The god within

My teacher, the famed Yamazaki Ansai, taught that the principles which give motion to the stars are identical to those which move the hearts of men. Morality, reason, duty: these rule both the gods without and the god within.

Forty-two separate fires. I counted as each one broke.

Of course, they spread and doubled, so keeping track of them should have been impossible, but once I realised the significance of where they were breaking out, they became distressingly simple to predict. It was late in the year; the black tortoise of winter crouched, pucker-necked, in the sky, and the moon was lodged in the stars we call Emptiness.

Standing on the hill, I saw Tosa begin to burn as early as the hour of the horse. Yet, even in the middle of the day, lustreless sunlight made the fire doubly bright and terrible by comparison. From the first gouts of flame amongst the homes of the samurai in the north of the city, to the last paper wall drifting away from the mercantile quarters – bubbling squares of grey, like quilted capes on the shoulders of passing ghosts – I saw it all.

Heisuke, what have you done?

The star charts rolled on the air as they slipped from my hand. I wish it had been shock, but it was more from numb acceptance. I had been expecting something terrible all day, though I’d not known what. I’d thought myself a fool.

I’d slept very badly the night before, such that I was forced to wake my son to come and sit with me while I left my body, to pray among the stars. Even there I was distracted; looking for signs, but seeing none. Still, it seemed my unease was prophetic after all, though I continued to berate myself for thinking so.

Although I live my life in the immediate presence of something I can only call divine, my teacher’s direction to “rationality first, and in all things”, is a perspective I am much more at ease with. I have always regarded the court astrologers – with their lucky days and divinations, making calculations of no more significance than in which direction to walk off their breakfasts – as self-deluded at best, and charlatans at worst.

Such people are lost pedlars, my teacher wrote, who have wandered to the top of a castle all unwitting, still thinking themselves on the ground. The pedlars see people below, but mistake them for ants and wait for them to march in line in order to understand them, not realising that men’s lives are much more complex. So it is with our observations of Heaven, whose motives are of infinitely greater complexity. The stars rarely align, and yet their motions are still the purest expression of righteousness we will ever know.

* * *

“Yamazaki Ansai makes it sound as if the skies should be beyond all understanding, Master Jinzan.”

It was my first lecture, years before, and right from the start, Lord Toyofusa resisted the Confucianism. More truthfully, he resisted me. He had not chosen me to prepare him to be daimyo: Toyomasa was still Lord of Tosa then, and kept his son-in-law on a short leash.

“Indeed, it sounds to me as if Master Ansai considered mystery to be Heaven’s greatest virtue.” He reclined as he said it, the beginnings of a dismissal. “Are you sure he would have approved, morally, of your dispelling it?”

I set the star charts aside, and lifted the guide wheel from the mechanism of the clock I’d been showing him.

“You misunderstand the lesson, my lord,” I replied. “Yamazaki Ansai valued reason just as highly as moral obligation. To do good unto the universe, you must know goodness without doubt. We study only so we might question, and learn that we might act with conscience. To my teacher, knowledge was virtue; the highest virtue. It was… love.”

“Were you lovers?”

I don’t know why I answered him coyly. “My teacher was not samurai, my lord.”

“Yet, I have heard that the Beautiful Way is practised in the abbeys just as readily.”

I mastered my treacherous tongue.

“I’m very sorry, my lord, I have been needlessly enigmatic. To be clear, I never got to meet Yamazaki Ansai. Only letters. Sad to say, he died before I had the chance to travel to Kyoto. Though my teacher was generous enough to provide for me, it was to honour my father, who was a priest here, and at the instigation of the masters of his old shrine.”

They wrote of me: He has an evil spirit, Teacher. What should we do?

Yamazaki Ansai wrote back, but not to them. To me.

Scion of Oanamuchi…

Another letter came the next month and every month thereafter, for the rest of his life. It was in this manner that he taught me Confucianism and the Way of the Gods as a single philosophy, intimately connected. He encouraged me to soar, as was my nature, but he reined me in from flights of fancy. His methods were observation, explanation, and rigour, and these gave my life purpose.

