The nature of rain spirits in my experience was that they tended to be gentle. Such a thing was hard to believe in the midst of a raging storm, with lightning burning the skies and thunder shaking the ground, but storms, as everyone knew, were really caused by the thunder god Raijin as he beat his massive drums in time to the music of the lightning. On a day like today, with the thunder god sleeping and the rain allowed to fall at its own gentle pace, the true character of the rain was easier to see.
As was the rain spirit herself.
I stood on the northern veranda of an obscure mountain shrine to the west of the Capital. I suppose the shrine had a name, but no one had seen fit to mention it to me. Other than the building’s somber, high-peaked roof and two stone statues out front that represented a pair of fox spirits, the Messengers of Inari, there was little to identify the building as a shrine at all. There was an inner sanctum where an image of the shrine’s kami was kept; I gathered from Kenji that it was only brought out at certain times of the year by the locals, for rituals to mark the start of rice planting or the end of a successful harvest. Most of the time, as now, it stood unattended.
The priest Kenji emerged from the shadowy interior. “Lord Yamada, I didn’t find—” he began, but I held up a hand for silence. Curious, he followed my gaze and then saw what I was seeing.
“Oh,” was all he said.
She stood about thirty paces from us. The shrine was nestled onto the crown of a wooded hill overlooking the village of Aoiyama. The rain spirit had stationed herself at a spot where there was a gap in the evergreens and one could see the village below and the rice paddies beyond it. ‘Blue Mountain,’ the peak that gave the village its name, towered above all some distance away on the left. There was no sound except for the rain on the roof of the shrine and the clinking and splashing as the water flowed down the rain chains located at the eaves on the four corners of the building. The rain spirit, of course, stood bareheaded in the rainfall and seemed to take little notice of it, except to occasionally lift her hand and delicately lick a few raindrops from her pale fingers.
In appearance, and to one who didn’t know better, she seemed to be a young girl of perhaps sixteen. She was dressed as a shrine attendant, with wide red trousers and a white jacket, all soaked by the rain. Her hair hung down loose over her shoulders and back, each strand dripping rivulets of water like the rain chains attached to the shrine’s eaves. Her back was turned to us, so I couldn’t see her face, but unlike the case with some spirits and youkai, I was reasonably certain that she did have one.
Kenji pulled a spirit ward from his robe, looked at it, then looked at the rain spirit, then back at the ward. He finally shook his head. “I don’t think this will work on her,” he whispered.
I kept my gaze on the lonely figure in the rain. “Of course not. She’s neither a ghost nor a demon.”
“But—” Kenji began, but I interrupted him again.
“She is a rain spirit, and a rain spirit is an expression of the will of the gods and a natural manifestation of this world, not some demonic apparition to be sent to hell or a ghost to be returned to the wheel of death and rebirth. We might not like what she represents at the moment, but as it is raining, we can’t say she doesn’t belong here.”
“Assuming you are correct, and I believe you are,” Kenji said as he tucked the spirit ward back into his robe, “what are we going to do?”
That was a good question, which at the moment I could not answer. Rain had fallen continually at Aoiyama for the past two weeks, with no sign of stopping. Heavy rain, early enough in the season, wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but with harvest fast approaching, the need to drain the paddyfields was acute. Since there weren’t enough workers to both harvest the rice and cart it away from the wet field during a downpour, the rice was likely to be spoiled and the entire harvest in peril.
When Kenji and I had met with Yoshimasa, the headman of Aoiyama village, the previous day, the old man had seemed surprised to see us, but once he knew our mission he was quite specific. “Lord Yamada, we have another three days, at most, to begin harvesting. Any longer and we risk losing everything. If there is anything you can do we are grateful, but it must be soon.”
“Late summer rain of this duration is extremely unusual, isn’t it?”
The old man shrugged. He looked tired and, to my mind, unwell. “I have only seen the like once before, when I was young.” He smiled a little ruefully then. “Of course, that was a long time ago.”
“Do you remember the circumstances?”
