Hisho had no choice but to make the porcelain birds. He didn’t have time for a single extraneous thought.
Resigned to the task before him, he sat down at the table. He had a room in the office of the Ra-jin. The compact room had two desks and two divans. He’d once shared quarters here with Soken. One of the desks and one of the divans was buried beneath books, boxes, and papers.
The desk and divan that Hisho used were in tidy enough condition, though they showed a generous accumulation of dust from long disuse. Hisho brushed off the desk. Grumbling to himself all the while, he laid down a clean sheet of paper, set out an ink stone, and picked up a writing brush.
And paused, there being nothing inside him that wanted to come out. Try as he might, the blank page remained blank.
I’m clean out of ideas, he’d told himself over and again. That was only because he’d temporarily lost the will to create. Though the desire to try this and do that had definitely withered, he hadn’t expected that nothing would come to mind when the time came to produce.
Perhaps he’d taken too much time off. On occasion, he’ asked himself how he came up with ideas in the first place. Even that was an indecipherable fog.
He was often stymied as to what to do next. In such situations, there were always a thousands of bits and pieces drifting around inside his skull. Now he couldn’t care enough to reach out and grab one. And even if he somehow managed to pick one, nothing was bound to come of it.
So this is what it meant to have artist’s block. An empty head, empty of even fragments of thought, balls of cotton where the ideas should be. A first for him.
And that surprised him. Then annoyed him. The Rite required a large number of skeets. The workshops would have to work day and night over the next fortnight simply to replenish the inventory. Before they could do that, there was the testing and fine-tuning required to produce a production-model porcelain magpie.
If, in fact, they started over from scratch, they’d have to begin right this minute in order to make the deadline. He had to come up with something but was scooping water with a sieve.
Of course, he thought to himself. He was used up. Finished.
He didn’t know when it’d happened. Maybe when Shouran disappeared. Or when Empress Yo shared those words with him. Probably before then. Hisho once made porcelain birds like a man possessed. But that was before losing Soken, before coming to the conviction that the shattered magpies symbolized the people.
From the start, this passion may never have been about the making. Yes, all during that time, he’d never taken pleasure in the making.
Shouran objected to his instructions with a wry smile. “Something prettier would be much nicer.”
And Hisho repeated what he’d told her before, that there was something wrong about taking joy in the destruction of the skeets.
“It’s grotesque, this shooting of the porcelain magpies. Take a look at reality—”
He gestured at the valley visible through the window. The narrow ravine nestled between the giant peaks was overgrown with pear trees. Beyond and below the screen of trees, hidden from view, lay a fallen world trampled underfoot by imperial authority that went unquestioned by the empress herself.
“The slipshod rule of a useless sovereign brings a kingdom to rack and ruin. At the mercy of a government that pays no heed to their needs, the people waste away. An emperor who could raise a finger to save them can also push them into far more dire circumstances. Steal away their lives. Somebody needs to drive that message home.”
Shouran drew an exasperated breath. “As if there’s a chance of that happening. I have the feeling that anybody who sees the porcelain magpies for what they truly represent learned that lesson long ago.”
“You may be right.”
He saw the sense in what Shouran was saying. But then how else to drive that message home?
“So we make our magpies only for the cold-hearted king? At the end of the day, what’s the point of showing him and his associates a good time?”
“Well, it is our job, after all.”
The composure with which Shouran spoke as she calmly continued her work irritated Hisho all the more. That she was in a good mood and appeared happy with the way things were made it worse.
“Imperial civil servants we may be, but about as far down on the ladder as you can get. We don’t involve ourselves in the weighty affairs of state. Nor do our jobs allow us to weigh in on matters of politics. And yet we still have the kingdom to thank for our office and rank. The livelihoods of the people rest upon our shoulders. At the very least, we should hope that what we do accrues in some small way to their benefit. If that is not the case, then what are we doing here?”
Shouran smiled without lifting her head. “The good of the people, eh?”
“Then let me ask you this—what should the Ra-shi and Ra-jin bring to their jobs?”
