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FICTION


The Calligrapher's Granddaughter

By Stewart C Baker in Issue Four, May 2022

Rain again, pouring from the dull, dark sky and into the shogun's capital. A hot, relentless rain that fills the summer air with shouts as people hurry about their business.

It smells, Hatsuharu thinks, like sweat and desperation. He is sitting beneath the awning of his small shop in the city's southern quarter, watching as the downpour churns the street until all the world is rain and mud.

He puts one hand beneath the folds of his robe to scratch idly at his stomach, wondering if he ought to put the thought to paper with one of his special brushes. Better not—business has been slow of late, and an illustrated epigram of weather like this will only make it worse.

Maybe something more auspicious—a poem to call up a summer breeze and blow away the capital's stink, to clear the mind of dullness. To encourage new opportunities.

Before he can go inside and prepare his brush and inkstone, however, a girl no more than nine dashes out from the alleyway next to the rice wholesaler across the deserted, muddy street, clutching at a pouch that hangs around her neck. She slips in the mud but staggers back to her feet at once, casting about wildly until she spots Hatsuharu beside the open door of his shop. She bites her lip, then seems to decide something and scuttles inside, no more than an arm's reach away.

Hatsuharu takes this all in with his usual detachment, a slight frown the only thing he allows to cloud his face. No doubt the girl's mad dash has left mud all over his floors, and him having spent the morning on an epigram to cleanliness. Nothing for it now, though. Spilt water won't go back into its tray.

He stands slowly, stretches his aching back, and follows her in.

#

Inside, the shop is as it always is—scrolls of Hatsuharu's work hang from the walls, ranging from crowd scenes at famous tourist spots to views of austere bamboo groves. Sutras furl gently atop shelves of blank paper and other supplies.

The girl has retreated to an empty corner, where she huddles in the cranny between a wall and a disused display shelf, hands clutched around something at her chest that looks suspiciously like a coin purse.

Ah.

"Better give that to me, child," Hatsuharu says, "before someone else arrives to take it."

The girl presses her body back against the wall, shaking her head. A horse neighs outside, loud and surprisingly close, and she flinches.

Hatsuharu hesitates—what business is this of his, after all? But there's something in how the girl holds herself, in the way she clings to the purse like a woman drowning in a rain-swollen river, that grips him and won't let go. He returns to the street, sliding the door shut behind him.

The horse's owner is a middle-aged man dressed in robes that must have been fine before he wandered out into one of Edo's summer downpours without a cloak. He sits atop the horse in the middle of the street, oblivious to the weather that has worked his hair loose from its bun. His scowl does worse things to his appearance than water ever could.

Hatsuharu does not recognize the family crest emblazoned on the front of the man's robe, but he bows all the same. It is best to be polite with samurai.

"I want the girl," the man snaps.

Hatsuharu bows again. "Of course, sir." Without stepping into the rain, he gestures to one of the posts that holds up his awning. "If you will tie your horse here, I can draw you a likeness so real you will swear she is with you no matter how far from home you travel."

The man smiles tightly, and points to the track of mud leading from the street to the door. "I want," he says again, more slowly, "the girl."

"I'm afraid there's been some kind of misunderstanding, sir," Hatsuharu says, painting innocence on his face. "The child who made that mess is my granddaughter, and she hasn't left my sight all day."

"The yoriki for this neighborhood is a friend of mine," the man adds, raising his voice over the downpour as if volume alone will make him convincing. "I can come back with him if I need to."

"Then you are fortunate indeed, sir," Hatsuharu replies. "He is a frequent customer here as well, and I have always been in awe of his gracious generosity."

At this, the man's face sours. "I will return," he promises. "If the girl is here, I'll see you sent to a labor camp."

"As you wish," Hatsuharu says, omitting the honorific. "I am not going anywhere."

The man's eyes narrow, but he wheels his horse around in the street without saying more and urges it onward, vanishing into the city and the rain with only a splattering of mud to mark his passing.

#

The girl has not moved from her corner.

Hatsuharu slides the door closed as he re-enters, then eases himself onto the cushion behind his work desk. "What's your name, child?"

She looks up, sullen and angry, water in the corners of her eyes, but doesn't answer. Doesn't move.

