tagRomanceA Woman of Edo Ch. 01

A Woman of Edo Ch. 01



This story is set in the Edo period in Japan, in the year 1680 in the western calendar.

The story makes many references to the game of Go. A brief description of this ancient and fascinating game appears at the end of the tale, along with a short historical background and glossary of the Japanese terms used.



The woman bowed low over the Go Ban. She had lost the game, by a single stone. The man ran a hand over his hair with relief; she had been a tough opponent. He bowed also, though it was not required of him; she was a woman.

"What now is my reward?" He asked her. Perhaps, he thought, she would allow him to fondle her breasts. But he doubted it; She was "Chilli-Fire"; she was no courtesan; he could hear them downstairs, singing and beating their drums.

"Your reward? This is your reward: I will tell you my story."

You know me as Chilli Fire, but my parents named me Akiko.

I am the daughter and only child of Riu Hideoshi, a merchant and businessman of Edo. My mother died while I was a child, and I was raised by the women of my father's house.

My father loved me with all his heart. He never showed any sign of regret for lacking a male heir. But part of him must have felt this lack, for he taught me boyish sport and even swordsmanship, even while my governess would read to me from the Onna Daigaku of the duties of a woman.

I will tell you first how I got my name, which fits me very well.

Four years ago, when I was fifteen years old, my father entered into partnership with the Dutch cotton exporter, Jordaens.

My father and Jordaens' business soon prospered, and my father became one of the richest men in Edo.

Many times Jordaens visited my father's house as a guest, where I would serve him sake and beer, and smile sweetly while he watched me with his eyes, grey and dead as a lizard's.

I detested both the sight and smell of Jordaens. His face and arms were covered with coarse yellow hair, like a monkey's. And he stank of rancid butter. He was a towering clumsy brute, crude in speech and gesture.

One evening he whispered a lewd comment to me as I was fetching in the meal. I feigned embarrassment, to hide my anger, and returned quickly to the kitchen. There I emptied two whole pots of our hottest chilli oil into his soup.

He took a mouthful, but was too afraid of offending my father's house to spit it out. He swallowed it, and began to choke and cough. A terrible wind rose up in his bowels; and soon he fairly rose into the air from his cushion at the force of its exhalation.

Jordaens ran from my Father's house in an agony of pain and humiliation.

My father caught me laughing at this, and, knowing my nature, became suspicious. The cook found the two empty pots and told my father what I had done. My father forced me to finish the broth myself. The entire household watched as I ate it all, and waited for my screams. But I never allowed them their revenge; I showed not the slightest sign of discomfort. I even refused to drink from the of tumbler of water my father offered me, having been filled with remorse for his cruelty.

I became sick thereafter, and would have died, were it not for the strong purgatives the doctor had given me.

And although four years have now passed, I am still called Chilli-Fire, and I still feel a burning within my belly.

I will tell you now of my abductor, who called himself "Eternity", and how he defeated me in a game of Go.

Now it happened that my father was called by the Shogun to the palace at Edo. This summons was a great honour, and showed that my father, despite being of merchant class, had achieved the highest status in society.

I ran to my father then, and begged him not to go.

For I had often dreamed a dream wherein I had seen the head of my father upon a stake, slain by the Shogun's police. So vivid was this dream I took it as a portent.

My father laughed at my concern, and stroked my hair, and told me they would return within the year.

And so my father left his household behind, taking with a portion of his servants as bodyguards.

Two days I wept, for I loved my father, and feared for him.

On the third morning, my maidservants, who wished to console me, bade me accompany them to the river, where they would do the laundry and laugh and gossip. But I wished to remain alone with my thoughts.

It was a beautiful spring morning, and so I took my father's kaya-wood Go table from the house, and sat by the carp pond, idly playing with the white shell and black slate stones, placing them in ornate patterns on the wooden Go table.

I chanced to look up, and there stood an old beggar. I hadn't heard him approach; he startled me.

