While I was writing the novel A Sword’s Poem I came to realize that there was a huge, long backstory for one of the main characters, namely, the priestess Ayumi.
While I was at the fantasy workshop earlier this year, I decided to write that story.
So here it is – The Healer’s Daughter.
Ayumi has a magical talent for healing.
Unfortunately, her father, and society in general during Heian era Japan, won’t allow women to work.
Can Ayumi find a life for herself that doesn’t involve an odious marriage and wasting away, shunned and hidden in dim corridors like most women? Or does she have to take her own life, as her mother did?
This story is the prequel to the novel A Sword’s Poem.
The Healer’s Daughter
Ayumi carefully mixed the black paste together, adding just a touch more of the dried peony, gray with pink flecks. The mixture smelled of the fiery peppers she’d added, dry and toasted, along with the sweetness of dates and the tanginess of orange peel.
She put the bowl–like suribachi that held her paste down on the skinny wooden workbench that she stood in front of, giving it a final stir with the stick–like surikogi. Then she tried it.
The sweet taste lingered on the front of her tongue, covering up the bitterness of the dried flowers, while her throat heated when she swallowed, the warmth lingering, stirring her blood.
Maybe a touch more mushroom to strengthen the heart. The mixture had to be just right. It was too important for a single mistake.
On the two shelves above the workbench stood rows of her father’s herbs in their small earthenware jars, all firmly corked. The jars were ordered according to the general properties of the herbs, were they hot or cold, summer or winter. None of the jars had any other markings on them: Ayumi had had to watch carefully to learn where each herb was placed.
She reached for the kanoji mushrooms, cut and dried into long strands, their earthy smell wafting out when she uncorked the jar. She took merely two, so Father wouldn’t notice them missing, then shredded them finely before adding them to her mixture.
Ayumi shifted from one foot to the other as she stirred her mixture with the surikogi, tired of standing. The workroom was closed in, a tiny room with no windows, so that the neighbors wouldn’t complain about any unhealthy scents coming from the potions her father put together.
If only they could afford a separate workroom! Up in woods, above the town, where no one would complain about the smells, a place where Ayumi could work without worrying that someone may see her.
She sighed, telling herself that she could rest on the tatamis later, maybe nap through the heat of the summer afternoon, when even the flies would buzz along drowsily. At least she could wear her lightest robe inside the workroom, where no one would see her, a plain green robe with the sleeves tied back so she could work.
Ayumi checked the ingredients again in her father’s kampo recipe book, carefully keeping the mixture to the side so she wouldn’t accidently spill anything on the book.
The ingredients were listed in the order they should be used in her father’s flowing calligraphy. In the margins, he’d drawn tiny sketches of the more unfamiliar plants, like the leaves and berries of the jujube and a Tuckahoe mushroom growing under a spring pine.
The book was very precious. Only the richest lords and ladies could afford paper. No one else in their village even knew how to write or read. Ayumi’s father had learned when Lord Satoru had sent him to the capitol of Nagaoka–kya to learn the special medicine brought over from Shina, the mainland, to their island of Nifon, and not just folk healing.
Ayumi’s mother had taught Ayumi how to read in secret, as a way to hide her magical healing skills.
Ayumi’s father had of course written out his medicinal recipes to share with his son, not his daughter.
But her older brother had been killed when war had engulfed the province, as had many sons. They’d gone from being one of the richest areas in Nifon to one of the poorest, the fields turned into battlegrounds overnight, the forests over hunted, the crops ruined, and a second bitter winter ahead with it being the end of summer and not enough crops being stockpiled.
Ayumi carefully checked her father’s list again, making sure that she’d added everything for the utsukushi kami no tame no happo—the Eight Treasures for Beautiful Hair teapills that she was concocting. After the paste had rested, Ayumi would carefully portion the medicine into small round pills, then coat them in powdered black tea to help them harden.
Osamu the merchant had promised to take the medicine to Kyoto, the new capitol, to sell to the rich ladies there. He’d also promised to bring her back all the profits.
Ayumi knew he’d cheat her of half. No matter how much he likened her long black hair to silk, or her round–moon face to a ripe peach. He was a merchant and she was just a woman. He could do what he wanted.
But still, half of the profits was better than nothing at all.
Her father had listed the amounts she should use for the kampo recipe, like merely a pinch of the peony, while she should coat the surikogi that she used to mash the ingredients together in dried peppers before she started.
However, Ayumi didn’t agree with her father. More peppers didn’t make the medicine better or stronger. And because this was for the hair, it needed better roots, more mushroom instead.