More rain, Hatsuharu thinks. He picks idly at one fingernail, then retrieves the bamboo container holding the cold rice—the remains of his breakfast—that was to be his lunch. "You look hungry," he says, setting it on the desk. "Would you like some?"

The girl shakes her head.

"A negotiator, eh?" Hatsuharu winks. "Fine, fine. You can have this, too." He places a second, smaller container next to the first, angles it so she can see the strips of dried radish and tofu within.

But the food does not stir her. If anything, she clutches her prize even more tightly.

With a shrug, Hatsuharu eats half of the rice and slurps down some vegetables noisily, then pushes the containers away with an exaggerated sigh. From the corner of his eye, he can see the girl edge closer, and he hides his smile by turning to the shelf that holds his brushes and inkstones.

He takes a sheet of paper—cream-white, unblemished, refreshing as a late spring snow in the sultry humid heat—and places it on his desk. "Your name?" he prompts, and this time she answers in a voice no less steady for its quietness.

"Kiyo."

The word means purity—spiritual and physical both. Clarity, brightness, something clean. Hatsuharu looks again at the girl, at the pouch clutched to her chest and the mud caked on her clothes. There is resolve burning in her eyes, and Hatsuharu nods. Fire, too, purifies.

"Do you know how your name is written?" he asks.

At her hesitant nod, he prepares fresh ink: a splash of water in the inkstone, a stick of ink. As always, the rhythmic scraping soothes him, and the girl, too, seems satisfied by the way the ink—thick and rich, blacker than her hair and gleaming just as strongly in the lantern-light—slowly fills the well at one side of the stone.

That done, he retrieves an unadorned wooden box from the shelf and places it and the inkstone next to the paper.

"Why don't you write it for me?" he says. "You can keep hold of that pouch."

"Thank you," Kiyo says, voice quiet. She kneels at his desk, placing the pouch in the crook of her lap.

Inside the box is a brush that's older than Hatsuharu, older even than his calligraphy master, who gave it to him when he was a child. His master said that its bristles were made from the hair of a kirin, but most of them have long since come loose from its worn wooden handle. In the summer heat, it looks like nothing more than a dried, wrinkled carrot with wilted leaves.

Hatsuharu watches as the girl studies it, then picks it up with a thumb and two fingers as though afraid it might break. She looks to him for confirmation and, at his encouraging motion, dips the bristles into the ink and presses it to paper.

Her first stroke is troubled—a slow, diagonal tick from the paper's upper left. The line wavers but carries with it a certain innocent charm. When Hatsuharu says nothing to censure her, she follows this with another two strokes, each as smooth and unhurried as breathing.

This radical represents water, and as Kiyo lifts the brush from the paper, it shivers in her hand as though engulfed in a fine spray. One of the bristles comes loose with a little jerk, and Hatsuharu—who had been watching for this—catches it before it can leave a stray mark on the paper.

"I'm so sorry," the girl whispers.

Hatsuharu places the bristle to one side. "Keep going," he commands her.

Kiyo looks like she's about to cry, but she takes a deep breath and adds the next part of the character: a bold horizontal stroke, a vertical crossing it, and two more horizontals below.

This radical holds the kanji for earth. It carries no meaning of its own, yet the brush looses another bristle as Kiyo lifts it from the paper. This time, she catches it herself and sets it down near the first.

Hatsuharu nods at her to continue.

The last part of her name is the moon: a swooping, angled stroke that forms most of a box, two horizontal lines within.

As Kiyo finishes, the brush shimmers as if caught in an errant ray of moonlight. She places the bristle it releases next to the others and hands the brush back to Hatsuharu, who begins the process of cleaning it.

While he works, Kiyo looks down at her name as if entranced. Hatsuharu has to admit that she has written it beautifully—certainly better than he would have at her age. The charm of that first, wavering stroke and the delicate diagonals to its left are complemented by the bold horizontals on top, the moon beneath adding a final, lustrous grace.

He finishes washing the brush and hangs it on a rack to dry, then takes a moment to admire the character himself.

"I have always wanted a child," he mutters, then laughs. It's a truth he has known for a long time, but not one he thought he would ever admit aloud. And yet the power of the girl's calligraphy, coupling the purity of her name and the magic of his brush, has brought it out of him as inevitably as rains from a summer sky.

