er mother dabbed her eyes. “Take care,” she said.
Suzu’s father and two older brothers remained steadfastly silent. Her younger sister and brother wouldn’t come out of the house. Standing at the door, Suzu could hear her grandmother comforting them.
“What’s all this carrying on?” said the man next to her. His was the only cheerful voice. “Aoyagi-sama is a wealthy man. He’ll dress you in fine clothes, teach you how to behave in polite society. When your apprenticeship is complete, you could become the kind of proper young lady able to go wherever she pleased without the slightest reservation.”
He laughed loudly. Turning her head to glance up at him, Suzu’s eyes took in the broken-down shack before them. The posts leaned. The thatched roof sagged. The dirt floor was divided into a mere two rooms, and everything inside leaned or sagged as well.
Theirs was an impoverished life. They were tenant farmers who farmed rice, with most of the yearly yield going to pay the rent. On top of that, the previous year’s harvest had proved meager. When summer came again, ears did not appear on the stalks. It being impossible to pay the rent, Suzu was indentured as a servant. Not her seventeen-year-old brother or her eleven-year-old sister or any of her other nine siblings. But Suzu, fourteen years old according to the traditional lunar calendar. Only twelve counting the years from her birth.
“Well, let’s get going.”
At the man’s urging, Suzu bowed. She said no farewells. She wouldn’t be able to hold back the tears if she tried. She steeled her gaze and refused to blink. She looked at her home and memorized the faces she saw there.
“Take care,” her mother said again and wiped her face with her sleeve.
With that, Suzu turned around. Her weeping mother, her stubbornly morose brothers—she understood now that none of them would be stepping forward to hold her back.
Suzu trudged silently after the man as they passed through the outskirts of the village. It was almost noon and they’d already reached the limits of the world she knew. The trail cut up the slopes from the foot of the mountain. Suzu had never set foot beyond the remote mountain pass.
“You’re a good kid. None of this weeping and wailing. That’s what I like to see.”
The man’s cheerful attitude never flagged. He walked with long strides, saying whatever came to his mind. “Tokyo is a great city. You’ve probably never seen gaslight, huh? The estate you’re going to, you’ll be able to ride on a street car as well. Do you even know what a horse-draw trolley is?”
Suzu ignored him. To keep herself from looking back over her shoulder, she focused on the man’s shadow and let his pace drag her along. When they drew apart, she would catch up in a flurry of tiny steps and tread with satisfaction on the silhouette of the man’s head.
Repeating this over and over, they crossed the mountain pass. Starting down the other side, the shadow of the man’s head disappeared. He’d stopped to look up at the sky.
Clouds raced across the sky from behind them. The shadow Suzu had been walking on grew faint.
“Looks like rain.”
They both glanced back at where they had come from. A shadow climbed the luxuriant, tree-covered slopes from the village. The shadow of the clouds stuck to their heels, almost as if the rain were pursuing. A warm breeze began to blow. Drops of rain drummed on the road.
“Well, this is unfortunate,” the man said, and dashed to a giant camphor tree growing along the side of the road. Suzu hugged her personal belongings to her chest—wrapped in a furoshiki cloth—and followed after him. The big drops of rain thudded against her cheeks and shoulders. Almost as soon as she reached the cover of the branches, the squall turned into a driving downpour.
Suzu scrunched up her neck and ran toward the base of the tree. The twisting trunk jutting out of the ground provided some cover as well. Probably because the roots had been worn smooth by any number of travelers stopping here to catch their breath, she lost her footing.
Oh, don’t trip, she thought, even as she pitched forward and was sent sprawling. Her toes caught on another root. She started to fall. Her feet slipped out from under her. Suzu skittered up to the end of a precipice in a little dance.
“Hey, watch out!”
Halfway through the warning, the man’s voice turned into a shout. Where the trunk of the huge camphor tree split apart was an embankment steep enough to be called a cliff. Suzu teetered there on the edge. She dropped everything and reached out for the man’s hands, a nearby branch, a clump of bushes—anything. She’d couldn’t grab hold and was about to tumble in when a sheet of rain struck her.
The torrent roared in her ears like standing underneath a waterfall.
Suzu’s memory was intact up until the moment she felt herself fall. Her head spun. The flood of water bodily picked up her and tossed her about. When she came to herself again, she seemed to be half-submerged in a river. But what river? She couldn’t touch the bottom. The water filling her mouth was salty.
The dark water swallowed her up. She lost consciousness. When she next opened her eyes, she was resting on a gently swaying bed. A handful of men stared down at her.
