Could he wring any knowledge out of this woman without making them doubt his pose as an agent of the daimyo? He felt like he was traveling in the dark, afraid to kindle a light.
“Woman, how far is it to the closest town—where one would find trading establishments, or perhaps a government official in residence?” he asked.
She looked up at him for the barest instant, from her work of cutting up a fish, and then quickly dropped her gaze. “We go by boat to Tokushima. To walk takes two weeks, and many who walk disappear along the way.”
What was that look?
Jiro was so shocked by the woman’s expression that it was a moment before he could spare any thought on her words, which confirmed his worst fears. These people lived far from civilization. If he could have replicated that look, he would have used it for a demon-tengu character. There had been great feeling behind it, and fear was only part of it. Contempt? Maybe even… hatred.
She said nothing more, and the silence filled the small house. From outside came the sound of the rain. In the distance, he thought he heard a shout, but was not sure. Imagination, he told himself. You can hear all sorts of made-up sounds in falling water.
He was exhausted, and longed to take off his miserable, wet clothing, and lie down to sleep. But nagging in his mind was fear, fear of this demon-woman with the secrets behind her eyes, the hostility lurking under her obeisances.
“I must speak with the headman of your village,” said Jiro. “Go find him and bring him here.” He watched her intently.
She threw a handful of fish into the pot, bowed, and went out. Jiro exhaled a breath of relief. Just having her gone was an improvement. But there was an ominous quiet after the shout (that he had only imagined, he reminded himself). He went to the door and opened it partly, standing to the side and gazing out. There was no one visible. The rain fell and splashed on the ground. Jiro hugged his arms around him. Something urgent tugged at him. The woman was longer in returning than he expected. He opened the door wider and stepped out, then stepped back in and hesitated again. Finally, deciding at last, he snatched a wide straw hat from inside and went out, picking up a pair of shoes beside the door.