"Sir?" The girl says.

Hatsuharu wants to take it back, but Kiyo's work makes it impossible. Even the thought of denying this truth that he has hidden inside himself for so long burns in his stomach like fire.

"You'll have to return it, you know," he says instead—better to sacrifice another truth than confuse the girl further. "Whatever it is you're hiding in that pouch."

He breaks his gaze away from the character she has written before its magic pulls anything else out of him. Kiyo has given into the temptation of food while his back was turned, and she flinches with a handful of rice halfway to her mouth and shakes her head vehemently.

Hatsuharu tries again, this time more kindly. "That man—he won't take no for an answer. He'll keep coming back until he has what he wants."

Kiyo swallows. "It's not his," she says, quiet but angry. "It's mine. The only thing I have of my father."

"Can I see it?"

Kiyo takes another glance at her name on the paper before her and then wordlessly hands him the pouch.

Hatsuharu opens it into his palm and is surprised when a weighty silver seal slips out. He has never seen it before, but from its grandeur and size, it can only belong to one person.

"The shogun," he says.

The girl nods. "When my mother was younger," she replies, between handfuls of food, "she ran away from her father's estate. It was the day before her arranged marriage to a minor lord from the south. Her family searched furiously, but it was as though she’d vanished.

"When she came back two months later, she was pregnant, though she would not say by whom. Her father's fury was lessened by his relief, but he kept her at home, deciding that the safest course of action was simply to do nothing.

"Last month, she fell ill. When I visited her at her deathbed, she gave me this seal and told me everything. How she met the shogun at a roadside inn without knowing who he was and fell in love. How he claimed to feel the same but left the next morning without waking her. It was only when she asked the staff about him that she learned who he had been. A few weeks later, she realized she was pregnant."

Hatsuharu lets out a long, hard sigh.

"She found the seal in the room where they had lain," Kiyo finishes. "She was sure that the shogun would provide for me if I showed it to him. That he would acknowledge me as his daughter."

"And so, you tried to see him."

Kiyo nods. "Once she died, I took the pouch and travelled here. But the guards outside the castle gates called me a thief and liar. They tried to catch me, but I escaped. The man who was chasing me just wants a reward." Then, so quiet Hatsuharu almost can't hear it. "He said they would execute me."

"I don't think it will come to that," Hatsuharu reassures her. "Once the yoriki arrives, I will..." He trails off. "Well, I am sure we can arrange for the shogun to see you."

She shakes her head, mouth set in a line, eyes blazing in a way that reminds him again of flames. "I don't want to see the shogun," she says. "I want to stay with you."

Hatsuharu smiles. He thinks of Kiyo's calligraphy, the way it wrested out his desire for a child from so deep within that even he had not thought of it in ages. How the sight of her wolfing down his leftover rice warmed him in ways that could not be explained by mere magic.

"As it happens," he suggests, "I have often thought of taking on an apprentice."

#

By the time the samurai returns with the yoriki, the rain has finally stopped, and the sky has turned a dull, resentful blue-grey.

"Master Calligrapher!" the yoriki says, clasping Hatsuharu's hands between his own before Hatsuharu can bow. "There's no need to grovel like a common tradesman. Let's get this misunderstanding cleared up so we can leave you to your art."

The samurai's smirk dries up. "This man is harboring a fugitive of justice," he says. "The shogun will pay handsomely for her return."

"He's looking for a girl," Hatsuharu says to the yoriki, as though the other man hadn't spoken. "And seems convinced I have her."

"There was mud," the samurai insists. "He told me his granddaughter made it."

Hatsuharu only smiles. "Of course. You were dismissive and rude and seem prone to violence—why should I tell you the truth?"

The samurai fumes and stammers, but the yoriki bursts out laughing. "It's true," he says, "that good manners go a long way. And the girl?"

"She left," Hatsuharu says, "shortly after this gentleman did. She seemed terribly frightened of him, but I have reason to believe she was innocent. You are welcome to search inside if you must."

