Laura Joh Rowland
The sixth book in the Sano Ichiro series, 2001
To my brother, Larry Joh
The day of tragedy dawned with an iridescent sheen in the eastern sky. As the heavens gradually lightened from indigo to slate blue, stars disappeared; the moon’s crescent faded. The dim outlines of forested hills framed Zojo Temple, administrative seat of the Buddhist Pure Land sect in Shiba, south of Edo Castle. Across a vast tract of land spread the domain of ten thousand priests, nuns, and novices who occupied the more than one hundred buildings of Zojo proper and the forty-eight smaller subsidiary temples clustered around it. Above countless tiled and thatched roofs soared the tiered spires of pagodas and the open framework structures of firewatch towers. The Zojo temple district was a city within a city, deserted and silent in the waning darkness.
On the platform of a firewatch tower stood a lone figure in the unpopulated landscape: a young priest with a shaven head, a round, innocent face, and keen-sighted eyes. His saffron robe billowed in the cool early autumn wind that carried the scent of fallen leaves and night soil. His high perch afforded him a splendid view of the narrow lanes, walled compounds, and courtyards that comprised the district.
“Namu Amida Butsu,” the priest repeated over and over again. “Praise to the Buddha.”
The chant would ensure his entry into paradise after his death, but also served the practical purpose of keeping him alert during a long night of guarding the religious community against Edo ’s most dangerous hazard: fire. The priest’s stomach rumbled with hunger; still chanting, he stretched his cold, stiff muscles and longed for food, a hot bath, and a warm bed. Looking forward to the end of his vigil, he turned slowly on the platform.
Around him revolved the panorama of morning. As the sky brightened to luminous pearl, colors appeared in the landscape: green foliage and multihued flower beds in gardens; scarlet woodwork on buildings; white monuments in cemeteries; the hazy violet mirrors of ponds. The first tentative waking trills of birds rose to a chorus of songs. Sparrows darted over the peaked and gabled roofs; pigeons cooed and fluttered in the eaves; crows winged in the blue distance above the hills, against rosy wisps of cloud. It would be a clear, warm day. Another night had passed safely. Yet even as the thought soothed the priest’s mind, his sharp gaze sighted an aberration in the tranquil scene.
A small, dark cloud hovered low over the western sector of the district. While the priest watched, it thickened and spread with disturbing speed. Now he smelled the bitter tang of smoke. Frantically, he pulled the rope that dangled from inside the roof of his tower. The brass alarm bell clanged, echoing across the district.
The insistent ringing of a bell jarred her from deep, black unconsciousness into dazed stupor. She lay facedown on the ground, with damp, fragrant grass pressed against her nose and cheek. Where was she? Panic shot through her, followed by the certainty that something was terribly wrong. Pushing herself up on her elbows, she groaned. Her head throbbed with pain; soreness burned on her buttocks and calves, between her thighs, around her neck. Aches permeated her muscles. The world spun in a dizzying blur. Thick, acrid air filled her lungs. Coughing, she fell back on the ground and lay still until the dizziness passed. Then she rolled over, looking around in bewilderment as her surroundings came into focus.
Tall pine trees pierced the dim blue sky above her. Smoke veiled stone lanterns and orange lilies in the garden where she lay. She smelled smoke and heard the crackle of fire. Moaning, she sat upright. Nausea assailed her; the pain in her head intensified, and she covered her ears to muffle the loud clangs of the bell. Then she saw the house, some twenty paces distant, beyond red maples circling a pond.
It was a rustic, one-story cottage built of plaster and weathered cypress, with bamboo lattice over the windows and deep eaves shading the veranda. Fire licked the foundations and crept up the walls, curling and blackening the paper windowpanes. The thatched roof ignited in an explosion of sparks and flame. Instinctively she opened her mouth to call for help. Then the first hint of returning memory stifled her voice to a whimper of dread. Through her mind flashed disjointed impressions: a harsh voice; the taste of tears; a lantern glowing in a dark room; loud thumps and crashes; a violent thrashing of naked limbs; her own running feet and fumbling hands. But how had she arrived here?
Baffled, she examined herself for clues. Her brown muslin kimono was wrinkled and her long black hair tangled; her bare feet were dirty, her fingernails torn and grimy. She struggled to piece the fragmented recollections into a comprehensible whole, but terror obliterated the images. The burning house radiated menace. A sob rose from her aching throat.
She knew what had happened, yet she did not know.
As the firebell pealed its urgent call, an army of priests clad in leather capes and helmets, carrying buckets, ladders, and axes, raced through the crooked lanes of the Zojo temple district. A burgeoning cloud of black smoke rose from one of the subsidiary temples enclosed in separate walled compounds. The fire brigade stormed through the gate, whose portals bore the circular symbol of a black lotus flower with pointed petals and gold stamens. Inside, priests and novice monks stampeded the lanes between the temple’s many buildings, up the broad central flagstone path leading to the main hall, toward the rear of the compound and the source of the smoke. Children from the orphanage followed in a chattering, excited flock. Nuns in hemp robes chased after the orphans, trying in vain to herd them away from danger.
“Let us through!” ordered the fire brigade commander, a muscular priest with stern features.
He led his troops through the chaos, around the main hall and past smaller buildings, into a wooded area. Beyond a cemetery of stone grave markers, he saw flames through the trees. The priests of the Black Lotus Temple had formed a line from a cylindrical stone well, along a gravel path, and across a garden to the burning house. They passed buckets down the line and hurled water at the fire, which had climbed the timbers and engulfed the walls. The fire brigade quickly positioned ladders to convey water to the blazing roof.
“Is anyone in the building?” shouted the commander.
Either no one knew or no one heard him over the fire’s roar and the din of voices. Accompanied by two men, he ran up the steps to the veranda and opened the door. Smoke poured out. Coughing, he and his companions fastened