The night seemed to grow infinitely darker in the few lonely hours that I spent sitting by myself, just outside of public view. I had a rather large jug of wine at my side, from which I sipped at an unmeasured pacing. But consumption of rice wine always has the same outcome, whether sipped a little at a time by an average dinner guest, or guzzled down recklessly by your common drunkard. It was simply a matter of how long it took to achieve the proper effect. At least drunkards drink with a designed purpose. A sense of honesty. Here I sit in denial, pretending that I will stop when I know well that I won't. Not until the common drunkard and I are one and the same.
I had torn a rag from my own clothes to clean the quickly coagulating blood off of my sword. I burned the piece of cloth in the fire, but the tear it left behind still reminded me of what I had done. No tears would come to my eyes. Not a single one. The numbness had yet to wear off.
I fear for the day when my emotions make a definitive choice...and either the tears or the numbness consume me whole, becoming all that I had left.
I did not want this. Any of it. I should have kept passing through this place. Instead, I brought this death curse with me.
I could hear the voices of villagers in the center of town. Thankful men, indulging in the gory details of what had happened. Tearful mothers, hugging their children close, happy that they had not been taken away to the dark peak of that dreaded mountain. A feast delivered by the 'hooded ones'. The blood gods. I could clearly make out the faint cheers of reunited families who were now too excited to sleep for the evening, having a late night dosage of wine and laughter to celebrate a victory over their tormentors for the very first time since this dark habit began.
If only I was able to join them in their jubilation.
Instead, my mind played and replayed the details in a continuous loop of sight and sound, haunted with the painful screams of my enemies. Limbs being severed. Blood being spilled. I feared that I had disgraced myself once again. Always left with the question of whether or not the violence I brought upon them was at all necessary. A question that rings out into the night with an eternal echo...and is never answered.
I attempted to meditate on the issue, hoping to come to terms with my decisions and find enough tranquility within me to clear my mind. But I soon felt the presence of another watching me from the shadows. I opened my eyes, but I already knew who it was without seeing him directly. Tadashi's small, sneaky, footsteps had become so familiar to me. The curious boy could be quite the little spy when he wanted to be. He had an insatiable desire to see all, know all, and it never seemed to let him rest. Perhaps it is a good thing.
I turned my head and nodded. Tadashi knew he had been caught. So he simply stepped forward to find a spot on the ground beside me. He sat down, looking at my crossed legs and naturally mimicking my position. "Why are you here behind the inn, Tatsuro?" He asked. I wasn't sure how to answer him. "Everyone in the village is talking about your great skill with your sword. Praising you for the way you moved so swiftly. The way you cut the bad men down with such ease. You were amazing! I've never witnessed something so incredible before."
Quietly, I told him, "I'm afraid that I must apologize. I shouldn't have lost my grace, Tadashi."
"Apologize?" He asked confused, his thin eyebrows arched, young lips twisted in a bewildered frown. "Why do you apologize? The bad men came to take us away. They terrorize our village and bring misery to everything they touch. You STOPPED them! You destroyed the evil that was trying to destroy us!"
"All I did was cut down weak vessels of flesh and bone." I said. "The evil behind the bad things they've done still exists. It will only be further agitated by this offense, and my very presence among you. Violence only begets more violence. Bloodshed only incites more bloodshed. I fear that it is a curse I have brought upon your village tonight. One that will cause a great deal of tragedy and pain before a natural balance is restored once again."
"You certainly don't talk like any samurai I've ever heard stories about." Tadashi said with a pout. "You're supposed to be fearless! A warrior! What meaning does it have for you to possess the impressive skill to destroy your enemies and not use it? If it were me, I would have cut them all down without mercy. Them...and a thousand more."
"You speak from a very angry place, Tadashi. That is why you revel in the suffering of your enemy, and fail to think of the suffering you cause yourself."
"I'm not suffering!" He demanded. "I'm *GLAD* they're dead! ALL of them!"
"Then...perhaps you have lost your grace as well, little one." I said. "For that...I am sorry for bringing you such ill influence."