Ayumi knew better than to argue with her father about these things. She was just a girl after all. She wasn’t supposed to know medicine or have a way with herbs, she wasn’t supposed to read or write or do anything scholarly. Instead, she was supposed to maintain his household, especially since it was just the two of them now, while waiting for him to choose her a husband.
Ayumi had never been good at waiting.
Heavy footsteps outside the door to the workroom told her that she should have been more patient, though, and not started until her father was truly away.
The door to the workshop pushed open and Father stood in the doorway, the bright sunlight on his back hiding his face.
“I knew I would find you here,” Father said.
Ayumi didn’t have to see his face to know the thunder there, how his brows furrowed and his eyes sparked.
“How dare you touch my medicines!” he continued walking into the workroom. While before it had been small, now it seemed crowded, filled with her father’s anger.
“I’m sorry!” Ayumi said. She dropped to her knees and put her forehead on the dirt floor. “I’m sorry. I meant no disrespect.”
“You just thought you could show me up!” Father roared. He stalked over to the workbench.
Ayumi trembled where she knelt, her hands pressed hard into the dirt, the smell of it mingling with the sour scent of her own sweat.
“How did you mix this?” Father demanded. He must have tasted her medicine. “What ingredients did you use?”
“Dried utagami peppers. Dates. Orange peel. Tuckahoe mushroom.” Ayumi rattled off the list in the order that she’d added them, as the kampo recipe had called for.
“How did you know to do that?” Father asked. “There aren’t enough pictures here for you to follow along. You cannot read.”
Why was Father so sure of that?
“Girls cannot read,” he continued.
Ayumi dared to raise her head at that. Father stood before the workbench, where she’d just spent so much time and effort to make the teapills. He looked more puzzled than angry, his eyebrows drawn together.
“I can read,” Ayumi said softly. “Mother taught me,” she added.
The confusion on Father’s face fled from the dark anger that filled it now, his jaw clenched and his eyes narrowed. “Do not bring her into this,” he said, his voice quiet now and more threatening. “Children die.”
Children die. Hope dies. Dreams die.
Ayumi had heard the whispered words of the old men, consoling her father, trying to get him to accept his fate. Trying to besmirch her mother, calling her weak. Urging him to forget their love and just remember how she’d failed her duty to him by only producing a single heir.
Mother had never been long for this world. Her spirits were too mixed. She had too much of some other, maybe old kitsune blood, or perhaps even from one of the local kami. She’d died of a broken heart when her son had died.
She’d only passed along a touch of magic to Ayumi.
But I’m not dead yet.
Ayumi couldn’t say those terrible words, not to her own father.
“Go,” he directed her hoarsely. “While I clean up this horrible mess you’ve made of my recipe.”
Ayumi knew she should be grateful that he was just letting her leave. She still had to try to salvage this.
“Osamu is going to sell the pills at the capitol,” she blurted out.
“Who do you think told me to come back early today from the market?” her father replied.
Ayumi’s cheeks burned. How dare Osamu betray her like that? She’d been nice to him. Brought him water when he was squatting at his stall in the market place. Made special teas for him, to ease his arthritic knee.
“He was right. You need a husband,” Father said sternly. “I have agreed to give you to him.”
Ayumi gasped. “Not him, Father.” Osamu was old. Forty, at least. And he’d already worn out two wives, beating them when they won’t produce sons for him.
“Him,” Father said, a gleam in his eye that further frightened Ayumi.
What had Father bargained away for her? What price had Osamu given him? What did Osamu think he was going to get with her, besides a willing slave?
“Now go,” Father said. “Leave my sight. I don’t want to hear another word of argument. Or I will drag you out of the house by your hair and leave you on the side of the road with the trash.”
Ayumi knew that Father was exaggerating. That he wouldn’t actually force her from the house that way, unable to defend herself.
But if she defied him about Osamu, he might disown her. There would be nothing left for her, no place to go. No one would take her in.
Ayumi rose from the floor and bit her lips together so she wouldn’t tell her father not to add more pepper to the Eight Treasures recipe. It was already ruined.
As was the rest of her life.
Ayumi knelt on the smooth stones of the tiny temple dedicated to one of the kami of her village, the soft forest spirit who watched over the children while their mothers worked the fields of millet. The space was only three tatami’s wide: Ayumi would have felt crowded if there had been even one more person there with her.
The spirit rested in the small wooden cupboard hung high on the temple wall. The wood was unpainted but beautifully carved, with interlocking diamond shapes that represented good luck, long feathers to represent cranes and long life, as well as five–petaled plum blossoms, for health. The local priest only opened the cupboard doors during the harvest feast in the fall, to bring the village extra blessings and to ask for a mild winter.
