Fiction,  Issue 9

Tea and the Weight of Spirits by Janna Miller

Katsu’s airy house was roughly sealed against the night winds. Bundles of cedar needles were pushed into wall cracks and layers of rice mats strewn along a raised wooden floor. The breezes sought crannies and loose shingles anyway, as the valley whistled with restless spirits looking for a place to inhabit the darkness. He felt them land like birds on the roof above, adding their weight to the top of the house.

Katsu knew he could not help them.

His old frame shook as leg bones eased themselves to the floor and bed, while pulling covers up to his chest. Just before he closed his eyes, his right hand searched under layers to the bare wood below mats, feeling for a pine knot that seemed almost warm to the touch. Tracing the rough circle, he prayed for strength from what lay beneath. 

Katsu had been up since the first morning pink touched the sky, picking the smallest of green leaves and placing them, almost weightless, into a slung bag over his shoulder. He hunched over the ends of flexible branches, staining his fingernails green in the long rows of tea bushes that stretched out from his house. 

He listened to sounds of the morning, now that the winds were gone: a Black Kite keening in the distance, the wings of a Copper Pheasant brushing the tops of tall grass, small insects humming in new warmth of the day. A bell sounded from the Shinto temple at the end of the valley, calling the Kami-Sama. A horse nickered as it walked the length of the valley towards his house.

He had enough time to start the leaves drying in the sun on shallow bamboo baskets, before Haruki arrived. Katsu’s nephew had forgone robes for western styled pants like the army now did for official events. When he dismounted, he looked too small, like he had replaced his kimono and topknot for a compact energy that hummed.

“Uncle.” Haruki bowed briefly before presenting a package to the older man. “Rice. A gift for you.”

Katsu bowed back. “Thank you, nephew.” He gestured towards the small wooden house. “Please, come in for tea. I have the sencha that you like.”

Haruki grasped his hands behind his back, relaxing into an odd stance and releasing his smile. “No, I need to get back to Kyoto. When can I say you will join me? The new army grows impatient for its old daimyo.”

“You know I can’t, Haruki-kun.”

“The Emperor needs you.”

Katsu laughed suddenly. “No. It’s the Emperor’s advisors that need me under their watchful eyes. Look, nephew.” He took a step closer. “Look closely at my farm, my house, my hands. Look at my hands.” He raised them up in front of Haruki’s eyes. “The callouses on the fingers from snapping leaves, from grinding them. They are no longer the hands of a warrior, or even a statesman. Tell them the samurai are truly gone. And leave me be.”

“Etsuji would…”

“My son is dead. Your rebellion was for naught. The army has you now, for the good of the country.”

“Most of the old samurai are there, advising. Using their energy to teach, to serve. It’s a new age. The Meiji Restoration…”

Katsu turned away, looking down the long rows that still needed harvesting. “Thank you for the rice, Nephew. Safe journey back to the city. You are welcome for tea anytime.”

He heard, but did not see, Haruki turn angrily on his heel and mount the tired horse. The vibrations in its hooves radiated in the stone, as the two started the long trek back to the city.

After Haruki had gone, Katsu harvested another row and spread its leaves in the baskets. He cooked some of the rice his nephew brought, adding vegetables, and ate in the shade of a tree. He put aside a portion of the rice for later. Then he gathered the sun-dried leaves in one large basket, bringing them inside.

The sun was sliding down the sky when he boiled the water for tea. He selected a bowl and a white ceramic jar from a low shelf, opening the container to reveal the bright green matcha powder. He scooped a portion into the bowl and added several ladles of the hot water, whisking it together into a froth. He drank deeply, letting it cleanse the day, and the years. 

He left half for the house shrine, along with the saved rice from dinner, placing them gently on a shelf in the corner of the house. He lit incense, the thin smoke rising in front of a picture of his dead wife and son. Etsuji wore the formal hakama, Fumi wore a delicate silk kimono, a flowered parasol raised above her head. The picture had been taken in Kyoto, in the gardens outside the family estate. In the background, long boughs leaned over a pond, and flowers lined the bank.

Before the incense was done burning, Katsu heard the spirits’ return.

The next morning, when Katsu slid open the door to his front porch, he almost stumbled on a long package, wrapped in white linen and tied with an elegant cord. It contained two messages. The first was tucked into a linen fold and written in flowing script on the finest paper. It bore the Emperor’s seal. He knelt down and opened the letter addressed to him, formally recalling him to the city of Kyoto, to serve the Emperor in whatever way he saw fit. Katsu had two days to present himself to the royal court.

The second message was still wrapped in linen and cord. Katsu unwound it slowly, letting the long fine strips fall to the floor. When his old katana was finally revealed, its naked blade reflected the morning sun. He had not seen it since the day his son was killed, and the last samurai rebellion against the new Meiji order put down. That was the day he left the city, and his gardened estate. When he left his wife’s grave near to the pond, and the place marked for his son, still undug. The day he left everything he used to be.

The note he burned. The katana he brought inside, laying it on the floor next to the pine knot.

The Emperor’s advisors thought he clung to the old beliefs, but he clung to nothing. Katsu’s spirit wandered the day, adrift from both the old world and the new, caught between them both. And he was not yet ready to join with the spirits of the night. 

He would not answer the summons. Neither would he answer the sword.

That night, he tugged at the pine knot until the board moved, pulling out a long wooden box from underneath the house. Reverently, he opened the lid, peering inside on bent knees. He took out each object, laying it gently on the mat. A cut piece of his wife’s pink silk kimono, a lock of his grandmother’s hair. Poems his grandfather wrote. Pressed cherry blossoms. A photograph, taken the same day as the one in his house shrine, with the three of them together. Bits of his life he thought he was building. Things that were gone. 

These were the things that called the spirits to him, the ones with nowhere else to go. The lost Tama, souls of those with no ancestors to guide, who felt the world changing and could find no place to rest. How could they go home to protect their lines and the traditions that they lived and died in, when they did not recognize their sons and daughters? 

He used gentle hands to remove the last object in the box: an empty black lacquered scabbard. His katana sang as it was sheathed, together and whole. 

As he touched each momento, Katsu felt the winds start to blow and the spirits descend, as eager as moths to a flame. He still could not help them be free, but they could be near in the space above his roof, listening. 

For a time at least, there was one left who remembered.


Janna Miller writes to keep ahead of her daydreams (by just a little bit) and has published a few in places like Luna Station Quarterly and Andromeda Spaceways. Otherwise, she is a librarian, mother, and minor trickster. Generally, if the toaster blows up, it is not her fault. Follow her @ScribblerMiller on Twitter or visit her website to detail a complete list of her shenanigans.

One Comment

  • Janna Tinley

    I was captivated by your story. It was exquisite in the telling. In few words you drew me into Katsu’s life and his chosen path.

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