The Whisky Blot
Journal of Literature, Poetry, and Haiku
“I have brought the melancholy of my heart
up the hill
to the wild roses in flower”
-Yosa Buson (1716 - 1784), translated by W.S. Merwin
Yosa Buson stared at the bloody circle before him. The noon sun was directly overhead, and its sunlight poked between a handful of white ocean clouds, the sunlight reflecting off the blood’s deep, oozing red. The result looked like a rose in full blossom, plucked and thrown carelessly into the wind.
The sounds of the townspeople began to creep back into his consciousness. The muttering gossip of the victim’s neighbors peppered into Buson’s ears. He felt the close perspiration of the poor fishermen around him; the summer humidity did little to comfort the grisly scene. Thirty villagers had come to see this man’s execution, yet no one knew his name. They knew only what he’d done two nights ago.
“Excuse me. You there. Excuse me.”
Buson looked down to his left at an aged fisherman. The man’s flesh was torn and leathery, like the stunted skin of a turtle.
“Oh, sorry. I apologize . . . my mind was elsewhere,” Buson said.
The old fisherman grimaced, revealing only a few remaining yellow teeth. “I understand. You look like a young man, traveler. First time seeing an execution?”
“Hm. Guess blood’s still flying across the country. So much for our hard-earned peace. Our daimyo hasn’t been here in all his life, I guarantee that.” The man took a step back and casually bowed a respectful angle. “I’m Beniya. A pleasure to meet you.”
Buson kindly returned the bow. He felt his white kimono stick to his sweaty back. “Friends call me Buson.”
“Strange name for these parts. Strange day for all of us, I suppose.” Beniya turned and looked across the slim road to the rapist’s body. “Did you know her . . . the victim?” His voice was low, breathless.
“Briefly. I knew her name.” Buson felt the sentence leave his cracked lips like bitter wine.
“She was a real beauty for a town like this. Yes, she was. Shame. At least she’s with her ancestors now. No place in this world for an orphan.” Beniya bowed again and walked off toward the market. The rest of the villagers gradually dispersed back to their daily chores, their boats, their weaving. Buson watched four boys tiptoe toward the corpse to get a better look. The two samurai were talking quietly to each other, the executioner leaning on his sheathed katana. One saw the boys and swore them off.
With his hands behind his back, Buson stared at the bloody rose-print. He couldn’t strip it from his mind. This tragic, bloody ferocity had coursed through a killer’s veins minutes ago. Enthralling. Paired with the sun, it was a shade of red Buson had never seen recreated by man’s hands, not in Edo, nor in Kyoto. Mankind’s truest paint is hidden until death, he thought. As he slowly picked up his pack and straw raincoat, he felt his head spin. His knees wobbled until he caught his balance. Blood was on his mind. Blood and loathing.
Takahama’s only izakaya was full that night. Men packed shoulder-to-shoulder drank the town’s unique brew of sake by the pitcher-full. Buson sat on the last stool of the restaurant. Back slumped like his shoulders were melting down his chest, he stared into the clear liquid sloshing around his cup as he tilted it left and right. The paper lanterns hanging from the izakaya’s wooden posts shed warm, flickering light across the small restaurant. Behind him he felt the pleasant coastal breeze. Cold specks of rain danced in from the night and kissed the nape of his neck.
He remembered when he’d been here five moons ago. Hanako had been piling used wooden plates and ceramic cups from the bar, careful not to make eye contact with anyone. Anyone except Buson. Her long hair had been tied in a tight bun behind her head, casually held in place by a long black hairpin. A scarlet ornamental flower crested the top of the pin. The flower was a splash of color in contrast to Hanako’s pale skin and grey kimono. Beads of sweat had raced down her forehead. Buson had imagined he could feel her anxiety on his own back, and he’d wished he could take it, keep it for himself. When her duties were clear, she had come over to Buson and chatted about menial things. The color of the moon, local gossip, the new Buddhist bhikkhu in town. It hadn’t mattered what she’d said to him. It was the way she traced her hair behind her ear, the way she smiled with half a grin when she spoke of her dreams.
