The Yellow Butterfly

Drum bridge at Kameidô shrine Tokyo (woodcut) (1927) Yoshida Hiroshi


Takashi slammed his hammer in time with the other men in the factory. Light from high windows gleamed on the steel sheet. Another ten just like it had to be finished by dark, else Shachō Nishimura would have two men — chosen at random — beaten and sent home without pay. His brutes wouldn’t break arms or legs of course, since it wouldn’t do to hurt productivity, but the bruises would be black enough.

And maybe it wouldn’t matter soon.

The town of Baigan was teetering on collapse, or so it seemed. He’d tried to buy pears yesterday, and the merchants had only shaken their heads and sent Takashi back to the dust that climbed the wooden walls of the buildings around him. Shouts had risen from the harbour as he’d walked by but he hadn’t turned. Another submersible accident — more of Nishimura’s lust for gold gone to folly.

A shrill whistle sliced through the clash of steel-on-steel and hiss of steam.

Takashi stopped, wiping the sweat that stung his eyes. It ran down from his close-cropped hair; like every sane man in the factory, he kept it short. Less to get caught in one of the hulking, snapping machines — their mouths were ever-hungry. There was always someone shovelling piles of coal into the beasts’ red bellies and their sparks were like tiny orange demons, darting everywhere.

It was different in Geinmo, supposedly, where electricity powered some of the machines. Takashi sighed; a new world loomed.

Foreman Ito entered through the gate. His face was red and his arms flapped in his black kimono as he strode along the rows of sweating men. “Shachō Nishimura is on his way. I want you working, do you understand? Don’t make me regret hiring you.” He shook his head, then hollered. “Two more submersible interiors due by the end of the month. That’s ten days. Ten days!”

Hiro set his hammer down and leant close, grinning. “He seems especially shrill today.”

“That he does, my friend,” Takashi said. “Maybe he can no longer afford fruit either.”

“No. I saw his wife returning from the market in Geinmo; they still manage to find good food.”

An engine rumbled outside, followed by the now familiar hiss of a steam-wheel coming to a halt. Ito ran to the box-like office near the open entrance and jerked on the chain beside it. A dragon-shaped whistle screamed, and then it was back to work.

Clank. Clank. Pause, breathe. Clank. Clank. Pause, breathe.

Takashi swung his hammer in time with Hiro and the others, glancing at the entry as he did. Nishimura eventually entered the room, clothed head-to-toe in western garments: a suit with jacket, pants, shiny black boots and a ridiculous domed-hat concealing his silver hair. What did they call it? A bowler. Whatever that meant.


But then nearly all the ex-Samurai were. They’d scrambled to find some way of maintaining power for years now. And for many, that meant business. Flying machines, submersibles, steam-wheels for land and rail, and even the new, motorised weapons. For others it was straight to the army. Where Father said he ought to have gone. It is the duty of the strong to protect the weak.

Nishimura spoke to Ito as he strolled down the line. The factory-owner’s eyes swept across the floor but didn’t truly appear to see any of it, as if his mind were elsewhere.

“… and you have not experienced any such problems?”

“No. No infestations of ants, Shachō,” Ito said, a look of confusion passing over his face. “I keep the factory clean of insects and vermin, in fact — ”

Nishimura raised a hand. Ito stopped speaking. “No matter, Ito, truly. It was an idle question; you know how I loathe such insidious creatures. And you need not concern yourself with the state of the factory.”

“Shachō Nishimura?”

“I am closing it. Baigan is finished; work is moving to Geinmo. It’s bigger and there is more opportunity for growth. The future of trade is no longer in submersibles in any event: it is in flying machines and steam-wheels. The latest model can carry four passengers; we only need the roads to improve.”

“This is unexpected, I mean, we haven’t even had time ….”

The two moved beyond ear-shot, voices buried by the clash of steel. Takashi stopped. Closing the factory? What would happen to everyone? Maybe Baigan was dying but that didn’t mean the old snake had to drive the nail into the coffin.

