White as Bone. Red as Blood: The Storm God


by Cerridwen Fallingstar

Chapter One



Two huge Gods gallop through the night sky towards each other. Hachiman’s horse is white as bone, and the banner streaming from his spear is pale as a sliver of moon. Susanoo’s steed is jet; black storm clouds roil about him. Puffs of flame red as blood spurt from his horse’s nostrils.

“Follow me!” Susanoo, the storm God shouts. Winds of the hurricane lash before him. He disappears into the form of a tornado. As it whirls down the mountain, trees fly up before him as if they were no more than twigs. Hachiman lowers his sharp spear for the charge and yells, “Yoritomo!”

A thousand white cranes, or seabirds, swirl in his wake. No, not birds, but banners, brandished aloft by a thousand demon-haunted skeletons, riding skeletal horses. They spread out like a huge tsunami of white foam, hurtling down the sacred mountains toward Kyoto.

I gasp and bolt upright. The chodai I am sharing with Sessho is shaking. Overhead, the tinkling clatter of tiles being ripped from the roof, rumble of thunder, surging of rain against the walls. I leap from the bed. My maidservant, Machiko, instantly slides across the floor to me. “Mistress, what is it?”

“Seiko—Seiko, what’s wrong?” Sessho calls, but I am already through the door, running down the hall to my daughter’s room.

“Peony!” I cry, as I run into her room. The twins’ nurses sit up, rubbing their eyes sleepily. I scoop four year-old Peony up out of the bed she shares with her nurse. She grabs my hair. “What’s wrong, Auntie?”
Her brother sits up crying. The next instant, Sessho’s hand is on my shoulder.

“Seiko, what is it?”

“The storm. We have to save them from the storm!”

“Seiko—it’s not that bad…”

“There’s going to be a tornado!”

Alarm flicks through his eyes. I am not the powerful sorceress most think me to be, but my visions are generally accurate.

“Take the children under the house,” he orders. “I’ll get Seishan and the others.” He moves quickly.

Matsu’s nurse grabs him up. We all make our way to the ladder leading to storerooms beneath Sessho’s mansion.

Seishan clatters down the stairs next, her nine year old, Tomomori, and eleven year old Nori following. Seishan was my best friend and lover at the Empress’ court in Kyoto, until she left to marry Sessho and moved here to Tanba province. I was terribly jealous until I met Sessho and fell in love with him myself.

“Where’s Sessho?” I ask fearfully.

“He has to warn his brothers to get into their store rooms as well, and all the servants. How long until…?”

“I have no idea. I dreamed it.” Both the four year-olds in my lap start to wail, and I realize I must calm myself to soothe the children.

“I could be helping Father to warn the servants!” Nori says. “Mother, let me go! Father shouldn’t be alone!”

“I’ll go too!” Tomomori leaps to his feet.

“No, neither of you will go, you will sit down right now!” Seishan says.

“Oh, my poor birds!” She starts to weep.

“They’ll be all right, Mother,” Tomomori puts a hand on her shoulder, the way Sessho would. “Birds know what to do.”

“They’re in a cage. They can’t flee.”

My heart pounds fiercely until finally Sessho descends with the sleepy cooks and their families, maidservants and stable boys. The storeroom is tightly packed. Some of the servants run back up the ladder and return with folding screens, boxes of jewelry and Sessho’s most precious manuscripts. Jars are set up behind screens in the corner and soon the fetid stench of emptied bowels permeates the cellar. We curl up on the sleeping mats the servants have brought. The twins fall asleep in my arms. We call Matsu and Kiku Botan, my Peony, the twins although it was I who bore the girl, and Sessho’s wife, Seishan, who bore Matsu three weeks before her. To avoid scandal we claimed she gave birth to both. Although the children do not look alike, they are as close as if they had truly come from the same womb.

Sessho is the husband of my heart, but my service to the Empress prevents me from marrying him and living here. Outside of these walls, no one even knows we are lovers. Seishan is usually happy to share him with me, enjoying the rare solitude in which to re-anchor herself when I am here to distract him. But now, in a crisis, with the storm God battering our eaves, it is she that he wraps in his long arms. It’s all right, I tell myself; we’re all safe, the twins are safe.

The house shakes. “Ooh, that was a good one,” Tomomori exults.
“Shut up you idiot, do you want to encourage Him?” Nori snaps, ‘Him’ being Susanoo, the storm God.

