March 28, 2023
Byakuya (White Night)
by Dibyasree Nandy
Click here to listen to this story on the Kaidankai podcast.
The moon was obscured as a storm raged. The willows and the wisteria swayed in a mad frenzy as the wind spurred their tumult on. Fronds, reeds and thin blades of grass flew up towards the purple heavens in a wild swirl as the boats drifting on the heaving breast of the river undulated dangerously. The fires flickering within the clay lanterns had blown out and the winding pathway through the rice fields had turned dark.
The young samurai from Edo, Byakuya Chiba, braved the tempestuous eve, haori flapping in the high zephyr, miles from his hometown. He had received an invitation from his distant cousins from the countryside, felt it would be a disservice to not visit, despite the harsh conditions of the weather.
His cousin Kazuya was about to get married, and the girl in question would be staying at the household for a few days to get acquainted with the relatives of the family she would soon be a part of. Hence, Byakuya was asked to dine with them. His cousins and their parents had been long-time traders in rice and therefore, were rather affluent and influential in the village. Their elegant residence contained many hanging tapestries and even a backyard with lilies-of-the-valley, lavender, and plum blossoms that overlooked a koi pond, lotuses floating on its surface.
"Oh, Byakuya, it has been a while!" greeted his uncle, "Rough night, eh?"
Byakuya bowed, "Yes, Sir. Thank you for inviting me."
"Very good of you to come, my boy, despite the rain. Leave your haori here, your aunt will have it dried. You are completely drenched. The living room is not as chilly."
There was a single oil-lamp in the room that Byakuya was ushered into; he still shivered ever so slightly.
A soft knock on the sliding door alerted him. "May I come in?" It was a woman's voice.
A girl demurely walked in with a set of clothes tucked under her arms. "Master Byakuya, I was asked to give you these. Warm yukata ."
Byakuya narrowed his eyes. Her manner of speech....
"Are you.... Kazuya's wife-to-be?"
"Yes. Yuriko was the name I was born with."
Name she was born with? That was a distinctly odd way of introducing oneself.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss. Kazuya is a lucky man, I should say."
"Thank you, Master Byakuya. I hope you will enjoy your stay." She lowered her head and let herself out. While Byakuya changed, he wondered...Why is her kimono so shabby when she will soon be wedded to Kazuya? They didn't even present her with proper clothes? Why did she come to serve me? It was most unbecoming of her in-laws to let her venture out alone before a bachelor like me... Anyone else could have done it. Why treat her like a hired help? Did my aunt and uncle not approve of the match? But then why go to all the trouble to invite me? And her tone of speaking bothers me the most.....It is almost as if-
Byakuya's thoughts were interrupted as the door was slid open yet again.
"Yo, Byakuya!" It was Tatsuya, Kazuya's elder brother. "I take it you've met the princess?"
"I do not approve of your frivolity, Tatsuya."
"As straight-laced as ever, I see. Your bushido, is it?"
Byakuya did not grace his cousin with a reply. Tatsuya went on, "Quite a catch, wouldn't you agree?"
"She is the fiancee of your brother!" The samurai hissed, a hand on the hilt of his sword, "How dare you use such intonation while addressing the girl?"
"That was a joke, Byakuya! You needn't get so riled up!"
"I do not like such distasteful jests."
"Remove your hand from your sword. I just came to inform you that dinner is ready."
Byakuya sighed. He never did get along with this particular cousin of his. Then again, Kazuya was no better, a man of a cowardly disposition.
Dinner was a quiet affair. Byakuya ate in silence. He noticed Kazuya out of the corner of his eyes. Instead of being elated at the prospect of tying the knot, he jumped at every thunderclap, at every noise made by a stray twig striking the shut windows. His aunt and uncle tried to make small talk, but each time Byakuya brought up the subject of Yuriko, they appeared uncomfortable. Tatsuya merely smirked.
Yuriko never turned up at dinner.
There was something not quite right in this household.
"Excuse me... but isn't Miss Yuriko going to join us?" Byakuya inquired.
"No..." Tatsuya folded his arms and threw Byakuya a significant glance, "she's feeding.... a little kitten."
"A cat in this storm?"
"Her very own."
Tatsuya's gaze was unnerving. He was trying to convey something to Byakuya.
"Tatsuya!" His father reprimanded him, "Enough!"
"What? I was just stating facts. Right, little brother?"
Kazuya was startled. His dropped his chopsticks, they clattered and rolled on the wooden floor. "I.... don't know what you're talking about."
"Well..." Tatsuya shrugged, "let's just leave it at that... for now."