Yoshimasa looked away. “As I said, it was a long time ago. Lord Yamada, I cannot bring myself to hope, so please pardon my skepticism. I ask only that you do what you can.”
I considered what he had said now as I regarded the rain spirit. “I believe that there’s something the headman isn’t telling us.”
Kenji used his sleeve to wipe away a drip that had fallen from the ceiling of the veranda onto his stubbly bald head. “One needn’t be Lord Yamada to ascertain that. A more pertinent question might be ‘why isn’t he telling us this something, whatever it is?’ The rice harvest in general looks to be poor this year. The area around Aoiyama isn’t in much better shape, even considering the rain, so if the crops fail here, too, we might be looking at shortages in the Capital itself, or even wider famine.”
“I was told it was Yoshimasa himself who petitioned the Court for intervention,” I pointed out. “He’s why we’re here, even though we were apparently not what he was expecting.”
Kenji laughed. “No, we’re here for want of anyone having a better idea. All the prayers and sutra readings initiated at the Capital have failed. As for his apparent surprise, well, who wouldn’t be? You are one man and I am one priest. How can we stop the rain?”
I had to concede Kenji’s point. “Even so, Yoshimasa understands the seriousness of the situation, that much is clear. So, yes, the question remains why, if he has any information at all that might be helpful, would Yoshimasa choose to keep it concealed?”
“Perhaps he doesn’t think it is helpful.”
“Then why not tell us anyway, since there would be no reason to do otherwise? He is deliberately concealing something, therefore there is a reason. So whatever that reason is, it must be more important to him than the rice,” I replied. I continued to watch the rain spirit as I spoke, keeping my voice low so as not to startle her. I had seen monsters, ghosts, demons, youkai of all sorts in their multitudes, yet only a few rain spirits. They tended to be shy and were only drawn out into the open by such conditions as these. As I considered this, a new thought came to me.
“She always faces the village, have you noticed? I don’t think she’s looked in the direction of ourselves or the shrine even once.”
“Now that you mention this, I do find it curious,” Kenji said.
“I wonder if she would talk to us?” I asked.
Kenji frowned. “Even if she would, what would be the point?”
“Perhaps none, but Yoshimasa said that this happened once before. It occurs to me that this rain spirit may have come to the shrine on that occasion as well.”
Both Kenji and I had rain cloaks and hats of woven straw; they had been left to dry, or at least drip, leaning against the shrine wall on the veranda after we arrived. I didn’t put mine on. Rather, I stepped out into the rain, bareheaded and unprotected, and I waited but not for long. In moments I was soaked through.
It was in this state that I approached the rain spirit. I walked down the slope until I stood at her level but about seven paces away from her on the right.
“Hello,” I said.
At first I thought she hadn’t heard me. But after a moment, and quite calmly, she turned to face me. I had been right in my estimation; now that I could see her face, what I saw was a pretty girl of about sixteen, or at least that’s most of what I saw. There was more. Her mouth was a little wider than a human’s, and her eyes were black as charcoal and showed no whites or pupils. Gazing into that beautiful but subtly inhuman face was a bit disconcerting, but after a moment she turned back to look at the village. Then she spoke so softly that I almost missed what she said.
“You’re not the one.”
“You’re waiting for someone?”
“Why doesn’t he come?”
“Tell me his name if you know it. Perhaps I can help.”
“Yoshimasa,” she said. “He lives there.” She pointed at the village.
Now some things made sense. But more did not. “I know the man,” I said, “but why are you waiting for him?”
She laughed. The sound was something like rain striking a bell. “He’s waiting for me. He continues to wait. I don’t understand. I am here.”
“Are you making it rain?”
She looked at me, and she frowned. “I am rain.”
As if to prove her point, the rain spirit suddenly transformed into a shower of droplets and fell into the grass, leaving me standing alone, soaking wet, in a downpour. Her disappearance had not made the shower lessen even a bit. I made my way back to the veranda.
“Take off those wet clothes before you fall ill,” Kenji said.
I shivered and obeyed. There was no railing, but Kenji wedged his staff between an outer pillar and the shrine wall to create a makeshift clothing pole. He draped the separate pieces of my hitatare over it while I rummaged in my pack for my only change of clothes.