“Whatever they feel like,” Shouran said in amazement. She laughed. “People are people. Give them a job and they get down to it. A hard-to-please Ra-shi saddles them with a challenge and they figure out how to rise to the occasion. Right?”
“So you avert your eyes and nothing changes.”
“Well, you can avert your eyes all you want, but what wants to be seen will be seen, no matter how ugly. I can’t imagine an emperor is any different. Show him what he doesn’t want to see and he’ll only shut his eyes.”
“The same way you’ve averted your eyes from the world below, hidden it behind a thicket of pear trees?”
He didn’t cloak the sarcasm in his words. Shouran merely shrugged. “You can take in the unruly world below all you want and it won’t change a thing. Why not turn your attention to what is beautiful instead? Only fools deliberately wallow in ugliness and unpleasantness.”
“Then what? Seclude ourselves among the artisans and spend our nights and days with our heads bent over our desks? Can you enjoy yourself shutting yourself away in all this solitude?”
“Of course.” Shouran laughed louder. “It’s not that I have no place but here. This is the only place for me. This kind of craftsmanship is what gets me up in the morning. Do yourself proud or mess everything up—it’s fun either way.”
Shouran picked up a rasp and began filing away at the piece she was working on. “Don’t think too much and concentrate on the job right in front of you, that’s what is truly enjoyable.”
She almost seemed to be talking to herself as she added with a grin, “I expect it’s the same for ordinary people. Your poor housewife spends her days preparing the night’s dinner and wondering whether the weather will cooperate so she can hang out the laundry. Finding ease and joy in such trivialities is what makes the days go by. I’d be surprised if she devotes even a minute thinking about what the emperor is up to.”
With that, perhaps catching wind of Hisho’s displeasure, she straightened and put on a serious face. “Of course, we shall happily do as the Ra-shi wishes.”
Shouran clearly had no desire to stare reality in the face, no interest in the people or the kingdom. Rather than dwell on the wretched masses, she preferred to seek out simple pleasures close at hand. She wept herself hoarse when Soken was executed—because she mourned the loss of someone close to her, not because of the miserable state of the world.
The fact of the matter was, compared to the way Hisho dragged everything out, Shouran more quickly returned to an even keel. “It is unfortunate but it is over,” she said.
That’s the way she was and the craftsmen overseen by the office of the Ra-jin followed suit. If they were less than thrilled about the job at hand, Hisho was the Ra-shi so they buckled down and did as they were told.
Hisho was going it alone, regardless of whether he was understood or not. It was enough that the Sekichou-shi who came after Soken left things up to him. Nobody asked too many questions about what he wanted to create. They were only curious about the results—whether the bigwigs above the clouds liked what they saw and heard.
Hisho had a good reputation when it came to making several generations of Sekichou-shi happy.
The porcelain magpies that Hisho made were usually crowd-pleasers. Now and then word came back that he hadn’t risen to his usual standards, though most performances were acclaimed as solemn and sublime. These weren’t necessarily honest critiques. The audience assumed that whatever this respected “Ra-shi among Ra-shi” did was deserving of praise.
Knowing that didn’t much matter. As long as his superiors told him he’d done a good job, he wasn’t going to catch hell.
But no matter how much heart and soul he put into what he did, the message didn’t get through. Archers with ranks no higher than regular recruits would stop by after the ceremonies to tell him how moved they were by the performance. Hence the bitter irony—the higher the status, the more it went right over their heads.
The one time he intended to get a message across it simply wasn’t received.
Hisho immersed himself in the creation of his porcelain birds. Two empresses appeared and were gone. Most of the time the throne sat empty. That meant no Archery Festivals. But Hisho didn’t stop making, engineering, and designing.
The day finally came when Hisho could deliver his intended message—during the enthronement of Empress Yo.
These birds had long elegant wings and tails. Rather than skeets fired out of launchers, they flew away with a firm push and glided through the sky, resembling real birds as they swooped down from the apex of the arc. When shot by the archers, they raised a thin retort and scattered a multicolored spray, the pair of wings and twin tails breaking away and fluttering to the ground.
