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Mother would unleash this densely laden imprecation whenever she flew into a rage.
Following her example, each of us brothers without exception had learned to yell "Drop dead!" whenever we entered a rage of our own. It is a crisp phrase of absolute denunciation, a phrase that rolls readily off our tongues from constant usage.
Mother hated to hear her sons use that phrase, but for all her admonitions to "love your enemy", she wouldn't hesitate to let out a full-throated, wrath-filled "Drop dead!" to any lout who raised her ire. Sometimes, if someone really got her going, she would go after them, throwing off our attempts to restrain her, and try to show them what she really meant by those words. Her awesome shows of force were valuable lessons to us about walking the walk.
The Achilles' heel of that plucky mother of ours was thunder.
A single clap of thunder would send her scurrying for cover, her fur all tense and aquiver. She wouldn't calm down again until she was safe within the mosquito net hanging in the inner recesses of the Tadasu Forest, with all of us at her side.
All of us would hurry back to her side at the first hint of thunder, huddling around her inside the mosquito net. We watched over her as she froze at the lightning flashing across the sky, and held our breaths, waiting for the thunder G.o.d to pa.s.s on by.
The most worrying part of all was that thunder would cause our mother's transformation to come undone. The sight of the ill.u.s.trious Prince in Black turning into a furry tanuki as he aimed his cue stick would most certainly cause no end of consternation, both in their world and in ours.
I pedaled like the wind down Higashi Ōji Avenue, past the streetlights reflected on the underbellies of the brooding clouds above.
Suspecting that Yashirō might already be heading towards Demachi Yanagi himself, I made a hard left at the Okazaki ca.n.a.l, going towards the Ebisugawa power plant. Water sloshed along sluggishly behind the sluice gate under the spare illumination on its journey down from Lake Biwa. Across the water stood a lonely bronze statue of Kitagami Kunimichi, the old prefectural governor and mastermind of the Lake Biwa ca.n.a.ls. Apparently, one of my ancestors, Shimogamo Tetsutarō, was on such good terms with the governor that they referred to each other as "Tets, m'boy" and "Kuni dear!", or so I've been told. Then again, for six months after his death Tetsutarō was still pretending to be alive, so the veracity of this claim is very much in question.
Approaching the sluice gate, I observed a commotion playing out atop the small bridge that spans the ca.n.a.l.
In the center of the bridge was a small tanuki curled up in a ball, not even trying to hide its quivering. From the way his behind was trembling so undependably, I knew without a doubt that it was Yashirō. A lucky cat statue roughly the size of an Asian elephant arrogantly reclined on the ground, blocking the north end of the bridge and leering at my brother with gleaming eyes.
My beloved little brother was being bullied by a slouching, slovenly lucky cat!
Sensing that I had a duty to fulfill as an older brother, I pedaled up and cried, "Never fear, Yasaburō's here!"
The lucky cat's bulbous eyeb.a.l.l.s rolled in my direction. I hopped off my bike and ran over to my brother, who buried his face in my arms. Gathering his furry body up to my chest, I stood up and glared at the lucky cat.
"Well, well, lookie who's here!" the cat cackled, ogling us with a look of satisfaction. Its chest heaved with each peal of laughter, jogging the wooden plaque that hung from its neck. The plaque said "Rouse Strength, Rise Again" in bold vaudeville-style lettering.
"Boom!!" a second voice shrilled, and out of the sky behind me fell another lucky cat, this one black. In addition to blocking the road behind us, it also crushed my bicycle. The plaque around its neck read "Higuchi Yachiyō".
Before us, "Rouse Strength, Rise Again"—behind us, "Higuchi Yachiyō". Of all the tanuki in the world, there were only two who would take pride in advertising their own stupidity by wearing slogans around their necks: Kinkaku and Ginkaku. These walking billboards were fascinated with four-character idioms, and were convinced that wearing them made them suave. But most of the time, they didn't even know the idioms meant; Higuchi Yachiyō wasn't even an idiom in the first place.
"Yasaburō. I'll have you know, your brother dumped all his work on the distillery floor and ran out of the shop!" Kinkaku appeared to be reveling in his lecture. "We let him study here out of the goodness of our hearts, and as repayment for our kindness, he tosses aside his work in our faces midway through the day. Most intolerable!"
"That's right, Kinkaku!" Ginkaku piped up behind us. "Intolerable!"
"It is the mark of a finished tanuki to exert himself without complaint until he has finished the work he is given," continued Kinkaku, who had never exerted himself for anything in his life. "I most certainly have no intent of meddling in your affairs, but I am deeply concerned for the future of the Shimogamo clan."
