The Emperor of Japan punched through the soft belly of Russia on the day of my birth. My father’s men were the iron girding the fist. He showed me how it was on a rotting melon. The flesh caved in, and seeds spilled out.
“All that is left of it is sagging flesh and a vile, clinging stench.” He dandled me on his knee. “A clean land for you to claim.”
I knew better than to ask or correct. But he had also taught me to observe the ways of nature, the things that change, and the way each change shifts the balance of every other thing it touches.
As he led me away, I glanced back at the spattered pulp and scattered seeds my father had left in his wake.
The empire and I were eleven the spring my father rode north into the hills against the uprisings. He left his handprint on my shoulder the day he left. “Victory, Katsuro,” he said. He had chosen my name to reflect his past and my future. Victory: katsuro.
He put on his antlered helmet and mounted his great horse. In his leather armor, he looked like an animal spirit. My mother knelt beside me and pressed her cheek to mine as we watched him and his men grow small against the landscape.
My mother trembled, though I did not know then that anticipation could resemble fear.
We walked with proud backs through the town, bowing slightly to farmers bending over new rice seedlings and women carrying wicker baskets on their backs. Inside our house, we closed the wooden screens brought all the way from Edo, and my mother took down her long, heavy hair and knelt with me beside the low table my father had carved from a single cedar tree.
By that time, my heart was racing, for I knew what next would come. I helped her open the box where we kept the special paper.
It was behind the double screen of my father’s absence and our devotion to the old ways that my mother brought me into the floating world, the world of sumo and geisha, of kabuki, and all the urban pleasures she had left behind in Edo. With knives she taught me how to cut paper into lace, into mountains and samurai and kitsune. We built elaborate paper puppets that spun and leapt and waved swords on strings.
My favorite puppets were those of the bakemono, the ones that transform. The bakemono appeared at first as beautiful young women or kind old men or even household items like tea kettles. Only in a mirror or in their shadow did they reveal their true form: cats or badgers or nine-tailed foxes.
I loved these games because they were secret. It did not occur to me that perhaps my mother constructed these paper worlds for her own reasons, to bring color and movement into a primitive outland.
“One day, you will return to Edo,” she murmured into my hair. “Then you will see true kabuki, and our puppets will seem like a handful of paper lanterns beside the moon.”
My father, who loved simplicity, would not have understood.
We always fed them to the fire before my father returned.
The gun crack of ice breaking along the Lena marked the beginning of school season. In Edo, we were told, the plums were blooming. I went with the children to drape paper blossoms around the shrine of Inari and her messenger, the stone fox, but my heart was far across the steppe where men hunted the hinin.
I dreaded school, for it was only at school that we were forced to rub up against the children of the Russian captives.
We were not allowed to call them by the name they call themselves. Most of us called them hinin, which meant things not fully human, like animals. Before we conquered them, they had never known the simple act of writing, let alone balance, movement or brush energy. In classrooms hung with carved ivory mountains and soft watercolor gardens, they scratched quietly in their notebooks. I stared out into the steppe and tried to imagine the sea.
That year, Takami and I shared a desk under the watchful eye of our uneven-legged teacher, Ito Haru. My father had taught me carefully that as a man is, so will his son be. That is why I knew when Takami rose to the top of our archery and rifle classes, he must also be a faithless, dishonest coward. He and I kicked each other under the desk whenever Ito-sensei wasn’t looking.
We were there the morning my father returned with new captives, he and his men riding tall and proud behind them on captured horses.
In sidelong glances, we watched them through the window. The way they trudged down the rutted street, wrapped in fur, with loose, tangled hair and downcast eyes; feral women who had never lived outside caves in the hills. My father would give most of them to his favored soldiers as second or third wives.
I stiffened when Takami’s elbow found my rib, and then I saw. A girl, my age. She sat astride my father’s second horse, her hands tied to the saddle. She turned her eyes everywhere, as if she had never seen a house, or an artillery shed, or a squadron of soldiers training with long spears.
Whispers rustled around the room. Even the captives had never seen a feral child. Her skin was the color of local dust, and her brown, wooly hair hung past her waist.
We all jerked to attention when my father’s guard opened the door.
“A new student, Sensei.” The guard led her in.