A lingering sound like a forlorn scream arose as it fell, the broken wings striking the earth and breaking apart with a painfully clear chord.
The porcelain shattered upon impact, disintegrating into shards of red crystal glass. When the ceremony was over, the memorial gardens were stained crimson with the glittering fragments.
A hush came over the stands in Shouten Palace where the empress and ministers sat overlooking the memorial gardens. Hearing the heavy silence, Hisho knew that the message had at last gotten through.
After the Rite of the Arrow had concluded, he was summoned by the empress. She spoke to him directly, not through an intermediary.
“Dreadful,” was the first word out of her mouth. “Why such a sinister spectacle? I do not wish to see such ghastly things.”
Hisho was at a loss for words. Seeing “such ghastly things” was the whole point. The loss of human life was indeed ghastly. Through the Rite, he wanted to confirm for himself what the empress held dear.
“Her Highness is greatly distressed,” added the Saiho.
Again, distress was what he intended to inflict, so she would share some notion of what her subjects suffered. The deeper the wound, the more memorable the experience. He wished to take that ghastliness, the keenness of the pain, and engrave it on her soul.
Turn away from pain and suffering and it would only continue. Her awareness of it would dwindle away. He had stung her heart but still hadn’t reached her.
Hisho was stumped. Having no idea of how to bridge that divide, he lost interest in making more porcelain magpies. After the enthronement, the Archery Festival held during the winter solstice was called off. The Sekichou-shi didn’t know the reasons either. Probably, Hisho imagined, because the empress didn’t want to see it. But that wasn’t the reason he stopped making porcelain magpie.
He often went down to the city to see up close how people lived. He occasionally ventured to a battlefield or the site of an execution. Perhaps seeing the misery with his own two eyes might spark some creative chord. The thought occurred to him that he was simply searching for some new experience to arouse his listless spirits.
After that, every time he brought a “found object” back to the Ra-jin’s office, Shouran accepted it with a wry smile. With no home to offer the magpies, Hisho didn’t know what to do with a creative impulse when one struck him. They made whatever they could make and threw the results away. For year after year.
And then one day when Hisho returned to the workshop, Shouran was gone.
The clouds hung heavy over the city that day. The night before, lightning lit up the world below and a freezing rain fell. A sense of unease overcame the populace. People stared up at the heavens and wondered aloud what bad tidings were in store. Hisho wondered himself and returned to Gyouten.
Ascending to the Administrative Palace, a new idea must have occurred to him. He couldn’t remember now what it was. Brimming with enthusiasm, he’d headed for the Ministry of Winter to put it into action. He arrived to find the rows of workshops strangely subdued.
It was as if some giant invisible presence hovered over their heads. Feeling that same sense of unease, he entered the office of the Ra-jin. Shouran wasn’t there. Her rooms were no different than usual—her desk overflowing with disorganized stacks of materials, weighed down with discarded tools.
For a moment, he could believe she’d simply stepped out for a moment. But for some reason, it felt as if he’d stepped into a frozen hollow. Nothing was out of place, yet the room felt empty. He was searching for that missing something when Seikou ran up.
“Hisho-sama, I saw you come in.” Seikou’s face was pale.
“Where is Shouran?”
“She didn’t leave. She hasn’t been seen since morning. We’ve looked everywhere. She’s nowhere to be found. I don’t know what to make of it either. Except—” Seikou visibly trembled. “Not only the Shishou. Artisans and craftsmen are missing from all around the workshops. And they’re all women.”
“Yes. I heard that soldiers came before dawn and took the Shishou. They also took the chief engineers. But again, only the women. Hisho-sama, this is—”
Seikou’s unsettled state was infecting him. Hisho felt his knees quaver, such that he could barely stand.
“I told her to get out of here!”
He couldn’t know if the order had come down from Empress Yo herself. Holed up in the recesses of the Imperial Palace, three months before she’d suddenly appeared at court and declared that all female ministers were to leave the palace and the kingdom.