Now two mature women were tending to the bar. Both wore the same grey kimono. Both wore deep frowns set like stone. Buson shot back the rest of his cup and slammed his hand on the bar for a pitcher. The night weighed against him, waiting to ambush him when sleep would inevitably roll along. The dreams would stab silently, without expression. Buson could feel the sake burn in his chest and the tips of his ears. The room began to spin, just like he’d hoped it would.
A few pitchers later, Buson stumbled through the quiet night’s muddy streets. He hoped he was moving toward the town’s meager ryokan to spend the night, but he wasn’t sure of his steps. Uncertainty, he thought. That’s me tonight and tomorrow. Forever. What is a poet if not a vagabond? His mind swam in the warm mud seeping between his sandaled toes. He was missing something, looking for something inside his organs. Hollow, like an oak infested with wood beetles digging through its branches. A young woman appeared at Buson’s side and grabbed his elbow. She was leading him toward a wide, lit house. In the dark, Buson looked up at the clear sky. Stars spread themselves haphazardly across the night. All of them swirled around one another. Hypnotizing. Buson stopped the girl and rubbed his eyes. He looked again at the stars and saw them for what they were: innumerable eyes of a spider staring at him, gods watching his thoughts closer than he’d ever know.
The following morning, Buson’s nausea eclipsed his nihilism. He had a feeling he’d wretched a few times last night, but he couldn’t remember. The ryokan’s staff were pleasant to him, but stiff and forced. After tea and a small bowl of rice, Buson paid them well. As he exited the sliding door, he paused and got the attention of the ryokan’s owner, a middle-aged man with pock-marked cheeks.
“Pardon me,” Buson said. “Who’s the current bhikkhu at the temple?”
“His name is Yamanoue. Been here for over thirteen moons by now. Go easy on him.”
Buson shared a bow with the ugly man before heading south, uphill. The morning sun was veiled by low clouds streaming in from the sea. Buson inhaled the rich scent of brine as he plodded up a heavily worn trail. The grass here was practically dancing it was so alive. Emerald ferns on either side of the trail fought for Buson’s attention. He heard a woodpecker rattle away somewhere in the shaded forest.
Unlike Edo, Takahama’s Buddhist temple had not been added upon over the past hundred years. As Buson stepped through the temple’s arched gateway, he noticed native ivy overwhelming the wooden structure’s accents and angles. Through the gate, twin healthy beech trees stood side-by-side in the center of the temple courtyard. A flock of crows perching in the two trees cawed and croaked, a shrill break in the temple’s otherwise still atmosphere. Buson looked behind him, down the winding hill to the small village below and the sea beyond. Even from this height there was a limit to how far he could see—the clouds were a solemn wall hiding the horizon. Perhaps when the sun has had its say I’ll look again, Buson thought.
He stepped further into the temple grounds. From what he could sense, Buson seemed to be the only person up here. Directly in front of him and on the other side of the trees lay the main hall. The front doors were open, and Buson could see the lower half of a bronze Buddha within. But for his purpose, he needed to find the bhikkhu. The temple’s rusty bell stood outside the lecture hall, a building no larger than an ordinary home in Takahama but far more ornamental. Here, too, ivy bordered the building’s curves and edges, as if the encroaching ivy hoped to hide what lay within. Feeling his sandals pull against his toes, Buson shuffled toward the meeting hall. As he approached the sliding door, Buson heard brief footsteps behind him. He stopped and turned.
A tall, calmly smiling bhikkhu stood to the side of the bell. He wore a brown rakusu over his robes, the rakusu neatly sewn together with a brick pattern throughout the garment. Buson thought the over-robe looked more like a large, adult-sized bib. Even with the oversized Buddhist robes, Buson could see the man had been a warrior. He had the thickly muscled neck of an ox and the posture of a plank. A vertical scar raced down his forehead and left cheek. His bald scalp shone in the overcast light.
Hands and sleeves together in front of him, the bhikkhu bowed.
“Welcome, pilgrim,” he said, his voice deep and melodious.
“You must be Yamanoue,” Buson said, returning the bow.
“That I am. With whom do I owe this pleasure?”
The sun peaked out from overhead and caused Buson to squint. “Most know me by the name Buson,” he said.
Yamanoue’s expression lifted. “You don’t say? Truly, the poet from Edo, the one who studied under Master Hajin?”
Buson grinned. “I’m afraid so. One and the same.”
