It took me a few moments for me to dry off and get my head back in working order again. The assault on my senses from the wine I imbibed the previous night, lingered with a sickening dizziness that refused to let me fully forget the things I had done. A punishment that I was sure I deserved, but wish I could get rid of, nonetheless.
I didn't quite have a headache, but I could definitely feel a swelling pressure behind my red and swollen eyes. I tried to rub the blurred haze out of my eyes as I looked down at Zhao's list for the local market. Bread, rice, spices, a few variety of vegetables, and of course...his particular brand of wine. Three bottles instead of his usual two. I assume that I drank more of his reserves than he was willing to share without some forethought. I would need a satchel to carry it all back to the cabin, but I couldn't help but to hesitate as I looked down the path towards the town square and tried to prepare for what might be waiting for me there. Disdain. Disgust. Perhaps even insults hurled in my direction at full volume. And yet, all of that would be preferable to a complete and total shunning from the villagers. To be ignored, alone...as if I no longer existed to them. I believe that I feared that most of all.
Still...I gave Zhao my word that I would earn my keep while he provided me shelter and food on his land. And if public humiliation has to be bundled with the loyalty to that promise...then so be it.
I grabbed a satchel and Zhao's earnings, and I did what I could to clean my face and hair...finally taking my first steps forward and heading to the market. It was a long journey, but hopefully the fresh air and exercise would finish sobering me up by the time I got there. The items I was enlisted to pick up were few, but spread to different parts of the marketplace. There was no way to grab them all without being seen and recognized. I'm pretty certain that Zhao designed it that way. I could tell that his intention was to basically parade me through the streets until I had learned my lesson. Not just from guilt, but from experience. I suppose I could understand that.
I passed a few people on my way into town, but lowered my eyes to stare down into the dirt. The silence was deafening...even among the usual noises of a thriving marketplace in full swing for the afternoon hours. I did manage to gain the courage to peek up every now and then at the patrons around me, but only for brief moments. I happened to notice a few smiles. A few frowns. And some who were either indifferent to my presence there among them, or simply too busy to take notice. It made me wonder if, perhaps, this journey would be much less humiliating than I had originally expected.
I went to the first stand in the marketplace, and recognized the man behind it as one of the folks that I not only shouted at, but actually pointed at, the night before. My voice was weak with shame, but I didn't send any messages of disrespect by not looking him in the eye when I spoke. "Two bags of rice, please. Two large peppers, one green and one red. And sesame seed..." It was difficult to keep up a brave front, but after only a brief pause, the clerk began to collect the items I had asked him for.
No harsh comments were made. No dirty looks. Just a simple transaction...made in silence.
I bowed my head slightly. "Thank you." And he acknowledged my grace, taking the currency and going back to work. I felt bad, but was thankful that it hadn't caused a scene. So far, so good.
I went from shop to shop, gathering all I could, surprised that most people treated me kindly, or at least without any animosity towards me. I found that to be remarkable.
"Please...may I have two servings of duck, and some Tsin-tsi herb?" I asked another seller, and he did give me quite the awkward eye at first. But then gave me what I came for.
"It looks like somebody woke up in better spirits this morning." He said with a grunt. I lowered my head again, only slightly, and the seller's wife gave him a painful pinch in his side, warning him to behave himself. "It's no matter." He sneered. "Here. Take it and go. It'll cost you thirty pieces."
I gave him what he needed, and his wife nodded at me approvingly as I put all of the ingredients into my satchel and kept moving. Almost done now. The experience was humbling, and I was beginning to believe that I'd be able to show my face around town more often once the insult of my tirade had officially blown over. I'd be certain not to do it again. That was a vow I planned to keep.
I had just purchased Zhao's brand of wine from a merchant at the end of the road when I heard the cries of a young boy being pushed and shoved around against his will. I turned to see Tadashi, surrounded by three of the town bullies, making fun of him and intimidating the poor youngster with their obvious advantage in size and strength. Tadashi was on the small side, even for his age. He didn't stand much of a fighting chance. I'm thinking that's why they chose him to be their scapegoat.
Unwilling to let my little companion be beaten in the street, I thanked the merchant I was buying from and walked over to see if I could break up their gang activities. I arrived just as one of the boys stuck out his leg, and another pushed Tadashi forward to trip over it, sending him face first down into the dust.
He coughed and sputtered, hiding his tears as he rolled over to hold his chest and stomach, both damaged by the fall. He only appeared to have the wind temporarily knocked out of him...but the sudden embarrassment often works to intensify the injury.
The other boys laughed with a sinister sort of joy at seeing him hurt and alone like that. They were despicable. Every last one of them. But I didn't give them the satisfaction of my attention. Instead, I watched them tense up and move away as I walked directly through the middle of their group, only focusing on Tadashi. I didn't even address them. I merely extended a hand and waited patiently for Tadashi to take it.
