The Legend of the Golden Flower by Paul Andruss
The priests kept the entrance to the shrine of the sun goddess Amaterasu, free of snow. It was here Okurimono sang and danced, protected by the temple wall from the worst of the mountain wind. Even in this sheltered place the wind’s ferocity drove all feeling from her fingers and face. The young girl stamped hard and clapped her hands around herself in comical exaggerated movements as she entertained, simply to keep warm.
Her mother’s maid, Ucosan, constantly reminded Okurimono she must learn to endure pain if she wanted to be like her mother. The mind and the body are at war, she said, and the will must conquer weakness. When Okurimono complained, Ucosan told her, pain is a woman’s lot. Everything in this world has a price. Art demands the greatest price of all.
Without hesitation or pause, Okurimono bowed when a group of pilgrims threw coins; no doubt charmed by the sight of a young girl singing and dancing so exquisitely. The payment was welcome. Ucosan had sold nearly all of her mother’s jewellery and silk kimonos to survive. Now with winter refusing to leave the mountains, money was scarcer than ever.
Yet money was not the reason Okurimono danced at the shrine. She danced to honour Amaterasu and her mother’s patron Uzume, the goddess of mirth and revelry. When the storm-god destroyed Amaterasu’s rice fields and killed her maid, Amaterasu retreated to a cave. The world grew cold and dark.
Not one of the gods could tempt the sun from the cave until Uzume, the dawn goddess, danced and sang such comic songs the other gods grew helpless with laughter. Overcome by curiosity, Amaterasu ventured out to see what caused the merriment.
Okurimono did not dare to think one of the goddesses may be gracious enough to notice her devotion and drive away the demons causing the bloody flux on her mother’s lungs. This hope she kept locked in her heart, in case an idle thought betray her to the many vengeful kami and yokai that haunted wild, forgotten places.
Uzume’s dance, to tempt the sun back to the world, was the first Okurimono learned. Her mother once said, they were the first steps Izumo no Okuni taught her when she was as young as Okurimono. Her mother had smiled, fondly recollecting those comic and often rude Kabuki performances. She told her daughter how the refined clients of Shimabara’s most famous tayū would have feigned outrage at such ribaldry; no matter how they might secretly enjoy it. Then she laughed, hearty and common as Ucosan. How Okurimono wished her mother would laugh like that again.
Tempestuous clouds hid the mountain tops. The day grew dark as night. The pilgrims hurried to seek shelter in the inn. The streets were empty and shadow haunted. A storm was coming. It was time to leave. The old priest tending the shrine came to lock the gates. Watching the wind shake powered snow from the pine trees on the hills, Okurimono pulled on her broad-rimmed bamboo bonnet and quilted kosode.
The peaks above the trees were lost to the swirling white of the blizzard. Snow women demons prowled blizzards. White of hair and skin they sucked warmth from any person they caught. She threaded the scattered copper coins on her purse-string with numb fingers; reckoning their worth in bowls of rice. Dutifully, she bowed to the elderly priest, leaving a few precious coins as an offering.
Turning a corner, the full force of the storm hit Okurimono. Stinging snow blinded her. Wind snatched breath. Feet froze, sinking past her ankles in the deep drifts. The world was lost to thick flurries. All she could do was to bow her head until her chin touched her chest and keep walking.
Approaching her home, the wind paused. Driven snow eddied helplessly, its purpose momentarily forgotten. In the eerie calm Okurimono saw faraway snow women searching for victims. She heard a snow woman scream. They had found her. It was not a snow woman, but a huge black eagle flapping over the roof tops. Birds did not fly in snowstorms, unless they were demons. This was not good.
Okurimono watched the bird drop something from its claws. A pale golden ball of fur hit the deep snow lying on the pitched roof. She watched it roll. Instinctively running forward, with arms outstretched, she caught the bundle, clutching it to her breast.
Only when she had it tight and secure did she dare look. A tiny fox cub mewled and stared at her with large intelligent eyes. Safe and warm inside her padded kosode she felt its little heart frantically beating. Sudden as it came, the squall died. The last snowflakes fell, slow and gentle. The snow women fled.
The fox cub was an omen. Okurimono was sure of it.
