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
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
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
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
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
Excerpt from SHINJU
©Laura Joh Rowland, 1994