“Well. Was that little excursion worth the price?”
I sneezed as I was tying up my overjacket. That wasn’t really an answer, but it was the only response I could make at the time. When I was in control again, I told Kenji what the rain spirit had said.
“’He’s waiting for me?’” Kenji repeated.
“Her exact words. I think we need to have another talk with Headman Yoshimasa.”
That proved easier spoken than achieved.
“Master Yoshimasa is ill. He cannot see you now.” A formidable woman guarded the door to the headman’s house. She was small and old, but there was nothing frail about her. I had the distinct feeling that if I chose to ignore her admonition, I’d have to fight her to gain entrance—something I was not prepared to do. Yet.
“Kenji is a priest,” I said. “If your husband is ill, perhaps we can—”
She interrupted me, and I was too astonished to respond. “Master Yoshimasa never married. I am Kaede, his housekeeper. And what he needs now is rest, nothing more. I’m sorry, Gentlemen, but your business will have to wait.”
“I see,” I said, but I did not. I’d known loyal and virtuous wives who didn’t guard their domains as jealously as Mistress Kaede guarded hers.
Kaede was about to close the door when we were all startled by a young woman’s scream from inside. “Mistress Kaede! Come quickly!”
Kaede rushed away from the door without remembering to close it, and I didn’t hesitate. Kenji and I followed behind her as she in turn was led by a female servant who had rushed up to tug on her sleeve. Mistress Kaede noticed us and glared but clearly realized that the situation was now out of her control. We all followed the servant to Master Yoshimasa’s rooms.
He lay on his bedding on the floor. His eyes were open, unseeing, and his breath came in ragged gasps. The servant knelt by the door and immediately began to weep.
“Anata....” Mistress Kaede rushed to his side and took his hand. “I’m here.”
‘Anata’ was not a term that a housekeeper would use in referring to her employer, nor was her manner any less than that of a wife. I had known love in my time, of a sort, but not like this, not the unwavering devotion that allowed for no doubts, no fears, and no questions. Perhaps I did not know it for myself but recognized it when I saw it in Mistress Kaede. In that moment, old and dying as he was, I envied Yoshimasa more than I can say.
Yoshimasa did not stir or acknowledge her in any way. I glanced at my friend. “Kenji?”
The priest nodded and knelt on the opposite side of the headman’s bedding from Mistress Kaede. He took his prayer beads in hand and began to chant a sutra. I think it was the Diamond Sutra, but it had been a long time since I had paid attention to such things and I was not certain. After what seemed a long time, Yoshimasa’s breathing steadied, and his eyes slowly closed. Kenji ceased his chanting and took a deep breath.
“He is sleeping now,” Kenji said.
“Our business will indeed have to wait, Mistress Kaede,” I said. “But I do think it wise that we remain here for the time being.”
Mistress Kaede was not happy about this but apparently could not think of a good reason for arguing with me. “We are grateful for your help,” she said finally. “But I must ask you to please not disturb the master while he is resting.”
That sounded more like a command than a request, but I brushed my irritation aside. “We will be very careful not to do so,” I said.
Kaede spoke to the girl. “Mai, please bring refreshment for these gentleman. Remain outside in case you are needed. I have a pressing matter that I must see to.”
They both bowed to us and withdrew.
“I wonder what business could be so important?” Kenji asked. “She clearly does not want to leave him.”
“I wonder that as well.” I glanced at the silent form of Master Yoshimasa. “Can he hear us?”
“I doubt it, so long as we keep our voices low. He really is asleep,” Kenji said. “But there’s something I must tell you—there’s a death spirit in this room.”
I looked around slowly. I had a talent for spotting ghosts, monsters, foxes, even demons in their disguised forms, but a death spirit? That was something more within Kenji’s purview than my own. “Where?”
Kenji nodded toward a corner of the room that was, perhaps, a little darker than the poor light could account for. “Over there. It’s quiet for the moment; that sutra has a calming effect on such creatures.”