* * *
Okurimono took off her shoes to enter the house.
The old woman scowled to disguise her relief.
“Foolish child,” she snapped. “Have you forgotten about the snow women? What have you there?” she asked without waiting for a reply.
Okurimono took the fox cub from her quilted coat to show Ucosan.
With a look of wonder, the old woman cooed, gently stroking the pup’s pale fur.
The animal yawned unperturbed.
‘The snow women came. He protected me.’
“The goddess heard your devotion and instructed Inari to send one of his messengers. The good god of prosperity is smiling. Let us show your mother.”
Okurimono took off her wet heavy coat. ‘How is Mama?’
“She took some soup today,” said the old woman carefully. “Come, she waits.”
Okurimono’s mother was wrapped in quilts. Her skin looked white, except for a single patch of colour under the dark stained hollows of her eyes. She smiled; lips grey and bloodless.
Okurimono knelt before her mother, taking her hands and touching them to her forehead. Her mother’s hands were colder than Okurimono’s, and she was caught in a blizzard. In contrast, Mother’s forehead felt hot and damp as she kissed it. Her mother suppressed a cough.
“Come child, eat,” said Ucosan hastily.
With a backward look at her mother, Okurimono knelt before the irori, grateful for its radiant warmth. Ucosan placed slivers of tofu and dried fish on two bowls of rice and a ladled broth from the cooking pot. One she gave to Okurimono, the other to the fox cub.
Later, Ucosan told Okurimono to entertain her mother with a song. Picking up the long-necked gottan, the girl tuned the lute’s three strings. Her mother gently corrected Okurimono’s mistakes until stopped by a coughing fit. Okurimono did not mean to look as her mother took the cloth from her mouth. Seeing bright arterial blood, she lowered her eyes, ashamed she might shame her mother.
After making her mistress comfortable on the futon, Ucosan drew a battered paper screen to divide the room. Returning to Okurimono, the old woman thoughtfully stroked the fox cub’s silky fur, as it lay by girl’s side, nestling on the hem of her kimono.
Ucosan liked to reminisce about her mistress. Okurimono learned everything she knew of her mother from Ucosan. It was not polite for a woman of her mother’s quality to speak of herself. Her role was to serve others.
As always Ucosan began by saying her mistress, the Lady Fujiko, was the most accomplished tayū of Shimabara’s floating world. Okurimono knew the story by heart, but cherished the telling. It left her feeling close to her mother in a way she no longer could; now she was older with responsibilities.
As a child her mother was adopted by the renowned Izumo no Okuni, a priestess who danced and sang to earn funds for the temple in the dry river beds of Kyoto. Okuni became famous for her strange affectations of mixing men’s clothing with women’s and wearing the cross and beads of the sour smelling Portuguese black priests. Her antics shocked and amused the Nippon people, to whom politeness and obedience was everything.
Okuni taught a group of destitute women acting, singing and dancing so they could make a living. Known as kabukimono, ‘the crazy ones’, they put on amusing versions of the great sagas. Audience favourites were the Tale of Genji and the war story of Heike, with, most outrageous of all, its women samurai. The women played all parts, male and female, riotously mimicking love-making between man and woman, man and man, woman and women, or even men pursuing men, who were in fact girls dressed as boys.
The more famous the kabukimono became, the more the shōgun grew displeased. Their performances attracted crowds from all walks of life. The warlord of all the Isles of the Rising Sun did not think it seemly for peasants to mix with nobles and samurai. Order required everyone to know their place, and keep to it.
Angered, the shōgun banned women from performing kabuki, dismissing them as little more than harlots. Privately, many wondered what business was it of his, how they put a little extra rice in the bowl? The shōgun preferred all-male kabuki troupes. It led some to suggest the ban was prompted by his preference for men in other ways too.
Unable to perform, the female players fled to their old lives. Now they were celebrated as skilled performers, they were taken to the heart of the floating world rather than being forced to live on its fringe. Okurimono’s mother, still a girl, no older than Okurimono, was the most exquisite and talented of all the kabukimono. Okaa-san, the revered owner of the Spring Garden House trained her as orian.