Her narrow face seemed even thinner beside the wild tangle of her hair. Beneath the fur that draped her shoulders, she wore only ropes of beads above her skirt, and these clicked when she moved. Her eyes were a color I had never seen before except in animals. A restless, livid amber.
The guard prodded her toward the front of the room. When she passed my desk, I shrank away.
Sensei thanked the guard, but as soon as the man left, he sucked his teeth and rocked on his uneven leg as if it pained him. There was only one desk with room for another girl. It was near the back door. Megumi sat there and murmured to herself. Megumi, who had a habit of biting. She scowled and hissed as Ito pushed the feral girl her way.
It was strange to see the feral girl settle next to Megumi, whose body was so heavy and awkward she should have been strangled at birth except that her father must have been both powerful and softhearted. The feral girl moved as if she balanced on a drop of water. Her eyes flicked from window to door, the way birds trapped in houses fly.
Takami leaned around me to stare until Sensei brought the stick down across his wrist.
It was for the Emperor’s honor that I fought Takami. It happened when the new girl stood apart in the yard, all furs and beads and her hair blowing in the wind.
They should not have been behind the school, away from the other students. I rounded the corner, but neither saw me yet, so focused were they on each other. She pointed to herself and growled in her raspy, senseless dialect, and Takami repeated it.
She repeated the sound slowly, and Takami said it again.
The shock of what they were doing held me in place. Learning any language besides Japanese was not just forbidden in school. It was an act of treason against the Empire.
I lowered my head and ran at Takami. I hit him in the stomach. His breath rushed out. He was on me then, and I was on him. We grappled in the dirt. The rest of the school came running, circling us. One of them went for Sensei. Blood flowed from Takami’s lip, and still I kept wrestling him, trying to get in another blow.
Sensei pulled us apart and shook us by the collars. What he said was lost in the red haze. Takami and I stared at each other, panting, ready to go again. Sensei sent us to wash. The feral girl had disappeared into the crowd. When we were done, all that connected us was the single thread of blood staining the corner of his mouth.
That night I picked at my noodles while my father ate dumplings for all the days he had been traveling. I waited until he put his hands on his full belly.
“I fought Takami today in defense of the Emperor’s honor.”
My mother’s back, always stiff with courtesy, stiffened the slightest degree more. “Katsu, your father is eating. Show him I have taught you polite manners.”
I frowned at her, but her tight lips silenced me until my father finished cleaning his hands.
My father turned to me. “How would the Emperor reward your defense of his honor?”
“The defense of honor is its own reward.”
The skin around my father’s eyes tightened, the only sign of his smile.
“In Edo, he would not be roughhousing with eta. He would not be distracted with hinin.” My mother’s voice was low.
My father let silence cover her words. My mother bowed her head, but the tension in her delicate jaw betrayed a smothered response.
He said at last, “These long weeks of fighting to break the rebellion among the outland tribes made me long for the serenity of home.”
Color bloomed in my mother’s cheeks. She bowed to him and rose, her spine remaining stiff as one of my father’s staffs.
I fixed my gaze on his sun-darkened face, so different from my mother’s, and I wondered what it was to ride into the steppe knowing you had conquered it.
The feral girl’s eyes were yellow-green the next day. Ito-sensei stood her in front of the class and told us her name was Midori, our word for green. She blinked as if she could not stop. Tears dripped off her chin. Someone had subdued the storm of her hair into braids, and her bare shoulders had disappeared under a plain white blouse.
Takami raised his hand. “What happened to her eyes?”
Sensei rested his finger tips on the desk. “Have you seen the eyes of a newborn darken with time? It happens with some light-skinned people. Blue eyes darken to green or brown.”
“Does it hurt?” asked Takami.
“The notion of pain varies by culture.”
I raised my hand. “Maybe her eyes can’t stand the sun, since she’s never left her cave.”
She didn’t know our language, but when some of the other students laughed, I saw she understood.
Sensei led the girl back to her seat, but paused next to me. “One day you will join your father’s warriors and see for yourself the hinin caves.”
While Sensei spoke, I saw the girl sneak something from the waist of her skirt. A bundle of cloth and feathers that disappeared into her closed hand. My mind jumped to stories I’d heard the other children tell of primitive magic charms and curses the hinin witches made from the hair of their enemies.
