Today she is sharing another dark fantasy short story called Tiger in the Plum Blossoms. Marilyn writes fantasy and science fiction for children and adults. She was one of the contributing authors in BOOK: THE SEQUEL, published by The Perseus Books Group in 2009, and her short stories have been published in seven anthologies.
Enjoy her story and hopefully it inspires other contributors to send more of their work!
Tiger in the Plum Blossoms
By Marilyn Peake
By Marilyn Peake
Japanese Heian Period
Early 11th Century
Kyuzo traveled by night through the vast countryside. Hoping to surprise the Lady of the Plum Blossoms, he rode on horseback without a large retinue. His two best friends, Kamatari and Ajari, accompanied him on their own horses, black and gleaming under the pearlized luster of a full moon.
Stars twinkled against the black silk sky. Clouds played like dragon’s breath across its surface. The horses’ hooves pounded into the dusty earth, as the men pursued their goal. The sweet scent of spring flowers danced upon the wind.
Kyuzo’s breath quickened with the heat of anticipation. He had heard many stories about the Lady. The daughter of a military officer, she was reputed to write poetry with talent and elegance. Her hair had been described to him as long, dark, and twinkling with the light of fireflies. Ajari had heard from one of his sisters that the Lady was shy, but not so shy as to avoid conversation.
The men followed the dirt road through forests and shadows until it approached the ocean. Then they turned to the left, onto another road that skirted the ocean like a ribbon. The air smelled faintly of seaweed and salt; the crashing waves whispered of watery depths.
The Lady of the Plum Blossoms, confident that no one was outside, stepped onto her porch to view the silvery moon. Its effect on her garden was magnificent. The plum blossoms glowed white against the darkness. Flowers and trees sprouted mysterious shapes and sprinkled perfume on the honeyed breeze. The Lady took a deep breath, then went back inside.
Hidden behind her blinds, the Lady played a game of Go with her women. Quiet and well trained, she played seriously, but wasn’t prone to outbursts or mean competitiveness against her women. After winning at Go, she decided to play the koto. Several of her women joined in with accompanying instruments. The music floated out past her porch, providing counterpoint to cricket song.
Kyuzo waved his arms in the air, as a signal to his men, and pulled on the reins of his horse. All three men stopped below a gnarled, weathered tree with thick, wide branches and a solid trunk. The horses snorted and pawed at the ground after the men hopped off their backs.
Ajari cupped his hand around his right ear. “Ah, what is that I hear upon the gentle breeze? The heavenly sound of women’s music? Ah, what did I tell you? We find these women entertaining the gods.”
Strikingly handsome with his intense dark eyes, black hair, and tall stature, Kyuzo smiled. “And are the gods not tired? Perhaps these women will play for us.”
Kamatari’s eyes twinkled, as he ran his hand through his thick dark hair. “Compose a poem for the Lady of the house, and I will find a servant to deliver it.”
Ajari, with his deep brown eyes, dark brown hair and muscular build, also stood out among men. He tethered his horse as he laughed quietly. “And I will rest.” True to his word, Ajari sat at the base of the tree and closed his eyes. “This music is like a baby’s lullaby. Quite soothing.”
Kyuzo laughed. “You could write your own poem, you know. It sounds like there are several talented ladies within the house this night.”
Without opening his eyes, Ajari answered, “I’m not interested in wasted work. If you are admitted to the house, I will write a poem to delight even a princess.”
Once again, Kyuzo chuckled. “A practical man, I see.” Then, looking toward the house, he sought inspiration for his poem in the soft golden light that filtered through the blinds, illuminating the soft white blossoms of the plum tree. Kyuzo pulled out a textured sheet of lavender paper into which the scent of plum and spice had been burned. In deep blue ink, he wrote the following poem:
Streams of golden sunlight pour through bamboo, quenching garden flowers.
Ice crystals grow colder upon my sleeves, but do not freeze my heart.
Kyuzo studied his work. He was pleased by the gentle curve of his handwriting, in that it suggested education and refinement. He debated about mentioning ice crystals on his sleeves. Was it too much to suggest shedding tears for a woman he had not yet met? Finally, he decided that it was nothing more than a perfect allusion suggesting a contrast to the warm golden sunlight pouring into the garden. He folded the paper and secured it with deep purple ribbon and a sprig of flowering plum. He chose a flawless white flower, as bright as the glistening moon, with a bright yellow center.