“We need to do more than calm the thing. Can you banish it?”
Kenji nodded, looking unhappy. “Yes. I’m certain I can.”
“Then why don’t we do that?”
Kenji looked even more unhappy. “Lord Yamada, if I send the creature away, it will almost certainly take Yoshimasa with it. The mere presence of the spirit shows that the old man is dying. There’s nothing I or anyone else can do.”
I took a deep breath. “How long?”
Kenji shrugged. “Perhaps hours. A day or two at most.”
The serving girl Mai returned then, bearing rice cakes and some plum wine. She started to withdraw but I stopped her. “Mai, where has your mistress gone?”
The girl looked frightened. “I—I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do. She’s gone to the shrine, hasn’t she? Perhaps to pray for your master?”
The girl bowed lower, but she did not answer, and I smiled then. “Don’t worry, I have no intention of causing trouble for you with Mistress Kaede. You may go.”
The girl hastily withdrew, and I kneeled beside Kenji. “You dare not banish the death spirit, but you were able to calm it, which brought Yoshimasa some respite. Can you go a little further and lull the creature to sleep?”
He frowned. “Perhaps, but the effect would not last. It would be a small delay, no more than that.”
“Then we must make certain that the time is well spent.”
Kenji looked puzzled, but he took his prayer beads again and began to chant softly. There were no quick results, and I was beginning to wonder if the matter was beyond Kenji’s abilities, but finally Master Yoshimasa opened his eyes.
“Good, you’re awake. Master Yoshimasa, I’m afraid there are some matters we need to discuss, and they simply cannot wait.”
We found an old covered palanquin in an outbuilding; the thing hadn’t been used in years, but it was still serviceable enough. After brushing away the cobwebs, we helped Master Yoshimasa inside while Kenji and I served as bearers. He weighed surprisingly little, and we bore him up the hill toward the shrine with no trouble.
Mistress Kaede, of course, was already there. She was a pitiful sight. Her hair had come undone and lay in limp gray strands along her back and shoulders; her clothing was soaked. She held a rather wicked-looking kitchen knife as she stumbled about the grounds of the empty shrine.
“Mistress Kaede—” I began, but she wasn’t listening.
“How many times?” she muttered. “I kill her and kill her and she keeps coming back!”
“If you mean the rain spirit, then you can’t kill her,” I said. “Any more than you can slay a raindrop.”
Now she did look at me, and her eyes were wild. “The rain has to stop!”
“It will,” I said. “Very soon.”
“But she’s making it rain!” Kaede wailed. “She’s killing him!”
With an effort, Master Yoshimasa pulled himself out of the palanquin and leaned against it for support while Kenji covered him with an umbrella as best he could. “No, Kaede,” he said. “She isn’t. And it’s raining because of me.”
“Anata—” Mistress Kaede dropped the knife and rushed to his side. “You should not be here!”
He shook his head, and he smiled at her. “No, my Kaede. This is exactly where I need to be. This is all my doing.”
“Tell her,” I said.
Master Yoshimasa nodded. “She especially has the right to know.”
The rain spirit appeared again, near the veranda. She looked at us, impassive. Mistress Kaede eyed the knife she had dropped. “That one,” she said, and I thought for a moment she meant to retrieve the blade and try again, but Master Yoshimasa stopped her.
“No. It has nothing to do with her, except perhaps as an appointment to be kept. I was young and ignorant when this happened before, when the harvest was threatened. In my pride I thought it fell to me, and perhaps it did. No matter, I went to the shrine, and I found the rain spirit there. I prayed to her to make the rain stop, and I offered her my life in exchange. From that moment on, my life was forfeit, and the agreed sign was that, when the rains came again, I would know the payment was due. I knew from the start that this constant rain, this flooding and drowning without end, was no ordinary rain, and that my time was over. I was a coward to let it go on so long.”
Mistress Kaede frowned. “I don’t understand. You said she had nothing to do with this.”
“She doesn’t,” said Kenji. “A rain spirit is of the rain but does not control the rain. It was the kami, the god of this shrine, that heard Master Yoshimasa’s prayers. That was the one who answered them, not the rain spirit.”