Tadashi suddenly stood up, almost as if offended by my reaction. "I don't know what's wrong with you! The people in the town center celebrate your arrival and glorify your swordsmanship...yet you sit here in the dark, all alone, and you fuss like a hungry baby!" I lowered my head, but kept my silence. It was then that Tadashi's feisty spirit took a hold of him and he kicked a small cloud of dust on me. "Can't you even look me in the face? Some hero you are!" I said nothing. The dizziness of the wine kept me still. "Maybe the ruffians at the restaurant were right! Maybe the legendary Tatsuro Myoki IS a coward..."
He turned around with a bratty grunt and stormed off to leave me alone to bathe in the empty shadows surrounding me. I felt a pain inside. Not so much from his anger, but from his disappointment. Sometimes, children can build up such high expectations when it comes to their idols. It can be a very tall pedestal to fall from when you don't measure up.
Perhaps it was that fall that caused me to drink even more heavily than I normally would have. Crossing a line of intoxication that prevented me from keeping my more irrational thoughts at bay.
I could still hear the people in the village enjoying themselves, now playing music and laughing with one another over their good fortune. But the dark winds of the night brought a familiar fragrance my way. A foul scent that I recognized instantly, as I had experienced it many times before.
They were burning bodies in the town square. A bonfire built from the lives that I destroyed. And yet, they carry on. Praising what they think will be an end to their problems. When all it really represents is my failure to avoid my lesser instincts...opening a gateway for more horrific times to come.
I attempted to finish off the jug of wine beside me, but the last of it seemed to make the jug feel bottomless. My throat was already beginning to lock up with the threat of sickness. My vision was blurry and dark. My hand coordination began to fail me as I tilted the jug further back than I should have, and the excess liquid spilled at the sides of my mouth.
Memories began to echo inside my head.
Memories of that night. Of my brother. Of what I had to do to stop him.
Memories of the night that I lost everything.
"JIRO!!! What have you done??? STOP! Jiro, STOP!!!"
I saw the red eyes. I saw the fangs. The claws. He attacked me. He ATTACKED me! But...did I do enough to try to help him out of his madness before taking his life? Or did I draw my sword in anger over what he had done to the rest of our family? Then...there is always a chance that it was blind 'fear' that caused me to react. Unforgivable...dishonorable...fear.
"JIRO!!!" It echoed in my mind, soon followed by a swift and immediate slash. My blade visible for a swift moment as it glistened in the moonlight...before severing his head clean from his shoulders...and allowing it to fall into the dirt at my feet.
My eyes suddenly shot open. I could feel myself gritting my teeth as I looked down to see my right hand, tightly gripping the handle of my sword. I had yet to fully pull it from its protective sheath...but a few inches of silver had been exposed to the stars above. More than what should have been exposed at all.
A tear crawled down my cheek from my right eye.
Before I knew it, I was struggling to stand on my feet. I grabbed my jug of wine and kicked up a small cloud of dust as I fought for equilibrium. The constant laughter and music from the townspeople began to drive me into a rage. My sensible mind left me, and I was soon staggering my way toward the middle of town again.
The flickering lights of an obscenely bright human bonfire lit the walls of every business and living quarters surrounding it. Children pretended to fight with sticks, imagining them as instruments of death. Much like the one on the side of my hip. I even saw one of the men's heads being carried around on the end of a stick. In front of the village's children!
Drunk as I may be, I could hold my tongue no longer.
As I shuffled closer, slurring my words, I wailed, "Is THIS how you celebrate??? Is this what you all wanted???"
Suddenly...the music stopped. The laughter stopped. And all heads turned to watch me approach from out of the darkness.
