Excerpt: Closed Eyes
Ryo met Kei this past year, when she was working as a bodyguard and escorting a young merchant through Kei’s hometown. It was a half-false notion that in this town, women were easy to come by, as almost all of the men went off to fight, and had died, in the war. The young merchant, taking a fancy to Kei, and being angered by her rejection, tried to force himself upon her. Ryo killed him. She put her knife through his back between his shoulder blades, severing his spine while he fumbled with his belt.
Kei helped Ryo bury the merchant, and they took his belongings and made a comfortable life for themselves in Kei’s home. Kei had a father and two brothers; all had gone off to fight. Kei wasn’t sure what the war was about or who they were fighting with, but she often lamented that it was strange of men to go, claiming it was for their home and loved ones, but abandoning their home and loved ones in the process. She thought perhaps they just loved fighting.
Ryo often took odd jobs to help support them, as the merchant’s wealth had not lasted forever. It was autumn and the new rice crop was in. The harvest was laborious work, but it was honest and safe. She found that she cared more about risking her life now that she had found someone to love, and she knew that her newfound appreciation for life would only serve to get her killed should she return to her old days of constant battle. She would need to take a risk, she would hesitate, and then she would die. Ryo crossed the last hill and followed the path down towards the village.
The grass was green, swaying along the edge of the road, but the first chill was in the air, and she could feel the seasons changing. That almost imperceptible twinge, the feeling that autumn had arrived. She loved the feeling and often wondered if others felt it too. She walked on, mind now turning to the bath Kei had had likely drawn for her. Kei would note the chill, and surely the water would be warmed.
At last, she arrived at home, but where was Kei? Kei was almost always outside waiting. She would sit outside in the afternoons, back against their lone cherry tree, drawing pictures in the earth with a twig, or reading. She must have stepped out, Ryo thought. After all, Kei wasn’t outside every time Ryo arrived, just most.
Ryo proceeded inside. She stepped up the small step leading inside their home, walked through checking all of the rooms, and then continued out into the bathroom in the back. The room here was more of an outside area; still-green cut bamboo ran up from the ground, forming walls, and the inner floor gave way to dirt. There was a round tub in the corner just large enough for one person to sit and bathe in. The tub was empty.
Ryo went back inside. She thoroughly checked every room now. The slightest concern for Kei had, unbeknownst to Ryo, recessed her mind and her senses back into a time when they were sharper, back when both her livelihood and the lives of others depended on her every action. She glanced around, eyes scanning everything.
The dirt in the bath had been freshly raked, and her footprints were all that tracked there. The rooms were all clean and neat. There was something off about the kitchen, however. The table. Their small, seatless table had been moved just slightly. It was always lined up perfectly, running lengthwise from the section of wall between their bedroom and bathroom doors against the back wall. It was shifted a few inches in front of the bedroom door, and it now sat slightly askew.
Without thinking, Ryo righted the table, and when she did she noticed a small bundle of pink silk lying by the right leg. Kei’s belt. Kei had often remarked on how beautiful the cherry blossoms were in the spring, and Ryo bought her this belt while out working. The color was a perfect match to the blossoms, and it made Kei look even lovelier when she sat beneath their tree in the spring.
Ryo was growing more concerned. She stepped outside, and immediately she noticed something she would have never overlooked just a year ago. Footprints in the dirt. Not hers—Kei’s were there, but others too. Larger prints. The footprints of men. She went over to the cherry tree. Kei had been there; there were etchings in the dirt. It was autumn, and Kei had been trying to draw the tree in bloom. A spring tree for a fall day. Ryo almost smiled.
With no clues under the cherry tree, she turned her attention to the neighboring homes. Matsuka. Matsuka was a little old widow that lived just up the hill from them. She was one of the many women in the village who had seen their husbands off to war, only to never see them returned. Matsuka had remained faithful to the memory of her husband. She was just a young girl when he was killed, and even now as an old diminutive woman, she had never remarried and never spoke of another. She often worked outside in her small garden, which overlooked Kei’s house. She might have seen something.
“Matsuka?” Ryo called.
She stepped through her small fence and peered into the garden.
“This way, dear,” a voice replied from inside the home.
Ryo entered. The home was small, but there was room enough. Matsuka offered Ryo a bench. Ryo, though in a hurry, respectfully took the seat.
“So what did the girl’s father think of you?” Matsuka asked.
“What girl? Whose father?” Ryo responded, just as she put two and two together.
Matsuka continued. “I was concerned that he would be upset at your… arrangement. Not that I make any bones about it. Love is love, and at least she’ll never have to see a pretty lady like yourself off to battle. But nevertheless… fathers and their daughters.”
Ryo relaxed a little. So Kei’s father had returned from the war, and the other set of prints were likely her brother’s.
“I must have missed them, do you know where they went?” asked Ryo.
“Headed east in a big wagon. Thought you were with ’em, but my eyes aren’t what they used to be. I’d never miss her old man, though, ya’know, he used to try to come courtin’ in my younger days,” Matsuka replied.
Ryo felt herself tense again. Kei would not have left by wagon without notice… and then there was the belt and table.