The spirit couldn’t help her: It couldn’t deflect a bad marriage or the anger of her father.
Still, Ayumi prayed to the kami for an answer. She’d brought a small chunk of jinkoh wood to burn in the metal brazier on the narrow altar table below the cupboard. Its pungent scent lingered in the sacred space, mingling with the fresh smell of pine from the nearby woods and the constant scent of water and cool brick wells that the temple held.
Ayumi knew there was no talking sense to her father. He’d not only made his mind up, he’d already announced the union. He couldn’t back down now, not without losing face.
No matter how great his skill as a healer, no one would seek him out if he had no honor.
Osamu had already shown his true colors by betraying Ayumi, telling her father of their arrangement, of him selling her goods at the market. She knew better than to think she might try to change him after she’d married him. He would betray her again and again.
Her own slight magic couldn’t help. She had some skill with herbs and healing, a knack for knowing exactly what was wrong no matter what the illness looked like, as well as the ability to concoct the perfect remedy. Her magic could increase the power of a medicine, as well as prolong it, or lessen its effect as well.
She had no remedy for herself, though.
When Ayumi had said her prayers and finished shedding her tears, she pushed herself back up to standing. She bowed to the East and the direction of the Emperor, then to the other corners as well, wishing that the winds might carry her plight to a hero who would save her.
Standing in the doorway of the temple, Ayumi could still see the village, just below her through the trees. She didn’t want to go back, but what choice did she have?
As she stepped onto the soft pine needles, a shadow detached itself from a nearby tree. Ayumi gasped, then realized it was her father. She blinked at him in surprise.
“I’m glad you haven’t completely taken leave of your senses,” he said as he came striding up. “That you weren’t trying to run away, up the mountain, to join one of the temples up there.”
“Father, I wouldn’t,” Ayumi said, stung. He’d followed her? He trusted her so little?
“If you do run away, shave your head to become a priestess, I’ll come find you,” her father told her confidently. “The only way you can escape is to be a coward like your mother, and seek your own death.”
Ayumi could only gape at him. Mother hadn’t taken her own life, not literally. She’d died of sorrow, not any poison she’d taken. Ayumi would never do that. Did Father really think Ayumi was that disobedient?
Then again, she had defied him by learning to read, by creating her own medicines.
By being better at healing than he was.
“Come on,” Father said, reaching out and grabbing Ayumi’s arm and marching with her down the hill, back to the village.
Ayumi’s face burned with humiliation as they passed the first huts and he didn’t let go of her arm. She could walk on her own. She would have come back. She hadn’t been trying to run away.
Now, not only would she be facing a hateful union, everyone in the village would know it as well. They would think she’d tried to run away and her father was bringing her back.
Ayumi had to get out of this marriage, this union. Had to leave the village and her shame behind.
Ayumi spent much of the night awake, staring at the sliver of the moon shining through the pine trees that lined the edge of the village.
What was she to do? How could she convince her father that this was a bad union?
As the fields cooled and mists rose up, coating the earth in ribbons of white, Ayumi began to doubt. She’d blamed Osamu for her troubles, for telling her father about their arrangement.
Though he was old (and sometimes smelly) maybe it wouldn’t be too bad being married to him. He was a merchant, after all. Maybe the reason he was marrying her was so that he could sell her goods.
She would no longer have access to her father’s kampo recipe book. But she knew many cures, and she was certain that she could figure out more on her own.
Maybe Osamu would let her be the healer’s daughter, and show her off. If she had to be married to him, as long as she could be useful, it might be all right.
In the morning, in the back of the house in the cooking area, Ayumi took her time making her father’s tea. Though her mother had warned her of the consequences of bespelling her father, how angry he would be when he realized what had happened, Ayumi still decided to risk it. He was already so angry with her anyway.
Ayumi took off the lid of the ceramic pot with the steeping tea. The bitter scent of the black tea leaves rose up to her. She took a wooden surikogi, the kind she normally used for mashing together herbs, and stirred the tea with it. The unfurling leaves swirled in the dark water, undulating slowly like seaweed under the waves.
All Ayumi poured in with her surikogi that morning was kindness and patience. She saw it like honey, warm and golden, flowing from the summer sun and suffusing the tea. It still smelled bitter and dark, but the water was now a lighter, brown color.
Father wouldn’t look at Ayumi when she entered the room. Doubt filled her again. If he was still this angry, she might not have given the tea enough of a boost so that he’d speak with her.
Ayumi still treated her father with the greatest respect, hoping that would mollify him. She held the tray containing the teapot and cup high, so that her breath might not spoil what she was presenting. She knelt gracefully, placing the tray on the tatamis, then she carefully poured the tea into the cup and served her father, again, holding the cup high while keeping her own head bent low.
