By Sam Tjahjono
A cry erupted from the shore of Edo Bay to the north, beyond the reeds that swayed in a sudden gust of wind. The fugitive turned to meet the sound.
He’s over there, on the path, said the voice from the shore. Even though the fugitive could not see very clearly in the deepening dusk, he knew the voice belonged to one of the doshin. He could hear the men scrambling from a boat onto the shore, which was hidden from sight by an embankment.
However, they soon came into view, their black kimonos thrashing in the wind. There were five of them in total, moving in single file like insects on the sand. Two of them carried lanterns, while the other three wielded various sasumata with which to ensnare and subdue the fugitive. These they brandished like grotesque antennae silhouetted against the indigo sky.
The doshin, in the employ of the machi-bugyo, had chased the fugitive here all the way from the Kyobashi district—where he had purchased a scroll of poetry—across the Eitai Bridge and the canals feeding into Edo Bay: a total of six miles. The whole time they had pursued him, all he could think of was the geisha he had been involved with, and who had recently disappeared.
Could they think I am responsible? he wondered. Am I responsible?
What have you done with the geisha? one of the doshin called out, as if in answer of his question. Where is she? If you are innocent, just let us bring you to the machi-bugyo—let him know where you stand.
But the fugitive knew this was not true: if the geisha had left Edo like she had often threatened to do, or if they suspected he had harmed her, then the machi-bugyo would most likely have him banished, or even executed.
And so he toiled on into the evening, hoping to outpace the doshin long enough to lose them under cover of night. The path widened before him as he neared the boiling houses at the edge of the salt field, and the geisha was everywhere on the shadowy loam before him. Beads of perspiration trickled into his eyes, almost blinding him, and he wondered what evil she might have submitted to at last, alone.
The fugitive’s bare feet stung as he kicked through the piles of salt that littered the ground in snow white gashes. The sharp crystals bit into his heels, and he began to track blood, a trail for the doshin to follow. All the while he remained silent, deigning to ignore the calls of the men who kept pace behind him.
To the west, the sun sunk below the horizon, and the fugitive no longer ran toward its light, but rather away from the fiery orbs in the lanterns the doshin carried.
Soon, the field gave way to the eastmost marshes, where rows of sedge embroidered the gassy soil and the saltworkers’ buckets lay in stacks by the water like vestigial shrines. He ran between these, carelessly navigating the zigzag ridges of earth and jumping between footholds, splashes erupting in great brown gouts as though before some amphibious monstrosity.
Finally, the fugitive reached the end of the peninsula: he had nowhere left to run.
Exhausted, he stumbled into the water. The fecund sludge of the marshbottom gave way beneath his feet. Tangled roots and algae wrapped around him, and he somehow felt warm in their slimy grasp. The sloshing footfalls of the doshin were close behind him now, and as he knelt in the water, the mud sucking at his knees, he thought again of the geisha.
And so, when he crumpled under the iron heft of the doshin’s jutte, his mind was already on the last time he’d been with her. Perhaps a month prior, the sharp clove fragrance of the geisha’s perfume had filled his nostrils as he lay beside her on the futon mattress. They had never had intercourse, despite the list of reasons he’d recited to her, but he always felt impossibly close to her in these moments.
And now once more, the fugitive wrapped his arms around her in the limited darkness of the dream. He inhaled the silk smell of her kimono, its pattern of cerulean irises on red brocade brushing against his face. Beside them, licorice smoke came up from the incense that burned in the censer.
She was telling him, tearfully, of the mizuage ritual she would soon undergo, in which her virginity would be sold to the highest bidder. She had been bought, she said, by a man in fine green damask, a man with many coins. Silver and gold exchanged for blood, he thought, her face buried against his chest. Her untainted blood. The sweet smoke from the censer hung around them like a cocoon.
Come away with me, she pleaded, Anywhere but here. I’m not ready to be a woman. Not like this.
No one’s ready to leave their childhood behind, he replied in a futile attempt to calm her. But you must always be ready to meet what comes next. I, for one, chose Edo. My parents chose Edo, too, and their parents before. A place has been set aside for us here, with people to wait on us. You have a place here, too. The city is good to a geisha.
She looked at him then like he was a stranger. The city gives a geisha nothing, she said, as though balancing her words upon a knife. I own nothing but my reputation. And what is that worth?
Your reputation is worth a good deal, he answered, sitting up. You make many men happy, just like you make me happy. She gathered her kimono up against her chest, staring at him guardedly. Looking down at her, he realized that her kimono matched the pattern of the silk sheets on the mattress.
Why won’t you come with me? she said. Her tone was flat, as though she did not expect an answer.
I’m not yet ready to leave Edo, he replied after a pause.
Don’t you love me?
Three months together are not worth a lifetime of security. That was what he said, though he grimaced immediately after doing so.
She got up without saying a word, then straightened her kimono and left the bedchamber. She did not even glance back, to see if he’d follow and attempt to soothe her fear. Her girlish fear.
The memory dissipated when he awoke from the concussion in the jail in Kodenma-ch?. He was sitting down, tied to a post in a mossy courtyard. The early morning sky churned a deep violet above them, and the smell of rain mingled with the tinge of blood in his nose. He winced. Everything was too bright. He sat there blinking. Before him stood three new doshin, whom he had not seen before. They towered like statues before him in a semicircle.
One of the doshin poured a bucket of water on his head. The icy splash burned his skin, brought him gasping back. Another doshin hit him from behind with a jutte.
Tell us what you’ve done with her, they kept saying. Tell us why you ran.
