Secrets of Shadows
By Clive McNaught
Keicho Year Nineteen, ‘The Month of Letters‘, Twelfth Day
(15th August 1614 in the modern calendar)
For once, this particular part of the Nishijin district is spared the rattle and clatter of hand looms. The weavers are absent from Asamura’s modest workshop. He has only the sounds of the streets to tell him what hour of the day it is. The young apprentices have long since tramped from the nearby guild-lodgings to wherever their masters are currently working. Even the yelled inquiries from porters as to the whereabouts of so-and-so’s place have momentarily subsided. For once, he is on his own. And although busy with his samples and lodgements, he is enjoying the quiet.
The shuffle of feet. A visitor? Looking up from his abacus and ledgers he peers out of his little room, down into the street-level hallway. He is curious as to who the quiet caller might be. It is customary to announce oneself with a greeting when passing a threshold, something this particular visitor has omitted to do. A few more steps forward reveal a dusty priest in brown travelling robes. He stands in the entranceway, wide brimmed straw hat still in place despite the shade offered by the hallway of the tradesman’s abode. Wrong place, most likely. Often happens. Asamura notes he has neither begging bowl nor staff and no rosary depends either from his wrist or neck. He can just see also the lack of split-toed leather socks. They are a luxury that has to be earned, so their absence is usually the sign of a novice. His sandals are poor and tattered and his darkened feet display the red colour of sores from under the hemp rope straps and the accumulation of grime from many a dusty road.
“Welcome.” Asamura says gently. He is of course surprised, though not unpleasantly, at the visit. The applicant turns and takes in his host in at a glance, who is comfortably seated on the floor behind his small table.
“Good morning.” he tries again.
Still, the newcomer says nothing. But he moves a step closer to the doorway of the draper’s little room and begins to examine inside. He is most curious about the room indeed and his impassive face scans the untidy interior. The small table where the host sits is barely visible on account of scrolls, paperweights, spikes with dockets of various kinds impaled on them and a well used ink-stone, replete with several other accoutrements of note making. Beside that is a long tobacco pipe with a bamboo ashtray which has been removed from the tobacco tray on the floor. Further off to his left a tea kettle sits upon its robust wooden stand, a circular off-cut from a plum tree felled many years ago in the little garden at the rear. With his small writing brush tucked behind his ear, Asamura sits like a monkey discovered in a bush, not sure whether he should be startled or mildly curious about the reason for the intrusion. Oddly he feels as if he may as well be one of the swatches or bolts of striped cotton samples that litter the floor for all the attention the newcomer pays him as his eyes survey the entire contents of the room. To him, it seems, it might as well have been the tea kettle that spoke the words of welcome.
The stocky cleric reaches to the rope chin-strap of his hat and gently pulls it up and over his head. As he removes the item, he bends down and turns his back with a heavy sigh, removing his sandals. He turns once more and mounts the landing step that runs the full length of the hallway. Asamura’s eyebrows rise. As the visitor comes up, his face momentarily enters the darkness. Taking the massive straw dome of the sun-hat with him, he enters the little room, his bulk managing to briefly obscure the light from the hallway behind him.
“Oh, yes, do come up Reverend.” the host blurts out after the fact, perturbed at the unannounced intrusion, yet determined not to be impolite. “Of course, yes… rude of me not to invite you.”
It occurs to him briefly that perhaps the poor visitor is incapable of speech.
“What a poor host I am sometimes.” he offers modestly. It is an instinctive effort to save his guest’s face, though unintentionally the words sound hollow.
The newcomer’s bulky frame clears the doorway and the chamber returns to its former half-brightness. He steps forward into the comb of shadows that the opened window slats have cast, their dark teeth drawing across the entire contents of the place, slicing the sun-lit cloud of blue tobacco smoke. It leaves the host’s perplexed face illuminated in bands as stark as those on some of the cotton swatches that surround him.
Still sitting cross legged Asamura bows inadequately several times and affects an uncomfortable grin.
“What can I do for you, Reverend?” he asks doubtfully.
Still, the man makes no reply and instead wearily makes to sit down on the floor opposite his host. He sets his hat down first and finally seats himself heavily with an ungraceful thud that sends the dust of many a Kyoto street puffing up into the air around him. It mingles with the tobacco smoke as he settles himself.
It seems to Asamura a long time before he speaks.
“Is it here?” he drawls. “Is it?”
Zenihiro is dumbstruck.
Then again, quietly, “Is it here?”