Perhaps she ensorcelled me in the space of that breath, but whatever it was that disappeared into her hand, I didn’t tell Sensei to take it.
My trouble with Takami was overshadowed by new uprisings in the hills.
“We slaughtered every man in the stronghold,” my father said to my mother, “but now their brothers ride against us.”
My mother bowed her head, but her back challenged my father. “Where will it end, Tadashi? Will you kill every man in Russia?”
My father raised his hand, and my mother cringed. My heart leapt up. A ten-count passed before he let that hand fall.
“Forgive me,” my mother whispered. “I am only thinking of Katsuro, how he will follow in your footsteps.”
“You make him weak and womanish,” said my father. “Do you think I cannot see how stories from Edo have shaped his mind? It was to escape the excesses of old Japan that we came here. Do not speak to me of propriety when you work like a termite at the foundations of this household.”
“Yes, my husband,” she whispered.
My father bowed to her, and she bowed to him, and both of them left without seeing me hide behind the paper screen, my arms wrapped around my stomach as if someone had hit me there.
Ito-sensei seated us across the room from each other after that. I watched Takami watch the girl, who watched Sensei. He made us stay late on alternate days. It crept under my skin, the certainty that their private meetings continued. I watched to see if the bundle of crushed feathers and cloth would reappear, and when it didn’t, in my mind that made it all the more sinister.
I could not understand how Takami could risk his family’s reputation and his own life by defying the emperor. Especially when his father had left him so little honor to begin with.
Meanwhile, the girl’s presence distracted even the best of us. She lifted her head at strange times, as if she could hear what no one else could. Sometimes she growled to herself and shifted in her seat as if she had never learned to be still. She chewed her nails into points.
One day I hid behind the outhouse until Sensei released Takami. I waited until our teacher gathered his coat and cane. As soon as he hobbled down the path to his house, I bolted after Takami.
“Where are you going?” I shoved him from behind.
Takami quickened his pace. The color came high on his cheeks, but it might have been the chill of the wind.
“Not to see your girlfriend?”
He walked faster. His legs were longer than mine, which forced me to run to match his pace.
“Going to kill a chicken so she can make more of her charms? It’s no wonder you like her, you Russian-loving son of a whore.”
He turned and caught me by the lapels. His breath came hard. I waited for him to hit me, to shake me, to throw me down, and then I would be on him. But he only held me, my coat bunched in his fists, both of us steaming in the cold.
His eyes were two different colors. One, dark brown, the other, hazel.
I stared. “What happened to your eyes?”
He released me. He looked away, and then I saw that his lighter eye wasn’t tracking. “I had to know if it hurt.”
“If what hurt?”
“The eye drops.” His voice grew soft. “They use a chemical to destroy the pigment in amber-colored eyes, so the captives can’t attract us.”
I stared at him. “That’s crazy.”
He gazed at me with his two-colored eyes.
We heard the door of the outhouse creak, and Takami hurried away, jacket flapping, head bowed into the wind.
My father returned with a fresh slash on his cheek and a smoldering look in his eye. When my mother leaned in with a damp cloth to clean the wound, he jerked away. “Leave me, woman!” She retreated to her cooking.
He turned to me. “Never let them get to close to you, even when they are bound and beaten and stripped naked.”
His eyes made me afraid. I glanced at my mother, her shoulders hunched over the stove. Something squeezed inside me, a tight, breathless feeling.
“Look at me, Katsu. Look at what they did to my face.” He turned my chin and forced my head up. “One of the captives hid a knife in her hair.”
His rough fingers held my head so still I dared not even swallow. It was a side of my father I’d never seen up close. The warrior side.
“We shaved them all.” His mouth curved up in grim satisfaction. “They looked like plucked chickens, all huddled together.” An image flashed unbidden into my mind: the feral girl’s hair falling in soft tufts, her bald head emerging, naked as a plucked chicken. My father released my face and sat back on his heels. I watched the cut on his face glisten as he smiled. Then it broke open and overflowed. Two thick drops hit the table.
My father reached for the cloth my mother had left and pressed it to his cheek.
My mother appeared like a ghost and placed a cup of sake beside his elbow. My father downed it.
