The moon was high above the silhouettes of rooftops. Yellow light emanated from windows. The warm spring evening encouraged even reticent citizens to emerge onto the city streets. Laughter and excited chatter echoed from open doors.
Saga and Chiyoko walked toward the glow and bustle of the night market. Saga’s silk sleeves whispered softly as she walked. Chiyoko’s mechanical steps emanated a soft whirring noise.
Saga noted playfully, “Chiyoko, even in this humidity, your steam is barely perceptible.”
Chiyoko laughed, a cheerful humming sound. She said, “One strives to balance elegance and efficiency.”
Saga responded, “I admire such ability to be graceful even as measured by the laws of physics.”
Chiyoko replied, “I have learned much grace from my time with you, my friend.”
The night market was boisterous and crowded. Food vendors were set up in corners and available spaces. Ladies in elegant attire glided alongside their friends and partners. Music and exuberant conversation spilled out of open doorways.
Saga stopped at a food vendor to examine the goods. The steambot did not look up from its work, it simply called, “Welcome!” to her as it continued preparing the food. Its food cart was small and efficient with space enough for chopping, frying, and serving. The steambot’s knife moved so swiftly it could barely be seen. Each time it began chopping, the whirring sound of its gears would rise in volume. The shiny steel knife would begin to flash and fly through the vegetables. Then the entire diced vegetable was swept into a bowl. When all of the contents were assembled, the steambot stirred the bowl for just a moment. Dough was rolled, cut, then wrapped around the filling. Neat packages were swept into the oil which rolled, spat, and boiled. “Dumplings!” called the steambot as it brought out another batch of vegetables to begin dicing.
Saga paused, looking at the dumplings. She said, “I love these… but perhaps it is better to acquire them on the way back.”
Chiyoko nodded an acknowledgement and replied, “It would be easier to eat them at home. Or, at least, it would be easier to eat them on the walk back when it is less important to keep one’s fingers clean.”
Saga looked at her fingers and nodded.
A cluster of people was gathered around a small group of street performers. A man was playing a shamisen and singing. Two nubots were performing a slow dance. Ladies in the crowd cooed, “Look at their little kimonos!” The nubots, slightly taller than waist high, did their version of a kabuki performance. All artistry was lost. The nubots simply moved from one memorized position to the next, often forgetting parts and then rushing back to do them before continuing. The raw naivete of the performance made it fresh and riveting. A crowd of people accumulated around the performers. The man sang.
On the mountain top
On the fallen autumn leaves
Snow fills the forest
A child tugged her mother’s sleeve and said, “It’s Ginji and Michiko!” The nubots danced the story of the tragic couple. Their families forbid them to be together so they ran away. A snowstorm caught them in the mountains and they were trapped in a cave. The song continued.
Will spring soon melt this prison?
Answer prayers. Set us free.
A few ladies shed elegant tears, but the clumsy bounciness of the nubot performers stole laughs from them as well. The nubots finished and performed their memorized bows and curtsies. They could see that the crowd was excited and they became excited as well, seemingly not realizing that the excitement was because of their performance. The mother handed a few coins to her daughter. Her daughter walked slowly forward and held the coins to nubot Michiko. Nubot Michiko received the coins into her hand and performed the memorized curtsy. The child ran back to her mother.
Saga and Chiyoko entered the garden courtyard in front of the theater. Clusters of people were gathered around fountains and small trees. Loud conversation competed with the noises of the performance from inside the theater. Elite socialites drifted in clumps, many of them costumed like the characters in the performance.
From inside the theater came the familiar call, “Where is my brother?”
The audience inside the theater was joined by the audience in the courtyard as they called, “Where is Hideshi?”
Even in the courtyard, people dressed as Haruki threw up their hands and called, “Where is my brother?”
Then there was the pounding of the drums representing the falling of the walls of the city of Harua. Audience members came pouring out of the theater carrying planks of wood that represented the city walls.
Saga and Chiyoko moved away from the outer path around the courtyard so that the audience members could circle the courtyard before returning to the theater.
