by Luke Frostick
A tax collector’s life is a lonely one, but Ume-Hana had rarely felt as empty as she did on Grey Thrush Island.
Grey Thrush Island was the furthest point of the southeastern archipelago. Ume-Hana didn’t know if this was the most remote part of the kingdom, but it couldn’t be far from it. As the gaps between the islands stretched out, trade dwindled. Each island she came to feel lonelier, poorer until the peasants were left scratching out an existence from fishing, a few animals and what rice or millet they could grow.
On Grey Thrush Island, they didn’t even bother with smuggling. There was nothing to smuggle. The Iron Boat’s captain didn’t expect to do much in the way of the trade he made more money transporting the monks drawn to the island in search of Yellow flower tea famous for its prophetic properties.
Ume-Hana’d been working her way south for the whole of the summer, catching the smoke-belching Iron Boats that ran trade runs, mostly in dry fish, between the little fishing villages. Every time she reached a village, she scraped what measly taxes she could out of them then moved on. It almost didn’t seem worth the bother. Yet she knew that the Daimyo’s duty had to be carried out.
Ume-Hana hated the way they stared at her and the fear in their eyes when they spotted her tax collector’s insignia. It hadn’t bothered her in the past; duty had been enough, but she’d been meandering through the islands for thirty-five years now and was fast running out of spirit.
She wasn’t the only thing that had changed. When she was younger, she’d moved on nimble skiffs and catamarans that had danced across the water. Now, she only traveled on Iron Boats that chugged across the water like it was treacle, leaving a black streak across the sky and a foul trail in the sea.
This journey had been unpleasant. The constant noise of the Iron Boat had grated on her. Every wave made the Iron Boat list and bellyflop into the waves with painful slaps of water and metal. It made her feel queasy, something a life on the sea had thus far inoculated her against. The smoke from the coal engine left black residue under her nails and made her cough. To get away from the stench, she looked out to the sea, but that came with its own trials. The ocean, which had always teemed with life, was now empty except for the jellyfish the propeller pulped. Not a single turtle’s head bobbed above the water; the flying fish didn’t dance in the spray, and no dolphins came to play in the wake. Even the gulls looked greasy and bedraggled. The quality of the sea had weighed heavily on Ume-Hana’s mind. Nobody at the Daimyo’s castle thought there was a problem, let alone that they should look for a cause.
A three-day journey took them Grey Thrush Island across the lethargic sea without a breeze to cool her. It was pretty much uneventful, except for a strange happening on the second day. As she stared into the sea, a shadow passed beneath her, deep in the water. It was at least the same size as the boat, but traveled with a predatory grace that defied its bulk. It slipped past them like ink running across stone and disappeared out of Ume-Hana’s vision. An omen, she thought and shivered despite the oppressive heat.
There were two villages on Grey Thrush Island – The Beak and The Tail. The boat docked in the sharped edged harbour of The Beak, and Ume-Hana was met by the local head-woman, Kurushimi. The headman was away at sea, acting as the captain of the island’s singular Iron Boat, leaving the head-woman in charge.
As Ume-Hana hadn’t been to this Island before, formal introductions were held in the village hall, a simple wooden building with a thatched roof and rotten tatami mats.
They discussed the day’s business over tea. It was bitter and heavily cut with brown rice in an attempt to make the valuable brew last longer.
Kurushimi bustled despite the heat. Quite capable of handling the Headmans duty she presented the Daimyo’s taxes dutifully collected in the last 3 years since Ume-Hana had visited.
The collection was low. Abysmally low. Ume-Hana put the few coins in her strong box and locked it up tight.
She hadn’t expecting great riches from that most remote island, but still, so few coins was unprecedented. “Why is there so little?” Ume-Hana asked, knowing the answer all too well.
“Times have been hard. They haven’t been for some time.” Kurushimi told her. “The men go out on the Iron Boat, but the catches grow smaller and smaller, and they have to range further and further to feed us.”
Ume-Hana had heard the same story from other villages on her journey through the heat and humidity of the archipelago. She voiced her sympathies as she noted the takings down in her ledger. The taxes that the villages were struggling to pay off totalled less than the gold the insignia strapped to her arm. She felt nauseous at how deeply the head-woman bowed after Ume-Hana forgave a third of their debts.
“It’s not just the men out on the deep sea.” Kurushimi continued. “We women feel it too. When we dive, we have to go deep to find the shellfish that used to fill the shallows. We pull them up, but have to cook them through because they go bad in the warm seawaters. The corrals we search round have turned white, and more often than not we come up with nothing more than gashes on our hands and feet. That, Official, brings the sharks. They are hungry and aggressive. It’s dangerous work for little reward.”
“Everybody knows that the diving women of Grey Thrush Island are amongst the bravest in the land.” It was a platitude Ume-Hana told to head-women across the archipelago, but Kurushimi seemed to appreciate it.
