A large, square window graced the facade of a rotunda-like hall that reached deeply into the building. Through the window a courtyard was visible.
What looked liked an altar completely encircled the window. Flowers and candles and offerings were piled upon the altar. At the altar, four or five men and women faced the window, fervently praying.
They must be praying to something in the middle of the altar. But all that was there was the window. Was it something you could see from the window? From the windows you could see the courtyard, and in the center of the courtyard, a single tree.
“That is . . . ”
Rakushun reverently faced the altar and clasped his hands together. Then he took Youko by the hand. To the left and right of the walls against which the altar was situated were two wide corridors that lead deeper into the interior. From the corridor she could see the courtyard grounds covered with white pebbles. And what she saw in the midst of the courtyard took her breath away.
It was a white tree. Wandering through the mountains, Youko had often sought the shelter of these strange trees. This tree was bigger than those, no different in height but was nearly twenty meters in diameter. At its highest point it stood six or seven feet tall. At its lowest its limbs brushed the ground. The white branches bore neither flowers nor leaves. Here and there a ribbon was tied to a branch and there fruits were ripening. The trees in the mountains bore rather small fruit in comparison. These were big enough to wrap her arms around.
“Rakushun, that is a . . . ”
“A riboku? Where the ranka grow?”
“That’s right. Inside each of those yellow fruits is a child .”
“Wow . . . ”
Youko gazed at the tree in amazement. She’d never seen anything like it back in Japan.
“You see, when you were like that, there was a shoku and you were carried off to Japan.”
“I find it all hard to believe.”
The branches and the fruit had the luster of polished steel.
“A couple who wish to have a child come to the shrine. They make offerings and pray that a child will be entrusted to them. Then they tie a ribbon to a branch. If the Tentei grants the petition, a fruit grows on the branch where the ribbon is tied. The fruit ripens in ten months. When the parents come to pluck the fruit, it falls. After resting for a night, the husk of the fruits breaks and the child is born.”
“So a fruit just can’t grow on its own. The parents have to petition first for it to happen.”
“That’s right. There are parents who are never rewarded, no matter how many times they ask. And parents who receive the gift almost at once. Heaven must determine whether or not they have the qualifications to raise a child.”
“It was the same with me? I had parents who tied a ribbon to a branch of the tree?”
“You did. And losing the ranka was certainly a profound disappointment to them.”
“Would there be any way to find them again?”
“I don’t know. A search of the records might reveal the answer. If you calculated the time at which you were swept away, and then figured out the time and place where such a shoku had occurred, and then investigated all the ranka that were swept away at the same time . . . It’d be tough.”
“Yeah, you’re right.”
She was struck with the desire to search out the people who had wanted her, see what kind of people they were. Knowing that there were people here as well who had prayed for her birth finally convinced Youko of her origins. Under normal conditions, she should have been born in a place like this, somewhere in this world, in the embrace of the Sea of Emptiness.
“Children look like their parents, don’t they?”
“Why would children look like their parents?”
Rakushun treated it like such an odd question that Youko had to grin. A human woman with a child who looked like a rat. There couldn’t be anything in the way of genetic inheritance going on there.
“In that other world, children resemble their parents.”
“Well, that’s different. Isn’t it a bit creepy, though?”
“Hard to say whether it is or not.”
“Seems to me it’d be kinda creepy if everybody in the same household looked like each other.”
“Come to think about it, you might have a point.”
A young couple entered into the courtyard. They consulted together, whispering while pointing at a branch. After a moment of indecision, they tied a thin, beautiful ribbon to the chosen limb.
“That ribbon is a design of their own making. While thinking about the child they wish born to them, they choose a lucky design and embroider it into the ribbon.”
“Oh.” It struck her as a most heartwarming custom. “When I was in the mountains I saw trees like this.”
Rakushun glanced up at Youko. “Yaboku.”
“They’re called yaboku? There was fruit growing on them, too.”
“There are two types of yaboku. Yaboku from which plants and trees are born and yaboku from which animals are born.”
Youko’s eye widened in surprise. She said to Rakushun, “Even plants and trees and animals are born from these trees?”
Rakushun nodded. “But, of course. How else would anything be born?”
“Well, ah . . . ” If children could be born from trees, it stood to reason that so could animals and plant life.
“Domesticated livestock come from the riboku. Farmers petition the riboku for livestock on special days, following certain rules. In the wild, trees and plants and the beasts of the mountains reproduce on their own from the yaboku. Their fruits ripen on their own. In the case of trees and plants, the yaboku produces seeds. In the case of birds, the yaboku produces chicks. In the case of other animals, their young.”
“Isn’t it a bit risky for seeds and chicks and cubs to be born willy-nilly? You’d think a chick would soon become some other creature’s dinner.”
“The parents of animals also come to collect their offspring. Otherwise, until they can survive on their own. They live beneath the tree. That’s why other creatures can’t come close to the tree. Beasts who are natural enemies aren’t born at the same time, and no matter how ferocious the animals might become, while beneath the tree they never fight. People who fail to get to a city before nightfall will go into the mountains and search out a yaboku. It’s always safe beneath a yaboku.”
“That makes sense.”
“In exchange, no matter how fearsome a beast a cub might be grow up to be, it is absolutely forbidden to capture or kill one in sight of a yaboku.”
“That being the case, I take it birds don’t hatch from eggs.”
Rakushun grimaced. “Who’d want to eat one with a chick inside?”
Youko laughed. “Yeah. I guess you wouldn’t.”
“Whenever I talk with you about such things, I get a weird feeling about that other world.”
“I can see how. How about youma? I take it youma are also born from trees?”
“They are, naturally. Nobody has seen the tree from which youma are born, though. It’s said that somewhere there are rookeries for youma. It would certainly be in such a place.”
Youko nodded. She had more whimsical questions on the tip of her tongue, but they were of a more vulgar nature, so she thought better of asking them here. Like, exactly what kind of hanky-panky went on in the red-light districts, that kind of thing.
“What is it?”
“Oh, nothing. Thanks for bringing me here. It’s been very rewarding.”
Rakushun smiled broadly in return. “It looks like they’re done.”
The young couple in the courtyard again turned to face the tree, their hands entwined together.