"The Shimogamos aren't but a bunch of good-for-naughts!" interrupted Ginkaku, a good-for-naught who never did anything more than halfway.
"That's right. Their second son is a frog, the third is a fool, and their youngest amounts to, well, this. But for the efforts of our family, the future of the tanuki world would look grave indeed."
"We've got you, Kinkaku! You're the shining star that lights our way!"
My brother was still shaking, and had completely forgotten how to transform, but I knew that he had dashed out of the factory in order to get to Mother. He was sensitive to a fault, and terrible at transforming to boot, so the merest hint of stress would send his tail shooting out. This unfortunate trait gave rise to his ignominious nickname, "Lil' Bushytail".
"Hey, Ginkaku," I responded. "You know that Higuchi Yachiyō isn't an idiom, right?"
"Don't try to trick me. Who do you think you are, some sort of idiom expert?"
"I hate to break it to you, fellas, but Higuchi Yachiyō is the name of a person," I said, in a pitying tone. "Names and idioms are very different things."
"Is that true, Kinkaku?" A note of uncertainty crept into Ginkaku's voice as he questioned his older brother, but Kinkaku's response betrayed no such doubt.
"Don't believe him. 'Higuchi Yachiyō' refers to a single bedraggled leaf caught at the end of a rain gutter. It is an idiom that expresses the melancholy of autumn. I read it in a book."
"I knew you were right, Kinkaku! That's what I thought it was, too."
"This simpleton is not worth our time," declared Kinkaku, taking an earthshaking step forward. "Now, hand over your rascally brother. We need to teach him a lesson. Our father has entrusted us with full authority, and that means that teaching Yashirō the true meaning of work. We can't shirk our duty halfway through, could we?"
"I respectfully decline, with my compliments," I said, hugging my brother close.
"As self-centered as ever, I see. I often think to myself what a deplorable state of affairs it is, for a tanuki to flout the rules so brazenly."
"That's rich, coming from you two!"
"We are superior, after all," Kinkaku stated, adding, "Footloose and fancy-free."
"Amazing, Kinkaku! 'Footloose and fancy-free' is such an obscure idiom!" Ginkaku crowed in admiration.
"Unlike certain people, we don't stalk the cherished daughters of other families," Kinkaku said snidely. "And by certain people, I mean you."
"What did you say, you miserable git?" I cried. "I've never done anything like that in my life!"
"Father was quite concerned about the enc.u.mbrance you would impose on Kaisei's future going forward. The agreement has been rescinded, yet still you persist. We no longer have any use for the blood of the likes of the Shimogamos."
Quite independently, the blood rushed to our heads of both me and my brother, and we simultaneously yelled, "Drop dead!"
"Is that so? Then I'm afraid your belligerence leaves me no choice."
"Get them, Kinkaku! Smash them into smithereens!"
A rumbling sound like the grinding of a millstone echoed through the sky. The thunder G.o.d had finally arrived above the city.
Yashirō whimpered and pressed his cold nose into my chin.
"Mother's in trouble, Yasaburō!"
"I know that!"
The longer I bandied words with Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the longer it would take for us to get to Mother. But Kinkaku and Ginkaku had the advantage in strength, and trying to take them head-on would be sheer folly. For the moment, it would be wisest to retreat, and think of a stratagem to squash these two another day, preferably without getting my hands too dirty.
Two gigantic lucky cats blocking the way in front and behind, and my hands full carrying my little brother. My mind raced to think of a way to make a quick escape.
But it turns out I didn't need to.
"Kinkaku! Ginkaku!" a voice snarled from behind Ginkaku, followed by the bowel-shaking roar of an enormous tiger. The blood drained from the faces of the terrible two, their appearances literally resembling porcelain lucky cats.
Panthera tigris: cla.s.s Mammalia, order Carnivora, family Felidae. Ranking with lions as the largest of the big cats, tigers can reach lengths of over two meters and weigh over two hundred kilograms. They are covered in elegant coats of golden fur with black stripes, and have been known to occasionally take down bears. In Asia, they are revered as the king of the beasts. They feast upon many things: humans, tanuki, porcupines, turtles, and even gra.s.shoppers.
Wild tigers do not exist in Kyōto—that is, unless a tanuki transforms into one.
"It's Yaichirō!" Yashirō exclaimed.
Our eldest brother conformed strictly to the taboos of tanuki society, and as such he would never transform w.i.l.l.y-nilly. The only exceptions were when his fury reached such heights that he transformed into a majestic tiger.
This tendency was what had earned him the nickname, "The Tiger of the Kamo River".
