|from Onmyouji by Reiko Okano |
(Why hasn't this been published in English?)
The lady lived in a run-down house on the western side of Heian-Kyo, the decaying, half-abandoned half of the imperial capital.
Perhaps the onmyoji who assisted the Emperor Kammu in divining the location of his new capital yielded to his desire to place it in Kadono at the cost of their own judgment. Perhaps they made a simple error. Perhaps they made malignant choices, irritated with relocating the capital again only nine years after establishing Nagaoka-kyo. Perhaps the vengeful ghost of Prince Sawara blinded them to the marshes bordering the River Katsura.
Regardless, the western half of the city – the Right Capital, as it was called from the point of view of the emperor’s throne – had been in decline practically since Heian-Kyo was established. Most noble families owning mansions there had abandoned them for residences in the crowded Left Capital many years ago, leaving the western half of the city to the dissolute, the destitute, and the desperate.
Fujiwara no Kinto suspected his lady was one of the destitute, though it was possible she was dissolute instead; perhaps she was not the impoverished child of a fallen house yearning for a good alliance, but rather a wealthy wife arranging an assignation far from the eyes of her husband. A dilapidated mansion on the western side of the capital would be perfect for such a plan.
Lord Kinto worried not at all that the lady might be luring him into a trap. He justifiably assumed his position as a scion of the powerful Fujiwara clan would protect him from robbery. If the lady demanded marriage, he would be happy to make her his concubine and take her far away from the filth and hovel s of the Right Capital. He already had several wives and mistresses; a new one wouldn’t matter.
Truthfully, though, he doubted any ill intent on the young woman’s part. The shy glance she’d given him when they met the other night, her halting, virginal discomfort during the resulting conversation, her blushes when he suggested visiting her, were enough to convince Lord Kinto that this undiscovered beauty hailed from one of those unfortunate families who had lost their fortune to imperial (or Fujiwara) whim. He’d been lucky to come across her broken-down ox-carriage when he did, otherwise some other nobleman was sure to snatch her up.
The streets of the Right Capital were much rougher than those of the left – parts of the district had even been abandoned to farming – so Fujiwara no Kinto rode in a palanquin rather than his ox-drawn carriage; it was better that his servants’ feet were plastered with mud than that his carriage got stuck in a rut in such an unfashionable area. The servants walked slowly, cautiously, unsure of their footing in the dark and in such unfamiliar areas. They paused frequently to gain their bearings or search for the landmarks the lady had claimed would lead them to her home.
The delays left Lord Kinto impatient. When the palanquin-bearers finally stopped and lowered him to the ground, he leaped from his seat and plunged into the waiting gate of his mysterious new paramour’s home. He slipped through the gate of the mansion and into the grounds, slipping quickly around the edges of the buildings, searching for the room the lady must call her own.
Lord Kinto assumed the young woman would have a separate pavilion of her own, isolated enough from her parents’ rooms to allow would-be lovers to court her discretely, as was the custom throughout Heian-Kyo. He hoped to find some wandering servant who could tell him which way to go, but Kinto slowly came to the conclusion that the entire complex was deserted. No sounds or sights or scents of human habitation emanated from any of the buildings. Where there should be song, there was silence. Where there should be the warm glow of oil lamps; there was darkness. Where there should be the comforting scent of cooked rice, there was only the smell of rot.
“Is there anyone there?” he whispered into the darkness.
The twang of a biwa’s strings answered him. A woman’s voice lifted in song. He followed.
“Though the wind
Tears at us terribly,
The moonlight also leaks
Through the tattered roof
Of this ruined house…”
He found her at last in a pavilion perched over the stagnant pond in the garden. Were the house not so thoroughly abandoned, it would hardly be an appropriate place for their first assignation – but by now Fujiwara no Kinto was convinced that no one save his would-be mistress dwelt in the crumbling mansion.
She sat upon a pile of pillows, the shape of her limbs and body lost in the voluminous folds of her twelve-layered silk robes. The room was only lit by a charcoal brazier, its brassy light discoloring her pale features and casting her eyes and long, long hair into deeper blackness. She played a smaller, lighter gogen-biwa of the type that fell into disfavor a century before.
Far from the innocent and retiring maiden she had appeared when they first met, the lady was transformed by the night, by the firelight, by the decay that surrounded her into something strange and dangerous. Lord Kinto was surprised to find his passion surged.
The last echo of the biwa faded into the night. She motioned with her plectrum to comfortable cushions across from her. She smiled shyly as he sat, something of her virginal innocence returning. She set the instrument aside and poured some of the waiting sake for him.
Her hand was cool, but her skin was silken-smooth as their fingers briefly touched when she passed the bowl. Kinto was tempted to throw the rice wine aside and grab her then and there, but decided against it. He could tell she was eager, but needed coaxing.
“Does this evening find you well, my lord?” she asked.
“Your home was hard to find… but now I am well,” he answered.
She leaned back and twanged the biwa’s strings. He felt his chest tighten in anticipation.
“Does the moon not shine beautifully, my lord?”
“Nothing this night is as beautiful as you.”
She twanged the biwa again. He felt rooted to the spot, overcome with longing.
“I… I have hungered for you this night,” she half-whispered, eyes lowered.
“And I have hungered for you,” he exclaimed.
She struck plectrum to strings again. He tried to move closer her, and discovered he could not.
He looked down, and realized that his arms and chest were wrapped around with thin, softly-glinting threads – threads he could not break as he struggled against them, threads that instead cut through his sleeves and into his flesh. He peered into the darkness and beheld that the threads adhered to the walls of the pavilion, trapping him in place like spider silk.
The lady moved, uncurling from where she sat amidst her pillows and silks. A painful tug on the spider silk that bound him told Lord Kinto that the threads were connected to the lady’s biwa. He watched, horrified, as first one, and then another, and then another long, segmented leg unfolded from beneath the beautiful maiden’s robes. The pile of cushions – the sides of the ox-carriage on the night they met – hid the body of a spider as large as a tiger, upon which the torso of the false lady sat.
Lord Kinto closed his eyes and wept.
Another twang, and the spider-woman cried out in pain. The sound was lighter, sharper. It was not the sound of a biwa being plucked, but the sound of a bow – the ritual twanging of a catalpa-wood bow, as used by the warriors of the watch to ward off the monsters and spirits Fujiwara no Kinto had always assumed were just products of the imagination. He opened his eyes, craning his neck to see the squad of watchmen he assumed were there to rescue him.
Instead, it was another woman, as young as the spider-creature had appeared.
He knew her. She was a cousin’s daughter, pledged to serve at the Kamo Shrine as a show of the Fujiwara clan’s piety. He remembered the ceremony three years ago when she took the pledge, and the regret that such a beautiful girl was being wasted on a life of celibacy and mysticism.
He could not remember her name. For all intents and purposes, she had ceased having a name when she became the Kamo shrine maiden, when she became a miko.
The miko’s eyes were hard and merciless as she drew back the string of her bow again. There was no arrow set to the bow, but the woman-spider screamed again as the bowstring twanged. The monster now bled from two wounds.
The spider-creature rallied, snapping the threads that bound it to Kinto and the pavilion in order to lunge at the shrine maiden. The maiden twanged her bow one final time and the monster collapsed, its human head split open by an invisible arrow. Scores of tiny spiders spilled out of the bloody cavity. One of them ran across Fujiwara no Kinto’s face and glared at him with human eyes before disappearing into the darkness.