Though he was dazed and sore, he dimly realized the choice that lay before him: he could tell them he knew nothing, which would be a noble thing, he thought. Or, he could tell them that he’d known of the geisha’s desire to leave and had failed to make this fact known. Either way, they would torture him, and so he decided silence was his best option: he was no longer the fugitive, but rather the accused.
Perhaps they will find a trace of her, he thought, maybe even in the next few hours, that will divert their attention from me. Perhaps they will realize I am innocent.
For the time being, however, that was not the case. They would torture the accused, they said, until he was ready to speak to the machi-bugyo. Was he prepared to receive his punishment? He answered yes without hesitation.
And so, when they interrogated him the first day, he took solace in the notion that he was being persecuted for his love of the geisha—that there was nobility in his silence. The doshin, on the other hand, assumed that he’d either kidnapped the geisha or killed her out of jealousy, to keep the man in green damask from having her. They knew she’d told him about the mizuage arrangement. She had failed to appear at the ceremony on the appointed day, and as it turned out, the man in green damask was related to the shogun of Edo himself. He was furious that his prize had been snatched from him, and so he had ordered the machi-bugyo to send his doshin after the client of the geisha he presumed responsible.
The second day, the doshin tortured the accused further. Give us a name, they told him, of a person or place, and we will consider it a boon to the shogun. Otherwise, we will deliver justice in proportion to murder.
But the accused did not answer, confident in his newfound purpose. So they again took him out to the courtyard, where they stripped him, flogged him, and soaked sheets of bamboo in water before jabbing them under his fingernails. The wood beneath his nails expanded for an agonizing hour, uprooting his nails in the process.
He became delirious from the torture. The pain made him guilty, made him want to confess to every charge the doshin leveled against him. But still he struggled to hold fast to the principles he believed himself to possess, though his resolve faded as the punishment continued.
The machi-bugyo, however, did not come to speak with him. Still the doshin insisted that the accused confess. It was inevitable that he did so, they said, so he might as well get it over with now.
And yet he waited, though only until the third day. In the small hours of the cool morning, a beggar boy, lice-ridden and coated in grime, slipped into the jail while the doshin on guard relieved himself in the courtyard. The boy handed the accused a letter through the iron bars of his cell, his eyes averted, and then departed without a word.
The letter was from the geisha, though it was unsigned. The accused inhaled the clove fragrance that still permeated the paper. Morning rays slipped through the cell bars from the outside. The doshin would return soon to check on him and most likely resume the torture. So he read quickly.
In the letter, she told him things he did not know about himself. That his mother’s death and his father’s banishment for abandoning the service of the shogun must have been hard on him. That he was unable to love her because he only knew how to care for himself. That he loved her only with the view of Mount Fuji from high above the bustle of the people in her lofty tenement.
She went on to say that after their last meeting, she had realized he was not worth losing a part of herself in a manner outside her own terms. She would not tell him where she was, but he should know she was now far outside the walls of the city, far beyond its reach.
You see, inconvenience overcomes love, she continued, in every circumstance. Not even the shogun’s brother will be able to convince himself that hunting for something lost is a worthier cause than simply discovering something new.
The accused shivered in his cell. The cold morning air had begun to seep in between the bars like water through a sluice.
However, the geisha went on, who knows the hearts of men, and when they may change? There was a way for him to get out of Edo, but he must follow her plan exactly. He must tell the machi-bugyo that he knows where she is, but that she will not show herself unless the man whom she loves goes with them. So he will go with the machi-bugyo to Ikegami, the southernmost town of Edo, where she grew up. There, a childhood friend of hers will help him escape, hide him away beneath the floorboards of a teahouse.
Her friend’s name was Atsuko. Honest Child.
Of course, you can never return to Edo, the geisha went on. You will be executed if you do. So you must live out your days in banishment. However, if your circumstances have changed enough to force your heart from its shell, then go to Kyoto. People change like the winds at sea, and so when I am older, I may someday change my mind about you.
Someday, maybe we will meet in Kyoto.
This was the end of the letter. The accused traced the ink with his finger, salt crystals dried beneath his eyes. He considered the letter, the parchment in his hands that was suddenly warm like flesh and blood in his hands.
The stillness was broken by the sound of the jail door creaking open: the doshin had returned from outside. Moving his fingers like they were frozen, the accused tore the letter into strips and chewed them up, one by one. The paper sucked the moisture from his mouth, scraping its way down his throat. It settled in his stomach like a paper nest.
Only one piece of the letter remained, but he did not dispose of it. Instead, he clutched it in a shaking fist.
Outside, the doshin’s keys jingled in his kimono. Outside, the doshin lit the paper lanterns that adorned the cell exteriors.
When he got to the accused’s cell, the doshin paused, a jutte gleaming in his hand. He considered the man accused of depriving the shogun’s brother of his prize. He saw before him the wretch holding a tatter of paper in a clenched fist, but what he could not yet see was the writing on the paper.
What’s in your hand? he demanded. Where did you get that? The wretch opened his mouth as though to answer, but no sound came out.
If the doshin could read lips, he would have made out a name:
Sam Tjahjono recently graduated from the University of North Texas. While there, he cast a wide net of interests, which ranged from his study of writing and rhetoric, to his midnight wrestling matches with stories and stanzas much tougher than him. UNT’s literary journal, the North Texas Review, published two of his poems, and he went on to be the poetry editor for the journal’s Spring 2016 edition. Currently, he lives in Denton, Texas, with his fiancée, infant daughter, and a three-legged cat named Pollux. He would love nothing more than to one day meet the ghost of Roland Barthes.