You will fly, Jinzan. I will ground you. In this way, you will know everything.

“I am sorry, Master Jinzan. For your loss.”

“Thank you, my lord. But I still hope to see my teacher. If not in this life, then surely in the next.”

Certainly, I had never succeeded in this life, despite years of trying.

“So, Heaven is not unknowable to the living?”

“No,” was the half-truth. “It is challenging, but if the challenge of understanding is great, it is only because our highest responsibilities are so great.”

“And what is your highest responsibility, Teacher?”

“Duty, my lord. My duty to you.”

* * *

I pushed the memory away, ashamed. Ashamed, because even as hundreds might be dying in the flames, it was Heisuke I was afraid for. I knew he must have done this thing himself; no retainer could be trusted with something so terrible. He had been in residence at Edo earlier that year – the eleventh of Original Happiness – when the capital had suffered its catastrophic Great Fire. He had seen first-hand how much was wiped away.

I was terrified that he might be trapped. The fires came so close upon each other – another blooming every few minutes – that, even if he’d laid long match cords further out, those near to the castle must have been very short when he lit them. A dozen administrator’s buildings were already ablaze at the only gate I could imagine him returning by.

I wanted to fly into that heat and smoke, to be sure that he wasn’t in there. I cursed the god within, something I had never done before, that it would not permit me to get closer to the ground.

My son, Kakimori, found me then and held my hand. As if he knew.

Sometimes I wonder whether a god also lives inside my son. One of empathy and serenity; as grounded and at peace on earth, as mine is restless to be amongst the stars. Could it be it is he, and not I, who is the true scion of Oanamuchi?

* * *

“My teacher’s first lesson, when I was ten years old, was the story of Oanamuchi.

“He’s a god, I think, yes? I don’t recall of what or where, though.”

Toyofusa had been my student for two years. Neither of us was young, and many thought it inappropriate. Even Lord Toyomasa had hinted that his heir could accept any one of a dozen young boys as his bedfellow, rather than dishonour himself pretending to be my wakashū. But the Beautiful Way is faithfulness, and lasts a lifetime. We could only hope to make up for the time we’d already lost.

“You’re like I was, my lord,” I told him, “as a child. No time to listen to priests. But I fear that you, unlike I, will never get to Heaven.”

“Don’t tease. Tell me your story.”

“Lord of the Land, Master of Eight Thousand Spears. The only truly virtuous god of the earth, Oanamuchi was the king of Izumo province who yielded his throne to the grandson of Amaterasu Queen of Heaven. Every emperor who has sat on the Chrysanthemum Throne owes his seat to the beneficence of Oanamuchi. In return, this god was given dominion over the spirits and their arts, so that he might retreat to hidden places and rule over hidden things.”

“And where on your chart is his star?”

“He never became a star.”

The history of this earthbound god was the first thing my teacher ever wrote to me, transcribed by his own hand from the Chronicles of Japan. What so excited Master Ansai about Oanamuchi, was that the divine king had a second soul which he could see and speak to, a wondrous spirit who helped him achieve all his great deeds.

This is your story, Tani Jinzan, he told me. You are its living proof.”

Toyofusa rose, reaching to lay his hand on my chest, as reverently as he might set a garland on a grave.

“Is that how you do it, then? Because you are – somehow – Oanamuchi?”

I laughed at him then, though I shouldn’t have. His wonder was lovely and deserved more respect.

“No, my lord. But like him, maybe, in some small part. Master Ansai interpreted the story to mean that all men’s bodies are shrines, harbouring living gods. When Confucianism then teaches us that we should always better ourselves – worship our own intelligence – my teacher believed this philosophy was part of honouring that divine guest. And he believed the only difference with me was that my guest was awake.”

He believed? Don’t you believe it?”

I didn’t want to answer him. He’d been lying with his eyes closed only minutes before, the candlelight warm on his shoulder, the flush of sex drying on his skin. His hair spilled into his mouth, but he’d been too tired to brush it away. Sleepy, but content.