Thoughts of the girl and my teacher and Takami and all that had happened these last days bubbled up and spilled over into words. “Father, do they use magic to attract us? The captive women?”
He went still. “Who told you about that? Your mother?”
“No!” I pushed my trembling hands under the table. My father’s anger blazed out with such heat I feared my skin would flash into cinders. “She—there is a girl in my class, and I noticed her eyes.”
“Ah.” My father’s shoulders relaxed and his eyes glinted. “And more than her eyes, too, if you’re any son of mine.” He winked at me.
My skin went tight. “No, Father, I was just curious—”
He clapped me on the shoulder. “It sounds like it’s time for you join the men.” He pushed back his chair, swung on his coat, and nuzzled my mother’s neck, surprising her into spilling miso over the coals. “Our boy’s growing up.”
Silence fell the moment the door closed behind him.
My mother slammed the bowl on the table so hard it cracked. “You are no son of his.”
I felt all the air had left the room with my father. What came out of my mouth was pure reflex. The desperate kick that follows the gut punch. “Maybe I should let him beat you.”
Her face went white as the painted women hanging below the house shrine. Her eyes reminded me suddenly of my father’s, except that seeing his cold fury on her face drove my courage deep into the hollow place where feelings went to die.
“Never speak to me that way, Katsu. I am Sakai Amaterasu, granddaughter of one of the four great generals who placed Tokugawa Ieyasu on the Chrysanthemum Throne. You know nothing of my sacrifice.”
Soup dripped onto the floor.
“When you were born, I cut out the midwife’s tongue.”
Drip, drip. My mother’s words were hard drops of water eating away the stone beneath my feet.
“I hid you for eight weeks. When you cried, I smothered you into silence.”
“I knew if my husband lived, if he returned to find you born at the wrong time, he would kill you. Just as he killed this woman who sprang at him with a knife in her hair. And for the same reason. You were not his, and never would be.”
My ears filled with a roaring that swept my mother’s words away before I could understand them, protecting me from the hail that was still falling from her lips.
“I secured for you an imperial lineage so that when the time comes, you can challenge the Daimyo, and then Tokugawa—”
“I don’t want to hear this.”
“You cannot unhear it.”
My mother’s voice stopped me. I could not catch my breath. The rocks of my world, my parents, had suddenly become two islands spreading rapidly apart, leaving me with one foot on each.
“Walk carefully, my son. Think before you go running after your father for affirmation. You are the seed of his two most powerful rivals. All your life I have hidden you in your enemy’s shadow. One day you must undo all that he has done, you must return to Edo—”
My face throbbed. Without a plan, I sprang up and fled the house. Across the northern sky, colors bloomed like chrysanthemums. I felt as if I were caught in one of my mother’s stories, where beautiful women unstitched their skin and stepped out as monsters. No one stopped me. No one stops a spark in a comet’s trail.
I found my father in Sensei’s house. Both of them looked up when I burst in. Between them, Sensei has the feral girl sitting on a table. She turned toward me, but her face shows only fear. Her eyes are milky jade. Sensei stood next to her holding a dropper full of clear fluid. One shining drop fell to the floor.
I turned to my father. The slash in his cheek has been neatly sewn, more of Sensei’s work. For no reason at all, my hands became fists. My shoulders would not relax. My mother’s words had burned a hole through me, and anything could fall out.
“What are you doing to her eyes?” I jerked my chin toward the girl.
Sensei wiped his hands on a cloth and glanced at my father. He carefully returned the dropper to a small glass jar.
My father cleared his throat, and she sank back like a dog that fears its master. “She’s as uncivilized as they come, but with time and training...” My father pulled me closer. “Amber eyes are a mark of witch blood among the hill tribes. We have never before taken one alive. In these backwards hills, men follow the amber-eyed women. This one would have grown into a hell-cat to devil our borders.” He spat on Ito-sensei’s floor against ill luck. “The captives tell stories about their magic, but every tale is more unlikely than the last. Can you imagine this one using her moonblood to transform into a wolf? They spread these filthy lies almost as much as they spread their legs.”
“Bakemono.” The word falls from my lips, and all my mother’s stories come back, dancing figures catching fire, stolen moments, burning paper leaping out of the flames.
