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The Maiden and the Fish

Buy a copy of this print and receive a free ebook download of the story.

A downloadable package of this chapter (.pdf, .epub, and .mobi) is available in the Sparkler Monthly Issue #004 back issue.

MaidenAndFish_Illus

By Lydia Mackenzie and Phong Anh

Shades of Wisteria

Fuji had been sitting in the garden for longer than she could tell, caught in the warmth of the spring sun on her face. She turned the ball in her hand. There was still a waka on her mind, a perfect poem:

Crossing worlds and worlds,
I would dream fondly of you,
and with such passion.
If only I did glimpse you,
that brief meeting would suffice.

When she was hidden behind the screens, Fuji’s mind always went to the poetry of Izumi Shikibu. She’d memorized the words until she could recite them in a dreamy haze. Not the clear, precise words of a court recital, but a reading like a young girl’s crush, full of giddiness and adoration.

She ran her fingers over the ball in her hands. When she was young, she was told it was a dragon’s pearl, a smooth orb of iridescent gold. She’d held on to it like an omamori–an amulet to keep her safe, long after she realized it was bought from a market and not a dragon’s nest. It was always hidden away in a sleeve while she recited poems, and held close to her chest at night, for it was always filled with a faint warmth, as if it had been kissed by the sun goddess herself. Fuji clutched it and thought of another waka.

Inside your body
is where your desire lies.
If it is not matched,
just think upon the reason.
Surely it is known to you.

Fuji had been trying to model herself after Izumi Shikibu, but she lacked the springing emotion that made one fling herself on the bed, cry her eyes out, then dry her face and compare the tears to lost pearls or transient dewdrops. Truth be told, Fuji preferred life behind the screens. A distant cousin of hers had been cast away in shame for a discordant note in the recitation of a poem for the court. Fuji had a recurring fear that she would do even worse, and trip from the heaviness of her many silks. So instead she sat by the fishpond, reading out her own attempts at poetry and those of the other women of the court. With the women, she wouldn’t have to give shy glances through her sleeve; she could look straight at them as equals.

Sometimes she heard things of the outside world, such as food becoming more scarce because of the drought in the south, despite the many onmyouji and priests who had gone there to appease the kami spirits. That all seemed so unreal. Far less real than her poetry, and the prospect of new clothes to be made for each season.

In the warm spring, she wore a blend of white and purple called shades of wisteria. It was her very first juni-hitoe: a twelve-layer kimono with many beautiful designs, so intricate and so much heavier than her usual day-to-day robes. She’d heard it had taken years upon years to make, and was the first gift of a burgeoning marriage agreement. The kimono was a little too high for her station, but her father had plans. She’d been cloistered away on his estate, guarded from lesser suitors who might try and woo her away, while he paid several families to write waka about the beauty of her hair, which was perhaps the longest in the land. The Minamoto clan may have wrested dominance from the Fujiwara clan, but her father was never one to accept defeat in peace. Marriage had been a weapon of the Fujiwara clan for many years, and now Fuji was perhaps his last chance to bring back glory to the family.

But this meant nothing to Fuji; it was only gossip heard outside the screens. She adored the lavish kimono so much that she slept in it, unwilling to remove the silken robes even in bed. It was like the sum of her poems–a delicate kind of beauty that she wanted close to her at all times. She pulled down wisteria blossoms to perfume her kimono and leave a stain on her skin.

The last verses of the waka faded within her mind as she saw a splash from the fishpond. A few stray cherry blossoms lingered on the surface from the previous day’s flower festival. She peered into the depths and tried to catch a glimpse of whatever fish had come up to see the sun.

As she leaned over, her little ball slipped from her grasp and into the water.

She let out a cry, dipping her fingers into the clear water–but her sleeves dragged in, so heavy and waterlogged that she could feel herself being pulled under as surely as if a kappa dragged on the other end to devour her. Any farther and she’d fall in, drowned like a doomed lover out of her beloved poems. She pulled away as her ball disappeared completely.

A golden fish rose to the surface. A distant relative had had a merchant bring back these curious fish from his travels. Several little ones were kept in the pond, nestled between trees, but this was the only gold one. She had no caught bugs to feed it this time.

“If only you could fetch me my ball, little fish!” she said.

“I will, if you fulfill my one request,” the fish replied.

Fuji stepped back, surprised by what a smooth, melodious voice the fish had. She bent down until her long hair nearly kissed the pond.

“Anything, anything, just please return my ball.”

The fish dove back into the depths until the gold sheen of its scales disappeared.

Fuji dipped her hand into the water and the returning fish swam to her fingers. The scales were smooth and silky against her skin, a pleasant thing. She considered writing a waka about the feel of a fish. The fish nudged the ball into her palm and swam away, its tail brushing against her thumb as it moved.

“Tonight you must take me from here,” the fish said. “Wrap me up in your silks. Breathe your breath into me until morning.”

“But that will surely kill you. It would be a crime to kill such a beautiful creature as yourself,” Fuji said.

“You said you would fulfill my request. You cannot simply take back your word without consequence.”

Fuji didn’t understand the workings of magic. She was no onmyouji to travel and cast aside the monsters who would threaten the villagers. It seems I have landed myself in a tale, she thought. She tried to think of what a heroine would do, but all she could remember was the lines of waka, and the women who drowned themselves for love.

“Can you promise me one thing?” Fuji asked. “That this will not be your death?”

“I promise,” the fish replied.

“Then I will fulfill your request,” Fuji said. “Just as you fulfilled mine.”

***

As the moon rose high, Fuji stole into the gardens. Her elaborate kimono weighed her down, each layer like another part of a story. In motion, the patterns of wisteria and delicate flying birds all spun into one tale: a girl, a fish, a flower, and birds. She had tried to write that story in verse once, but had been unable to fit the immensity of it into a single poem.