“The honor is mine, senpai. Master Hajin’s poetry is what led me to The Way of Buddha, away from war and worry.” Yamanoue bowed again, this time deep, almost to the waist. “What brings you to our humble temple?”
“You, actually. I was hoping to have a conversation.”
Yamanoue nodded. “Certainly, certainly. Please, follow me and we can discuss The Way.” He walked past Buson, up the steps, and slid the wooden door open to the meeting hall. Buson followed him. The interior of the meeting hall smelled of wet wood. There were no ornaments inside, other than a small Buddha at the front of the hall. Tatami mats formed the structure’s flooring. Yamanoue smoothly knelt to both knees in the middle of the room and gestured for Buson to join him. As Buson knelt, his nausea returned to buffet him. He reached up and rubbed his forehead.
“So, senpai, what do you seek?” Yamanoue said.
Buson sighed and shook his head. “It’s . . . not easy to explain. See, I’ve lived many things, and I’ve felt them too. Spring’s first thawed mud on the mountains. A young samurai weeping while he holds a dead infant in his arms. Bears ripping into each other under a full moon. I’ve been there, lived there in those moments. That’s what I write. Master Hajin taught me well . . . but it wasn’t me that lived those moments. I was only a reflection, a pool begging for ripples.”
“That is your dharma, no?” Yamanoue said.
“Yes, I suppose so, but let me explain. I thought I knew dharma—the principles, the duty, the me among the nothing. But . . . but then I met her.” Buson exhaled and looked up at the ceiling’s long pine beams stretching parallel to one another. “I first came to Takahama twenty-six moons ago. I was only passing through, see, on my way east for an autumn festival. The gods saw fit to dump their tears on us that day. The thunderstorm was impenetrable. So, dripping wet, I stumbled into the izakaya for shelter. I was the only one there, other than the owner and a young woman . . . Hanako.” He said her name like it was opium.
At the name, Yamanoue leaned forward slightly. Buson knew that the bhikkhu had known her. Hanako had spoken highly of him.
“There was nothing else to do but talk and drink since the roads were flooding. I learned that she was old enough for marriage—I learned that very quickly—and that she was an orphan. She talked to me like we’d known each other since childhood. And the way she laughed when I shared my poems . . . no one laughs like that. The veil of deluge behind me, I found the flower that’d been blooming in the dark. Hanako.”
“Did you pursue her?”
“No . . . as soon as the rain ceased, I rented a bed and dreamt of her. But when morning came, I did what I knew: I moved on. Traveling, always traveling. Like nature, eh? I made plans every chance I got to come back here. Every time I planned how I’d propose to her, take her away with me back to Edo, or maybe settle in Kyoto. I structured how I would profess my love. Poem after poem—they were all her. But whenever I walked into that izakaya, I would only reflect what she was. I could only observe and swallow the moment, feel it swirl in my belly. Sometimes we talked for hours. She liked me. I knew that from her eyes. Clever and keen. As if she were taunting me to ask her.”
Buson raked his fingers through his hair. “I never did.”
Slowly, Yamanoue asked, “Is it regret, then?”
“Guilt. Guilt, that’s what it is.” Buson allowed his chest to boil. “Because I always left and always returned, I always moved, yes, but I left her alone by staying alone myself. There was no one else for her. No one. An orphan girl in a piss-town, serving sake day and night to drunkards and peasants. And what happened, Yamanoue? Not me, that’s for sure. She was taken, snatched, raped. And you know what I was doing mountains away that night? Staring at the open stars, thinking how wonderful it is to be alive and how I’d surely share my life with her this time.” His nostrils flared with his breathing as his nausea flipped his anger on its side. He looked down at his open palms. Empty and shaking.
Buson heard the bhikkhu inhale and exhale a deep breath.
“I am . . . sorry she had to feel the pain she did,” Yamanoue said. His voice quavered. “She would visit here often to learn The Way of Buddha. She was pious, yet original. She knew she’d lived a difficult life. But she also knew Buddha’s truths, just as you do, that existence is suffering, and that suffering has a real breeding ground . . . attachment. Craving. She saw past them.”
Buson met Yamanoue’s eyes. “How?”
“To see past the future is to see the present. Nothing, absolute nothingness. She awoke her buddha-nature and cleaved to letting go of all of this. She discovered what’s beyond the mind. Beyond the tools of reason. So . . . when she died, I imagine she already knew she’d exist still, the very same existence she witnessed in zen.”