“Small catches are bad, Official, but there is more. The sea itself is sick. I honestly believe it. When we dive Official, we come up stinking of decay. When I was a girl, I remember my mother’s skin smelt of pure salt more beautiful than any rich woman’s perfume. Now we spend hours in the hot springs trying to get the smell of rot out of our hair.”
Again, this wasn’t new to Ume-Hana. Over the past year she had found that many of the bays that she had swum in as a child now repulsed her and jellyfish clogged the mouths of once pristine harbours.
With her business finished, she started to walk to The Tail. Nobody in The Beak had been willing to take her round in a boat. After all, what kind of person would inflict a tax collector on their neighbour? They told her that their Iron Boat was out in the deep sea chasing the shoals of fish and added that all the sailing ships were needed for the diving women. The captain of the Iron Boat that brought them to the island could be persuaded either. He was keep to be away to more profitable harbours.
“Don’t worry.” they had told her. “There is a path and you can stop for a night’s rest at the Yellow Flower Temple half way to the village.” So, Ume-Hana had slung the strong box over her back and set out for a long walk.
The midday heat on Grey Thrush Island is a fearsome thing. The sea wind, the breath of purity that protected all the islands, melted away. In her official robes, Ume-Hana felt like she was doing the same.
The promised path turned out to be little more than a game trail. It raggedly followed the lay of the land, adapting to the sharp contours and picking the easiest way through the temperate rainforest that made up the island’s heart. For hours, Ume-Hana dragged her frame round moss-covered rocks, over dainty streams and through the tanged roots of trees so old that they had died and become infested with other species of climbing plants.
“All the gods, it’s hot.” Ume-Hana muttered to herself and continued her hike. Even the cicadas’ chirping seemed lethargic and the forest constricted her.
She walked along the path which swung up and down the slopes, sometimes going quite high into the mountainous interior, at other places practically to the shore. As she walked, she got a glimpse between the thick foliage down into a small cove below. As she looked down, it became clear that there was something on the rocks. It was about the same size as a basking shark – shapeless, slimy, and it seemed to be pulsing at a rhythm quite at odds to that of the cicada’s song.
As the path swung down into the cove, Ume-Hana decided to investigate. After all, she was a loyal agent of the state and it would have been remiss of her not to. She pushed her way between the ferns and shrubs onto the shore. Stones crunching underneath her sandals, she walked towards the creature.
It’s a squid, she thought to herself. But far bigger than any she’d seen before. It reminded her of the large shadow in the sea that she’d been so troubled by on her journey.
With her hand on the hilt of her sword, she edged towards it, trying to get a clearer look. Her precaution was unnecessary as it was clearly dying. It lay on the stones, flesh seeping between the rocks like rendered fat. Sphincters on its neck opened and closed with a wet, sucking noise and its tentacles moved, rising up and limply dropping again.
Its monstrous form like a corpulent emperor was not what really drew Ume-Hana’s attention, however. It was its eyes, huge and lidless. She looked into them, and they looked into her, observing her, her sword, her face, the insignia on her arm and the strongbox on her back. As she stared into their mournful depths, she became convinced that before her wasn’t just some pelagic beast, but a divine creature in the final moment of its life.
She hung her head to say prayers for its spirit. As she began, a voice coming down from the mountains interrupted her; a clear and strong voice singing an old children’s song.
My love has gone to sea,
To bring back crabs and fish for me,
But I must stay at home and pray,
That he’ll return to me one day,
So now I wait upon the shore,
And nail flowers O’er my door,
“Oyy! Who goes there!” shouted Ume-Hana. She put her hand back on her sword. “Show yourself.”
The bushes rustled, and a woman appeared squeezing between the trees with an ease at odds with her age. She wore a simple peasant’s jimbe and no shoes. Her weathered hands leant on a bamboo cane as she picked her way down to the beach side.
She looked at Ume-Hana, saw her insignia and bowed in a panic. “I mean no harm, Official. I am Anu, a nun heading back to the Yellow Flower Temple,” she said in a thick local accent.
“What is your business out of the temple?”
“I was visiting the head-woman at The Beak. I had a vision at the temple and it is my duty to report it to the villages. I’m just heading back now.”
“Yes, Official. I react well to the yellow flower tea.”
Ume-Hana tried to scold the woman gently. “Well, be that as it may it, you shouldn’t have been singing. A god is passing on.” She wasn’t to know that a portentous event was taking place.
Anu inspected the squid, then clapped her hands together. “I apologise, squid. If I had known, I wouldn’t have disturbed you with my song.” She turned to Ume-Hana. “What are we to do now, Official?”
