From Matsuo Basho’s Narrow Road to the Interior
Today we came through places with names like Children-Desert-Parents, Lost Children, Send-Back-the-Dog, Turn-Back-the-Horse, some of the most fearsomely dangerous places in all the North Country. And well named. Weakened and exhausted, I went to bed early, but was roused by the voices of two young women in the room next door. Then an old man’s voice joined theirs. They were prostitutes from Niigata in Echigo Province and were on their way to Ise Shrine in the south, the old man seeing them off at this barrier, Ichiburi. He would turn back to Niigata in the morning, carrying their letters home. One girl quoted the Shinkokinshū poem, “On the beach where white waves fall, / we all wander like children into every circumstance, / carried forward every day . . .” And as they bemoaned their fate in life, I fell asleep.
In the morning, preparing to leave, they came to ask directions. “May we follow along behind?” they asked. “We’re lost and not a little fearful. Your robes bring the spirit of the Buddha to our journey.” They had mistaken us for priests. “Our way includes detours and retreats,” I told them. “But follow anyone on this road and the gods will see you through.” I hated to leave them in tears, and thought about them hard for a long time after we left. I told Sora, and he wrote down:
Under one roof, prostitute and priest,
we all sleep together;
moon in a field of clover