In a frenzy, Yaichirō sank his teeth into Ginkaku's hindquarters, which were conveniently located right beside him.
"Kyaa, not my b.u.t.t!" squealed Ginkaku in an unnaturally high-pitched voice, and the next instant he had turned back into a scruffy tanuki. Gently gripping the furball's rump in his fangs, Yaichirō swung his head in a wide arc, sending Ginkaku tumbling through the pale light of the streetlamps into the sky. "Someone catch me! I don't know how to fly!" wailed the airborne furball. His shrieking continued until he fell into the ca.n.a.l with a plop, and all was quiet again.
I prayed that the current would carry him far, far away.
Seeing his brother being swept down the ca.n.a.l toward the open ocean seemed to have hardened Kinkaku's resolve. His pudgy legs became lithe and slim, and his round, heavy belly shrank down. The extra fat around his paws melted away, and his rolling eyes narrowed into a cold, calculating look.
Kinkaku had transformed into a full-fledged lion, complete with a tawny mane around his head. He glowered at my brother, his body tensed and ready to pounce. Yaichirō tucked his head in and approached him cautiously.
My brother and I sheltered behind a telephone pole and watched as the improbable battle between lion and tiger unfold before us.
Without warning, Kinkaku pounced at Yaichirō. Between blurs of bushy mane and black stripes, it was hard to tell what was what, but after a few moments, I heard Kinkaku screech, "Not my happy place! Anywhere but my happy place!" and hanging limply from his "happy place", he turned back into a tanuki.
With a flick of Yaichirō's head, Kinkaku followed the path his brother had taken through the air, splashing into the Kamo River with a plop, and things were quiet once again.
A flash lit up the sky, and raindrops began to pitter-patter down around us.
Yaichirō reverted back to his usual human form, a young man wearing traditional robes. For a moment he glowered at Yashirō and me as we cowered behind the pole, then turned and gave a sharp whistle. A rickshaw came trundling up from the road where it had been patiently waiting. The rickshaw driver was actually an automaton, built by a famous craftsman in Kyōto a long time ago. It was quite old, having been pa.s.sed down to Yaichirō by our father, and its movements were jerky and stiff, but Yaichirō treasured it as a memento of our father, and had lovingly repaired it many times over the years.
Boarding the rickshaw, Yaichirō turned to us and shouted, "Stop dawdling! Hurry and get on!"
I rushed up to the rickshaw, still carrying Yashirō in my arms.
The rickshaw plunged through the maze of narrow streets. The rain was beating down harder now, but the driver paid it no mind and rushed mutely onwards.
Yaichirō had been attending a meeting in Gion concerning the balance of power in the tanuki world. His use of the rickshaw was probably an attempt to evoke my father's legacy, since my father had always ridden around in this same carriage, but this time the meeting had broken up inconclusively.
He was still stewing over the failure of the meeting, and with his worry about Mother's fear of thunder occupying his mind on top of that, it was plain to see that he was readying a lecture for his two useless little brothers, who had allowed themselves to be bullied by the Ebisugawas. He was scowling so ferociously that it was hard to imagine how his face could be more puckered than it already was.
"How could you let those Ebisugawas walk all over you and not say a word?" he demanded. "Have you no pride for our family, no instinct to defend our name?"
"I'm sorry," mumbled Yashirō in a small voice. He was in his usual form as a little boy, but Yaichirō's wrath had set him quaking again, and I was expecting his tail to pop out any moment now. "I did tell them to drop dead, though," he added nervously, though Yaichirō showed no sign that he'd heard.
"I'm afraid I'm not too familiar with the concept of 'family honor'," I opined.
"I daresay anyone who thinks only of amusing himself wouldn't understand," retorted Yaichirō. "Wayward as you are, I bet father is rolling in his grave."
"Father would never have worried himself about that sort of thing."
Hearing my rejoinder, Yaichirō was silent.
By the time we reached the café at the west end of the Kamo Bridge, the rain was pouring down, and a white haze flickered over the asphalt on Imadegawa Street. The sound of thunder struck fear into all of our hearts.
There was no sign of our mother in the billiards hall above the café.
Seizing one of the cue stick-holding students, we interrogated him for the whereabouts of the Prince in Black. According to his story, the black-clad youth's pale face had turned even paler at the very first thunderclap, and he tottered down the stairs out of the club. Shortly after, a hue and cry was raised downstairs—something about the sudden appearance of a tanuki—but by the time the players rushed down, the Prince in Black was nowhere to be seen.
"Must have gone home, I guess?" the student shrugged. We asked him where the tanuki had gone. "Dunno, it just disappeared," he replied, looking suspicious.