Clean shaven cheeks frame his flat nose and scant, dark eyebrows sit beneath a recently razored head. So recent that there are even still two or three nicks which have barely begun the process of healing. It looks like he’s done it himself. Strong cheek bones announce steady eyes that seem to be actually looking at Asamura properly for the first time.
“Now what exactly do you mean, Reverend?”
The stranger heaves a slow and steady sigh. His voice, too, is slow and deep and as steady as his eyes but Asamura can’t yet place the accent. He has an air of imperturbability about him. He is drawn, hungry looking and deeply tired.
“The cotton finisher.” he drawls.
Then, slow and patient, “She has something. Is it here?”
“Uh, I don’t know. She’s not here just now. Is anything the matter? Can I help you, Reverend?”
The guest takes a deep breath. Then, lowering his tone just a little, asks:
“Where can I find her?”
It is more than instinct which now prompts Asamura to be vague.
“Well, I’m not quite sure now. I suppose she may return before nightfall.” He is careful not to mention her name. “But then again, perhaps not. She has so many errands to do, you see. She’s out looking after several different customers at the moment.”
He isn’t being convincing and he knows it. It isn’t even the middle of the day, so even if he were being believable the guest would probably be just as disappointed. Not that he shows it in his face. He begins to examine his host more carefully now, much as he has just done to the room itself.
“She may visit Takahiro.” he says and instantly regrets it. Still, it’s a common enough name. Could be anyone.
Unsettled, Asamura remains outwardly calm and senses that he must draw upon all his considerable skills of persuasion. He doesn’t know what he should do exactly, but that’s fine. That’s often the way with chat. You can’t always predict it, set out a course for it.
“Would you care for some tea?” he asks, hoping to at least draw the man into some semblance of a normal conversation. “You must be thirsty, no?”
The guest looks at the tea kettle, thoughtful for a moment. Yes, that’s it, Asamura thinks. He’s surely coming round now. But no. Just as he thinks the man is about to assent, the large head starts to hang low and he gazes down at the floor. His mind seems to be absent entirely. He makes no reply.
Confused now, the host wonders if he shouldn’t show some concern. Perhaps he should offer help. Softly, he asks.
“Are you all right, Reverend? Is something the matter?”
The visitor seems surprised by the question. Perplexed even. He lifts his head.
“Am I all right?” It’s as though he’s checking he’s heard it properly, or perhaps puzzled at having been asked something he finds most bizarre. It’s as though he’s just been asked ‘Are you a dog?’ or some such nonsense.
Quietly he shifts his broad frame, putting his right hand on the floor and changes his seating position. He raises himself slightly and settles down again, this time on his knees. He’s peering at Asamura intently now. His slouch is entirely gone and his gaze falls down to the draper from its new, slightly elevated height. For some reason it locks Asamura in a frozen panic. Without warning, the stranger’s hand darts out at great speed. It is withdrawn almost as quickly. Between thumb and forefinger he dangles the little writing brush, lately tucked behind the draper’s left ear. Asamura is astonished. But the deed is complete before he has time to effect any physical response. Apart from his jaw dropping open, that is.
Grinning, the stranger now twirls the brush in his thick fingers looking at it as curiously as he had done Asamura himself only a few moments ago. Panic receding and allowing himself some relief, the host even considers whether he should comment on the brush, another attempt to draw the man into a conversation. But the visitor’s face becomes serious once more and his gaze returns smartly to Asamura.
It’s here that the priest lets loose a quiet, cheerless laugh. Then another. At first it is entirely bereft of either smile or jubilation. But quick upon its heels comes another. Then another, and before long the chortles join together in an amplifying cascade of what is surely genuine mirth. Asamura catches it too, and begins to chuckle also. His great tension, until now steadily rising, at last collapses into relieved laughter. And for a while the two strangers just sit there, giggling away like idiots, staring alternately at each other, then at the little paint brush.
Of course, it’s not long before Asamura realises that he doesn’t quite understand the joke and his gentle guffaws slowly run out of energy. Just as he is beginning to inwardly chide himself at having been alarmed at the crazy old priest, who has evidently spent far too many hours chanting himself into trances in the sun, there is a sudden silence as the visitor’s giggles come to an abrupt halt. It’s as though Asamura has accidentally run into a wall. The visitor is still grinning. But the grin is utterly without mirth.
Swift, the hand reaches out again. This time he clutches Asamura’s hair behind the head. At once it is pulled swiftly downwards, the cranium connecting firmly with the solid table. The skull cracks like an egg on a kitchen cutting board and he loses consciousness at once. Which is a mercy considering what is going to happen next.