Ume-Hana stood and thought; she wasn’t completely sure herself. Her teachers back at the Daimyo’s castle hadn’t ever brought this topic up, so she improvised. “We should hold a vigil to honour its passing.”
Anu nodded, sinking to her knees as you would in a temple. Ume-Hana remained standing with her thumbs stuck through her silk belt. The squid is a hunter, she remembered, a warrior’s haughty stance is appropriate.
After two hours, the creature was done. Its flesh stopped heaving, the tentacles stopped their flopping, and the light went out of its bulbous eyes.
“It’s over.” Ume-Hana declared.
“It was well done, Official. Even gods shouldn’t die alone.”
It is too common a thing these days, Ume-Hana thought. She’d heard other stories of great beasts dead on the rocks of the archipelago.
“Official,” Anu continued, “we should return to the path, it is a long journey to the temple, and the sun will set soon enough.”
Ume-Hana agreed and they returned through the undergrowth to the little trail. They walked the path together, helping each other over the brooks, the roots of the dead trees, and up the steep rocky slopes. Light conversation bubbled out of Anu as she went. The life of a nun at the farthest, poorest peripheries of the empire was more than just sitting sedately and praying. They lived a life amongst the people, acting as healers, advisers and ministering to their spiritual needs, not to mention mucking in when it was net repairing season or time for the harvest. Ume-Hana listened carefully- Anu’s lively chatter lifted her spirit. She asked Ume-Hana lots of questions about the other islands and the Daimyo’s court, apologizing with every question, explaining that she’d never left the island before.
“You know, Official, I should be quiet. I often talk too much and if you want quiet, please say.” Anu sounded suddenly worried.
“It’s fine. I don’t mind at all.”
“It’s just that I have a cause to celebrate.”
“I don’t see many reasons these days.”
“It’s hard to disagree, Official. The world has been out of order. Gods wash up on the shore. The men go out in the Iron Boat to fight ill storms, then return to the disappointed faces of their children when the catch isn’t big enough.”
Ume-Hana shook her head. Sympathy was an emotion she was becoming more and more familiar with. When she was younger, she’d had little time for sob stories. She’d put her thumbs in her silk belt and kept her head raised above the sufferings of the lower orders. That arrogance had gone with her youth and the sanctity of the sea. “So why are you happy?”
“Two weeks ago, I drank the Yellow Flower Tea looking for an answer. I fell deep under its effect and dreamwalked for five days. My brothers and sisters worried that I wouldn’t be returning at all but I did, Official, and I found it out. The answer. It was revealed to me how to restore the sea, make it run pure and bountiful again.”
“Oh?” said Ume-Hana, interested. It was a bold claim.
“The flower took me back into the past to when the waters were clean and the air didn’t hang hot and heavy. There, in that place, I saw the corruption seeping into the waters leaving them barren, like you see today.”
“What was it? The source?”
“Our Iron Boat.”
“The Iron Boat?”
“Yes, Official, it’s obvious. We never had these problems when the men rode the sea with the wind. It’s these creations of metal and coal that have angered the sea gods and then drained them.”
Ume-Hana stopped on the trail and though about it. They were dirty, the Iron Boats, everybody knew it. “So, what did you do?”
“I told our chief, she agreed on her husband’s behalf. When the Iron Boat returns it will be docked and the men will go out in wood again. There will be hard years to be sure, but the sea will return to us and no more gods need wash up dead on our beaches.”
“But don’t you think…” Ume-Hana started.
“What’s that, Official, I didn’t hear you.”
Ume-Hana didn’t finish her sentence. The Iron Boats are bad for your health, she thought, everybody knows that. You stand on the decks and you can feel it in your lungs. Sailors catch pneumonia and bronchitis. I’ve seen the poor houses where sailors died coughing up black gunk. But does Anu not know that the archipelago’s Daimyo has over two hundred alone? A good amount of the taxes in my strong box will go to making more. Retiring one will do nothing.
“Nothing… we should hurry if we want to make it to the temple before the sun goes down. You could sing a song. You have a fine voice.”
“Of course, Official.”
In the shadows cast by the setting sun on the un-dead trees, Anu sang another old dolphin-hunter’s song. Silent tears ran down Ume-Hana’s face.
Everybody knew, if they were bad for a person, naturally they were bad for the sea. But it was easy to not face the reality, or dismiss it as somebody else problem. The actions of one poor provincial island would change nothing. There was a puncture wound in the side of their vessel. It would take more than a single bucket bailed from the side by one small island to make it sound again, if that was even possible.
Ume-Hana flexed her shoulders, feeling the weight of the strong box on her back. The Daimyo would have to do without its contents. She would donate it to the temple or give it to the villagers. Ume-Hana knew it wouldn’t be enough, but they would need all the help that they could get.
Luke Frostick is a British writer based in Istanbul and the editor of the Bosphorus Review of Books. This is his debut short story.