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  Shinju by . . .
Laura Joh Rowland
"Nearly impossible to put down."
— Washington Post Book World on SHINJU


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Excerpt from SHINJU

Prologue

Cover: Shinju by Laura Joh RowlandEdo; Genroku Period, Year 1, Month 12 (Tokyo, January 1689)

The horseman halted his mount on a narrow path that led to the Sumida River, listening to the night. Had he heard a footstep somewhere in the dark forest that surrounded him? Was someone watching him? Fear set his heart racing.

But he heard only the icy wind rattling the bare winter branches and the faint chuffing of his mare as she stirred restlessly beneath him. High above the horizon, the last full moon of the Old Year shone brightly, silvering the path and the forest with a chill radiance. He peered into the shadows, but saw no one.

Then he smiled grimly: guilt and imagination had deceived him. This path in the remote northern outskirts of Edo saw little enough traffic by day. Now, at just past midnight, it was deserted.

As he'd foreseen.

He urged the mare forward through a thicket of branches that caught on his hooded cloak and on the long, bulky bundle slung over the horse's back behind him. The mare faltered, whinnying softly, unaccustomed to the extra weight. He tried to calm her, but she refused to go on. As she stamped her hooves, the bundle wobbled dangerously. He flung a hand back to steady it. Cold fear licked at him. What if it fell? Strong as he was, he would never be able to lift it back on--not here. And he couldn't carry it the rest of the way to the river. It would take an hour by foot; impossible with a burden nearly as long as and even heavier than he. Besides, dragging it would tear the fine rice straw of the tatami mats with which he'd wrapped it, damaging the contents.

The horse, after one more stamp, suddenly continued down the path. The bundle held firm. Fear receded. His eyes watered and his face grew numb from the cold; his gloved hands seemed frozen to the reins. What sustained him was the knowledge that each misery-laden step brought him closer to the completion of his mission.

Finally, the woods thinned and the path sloped steeply toward the river. He could smell the water and hear it lapping at the shore. Dismounting, he tied the horse to a tree and stepped off the path.

The boat was right where he'd left it yesterday, hidden among the lower branches of a huge pine. With his cold-stiffened hands, he grasped its prow. Carefully, so that the rocky ground wouldn't damage its flat wooden bottom, he dragged it onto the path beside the horse. Then he untied the ropes that bound the bundle to the horse's back. When the last knot opened, the bundle dropped into the boat with a loud thud.

He began to push the boat down the slope to the water. The slope, though not more than forty paces long, did not provide an easy launch. Soon he was panting with the effort of alternately pushing, lifting, and dragging the boat toward the river. At last he reached the shoreline, and the boat slid in with a whoosh. He waded into the freezing water, pulling the boat with him until it cleared bottom and floated free of the rushes. Then he climbed inside.

The boat rocked precariously under the combined weight of him and the bundle. Water sloshed over the sides. For one dreadful moment he feared the boat would sink, but it abruptly stabilized with its gunwales just above the water. Sighing his relief, he lifted the oar, stood in the stern, and began to row south toward the city.

The river spread before him like an immense length of oiled black silk stippled with moonlight. The splash of his oar made a rhythmic counterpoint to the keening wind. On the near shore to his right, pinpoints of flame winked on dark land that rose gradually toward the hills: lanterns lighting the Yoshiwara pleasure quarter; torches flaring in Asakusa's temple gardens. On the distant eastern shore he could discern nothing of marshy Honjo. No pleasure craft decorated the scene, as in summer. Tonight he had the river to himself. He could almost enjoy the solitude and the eerie beauty of the night.

But soon his arms grew tired. His breath came in painful gasps. Sweat drenched his garments, letting the frigid wind penetrate them. He longed to simply drift with the river's current as it flowed toward Edo Bay and the sea. Only his desperate need for haste enabled him to push on. Just a few short hours now remained until dawn, and he needed the cover of darkness. If only he could have made the journey by land, on horseback! But Edo's many guarded gates closed before midnight, sealing off each sector to prohibit exit or entry. The river was the only way.

So he felt immense relief when the city's familiar sights began to appear. First the pavilions of the daimyo, powerful provincial lords who owned much of the land along the upper stretches of the river, as well as most of Japan. Then the whitewashed walls of the city's rice warehouses. Piers and wharves crowded with boats jutted out into the river, now turned foul and fishy, stinking from the waste dumped into it every day. At last the Ryogoku Bridge arched above him, the interlocked pillars and struts of its wooden structure an intricate pattern cut out of the sky.

Exhausted, he stopped at the end of a pier downstream from the bridge, but still within sight of it. He set aside his oar and tied the boat to a piling. Once again, fear gripped him, stronger this time. The whole great city of Edo lay beyond the blank facades of the warehouses. He could sense the million souls that lived there-not asleep, but watching him. Choking back his panic, he knelt before the bundle. Gently, so as not to unbalance the boat, he unwound the stiff straw wrappings. A glance at the sky told him that the moon had long ago set; dawn's first rosy light tinted the eastern horizon. He could make out the docks of the lumberyards in Fukagawa on the opposite bank.

He fought the impulse to jerk at the last mat, instead folding it carefully away.

The two bodies, joined in death and by the ropes that bound them at wrists and ankles, lay facing each other, heads positioned cheek to cheek. The man wore the short kimono and cotton trousers of a commoner. His cropped hair framed a blunt, coarse face. Puffy eyes and a sensual mouth bespoke a life of dissipation, carnality, and avarice. He'd deserved killing. How easy it had been to lure him to his death with a promise of riches! But the woman . . .

Her innocent young face, covered with white rice-flour makeup, glowed a translucent white. High on her forehead, the fine dark lines drawn above her shaved brows took wing over the long-lashed crescents of her closed eyes. Her lips had parted slightly to reveal two perfect teeth: Darkened with ink according to the fashion for ladies of high birth, they gleamed like black pearls. Long black hair spilled nearly to her feet over a silk kimono that twisted around her slender body.

Sighing, he reminded himself that her death was as necessary as the man's. But he could not look at her beauty without a spasm of grief--

A sharp clacking noise made him start. Was someone walking toward him along the pier? Then the clacking repeated: two long beats followed by three short. He relaxed. It was only a nightwatchman, somewhere inland, striking his wooden clappers to signal the time. The water had carried the sound.

From his cloak he took a small, flat lacquer case, which he tucked into the woman's sash. Then he put his arms under both bodies and heaved. They tumbled over the side of the boat. There was a muffled splash as they hit the dark water. Before they could sink, he caught the end of the rope that bound their wrists and wrapped it around the piling, wedging it firmly into a crack in the slimy wood. He took one last look at the corpses that now floated just beneath the water's surface in an undulating tangle of the woman's hair. Then he looked back toward the bridge.

And nodded in satisfaction. When they were found-as they soon would be-everyone would surmise that they'd jumped from the bridge together and drifted downstream until the piling caught them. The letter sealed in the watertight case would confirm that impression. He watched to make sure the rope was secure. Then he untied his boat and began the long, cold journey back upstream.

 

Excerpt from SHINJU
©Laura Joh Rowland, 1994




"An unusual and exotic mystery."
—San Diego Union-Tribune on SHINJU

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