After dinner, Byakuya's aunt led him to a very comfortable bed-chamber. A futon was already laid out for him and a candle-stand with a glowing wick. "I wanted to ask... Is something wrong with Miss Yuriko?"
"You must not dwell too much on irrelevant issues, Byakuya. You have come a long way from Edo, just rest for now, yes?" He did not like the glint in her eyes. Were his relatives always so sinister? No. When did the dynamics shift? Was it the appearance of Kazuya's fiancee? And why on earth does Kazuya look like he has been stung by a hornet?
And the biggest question of them all... Why was he invited to begin with?
As Byakuya pulled up the sheets and made to blow out the wick, he heard the rustling of a kimono.
"Hello, Mister." He nearly upset the candle before realizing that he wasn't alone in the room. A very young child was smiling at him, she could not have been more than five or six. Her voice was melodious and she couldn't formulate words very clearly; she was extremely sweet with rosy, chubby cheeks. "You are nice."
"What are you called, little one?" Byakuya patted her on the head.
"That is a very beautiful name. Lily-of-the valley. Did your mother give it to you?"
"She did not have time. I borrowed it."
"You live here? But I did not see you at dinner."
"I live in a dark place. I hate it. But I love the nice lilies near my home."
"How did you come here in this rain?"
"I am always here in this house. I was only playing at dinnertime."
"A dark place, you say? Perhaps, the candle has blown out in the storm in your room?"
"I don't like dark places. Can I stay here with you? You are good."
"Of course, Miss Suzuran. But won't your mother worry?"
"I see. Then you are most welcome."
"What are you called, Mister?"
"Bya-ku-ya..."The child tilted her head.
"Is it difficult to say?" He smiled gently.
"Very. What does it mean?"
"The characters for my name read as 'white night'."
"But nights are not white."
"No, indeed they are not."
"Then why did your Mama and Papa give you that name?"
"Well... they wanted me to become the light that would guide people out of darkness."
The child brightened.
"Then you'll save me, Bya-ku-ya?"
"You need saving?"
"I try to get out of that dark place, but I can't. Will you help me?"
"But you're here with me right now, aren't you?"
"Yes, still..." She appeared morose, so Byakuya softly addressed her, "I'll protect you, Miss Suzuran. You needn't look so sad. Where is your father, little one?"
"I don't have a Papa."
"Oh, I'm so sorry. Forgive me."
"But you're so good. I wish you were my Papa."
Overwhelmed with emotion, Byakuya stilled for a pause. "So, Kazuya, Tatsuya, Miss Yuriko... how are you related to them?"
"I am only related to Yuriko. She is also a lily like me. The others.... I never saw their faces... I live in a dark place, I can't see."
Byakuya was shocked. "You are unable to see? Then how did you find me?"
"I don't know, Bya-ku-ya, but maybe because there is light in your name."
"Miss Suzuran, you say you borrowed your name. From whom?"
"That explains it. Come with me, Suzuran. I'll rescue you."
"You have my word."
Byakuya got out of bed and proffered his arm for the child to take. A tiny palm was slipped into his.
"Tatsuya! Tatsuya! I need to have a word with you!" Byakuya stood with Suzuran, who didn't even reach his knee, outside the room of the samurai's raucous cousin. Yawning, Tatsuya walked languidly out. Upon noticing Byakuya's extended arm,
Tatsuya straightened himself and leaned against the wall.
"So, Byakuya, I take it you're holding the palm of the Zashiki-Warashi that haunts this dwelling?"
"You know, then? Where is the child buried?"
"Beneath the lily-of the-valley shrubs in our backyard. It was I who did it. That is, gave her a proper burial."
"Yuriko is from Yoshiwara, yes? I thought her lilting tone of speech is very similar to the courtesans there. Her work-name was Suzuran, I believe?"
"Astute of you, Byakuya. Look, you and I never really got along, but I'm no scumbag like Kazuya. He led a wayward life and took a fancy to Yuriko. My parents were obviously furious. In Yoshiwara, courtesans are forbidden to get pregnant. Since Kazuya was a regular and always asked for Yuriko, she was forced to end the life of the child she was already carrying. My parents finally approved once they heard the news. I hated them all... Believe me, Byakuya! If I had the means, I would've killed them! That's why I called for you. Zashiki-Warashi are children drawn to those with pure hearts. Despite what you may or may not think, I do admire you. I thought you would do something about the child. I cannot see the Zashiki-Warashi, nor can the others, but every time they witness Yuriko's accusing eyes on them, they can sense the haunting. I mean, given what happened to her, there's no way a spirit wouldn't walk about this residence."