“Of course, your mother became the most desired courtesan in the land,” said Ucosan. “So famous she attracted the eye of Tadanaga, the shōgun’s brother. Tadanaga was born with all the blessings: a great military leader, clever and charming. Loved by all, he loved only your mother. He bought your mother’s contract from Okaa-san and they lived together happily, until his jealous elder brother, the shōgun, accused him of treachery and ordered him to commit seppuku. Your mother, knowing she was lost, fled over the mountains to this village to protect your life.”
Seeing the child was falling asleep, she added, “Come let us all sleep with your mother for warmth. Bring our friend too. I have an old bed for him.”
‘Do you think he is really kitsune?’ Okurimono whispered, heavy eyed.
The old woman laughed. “He opened an eye when you spoke. If he is a kami, he is a young one.”
‘Perhaps he came to make mama better.’
“Spring will cure your mother better than any spirit.” Ucosan replied. Seeing disappointment on Okurimono’s face, she relented. “Perhaps he will protect her until Amaterasu comes to shine her warmth and bring the world alive.”
* * *
Okurimono woke thinking she heard whispering. The house was silent, except for the wind creeping through crevices and cracks. In the dim light from the brazier, she saw a swarm of eyes watching her from the paper panels of the shoji screen dividing the room.
Mokumokuren, she thought, remembering Ucosan tales. Mokumokuren were not harmful kami, merely curious. They liked to peer where the barriers dividing the worlds were tinged by sorrow or neglect. As Ucosan said, what greater sorrow was there than an ill-kempt house? Perhaps they wondered why the shoji screens panels were unpatched, or the walls let in drafts? Because mama is ill, she wanted to shout.
The eyes were not watching Okurimono, but her mother. Afraid of what she might see, the girl turned around. Seven ghosts hovered over her mother. These were ghosts of people haunted to death. In turn they haunted the sick, drawing out what little strength they had; knowing when they died their spirit was compelled to replace one of them.
Knowing she saw them, and not caring, the ghosts began whispering again. Although Okurimono could not hear the words, she knew they discussed her mother’s death. The girl wished she was brave enough to chase them away, but fear held her immobile. Rushing from her side, the little fox cub snapped and growled until the ghosts retreated into the shadows.
He is a kitsune sent to protect her mother, she thought.
But he was not strong enough to banish the ghosts. They would return to claim to her mother’s soul as their due.
Next morning Okurimono told Ucosan what she saw. The old woman listened without interruption.
“You should take the cub to the shrine to find his mother.”
‘Who will protect Mama?’ Okurimono protested.
“Child, the Buddha teaches each path is determined before birth. Your mother’s fate is written. Take your friend home. You never know his mother might be grateful and may take pity on us.”
The priest was delighted to see the cub. He told Okurimono his mother was indeed one of the fox spirits guarding the shrine. When she set the cub down, he scampered off towards a group of foxes eating the food the priests put out daily. A golden tailed vixen stopped eating to lick and nuzzle him.
‘Respectfully priest, can you ask Tenko, the fox spirit, to help my mother? She is sickened by the seven ghosts.’
“How do you know of the shichinin misaki?”
‘Mother’s maid knows many things.’
“She told you this?”
‘Respectfully, I saw them last night. The cub chased them away but they will return.’
“Perhaps he asks his mother. But child, she would have to be a powerful kitsune.”
‘A nine tailed fox spirit.’
The priest laughed. “As you see, she has one tail.”
‘But they are shape shifters. Perhaps she hides her magic?’
“Or has no magic. What do the doctors say?”
‘They came until the money went. Now they can do nothing.’
“I have some dried herbs to balance the chi and cool the blood. It will help your mother’s strength.”
‘The herb of youth?’ asked Okurimono expectantly.
“It is no magical herb, just chrysanthemum, marigold and others leaves. Tell her maid to make tea.”
On the way home a beautiful lady stopped Okurimono introducing herself as Tamamo no Mae.
Okurimono’s heart stopped at the name.
“My son tells me your mother is haunted.”
Okurimono looked at the floor, respectfully remaining silent. From beneath the layers of the woman’s ornate silk kimono swished a fox’s tail; not one tail but many, three or four, or more.
“I secretly put the herb of youth in the priest’s tea. You know about the herb of youth?”