His head was encased in a straw cage like a beehive. He carried a big walking stick of bamboo. He was bent, with age I thought, or perhaps from the weight of the huge pack he carried on his back. Although I had never seen one before, I recognised him from the descriptions I'd read in books; he was a Komuso, a travelling beggar monk.

"Hello, young miss," he croaked, "is your master home?"

Still shocked by the suddenness of his appearance, I answered him angrily.

"Do you take me for a maid? Get away from here, before I fetch the dogs. My father is not home. I have no money for you."

"If you've no money for me," he said, "then we are equals, for I've no money for you either!"

He seated himself on the ground at the Go table. He dumped his backpack on the grass with a grunt of relief. He seemed in no hurry to depart. He gathered up some of the Go stones and rattled them rhythmically in his hands. I noticed that his fingers, though caked with dirt, were smooth and straight.

I could make out a pair of twinkling eyes behind the mesh of his hat. I thought then that he might be mad.

"You are on my property."

"Your rump squashes a thousand blades of grass. And yet you didn't ask their permission before you sat down."

I stood, agitated. I was now convinced he was a madman.

"Komuso, I will go and fetch some rice for you, if you promise to begone once I have given them to you."

I started to run towards the house in order to fetch some servants to eject him.

"Not so fast, little Fire-Belly!"

I stopped in my tracks. The name by which he called me was so like the pet name spoken only in my house, that I returned to him, curious.

"Young mistress, I would rather play you at Go. For coins and rice are to be had for a tune on my flute, but a game of Go with a young lady is a rare treat for an old empty-pate."

"Why did you call me- that name?"

"Your name is as plain to me as your face."

So burning with curiosity was I that I did not notice his insult.

"Who are you?"

"I? I am nobody. But you may call me Master Ko. Your father hired me. I am to be your tutor. I will begin by teaching you mastery of Go."

He kneeled and bowed across the table.

I laughed with a mixture of surprise and relief.

I kneeled opposite him at the Go table and bowed also.

Now I had already learned the game of Go from my father, who was a master, having been graded at the 6th dan by Master Kobusi himself. My father played Go in the same manner in which he conducted his business dealings; at once delicate and ruthless.

Some part of my mind was attuned to the living patterns of the stones, and it was not long before I became my father's equal in this most masculine of games. In Joseki, or skirmish tactics, I was daring and shrewd, and my father had learned to fear me when my stones encroached on his territory, no matter how secure he had walled it.

I drew a black stone from the cup. I was to start. I liked to play first. First on the board, first to attack.

"Master Ko," I asked, in the sweetest voice I could muster, "what sum has my father agreed with you as your salary?"

"Four sacks of rice flour every month."

I placed the first stone at the four-four point. I wished him to take the bait and attempt to win the corner.

"Well," I said. "I will ensure he doubles it to eight if you beat me."

I waited for him to ask what his forfeit was to be should he lose. But he was already deep in thought.

He played like a coward. Perhaps, I thought, he had heard from my father of my prowess in the skirmish-play. I soon had secured three corners, and had him struggling for his life in the fourth corner. Eventually he passed his move.

But I refused to end the game by passing also; instead I played on. Although I had already won the game by a wide margin, the recollection of his sudden startling appearance earlier had prompted me to punish him. I fought to gain the final corner as though it was I that was playing for my survival instead of him.

After a few minutes he attempted to cut my wall, but he had overlooked a weakness in his own crumbling defences. No sooner had he placed the stone on the table, than he looked up and said,

"The game is over. No more stones can be played." He bowed low.

I bowed also, but he added, "You need not pay me the extra bags. I do not require much in the way of food."

I began to laugh. I looked down at the table, and was amazed to see that far from being a clear victory for me, the territories were nearly equal. I had captured all the edges, but had left him owning most of the centre of the board. I had been blind! In my years of playing it had never happened to me. Yet it was not obvious who had won; the balance of territory was very close.

I was shaken. "We must count stones. It is too close to call."

"If you wish. But I win by one stone."

I counted our territories. He was right, he had won by a single stone. I opened my mouth to speak, unsure whether to regale him or congratulate him, when he raised his cane high above his head. I felt a sudden blow, and then I knew no more.

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