Now he was up, intent, his eyes open, and I was sad to have disturbed his contentment.

I had never known contentment. The Way of Yamazaki Ansai was not an easy path: to reconcile this human world with that of the gods. To see the empirical world as indivisible from those hidden places. Hidden things. My teacher thought me uniquely woven into the wider landscapes of both worlds, but – maybe because the vibrancy of the god within had blinded me – I saw nothing but myself, present and immediate. On the hill, in the sky: always me.

I believed in me. Only me.

As the student, it was hard for me to find the balance my teacher encouraged. But now I was the teacher, and passing on such doubts was not what I was supposed to do. It dishonoured my teacher. It dishonoured my lord.

I could not lie to him, though.

“I have been to Heaven, my lord. There was no one there. I have never seen a god, or spirit; good or evil. I cannot deny the divine, but having been given the power to see the whole universe, my duty must be to believe only what I see.”

“What do you see?”

Only me?

“… You, Lord Toyofusa. I see you.”

His hand had never left my breast.

“My name is Heisuke.”

* * *

Kakimori returned in the night, just before the hour of the pig.

With the world below burning down, I had turned to observing the sky above. To escape these memories. And my guilt. I tended to the gnomon in advance of first light and laid ephemerides, papers, inks and brushes beside my bed on the grass. There would be no rain, so I had initially taken out my paper globe, but then a curling air brought smudges of ash to rest on it and I could not bear to look at it after that.

“Father,” Kakimori said. “Lord Toyofusa has sent for you.”

The fire was still alive. Beneath a thick hide of smoke, its great orange heart could be seen to pump amber blood across the city in pulses of light. We could hear its heart beating in the crackling of wood. We tasted soot when we inhaled.

And yet I filled my lungs with these words, drank the air my son expelled in speaking them. I felt the god within jump in my chest and had to steady myself to stop my soul from rocketing up.

 “Lord Toyofusa – you’re sure? Not Lord Toyomasa?”

“I’m sure, father.”

“Then tell the messenger I will follow soon.”

Soon. Too soon.

I did not want to hear him confess. I could not bear the idea that, if he held me, I might smell the smoke on his skin. What did that mean? Could I never again share his bed? Or his confidence?

* * *

“Seventeen thousand koku of rice.”

Half a year earlier, he’d confided his growing unease to me.

“Nonetheless, my lord, you must go with him to Edo.”

“That’s over a thousand kan, Jinzan. Just to feed my retinue. Our treasury should have been saved by the return of the Nakamura lands to us – thirty thousand koku. But then my lord father-in-law gives away almost half that much as gifts.”

“It is unworthy of great men to talk about silver.”

I wore the coat and quilted cape he’d given me, his mon and mine side-by-side on the sleeves. Lord Toyofusa stood, looking out at the forests that surrounded the city. They’d seemed so endless once. Now half of them were lumber, to pay for capital expenses.

“Heisuke, you cannot refuse again.”

“I must. I am not yet the Lord of Tosa. The Shogun cannot compel me. Those resources are needed here, where I will personally oversee the building of your observatory.”

“I don’t need an observatory.” My treacherous tongue.

The line made by the seven northern stars dipped west, paying distant tribute to the white tiger of autumn. The moon was lodged in the dragon of spring’s throat, however, full enough to choke. It lit up the walls behind my lord, where he sat and struggled to swallow my unexpected insult.

“You have brought honour to Tosa,” he began. “It is right that we should provide for that honour. That way, it may continue after you are gone.”

“Heisuke –”

“If empty of gods, then the sky above us belongs to Tosa, Jinzan. And we will claim it on the hill. Until then, there is nothing in Edo that cannot wait.”

Your wife is there.

* * *

I temporised, despite what I had told Kakimori to tell the messenger. I made notes on an ephemeris and reset the crown wheel of the brass clock that had come from Edo with the telescope, so that the first hour of the day would correctly coincide with the dawn.

