The body of my infant daughter, Ayumi, is buried in the Emperor’s tea garden beneath a hinoki cypress tree. The men who murdered her did not want to carry a crying baby all the way to the river after she awakened in the darkness of the hot summer night. She must have woken from her blissful dreams because the men’s sandals crunched so loudly on the gravel in the palace courtyard. The instant Ayumi realized she was not in my arms she let out a panicked cry sending that sharp pain every mother knows stabbing through my heart.
I tried to look at her, give her comfort, but she could not see me as a rough hand clamped over her mouth and began to suffocate her. I screamed and begged for her life, but the men had gagged and bound me when they took Ayumi and me out of our room in the courtesan’s quarters.
She’s just a baby. I begged with my eyes for the man to stop smothering her. He ignored my silent plea, and tightened his hand over her face. Her little arms flailed, then slowed, and finally stopped. He held her tiny body up for me to see, as if I were to blame for what he had done. Her head hung limp, her lips blue. My worst fear had come to pass. I wished I could have changed places with her, sacrificed my life so she could live.
The men stopped and her killer dug a shallow hole under a tree. Numb and in disbelief, I watched him bury Ayumi. The man didn’t even bother to cover her face with a blanket. He piled dirt over her bare skin, then tamped down her grave with his sandal.
When I think of Ayumi now, I smell freshly turned earth and the woodsy-sage of cypress leaves.
I left my infant daughter’s grave when the men picked me up roughly and dragged me away. My hands were bound behind my back as they forced me to walk and we left the palace enclosure through the servant gate. They kept to the darkest and most deserted streets of Kyoto and bore no lanterns. Even if the night watchmen saw us, they would not stop servants bearing the seal of the Imperial Regent, Michinaga Fujiwara.
I could not understand why this was happening. Michinaga loved me more than his wives and concubines, and treasured Ayumi above all his children. I was his favorite courtesan and he had said I would join his family and become his third wife. I was the Lady Ryoko of the Sugawara family, not some common whore to be discarded in the middle of the night.
A dog’s sudden bark caught my attention. I caught a glimpse of white fur and remembered Ayumi playing with the tiny brown-faced puppy. Ayumi had laughed and giggled as the dog licked her fingers and toes. Now I would never hear Ayumi laughing again. Tears poured from my eyes, and despite my gag, I mewled and cried.
“Quiet. Or I’ll beat you bloody.” A man with cheap sake on his breath whispered in my ear, but I could not stop. His fist struck my face and crushed my delicate nose. I tasted blood as it gushed down the back of my throat. Stunned and choking, I muffled my sobs, the tears soaking into my disheveled hair…
Read the rest of this story and eleven more nightmare-inspired tales in Shared Nightmares, coming soon!