The girl turned in my direction while my father and Sensei laughed. She leaned toward me suddenly, as if she’d just become aware I was in the room. Something clicked into place. “The drops have made her blind.”
“That happens when we remove the pigment. The source of her power.” Ito-sensei’s words are lost in the roaring of my ears. Like waves on Edo’s shore, my mother would say. I will never know. I have never seen the sea.
“How many girls have you blinded getting the color just right?”
“Apologize to Ito-Sensei.” My father...no, my head spun...the man I always thought was my father...ordered me.
Sensei made a placating gesture. The girl followed me with her whole head. I went still. Silently, I stepped behind my teacher. Her head moved with me. An odd shiver tightened my scalp. She was tracking me by scent.
My father grabbed my wrist. “Stop that.”
“Does she have her moonblood?” I’m not even sure what that means, only that it means the moment when the girl’s wolf-colored hair cascades into velvet pelt. I can’t stop thinking about the way she moves, so quick and lithe. She could cross the room in one leap.
“Her moonblood!” My father laughed. “So eager! Soon, I think, if I’m any judge of women. With any luck it will come near your birthday.”
My birthday. I closed my eyes. If my mother’s story was true, I don’t know my own birthday. The room was too warm, the floor unsteady.
“Katsu, I want to give you a very special gift.” My father slid his arm around me. “This one is for you.”
My eyes snapped open. “What?”
My father snorted. “Surely you know what goes on between a man and a woman?”
“She will be your yujo,” said my teacher.
My woman of pleasure.
My face went numb and tingly. I could not look at the girl, or my father, or my teacher. I desperately hoped she didn’t understand. Surely Takami had not taught her that.
“You are my son,” said my father. “Imagine the power they will attribute to you for mounting their she-wolf.”
The world turned upside down, and I turned, almost falling, and caught myself on the hearth. My stomach reversed its course.
Sensei made a tut-tutting noise. “Gently, Tadashi. He’s still a boy.”
My father yanked me up. “No warrior can lead with a weak stomach.”
I wiped my mouth and looked past my father and my teacher to the girl who is to be my yujo. Her gaze is as steady as the foothills of the great mountains that mark the Empire’s edge. She knows her homeland, as I had never known mine.
I realized in that moment that even my name is a lie. Katsuro, victory. But I was not born with the Empire.
When the riders came, cloaked in the dust and ceaseless wind blowing out of the hills, it was Takami who first saw them, or actually saw how the girl went still. Before we heard a sound, before anyone sensed them, she knew. Then I felt the drum of hooves vibrating through the floor.
One of the girls pointed to the western window.
Our teacher shot one glance toward the feral girl, and then he was shouting instructions. There were rules for every emergency. We had practiced. We knew where to go.
Everyone watched the western window, except the girl, who stared straight ahead as if she had gone deaf as well as blind, and Takami, who sat nearly as tense as she, and whose eyes kept slipping away to the eastern window.
Sensei was calling us up by row, hustling us through the door. Something hit the thatched roof. The girl’s nostrils flared. I caught the scent of fire.
The pounding of hooves intensified, and now we heard war whoops and wild ululations. Gunshots marked my father’s answer. His men were mounting the defense. Students queued up at the door, jostling to exit. Gusts from the open door carried the scent of smoke, and the feral girl’s stillness looked more and more like the stillness of a drawn bowstring. Sensei hustled past on his uneven legs, pushing students out and shouting directions.
A whoosh came from outside, and the smell of smoke intensified. Sensei darted out.
Takami bolted toward the window, but I caught his wrist. He’d seen something. He swore at me and dragged me when I wouldn’t let go. The feral girl sprinted past us toward the window. She fumbled with the latch. Her head swung toward the rafters, and it was then I heard the crackling.
Takami jerked free, and we sprinted to the window.
The girl turned, her mouth full of words we didn’t understand. She dropped to her knees and caught our legs. We fell over her, sprawling. Above our heads, the window shattered. An arrow buried itself in the opposite wall. Through the window came a hand, followed by a well-muscled arm.
The girl threw back her head and let out a piercing ululation. An unshaven face and a blood-smeared torso rose into view.
I was up and moving toward the window, faster than Takami, faster than thought. The knife my father had given me found its way into my hand. The girl shouted something urgent.