‘Yes,’ said Okurimono eyes fixed downward, fascinated by glimpses of furtive swishing tails, sweeping the snow from the kimono’s embroidered hem.
“It cannot save your mother alone,” the lady warned. “You know of the sacred chrysanthemum?”
‘Yes. It was brought from China by a group of pure youths and maidens. The Chinese emperor though they might exchange the scared flower for the herb. But the youths never returned. They knew the wicked Emperor would use the herb to live forever.’
“They became the guardians of the sacred imperial chrysanthemum. Over time wise men combined it with the herb of youth and other magical flowers. It will chase the seven ghosts from your mother and keep her strong.”
‘Respectfully, honoured lady, how can I find the imperial chrysanthemum? For it is the Emperor’s alone.’
“Your mother was the most beautiful tayū in Kyoto. She was the concubine of the shōgun’s mother’s favourite son. With so many powerful friends you should not abandon hope.”
Okurimono bowed low in thanks. When she looked up the beautiful woman had gone, leaving no trace in the snow.
Hurrying home Okurimono thrust the parcel of tea into Ucosan’s hands. Her news came tumbling out, making no sense at all. With patience Ucosan pieced the story together.
“This is foolishness, child.”
‘You told me wonders all my life.’
“As stories for children,” scolded Ucosan. “The late spring moon brings your twelfth year. You are no longer a child. You must find an apprenticeship before your mother dies and work unceasingly to prove a worthy successor to her name.”
Okurimono knelt before Ucosan. With head bent to the floor to show respect, she said defiantly. ‘She will not die. I will go to the shōgun’s mother, my grandmother to demand an imperial chrysanthemum for the concubine of her favourite son.’
“Do you foolishly think if you cut each fragile petal into a thousand ribbons your mother will live a month for each, like the girl in the old story I told you?”
Okurimono blushed, saying nothing.
“Child, everything dies,” said Ucosan, tears choking her voice. “You are most like her when you are stubborn.”
“Tell me, how will you get to Kyoto? It is almost four ri; a half day walk for a grown man in good weather. Think of the evil mountain spirits haunting the way, the jami, the snow women. How do you know your good Lady Nogitsune means no harm? Her name belongs to a malicious celestial fox.”
‘She is no wicked kitsune. You did not see her or speak with her. She will guide me, for my kindness to her son.’
Ucosan relented. “Let me speak to your mother. If you feel the same tomorrow, leave at first light with our blessing.”
* * *
At first light Okurimono found Ucosan sweeping the hearth clean of last night’s ashes.
‘I have not changed my mind,’ she told the maid.
“Go with your mother’s blessing, and mine,” Ucosan replied.
“Here is a bento bag with some food for the journey, a letter and an incised piece of jade. Keep it safe. It is your introduction”
“Follow the path past the shrine through the mountains. Mid-afternoon you will arrive in the outskirts of Kyoto. Seek the Shimabara district. At its heart there is a house named the Spring Palace. It has a row of sculptured cherry trees in blue porcelain pots and a moon-gate entrance.”
“If anyone questions you, say you work for the Lady Yarite of the Spring Palace. They will not anger Lady Yarite by molesting you. When you arrive, show the guards the jade and say Fujiko-san requests an audience.”
“Address Lady Yarite as Okaa-san, revered mother, do you understand?”
“I was Lady Yarite’s maid before I served your mother. Your mother was her favourite apprentice and her greatest tayū. She has written to Okaa-san explaining everything.”
“Do whatever Okaa-San asks. Do it well. Show your skills and Okaa-san will help. Do you remember all that?”
“Then, go and be safe.”
* * *
Beyond the ancient shrine, the village road deteriorated into a treacherous track, twisting through steep sided hills covered with pine. Here the thin dawn light was sucked from the sky by a canopy of black needled branches. Even snow could not reach the forest floor, but lay in scattered drifts obliterating fallen trees, moss covered rocks and who knew what else, leaving them shapeless and sinister.
