An Afternoon in Mushin’s Garden
Yoshimatsu walked through the neglected garden on the temple grounds. He had been here a week on retreat. For some reason, his father thought spending time at the old run-down temple would be a good experience for him.
Things around him were in strong need of repair. There were no acolytes here to learn the way of the Buddha and do the hard work of cleaning and mending and painting, just one old and lonely priest. The young samurai wondered how the man kept his head so well shaven and not for the first time why his father had thought it so important that he spend a moon in his company.
He sat down on a patch of grass and idly watched the young cat that had followed him on his walk earlier in the day. The cat was stalking something nestled in a clump of weeds. It moved silently, obviously on the prowl. A few long and leggy red flowers struggled to grow through the weeds and grass that had taken over their bed, although looking at them, Yoshimatsu wasn't sure if they themselves were not weeds choking out other, more desirable flowers. Long fingers of grass pushed through the beds except where they were shaded out by taller shrubs. The cat, almost hidden by the growth, paused in its stalking, shook its hindquarters, then suddenly leaped, causing a toad to jump out of the weeds.
"You need more practice, little one," he said. "Toads perhaps are not the best prey for someone like you. You would do better looking for mice." The cat hopped into his lap, and began rubbing its head against his hand.
Footsteps moved over the weedy foot path towards him, and Yoshimatsu looked up.
"I see you have found a little friend," said Mushin, plopping his heavy body next to the younger man, his mustache huffing with his breath. The old priest looked at the cat and wiggled his thick fingers at it. The cat chose to ignore him and began washing a paw.
Frowning, he pulled his hands back into his sleeves "Cats, for some reason, do not seem to like me," Mushin said. "Perhaps it's because I am a priest. The teachings say that cats were one of the four beasts that refused to weep when the Buddha passed beyond." Wiggling his fingers one more time, he sighed at the cat's disinterest. "I like them better than they like me.”
"She was on the road right outside of the temple grounds and found me when I went walking this morning," Yoshimatsu said. "She followed me back. I hope you don't mind."
"Ah. Just like a pretty girl to follow a good looking young Samurai," the old priest said. "What a pretty diamond mark on her forehead. Reminds me of the neko that used to travel with my foster son. She's yellow, though, with black marks, not black and white."
"You have a foster-son?" Yoshimatsu asked.
"Yes. His father was a priest here once, but died, and I raised him. Grew up into quite a young man. His wife is quite a woman, too. She’s quite a fighter, too. You should have seen her back in the day when she wore battle armor. It – "
"Mushin-sama, are you here?" called out a deep voice just on the edge of the garden. "I brought some sake, and I've got some news."
"Is that you, Hachi?" the old priest called out.
"Who else would bring you sake, old man?" said the voice. A figure came out from behind a tree. Walking on two legs and dressed like a human, it had the face of an animal, something like a raccoon. Yoshimatsu tensed up. This obviously was a youkai.
"You ever met a tanuki, Yoshimatsu?" Mushin asked. "They can be tricky fellows, but this one is nicer to old priests than some cats I know."
The young man shook his head no, and automatically reached for the tanto blade he kept in his obi. Not finding it, he remembered it was not there, but back in his room with his armor. He looked down at his hands, then back up at the priest, who was smiling. "You're not bothered by this? You're friends with youkai?" he asked.
"Some," said Mushin, grinning a little at his young friend’s discomfort. "Hachi, for instance, always has the best sake. And he shares." He motioned to the tanuki. "So what's the news, Hachi? Come sit down. Meet Yoshimatsu who's here for a while keeping an old man company. Tell me everything."
Yoshimatsu found himself staring at the strange youkai in front of him who bowed in greeting. The tanuki walked with perfect ease on tiny feet peeking out below his voluminous hakama. He wore a well-made kosode and a purple kataginu vest of some sort. Behind him he proudly sported the banded tail of his type. His face was marked with the black mask of all tanuki, but his youki was not particularly uncomfortable to be around. All the youkai he had ever been around before, like oni, had youki that was meant to intimidate, but not this person. Instead of feeling uneasy by his mere presence, Yoshimatsu found himself opening up to the strange being, wanting to be amused. He had heard about youkai that existed that did not mean humans ill, but he also knew all the stories about how tricksters like tanuki and kitsune would treat the unsuspecting and unwary. The cat, on the other hand, took one look at the youkai, and dashed back into the weeds.
"Oh, you want the news? That's thirsty work, Master Mushin," the tanuki said in his deep, but mellow voice, sitting down next to the two of them. He reached into his sleeve and managed to pull three sake bowls out. "You must have a drink first. I insist."