“I can’t not crave her,” Buson said. “The past is not some rope I can let go. The past and the future are my hands, my left and my right. I can’t grip a decision without feeling what isn’t there. That’s the nothingness you worship, isn’t it? Well, it’s a devil to me. I cannot move without feeling my own bones’ oppression.”
A single crow barked in the courtyard. Yamanoue parted his lips, but he paused and shut them again. Finally, he asked, “Do you know of Takahama’s Shinto shrine?”
Buson frowned. “No. I wasn’t aware there was a shrine here.”
“Few people know of it. It’s far in the hills, and the path is no more than a cluttered deer trail.” Yamanoue rose to his feet. “You can find the trailhead behind our temple’s main hall. Legend says a local kami still visits its shrine. I think there you may find the setting for your search.” He surveyed Buson. “Strange that a traveling poet is missing a yatate. I think you’ll probably want one when you reach the shrine. Here, it would honor me if you would take mine.”
Yamanoue walked to the Buddha at the end of the room, leaned behind it, and pulled out a small, rectangular wooden box, a corked gourd of water, and some spare parchment. He brought them to Buson and presented them. Buson rose and accepted the writing set, bowing.
“Thank you, Yamanoue. I’ll go find this hill,” Buson said.
Yamanoue clasped his own hands together. When Yamanoue bowed farewell, Buson thought he could feel the potential serenity of a sweet, inarticulate gravity press against him, empty beyond nothing. Buson took a few steps backward before turning his back to Buddha and heading toward the Shinto trail.
At this elevation, mainly cypress and cedars crowded the thick forest. Although past mid-day, cloud cover remained overhead and crept through the vegetation’s intertwined branches. Paired with the stagnant, humid air trapped under the forest canopy, the raw richness of life overwhelmed Buson. The trail was fragmented but still discernible enough to follow. It continued onward up-hill, driving through meandering rivulets and run-off. Buson’s feet and legs were quickly caked in mud. The trail had wound on itself so many times that Buson had lost his sense of direction. He knew only that the path went forward and backward. The choice was linear.
Unable to gather enough sunlight to thrive beneath the ancient trees, few shrubs and ferns lived on the forest floor. The forest seemed oddly forlorn and forgotten, despite its life. Looking ahead, Buson could see a break in the tree line, where the hill finally plateaued. Breathing hard, Buson tentatively approached the forest’s edge. He rested his hand on a healthy fir on the border and tried to make sense of what he saw.
The “hill” was, in fact, an ancient, isolated mountain peak overlooking the northern sea. A solitary grey torii gate stood planted on the cliff’s edge. The rest of the peak was carpeted in waving, pale grass, the canvas for blooming red rose bushes chaotically spread before the torii. A cold breeze swept against the clifftop, swaying the roses enough to catch crimson petals and gently carry them wistfully against Buson’s chest, before his feet. He could smell their wild liberty. The wind had ushered the clouds south enough to allow sunlight to bathe the cliff. Buson stepped forward and saw a large ball of copper fur beside the base of the torii. Intoxicated by the scent of the roses, Buson inched forward, careful to avoid the thorns beneath the blossoms.
It was a fox. Dead and on its side, the female fox’s eyes and mouth were shut. The edges of her mouth were slightly curved, as if she were sharing a dream with someone she loved. Someone who’d stay by her while roses covered her fur under the sun and under the moon.
Buson stared at the fox like his soul had found breath. His eyes filled with tears that the wind flicked away. He shrank to his knees and pulled the yatate from his kimono, the gourd, the blank folded parchment. He spread the paper across his knee, opened the yatate, let his tears and water mix into the inkstone. The writing brush dipped into the ink and flowed on its own, captivated by its master’s heart. When he finished the poem’s seventeenth syllable, Buson’s limp fingers let the brush drift into the grass. He inhaled the sea, the wild roses. The nostalgic kiss of loneliness drifted across his lips, a clear prophecy that they would surely meet again.
Truman Burgess grew up in the Pacific Northwest and the Shenandoah Valley. He has a Bachelor's of English and currently works as a writer for St. George News in Southern Utah. When he's not writing, you can find him dancing with his wife or climbing trees with his kids.
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