How foolish it is to fold the day into irregular hours – like a scene painted on a courtesan’s fan – to fit between the rising and setting of the sun. The lizard slips across the grass from sunlight into shadow but doesn’t stop for doing so. You shouldn’t need a star to start the day, nor the moon to start a month.

You shouldn’t need a fire to start your life.

I continued looking through the telescope at those seven stars, until their configuration pointed northwards. It was the hour of the rat before I finally ran out of reasons not to go.

And that’s when the fires of Tosa came again.

A meteor shot across the sky, rising from between the pair of stars we called the Cat’s Eyes and disappearing only as it made to leave the wider station of the moon called the Well. It was the season for shooting stars, but this one brought me short.

In the Theory of Areas, an astrological doctrine to which I did not prescribe, the Well was the domain of Heaven which corresponded with Tosa province. It immediately struck me that if any of Toyomasa’s charlatans had seen the meteor’s passing, it would be adopted as some sign that the gods were angry. This infuriated and shamed me further – that I should be counted as one and the same as these swindlers. But there was something more – a feeling that I could not articulate, even in thought – that brought me back to the telescope to follow the meteor’s trail until it was completely gone. That was when the second meteor appeared, not far from the origin of the first. And as an idle thought – This one is also in Tosa – entered my mind, it sparked the terrible connection.

I immediately left the telescope and turned my head to a third point in the sky, and the meteor lit up on cue. It burned across the Well, tearing a line northwards, just as the flames had torn north towards the castle.

I knew where the shooting stars were rising from; I knew the meaning of the distances between them. These three meteors, in the part of the sky that belonged to Tosa, had appeared at points corresponding exactly to where the first three fires had broken out in the city, hours before. I pictured the other flowers of flame I’d seen blossom in the day, and waited for each to be recreated in the night sky.

And so they were.

“Father, look at all the shooting stars tonight! So many!”

Kakimori had come looking for me a third time, but I could see from the surprise on his face that his errand had been forgotten. He did not know that he was watching the city burn all over again.

Was it true though? Was I really seeing what I thought I was, or was my tortured mind still trying to escape its guilt?

“Kakimori, sit with me. I want to see it from above.”

“But, Lord Toyofusa—”

It was for my lord’s sake that I released the god within. I might have believed that Heisuke could set a fire on earth, but not in the sky.

Great Kami of Heaven, cleanse me of all impurities.

Within me.

Between me and all others.

Between me and the universe.

Colours stretch away from me in the embrace of the god within. The distance from the ground to the darkness of space is an unseen realm. I wake above the crucible of the earth, a thin blue lip giving faint illumination to seas and islands below. I feel that moment’s pause, in anticipation of the breath that will not come. I am not afraid. When I wish to look outward, into the space beyond, the god within adjusts my perspective, though I experience no sense of turning, or motion of any kind. I look for the Cat’s Eyes and they draw close – or I move towards them, I don’t know which. They are still just patches of light, though the radiances they project are like sword blades, or spear heads. I am reminded of battles, warriors.

I turn back to the earth. My home is below, but far too dim and distant to see. I want to be closer, yet not lose sight of the meteors that kiss the blue lip of the world and burn it in their passion. The god within adjusts my perspective for both and, all-seeing, I watch the fires of Tosa remembered in the theatre of Heaven.

When I returned to my body, I had to weep as I scrambled, one-handed, for paper and brush. But even weeping, I could not be blinded to the great conflagration overhead.

Kakimori had held my other hand the entire time. “What is it, father?”

“The fire,” I told him. “It wasn’t an accident.”

There were hundreds of meteors now, weaving the sky into a cloth of flame.

* * *

“Help me, then,” Heisuke said, as I pulled the cloth from another of his gifts: the brass telescope.

It was the end of autumn, not a month earlier, and though the white tiger still roared, there was peace again between Heisuke and me, following his return from the capital.