Hachi slung the sake jug from around his back, and skillfully poured the sake, just a little in his bowl, but poured a very full bowl for the two humans.
Mushin, his red nose gleaming in the afternoon light, picked up the bowl, took a sip. "Ah, excellent as usual, Hachi," he said before gulping down the next sip.
Mushin nudged Yoshimatsu, who was staring down at the bowl in front of him like it was some strange potion. "You must try it. We wouldn't want Hachi to feel you didn't like his sake," the priest said.
The younger man gingerly took the black bowl up, and gingerly took a sip and was pleasantly surprised by its quality. "This is very good," he said. The tanuki bowed his head slightly in appreciation.
"You are so kind to take care of an old rundown man like me," said Mushin. "So what's the news?"
Hachi drank some of his sake, downing nearly half of it. He looked around him. "You really need to do something with your garden, Master Mushin. It really is getting run down," said Hachi.
"So's the whole temple," Mushin replied, sighing. "But there's just so much a worn out old man like me can do." He took another gulp out of his bowl. "So what's been happening? Have you seen Miroku lately?"
"Not recently. Ever since I took his children on that ride – well I’m not sure if Sango-sama has forgiven me yet,” Hachi said, pouring a bit more into his bowl, and topping off the bowls of his companions.
“She can be a formidable woman when she wants to be,” Mushin agreed. “And let it be said that your courage and hers are in two different categories.”
“This is true,” Hachi said, sighing.
“So what’s the news,” Mushin asked.
Hachi took another sip. “Well. Master Yashuo has left on pilgrimage, and I hear the novices at his temple are rejoicing."
“I’m not surprised at that. I’m amazed he keeps any acolytes,” the old man said, draining his bowl.
Hachi deftly refilling his and the priest's sake bowls. "I was on my way to see how he's doing. On the way there, I saw this beautiful woman playing shamisen in Oiwake. She's a new girl there at the last teahouse on the road to Kyoto. I could have stayed there a month listening to her play, but she has a jealous customer, and I had to leave." The tanuki sighed, took a drink of his sake. "Ah, the softness of her voice. The skill of her fingers, the way her sleeves danced as she moved. 'The touch of his hand, like a promise in the morning' she would sing . . . " Hachi's voice drifted off.
"What happened? Did her jealous friend come in while you were pretending to be him?" said Mushin.
"Alas, yes, and I still have the lumps for it. I will try transforming into something else next time." Hachi took a big drink of sake, and sighed. "Remember that goldsmith who tried to cheat you three years ago when you were having some work done on the temple?"
"Kintaro? How can I forget?" said Mushin, draining his cup again. His nose grew even redder. Hachi topped his bowl off again.
"This time he tried to cheat a kitsune. Kitsune got him, though. Had him go to a house in Annaka by pretending to be the maid of the lady of the house. Had him take a whole tray of trinkets with him, and when the maid went in with the tray, suddenly the whole house disappears, and the trinkets with it. The kitsune ran off in fox form. Shame, though, all the people in Annaka are feeling sorry for the goldsmith. He must not have cheated them enough."
Hachi reached into his kosode and pulled out a small bag. "The kitsune sent these to you. I told him what Kintaro had done, and he thought it would be a good deed to make it right.”
"The wheels of fate turn in strange ways, sometimes," said Mushin, pocketing the pouch. "Thank you, friend. So, any other news?"
"Oh yes. I heard that InuYasha’s brother has had a child. Funny, how someone who used to hate his brother for being hanyou would have a hanyou child of his own. I heard it was a girl. I wonder what his mother thinks of all that?” Hachi drank more sake.
"Ah,” said Mushin. “I had heard he had gotten married to that strange girl who used to travel with him."
“I hear troops are on the march again. I ran across a battlefield this time. Nasty place. Teahouses are so much nicer.” Hachi’s voice trailed off and he finished the sake in his bowl. "The touch of his hand, like a promise in the morning, waiting for the night," he muttered. His head began to nod, and suddenly he was asleep.
"Damn tanuki never could hold his sake," Mushin said, draining his bowl.
He fell silent, his eyes grew heavy, and he slowly slumped to one side. Suddenly the air was pierced with a loud and definite snore.
The cat crawled out from the weeds and began to rub Yoshimatsu's knee. "Tanuki and kitsune benefitting a temple,” the young samurai muttered. “A tanuki quoting poetry. A priest calling a youkai friend," he said to the cat. "Am I awake?"
The cat jumped into the bemused young man's lap. He stood up, and left the two to sleep off their sake. As he walked in the garden, he thought about reality and assumption, the real face behind what people show to the world, and wondered if this was part of the lesson his father wanted him to learn.