Okurimono never ventured beyond the town in all her eleven years. Ucosan’s tales of the world were all she knew. Ucosan said mountains were deadly places where evil yokai dwelt; wicked mountain Jami, spider demons and giant man-eating centipedes. There were aobōzu, ghostly blue priests that steal children, bloodsucking spider women and shapeshifting spirits. Racoon-kami that turn into cyclops-priests, mountain weasels with curved razor-sharp claws, and badger-kami in the form of monks tempting thirsty travellers with water or tea, before turning into faceless ghosts.
In a lonely clearing Okurimono saw the sunshine had crept down from the barren peaks to the wooded slopes. Wreaths of pale mist thickened in the trees before swirling into the shadowy valley. This mist was enenra, the all-devouring monster of smoke and darkness. Enenra made it seem as if the day was reversed, and the rising sun brought deepening night.
At the far end of the clearing she spotted wood smoke, the fires of charcoal burners.
Okurimono was almost foolish enough to seek company and warmth before remembering Ucosan’s warning. Rōjin no hi, the old men of the woods, invite you to sit by the fire; then devour you when you fall asleep.
The air grew colder as Okurimono ascended ever upwards through the gloomy trees.
Weariness, like a demon on her back, weighed increasingly heavy. Perhaps a yokai would entangle her lags as she walked along a precipice. She would fall and end up another vengeful ghost of this wild forsaken place.
Afraid, she jumped at every strange noise. She grew convinced a buruburu possessed her, a spirit of cowardice and shivers. Okurimono wondered if she should abandon her quest and run all the way home. The thought of her mother made her forge on.
With face stung by the bitter wind, she blindly followed the narrow path. Climbing through the trees, until she realised she was lost. In despair she sank down beneath the low branches of a tree. Almost touching the floor, they kept the ground dry and free of snow.
Okurimono knew she must not sleep. Some trees were jubokko and would drive their roots into her if she slept, to suck her blood. She huddled fearfully against the trunk, nervously pulling the quilted kosode tighter, praying she had not been tricked by the Lady Mae.
Okurimono heard something drop through the branches. Her imagination conjured images of akateko, demons resembling severed red hands scrambling through the boughs. Or tsurube oloshi, laughing heads that drop from trees to devour you.
With a thump two creatures landed. They pulled open the pine needled branches to peer at her. She peered back, not quite believing what she saw. They were no taller than Okurimono with large heads and bodies covered with red hair. They jabbered at each other like monkeys.
Okurimono knew kijimuna tree sprites were not unfriendly. But they were tricksters and you must beware. Their favourite trick was to sit on your chest until you could not breathe. If one liked you, he might let you ride on his back and would take you where you wanted to go.
However, if one did, you must not break wind, Ucosan warned. That was impolite.
The kijimuna looked at her curiously, deciding what to do with the creature, no doubt as strange to them as they were to her. Thinking quickly Okurimono pulled out the parcel of cold rice Ucosan packed for the journey. With a deep bow she offered it to the kijimuna. One came forward timidly, snatched the parcel and tore it open. The other, fearing he might miss out, shoved in his hooked fingers and pulling out a handful of rice shoved it in his mouth.
His companion looked on in horror, before slapping him soundly across the head. He retaliated by punching his friend so violently the rice parcel flew out of his grasp. As it descended they both leapt into the air to grab it.
Okurimono burst out laughing.
Shocked, they stopped to stare at her.
Swiftly Okurimono snatched up the rice parcel from the floor, mercifully largely intact, and broke it into two, offering one portion to each. After a moment’s hesitation, each grabbed a share from her hands.
They looked at what they had. Then looked at what the other had. With an enraged howl, the first lurched at the second. His companion was too quick. He leapt up grabbing the branch with his free hand and in the wink of an eye was clambering up the tree, with the other in hot pursuit.
Still laughing, Okurimono scrambled out of her shelter to watch their antics. Waiting for her was the beautiful lady Tamamo no Mae, floating on a golden cloud. Her nine foxtails, somehow freed from her kimono, wafted through the air behind her like a peacock fan.
“I see your little friends have banished the fear yokai,” she said with amusement. “You have done well, Okurimono. The hardest part of your journey is over. Above the next ridge your descent begins. I have sent a friend to guide you.”
Okurimono bowed in gratitude. When she looked up the celestial lady fox was gone.