"Thank you, Tatsuya, for bringing the child out of that red hell. And now, go back to bed. I shall take it from here."
"Never thought we'd agree on one subject at least."
Still clutching Suzuran's little hand, Byakuya made his way to the garden in the backyard. He pointed to a particularly rough thicket near the lilies-of-the-valley.
"Little Miss, that's the dark place you don't like, yes?"
She was cowering behind Byakuya. "Mmm. But Bya-ku-ya, won't Mama be sad?"
"Your Mama, Suzuran, wants you to live in a land where you shall make plenty of other friends. It shall be a place beyond a scarlet bridge. All you have to do is wait there and play with your little companions. One day, you will be called and you will cross the bridge to return. Make no mistake, child, you will be called again."
"Maybe not by her, but by someone equally wonderful."
"You won't forget me, Bya-ku-ya?"
"Of course not!"
Not letting go of the child's hand, Byakuya knelt down by the hedge and dug in the mud with his left hand. The downpour was harsher than before but he did not cease. Eventually, the edge of a bloodied cloth touched his finger. He covered Suzuran's eyes. "Suzuran, you don't have to see this. Just hide your face in my clothes. Do not open your eyes until I say so. Will you do that for me?"
Suzuran let out a whimper and buried her face in Byakuya's jade-hued garb. Bringing the tiny bundled cloth out, Byakuya kissed it and held it close to his heart. "Suzuran, there's no darkness anymore. Look. There are no clouds in the sky, just the light of the full moon. Do you see that?"
Water sprayed across Byakuya's face.
"Ah! Amazing! It's so lovely and silvery!" Suzuran was gazing up at the heavens, moon rays illuminating her face. "Thank you, Bya-ku-ya! Thank you! White night!"She cheered, "White night!"
"Yes, the moon is round and high up in the air this evening, no storms, no despair, nothing." Byakuya's expression was incredibly desolate. "Are you happy now, dear child?"
"Oh yes! I love you, Mister Bya-ku-ya! When I return, I'll come to see you. That's a promise!"
"I will be waiting...."
A single lily-of-the-valley remained in Byakuya's palm, brown and muddy, a faint fragrance of coppery tears lingering on the petals, shoulder-length hair plastered to his temples, slate-coloured eyes downcast.
He felt a hand on his shoulder. "You'll catch a cold." It was Tatsuya. "Let's go in." The lines on Tatsuya's visage were unusually bitter. When Byakuya didn't move, he whispered, "Did she have a name?"
"I'll remember that."
Five years passed. Byakuya, now thirty-three, hadn't raised a sword since his encounter with Suzuran. Every time he held a blade, he remembered that a samurai snuffed out lives, giving birth to souls who wandered about aimlessly in the pitch-black nothingness, no one to guide them towards the moon.
One day, he received a visit at his residence in Edo. It was Tatsuya.
"Is something the matter?"
"Byakuya, there's something you ought to know."
"You appear grave. Have a seat."
"Never mind me. Yuriko killed herself."
"She left a note addressed to me. Said she had a dream about a bridge. Someone was calling her. The one who summoned her said they were too impatient, couldn't wait anymore. She received a lily-of-the-valley. That was apparently her permit. Say, Byakuya, weren't you holding a white flower on that night as well? I heard you mention 'I'll be waiting'... What exactly was that all about?"
Byakuya felt something like a creeper slowly snake around his heart, asphyxiating him.
"That child... Suzuran... I told her she would be sent to a beautiful land beyond a bridge where others like her live. Additionally, I assured her, she'd be called someday and then, she would cross the bridge and return here."
"Byakuya, you fool, you do realize that people from this side can cross the bridge to the other end as well, right?"
That night, Byakuya heard her little voice again.
"I wish you were my Papa...."
Yoshiwara: The red-light district in Edo.
'Yuri': Means 'lily'
Work-name: Courtesans in Yoshiwara often used fancy names that were different from their given names. The given names were usually rather simplistic as mostly, these young girls who were sold off, were from villages. In this story, Yuriko used the name 'Suzuran' because it is closest in meaning to lilies.
Dibyasree Nandy resides in India. After completing M.Sc and M.Tech, she began writing during the lock-down period of the Covid-19 pandemic. She has written four books, 'The Labyrinth of Silent Voices-Epistles of the Mahabharata', 'Stardust- Haiku and Other Poems', 'Studded with Rubies; A Hundred Short Stories' and 'Marchen of Newer Days'.
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