Below is an excerpt from a story I’ve written titled Sunset on Yamato, part of a collection of post-apocalyptic sci-fi shorts that I'm working on. The full story is available to my sponsors on Patreon. (Yamato is an archaic and poetic name for Japan; think of Albion for England. Note that geiko is the preferred, and older, term for geisha in Kyoto, where the story is set. A few of my transliterations from Japanese are also a little idiosyncratic. Also, I don't know why the last paragraph decided to be double-spaced on the blog, since it's not in the original, and I don't know how to correct it.)
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The winter was early that year. Perhaps the migrant waxwings had brought it south with them.
Iriko looked south, over the many streets and the remaining buildings, towards the sea. Ōsakawan lay at the edge of the withered city, reflecting a greyish light from the dull sky like a piece of blue slate. Behind her, Hiei-yama and Minako-yama stood in front of Biwako, shouldering heavy cloaks of snow. The five rooves of Tōji’s pagoda had, so far, received only a dusting; you could still pick out the individual tiles. But the clouds were swollen like pregnant women, and the gloomy rumbling of thunder over the mountains proclaimed their labor pains. It was only mid-morning, but Iriko sighed and began to descend the narrow, aged stairs of the pagoda. Shini had asked her to stop by in any case, and it would be better to gather what food she could before the snows came.
She stepped out of the tower onto a thin coverlet of snow, the lacquered geta she was wearing interposing a thick line of black between white feet and white ground. It was a little more than six kilometers from the shrine complex to Pontochō, or what was left of it, and Iriko was glad to be raised a little above the hoary earth. A large star-like maple leaf had fallen in the snow by her path, brilliant red in color; she paused to look at it.
As she walked by the scarlet walls and stone-grey eaves of the Kitano Tenman-gū, she slowed her pace: it had been a favorite shrine of hers. Most of the lanterns had been pulled down, in a riot not long before the total collapse. She noted with approval that they had let alone the golden ornament on the friezes and the underside of the eaves. She paused, thinking, and went inside.
The furnishings of the shrine were disarranged and dusty, though not greatly disturbed. Iriko went to a little pile of what could have been mistaken for debris, but was in fact a heap of unused ema, the wooden prayer talismans that were offered to the kami in supplication. She sorted through them, pausing now and then to hold one up to the dull light, until she found one that felt right: it depicted the one-legged torii from the Sannō Shrine in Nagasaki, which should have been destroyed by the atomic bomb, but of which one pillar had mysteriously survived.
Sitting close to a window with the ema and a scavenged brush and bottle of ink, she wrote her prayer: the Emperor’s health—the fertility of the fields—victory in wars—prosperity for her family—a husband and children—the favor and blessing of the kami—the honor of the Japanese nation. Using a piece of string, she hung the prayer with others that remained, and slipped a few coins into the donation box. The Emperor was dead; her parents and her brother Noritaka were dead; the fields were a wasteland; there was no one left to fight or to marry or to collect the coins. As far as she knew, Endō Iriko was the last person left alive in the archipelago. She murmured aloud to herself:
yume no ato.’
The signs and banners of the Pontochō hanamachi were faded, but recognizable. It had been the first of the city’s geiko districts (so it had claimed), and they had lingered there the longest, too. Expertly rendered calligraphy promised the customer the finest tea, the best sake, the loveliest shamisen playing—executed by the loveliest shamisen players, of course—that mortal eyes, ears, and palates had ever enjoyed. One shop, which had endured longer than the others thanks to the owner’s fanatical devotion to his craft, still displayed a kimono in the window: burgundy silk flowed over the model, dotted with an asymmetrical pattern of white sakura flowers like little spurts of foam, and there, on the left sleeve, a plover in flight. It would have been perfect for a geiko as her April wardrobe, but the last one had died in February, seven months ago now. Iriko knew, as a matter of theory, that some of them might have survived in other places; but she could never have deliberately countenanced the idea that Kyoto should be deprived of geiko while any other city was in possession.
At the northeastern corner of the hanamachi stood a crude shack—the Kyū no Shi Myōji, its owner called it, having a naturally morbid sense of humor. It had been built over the wreckage of a failed bar, but with a smaller footprint, so that broken pieces of metal and wood lay about the walls. Iriko stepped lightly over the debris and came to the shack’s doorway, which was obscured by a length of midnight blue cloth with kanji and kana dyed into it: at the top, a right angle pointing up and to the right, with an upward hook on its lower limb, and crossed on its upper limb by a vertical descender that curved to the left; in the center, a spiral-like kana, opening downward; at the bottom, a closed square, containing another left-curving downstroke and a parallel stroke like a backwards J. Iriko suppressed a shiver and called into the shack.