Forcing him to go had taken more than merely refusing his grand observatory. I had to arrange for letters to be sent from Edo, from his own retainers there, to shame him into attending them. We did not speak before he went.

But then news of Edo’s Great Fire reached Tosa and suddenly none of it mattered. Our messages to one another – mine demanding to know if he had been injured, and his pre-emptively reassuring me that he had not – must have passed each other on the road. Everything before was put behind.

“You have a mathematical mind, Teacher. Can’t you figure out some way to balance the treasury that our administrators cannot?”

“I tried, as it happens. But short of resorting to murder, you will need to rely on the lumber.”

“Murder? Why murder?”

“I’m sorry, my lord. That was a poor joke.”

“If it was, I don’t understand it.”

I wrapped the telescope in its travel cloth again.

“To speak indelicately, the wealth of the province is not lacking; it is owed. In kariage. Such loans from the very samurai you take with you to Edo are the accounts against which you are held responsible by the Shogun. It is a consequence of allowing silver to contaminate the higher order of society that the whole province is held ransom to just forty men. Still, if my teacher had had his way—”

A lizard slipped in from the garden, finding greater warmth in the shady interior than the late autumn daylight. The moment stretched.

His way… what?”

“I should not have spoken that way. It was unworthy of his memory.”

“Please, Teacher.”

The Way of Yamazaki Ansai was not an easy path. My teacher’s school had broken up long before he died, and very few still listened to what he said. He quarrelled with his students as much as he inspired them; few had the discipline to follow both his Confucian teachings and those on the Way of the Gods with such equal focus as he could. I hadn’t. In the end, though, they all rejected him when he denounced the Mandate of Heaven.

“My teacher felt that no lord should have his right to rule questioned or suspended in order to protect the interests or wellbeing of those he ruled. Master Ansai would not have forgiven these samurai for their presumption. For life on earth to properly mirror that of Heaven, they should show the same selfless devotion to their superiors as to the gods themselves. Good or ill.”

Heisuke took my hand.

“As you show me, you mean?”

“My lord, much as I love you, I would not kill forty men for you.”

At last we laughed.

“Nor burn down the administrators’ offices, for good measure?”

* * *

No more memories.

I was myself: present and immediate. I believed in me.

Lord Toyomasa sat in the middle of the chamber, his chamberlain to his right. Lord Toyofusa sat on the left.

“How could it not be an accident?” he asked me.

“My lord, from where I observed on the hill, there were forty-two different sources of ignition from which the overall devastation proceeded. Forty fires began in the homes of samurai to the north, and two in the grounds of the castle, in buildings near the filled gate. They were begun deliberately—”

The chamber filled with the susurrus with shifting backsides, as my fellow scholars – all similarly invited to discuss the fire – sat forward.

“—by Heaven, my lord.”

Heaven, Master Jinzan?”

The charlatan chorus shuffled their feet, a sound like rising hornets.

“Half the city has stopped to watch the fires in Heaven tonight, my lords,” I told them. “They were all in the Well, which is Tosa’s sister domain in Heaven. Even pedlars’ children can tell you how ill an omen that is.”

“You don’t believe that.” Heisuke stared at me.

“Had I not observed the phenomenon closely – very closely,” I stressed for his understanding, “then no, I would not believe as I do. But I have had to revise my beliefs in the face of the evidence.”

I unrolled my rough map: Tosa and the Well imposed upon each other, and the angry flicks of ink where each meteor had flown.

“Every fire in the city was marked by a meteor at its corresponding position in the heavens. The hundreds of simultaneously falling stars observed later appeared only after the passing of these initial forty-two, echoing the subsequent inferno. The gods, my lords, have clearly demonstrated that it was by their design that Tosa burned. We can only accept the judgement of Heaven. I have made careful notes of the entire celestial event, as I know many of these other scholars will have done.”

I looked Heisuke in the eyes. “I’m not wrong in what I saw, my lord.”

“Why would Heaven strike at Tosa?” Lord Toyomasa asked.