Disobedience would be severely punished. It was implied that a worse fate lay in store for any woman who failed to comply. Except that, at first, nobody took the edict seriously.
Around this time, edicts emanating from the throne tended to be of this sort. The reasons for this ostentatious promulgation of rules and regulations was unclear. Or rather, lacked any concreteness. The ministers couldn’t muster the interest to act even upon the most cursory of proclamations except to merely inform the public.
The order to expel all women from the palace and from the kingdom was met with similar disbelief and disregard. Nearly half of the administrative staff were women. Nobody could begin to calculate the time and effort it would take to remove them. Or how the government could continue to function if they all were exiled.
So at first they shrugged it off. But before long, above the clouds, the female civil service began to disperse. The majority simply grabbed whatever they had close at hand and fled the palace. There was no way to truly tell if they had gone or where, but their numbers dwindled in no small way.
“You’d better leave as well,” Hisho told Shouran. “I can hardly believe it myself, but this time Her Highness seems serious. This is not another meaningless proclamation.”
Oh, nonsense.” As she always did in reaction to his warnings, facing him across the table, Shouran laughed. “I’ve yet to see such a foolish decree with my own two eyes.”
“It’s a fact that all the civil servants above the clouds who are women are vanishing from sight.”
Hisho pled his case. Shouran only shook her head. “So she had a spat with her female counselors. Nothing for me to worry about. I’m nobody to her. Look at all the staff of the administrative palace. Plenty of women there too. Probably never even occurred to her. You can’t punish people you don’t even know, can you?”
Shouran smiled, and Hisho couldn’t help thinking her hopelessly naive. That very day women were going missing from the palace, along with other artisans in the Ministry of Winter. He didn’t know where they went and what become of them.
Though things had apparently proceeded to completion above the clouds, nobody below the clouds could explain what was going on. Except that once somebody left, they never returned. Empress Yo died and now a new empress had arisen and still not a word about their fate. It was the only undisputable fact that remained.
This is why you can’t avert your eyes from reality. Hisho never wavered in that conviction. Shouran refused to see the cruel world for what it was, no less than she refused to see the empress for who she was and imperial power for what it was.
Maybe she thought that what she didn’t see couldn’t hurt her. Maybe she’d put Soken’s wrongful execution out of her mind.
Hisho’s anger warred with sorrow. Since Shouran vanished, the desire to make another porcelain bird had vanished as well. He was powerless. Having lost Soken and Shouran, there was no one to blame, no one to take responsibility. They hadn’t committed any crime and yet he couldn’t protect or defend them.
Not while he remained within the palace walls, at the beck and call of the next emperor or empress.
You’re wrong! he wanted to cry out. Stop all of this now! Words that would never reach the Saiho or any other high official, let alone the empress. Scream at the sky and nothing he said would rise about the clouds. As far as those in the heavens were concerned, Hisho might as well have never existed.
Nobody was going to listen to him. Nobody needed to. His only means of speaking to the empress was the Rite of the Arrow. He put his heart and soul into the Rite—and nothing came of it. No, it was worse than that. He delivered the message only to have the door slammed in his face.
“Dreadful,” Empress Yo had called it. If only she could have acknowledged the dreadfulness of imperial power. She refused to understand. No less than she averted her eyes from its awful consequences, she refused to see the awfulness within herself.
This kingdom is doomed.
Hisho wearied of raising his own voice in protest and appealing to those who should. He was invisible to the empress. He was still a Ra-shi because he had to eat to live. If he wasn’t going to make the porcelain birds, he didn’t want to think about them. He had no use for the kingdom or its ministers.
He had no means to communicate what was on his mind and his colleagues tired of his tirades.
The world around him lacked meaning. At loose ends, he shut himself up in his residence. Doing nothing and thinking about nothing for empty day after empty day, he hollowed out inside.
I have got nothing left to give, Hisho thought, and put down his pen in resignation.
If he had nothing, then he would have to reuse something made in the past, and somehow make the deadline. That being the case, he would have to confer with Seikou. He left his residence. A forlorn evening breeze gusted through the portico surrounding the courtyard, signaling the advent of fall.