Our mother was missing.
The odds that she would make it back to the Tadasu Forest in this thundering storm on her own were slim to none. Maybe she was probably cowering in some dark recess, soaked to the bone; maybe she had been so petrified by the thunder that she had been captured by humans; maybe she had met her end on the b.u.mper of a car. Each flash of lightning that bedazzled the surface of the Kamo River brought new terrors swirling forth in my mind.
"Ah, Mother!" cried out Yaichirō, tearing at his hair in his distress. "If only you hadn't been playing pool!"
Yaichirō's emotional fragility was brought to the fore in times of crisis, causing his groomed veneer of decorum always fell apart. He demanded that we send out messages to every tanuki in Kyōto and organize a great search party for our mother.
"That's going way overboard, Yaichirō," I advised. "Do you seriously think that Mother would leg it all the way to Gojō or Nishijin? Let's just split up and search around the bridge."
"Yes, that's what we shall do. I shall take charge!" cried Yaichirō, raindrops trickling down his face. "Yaichirō, you go search around Dōshisha University. Have you got that? Oh—that's me. Never mind, I shall search towards Dōshisha. Yasaburō will search north along the river, and Yashirō will take the bridge. That leaves, er, Yasaburō to search the south by the river. Look carefully!"
"You do realize that I can't go north and south at the same time, right?"
"Incompetent wretch. Yajirō will go south then."
"Yajirō's at the bottom of the well in Chinnōji. Plus, he's a frog to boot."
"He revels in being useless, does he!" Yaichirō raged, tearing at his hair. "What have I done to deserve to be saddled with such a useless lot of brothers!"
"Easy there, Yaichirō. You're the most undependable one of all of us."
Yaichirō's agitation was concerning, but nevertheless we all went our separate ways through the storm to look for our mother.
Headlights floated hazily through the shroud of rain as cars pa.s.sed by over the Kamo Bridge. Orange lamps burned on the guardrails of the bridge, like markers guiding the spirits of the dead that were descending upon the city.
We scoured the area around the Kamo Bridge in the pouring rain, drenched and flinching at each thunderbolt.
I found Mother hiding in the darkness under the bridge.
I was wandering along when she raced madly up the riverbank and jumped into my arms, her fur thoroughly soaked, right as a blast of thunder shook the air. Tremendously relieved, I wiped her face, carefully parting the wet hair that was covering her eyes. She sneezed, kerchoo.
"The Ebisugawa girl was with me," she whispered, stiffening each time a flash of lightning split the sky. "She saved me just when I was on the verge of falling in the river."
It was pitch black under the bridge where she had been hiding, but I knew that Kaisei was in there peeping at us. Wiping raindrops off my face, I squinted into the blackness.
"What're you looking at?" Kaisei asked, sounding peeved. "Don't just stand there, get back to the forest already!"
"Well, I think a thank-you is in order."
"Never mind that, are you trying to give your mother a cold, you dummy?" Kaisei showed no sign of coming out from under the bridge.
I still haven't gotten a good look at her face—what I had said to Yajirō hadn't been modesty talking. The simple fact was that I had yet to lay eyes upon my ex-fiancee, whether in her tanuki form or in any other form. Neither did she deign to reveal herself to me. Instead she hid in darkness my eyes couldn't penetrate and belittled me. For someone who wouldn't show herself, she certainly had a foul mouth, which I am inclined to blame on her upbringing. To me, Kaisei was violence made verbal, flying out the darkness to a.s.sault me when I least expected it. Bellyfuls were the one thing she gave me in spades.
Back when we had still been betrothed, I often turned two things over in my mind: the weight of my father's promise, and the weight of having to live with this abuse from my unseen fiancee. Both these things seemed equally heavy, and it was a miracle that the invisible set of scales in my mind was able to take the strain. But during the course of all this agony, my father died, and our betrothal was called off.
Farewell, Kaisei, may we never meet again, I naively thought at the time, but to this day she still pops up when I least expect it, always with some new bone to pick. It is most disagreeable to be treated as an object to stave off boredom. And even worse than that is the abject indignity of being falsely accused by the Ebisugawa clan of d.o.g.g.i.ng her footsteps. Hardly a person in the world would fault me for taking offense.
Tonight, though, Kaisei had saved Mother, and for that I owed her my grat.i.tude.
I bowed my head head to my unseen ex-fiancee and said, "Thank you. Give my regards to Kinkaku and Ginkaku." (When you see them floating down the ca.n.a.l, I added parenthetically.)