He was a squat and ruddy man at fifty-seven, but when he took the time to straighten his back, the porcine image of pot-bellied joviality was quickly replaced with one of serpentine threat.

“Not at, Lord Toyomasa: for. I believe these men were a threat to the integrity of Tosa, in the hold they exerted over it by virtue of base wealth alone. I believe this was offensive to Heaven and the gods acted accordingly to remove them, and all account of them.”

“Nearly two hundred samurai homes were lost,” Heisuke said. “Not forty. And half the castle on the eastern side. Thousands of homes and lives were lost in the rest of the city. Jinzan, you cannot truly believe—”

He could not go on.

“I can only believe what I see, my lord.”

The hornet buzz of the charlatans rose as they began to pass whispered commentary. Mutterings filtered through retainers to administrators, and from them to the chamberlain and Lord Toyomasa. There would need to be investigations, examinations of star charts and ledgers alike. This would need to be proved. And prayed upon.

I tried to ignore it. My attention was on Heisuke.

* * *

“Did you do it?”

He could barely wait for me to slide the door across before accusing me.

“Did I—? My lord, I have just explained how the fires occurred.”

“You don’t believe that. You cannot!”

A servant girl crawled past, outside the door, and he forced his voice to drop. “Did you do this… for me?”

I thought I’d felt all the shame I could by that point, but I was wrong.

“I thought it was you,” I told him. “And I hid. Even though I feared you might be dying, or already dead. I hid up on that hill. Then I found out that you were alive, but still I ignored your summons for as long as I could, because I could not face being near to you, thinking it might be you. I love you, more than anyone, but I was ready to be done with you if it had been you.”

His jaw was set, but his eyes flashed.

“And yet,” I went on, “somewhere deeper, I knew better. Memories of you came back so vividly; I thought I must be punishing myself for loving you. But that wasn’t it. Something within was reminding me of who you really are. I didn’t know it, but it kept me on the hill, to show me the truth that was hidden even from me. That’s what Heaven showed me, as clearly as it has ever shown me the furthest constellations. Because it is there, Heisuke, with the god within, that I know you.”

I slid the door open again.

“You, on the other hand, do not seem to know me at all.”

* * *

I took Kakimori with me when I went back up the hill, the day after the fires in Tosa.

I had not long begun with his formal tuition, but I would have to revise my lessons now, in light of what I had experienced.

The truth was, I thought I was the god within. That there was nothing more divine than myself. Or any man.

But now, the Theory of Areas, the interests of the gods, the hidden things that I could not perceive, even in the very presence of the divine: these would need to inform my philosophy as surely as the laws of morality and society. Moreover, now that I knew the gods were really there – hidden like Oanamuchi – then, somewhere, so was Yamazaki Ansai. My teacher had been right in everything. I longed to tell him so. I missed him. Almost as much as I was missing Heisuke.

I realised I had spoken abominably to him. Faithlessly. Heisuke had thought nothing of me that I had not thought of him. I would need to beg his forgiveness. Later, though, when tempers were cooler. After I had prayed.

I made ready to release the god within and called Kakimori over to my bed on the grass.

“Son, will you be patient and sit with me a third time? I must pray amongst the stars again tonight.”

“I will.”

“Thank you.”

“But, you mean a second time, father, not a third.”

“What do you mean?”

“I sat with you last night and now tonight. That’s twice.”

“Yes, but you also sat with me the night before last. The night before the fires? When I was troubled with bad dreams?”

He gave me a puzzled smile, and took my hand.

“But, you didn’t lie down in the end, remember? You got straight back up, told me you’d changed your mind and sent me home. You stayed up that night.”

* * *

I am not the god within.

Nor am I sure there was ever a god within me. There may be some… spirit in the skies above Tosa – residing in the Well, maybe, hiding in the Cat’s Eyes – but I have never seen him.

And I don’t go there anymore.

“The god within” originally appeared in The British Fantasy Society Journal, Issue 12, 2014. It later appeared in Wilde Stories 2015: The Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction, edited by Steve Berman and published by Lethe Press.