“Just because you’re afraid of thunder and lightning,” Tomomori gibes.
“I’m not afraid of it!” But she jumps when the next peal shakes the house.

“Like a mouse isn’t afraid of a fox,” he smirks.

She shoots him a baleful look. Nori and Tomomori have always been competitive with each other. She likes to fancy herself every bit as tough as the men and boys.

“Susanoo, you are beautiful in your fury,” Tomomori intones. “We ask you to spare our house, and the houses of our people—and mother’s birds. We thank you for your rain and the bright beauty of your lightning.”

I smile. Tomomori is going to be very much like his father. His beauty is more like his mother’s, but his personality is calm and unflappable, and, like Sessho, he is able to see the blessing in every circumstance. Nori has a more turbulent nature, unlike either of her parents. Matsu is wild, like Nori. Where they get that strain of wildness I cannot say. My daughter, Kiku Botan, is calm and graceful like my mother, and resembles her more with each passing year. I marvel at the two young ones being able to sleep in my arms as the storm rages. Machiko, my beloved servant, as close to me as my own shadow, sits cross-legged beside us. She is calm, as poised as a warrior, as if she could leap up and fight Susanoo himself. Machiko’s lover, an older woman who is a kitchen servant in Sessho’s household, creeps over, kneels beside her and clasps Machiko’s hand.

I am unable to sleep, clutching the children more tightly to my chest with each roll of thunder. As the house ceases to shake I become even more agitated, knowing that things become very calm just before chaos and destruction ensue. Time passes: nothing but eerie silence.

“My Lord,” one of the guards kneels before Sessho, “Shall I go out and see what is happening?”

“Yes, Koei.”

“I shall go too.” Koei’s young son stands up. Several of the guards climb up the ladder.

“Susanoo, do not harm my loyal, brave servants,” Sessho breathes.
After a time, they return.

“The worst of the storm seems to have passed, my lord. The rain is gentle now,” Koei reports. “There is little damage.”

“It seems your prayers have been answered, son,” Sessho beams at Tomomori.

“Susanoo doesn’t have any quarrel with us,” Tomomori replies. “He just likes to gallop around and fling thunderbolts.”

“Like you know Him personally,” Nori gripes.

“I’m not afraid of Him like some people,” Tomomori sniffs.

“What say you, sorceress?” Sessho asks.

“Let’s stay down here for the rest of the night. It could come back.”

“All right. Anyone who wants to return back upstairs may.” Most of the guards and a few of the other servants rise to go. Most of the others look at me and then curl up on the floor.

Dawn comes. The rain is dropping lightly, the sky a pale gray. Sessho takes me out in the garden to look around. Shattered tiles from the roof are everywhere.

“It’s the new tiles that have taken the brunt of it,” he says, picking up pieces of the decorative sea turtle tiles he had placed around the edge of the roof to celebrate the birth of Emperor Antoku a year ago.
I look at the shattered tile in his hand, horrified. I can’t imagine a more vile omen. When Antoku was born, I thought all of our worries were over. After so many years of prayers and spells for my childhood friend Tokushi, now the Empress, to bear a son, finally she gave birth to an heir, surviving a hellish labor. Now the claim of her family’s clan, the Taira-also known as the Heike-is complete; it would seem that their right to protect the throne could not be questioned. But since then, terrible storms and foreboding prophecies have swept the Capital. And the news that Yoritomo and his brothers, heirs to the Genji clan, the Taira’s greatest enemy, have been gathering allies and raising armies in the north has made our lives more insecure than ever.

“I’m afraid the tornado may be happening in Kyoto.”

“You do not think the tornado will strike here?”
The rain is falling straight down now. There is barely a wind to ruffle the treetops.

“My dream…” I look around at the servants and guards who are close by.

“Let’s discuss your dream inside.” Sessho takes my arm and escorts me to his study. As governor of Tanba, Sessho keeps as far from court politics as possible, but having lived in the court for all my adult life, I have learned to be cautious of the talk of servants.

“Tell me your dream. Leave out no details.”
I sip my green tea and describe the dream, trembling again as I recall Susanoo and Hachiman and the white flags behind them pouring like a tsunami down the sacred hills towards Kyoto.

“I am sorry I had us all go to the basement. It was Kyoto in my dream, but I was just so afraid.”