"Do not bring a halt to your festivities on MY account! No! Please continue!" I shouted sloppily, holding on to a nearby horse cart to steady myself. "Let us ALL take joy in the slaughter, shall we?" I stepped right into the middle of the crowd, so I could spin slowly from that position and look each and every last one of them in the eye. "This is what you wanted? They murder your loved ones, so you murder theirs? All is right with the world, is it? An eye for an eye? A tooth for a tooth? Iâ€²ll have you know that I take NO pride in this! None!" I stumbled forward a bit, but caught myself before I fell. I could peer around the flames before me to see Tadashi's judging eyes looking at me with a sense of shame. I only gave him an intoxicated grin in return. As if to defy his condemnation of me. Pointing a drunken finger, I shouted, "You all think that the ones you fear will forget this? You think that one display of aggression will somehow free you from the tyranny that exists atop that mountain in the distance? EH???" Now feeling weak in the knees, I hobbled around the fire, clumsily grinning like a fool as I scoffed in the faces of all who were there to witness my self humiliation. "You sing and dance now...hehehe...lalala! Whooooo! Wheeeee! But little do you know...I've doomed you all." The faces of the villagers changed from confusion to a look of fear. For some reason, my drunkenness found such humor in their lost expression. "Hahaha! I've doomed you all! So PARTY away! Eat! Hehehe...DRINK! Come on now! The time to celebrate is now!" I signaled to those playing instruments, "Come now! Laaaa la la laaaa! Hehehe! PLAY!" I said. "Because...on the morrow...or the next day...or the day after...this act of violence will have to be atoned for. What then, I ask you?" My awkward footing caused me to trip and fall down into the dirt, leaning against a nearby set of steps. "What then...?" I repeated, and took one last, long drink from my bottle of rice wine before feeling my eyes getting too heavy to keep open for a moment longer.
Murmurs and whispers was all I heard as I was dragged into a state of unconsciousness. No more singing. No more cheers or chants over their recent victory. Good. Because they don't know what it's like to cut through flesh the way I have. They don't accept the burden of guilt it leaves behind. I slaughtered those threats so they could go on believing that it's easy. Little do they know that every life you take...also takes a piece of you into the afterlife with them.
I fear that my soul is heavy enough to sink me into the depths of Hell as it is. And I have nothing but the enraged spirits of fallen enemies waiting for me there.
In my sleep...the nightmares were all too eager to sink their claws into me. There are no darker visions than ones fueled by the true memories of deeds most foul. I thought about the way my sword vibrated in my hand as it sliced through my brother's neck. Bone, muscle...the sound of it will never leave me. My brother made me that sword. He fashioned it to be the sharpest and deadliest weapon to ever grace a samuraiâ€²s hands. I can remember the smile on his face as he heated the metal and folded it, time and time again...looking to make it sharp enough to cut through the rays of the rising sun, if needed. He was so proud of his creation. Almost arrogant, but in the most pleasant of ways. He was my little cub. I would have done anything for him. Anything to appeal to his mischievous heart. My, how that boy could make me laugh whenever his impish pranks were pulled off successfully. I can remember the evening when Jiro placed a nest of hornets underneath father's pillow. Hahaha! A dangerous prank now that I think back on it, but oh so amusing at the time. I doubled over, tears in my eyes, laughing as Father grabbed a whipping stick and proceeded to chase Jiro all through the yard until they both ran out of breath. By the time Father had gotten a firm hold on his collar, he was too exhausted to deliver the punishment he had so rightfully earned. Instead, he angrily sent him to bed, and me as well for laughing at his misfortune.
Yes, we were a handful, Jiro and I. It was something that we took pride in.
And when we got older...he took it upon himself to make me this sword. The sword that I still carry with me to this day. He...he made me this instrument of death...
...And I slaughtered him with it.
"WHY, JIRO?!?!?! WHY?!?!"
Suddenly...an ice cold splash of river water is tossed in my face!
I spring from my sleep, coughing and sputtering, attempting to leap to my feet...but finding myself a bit too unbalanced to stand.
I rubbed my eyes and wheezed until the shock of it all subsided. Clutching my chest with one hand, gasping for air. And once my eyes were able to shake off their lingering distortion...I saw Zhao standing above me...empty bucket in hand.
"What...? Why?" I said, a scowl on my face as a severe headache settled in behind my bloodshot eyes and caused me to stumble back against the side of the house. I don't even remember traveling back home last night. I highly doubt that Zhao had the strength to drag me back himself. Perhaps he had help.
"I allowed you to sleep for quite a while longer than normal. You overindulged in your wine drinking last night. I gave you some time to rest. But enough is enough. The sun has already completed half of its journey across the sky. If I wanted a corpse on my land, I would have taken one of the many you left in the town square." I could never tell if he was being cranky, mean spirited, or humorous. Perhaps Zhao had mastered the art of combining all three together in the same pot. Quite a painful mixture when trying to get over a wine headache.