She stayed seated, where she was, while she heard him slurp the tea. Outside, a few chickadees chirped merrily. They were the bravest of birds, willing to face down a crow or a woodpecker who was three times their size.
She could be brave as well.
When Ayumi heard Father put down his cup, she bowed to the ground, placing both her hands and her forehead on the mat. “Father, I have a boon to ask.”
Father merely grunted. Had the tea done its work?
“I would like to speak with my future husband, please,” Ayumi asked.
Silence followed her request. Ayumi couldn’t tell if the room was more tense or not, as she was already so afraid as it was.
“Why?” Father asked.
“To learn more about his true nature,” Ayumi said truthfully. To see if she could make a match with him.
Or if she would have to leave this world on her own.
The silence stretched on. Had her magic worked? Would her father agree? It was an unusual request.
“I will agree,” Father said slowly. “But not because you’ve added your unclean essence to my tea.”
Ayumi looked up in horror. How had he known? Had he tasted it, somehow? Had she sweetened it too much?
“I didn’t know,” Father said smugly. “I guessed, and given your expression, I was right.”
Ayumi didn’t acknowledge his accusation.
“It’s time you learned that you can’t always have your way,” Father said. “I’ve indulged you, spoiled you. Now it is time for you to grow up. Take on some adult responsibilities.”
He poured the rest of the tea from the teapot out over the tatamis, deliberately spoiling them. Then he stood and strode out of the room.
Ayumi sat there, shocked. What did he think she did all day but her duty? She took care of the house. Cooked him food. Bargained for their rice and millet. Made sure his herbs were well stocked. Pestered the clients who didn’t pay him promptly. Carried water from the village well. Darned his robes and kept the tatamis clean.
But that was all women’s work. It wasn’t real.
Ayumi put the teacup and teapot back on the tray, carrying them out of the room, before she went back and removed the tatamis. She’d have to air the woven matts out all day, letting them dry in the sun, then beat them well, to ensure all the ants and insects drawn by the tea had left.
She’d like to just leave them, but having dirty matts would increase the chance of sickness in their house. It was also incredibly rude, even more rude than Father had just been, to leave something so dirty in their clean house.
So Ayumi put their tiny house into order, then took herself to market.
Maybe Osamu’s household would be a nicer place to live.
Osamu squatted behind his little market stall, fanning himself in the summer heat. Ayumi approached him slowly, examining him as she shuffled forward. Fortunately, the market was crowded that day, with at least half–a–dozen farmer’s wives cluttering up the tiny lane between the stalls, so Ayumi could approach Osamu without being seen.
Osamu’s chin was small, but that could be seen as a sign of kindness, not merely weakness, in his moon–round face. His eyes were beady like a rat’s, but maybe that meant he could see better than others. His hair was receding, but Ayumi told herself that just gave him a broader, more intelligent brow. His robes were stained from the tea he’d had at breakfast that morning.
Possibly from the tea he’d had the week before, if Ayumi was being honest with herself.
However, his robes were still high quality, the flax cloth dyed green, with fine tiny brown pinecones embroidered in it, like the forests and trees that surrounded the village. If she were to become his wife, she’d at least make sure that the robes he wore were always clean.
“Ah, my wife–to–be!” Osamu called out, using the formal term that linked their family names together.
Ayumi smiled shyly and looked down. It was proper for her to go to the market on her own—Father wasn’t rich enough to afford servants to do that sort of thing.
It still felt awkward for her to go to her future husband’s stall there.
As if reading her mind, Osamu told her, “You won’t have to do such chores once we are married.”
Curious, Ayumi took two steps closer. “And why not?” Osamu wasn’t rich enough to have servants, she knew.
“No wife of mine will be seen out of my house,” Osamu told her proudly. “I will keep her locked away, like the beautiful treasure that she is.”
“But the shopping…” Ayumi said slowly.
Osamu waved his hand. His nails were filthy and ragged, as if he’d been scrambling in the dirt. “I shall arrange for the merchants to come to the house,” he bragged. “They shall speak to you through a screen.”
Ayumi stiffened. She knew the ladies of the court lived such lives, always hidden away. Her mother had told her of how they never saw daylight, but drifted like clouds at the back of their fancy estates.
She looked down at the table before Osamu. There were dried herbs like ginseng and ginger, rosemary and mint. To the side were also a few small jars of pottery, carefully corked and sealed with wax.
Her father’s medicines.
Osamu followed her glance. “Don’t worry, little one,” he cooed. “Your father’s good work shall always be available on my table.”