The amateur historian who was speaking to them raised his voice to be heard over the clamor. He said, “It is widely believed that the city of Harua was under siege by the Kogen shogunate for twelve days. This is not entirely accurate. The steambot uprising actually began nearly four weeks before the walls of Harua fell. The Kogen shogunate had already surrounded the city for twenty days before Harua was successfully breached.”
Saga nodded. “That is so interesting,” she said.
The historian turned to Chiyoko. He said, “May I inquire as to your name?”
She said, “My name is Chiyoko.”
He said, “Chiyoko-san, by any chance related to the famous Lady Chainsaw?” He paused and said, “I apologize. I intend no disrespect.”
Chiyoko nodded. She said, “I have had a few names, and this is one of them.”
From the theater came the sound of drums. The performers shouted, “Hideshi is dead!” The audience responded, “O Hideshi! Hideshi!” The performers shouted again, “Hideshi is dead!”
The historian remarked, “This performance of Over the City Walls is one of the loudest in any city I have visited. I know this, but I keep coming back anyway… perhaps for that reason.”
When the performance ended, the audience spilled out into the garden. The crowd mingled in the cool spring night until the first hints of morning light began to appear.
Saga and Chiyoko began walking back home. The night market and street were sparsely populated. Clusters of people were scattered like the glowing charcoal remnants of a fire. Chiyoko stopped at the dumpling vendor and bought a small bag of fried dumplings for Saga. They continued their walk.
Saga thanked her for the dumplings and said, “I hope that it was not too awkward for you to spend the evening at a performance of Over the City Walls.”
Chiyoko said, “It was fine, but thank you for thinking of me.”
Saga said, “The way they portray the steambots in the play is not… always flattering.”
Chiyoko said, “The drama needs to have villains for the story to work.”
Saga replied, “I worry…”
Chiyoko waited a moment and then prompted her, “What do you worry, my friend?”
Saga shook her head. “I worry,” she said, “that we tell ourselves stories that need villains for the stories to work.”
Chiyoko made a soft humming sound. After a long silence she said, “I do not know. It seems that people are eager to fill the role of hero, or sometimes victim… and both of those roles work better if there is a villain to defy.” Chiyoko looked over the rooftops toward the hint of sunrise. She said, “I was present at the city of Harua.”
Saga turned and looked at her.
Chiyoko said, “I was inside the city of Harua during the… uprising.”
Saga gasped, “I had no idea.” She said, “That was a hundred years ago. I forget sometimes that you are… two hundred… how old…”
Chiyoko interjected, “It is not polite to ask a lady her age.”
Saga erupted in a short squeak of laughter that dissolved into two tears running down her face. She turned and rested her face against Chiyoko’s shoulder. Chiyoko put one arm around Saga.
Saga lifted her face and wiped her eyes. She said, “I have been thinking lately… Just generally, in the abstract, I am afraid of people… because I don’t know what they’re thinking, but if it’s anything like what I am thinking then… it is crazy.”
Chiyoko laughed, a series of chirping humming noises that slowly trailed off. She said, “I know what you mean. That kind of mutual fear seems very familiar. I sometimes feel afraid of the things that people might do because they are scared or angry.”
Saga replied, “And I sometimes feel angry about the things that people have already done because they were scared or angry.”
Chiyoko said, “The mutual fear and the mutual anger seem to be just features of society, in the same way that fear and anger are features of each individual.”
Saga asked, “So how does this ever change?”
Chiyoko took a long moment to reply. She said, “I think there is no policy or individual or institution that can remove this mutual fear from society. It is for the same reason that there is nothing that can cause an individual to never feel fear again. Individual fear and mutual fear are just a part of life. We learn how to recognize these feelings and work with them. If we get good at that, then we can respond calmly to situations even when things are difficult.”
Saga brushed hair away from her face. She sang
“Will spring soon melt this prison?”
“Answer prayers. Set us free”
Saga said, “Let’s pray at home, with sunrise and dumplings.”