"I barely remember what I did. What I said." I mumbled, rubbing my temples.
"If only you could say the same for the villagers you insulted with your recent behavior." Zhao said. He handed me a towel to wipe off my face. "Of all the fireworks and music being celebrated in that small festival, you were the biggest spectacle of all."
My mouth was dry. My tongue feeling like an unused sponge in my mouth. "It was the wine talking..." I told him.
But he responded with, "Just because you give the offenses you've caused a reason, or have found a target to blame, it does not remove the offense itself. Nor can it be accepted as an apology." He took his towel back from me and handed me a short list on a piece of parchment. "Tadashi and I are in need of supplies from town. You've slept half the day away, so I took it upon myself to do your chores for the morning. Now you can do mine."
Rubbing my head, I cringed at the idea. "My apologies, Zhao. But it seems that the libations that I drank last night have incapacitated me for the day."
"Nothing better for a drunkard's blood than good, clean, honest, work. I'm sure a great 'samurai' like yourself will manage."
I lowered my head, as well as my vocal tone. "I don't think the townspeople will appreciate me showing my face again. Not so soon after I've disgraced myself."
"Even more reason for you to go." Zhao demanded. "Insult is always easy to deliver when the culprit does not have to look his offended patrons in the eye. If it's humility that you need to be reminded of, I can see no better lesson for you to learn than going to those same people you shouted at last night and asking them for food and market necessities. Perhaps the shame of it will help to still your tongue in the future."
The soreness in my head seemed to get worse as I stretched and stood up straight, my vision blurred. Zhao offered me some water out of his second bucket. It sank to the pit of my stomach like a stone. "I meant no disrespect. I'll understand if you want me to leave after what I've done."
He gave me a frown, but scoffed at my offer. "A few drunken words never lingered for more than a day or two in the hearts of the people here."
I lowered my head. "It wasn't the outburst that I was referring to..."
Zhao gave me a sideways look. "Ahhh. I see." I can't explain what it was, but I suddenly felt Zhao transform into a fatherly role as he pulled up a small stool for me. "Sit."
"I can finish out today's work first if you need me to..."
"What I need from you, Tatsuro Myoki...is for you to sit. Go on, now." I did as he asked, and he began walk around me. "You know, those men that you killed last night...they've been here many times before. Them, and men just like them. They collect us like livestock, create havoc and destruction among our people, and then they steal our women and children away, never to be seen again. They tested their own fates every time they entered our village, and they always triumphed. Sometimes...it is not always wise to turn the other cheek. You have to act. Sometimes it's merely karma's way of restoring the precious â€²balanceâ€² you seem to cherish so much."
"I'm sorry, but I don't think any words of wisdom will excuse me from the nightmares to come." I said. There was a momentary break in my speech. A drawn out pause where I tried to decide whether to confess my sins or prevent any further damage to my already tarnished image. I chose to confess. "It's true, you know? What they say about me in the town square."
Zhao was quiet at first, but then let out a sigh. "I thought it might be. Through all of your good fortune here, a hint of sadness still glows behind your eyes at all times. It never goes away, even when you smile."
I took another sip of water, but felt the pressure of tears coming to my eyes as I fought to keep my demons at bay. "I loved my brother, Zhao. I loved him with my whole heart. I can clearly remember the night he was born. Jiro...a best friend, related by blood. He had such a beautiful mind. He was a dreamer. Jiro made it seem like anything was possible." I said. "Then, just a few years ago...he disappeared into the night. There wasn't a trace of him anywhere. Not for two Winters at least. He wasn't the type to run away from his family. He was happy with us. If anything, he was the peacekeeper of the house. When everyone else had lost their way...Jiro was the guiding light that brought us back home."
"So what happened?" He asked.
"You would not believe me if I told you."
"I have seen my fair share of nightmares in the flesh, Tatsuro. Believe me." He sat on the ground in front of me and crossed his legs.
"I saw a demon in him. It was like nothing that I had ever seen before. I thought, perhaps, he was possessed, but...whatever it was that happened to my little brother...I could not save him. It was as though he was suddenly blinded with a lust for blood. I could not reach him, no matter how hard I tried."