On occasion, Kano has had cause to perform calligraphy in public not with a large brush but with a donkey’s tail. This can be a most messy endeavour and one he is about to be reminded of. Having spent most of the early hours of the morning assisting in neighbourhood fire prevention duties around his home, he is currently making his bleary-eyed way to Asamura san’s residence. On a morning like this they may, he hopes, share a smoke and perhaps some late breakfast.
Inside, he will soon find that everything is just as chaotic as it normally is in Asamura’s little office room. Kano always remarks how odd it is that Asamura is meticulously tidy in the workshop but messy in there. Today the chaos and mess have never reached such depths. Asamura is, of course, no longer at work, being deceased. As Kano approaches the building, the draper lies inside. Slouched across the table, his smashed head leaking, visionless eyes directed vaguely in the direction of the little tobacco pipe near his nose. In the corner is a Kimono box. It is open, having been searched, the Kimono itself spilled out onto the floor. Miraculously, it is free of either blood or ink. This is a most unlikely occurrence since most other things in the room have a trace of both on account of the mess created when Asamura’s favourite little paintbrush was hammered full length into his ear with the ink-stone.
Unaware of what he is about to find, Kano calls out a cheery greeting as he crosses the threshold.
Using a handful of rice which he purloins from one of his work colleague’s secret hiding places, Takahiro persuades a bath house nearby to allow him entry. It is frequented by some of the lower jobbing craftsmen who trade without a workshop. It is, therefore, marginally above his station. He receives a cordial if uninterested welcome.
It is quite dark inside for reasons of modesty, and men sit or squat together amid billows of steam around a central pile of charcoal-heated rocks. Takahiro is more than weary and he eyes the bath-house girl entirely absentmindedly as she splashes some more water on them from a little wooden tub at the request of one of the clients. One of them grins at Takahiro, seeing him stare at her and mistaking it for a leer. No, she’s not much to look at, he thinks to himself as she comes round behind him and sets about her work. She takes a straight stick of hardwood with a thin, flattened edge and begins to scrape and swipe at his back, periodically wiping the stick clean with a small cloth. Takahiro always feels like a pack-horse when this is done to him, as it is just the way the ostlers off-load sweat from tired ponies in the evening, especially when the nights get cool. Tonight, however, he does not dwell on the sensation for it is not only the grime of the streets but a deep weariness that gently oozes out from his pores.
Shortly, the cleaning is finished and all the men are seated outside on the little terrace, listening to the sound of the cicadas and letting the last of the moisture evaporate into the warm evening air. Tobacco pipes are produced. He doesn’t feel like talking to them and so gazes out onto the dark street, listening to an especially vocal cicada somewhere on a roof nearby. Out of a shadow a lone cat gently slides onto the dusty road and casts a cautious glance in his direction, before pouring itself back into the dark again.
Not much caring for the tobacco habit, Takahiro soon excuses himself, replaces his jacket and wearily tramps on home, not at all aware of the unhurried figure that emerges from around a nearby corner and casually follows him right into the entranceway of the labourer’s quarters.
Shock. Takahiro is trying to make sense of what is happening, but some part of his mind seems to be moving a blind spot over the issue at hand. An unanswered question. What was it now? “Is she here?” someone has asked. Yes, that was it. And then it’s not important. Not at all. Takahiro has a feeling that perhaps he’s suffered a massive and sudden blow to the head. Which of course he hasn’t. He is sure. Next, sensation of falling. But he isn’t. Something badly amiss.
The face in front of him. Stranger. Is it? Badly shaved head. Some beggar-priest or thug ronin. Don’t know. Didn’t know. A metallic taste in his mouth - copper? - is the next impression, one he vaguely recognises. A reminder of childhood, of grazed knees, and that time he’d nearly cut off his own finger by accident when he’d taken a knife of his father’s he wasn’t supposed to. Ah, yes. That’s it. Blood. His own of course. Although he doesn’t yet feel any pain, he is becoming aware of the sword lodged in his torso.