“I understand. It is best to be cautious. Imagine if we had ignored your fear and the worst had occurred. Shall I send a messenger to the court now?”

“If anything has happened, we will hear from them.”
Sure enough, that night, as we are eating dinner, one of Sessho’s servants runs in, panting. “Two messengers have arrived from Kyoto. They say they must see Lady Fujiwara without delay.”

“Bring them in.” Sessho orders.

“They’re—wet and muddy, sir.”

“Shigata na gai—it can’t be helped.” Sessho says, glancing apologetically at Seishan. “Make sure their horses are well cared for.”

“I shall.” The servant bows and runs off.

Faster than you would think people could move, two messengers are kneeling before me. The one bearing the Empress’ insignia naturally takes precedence, proferring his message first. “My message also concerns matters of state,” the other grumbles. He wears Shigemori’s colors, and the butterfly of the Taira clan is featured prominently on his clothing. Tokushi’s older brother, he is technically head of the Taira clan now that Lord Kiyomori has taken Buddhist vows. Shigemori is loved and respected, yet everyone knows it is still Kiyomori who makes the decisions.

I question a third messenger who has just arrived, kneeling behind the first two.

“Who has sent you?”

“Lady Taira Tsunemasa.”

On’na Mari. One of my oldest and dearest friends. A merchant’s daughter who managed, through her great beauty, to marry Tsunemasa, one of Kiyomori’s nephews. Her status is now high, but nowhere close to that of the Empress and her brother.

I unroll Tokushi’s missive first, dreading what will be inside.

“You must hurry back immediately. I am sorry to cut your visit short, but a terrible tornado has destroyed a great portion of Kyoto. Thousands are dead. As usual, it is the poor who have suffered the most. The palace has not been touched, but most of the great mansions, including those of my father and brothers, have been severely damaged. We have word that the traitor Yoritomo has hired evil sorcerers and rebel monks to conjure the terrible wind. I can’t be without my personal sorceress another day. It is your duty to be here, protecting the heir, rather than amusing yourself in the countryside. Regretfully, I must order you back home.”

My heart sinks. I had remained by Tokushi’s side throughout her entire difficult pregnancy, and pulled her through a birth which would have killed most women. She had been promising me this trip to Tanba for months. Now, after only a few days, it is to be taken away from me. I press my lips together to keep from crying. I know how selfish it is to think of myself instead of all the people killed in Kyoto. But it is like death not to be seeing my daughter grow up, not to feel Sessho’s strong arms around me.

“A tornado struck Kyoto last night. The palace was untouched. But many mansions are damaged and some areas are destroyed.”

“Just like you thought!” Tomomori exclaims. “We’re so lucky to have a sorceress as our Auntie! Nothing bad will ever happen to us, ‘cause you’ll always know, right?”

Touched by his faith in me, I give him what I hope is a confident smile. “Well, I hope so.”

“What’s a tornado?” Matsu asks.

“It’s a very bad storm,” his mother says, shooting a warning glance at Tomomori so that he will not say anything that will terrorize his younger siblings. I can see how badly he wants to describe what a tornado is really like, his hand twitching in a swirling motion, but under his mother’s glare he restrains himself.

I take the scroll from Shigemori’s messenger.

“Alas, my dear Lady Fujiwara,” Shigemori writes, “Things are even worse than we thought. The Gods have left an unmistakeable warning on my doorstep. I–and the nation—are in urgent need of your divinatory advice. I have been ill for the last fortnight, but would appreciate a visit from you at your earliest convenience. My gardeners were killed, their cottage rendered into fragments smaller than chopsticks. Other than that, those in my household are well, and my mansion, though damaged, is reparable. My garden, in which we have spent so many happy times together, is, sadly, utterly destroyed. But it is not my own losses that concern me.

Praying this letter finds you well in Tanba–“

“I’m being called back to Kyoto. The Empress and Lord Shigemori are demanding my return immediately.”

“Oh no!” Seishan gasps, then smacks herself on the hand. “What a selfish creature I am.”

“You just got here,” Tomomori complains.

Nori droops, looking disconsolate.

“I know. The timing is so bitter. But, as your mother says, we can’t be selfish.”

On’na Mari’s messenger shuffles up on his knees. I take the paper and unscroll it.

