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Authors: Kara Dalkey

The Heavenward Path

BOOK: The Heavenward Path
Kara Dalkey
The Heavenward Path
    Two years after the events of
Little Sister
, Fujiwara no Mitsuko finds herself cursed by ghosts and bad luck. The furious spirit of a dead king demands she keep a forgotten promise, and he gives her a series of impossible tasks to complete. If she fails, the spirit will punish her by handing her over to the Lord of the Dead.
    Desperate, Mitsuko again turns to the mischievous shape-shifter Goranu for help. By his side, she journeys through a landscape of Japanese myths and legends made real, and through his lessons in the Way of the Tengu, she gradually learns to think for herself.
    But it turns out the ghost's demands are the least of Mitsuko's problems. In return for his help, Goranu makes a demand of his own. And Mitsuko promises to fulfill his wish, even though to do so may mean Goranu's death.
From School Library Journal
    Fifteen-year-old Fujiwara no Mitsuko, the fourth daughter of a powerful noble family, is about to be betrothed to an 11-year-old prince whether she likes it or not. In 12th-century Heian Japan, Mitsuko is not free to follow her heart, either to pursue the study of Buddhism or her growing relationship with Goranu, a shape-shifting tengu who has come to her aid in time of need. Even as political forces are directing Mitsuko's future, supernatural forces affect her present life when an evil ghost demands retribution for an unkept promise. Although this novel is a sequel to Dalkey's
Little Sister
(Harcourt, 1996) and refers back to events in that story, it stands on its own as an interesting fantasy and an even more interesting glimpse into a long ago and far away time and place. It is embellished with characters and customs from Japanese history and folklore, from the Shinto and Buddhist religions, and from the lifestyles and events of the period. Haiku-like verses introduce each chapter and are interspersed appropriately in the text as well. Readers nurtured on folklore and fairy tales from around the world will enjoy this well-told tale, while romantics will appreciate the affection growing between Mitsuko and Goranu. The book ends with the possibility of several different futures for Mitsuko, and with definite room for yet another sequel.
From Kirkus Reviews
    Pulled in different directions by her heart and by family duty, a daughter of the noble Fujiwara clan also has an angry ghost to appease in this busy sequel to
Little Sister
(1996). Two years after Mitsuko entered the land of the dead in search of her sister's soul, ominous dreams remind her of her vow to repair a small shrine in which she once took refuge. At the same time, her father announces that Mitsuko is to marry an 11-year-old prince. She once again calls on Goranu, the mischievous, immortal shape-changer who fell in love with her. Exchanging insults and tart retorts, the two grow closer as Mitsuko faces a dragon, the shrine's vengeful kami (spirit), and a host of other supernatural beings. Under Goranu's tutelage, Mitsuko learns how to use her wits, and by the end has overcome the treacherous kami, helped engineer the prince's marriage to her sister, and even met Lord Emma-O in the Court of the Dead. More than most sequels, this story relies on knowledge of its predecessor. Dalkey supplies a glossary and historical postscript, but readers unfamiliar with the first book will miss nuances in characters and relationships, and have only a sketchy picture of the 12th-century locales and social patterns. Together, however, the two novels combine a courageous teenager's well-articulated escape from the limits and preconceptions forced on her by a rigid, highly structured upbringing with a colorful, not altogether earnest, series of encounters with powerful beings from Buddhist and Shinto lore.
    I seem to be gathering names. I am Mitsuko, fourth daughter, and my family is of the great Fujiwara clan. Some call me Little Puddle because of a poem I wrote long ago at the Imperial Court. When I studied to become a Buddhist nun, I thought I would take some other name. But I doubt that will ever happen now. For a stone has fallen into this little puddle, splashing it into a new shape, erasing the clouds reflected on its surface…
Is the hare blessed who does not see the falcons talons above him?
    It began with the wind. It was a warm, autumn night, late in Leaf-Turning Month, and I was in my room in the Sukaku Temple, where I had gone to study Buddhism. I was copying a long sacred poem, one of the sutras, by lamplight. I was in that delicious state of half-awakeness, when one hardly notices the movements of one's hand rubbing the brush against the inkstone or flicking the brush tip against the rice paper. I imagined myself approaching that state of being-and-not-being that the monks of the temple so highly prized.
    But slowly I became aware of a soft hissing beyond the shoji sliding door beside me, a sound like the sea foam at Sagami Bay rushing up onto the shore. "It is merely the wind in the tall grasses," I told myself, and I tried to ignore it.
    But the wind went on and on, growing louder. I almost thought I could hear words in its whispers and moans. My skin began to prickle, and despite the seven layers of silk kimonos I wore, I shivered with chills. My hand trembled, and I had to set my brush down so that I would not ruin my work. There was a clattering on the roof tiles. "A mouse," I told myself. "Or a bird, or a bat." The sliding door began to shake and rattle, as if something was trying to get in. I was all too aware that the shoji was a fragile thing of only wood and paper, hardly a strong barrier between me and the monsters I imagined on the other side.
    "Good evening," I said, my voice quavering. "Is someone there? Who is it?"
    The wind whistled high and shrill among the roof beams, and the great temple bell intoned in the distance.