"That won't be necessary," the yoriki says quickly, "although I will have to file a report, of course. But the magistrate is an admirer of your work, and I'm sure he will be as happy as I am to take your word on the matter as final." He turns to the samurai. "As you can see, sir, there has been a misunderstanding."

The samurai sputters. "He is harboring—"

"I wonder," Hatsuharu cuts in, "if you both would like to see something? A new work."

The yoriki's eyes light up. "It would be an honor!" He follows Hatsuharu inside, and the samurai comes grumbling after.

"I've been thinking about presenting it to the shogun," Hatsuharu says as he lifts the scroll with Kiyo's name from his desk, careful to avert his own eyes as he turns it toward his audience—the truth from him now would be most inconvenient.

The samurai is peering into the corners of the shop to be sure there is nobody hiding there, so the yoriki is the first to see the calligraphy.

"It is beautiful," he gasps. "But it makes me feel strange." He trails off, and when he speaks again his voice is hesitant, confused. "I have no faith in the shogun's laws," he says. As the samurai turns on him, eyebrows raised in shock, he continues, his voice pitched high in fear: "I have no faith in the shogun!" He clamps a hand over his mouth, eyes wide.

"You dog!" the samurai snarls, fumbling for his sword. "Forget the girl, I'll take you in. I'll—" His eyes, too, fall on the brushstrokes of Kiyo's work, and he groans in agony, doubling over, his sword forgotten as he grabs at his stomach with both hands. "No! No, I won't say it. Never!"

Purity, Hatsuharu thinks. Clarity and honesty. Kiyo's name demands it. And if it is not given...?

Hatsuharu takes pity on the samurai—for all his obvious flaws, he is human and suffering—and lays Kiyo's work back on the desk. He covers it with a piece of cloth just in case and turns back to his audience.

"It is your finest work yet," the yoriki says, voice strained with discomfort and awe.

"Oh, it is not mine," Hatsuharu admits with a smile. "But it is certainly a masterpiece. I wonder what the shogun would make of it?"

"Ah," the yoriki says, eyes widening. He swallows and licks his lips. "Perhaps it would not be to his taste," he manages at last. "Some art, I suspect, is best appreciated second-hand."

The samurai manages at last to return to his feet, his face torn between horror, fury, and regret, the look so beautifully complex that even Hatsuharu couldn’t capture it in ink. He is tempted to remove the cloth from Kiyo's name and ask the man directly what causes him such pain. Instead, he raises one finger, as if an idea has just occurred to him.

"Perhaps the shogun would find it more entertaining to watch this fine young man describe what he sees in the brushstrokes."

All the color drains from the samurai's face. "That—that won't be necessary," he stammers. "I sincerely apologize for this misunderstanding." And he turns and flees like a stray dog with his tail between his legs.

The yoriki excuses himself more politely, but with no less haste, and Hatsuharu watches until he, too, is out of sight, then slides the door of the shop closed and pulls aside the curtain that separates the back room from the front.

Kiyo looks up, her eyes wide and lips parted in a mix of hope and fear and wonder.

"They're gone," he tells her.

"And I can stay? You won't turn me over to the shogun or make me go back to my mother's family?" She looks over his shoulder, as though the shop holds a monster waiting to devour her. "You won't do to me whatever you did to them?"

Hatsuharu laughs and helps her into the shop's main room, ruffling her hair. "I did not do anything to them, child. They did it to themselves."

Kiyo does not respond to that, and Hatsuharu seats himself at his work desk, reaching for a brush. Not the one that Kiyo used, with its last few precious bristles, but one that has gained a different type of power through long use and loving care.

"Now," he says to Kiyo as he hands her the brush and sets an inkstone and a fresh stick of ink before her. "Describe your mother, and we will see how good a likeness we can draw of her."

"The both of us? Truly?" She looks up at him, and it feels like the sun breaking through the clouds.

Hatsuharu smiles. "Truly. Together."

© 2022 Stewart C Baker


Stewart C Baker

Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian and author of speculative fiction and poetry, along with the occasional piece of interactive fiction. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Nature, Lightspeed, and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. Stewart was born in England, has spent time in South Carolina, Japan, and California (in that order), and now lives in Oregon with his family—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet, where you can find him at https://infomancy.net.

Fiction by Stewart C Baker
  • The Calligrapher's Granddaughter