Somewhere in front of her, Okurimono heard chi-chi-chi and followed the sound to a small bird, standing on a moss covered rock. When it saw her, it fluttered onward to a branch, scolding her to hurry. This was yosuzume, a mountain sparrow kami. Each time it seemed she might catch the sparrow it flew off once again, to wait for her approach. In this way Okurimono soon found the lost path.
As the sparrow flew off, Okurimono heard something in the undergrowth. She was not afraid.
Stories said mountain sparrows led travellers to okurio-kami, the escort wolf. It was the protector the celestial fox, Lady Mae, meant.
Okurimono never saw her wolf escort, although he never left her side. The kami stayed hidden in the undergrowth. Whenever she crossed a bridge, or the forest thinned, the wolf was magically waiting on the other side.
By noon she reached the pass. In the far valley she saw villages surrounded by rice fields and beyond them a pall of yellow smoke, from the wood fires of Kyoto. Standing on a mound, high above the smog, was the mighty five-tiered stronghold of the shōgun. Pale stone walls and fluted tiled rooves rose pagoda-like, one storey upon the other, into clear blue sky. It was so beautiful Okurimono thought it must be a house for the gods. It was in that beautiful place Okurimono would find her grandmother.
* * *
Spring was in Kyoto, if not yet in the mountains. The road into the city was lined with peasants preparing rice fields. The blossoming plum orchards hummed with bees.
The round moon-gate to the Spring Palace was flanked by pots of dwarfed cherry trees dripping in pink tinged flowers. Okurimono peered into the courtyard, thinking she had never seen anything so beautiful. Its pavilions looked to be as much of a playground for the gods as the formidable donjon of the shōgun’s castle.
The guards at the gate stepped forward, jabbing the air with iron tipped bamboo spears.
“Scram!” cried one.
“Come back in a few years. You’re too young for a tart,” laughed his friend.
Okurimono did not flinch. After the dangers she faced on the mountain road, these men seemed foolish.
“I come from the Lady Fujiko-san for Okaa-san, the Lady Yarite of the Spring Palace.”
She reached into the bento bag and presented the piece of jade.
“Step inside.” said one as the other shouted a curt order at an old servant woman.
Ignoring the soldiers, but bowing low to Okurimono, the old servant gestured her to follow.
Inside the compound, Okurimono was surprised to see many finely dressed and immaculately painted women kneeling patiently inside a cage.
“Who are they?” she asked in awe of their beauty and clothing.
“Do not look at them,” hissed the old servant woman. “They are yūjo, available to anyone with the price, no matter samurai or peasant.” With many impatient gestures she waved Okurimono past the women.
Outside a grand house, with a majestic cedar shingled roof, the servant signalled Okurimono to wait as she hurried up the veranda steps with much bowing to the servants at the door. A few moments later a magnificently dressed old woman came out.
Remembering her manners, Okurimono, got down on her knees and bowed her forehead to the floor. ‘Okaa-san.’
“No,” snapped the old woman harshly. “Who are you?”
‘Tengoku no Okurimono,’ she answered. Kow-towing with supreme politeness Okurimono presented the jade and letter stating her business.
“Wait,” said the magnificently dressed old woman and hurried inside.
She reappeared moments later. “Come.”
Okurimono took off her shoes on the veranda. A maid hastened out to take her benyo bag, hat and kosode. Another appeared with towels and a bowl of jasmine scented water to wash her hands and face. A third and fourth opened and readjusted the folds of her kimonos. When the magnificently dressed old woman considered her presentable, she impatiently gestured for the inner screens to be slid open.
Okurimono followed her to a room where a large handsome old woman knelt on a cushion. She wore an ornate black wig with many combs and was dressed in the most exquisite embroidered black kimono Okurimono had ever seen, extravagantly tied with bright obi sash.
In her hand was her mother’s letter.
Knowing this must be the Lady Yarite, Okurimono dropped to the floor touching her forehead to fine woven tatami matting. ‘Okaa-san.’
“Stand up child.”
“So Tengoku no Okurimono, you are my Fujikochan’s daughter.”
The old woman smiled revealing the black lacquered teeth of the Emperor’s court. It left Okurimono in doubt of her importance. She bowed trembling, barely daring to speak.