Kaisei snorted in the darkness. "Take care on your way back," she said.
There we parted ways.
"The Ebisugawas can all drop dead," Mother remarked as I carried her along in my arms. "All of them, except for that girl."
I called over Yashirō from his aimless traipsing on the riverbank and caught Yaichirō as he galloped up and down Imadegawa Street, and boarding the rickshaw together we dashed through the rain back to the Tadasu Forest.
The moment we entered the forest, the dense canopy above reduced the torrential downpour to a fine drizzle. The sound of raindrops pattering on the leaves enveloped the trees stretching all the way to the north. Here and there, pale shafts of light stabbed down to the path, but inside the forest there was nothing to fear. I carried our mother in my arms, my two brothers close beside, as we walked down the long path.
Nestling inside a small mosquito net, we huddled our furry bodies close and stifled our breathing. Still soaked, Mother wrapped herself in a white towel and sniffed as she looked up to the treetops, watching the thunder G.o.d pa.s.s overhead. Yashirō snuggled up close to her, while Yaichirō bookended the two. Our breaths felt warm and damp in the gloom.
Pressing close to everyone and listening to the rain and thunder put me in a reminiscing mood.
I thought back to when Yashirō had just been born, my father had still been alive, and Yajirō was not yet a frog holed up in a well. Even Yaichirō had had his happy-go-lucky moments from time to time, not yet having taken up a mantle that was far beyond his ability. Then, we had still gathered around Mother whenever thunder rumbled across the sky. Mother would gather us all in her arms, her eyes shut, and father would squeeze us all in his broad embrace.
The memory always put me in an uncharacteristically sentimental, misty-eyed mood.
At last the thunder G.o.d moved on towards Lake Biwa, bringing the ruckus to the leeward side of Higashiyama.
"I'm so glad to have you all with me," Mother said in the still darkness. "Sō may not be here anymore, but at least I still have you."
Our departed father, Shimogamo Sōichirō, was the Trick Magister, and a great tanuki.
Not only was he the patriarch of the Shimogamo clan, his influence radiated far and wide throughout the tanuki world, and even the tengu that fly over the high-rises of Karasuma afforded him their respect.
Tanuki are a genial, unbegrudging bunch, generous to a fault. They are unrivaled in their love of alcohol and shogi, and despise bad booze and pointless turf wars. But once their ire has been roused, they will use all their strength and all their cunning and all their skill at transforming to obliterate whoever has provoked their rage in the most diabolical fashion possible. A dear friend of Yakushibō of Nyoigatake, otherwise known as Master Akadama, Father once played a trick on the tengu of Kurama and sent them scattering in panic. No other tanuki could have pulled off such a feat, besides my great father.
The tanuki that unites all of tanuki society is known as the Trick Magister.
As long as Shimogamo is the Trick Magister, Kyōto will be at peace. That used to be the general consensus, until my father's most unexpected demise.
The human secret society known as the Friday Fellows consumes tanuki stew at their annual year-end party. This practice is what has made them the scourge of every tanuki in Kyōto.
The year my younger brother Yashirō was born, the Friday Fellows gathered at their party, as they always did, and ate their stew.
The tanuki in the stew that year was my father.
When we learned that our father had died, we spent half the day in shock, before the tears started to flow. Yaichirō cried; Yajirō cried; I cried. Yashirō was just a baby, so he had been crying from the start. Once we started crying, we did not stop for a long, long time.
"As long as there have been tanuki, there have been tanuki stews. There's nothing extraordinary about it!" our mother said sternly to us wailing tanuki pups. "Your father was a splendid tanuki, and I'm sure that he was laughing quietly to himself all the way into the pot. And a fine stew he must have made it! That's just the kind of tanuki I expect each of you to become: high-minded, easygoing tanuki that can laugh in the faces of the Friday Fellows and their stew. But never try that out for yourselves!"
That was as far as she got before she too dissolved into tears, and gathered us all into her arms. "Please, don't any of you turn into stew!"
But my father quietly turned into stew, and his pa.s.sage through the innards of the eccentric Friday Fellows heralded the coming of troubled times for the tanuki of Kyōto.
We stayed up until the storm had pa.s.sed, talking.
"It's like you said, Mother; you raised us to be easygoing, but none of us three have turned out to be any use," I commented. "The fourth, of course, being a frog."
I could almost feel somehow the bitter smile on Yaichirō's face.
Mother pushed her nose into Yashirō's sleeping face. "You can be frogs or whatever you like. What matters to me is that you're still here." After a moment's contemplation, she added, "Besides, you're splendid tanuki, every one of you. A mother can always tell."