He hesitated for a moment, but eventually allowed me to help him get back to his feet. I began to brush the dirt off of him, but he was quick to push my hands away in defiance. It was the harshest of judgements that I had faced today, and yet...
...To me...it was the most painful.
Tadashi began to walk off towards home, and I gathered my things to follow behind him. My, how the other boys cackled over that one. Laughing deep from their bellies, both at me and at him. There were times when I could feel the fire burning hot in my belly...calling to me to lash out and prove who and what I am to all who dared to offend me. It wasn't easy to pretend that the instinct wasn't there. But I was afraid that I would one day unleash the full fury of it upon someone else. And what's worse...
...I would enjoy it. More than I ever thought I could.
That is a very steep path to follow. And it's all downhill.
Behind us, the bullies taunted us at full volume. First with mocking laughter...but then with a sense of anger. My refusal to engage them appeared to trigger the darkest of emotions in them to rise to the surface. Still, I kept quiet. And my gaze remained focused on the dirt beneath my feet.
"Look how he runs away! Bear witness, one and all!" One of the bullies shouted. "Our 'hero'! This is what you waste your music and your fireworks on? Celebrating this FAILURE of a man??? A deceiver? He's nothing! LESS than nothing!" He spit on the ground, then leaned over to pick up a stone and hurl it at me from behind. His aim was off. I had nothing to worry about. So I simply kept walking behind Tadashi, who was much more affected by the boys' insults than I was. "Tatsuro Myoki...FAKE samurai! He's a murderer and a coward! And an ungrateful drunkard on top of it all! Look upon him! Shameful! He's a dishonor to us all!"
Words. Empty, shallow, words.
But as I saw Tadashi get out of the bully's range, he began to sniffle and cry, unable to hold back his emotions for one minute longer. "This is all your fault!" He sobbed softly.
"Tadashi...those boys are trapped in the belief that they have to bring you down in order to feel good about themselves. They have nothing else to validate them or give them purpose. There is nothing about their existence that means anything to anybody. Not with any importance, at least. You pour too much of your positive energy into their negative actions. If only you could see..."
"I don't want to hear that SHIT!!!" He screamed, his voice cracking as my eyes widened with surprise. "They're bigger than me! Meaner than me! And they ALWAYS win! ALWAYS!!! And you tell me to bow my head and take all the suffering upon my shoulders while they are never held accountable for ANYTHING! I'm SICK of it!" Tears of anger ran out of his eyes, and I was forced to turn away. I didn't like seeing him like this. "If I had your sword, I would kill them all! I would do what's right and make them PAY for being the monsters they are!"
"It's more important to keep your grace, boy. Much more important than throwing a tantrum and regretting it later." I said. "It is much less painful to use restraint than it is to live with regret."
"What's WRONG with you???" He cried. "What are you so scared of?" I wish Tadashi could hear me and understand...but I'm afraid his anger had clouded his judgement beyond my ability to reason with him at this point. A wall had been built between us, and I had nothing to say in my defense over being a significant part of this. "All of this is because of you! I told all of my friends about you when you first arrived here. I convinced my grandfather to give you shelter and food. And now I am associated with a coward and a fake. Now they'll never stop beating me up! Not ever! You bring ruin to everything!"
He started to stomp away from me, but I made one last desperate attempt to appeal to him by taking a hold of his wrist, hoping to get a few random moments to have him come to his senses.
But he simply snatched his hand away from me. The fire in his eyes almost drowned out by his own unrestricted flow of boyish tears. "LET ME GO!!!" He shouted, causing everyone around us to watch, just in case the boy needed help. I was still more of a stranger than a villager at this point. "You're no samurai! You're a liar! A LIAR!!!" And with that...Tadashi took off running as fast as his feet could carry him. I didn't bother to pursue him any further. I'm not exactly certain what it was that he expected me to be for him...but I was sorry for not measuring up.
I picked up my belongings and my satchel, and continued to head out of the marketplace for the day. I guess I had everything that I needed. I'll make sure that I give it to Zhao and any coin that I had left over from the take...but, perhaps, after that was finished...I should look into moving on again. Another set of travels, another town, another opportunity to escape the demons chasing me down wherever I rest my head.
I think that might be for the best.
"My pardon..." Came a voice from the side of me. It was so soft that I almost didn't hear it initially. I turned to see an older woman standing before me, a bundle of freshly baked bread wrapped in cloth. "...I want you to have this. My brother and I...we are eternally grateful for what you did for us."
Trying to avoid the compliment out of guilt, I replied, "I'm afraid that I have very little coin left to bargain with. You would do better to save it for a more proficient customer..."
"No coin needed." She said, practically pushing her offering into my arms. "Take it."
I had to wonder if it would be more insulting to take the gift without payment or to turn it down without hesitation. Eventually, I told her, "Thank you. This is a blessing that will not go unrewarded."