“And what about mine?” Ayumi asked. Surely Osamu didn’t want her to waste her talent. She could make him more money at the market if he didn’t have to just rely on her father’s medicines.
“You have a little talent,” Osamu admitted. “But I would never have a woman making my kampo.”
“I see, “ Ayumi said. She plastered a smile to her face and bowed low to him. “You are surely the most wise of all husbands.”
He gave her an indulgent smile followed by a not–quite–hidden leer.
Ayumi bowed again and left, heading straight for her father’s house.
Not only would that fool of a husband waste her gifts, he would keep her locked like a songbird in a cage.
For the first time, Ayumi understood why her mother always insisted on being able to look out at the trees and the woods every day, so that the trapped feeling inside her chest wouldn’t suffocate her.
At least her mother had found joy in her husband, and in her children. When her son had died, though, all the joy had dribbled out of her world.
Ayumi didn’t even have that much hope. Living in Osamu’s household would destroy her. She couldn’t run away, either. Her father was stubborn enough that he’d hunt her down and drag her back, even if she was happy somewhere else.
Would living in a larger temple, like the Mori temple further up the mountain, make her happy? She’d never be able to marry. While her father wasn’t rich, priestesses were generally very poor.
And she’d never have children of her own. Never have her own joy. Not like that.
But she’d live a life of service. She’d be useful, all of her days. Maybe the kami would support her, help her through her regrets.
Ayumi straightened her back and walked directly back to the house. There were herbs she had to gather. Figures she needed to make. The moon would still be just a sliver that night. That could aid her as well.
If no one else could save her, she would have to save herself.
The yama no geikkeiju smelled musty and bitter, like dried nettles. The infusion would spoil Father’s favorite teapot. But it was the only pot of the right size, and the herbs were too dangerous for Ayumi to take chances.
It wasn’t because she wished to take it from him out of spite.
Father would be out late that evening, at the local wine shop, celebrating her upcoming union, drinking pot after pot of plum wine with Osamu and the other merchants.
Ayumi had brought one of the tatamis out to the front of their house. She wore her best robe, the one the color of the first summer peaches. The night smelled of the neighbors and their ginger and chicken soup.
Ayumi hadn’t eaten much for supper—she couldn’t push food past the butterflies in her stomach. She’d had some pure water though, poured from her mother’s favorite cup, the one that Ayumi hadn’t ever been able to throw away, despite her father’s insistence.
Now, Ayumi prayed. She prayed to the kami of the forest, the gentle spirit to look over her never–to–be–born children. She prayed to the kami of the winds, to make her path swift and sure. She even prayed to the kami of the fields, hoping that the harvest would be better than predicted that fall, so her father wouldn’t starve that winter.
She also prayed to kami of the monkeys that lived in the trees, the little tricksters who stole drying jujube berries when they weren’t watched, sometimes leaving little seeds behind, to fool her into thinking nothing had been taken.
The wind finally told her when the tea had steeped long enough, when the yama no geikkeiju was at its full strength. She poured herself a cup.
She’d already added all the magic she needed to the pot. Still, she hesitated.
What if it wasn’t enough? What if she didn’t have the magic she needed to save herself?
She hardened her heart, willing her shaking hand to be still. Then she would have left this life anyway, the poison in the tea stopping her heart quickly.
Everything was ready. Her father would be there soon. He’d find her lifeless body in the front yard, where everyone could see. Her formal robe. Her final note, that he’d never be able to share with anyone, or else he’d have to admit she could read.
The shame of her death would be too great, of course. Father would have the local priests carry her body away. He wouldn’t hold a funeral for her, not a public one, at any rate. She would have shamed him too greatly, just as her mother had when she’d wasted away and died, the healer unable to cure her.
Then, if the spell took hold and held right, the next night when the moon rose the poison would lose its grip suddenly and Ayumi would awaken. She’d have to get herself out of the temple before the priests could burn her body. She was prepared for that as well, with the little doll she had tucked deep inside her robe. No one would look too closely at her body, particularly not after it had been shrouded. And her magic could make the doll resemble a body, or close enough.
Ayumi could make it up the mountain, then. Maybe all the way to the Mori temple, near the peak. Her father would not come looking for her. She’d be free to live a life of her own.
The cup of poisonous tea felt hot and heavy in her hands. It smelled more bitter than her own endless tears. It burned her tongue and made her gag, but Ayumi forced it down anyway. Death wasn’t supposed to be pleasant. And this was a death for her. All of her former life, all of her dreams.
Children die. Hope dies. Dreams die.
But if she was strong enough, they could be born again.