    "Goranu?" I asked, feeling very strange. Surely this could not be the work of the tengu who had befriended me and helped me search for my sister's soul two years before. It was true that the shape-changing demon loved to play tricks on the pious and pompous, and it was true that I had made him unhappy when I'd told him I would not teach him the Way of the Buddha. He had wished to give up his immortality to be reborn a mortal human in another life, in the foolish hope that he might then be able to marry me. I had thought this an improper reason to seek the Heavenward Path, and I refused him. Yet surely he would not be so cruel as to frighten me this way.
    But if not the work of Goranu, what else could this visitation be? I knew in my bones that it was no ordinary wind.
    Old ghost stories came to my mind, and I picked up the paper with the sutra on it, clasping it close to my chest in hopes that the sacred words would protect me.
Sukaku Temple is holy ground
, I thought.
Only an extraordinary ghost or demon would have the power to enter here!
I backed away from the shoji and huddled in the corner, now imagining a creature beyond the door with enormous eyes and long fangs and many hairy legs, trying to scratch through the wood and paper.
    But no such thing appeared. The wind hissed and droned on and on. The door rattled but never moved aside. The roof tiles clattered but did not fall in.
You are being foolish
, I told myself.
It is nothing and no one, after all
    In time, weariness overcame my fear, and I crawled onto my sleeping mat and drifted off to sleep. This, however, brought no escape, for the wind followed me into my dreams. I had visions of mountain pines, their branches waving wildly, dark against a moonless sky. "Mitssssssssuko," the wind whispered. "Mitssssssssuko. You promissssssssed!"
    A servant shook me awake the next morning, her face full of concern. "Are you all right, my Lady?"
    I did not wish to seem foolish, so I said nothing about the wind or my dreams.
    When I joined the other girls for the morning meal, for several daughters of Imperial Court nobles studied at Sukaku Temple, I asked, "Did you hear the wind last night? It was eerie, neh?"
    They regarded me as though I were a fish served out of season. "I think I heard a little breeze," one of them said, "but, really, it was nothing special. Not enough to ease this autumn heat. You must have been imagining things."
    Her answer unsettled me, and I vowed to say nothing more about it to anyone.
    It was difficult to stay awake that day during the droning lectures of the monks. I was pleased when the sun set, at last, and I could try to get some sleep.
    But the wind entered my dreams again, moaning in anger, hissing my name. When I awoke the next morning, I was relieved to see the sun, and yet already I dreaded the night to come.
    So it went for the following few days. Each night my dreams were haunted by the wind, until, from lack of sleep, I could not speak or think or act without someone else prodding me. I am sure I became the subject of much whispering among the other girls. "She is pining for a lover," they doubtless said. Or, "She is going mad."
    I was beginning to think so myself. My mood became worse when, in the following week, I heard that the temple well was drying up. And that a trade caravan bringing rice for the temple was robbed on the road and never arrived. And that a wing of one of the monks' dormitories caught fire, doing much damage.
    I heard the other girls whispering that these things were my fault. Mad people were possessed by spirits, neh? And spirits bring bad luck. Had I not once been a friend of a tengu? In my wearied state, I began to believe the rumors and kept myself apart from the other girls, brooding over what I should do.
What could possibly have earned me this fate?
I wondered. Had I offended some saintly spirit during my pilgrimages to the temples around Heian Kyo? Had I studied the sutras incorrectly? What sort of angry spirit could be haunting me?
    My mother had died the year before. I found it hard to grieve, for I could hardly believe she was gone. I had not seen her when she was ill. They say shame befalls those children who do not visit their parent's deathbed, but the fever that took her was so swift, I had no chance to return to Heian Kyo. And I did not attend her funeral, for I had a very good reason for staying away from cemeteries. Surely I could not be blamed.
    No, the angry spirit was not Mama-chan-I would know if it were she.
But what if
, I thought with growing horror,
it is Great Emma-O, the Lord of Death, still angry that I once trespassed in his domain? What if he comes at last to punish me for my crime?
I was so agitated from this thought that I could scarcely move or speak.
    On the eighth day of Long Night Month, I was summoned before Tadashi, the chief nun. She was a formidable woman, large and stern. Kneeling on the floor in her gray robes and cowl, she seemed immovable, eternal, wise: a mountain that had grown a human face. I knelt before her and bowed until my forehead was pressed against the reed mat beneath me. Tadashi regarded me for many long moments before she spoke.
    "So. Lady Mitsuko. It has been a long time since I last spoke with you. Perhaps too long."
    By this time, so little had I slept that I could hardly gather my thoughts. "Indeed, Holy One," I mumbled.
    "Has all been going well with you? Are your studies proceeding to your satisfaction?"
    I do not remember what I muttered then, but I did try to be polite. The afternoon was warm, and I was feeling very drowsy.
    The nun gazed out through the bamboo blinds for a while, as if watching the birds who chirped in the side garden or the yellow leaves drifting down from the ginkgo trees. At last she said, "See how the tall grasses are shaken by the breeze. They tremble as we do, when pushed by greater forces. I doubt the grass sleeps much on windy nights."
    So. She had heard about my sleeplessness and my fear of the wind.
    "How old are you now, Mitsuko?"
    "Nearly sixteen, Holy One," I managed to say.
    "Of course. The perfect age. I asked to see you in order to let you know that a letter has arrived from your father."
    I sat up then, for I feared that bad fortune had now befallen someone else in my family. "My father, Holy One?"
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