Before asking Kamatari to deliver his message to the Lady within, Kyuzo quietly approached the house. The shutters were open and he strained to see behind the blinds. At the very bottom of the blinds, he discovered luxurious silk sleeves embroidered with turquoise designs of Japanese gardens. A delightful almond perfume mixed with the music of the talented women and increased Kyuzo’s desire for the Lady of the Plum Blossoms. He returned down the hill to Kamatari and handed him the folded note.
“It’s about time. The moon will soon be replaced by sun. I’m surprised that the plum blossom has not yet wilted.”
Kyuzo laughed. “Then you’d better hurry, before the seasons themselves change.”
Kamatari sought out a servant. Finding an old woman, stooped at the shoulders with pale gray hair and several missing teeth, Kamatari entrusted her with the perfumed note and explained about Kyuzo. The old woman bowed and disappeared into the inner rooms of the house.
From the yard, Kyuzo saw the women scurry away from the outer edges of the room. As they retreated inward, he briefly saw the hems of silk kimonos and long, dark hair flying gracefully around the ankles of several women. He drew in his breath and waited.
As he lay down on the wet, dark green grass, staring up at the twinkling stars, Kyuzo heard someone approaching. Sitting up, he saw Kamatari returning from the house.
“This is your answer.” With a flourish, Kamatari handed his friend a note.
Unfolding crisp white paper, gently scented with spice, wrapped with a sprig of wisteria, Kyuzo read the poem written in a delicate, almost fragile, hand:
The moon will slip away; golden sun will melt the ice.
Beneath snow and frost, the plum blossom sleeps and waits.
“She won’t see me?”
“Not tonight. An old servant woman told me that her Lady is feeling faint and not herself tonight. She suggested that we come back another time.”
Kyuzo kicked the ground. “This was a long, difficult trip.” He realized that he had the right to break into her house and force himself upon the Lady. He entertained the idea for a moment, then decided against it. “All right. Let’s get the horses ready. See if we can get some refreshment for ourselves and our animals.”
The Lady of the Plum Blossoms whispered furtively to the old servant woman, “I cannot see him. I’m not ready for this. I feel faint. Let me lie down. I feel ill.”
As the old woman followed her Lady into an inner bedroom, she tried to change her mind. “You could find no better suitor. It is Kyuzo, a cousin of the Prince, who is interested in you. I looked through the bamboo blinds at him. He is tall and strong, with dark black hair. His laugh carries on the wind and is quite pleasing. You should speak to him this night before his attentions turn elsewhere.”
The Lady sighed in exasperation as she ran to her bedroom, her long black hair flying out behind her, almost touching the floor. When she arrived in her bedroom, she threw herself onto her futon. Wearing a light pink kimono, decorated with golden stars and pictures of Japanese gardens embroidered in turquoise thread, The Lady of the Plum Blossoms swept her long, flowing sleeves across her forehead.
“My sleeves are wet, but not from scent of pine.
The weeds choke out the fledgling blossom.”
The old woman’s clouded eyes grew large. “I will tell Kyuzo that you are ill; but you should send him away with gifts.”
The young women surrounding their Lady agreed. “If you send him away with gifts, he might come back.”
“Yes, you should give him gifts that will remind him of you.”
The Plum Blossom Lady uncovered her face and sat up long enough to give instructions. “Very well then, give every man in his group two cloth robes embroidered with white plum blossoms, and give each of them almond and spice perfumes. That is enough for now."
“Very well,” a young woman with luxurious black hair, deep brown eyes, and tiny features replied. “We’ll take care of this. Just rest.”
Leaving their Lady with four women to care for her, the others left the bedroom to prepare gifts for the men who had traveled so far.
Kyuzo and his men were delighted with the gifts, although Kyuzo felt annoyed that the Lady wouldn’t see him. She could hardly do better than him for a suitor and he felt angry that she was so ungrateful. Nevertheless, Kyuzo was mysteriously attracted to her. Her poetry was beautiful, her handwriting dignified and fragile. He felt excited by the brief glimpse he had had of long hair and silk kimono hems. He knew that he would return to this house.
After packing up the gifts, the three men headed for home. The sky had deepened to an even darker shade of black. The moon hung upon the air like a large white pearl surrounded by iridescent halos, each swirling rainbow orb larger than the one in front of it. The stars glittered like diamonds.
As the horses’ hooves beat a rhythmic drum song into the road skirting the ocean, the waves pounded hard with their ebb-and-flow attraction to the moon. Kyuzo felt fire in his heart.