“Fujikochan was my greatest achievement and most bitter disappointment. Now she sends you. Come, tell me everything from the beginning. I am greedy for gossip of your mother and that rascal Uco.”
Bearing in mind Ucosan’s advice, Okurimono knew everything depended on her story. This had to be the best performance she had ever given. To win over such an august person as Okaa-san, she must use all her skills.
As she told her story, Okurimono was pleased to see Okaa-san smile. Once or twice she burst out laughing, without covering her mouth. She sounded as hearty and common as Ucosan. When the old woman laughed Okurimono paused, so she would not miss the next part of her tale. During these lulls she snatched sly glances at the maids giggling breathlessly behind their hands, sounding no louder than mice.
At times Okaa-san slightly declined her head, causing two maids to rush forward with dazzling white handkerchiefs to dab beneath her eyes, so no tears would mar her perfect make-up. As Okurimono paused, she noticed the maids slyly take handkerchiefs from their sleeves to dab under their own eyes.
She bowed when finished, as much to conceal a smile of triumph, as respect for her honoured patron.
“Tengoku no Okurimono: Heavenly Gift. Indeed, your mother sent me a rare gift in you. How like your mother you are. In your wild tale of yokai and kami I hear my dear Ucochan. She was always a liar,” she added with affection.
“What is it child, out with it.”
‘Respectfully, my mother is ill, Okaa-san. I beg of you, arrange an interview with the shōgun’s mother, my grandmother.’
The old woman laughed aloud. Snatching a handkerchief from a maid to wipe her own eyes, she ruined her make-up. Catching her breath she asked, “Your mother told you this?”
‘Ucosan.’ the girl replied.
“No doubt she did.”
Okurimono looked puzzled.
“Child, the shōgun’s mother died long ago and his brother ordered to kill himself before you were conceived. A rich Nagasaki merchant bought your mother’s contract. I told her not to accept; she had a place with me. Your mother did not listen.
“A few years after you were born, the shōgun expelled the Portuguese black priests infesting Nagasaki like a plague and banned all foreigners from the land. He ordered all Nippon to recant the filthy superstition of their shamefully crucified god.”
“Many in Nagasaki, rich on foreign trade, rebelled against our rightful lord. Your father was crucified, along with his family. His wealth confiscated. Your mother, as his concubine, was to be sold. I helped her escape over the mountains with what wealth she could carry.”
‘Respectfully, my mother is dying.’
“She said she was dying in her letter. What do you want, child?”
‘Respectfully Okaa-San, I came for the imperial chrysanthemum to heal my mother.’
“Only the Emperor has the imperial chrysanthemum. It is rare and expensive. Fortunately I have a taste for rare and expensive things.”
“Shall we make a deal, you and I? The flower in payment for a contract binding you to me. I shall train you as I trained your mother. Make you the greatest tayū in Kyoto. What are your skills? Do you know the tea ceremony?”
“Can you write poetry?”
‘I can write my name, but I can sing and dance. I can show you.’
“Are you not exhausted, child?”
‘Woman is made to serve and please. Pain and weariness are her lot,’ said Okurimono formally. ‘Everything worthwhile has a price, Okaa-San.’
“Art demands the greatest price of all. It is what I taught your mother.”
A maid brought Okurimono a long necked shamisen and a plectrum. Okurimono deftly tuned the lute’s three strings and began a lament from the ancient tale of Genji.
When the song ended, Okaa-San asked. “How old are you child?”
‘In a few moons I reach my twelfth year.’
“The same age as your mother when she came to me. Normally, I do not begin training until girls are a few years older.”
She clapped her hands. A maid hurried carrying a potted plant. The imperial chrysanthemum had one large bloom, a golden daisy surrounded by sixteen broad petals. “Do we have a bargain?”
Okurimono could have wept with joy. ‘Oh yes, Okaa-San.’
* * *
With all the excitement, sleep eluded Okurimono. Okaa-San had promised to send a litter to collect her mother. By tomorrow evening, Okurimono would see her mother and Ucosan, and know if things had transpired as the nine tailed fox, Lady Mae, promised.