The skeets he’d created for Empress Yo were no mistake. Shouran made them. Though, in fact, Seikou was the one who’d taken command of the project and gotten the engineers together on the same page.
Seikou should remember the fine details. Hisho could imagine Seikou refusing to tread that same path again. Even if he didn’t object, Hisho didn’t want to make skeets that would be labeled “ghastly.” The porcelain birds he’d made for Emperor Li would be better prototypes.
Except he hadn’t the heart to make those either, to again witness such magnificent destruction. He did not think he was imbuing the skeets with more value than inanimate objects deserved. But he could not bring himself to make such things only to see them shot and break and shatter like frozen flowers to the cheers of the spectators.
Even the porcelain magpies he’d made for Empress Yo—watching them shot and broken pained him. Although they existed to be destroyed, he wished for a way to deliver that message without demolishing them.
“Like there’s any chance of that,” he said to himself and laughed. They were skeets, after all. They were made to be shot. They were made to break. But he didn’t want to hear music flow forth when they did either. Somber court music or sad folk songs made no difference now.
He didn’t want to turn into a musician in the first place. Something softer and simpler would be better. Something that would stifle the cheers and applause and make them listen despite themselves. Sounds they would crane their ears to hear, that would seep into their souls—that’s what he wanted.
These thoughts on his mind, he ducked into the adjoining room, lit a sputtering lamp, and related these thoughts to Seikou, who was at his desk.
Seikou glanced over his shoulder and tilted his head to the side. “Such as—the sound of snow?”
Hisho sat down on a stack of boxes next to Seikou. He said with a rueful smile, “Snow doesn’t make a sound.”
“Guess not.” Seikou flushed a bit. “What about the sound of water?
Not quite water, Hisho thought. Running water, water overflowing, a babbling brook, ripples in a pond—they each left a different impression. What kind of sound wasn’t the right question. The sound of water, the sound of wind—they both said too much.
“Something quieter—yes, that’s it—like the sound of snow.” Snow had nothing to say, yet could not be heard without listening closely. “It doesn’t make a sound. The sound of falling snow is what you feel. You were spot on.”
Seikou responded with a confused smile. “The Shishou said something similar. Or rather, I have the feeling she said the exact same thing.”
Startled, Hisho queried, “Shouran did?”
“Yes. The silent sound of snow—she said that’s what she would do if it was up to her.”
Hisho found himself at a loss for words. Now that the subject came up, not once had he done things the way Shouran wished. Far from it. He’d never asked her about her choice of porcelain magpie, and Shouran hadn’t volunteered that information.
All the while Hisho was obstinately designing his “ghastly” birds, Shouran had only expressed a preference for something “nicer.” She’d never gotten more specific than that. He had never pressed her for specifics.
“Did she say anything else, like about how the skeets broke?”
Seikou lowered his head and pondered the question. “She said the birds made for Empress Yo were too painful to bear. They broke the heart. To smash them in such a splendid manner was altogether too cheerful. She thought it rather pointless after a while.”
Then Seikou raised his head as if a new thought had occurred to him. “I recall her saying that she liked birds. It hurt her to see birds shot and fall to the ground. It’d be nice if they could turn back into birds again after they broke.”
“Turn back into birds again—”
Seikou nodded, the memories of the past weighing on his expression. “Because they’re birds, she always said. She wanted them to fly free. That wouldn’t be in accordance with the Rite. But when struck by the arrows, at least let the loss be felt. When this sense of regret had sunk in, the birds would spring back to life.”
“And fly away,” Hisho murmured.
Seikou’s smile suggested they had arrived at the same conclusion. “That’s what she said. She said it’d be great if a real magpie could be born out of the shards of the porcelain bird.”
“Not a bad idea at all.”
A skeet launched into the air, then shot and shattered. From the broken pieces a living bird would arise. Before the seated spectators, it would fly out of sight, abandoning the empress and all the might and majesty of the throne, along with the scores of assembled ministers and all their authority and expectations.
