I. Parker: Death on an Autumn River

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I. Parker Death on an Autumn River
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    Death on an Autumn River
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I. J. Parker

Death on an Autumn River

In the Yodo’s waters

The young Ayu fish

Cries out.

Pierced by the Cormorant’s beak,

It writhes.

How pitiful!

( From the Ryojin hisho , a collection of the songs of courtesans by Emperor Go-Shirakawa)


Sugawara Akitada – midlevel official in the Ministry of Justice

Sadenari – his clerk

Tamako – his wife

Yasuko - his little daughter

Seimei – his elderly secretary

Tora and Genba - faithful retainers

Kobe – chief of the capital police

Characters in Eguchi:

Fujiwara Takeko – the lady of the River Mansion

Fukuda and Harima - two poor, elderly people

Mrs. Wada – owner of the Hananoya brothel

Warden Wada - her husband

Nakagimi – the reigning queen of courtesans

Akogi – a young trainee in the Hananoya

Characters in Naniwa and Kawajiri:

Oga Sadazane - governor of Settsu

Oga Yoshiyo – his son

Munata – the local prefect; a wealthy landowner

Nakahara – chief of the trade office

Nariyuki and Tameaki – his clerks

Otomo – a retired professor of Chinese

Watamaro – a local ship owner and merchant

Saburo – a severely disfigured former spy

Kunimitsu – owner of a sailors’ hostel

Chapter One

The River

Akitada watched the passing scenery through half-closed eyes. The river was as deep green as the wooded shoreline and flowed heavily toward the sea. Fish swam dimly in the glaucous depths of the water, shadows of silver in the shifting shades of green. On shore, the green curtain of the forest was broken here and there by a shimmer of gold or a touch of red. It was autumn, the “leaf-turning month.”

Something he had read somewhere came to his mind: “Ceaselessly flows the river to the sea, never pausing, always changing, losing itself in eddies and rice paddies, gaining new life from streams and tributaries. Even so is man.”

He had reached the middle of his life after almost losing himself on several occasions. His life’s waters moved more calmly now, both in his official life and at home.

The boat rode low in the water, poled along by three half-naked men and guided by their master at the rudder. Under its reed covered midsection, the passengers drowsed in the late afternoon warmth. They huddled close together at a respectful distance. The motion of the boat had made them sleepy and their chatter desultory. Only the youngsters in front still chattered, bursting into laughter or song from time to time.

Akitada’s clerk, Sadenari, was with them. The boy was nineteen and made him nervous with his awkward efforts to impress his superior. The young man was the son of a low-ranking official and had proved neither very capable nor useful. Being the newest member of the ministry, he was assigned to Akitada because he could be spared most easily.

As senior secretary in the Ministry of Justice, Akitada traveled on official business to the city of Naniwa on the Inland Sea. More elegant travel arrangements could have been made – he was entitled to them by rank and position – but he wanted to arrive with as little fanfare as possible. His true assignment, the delicate matter of finding out the truth about recent pirate attacks, must remain a secret. Ostensibly, he carried legal documents and instructions to the Naniwa office that handled matters of shipping goods from foreign countries and the western provinces to the capital.

Like most of the passengers, he was in a pleasant and soporific mood. Now and then a fish jumped in the distance, egrets made brilliant splashes of white against the dark green shoreline, and for a while seagulls had been circling overhead. Their boat would soon reach the coast. Soon enough he would have to deal with matters he knew little about. Anyone on this boat probably knew more about shipping and piracy than he did. The problem was that he could not ask questions and must learn from observation.

Pushing up a sleeve, he dipped his hand into the river. The water was cool on his wrist, and he instantly felt refreshed. They were turning into a bend of the river and the shore was coming closer. The curved roof of an elegant pavilion appeared among the trees.

There was a good deal of river traffic, coming and going between Naniwa and the inland towns and temples, but Akitada had not seen any villages or farms for a while. The pavilion had slender red-lacquered columns and a blue-tiled roof, and its veranda was suspended above the water. It was beautiful, almost other-worldly in its perfection. He watched it slowly gliding past, a dwelling fit for the heavenly beings in the western paradise.

Perhaps someday, he would build himself a small house on a river: a simple building of plain wood with a roof of pine bark so that squirrels and monkeys could play on it without sliding off. He would take his family there during the hottest weeks of summer. His little daughter Yasuko would like watching the animals. He would teach her how to fish, and they would sit side-by-side in their watery pavilion, letting their lines drift with the current until one of the bamboo rods would suddenly bend sharply, and Yasuko would cry, “I’ve caught one, father! I’ve caught one!”

And much later, when he was an old man and Yasuko had long since gone to be with her own family, he and his wife Tamako would live there and be at peace.

A shout from the front of the boat shattered the dream. The boatmen jumped about trying to stop the boat and turn it against the current. Some of the passengers asked questions but got no answers. Most got to their feet and craned their necks to see what was happening.

Akitada was as curious but restrained himself. Not so the young men in front. All five peered into the water over the shoulders of the boatmen. When the passengers went to join them, the boat began to list dangerously. The boat’s master cursed them back to their places. Order restored, he and his men leaned over the side and dragged something sodden and heavy into the boat. A gasp went around, and excited babble broke out.

A drowned woman.

One of the passengers near him, a fat shopkeeper returning from a pilgrimage to Iwashimizu’s Hachiman shrine, tsked and shook his head. “Happens all the time here,” he announced. “The girls from the brothels are always killing themselves in the river.”

A suicide?

“What brothels?” Akitada asked. “How did she get here?”

The boat’s master explained, “We’re almost in Eguchi.”

Eguchi, along with Kamusaki and Kaya, adjoined the ancient capital Naniwa and the port city Kawajiri. The three smaller towns specialized in providing sailors and merchants with prostitutes.

Akitada protested, “But that’s downriver.”

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