“Are you there?” she called into the night.

The fish swam to the surface of the pond. Was it the sheen of the waning moon, or had the scales truly faded in such a short time?

Fuji cupped her hands, and the fish swam to them again. The creature was cool and silken, like a…like a… No description came, though she tried quite hard to think of one. A winter morning? An autumn evening, when the moon was low and the frost was near…? No, that wouldn’t do at all.

Fuji lifted the fish up and hoisted it into her silks. She knew this wasn’t what one should do with a fish, that it would drown on air, but the fish had asked her, and she could not say no. She had given her word.

“Here,” the fish said. “Where I can see the moon. Let me rest against your ball.”

Even though it would soil her kimono, Fuji lay in the garden, her silks wrapped about herself and the little fish. All the untold stories of her garment spilled out together in the grass.

The fish rested limply against her ball. She cupped her hands around the two of them and pushed the poor fish’s head up with her fingers. Still uncertain it would save the creature, she tried to breathe into its mouth.

In her hands, she could see a shimmering golden light from her ball. It grew so bright that she had to close her eyes to shield them. When the light faded, she lifted her eyelids once more.

Everything had changed. The world was flatter, more colorful, and softer than it had ever felt before. The fish was gone, and the sound of wings drew near. She looked up to the sky; cranes shrieked and flew about her. She jumped to her feet and began to flee, silky grass beneath her bare feet. The crying birds followed.

The incense of her kimono perfumed the air. She no longer wore her full kimono, but was dressed only in her red kosode robe. Her hair trailed behind her as she ran, tangling in the brush and blossoms of the forest.

She saw another land–this one green and yellow with no hint of birds. She jumped into the new colors. A forest of giant pine trees grew up around her, wisteria wrapped around trunks like desperate lovers. The trees shielded her from the sharp beaks of the birds until they flew away in a sulk.

A swathe of blue water cut through the woods. Everything was touched with light, which seemed stronger now, as if this place were several months ahead in the heart of summer. The wisteria flowers felt like silk between her fingers, while the bark was a rough brocade.

A flock of birds flew over the wisteria forest; she could hear every wing beat and call. A stanza from one of Izumi Shikibu’s poems came to mind:

One by one they go.
As the day comes to an end,
all the birds take wing.
But which flight path
will find its way to your side?

She recited it softly to herself, a walking song to keep her company in the lonely and fragrant forest. No animals ran across the path, and while she heard birdsong, she couldn’t see any creatures among the green branches. The pine trees and wisteria opened up around her, as if each tree was bowing to her in turn. A trickle of a stream turned into a rushing river outside the forest.

She stepped toward it and looked in. Many fish swam, but none were her fish. She dipped her fingers in the cool water. Spotted and silver creatures swam around her and up the river. For a moment, she thought she saw a hint of gold. After taking a deep breath, she pushed her head under the water to look deeper.

She gazed upon a scene unlike the world she was now in. For a moment, she thought she had returned from a dream, for the world looked so much like her own garden. But the view was blurry. In the vision, a girl read Izumi Shikibu aloud:

Recalling my sweet,
the fireflies of the marsh
seem to be my soul
drifting away, unquiet.

It took Fuji a moment to realize she was watching herself, a memory of last year. In the flutter of a fan, she saw the scenes change. Plum blossoms, the heat of a new spring, the autumn leaves, the white blanket of winter. Even when the pond had frozen, she had thrown rocks into it until the ice was broken free.

Underwater, the poetry held an unearthly sound, resounding like the bells from the temple.

When Fuji broke for air, her hair drenched and heavy, the images were gone. Was this a stream of memories? She didn’t dare look again, for she might drown–her hair had dragged her down even more than her kimono had.

From the skies descended a group of cranes. They were as harsh and beautiful as winter, their silk and brocade wings like new frost. One dipped down and lifted up a fish to swallow it whole.

Fuji set off at a run, her hair weighing her down and catching, tangling. She reached the forest and ripped away a pine frond with a twist of wisteria flowers upon it. She let out a cry and chased after the birds.

The cranes would not get any more of these fish–not while she still breathed. The birds let out keening cries as she swiped at them, flying back and away as more and more fish passed up the river.

“Leave! You cannot have them!”

The exertion wore her down. She was used to a peaceful life in her home, safe with her poetry. She pricked her finger on the surprisingly rough petals and found herself bleeding red string. The pine needles, once like the fur of an animal, now felt like sharp pins.

Fuji found her long hair caught in the twist of a wisteria–pulled so tight that her head was jerked back. Pines bent around her, no longer bowing, but with sharp spines and bark turned black and hard. A wisteria vine twisted about her leg, squeezing tighter and tighter. She looked around frantically, and, out of the corner of her eye, she could see a glint of gold and a flutter of white wings.

One last crane had reappeared, and the gold was no reflection, but her fish returned at last. Fuji let out a cry as a vine tightened about her other leg, a pine branch sweeping low and pricking into the skin of her shoulder.

Her long, beautiful hair, praised throughout the capital, was tangled and dirty. She knew she looked like a shrieking oni woman, a demoness who would devour men. She still held the branch she had used to scare away the cranes, but it was no match for the forest she had angered.

“Kami of the forest, I deeply apologize for taking what is yours.”

She hesitated, a long tress of black hair in her hands. When people spoke of her, they spoke of her hair. Her hair was the last thing that might regain the prestige of her clan. Her father had many times called her “his jewel”–not a jewel to keep, but to barter. To break her beauty would be to ruin herself and her family.

But the crane lifted the golden fish in its beak, poised to cut it in two. To leave the fish to die when she swore to breathe life into it would break her promise. It was her vanity or her word.

Proceed to Part 2–>