Evidently it has entered just below his left rib and is now embedded somewhere near his right hip bone. Not that he dares to look. There is no movement from either man. His own hands are raised high, he sees now, palms together in a gesture of supplication. He remembers. He’d been asked where Ai the cotton finisher lives. And Takahiro had been happy to tell. Then the silent plea for mercy. Just as he is debating whether he should lower his hands from this entreaty in an attempt to hold his guts in, the weapon is withdrawn in an abrupt pull further down to his right. It exits just over his hip bone. Splatter against the wall. Like some dog pissing. As gravity finally lowers his arms a brief desolation flits across his face. He loses consciousness just as the pain lightning-bolts into him, never having realised that the sword has split his spinal column on its way through his body. He is therefore mercifully unaware, as his legs begin to buckle, of the slow turn and slide of his torso as it starts to separate itself from his crumpling lower body or of the sluice of dark gore which makes a considerable impact on the ceiling saturating the assailant in the process.
Home. The glow from the little oil lamp on the shelf behind her has softly banished the shadows to the corners, there to wait until she is ready for sleep. Since the scant light may attract a stray mosquito or two, she has lit some incense, specially made to dispel them. And yet although she is exhausted the time for sleep may be a while distant as her mind is still running fast.
Barefoot, Ai the cotton-finisher sits quietly on a floor mat beside the hearth, now covered up with its summer boards. She has removed her head scarf and hair-pin and set them down beside her. She is beginning to relax, carefully considering the new curiosity in her lap. Spread across her simple pale blue smock and brown work trousers, the rather exceptional piece of cloth would normally draw her full attention - she is aware it must be an off-cut from a Chinese Kimono of great expense and antiquity - but even this has been pushed beyond the reach of her consideration by what lies in her hands. Unwrapped, a flaking, pale ivory-white face peers back at her from its background of red and green silk wrapping.
Delicate and remarkably light, it is the face of a woman. Ai wonders for a moment if it is from a Noh play. Yet it seems somehow just a little too crude - inexpert, almost - for that. Although such performances are hardly occasions for those of low birth like her, she knows a little of them from her uncle Kano’s conversations on such matters. On reflection, this item may be a little too antique to be one of those. Yes, definitely too old. It could well be the face of a goddess of some kind - from some simple country shrine or other. And despite it’s crudity it has a quality that captivates her. A certain stillness. Atop the tall, wise forehead, impossibly high eyebrows vaguely suggest themselves in darkened, aged paint. Above them, hair has also been painted so that a clear parting is visible directly in the centre. Thick, cracked lips - barely open at all - refuse a smile. Expressionless, the whole face seems to beckon her to its hidden interior. And yet the leisured eye slots strongly resist any such intention on Ai’s part.
She is uncertain whether the lips are meant to be open or closed. Perhaps the Goddess is just about to speak. Or perhaps has uttered some unknown word and it would be no sound of this earth either, Ai thinks. The eyes are narrow - cut slots the shape of almonds, not quite fully open. Yet neither could she say they are closed. Somehow they appear to be looking down on her. They see and understand Ai. Yet whatever wisdom may drift within remains in abeyance, locked behind that simple layer of cypress wood and crumbling gesso. It is a face which all at once promises hidden fire yet remains stubbornly aloof.
The scratching of sandals on the dried mud outside in the street rudely rouses Ai from her near trance. From the sound she can easily tell that it’s not her uncle. It is someone heavier. She waits either for whoever it is to move on or for the infuriating sound of urinating against the wall, a common enough occurrence at night. She waits long enough to wonder if the person is actually still there. Even long enough for the first suggestion of sleep to lay an impish hand upon her.
The next interruption, however, is not one of annoyance but extreme alarm as a clunking attempt is made to slide the front door open. The effort fails, since the door is secured by a simple wooden latch. At once, Ai stands. Within her, fear strikes sharply at the sound of a heavy object being inserted into the slight gap beside the latch. As she hastily extinguishes the oil lamp the darkness floods back towards her from its brief exile in the corners and she accepts the enveloping shadows with the scant relief of a hunted fox. As the wooden door-pin begins to creak under the strain, her already racing heart accelerates further. By the time the inevitable sound of the snapping wood assaults her she has hurriedly wrapped the mask back in its covering. She places it inside the front fold of her smock beneath her left breast - where her heart promptly takes a leap as the heavy door slowly begins to grind open on its dusty runners. The faint glow of a lantern enters the threshold. It renders the paper sliding-door between Ai and the intruder a golden yellow. Upon it now, the plane of his shadow. Flat, ridiculous. A shadow puppet, no less. She watches in compelled terror as a hand separates from it and pulls the outer door closed. Behind the screen, a breath away, he stands. Stock still. Waiting. Listening.