“What’s wrong?” Hiro asked. The other men were still pounding their part of the steel. “Why are you stopping?”

“You didn’t hear?”


Takashi gripped the handle of his hammer. “He’s going to close it.”

Hiro took him by the shoulder. “Speak louder.”

“He’s going to close the factory,” Takashi said, raising his voice.

The other men in his row stopped. “Who?”


Movement at the entry caught his eye. A young woman ran into the factory, her yellow kimono flashing in the patch of light. Takashi lowered his hammer. The way she moved … such joy. Her silky black hair had been cut to frame her face and her eyes sparkled. Even the butterflies patterned on her clothing seemed alive.

It appeared she smiled simply because she could run.

Chou. She bore the same demeanour whenever he happened to catch a glimpse of her in the market square. Kiku had been the same; the innocence of childhood.

“Father!” she called after Nishimura.

Hiro nudged him, and Takashi returned to his work. They soon finished, and he moved to the pile of flat sheets, lifting it with another man, and returning to set it in place over the frame. This, like all the others, they’d curve to form the inner-lining of the huge passenger submersibles that took people all over the world.

The latest design boasted a clear bottom for observing the sea floor; the glass several shaku thick. Or ‘feet’ as those engineers who had returned from the west now said. Not something he’d ever book passage within — even had he the money.

By the time the small group returned, Ito was nodding again as Nishimura explained which pieces of machinery would be sent to Geinmo by rail and which would be sold.

Nishimura’s daughter walked alongside, her head down, hair hiding her face.

The butterflies on her kimono no longer seemed to dance.

Hiro nudged him again and he returned to work. “I’m going to ask Ito about the factory closing. It can’t be true,” he said.

Takashi only nodded. He counted syllables as he hit the steel; he still had no ending that satisfied him but the poem was taking shape.

thistles dancing –

an autumn wind

muffles the long road

Ito had been powerless.

The factory closed as the leaves fell across the pale hills behind Baigan, and the men began to leave, searching for work. A few to Geinmo, some north to the mountains, others east, where word had filtered down: the Emperor needed steel workers for his new project, a great moving stair that would climb Fuji-san. Hiro was going to try his luck.

“Come with me,” Hiro said where they stood before the iron-covered harbour. A sea breeze ruffled their clothing and tugged at columns of rising smoke. “There will be work — a dozen of us are travelling together.”

Takashi shook his head as he watched the great crane on the dock, its squat body puffing steam as it struggled to lift the insect-like shape of one of the newer, sleek submersibles. The sides were fitted with long, thin cannons for torpedoes. Men waved flags and shouted as they coordinated. “Thank you, Hiro, but I will remain here.”

Hiro sighed. “Are you sure?”

“I am. This is where she would have wanted me to stay.”

“You can’t live your life this way forever, in a dream, waiting for a tomorrow that won’t come.”

The man was right, but Takashi only shrugged. “All my memories of them are here. If I leave, there will be nothing left.”

“Take your memories with you.”

He put a hand on Hiro’s shoulder. “A new place means new memories; the old ones will be replaced. Here, I hold them a little longer. Go, go to the Emperor and build his stair. It will be marvellous; you’ll be happier there.”

Hiro’s expression fell. “Take care then.”

Not until his friend’s footfalls had died away did he turn back to the buildings. How small and fragile the wooden walls appeared compared to the stone and iron of the harbour. Or the watchtower beside the hulking walls of Nishimura Manor where it glared down upon them all.

He started toward the market. With what little money he had left he would buy his own tools and maybe the blacksmith would take him on.

Takashi passed through the shadows between the two-storey buildings, the eaves of peaked rooves extending over the street. Birds chattered from the thatching overhead but their songs were soon drowned in the bustle below. A patchwork of people filled the market: reds and blues, pinks and greens of kimonos and robes, but also the more muted greys and browns of western dress, their voices calling for goods before the storefronts.