Drifting off to sleep, a premonition made Okurimono open her eyes and sit up. Her mother stood in her room. Wan as moonlight, she flickered to and fro like the flame of an oil lamp guttering in a draft. At times she almost faded away until Okurimono could see the panels of the shoji screen through her. This was her spirit image, her ikiryō, a living person’s soul most often seen near death, when the chains of life are weakest.
She cried out in anguish.
A maid rushed in, bowing as if to an honoured guest. “Okurimono-San?”
Okurimono knew what she had to do. ‘Bring scissors. Quickly.’
Ucosan told a story of how a girl cleverly saved her mother’s life with a chrysanthemum. A young girl, with an ill mother, met a kindly kami who said her dying mother would live a month for each petal on the chrysanthemum in her room. Cleverly the girl took her scissors and cut each petal into many strips, ensuring her mother a long, long life.
Alone in her bedchamber, Okurimono did the same, using the scissors to shred the chrysanthemum’s petals into ribbons. She worked feverishly. When she finished, Okurimono inspected her handiwork with horror. Each damaged petal was wilting.
Had she saved her mother, like the girl in the story, or merely hastened her death?
Exhausted Okurimono flung herself on the mattress and cried herself to sleep.
Next morning Okurimono saw the chrysanthemum flower was a vibrant golden globe of a thousand slender petals. Tamamo no Mae, the nine tailed fox, had sent a miracle, just as she promised.
Sunset found Okurimono expectantly waiting at the Moon-gate for her mother’s palanquin. As it grew dark, her maid came to take her to her room. She explained it was not appropriate for the patrons to see one so young and assured the girl her mother would arrive tomorrow.
Yet, it was the same story the following day. As the maid collected her once again,
Okurimono respectfully asked her if Okaa-San would allow her to return home to see what the matter was. The maid frowned at the request, but promised to ask.
In the afternoon on the third day, the maid interrupted Okurimono’s lessons with many apologies. A runner had arrived. The mother’s litter was expected.
Eagerly Okurimono snatched up the golden chrysanthemum and followed the maid to the moon-gate. Her heart pounded with excitement when she saw the closed litter carried by four strong bearers. Rushing outside the compound she waited impatiently by the potted cherry trees as they put down the brightly painted yellow kago with its sumptuous curved roof and gauze curtained windows.
One of Okaa-San’s guards opened the door.
Okurimono’s heart leapt at the sight of a delicate bright kimono.
Ucosan stepped out.
‘Where is Mama?’ Okurimono cried, afraid she knew the answer.
Ucosan’s eyes filled with tears. Spotting the globe chrysanthemum, she quickly composed herself.
“Okurimonochan, my news is both great and terrible. Two days ago, I was happy to see your mother whole and well, her colour and appetite returned. We congratulated each other on our good fortune, as I heard a rapping at the door and my heart sunk like a stone.”
“Outside was Lady Tamamo no Mae, the nine-tailed fox, in her finest kimono. Oh my child, you had cut this beautiful flower into so many petals her life was now too long. The divine Emperor and the shōgun would demand the same lifespan from the gods. There would be no peace between earth and heaven. As she was as long lived as a divine sage, the Lady Mae had come to take your mother to dwell for evermore among the immortals.”
As Ucosan spoke a breeze snatched the blossom from the potted cherry trees. A shower of petals drifted like snow. One touched Ucosan upon the lips.
Okurimono burst into tears.
“No tears here,” said Ucosan. “It is not fitting.”
* * *
Under the tutelage of Okaa-San, Okurimono became Kyoto’s most famous tayū. Men paid five years rice in gold to spend a single night in her company. Many nobles offered to buy her contract. She refused each offer.
Of course you will not have heard of Okurimono, you only know of Kogane no Hana, the Golden Flower. The name she took on the day she became orian.
And that is her story, or at least the story she told when she was old and mistress of the Spring Garden Pleasure House, to young girls sold by their parents to train as orian, and missing their homes very much.
At the end she would add reflectively …
“That is why the word for Floating World sounds the same as Sorrowful World. For everything in this world has a price and art demands the greatest price of all.”
To find out more about the background and research into this beautiful story and to discover more about the author Paul Andruss... The writing of The Legend of the Golden Flower