Yoshimasa nodded. “I prayed to the rain spirit in my ignorance, but it was the kami of our shrine who answered me. That was something I did not understand, until Kenji-san and Lord Yamada today explained what must have happened. Then as now, the rain spirit was a sign, not the cause. Even so, the bargain was the same, and I had resigned myself, but then Lord Yamada came....”
“You thought there would be no harm in letting us try,” I said. “I don’t think you realized just how... serious, your condition is.”
“I’m a stubborn old man,” Master Yoshimasa said. “I thought I had some time still left to me. I was wrong, and the intensity of the illness caught me off guard.”
“You must also be aware that Kenji’s and my own efforts were pointless. The rain would have stopped anyway.”
Yoshimasa smiled. “Not pointless. You have helped me, Lord Yamada. You and the priest Kenji, and I thank you both.” He turned back to the old woman. “As for you, Kaede, I’m going to use what time I have left to beg your forgiveness. All these years I let you think my heart belonged to another, that I had fallen in love with a beautiful spirit of the rain. It was easier than the truth, which is that my life did not belong to me, and I expected it to be forfeit at any moment. That is the real reason I could not marry you. I sought to spare you pain, and in so doing I caused you a great deal more, and for that I am truly sorry.”
There could have been tears in her eyes. It could have been the rain. “You’re a fool,” she said. “A human being’s life is always forfeit at any moment. Always. Most of us never know the hour, and yet we manage to live our lives anyway.”
“Fool that I am, I do know mine.”
Yoshimasa glanced up. There was a very small patch of blue sky to the west. “I think,” he said, “that I would like to go home now.”
Kenji and I started toward the palanquin, but he shook his head. “I can walk. If Mistress Kaede will assist me.”
She took the umbrella and held it up as Yoshimasa leaned against her. They started back toward the village together, and before they were quite out of sight, he put his arms around her.
Kenji and I retired to the veranda of the shrine. The rain spirit stood nearby this time, still looking toward the village. She stood there for some time, and then she smiled a sad smile.
“He came,” she said, and then slowly vanished as the sun broke through the clouds and the rain finally stopped. We listened to the last of it dripping from the eaves.
“I don’t understand,” Kenji said. “If Yoshimasa had no hope, why did he petition the Court?”
“I don’t think he did. I’m rather certain that was Mistress Kaede, trying to help him whether he wanted it or not. And, as I said, there was no harm in our trying. But it does explain why he was surprised to see us—or anyone.”
Kenji looked thoughtful. “Do you really think the kami of the shrine sent the death spirit to him?”
I started to pack my now-dry hitatare from where it had been left hanging on the temple veranda on Kenji’s staff. “No.”
“Why would it? In essence, Master Yoshimasa offered his life for the good of this village and its harvest, and he honored that bargain. He worked all his years to that purpose, forfeiting his own happiness as well as that of others. Yoshimasa thought the rain meant that his life was due, but I think that it was no more than a token from the kami that their bargain had been honored. His life isn’t forfeit. It has simply run its course, and the gods of death come for us all.”
“What about the rain spirit?”
“What about her?”
Kenji shrugged. “Just that she remembered him, after all this time. A creature such as that. Isn’t that strange?”
“Strange? Yoshimasa prayed to her, Kenji-san. He worshipped her. It was in error, true, but he did it. What woman, rain spirit or not, is going to forget that?”
Kenji glanced toward the now-clearing heavens. “Spoken by a man with no attachments at all.”
“As you well know, I was once attached to a woman, then to her memory, then to her ghost,” I said. “With all proper deference to your judgment in such matters, I think I am better off as I am now. At least for a while.”
Kenji shook his head. “You have a wounded heart and a poet’s soul, Lord Yamada.”
From a courtier, it would have been a compliment. From Kenji, it didn’t sound like a compliment, nor did I take it as one. I hoisted my pack, and I handed Kenji’s staff back to him.
“A trait I share with the soon to be late Master Yoshimasa,” I said. “It’s the mark of any proper fool.”