She goes into the inn. The entranceway is of dirt. There are hanging lanterns shedding a brilliant glow. A girl comes out, drying her hands on a cloth.
I’d like a room.
The girl looks at her. Astonished, perhaps.
By what? Maybe by the samurai sword stuck into the woman’s sash. Maybe by the empty sleeve. Or by that pale, wild,vivid face under the tattered straw hat.
Asano Kogen is my name, the woman says.
Hai, says the girl, bowing.
I have money.
Asano, if that is her name, takes out a leather pouch. She removes coins from it. Holds them out.
The girl goes back into the kitchen. A woman emerges, walking mincingly in a tight kimono.
You would like a room?
She’s still holding the coins. She shows them to the woman. The woman bows.
Pay us later, she says.
She’s a dry looking middle aged woman with elegantly done hair.
Asano’s hair, by contrast, is wild. It even has fragments of dead leaves clinging in it.
Please, the middle aged woman says, follow me.
She picks up a small lantern and goes haltingly toward a steep, narrow flight of stairs. Asano steps out of her geta. Then she follows. Up the dark stairs. Then along a polished hallway.
It’s a bare little room. It’s clean but depressing. There’s a small lamp. The woman opens and lights it.
Shuts it. There’s a softened glow now.
Enter, she says.
Asano steps into the room.
Make yourself at home and the girl will be up with tea.
The woman leaves. Padding softly down the hall, her stiff kimono creaking. Asano takes the sword out of her sash. She sets it by the door. Then she sits down. She stares at the lamp. It’s enclosed in a rice paper shade. She turns away from the lamp and looks at her shadow.
We hear soft footsteps. The girl’s voice calls out. Asano shuts her eyes.
The girl enters holding a bamboo tray with a teapot on it. A small cup. Asano opens her eyes and half smiles.
The girl bows, kneels, and sets down the tray. Bows again. Her hair is very black and shines in the lamplight.
Asano thanks her in a quiet, rueful tone. The girl stands up and leaves. She kneels again in the hall to shut the sliding door. The door shuts. Asano is alone. Alone.
There’s a feeling of melancholy, of vastness.
From the street, the sudden mysterious moaning sound of a bamboo flute.
Asano shivers. The flute rises to a wail and breaks off.
No doubt a komuso monk has just passed the inn. He is playing seemingly random notes.
He’s a beggar. Asano feels sad just imagining it. She couldn’t beg.
When she lived in the mountains doing Zen and swordplay she ate acorns and pine needles pounded into a paste.
She’s never begged, never asked for anything.
This scene is empty. This scene tastes of the void.
She unrolls the bedding and lies on it. The lamp makes a bright upward beam onto the raftered ceiling.
She gazes into this pool of brighter unsteady light.
There’s a smell of oil from the burning wick.
Asano shuts her eyes. Her nostrils shiver.
It’s almost as if she might weep.
But she doesn’t weep. Gradually, her face turns calm, with that mysterious half smile.
She’s asleep now. Suddenly we realize it.
The camera withdraws quietly to a corner. We see the sword leaning upright against the doorjamb.
The lamp burns for a little while and flickers out.
It’s out of oil.
Asano is barely breathing but we hear it.
She moans in her sleep.
It’s lonely in this room.
If only she were awake.
If only we knew what she’s dreaming.
Already we love her.
Why? Because of the camera.
She’s the woman in this novel, and we love her just because.
We love her just for her melancholy.
For being doomed. Doomed.