‘Shini-sama, ohayō gozaimasu. Iriko desu.’
‘Ohairi kudasai,’ murmured a deep voice from the rear of the shack. Iriko lifted her hand and pushed the curtain aside, and stepped in.
Two vases stood at either side of the doorway: one mostly held spidery red higambana, the other the palest kiku flowers. Each vase was deftly arranged with a single alien blossom in its center. Among the higambana was a tall, white kānēshon; one crimson tsubaki emerged from among the kikubana like the sun parting a bank of clouds.
The rest of the shack was practically empty, except for a paper lantern suspended from the ceiling. The walls were unadorned, and nothing covered the floor except tatami mats. Iriko slipped off her geta at the doorway and bowed deeply to the man in the rear of the shack, until the sleeves of her haori touched the ground. His kimono was white with a black border, and he wore the right breast over the left, as if he were a corpse. He was not looking at her; he was studying the large iron pot that rested in the ro, the square opening in the floor that served as a kind of hearth, where he appeared to be boiling water. The small collection of items to his left supported this: they included three hand-made chawan, a perfectly cubical black-lacquered usuchaki, and a delicate bamboo whisk whose loops were as fine as hairs.
‘O-chadō desu ka, Shini-sama?’ she asked.
The man chuckled. ‘Iie, miko-chan. Tan’ni o-cha.’ Not tea ceremony, my dear shamaness; just tea. He lifted the cast-iron tetsubin from the ro and began to prepare the three cups of tea that sat beside him. ‘Suwatte kudasai.’
She knelt and sat back, wondering whom the third cup was for. Shini reached over and opened another wooden box, which contained a few young koi fish; he placed these over the ro to cook.
‘Phuyu no otozure ga hayaka tsu,’ he remarked.
‘Anata wa sore ga sukidesu ka?’
‘Chigau, ue-sama,’ Iriko replied. ‘Natsu ga koishii.’
The man smiled, turning the koi over with a long pair of chopsticks. ‘Mochiron.’ He pushed a steaming bowl of tea towards her. She picked it up, closing her eyes as the heat seeped through the faintly irregular walls of the chawan and into her hands. The reedy-sweet aroma floated over her.
‘Ohayō gozaimasu,’ came another masculine voice, from outside. The man called Shini did not look up, but he answered: ‘Ohairi kudasai.’
The second guest entered. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, with wild hair and bright eyes. A curious fragrance came with him: a blend of ice, earth, wood, and kō smoke. He too wore kimono, colored deep green like pine needles, and stood on single-toothed tengu-geta that raised him so high above the floor that he had to stoop to pass through the curtain. He slid these off, approached his host, and bowed deeply. ‘Shini-sama.’
‘Wagaya e yōkoso, Ohoyamakui-san,’ replied the other, pushing a chawan toward him. The newcomer knelt and sat back into a half-lotus posture. Picking up his tea, he asked, with a nod toward Iriko, ‘Nanda kore wa, nadeshiko? ’
Shini said that yes, this was the young woman he had spoken of, and that her name was Endō Iriko.
‘Hajimemashite,’ the new guest said to her, bowing his head slightly.
The miko tried to smile, and answered politely, ‘Yoroshiku onegai shimasu, Ohoyamakui-san.’ Then Shini handed them each a small plate, bearing one of the steaming hot, slightly burnt koi, and a pair of chopsticks. He waved a generous hand at his two guests, who said ‘Itadakimasu’ and began to eat. Shini drank his tea, but did not eat; Iriko was used to this.
For a few minutes, they ate and drank silently. The koi were followed by small bowls of rice, and again their host did not eat. As she set her bowl down, the young shamaness said, ‘Gochiso sama deshita.’
‘Jōkyō ka de,’ said the other rudely. Shini merely chuckled.
Iriko spoke again. ‘Kono koto ni tsuite wa nandesu ka?’
Their host explained. Both he and Ohoyamakui were interested in taking Iriko’s hand in marriage. It was admittedly a very long time since either had consorted with anyone; but Iriko was a fine young woman and, when there had been other inhabitants left in Kyoto, had been a wise and benignant miko. Either one of them would be not only happy but proud to wed her.
A little dazed at the idea, she nodded. ‘Watakushi wa kangaeru hitsuyō ga arimasu, arigato.’
‘Mochiron,’ replied Shini generously. He added that Ohoyamakui would be staying in the remains of the city for a short while—and of course, he was always there—so that she need not feel rushed.
Iriko nodded again and said something, she didn’t know what, and gulped some more tea. The host and the wild man continued talking, but she was carried away in reverie. She herself hardly noticed as, a short time later, she made an automatic yet unexceptionably courteous departure.