Ai knows she cannot move. Even the slightest adjustment in her balance may cause the floorboards to sing out. She hears him move one step closer, signalling his intention to enter the room. She holds her breath and tries to think. A weapon. Her only hope. What is there? The bamboo tube bellow? It’s shut up in the hearth under the boards. Some other heavy object? As her racing mind clutches at desperate options the intruder’s feet shift again. Not to the entrance directly in front of Ai, as she’s expected, but on down the corridor. Directly towards the rear of the house. Slowly. But what relief is there in this? It will only gain her a few moments. Two steps, then three. Now, upon the paper that shields her, an extension to the shadow. A drawn sword. The shadow moves on.
She resolves that stealth is her best option. She has a breathing space at least. But he will come in. This much is certain. Could she just run, she wonders? Use his increasing distance from her to get a head start and bolt out the door like a deer? Perhaps. Now four steps. But the door is shut and it’s heavy. Five. She decides he’s still too close for that to succeed and determines to wait instead. Six steps. If he gets as far as the kitchen, then it might work. Seven.
It’s here that he seems to change his mind, for he stops again. After a pause Ai hears the gentle grind of sandals turning on the earth floor and the glow of the lantern begins to make its way back up to where it’s just come from. She must move. She has to match his steps and move in the opposite direction, towards the back of the house. Maximising the distance between them is her only chance. Perhaps she could conceal herself in uncle’s studio - yes, the door is open. And so is the one to the scullery… Just as she is about to make a move, timed at the same moment as his footsteps, she notices a tiny glow at her feet - the mosquito incense. Sacrificing a precious moment, she bends down and silently extinguishes it between finger and thumb. If he sees it lit, he will know for sure he has company.
At the next footfall she shifts her weight and sends a swift foot across to where she believes a solid floorboard lies. The one she has stepped away from emits the faintest of creaks. The intruder pauses and Ai is frozen, straddling the unsound boards between them. Is he asking himself whether he just heard that or not? Her heart is pounding but she keeps her breath slow and steady. Her stance is broad, with one foot still on the place where she had stood a moment ago and the other further into the room. Both hands clasp at the mask under her clothes, for fear it may drop. Her eyes have begun to adjust to the gloom now. She judges the floor ahead. Every day of her life, she’s walked it. She waits. Waits for his next step. When it comes, she is ready.
She makes her judgement. As he moves she takes three large steps in time with him. One - two - three. The intruder and her stop together. Success? Perhaps. Yes. So far, anyway. She is at the open threshold of the studio and the intruder is behind her, almost at the sliding paper screen door where she had sat. In front of her now are the noisiest floorboards of all. But this time she doesn’t wait for him. She knows her ground well. Three long strides across the rickety floor, trusting her full weight to a known strong-spot with each long pace and she is at the scullery threshold. Behind her the sliding door is drawn slowly back and the glow of the intruder’s lantern bleeds inside.
Ai needs just two more steps. As he places first one foot then the other up onto the narrow outer platform that runs the whole length of the earthen corridor, she is on the little scullery landing. She places a trembling foot down onto the mighty stepping stone, thanking the Gods for it’s solidity, and drops silently down on hands and knees onto the earth of the lower kitchen floor just as the lantern swings in by the hearth and long fingers of probing shadows reach the full length of the house touching her disappearing back.
He pauses. Crouching as low as she can bear, she can only imagine what he is doing. He is certainly very still. He waits a long time. It’s only now that the wave of realisation sweeps over her. The danger she is in is extreme. Mortal in fact. For the past few moments the urgency of sudden fear has compelled body, breathing and judgement just as she might have wished. But now she has to try hard to regularise her breathing as the impulse that has just saved her life - so far - threatens to slump into a paralysing fear.
Behind her, determined footfalls recommence, heavily pressing the boards. They travel first from the hearth then directly into the studio, sending out wooden creaks and groans that seem to search for her chilled heart just as the long shadows have done. Halfway across the studio, they stop. He must surely be looking into the kitchen. If her back is visible she is surely done for. If he comes farther? She waits, her hard won breath now held like some oyster diver. Just one more step towards her, and she will scramble up in a determined, desperate dash down the hallway. Or is he thinking, might he just be considering, the great noise he’s just made walking across those boards? If they’re that noisy, could there really be anyone else here? Is that what he’s thinking?
Nothing. No movement from him. She cannot hold her breath much longer. But then he turns, solidly, and walks back into the hearth room, leaving Ai to inhale the very returning shadows in relief. She hears him approach the drawer unit that doubles as a staircase and noisily make his way up it.
