The dogs were the first to meet them in the village. Bunsa noticed it before: his wife was terrified of dogs. Her family didn't have any mangy curs slinking about their yards, but when she ventured into her small town, she always kept a stout cane with her and ran into a shop at the first sight of a dog. The canines here were bolder and more vicious. In no time at all, Bunsa and Moriko were surrounded by a circle of barking and snarling beasts. Bunsa abandoned the cart that he was pushing and leapt to his wife's defense. A few well placed blows at least slowed down the attack and allowed time for the villagers to come to their guests' aid. Soon the dogs were dispersed and Bunsa and Moriko welcomed into the town.The couple was installed in a house where they were going to rent a room for the next few weeks. The place was tiny; it was originally supposed to house only one person. Moriko didn't mind. She wiped the dust and put a few possessions that they brought with them in their proper places. The owner of the house was an old man. He, obviously, was rich because in all the time that they spent there, they didn't see him do anything in a way of usual work. All day long, he read old texts and wrote. He also took long walks in the woods outside the village. He liked Moriko right from the first and plied her with tea and mochi.
Bunsa went to work the next morning. Moriko made breakfast for the old man and cleaned the house. That left a lot of time for her to wonder, what she was going to do with herself, while Bunsa was working. She didn't want to go outside for the fear of the dogs. A few of them hung by the old man's house, waiting for her to come out. Moriko looked out the window, moved around the living room, im'a, running her fingers through the multitude of the manuscripts lying on every surface. She already missed Bunsa. The old man came in, saw her listless figure. "A body of dust, lighter than dust...little butterfly", he thought. He asked, what was the matter. He told her to get ready to go outside, took a heavy stick waiting in the corner by the door, and they walked out into the street. At the sound of the old man's voice, and encouraged by the weight of the stick on their hides, the terrified dogs scattered. The old man took Moriko right to the building site, where Bunsa worked. He left the stick for Moriko and went home.
So, that was how it went for the next few weeks. In the early afternoon, the old man would see Moriko to the street, to give her courage to brave the streets alone. She then made her way to the building site. Sometimes Bunsa didn't notice, when she came. He would lift his head from whatever he was doing and see her, sitting on a log, hugging knees to her chest. The look on her face was enough to make him smile.
Time after time, Moriko got with a child and lost it in the first three months. Her songs stopped. She went about the house in a pragmatic, efficient way, made meals and did everything a good wife should do, but the joy of life left her eyes. The only time she looked half her old self, was in the forest. Bunsa tried to go with her like before, but she softly, but with the steel in her voice, told him to stay home. She spent hours in the woods now and came back like a wild woman: with twigs and leaves sticking in her unbound hair. Her eyes looked at Bunsa and the household as if she couldn't right away recognize them. "Outliving them, Outliving them all, - ah, the cold!"
Whether Bunsa was the one to bring cholera to Shinano-machi or not, nobody could tell. The fact was, he returned from a trip with a fever. It got worse in the night. The vomiting and bloody diarrhea quickly stole his strength and left him limp and lifeless. Nothing that Moriko or the village doctor did helped him. This was a new kind of sickness, that nobody in the countryside experienced. Soon, half of the Shinano-machi's population was horribly ill. Moriko stopped going to the forest; day and night she stayed by Bunsa's bed, wiping the bitter sweat off his brow, bringing him water and washing him. She changed sheets often, but very soon they were soiled again. Bunsa laid on the bed, but his restless, tortured spirit roamed the rooms and the decimated village. In his fevered mind, he felt Moriko's cool hand on his forehead and blessed her name, but, sometimes, it seemed to him: the fox was looking at him from the bedside! The little fox, that he met on the way to Shinano-machi! It was then that the first suspicions took root in his brain. Surely, it was Moriko, softly cajoling him to take a sip of water! But the next thing he saw, were the black tips of the fox's ears and its tail, as it turned away from him.
Moriko was at her wits' end. She went into the woods and brought back the bark of 'yanagi' - the willow tree. She boiled it and forced Bunsa to swallow the desperately bitter liquid. His fever went down, but he was still lost in his imaginings. Once, there was a quiet knock on the door and a greeting: "Konnichiwa, konbangwa!" The old man came to Shinano-machi, to offer his aid to the dying people. Moriko was never more glad to see anyone else! Together they tended to Bunsa and to some of their neighbors. The use of the willow bark and the old man's suggestion that they should gather all the sick in one place and burn the dead and their houses and belongings, made a huge difference. Slowly the village revived. People helped each other to rebuild and continue with the business of life.
To be continued...