“She did not relish the thought of this newborn bird, after such an effort, crashing down into the gardens and breaking apart. Much more to her liking that it should disappear from sight.”
“Much more to her liking—”
Hisho nodded. Shouran had said nothing to him about this. But they seemed to be of a similar mind on the matter. Or rather, he’d never broached the subject directly with her. He had stubbornly pursued only his own vision. Only now with his own well run dry did he discover they had arrived at the same destination.
Hisho turned to the west-facing window. All he could see was darkness. During the day, the window revealed the narrow valley, wispy clouds curled around bare rock, the sight of the city far below obscured by thickets of pear trees.
“Shouran must have often taken in that view.”
Seikou followed Hisho’s gaze. His eyes opened a bit wider. “You mean the valley? Yes, well—”
“I wonder what she was really looking at.” He still thought it strange. What was she thinking when she gazed down at the ravine? “She said she didn’t want to see the world below. She must have meant it. But the more I think about it, if she wanted no part of the world below then why look in the first place? She often sat on a stone at the side of the courtyard and gazed at that narrow valley. What else was there but the world below?”
Seikou tilted his head to the side as if hearing a strange tale told for the first time. “Now that you mention it—”
Hisho recalled the heron perched on the Sekichou-shi’s balcony, that also stared down at the ruined world. Perhaps like the heron, Shouran chose to avert her eyes from the ruin of the world, not necessarily from the world itself.
“That couldn’t be it, could it?” Hisho said to himself with a grim smile.
“What’s that?” Seikou queried.
“Oh, nothing. The only thing to see here is the world below, exactly what she didn’t want to see. She patiently cultivated all those pear trees. It took a fair amount of time, but in the end that’s what she did. She covered up the misery of the world.”
“Covered it up?”
“You think not?”
“I wonder,” Seikou said, with another turn of his head. “The Shishou definitely said she didn’t want to see the world below. And yet that’s where she looked. I do think she that’s where her attention was directed. She fixed her gaze upon Gyouten.”
“Or rather fixed her gaze upon the pear trees. When the flowers bloomed, she narrowed her eyes and looked all the harder.”
“Except she’d sit in the same place during the winter, when the leaves had fallen, when all there was to see was the world below.”
“You’re right about that.”
Seikou got up and turned to face the window. The breeze brought along the lonely aroma of autumn. “Perhaps she didn’t want to see the world below because she knew too well the misery that existed there. She also didn’t want to hear any depressing news. That didn’t mean she didn’t know what was going on.”
“Yes. I had the feeling it was like the sound you don’t want to hear but you prick up your ears anyway. In the same way, she already knew what evil dwelt there, so she didn’t want to see it as well. But there are some things you can’t unsee. I don’t think she planted the pear trees to cover anything up. Rather—”
Searching for his next words, Seikou stared through the darkness at the world below.
“Rather, because they brought the world back to life. She loved to see the flowers bloom. Such a beautiful sight. Not because they covered up the ugly world. When the flowers bloomed, she could imagine the beautiful Gyouten she hoped for.”
Perhaps, Hisho thought. “I always got the feeling that Shouran was turning her back on reality.”
Seikou glanced over his shoulder and smiled. “I don’t doubt that either. She was not the kind of person to face reality head on. She turned her back and concentrated on what was in her own two hands instead. Though that doesn’t necessarily mean she rejected the real world.”
Hisho nodded. He got the feeling he understood Shouran better. Ignoring the world was his way of dealing with reality. He secluded himself in his room and did nothing but watch the days go by. Shouran turned her back on the world and shut herself away too. But that didn’t stop her from keeping her hands busy making porcelain magpies, doing what gave her joy.
He had to believe that everything she’d done up to now was Shouran’s way of confronting the world on her own terms. She’d never forgotten the world below. Even while stating that she did not wish to see the ruin and desolation, she longed for the day when flowers blanketed the world.
Hisho said, “We will make the kind of porcelain magpies Shouran wanted to make.”
Seikou nodded, his face filled with both grief and unrestrained joy.
“Let’s remember as much as we can about what Shouran hoped to accomplish.”