Taking advantage of this distance between them, she crawls urgently out into the corridor itself. A dash to the door. She could reach it. Certainly get through it. But what then? She would have given herself away and he would be in pursuit. As she hears him begin to search cupboards and storage boxes upstairs she considers that behind her in the kitchen are weapons. A great many knives, some quite large. It might be worth getting one. She considers the wisdom of this as he continues his search. But for now, she just breathes. For the moment she can do nothing else.
All of a sudden, he is finished upstairs. The sound of his steps precede the light of his lantern as he makes his way back down the rickety staircase which he proceeds to inspect roughly, pulling out each drawer and casting it to the floor. Once, he stops and seems to be listening. Then goes on as before.
Ai realises the weakness of her position. When he is done, he can do one of two things. He could simply leave the way he has come in. Which of course is what she prays for. Or, he can proceed via the studio to the scullery and continue his search there. At which point he will most likely find her as soon as steps into the corridor again to leave. She faces the fact that this is the more likely option. Many houses maintain a fireproof safe for valuables and he might well visit there to check for one. That would necessitate coming into the hallway.
He is finished with the stair unit and starts on the hearth, noisily taking up its covering boards to inspect inside. It doesn’t take him long to finish there. Confident strides take him across the floorboards towards the scullery once more. Ai has no option. She raises herself to her hands and knees. Dog-like she scurries. Nearly falls. Only upon reaching the main door to the street is she upright. The sliding screen door to the hearth room is still open. Behind her, at the rear of the house, comes the rattle and crash of the scullery being searched. He hasn’t heard her. Not a thing.
The main door to the street is merely an arms length away. It may be a last chance. But opening the heavy door will certainly alert him to her presence. She could run. But would she escape him? She can hear him throwing the dampers off the mud plaster oven. He’s checking inside and it won’t take him long. His next move is imminent. Or she could prepare to return to the hearth room - if he proceeds down the corridor, that is. He may not notice her in there if he simply leaves the premises the way he came in. Neither option contains any certainty whatsoever. She feels she has been here - in this very situation - before. And in a sense she has. This is the point at which she stops thinking. Without any further deliberation she raises one foot up to the high threshold of the room. One hand steadies her on the raised wooden step, the other is on the runners of the sliding screen. She is primed. Ready.
The rummaging stops. He’s finished looking in there. The pause in his fuss and efforts alarms her. But where he hesitates, she does not. If his next move is into the corridor she will be seen. With a deep breath Ai thrusts herself silently up across the threshold and into the darkness of the room. She is crouched now, both feet on the high floor and hands on the boards also, ready to stand if need be. Not a sound has come from her.
The lantern swings into the corridor. Towards the front door, the steps begin again. Ai moves on hands and feet further into the room, daring to hope he will simply leave. She considers that the further back into the house she can recede, the less chance she will have of being spotted should he look in to the room once more on his way out. But something inside her prefers not to do this. Some quieter part of her reveals itself instead. She disdains another flit across the boards and slowly stands to face the doorway instead. If he sees her, he sees her. She can do no more.
In the corridor the lantern is held high once more, casting it’s silent eye into the room, across the hearth and the onto the blasted staircase unit. Utterly certain he is alone, he throws a final frustrated glance inside. If he’s going to see her, it will be now. His eyes behold the scene he is about to leave behind. The scattered, upended hearth covers; the drawers from the stair unit scattered by his frantic searching: and their contents, strewn and hopeless. Turning his back, he passes on. Ai hears the heavy outside door slide open then bang shut behind him. Together with the light of his lantern, his tramping footsteps enter the street and before long begin to fade.
Had he seen her, he would have found a quiet enemy; solitary beyond comprehension and utterly resolved as only someone faced with the certainty of their death could be. Wouldn’t it have been such a surprise to him, she considers now, to have found her there in the light of his paper lantern? Might she even have seemed ghostly to him, she wonders, with her hair untied and wild? And would he have grinned - or dog-like, snarled - as he directed his weapon toward her? Would he have expected her to run, to cower, to beg? If so, she would have utterly defied such expectations. He would have encountered Ai’s acceptance of her fate, her willingness to abandon her life into a wholehearted attempt to render it his fate also. Upon her face the mask is held most steady, the silence of the night swaddled around her. The tick and clink and of ancient timbers cooling somewhere above. The secrets of shadows. A life that nearly ended. Concealed down by her side, the long hair pin. The faint flint-spark prick of it potent there in her gentle grip; alive, vital, in a hand that does not tremble.