The clock-master had closed his shop, but a pair of children had set up a blanket before it, selling pieces of broken machinery: springs, cogs, nuts and bolts all slick with grease. Caps and valves — he even saw a copper coil of wire. Where had they found that? One of the wrecks in the water? He did not ask, did not let himself think upon sunken submersibles.

He slipped through the crowds. His broad shoulders made it easy enough; people moved aside, sometimes after a glance at his expression. Sometimes without looking. Yet he didn’t mean to frighten anyone.

He purchased a new tool belt and an old rivet-gun, the pressure-metre covered in dust.

Next came food. The catch was poor. Fish continued to die in the dirty harbour, and the prices were so high that he moved to the grocer and asked for the usual rice and fruit. He snared the last of the peaches, which was a stroke of luck, and smiled when Kenji wrapped everything and placed it on the bench before him, the older man brushing away a few grains of salt as he did so.

“Two ryō, Takashi.”

Takashi hesitated. “Two?” He’d calculated less for everything he needed and could only pay for the rice. Or only the fruit.

“Prices had to go up again.”

“Then I cannot pay for both, I’m sorry, Kenji. Keep the fruit; tomorrow I will — ”

“Let me,” a woman’s voice interrupted.

Nishimura’s daughter stood beside him. She held out a few smooth pieces of gold to Kenji, who accepted the ryō with a bow. “Lady Nishimura.”

“You know I prefer ‘Chou’, Kenji.”

An older woman stood behind Chou; she clicked her tongue. “And the young lady should not be troubling either of you.”

“It’s no trouble,” Chou smiled. She set a jar upon the bench as she spoke. Ants covered the inside, moving in and out of the earthen shapes within. “Aren’t they wonderful?” she asked when she noticed his gaze. “Look at how well they work together.”

He nodded. Perhaps they were, in their own way. “Do you keep them?”

“Yes, I’m building them a home, only I need a bigger jar already.”

The older woman sighed. “And we should continue that task now, My Lady.”

Chou waved a hand. “Soon, Kama. You’re one of the men from the factory, aren’t you?” she asked Takashi. “I’m glad I could help you, especially now that Father is closing it down.”

Takashi nodded. “I am, but I cannot accept, Lady Nishimura.” He bowed.

“Don’t be foolish.” She smiled up at him. “Let me. In fact, tell your friends if they will meet at the harbour, by the wreck, tomorrow at dawn, I will help them too.”

Chou’s servant frowned but only pulled Chou away from the stall. The young lady’s yellow and purple kimono was swallowed by the crowd. Takashi looked to Kenji. “How could a man such as Nishimura have a daughter like that?”

Kenji raised a steel tin and spun its handle. Cogs ground within, and the lid flipped open. He slipped the coins inside. “He is not her father by blood, you know. Orphan. Took her in at the insistence of his late wife. Few talk of it anymore.”

“I see.” Perhaps that explained why the man didn’t seem to care for her.

He drifted away from the market, visiting the Smith, who wasn’t able to make any promises. “It all depends on who stays. Maybe you should look at Geinmo. Or further south?” And then Takashi found as many of the old workers as he could, urging them to meet Chou at the harbour come dawn. Few seemed to believe much would come of her offer. Some seemed as desolate as he — especially the older men — while others were packing their possessions.

And still he could not join them.

Instead, he headed for the glistening water. Better than sitting at home — the empty walls, the empty table, the flowerbed shrinking to grey.

His footsteps counted the syllables:

thistles dancing –

an autumn wind

drowns out my heart

Before dawn he met several more men where they stood together in the grey light by one of the old submersibles. Rust ran from its huge rivets. Patina discoloured the body and grime ringed the portholes, obscuring the controls within: a forest of levers and gear shifts, none of which he’d ever truly understood.

Maybe it would be better never to see another made here.