"Your brother was not possessed." Zhao said. "He was â€²bittenâ€². Turned into something else. Not human, not a demon, but something in between. I have seen this sickness before before, and there was nothing that you could do." This definitely piqued my curiosity. "At first, many of us thought these creatures were merely legends. Ghost stories, used to keep children from wandering too far away from home at night. But, whenever a village like ours begins to prosper and grow in population...you will find a small, but demanding, nest of these creatures just outside of our boundaries. Most often in places where they can hide in the daylight, and walk freely in darkness."
"So, you know of these demons? Are these the blood gods the attackers spoke of last night?" I asked. Zhao nodded.
"They are worshiped by some, feared by others. And when the moon goes dark, they come to our village to find prey, hoping to appease their thirst for human blood. When the blood gods don't get their tribute, they become hungry. Angry. Their fury rips through the town and we lose more lives than we would have if we had simply given ourselves over to their will in the first place."
"Is there nothing you can do?" I asked, a mixture of shock and anger creeping in.
Zhao leaned closer, and said, "When the hooded ones came a few short years back, I tried to rally the townspeople in order to get everyone to stand up against them. I needed their help. But no one would speak. No one would participate. Had we all stood together as one united community, we might have beaten them. But the villagers did nothing. They stay in their misguided comfort like cowards avoiding the blue of the sky. Fearful that a time will come when they're asked to do something for a greater good, instead of merely tending to their own selfish needs. People who stand for nothing. Who wonâ€²t stand up to defend the people they claim to love and respect." With a sigh, he added, "A month passed. The moon went dark. And the hooded ones returned. This time...they took my son and his wife. Leaving little Tadashi all alone. All because the others refused to participate. They refused to fight. So the bloodshed continues, and they allow it because it brings them peace to know that it is not knocking at their neighborâ€²s door instead of their own."
Seeing my sword leaning against the crate next to me, I said, "Violence only brings more violence. Sometimes, fate has a tragic plan that can't be avoided."
Zhao said, "I've heard better philosophies coming from the ass of a mule." It surprised me to hear that. I was confused. "When the bad men came, I was not strong enough to protect the ones I loved. But you are. I saw the way you wielded your weapon last night, Tatsuro. The speed, the precision...that is not a skill, my friend. It is a gift. One that you waste by not using it when it is needed."
"It should NEVER be needed."
"If it wasn't needed then it wouldn't exist. In a perfect world, mankind would never have to create a single bladed edge. But that world does not exist. You still your sword because you are afraid. Afraid that you made the wrong choice with your brother. Afraid that you will cause more death and destruction with your every movement. But last night? Last night, you allowed your true warrior's spirit to act without question. Swiftly, without hesitation or remorse. A samurai in battle cannot hide his true self. No more than a man, drunk off of rice wine, can hide his demons when shouting at a crowd of people in the town square." Zhao stood up again and brushed himself off. Ready to go into the house to cook a light breakfast. But before he left, he told me, "I am deeply sorry for what happened between you and your brother. I am sad to hear that you were forced to make such a damaging decision concerning your own flesh and blood. But don't let those haunting thoughts of the past keep you from being who you were meant to be. Those villagers out there are scared. They live with the illusion of good fortune for the few short weeks between dark moons, pretending that the hooded ones won't return. Everybody is in hiding, Tatsuro. Everybody sits back and waits for some one ELSE to speak up first so they can find the courage to follow. A voice that gave them the permission to act." He grabbed his bucket and headed back towards the house. "Last night, those 'scared' villagers got the idea in their heads that YOU, Tatsuro Myoki, were that voice. Perhaps, you were not meant to simply pass through our town. Perhaps you were meant for something more significant than that. And I would, personally, find that to be a blessing for all of us...as well as a potential path to find the peace of mind youâ€²ve been searching for."
He left me to sit there and think about what he said. I was left with a choice. To not get involved, or to possibly bring more trouble down on their heads by protecting them from evil deeds. If my swordsmanship was a gift, it was also more of a burden than they will ever know. I would rather have been a blacksmith instead.