Suzu roused herself with a start. The concerned looks on the faces of the men softened. They said something she didn’t understand. She sat up and took in her surroundings. Her mouth dropped open in amazement. She was on a platform of old boards that barely jutted above the surface of the water. Raising her eyes, she saw that the black water went on forever, meeting the sky at the distant horizon in a straight line. Never before in her life had she seen such a wide expanse of sea.
She searched for the big camphor tree. Behind her was a cliff so high she had to crane her neck to take it in. The cliff was deeply rutted. Here and there, white threads of water streamed down the ragged face. The wide platform of boards was built out from the foot of the cliff. Piers lined the outer edge of the deck. The small dock held three small boats.
Her only thought was that she’d somehow washed down the river and ended up in the ocean. That’s what would happen if she floated all the way down a river, or so she’d heard. The river would get bigger and bigger and eventually empty into the ocean.
The water was black as night. She placed her hands on the edge of the platform and stared into the water. It was nothing like the lakes or river she knew. Despite the amazingly clear water, she couldn’t see the bottom. It continued on and on until it was swallowed up in a faraway blackness, where twinkling lights swam together in swarms.
Somebody called to her, gently jostled her shoulders. Suzu tore her gaze away from the ocean. The men looked at her with distressed expressions on their faces. One of them said something to her that she didn’t understand.
Suzu replied with a blank look. “What? What are you saying?”
The men glanced at each other in noisy consternation. They all spoke at once, words flying back and forth. Suzu didn’t comprehend a thing.
“Hey, where am I? I’ve got to get back. What’s the best way to get back to my village from here? The road to Tokyo would do as well, I guess. Do any of you know where Aoyagi-sama lives?”
This set off another flurry of chatter amongst the men. Confused expressions clouded their countenances.
The men huddled together in a conference. Suzu sat down on the deck and took a closer look around.
The cliffs rose straight up as if the edge of the land had been torn off. The inner face of the cliff was hollowed out. There was a waterfall deep within the mountains near where she lived. The height of these cliffs far and away exceeded the slope of that waterfall. The cliffs stretched out to the right and left or her, almost seeming to enclose the floating platform.
Remove the decking and there would be no beach or base of the cliffs to be seen, only this huge raft-like dock jutting out from beneath the cliffs. Boats were tied up where the raft met the water. In the other direction, where the raft touched the cliffs, was a line of small houses.
That makes sense, Suzu thought to herself. There was no beach so they built a beach. But how would anyone climb that cliff? When she tilted her head back and squinted, there were stone steps and ladders running up the cliff face. That must be how they got up and down.
“Climbing a ladder like that would make my head spin,” Suzu muttered to herself.
The men glanced back at her. Pointing, they drew her attention to the top of the cliffs. Then they escorted her across the platform to the stone steps carved into the face of the precipice.
That was the beginning of her gauntlet. She climbed the face of the cliff. Whenever she wanted to stop and sit down, somebody gave her a push from behind or somebody ahead of her pulled her up. Glancing back over her shoulder and quelling the dizziness brought on by the towering heights, she finally struggled to the top.
“I’d hate to have to live here,” Suzu said, plopping herself down on the ground. The men laughed and clapped her on the back and shoulders. She didn’t understand anything they said. Maybe they were praising her for a good job done.
“I’d much rather work in the fields.”
There had been nets spread out and drying on the decking, so she could imagine that they’d returned from fishing. Having to haul themselves up and down these cliffs every time they brought in a catch must be a horrible amount of hard work. Working in the fields wasn’t easy but at least it was a quick jaunt out to the paddies across the causeways.
Along the top of the cliffs ran a stone wall much higher than she was tall. She was motioned toward a door off to the side, so she dragged her weary body along behind the other men and kept on going.
Inside the wall was a tiny village made up of a line of small shanties that looked like row houses. She was taken to one of the shanties and handed over to the care of an old woman. The old woman stripped off Suzu’s waterlogged clothes and pointed her towards a futon spread out on a platform raised above the dirt floor. Suzu obediently crawled under the futon. With Suzu’s clothing in hand, the old woman left the hut. Suzu watched her leave and closed her eyes. She was exhausted.
I wonder if I’m going to make it to Tokyo? she thought as she fell asleep. I’d better get to Aoyagi-sama’s house as soon as possible. After all, I was sold to him.
There was no other place for her to go to, no home for her to return to.
Suzu had no way of knowing that there was no such place as “Tokyo” in this world. The ocean she had nearly drowned in was the Kyokai, or the “Sea of Nothingness.”
The place where she had finally arrived was the Eastern Kingdom of Kei.
Many years passed.