The door flew open, Sensei yelling for us to get out. The attacker dropped out of sight.
Sensei’s clothes were dark with sweat and his voice was almost gone. He shouted, but all I heard was the thunder of hooves and my father’s bellowing commands. “Move, now!” Sensei shouted. “The roof is on fire.”
My arm shot around the girl, again, with no thought, and I pulled her tight against my chest, heaving us both toward the door and safety. She kicked and twisted. Takami caught her legs, but in a low voice he whispered, “Let her go! They came for her!”
“You traitor!” My grip relaxed from pure shock. The girl bit my hand and kicked Takami hard. She pushed off his chest and overbalanced me. We fell hard. She scrambled up and toward the window. I caught her ankle. Now Sensei was running to his desk, searching inside. Takami rolled on the floor.
More gunshots, and my father’s booming commands.
The girl and I grappled on the floor, my hand locked on her ankle as she kicked my chest. I lunged and caught her legs. She arched back and twisted, but I pulled myself up her body and pinned her with my whole weight. Her eyes, in the wild tangle of her hair, met mine. An image came from my mother’s stories, the fox caught in a trap, her fate and the hunter’s hanging in the balance.
Her scent was very strong, a warm musk, but overlaying it, a contrasting fresh sharpness, like the wind that sometimes blew in with the rain from the steppe.
“Hold her!” Sensei hurried toward us with a bottle and a small cloth.
A piece of burning thatch fell from the rafters.
Takami’s leg shot out, and Sensei fell on his bad leg. The bottle smashed under his chest. A strange odor filled the room. Our teacher lay in a pool of liquid, fumbling at his shirt. The liquid vaporized even as it spread. He went still.
The girl’s chest rose and fell beneath me. The warmth of her, the musk and camphor scent of her, which suddenly I recognized as sagebrush after the rain; the strong beat of her heart where my hands gripped her wrists.
Takami shouted something, but all I could hear in that moment was her breath and my heartbeat. Perhaps it was her scent at work on my mind. Perhaps it was something on the wind blowing in from the steppe.
One of her braids had come undone, and the storm of her hair swirled around us. I saw her then as she had come to us, with clinking beads the only cover for her bare skin. Then and now. Her storm smell. I wanted to let go of her wrists, to touch her face so close to mine. I wanted to know all of her.
A strand of wild hair blew across her ruined eyes.
Pain. I gripped her wrists, and she drew a breath at my force. The pain had come so suddenly, I had hurt her by accident.
My father once had told me there is pain at the moment the soul recognizes beauty, wabi-sabi. We feel the spirit’s longing to hold on to that which is impermanent.
Her beauty was like the wings of the butterfly beating itself against the walls of a jar. She would never be that girl again.
A stillness settled in my stomach. Softly, so softly, I leaned down and brushed my cheek against hers.
I let go.
She bolted for the window, leapt without a sound, without a glance. She was gone.
Takami ran to the window. His voice came to me as if underwater. “They have her now.”
I slid to the floor. My hand hit something, a bundle of cloth and feathers. It was a doll, such as any child might have. I held it on my open palm.
Takami grabbed me by the shirt and hauled me outside. I sat in the grass with battle sounds all around while Takami dragged our teacher to safety. There was no room in my head for more. We found our classmates, sitting neatly on a small hill while half the town burned.
Takami nudged me, and we glanced back toward the hills, where a small band of riders streaked away from the battle, riding low and fast and already disappearing into the grey winter grass. “She’s all they wanted.”
The tide of the fighting had turned, the tribesmen falling back away toward the hills, my father’s formation giving chase.
I held the doll in my open hand. A stray breeze brought a hint of musk and sagebrush. I thought of my mother, how she fed her treasures to the fire.
Takami’s two-colored eyes met mine, and something passed between us. I knew we would never speak of what had happened. We would never see her again.
I offered him the doll, but he closed my hand around it.
My heart caught on something sharp and jagged, a pure, private ache. We sat there a long quiet moment, his hand around mine.
My father had taught me to observe the ways of nature, the things that change, and the way each change shifts the balance of every other thing it touches.
My mother had taught me the power of a story and the art of concealing an inner world, and how nothing is set before the ending.
This was not the ending.
I had become the thing that changes.