"It is not my reward, but yours, that is the meaning behind this gift." She said. "You saved my daughter from the Hooded Ones last night. You freed them from being victims of the blood gods in the mountains. They are all I have left in this world after my husband passed away. You are more of a hero than you give yourself credit for. I only wish that I could do more to repay you for your courage."
Sadly, I told her, "I am a soulless killer, searching for redemption. Nothing more."
But, as she looked back at the bullies, far off in the center of the town square...making trouble and stealing fruit and knocking over benches and tables in order to gather attention for themselves...she told me, "No. A killer would have handled that situation with your young friend much differently. He would have reacted blindly, with swift and irreverent action...and he wouldn't have felt a single moment's worth of guilt afterward. There is quite the difference between you and a soulless killer, my friend. You look more like a savior to me...even when that means resorting to a killer's methods." The woman put a hand on my shoulder, and raised up on her tip toes to deliver a soft kiss on my cheek. "Your grace was never in question, traveler. Not for me."
My eyes began to water, but I didn't let the emotion drip from their stubborn hold. "I pray that your daughter is ok. And I wish you well."
She could see the emotion swelling within me, and could also see my need to choke it back with everything that I had. So she allowed me to turn and leave, saying, "You should get back with your goods. A storm is coming in from the East. The sooner you get home, the better."
"Yes. Perhaps you're right." I told her, and nodded towards her, and her brother who returned the greeting from a distance. Even through all of my transgressions, I still had some support in this village. For that...I was proud.
I had a lot to think about on the way back to the cabin. The storm clouds were quick to roll in, and the rains came before I was even able to get the cabin in my sights. The late afternoon skies had become dark and grey, and I did what I could to protect the items I had purchased from the market in order to keep them from being ruined by the storm. I was fortunate enough to get back in time to find Zhao waiting for me out in front of his home. He nodded and smiled at me as he saw me walking up the path, and eventually took the satchel of good from me to carry into the house. "Not as bad as you expected, was it?" He asked.
"Hard to say." I replied. "My expectations were monumental, all things considered."
With the kind of caring and concern that only a loving father could give, Zhao smiled at me and gave me a pat on the back of my shoulder. "Then I am overjoyed to see you disappointed." We shared a look, and then a grin. "Come. I will prepare this duck for dinner, and then we can share a toast to the rain. The crops will be thankful for such good fortune. Happy crops always taste better when harvested."
However, as Zhao and I were talking, I noticed that Tadashi was hurrying up the same road to come home...and my heart suddenly began to feel heavy again. "I should probably go back out to the barn, Zhao. But you enjoy your meal. Maybe I can come back after the storm, and we can share some tea."
It was foolish of me to think that Zhao wouldn't notice the sudden change in my demeanor, and when he looked out towards the road, he saw his grandson approaching, and figured out why I was suddenly so quick to leave.
"You know...Tadashi is still very young, Tatsuro. Very optimistic. He has no real sense of future consequence. Not like you or I do. He has all the heart and passion of a proud dragon in flight, but an immature understanding of direction. In many cases, what doesn't happen today, in the moment, is irrelevant. But he is learning."
"Hopefully not from me." I said.
"The boy is stubborn, yes. But he has learned more from you in your short time here with us than he would ever want to openly admit. It simply hasn't sunk in yet." Zhao put a hand on my shoulder. "The boy needs a father, Tatsuro. And I long for my son. You do us both a great service by being here with us. Don't ever forget that. I'm convinced that you are the bridge we both needed to be complete. I thank the fates for bringing your travels to our doorstep." He said, and he actually gave me a brief hug before saying, "Go. I'll calm Tadashi down a bit, and when dinner is ready to be served, I'll have him bring you a plate."
I nodded, and turned to leave before Tadashi was able to cut another few slices out of my pride again. I walked back out into the rain, a short distance between the cabin and the barn...wondering if maybe Zhao and Tadashi were a bridge for me as well. For the father that I was unable to protect from harm, and the little brother that I struck down in cold blood. Maybe destiny's design is much more elaborate than I ever could have imagined...and it was more than just good luck that brought me to this small village during a time when we both needed each other with such desperation.
The sky above, dark with clouds...the last few rays of fading sunlight now disappearing over the horizon, I happened to notice a certain stress in the very air around me. An ominous feeling that refused to let go of its hold on my senses. I kept looking back at the town. It was soooo far away on foot. But, it was the few strikes of lightning above that brought my focus to the rooftops of the buildings in the town square. Call it an unsettling instinct...but there was something 'wrong' with the kind of silence that came with the storm. I could practically 'taste' it on the early evening air. And as I turned to watch those rooftops closely...
...I saw movement happening above.
People...running across them. I could have ignored it and gotten out of the rain. I've already had too much interference in the affairs of these good people. But...the darkness was spreading. The lightning and thunder seemed to be demanding my attention...
And as I saw, what looked like, a small army of moving shadows taking positions above the village that had forgiven so many of my offenses...I found myself being called to duty again. For better or worse...
...It appears that my inaction is no longer going to be an option.