Deadly machines. Not just for the navigators and passengers, but whole towns, like Baigan, where they had left only misery in the frothing wake of their waves. He greeted a few of the men and listened to their talk. There was little confidence in Chou but the same thing brought them here — desperation, perhaps, more than curiosity.

And she did come.

Before the sun broke free of the horizon Chou appeared, her servant in tow. The older woman carried a chest, her weary face tight with strain. She dropped it to the deck with a sigh. Muffled clinking followed, and the men exchanged glances.

Chou smiled at them. “Thank you for trusting Takashi; I am glad you have come to meet me. I know my father has made your lives difficult in closing the factory. In a small way, I hope to help.” She paused to nod to her servant. “Kama has small piles of ryō wrapped in cloth. Each of you take one and let it help you on your way; for if you take gold you must leave Baigan. My father will not be pleased.”

One of the men spoke. “And we can simply take them and owe you nothing?”


Takashi frowned. “Lady, if you have taken this from your father ….”

“Do not worry. By the time he discovers it missing it will be too late.”

A voice spoke from the end of the pier. “Or very nearly too late.”

Nishimura raised a lantern, turning a tiny lever to increase the brightness. It lit the dull faces of half a dozen men, all armed with long tachi and smaller knives. Two also carried modified matchlock rifles. A thin shaft jutted from above each weapon, a dial on the side. With it, each man could load and fire half a dozen rounds far quicker than usual. Another terror of the new world.

The gathered factory workers fell silent, and Chou let out a gasp.

Nishimura gestured for two of his men to take the chest; a third he directed to Chou, after a glance to Kama. The servant’s wrinkled face did not change, but Chou spun on the older woman. “Why?”

Kama glanced away.

The third man took Chou by the arm, wrenching her around and dragging the young woman toward her father. She cried out, and Takashi took a step forward.

One of the riflemen raised his weapon.

Taskashi stopped.

“And now, gentlemen, I trust you will continue to seek employment elsewhere.” Nishimura turned his glare upon his daughter, then cut the lantern light. He turned to leave, and their shadows receded along the boards, the figure of Chou struggling against them.

Takashi ground his teeth but did not follow.

They’d only shoot him — or worse, hurt Chou.

Two days passed, and he ate the rest of his food and spent the last of his money. And not once did she appear in the market, nor did anyone in Baigan hear from her. Not Kenji or any of the other shopkeepers. Not even Ito, who Takashi stopped as the man attempted to close his door on the second evening. “Takashi, listen to me: I don’t know anything. I’m sure she’s well.” The man’s jowls seemed to sink further toward his chin, and he could not meet Takashi’s gaze.

“Ito, don’t lie. You dined there last night at Nishimura’s invitation; you must know something.”

“I know he’s offering to move me and my family to Geinmo.”

Of course. “But you didn’t see her?”

“No, Takashi. Now go home. And change your clothes for God’s sake. You smell terrible.” He slammed his door.

Takashi shook his head. Not at the comment about his clothing — it was true, he needed to change — but at the lie. Ito knew something. And of course the man was afraid to speak: his future depended upon staying on Nishimura’s good side.

Takashi wove through the front garden with its red maples and turned down the lane beside the house, angling toward the square. He’d reached the edge when a creak echoed in the lane. A gate swung open, and a woman stepped out. Ito’s wife.

She waved him closer, hands slipping from the sleeves of her blue kimono. She had tied her obi in some haste, as her sash sat a little crooked.


“Quickly,” she said. Her voice was hard to hear over the murmuring from the market and the roar of a steam-wheel passing somewhere nearby. “My husband was upset when he came home last night — I fear Nishimura has hurt Chou.”

A chill spread across Takashi’s body. “He what?”

“Yes. But do not ask any more, Takashi. A darkness hangs over him since his wife died.”

He folded his arms. “Then you should not have told me.”

“No, that is why I tell you. Your name was mentioned: Shachō doesn’t like that you are asking after Chou. Make your peace with it, return to your life.”

