An Extract from ‘The Courtesan and the Samurai’
The moon had risen and the road ahead unrolled long and straight, lined with slender lacquer trees with a few leaves still clinging to the skeletal branches, glinting like gold coins. Hana could see her small shadow stretching out in front of her along the frozen earth of the causeway. Far below them, on each side of the embankment, marshland patched with paddy disappeared into the blackness. Every now and then men pounded past, sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot. Bearers raced by carrying palanquins and a heron swooped overhead.
Hana could feel Fuyu’s hand on her elbow, propelling her along. She could easily have pulled away and run off in another direction, but where else was there for a lone woman to go? She knew they were going to a place of pleasure for men, but it was a whole city too, that was what people said. There must be plenty of other jobs there.
‘There!’ shrilled Fuyu, her voice high and excited. ‘Look. Over there! Hurry, they’ve lit the lanterns already.’
In the distance, lighting up the blackness below the dike, was a shimmer like a haze of glow worms on a summer’s night. The whisper of voices and laughter and faint scents of wood smoke, grilling fish, incense and sewage wafted along on the breeze. The fabled Yoshiwara lay before them. Only it was not a fable, it was real, and Hana would soon be there. She stared into the darkness, her heart thumping.
Because, for all her qualms, the Yoshiwara pulled her and tugged at her and made her feet move faster. It almost made her forget the empty house, the banging on the door, the threatening figures pursuing her across the wasteland. The sounds and smells and glimmering lights drew her, promising an exotic new life which she could not yet even imagine.
Hana shivered in the icy wind and pulled her scarf closer around her face. Her legs were aching, stones dug into her feet and her straw sandals chafed with every step she took. But the lights ahead were growing brighter and brighter, and soon she began to make out the twang of shamisens and the sound of singing.
It was quite dark when they came to a solitary willow tree. Its leafless branches swayed and creaked in the wind.
‘The Looking Back Willow!’ said Fuyu.
Hana had read all about it. It was where men stopped for a last look at the walled city before they set off for home in the morning. Below them the Five Streets spread, a square of light and colour in the darkness of the marshland.
Hana stared at the dike, stretching behind her towards Edo and her old life. She was about to enter a new world and she knew that when she left it – if she ever did – the dike and the moon and the stars might still be the same, but she would not be.
© Lesley Downer (Bantam Press, 2010)