“My dear Seiko,

Did the tornado pass through Tanba, or did you miss all the excitement? We lost virtually our entire roof, though it is true as they say, that one man’s disaster is another man’s fortune. Now at last I can order some of those beautiful cerulean tiles my father has in his storeroom. Oh, our roof is going to look so magnificent when I get through with it! And, best of all, that horribly ugly warrior statue that I finally persuaded Tsunemasa to move out to the garden fell over and broke into a million pieces. Tsunemasa is distraught—it has been in his family for three generations. From the look of it, you would have thought it was thirty. It seems even Susanoo cannot resist my charms, as the only destruction to our house was absolutely to my benefit. Sadly, some of our servants were killed; the only difficulty will be interviewing for new ones. Akoyo slept through the whole thing, but then, he does seem determined to sleep his life away. I received a letter from the Empress this morning, so sweet of her to be concerned for us. Fortunately the palace was not touched. It seems Amaterasu still holds sway over her tempestuous brother.”

I smile. The quarrels between the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, divine ancestress of the royal family, and her Storm God brother, Susanoo, are legendary. It is so like On’na Mari to have a childish enthusiasm for such stories.

“There is quite a bit of damage to Munemori’s mansion,” the letter continues, “and trees like battering rams smashed down much of the wall surrounding Lord Kiyomori’s Roduhara residence. He’s not happy with those omens, you may be sure. Tsunemasa is quite anxious about the omen of the warrior being smashed. Goodness, can’t a wind just be a wind? Maybe it means we won’t have to fight because Yoritomo will just slink off with his tail between his legs, don’t they ever think of that? Many of the peasant homes and shops were blown down, but you know how it is, the slightest gust will blow them down. In any case, no one we know was killed, so I think the only logical conclusion is that the Storm God, like everyone else, considers peasants to be expendable. Still, I imagine you will be called back to court, since Tokushi seems ready to have a nervous breakdown about it all. I am on my way over there now to try to console her. I plan to bring her some of my little opium candies. That should settle her down. I do hope it doesn’t take too long, because I want to get back in time to supervise the work on my beautiful new blue roof! Travel back safely; I hear many of the roads are impassable.
Your loving friend—“

“No one we know has been killed, but there is quite a bit of damage,” I say, and read On’na Mari’s letter to the group. Sessho’s sisters-in-law gasp with sympathy. “How lucky we are to be away from the Capital!” one exclaims.

“Surely you’re not suggesting the Capital is an unlucky place to be,” her husband chides.

“Oh no, I never meant to suggest that.”

“ I wish we’d been there, I would have liked to see the tornado,” Tomomori says. “I’ve read about them, but I’ve never actually seen one.”

Nori shakes her head and rolls her eyes as if to say, ‘What an idiot.’

“At least I’m not scared of them,” Tomomori punches his sister in the arm. She grabs his wrist.

“Stop that now,” Seishan warns.

“Fine, I’ll come sit by you.” Tomomori stomps over, sits beside Seishan.

“Why you ever put us together anyway…”

“I like being able to look at my handsome children across the table.”
Already my heart aches so much with missing the family even the children’s bickering seems endearing.

Sessho puts a hand on my back. “When does the Empress want you to return?”

“As soon as possible. She’ll be sending her palanquin in a day or two.”

“Well,” he says consolingly, “Many of the roads will probably be impassable, at least for a palanquin. It will take a while before enough trees can be cleared for them to get here. What with all the other repairs—it might be awhile before I can spare the workers to go remove those trees.”

It is all I can do to refrain from hurling myself into his arms. Since we are at dinner with the whole family, I just give him a grateful smile and squeeze his thigh under the table.

“There’s a lot of destruction in the garden,” Seishan chimes, wide-eyed. “The gardeners are going to be very busy.”

“Oh, yeah,” Tomomori says, as the purpose of their deception dawns on him. “Yeah, the garden’s a mess. Wait till you see how much better I am with a bow and arrow,” he says to me, “Now that the winds have stopped…”

“I can’t wait to see.”

I know Sessho won’t be able to put off removing the trees from the roads forever. But it is a relief to think I have at least three or four more days to spend with my family. Whether the tornado is a sign foretelling crises, or an attack sent by Genji sorcerers, it will just have to wait.

• End of Chapter One – White as Bone. Red as Blood. : The Storm God  •

© Copyright 2010 Cerridwen Fallingstar and Cauldron Publications