Takashi smiled. “I have had no peace for years.” He thanked her and headed for the square.

“You cannot bring them back, Takashi, not this way, not any way,” she called.

He offered no answer.

Instead, he returned home, lit his lamps and removed his clothes. He wiped himself down with a wet rag, stepped into a fresh kosode, then brushed at the sleeves of his haori before pulling the coat on too. Then he ran a razor across his jaw. A tiny spot of red bloomed in the mirror, and he wiped his cheek with the back of his hand.

Finally, he knelt by a screen then slid it aside.

And blinked.


Ants had crawled within, finding a crack, a space between timber and earth: like smoke or water, somehow they’d found a way. And there they covered the floorboards before a steel chest.

Swarming in place.

They moved in a pattern, like a kanji painted by a rough hand. It seemed to spell out the word for ‘tower.’ He leant closer; there was no doubt. That was the word. And there was only one tower in Baigan, the tower beside the manor. The building looked across the ocean and collected signals from the flashing mirrors when the submersibles rose.

And so there he would go.

He lifted the lid of the chest and drew out a blue silken scarf. A boat with a single sail crossed the waves. This he took and tied around his forearm. “Shima …” He could not finish. Would she approve? Yes. She had to. Next, he lifted a child’s hagoita-paddle covered in cherry blossoms. Kiku would have urged him on. “You would have liked Chou,” he told his daughter.

He hooked the paddle in his belt.

Finally, he lifted the new smith’s hammer from where it leant against the doorframe and walked into the darkening night.

He did not lock or even close his door.

He did not pace out syllables nor answer those who spoke to him. He skirted the market and climbed the small hill to the manor where it overlooked Baigan. The grand home sprawled: its tall stone walls were split by a huge gate of banded wood, but the yellow glow from dozens of paper lamps within still crept over the barrier.

The tower loomed nearby.

A black shadow against the stars, chill silence spread from its stones. He climbed the rough-cut steps to its twin doors. A rusty chain and lock were looped through the iron handles. Why lock the doors? Surely the tower was still to be manned; after all, boats and ships still sailed to the harbour.

He raised his hammer and smashed the lock.

From the manor came nothing but the drifting notes of court music played on flutes and the biwa.

Takashi ground the doors open and stepped within, boots crunching on gravel. The dark lay about his shoulders as a heavy mantle. He gripped his great hammer and hefted it. Here was the tower. Where the ants had directed him.

What lay within?

He turned to the wall and searched a moment — a lantern. He lifted it free and struck the lever, the little device shooting sparks. But light followed, a steady glow that lit a cluttered room. Tables and crates lay stacked beneath a winding staircase, but at the very back, behind a pair of torn screens painted with snow, something glinted in the light.

Steel? He moved closer.


Takashi crossed the floor and shoved one of the screens aside. It clattered to the stone.

A large brass chest rested beneath a frayed blanket. It had slipped free so that the brass caught the lantern light. He pulled the covering aside. Another lock on the lid, but this, too, he smashed with his hammer.

And then he could not move.

Could not lift it.

Nor even reach forth to lay a hand on the cold, gleaming surface.

He exhaled; he’d been holding his breath, and his throat had tightened. There’d been no such moment for Shima or Kiku. Only the sweeping blue roaring of the ocean, waves tipped in white. Only a terrible absence coming home. He had to open the lid.

A yellow butterfly rested within.

Chou lay upon her side in the brass coffin; a great, dark bruise covered her temple. Her eyes were closed and her skin pale. No smile graced her lips. The stillness was complete; even his shadow seemed to shrink away.


She had deserved better.

Takashi spun with a cry as he hurled the lamp. It hit the wall with an orange burst. He strode back into the night, hammer held in white knuckles as he bore down on the bright manor.

And he counted syllables as he stalked.

my spirit set adrift- 
butterflies dance on 
the autumn wind