It was a pleasant sight.
A life giving vision.
I had been walking through uninhabited lands and crossing endless fields for three days straight, without seeing anyone else in the area. I was low on my limited food and water supply. The heat and wind had done their duty of drying me out, creating a constant feeling of fatigue. But still, I manage to keep pressing forward.
It was easy to keep my bearings at night, following the brightest stars and letting them guide me in, what I had hoped, would be the right direction. But during these daylight hours, when the sun was blazing bright, and the heat was heavy on my shoulders, I had only my instincts to direct me. Instincts that dulled more and more every day that I went without food.
However, I was greatly relieved, when I came to the edge of a small river and saw a man made bridge before me crossing over it. An apparent sign that there would be civilization nearby. Life. Perhaps a small village where I can trade my labor for a place to stay and some food to fill the emptiness in my belly.
I am Tatsuro Myoki. I am a wanderer. And even to a samurai…such a promised reward, possibly existing on the other side of that bridge, is enough to fill my heart with hope. And with joy. I didn’t hold back a gentle smile. Why would I? Bliss, when found, is to be appreciated in all its forms. Embracing it with my whole heart is how I give thanks for the good fortune. And I do so willingly.
The road that I followed on the other side of that bridge was a long one. My spirit had been further weakened by the hunger inside, gnawing at me with a hunger all its own. I made sure to refill my supply of water at the river, thankful for Nature’s gift. But with such a void within me, too much water, while satisfying my thirst, began to cramp my stomach. So I was forced to find a balance between my two most basic needs. Discipline was needed.
It was important to keep moving. When wandering, one never knows how far the next village may be, or how long one may have to go without sustenance. The distances can be great. Trying to cross them with speed alone will only tire you out faster, and make the journey that much harder in the end. Perhaps the emptiness is meant to clear one’s mind. To contemplate through hardship that which we cannot…when our bellies are full, and our taste for wine has been sated.
Many wanderers have been found dead in the wasteland. Lost. Attempting to reach a destination that may or may not have been at the end of the path they chose to follow. I do not plan to be one of those lost wanderers. I believe the stars will tell me their secrets, and my ancestors will not allow me to perish so easily. Not out here. And not without honor.
Soon…I witness the sight of soft lanterns being lifted in the fading light of the early evening. Buildings came into view as I emerged from the forest and the farming fields to find the center of a small fishing town.
Such strange looks from the local villagers as I approached. Stares and whispers, but no confrontations. I had gotten used to such reactions in my journeys. Passing through new villages, exploring new territories…with everyone wondering if I was simply another vagrant passing through, or if I was there to cause trouble. Small towns protect their own. What affects one, affects all. I can only hope that they can look past their suspicions, and perhaps give me shelter until I have earned enough provisions to move on again.
It was my sword that always enchanted the onlookers from a distance. Long and proud, handcrafted by two of the finest swordsmiths in the village where I was born. I kept it sheathed at all times, out of respect for those who feared the bloodshed such a fine weapon might bring to their community. But the sword had a soul, and a living presence all its own. I had no shame in wearing it on my hip. It was a fine blade. Its ego and its reputation were well deserved. And I displayed it as such.
The town seemed to grow in size as I got closer to its heart. Some of the shops were closing up for the night. Gathering their things and fixing their carts so as to make it home safely before dark. Fading scents of freshly cooked noodles cling to the wisps of cooling air as it passed by me. It inspired the rumbling in my stomach to increase in its tenacity to break me down. I did not beg. I merely nodded as they walked past, and they nodded in return. Their eyes glancing ever so briefly at my sword before moving on. Perhaps I had arrived too late in the evening to fully see this village in motion. The sun was setting fast over the horizon, and only a few larger eateries remained open. I knew where it was best to take my chances.
I approached a rather well lit eatery in the center of town. With any luck, I will come across a drunkard, and will be given the opportunity to escort him home. In turn getting myself some shelter for the night and perhaps some sweet bread for my trouble. The mind is much more agreeable in the stupor of a late night binge.
I took notice of a few youths lingering outside the restaurant doors. It did not take much previous knowledge to recognize the trouble maker appearance of their rude grins and mocking eyes. As I approached, they made a judgement of me, and one of them stepped in front of me.
I made no attempt to move him. Nor did I make any attempt to step around him. I simply stood still. Our eyes never met. I simply stood in silence…and waited.
Neither of us said a word. And once the game got to be boring for him, he stepped aside, and I continued on my way.
I would have gladly waited until dawn if necessary.
As I walked inside, I was pleased with the warm lighting and quiet aura of the restaurant’s atmosphere. Very traditionally designed, with ample space between each set of tables for privacy. Only half full of the village’s loyal patrons, a lone woman was able to come and greet me right away.
“May I seat you?” She asked, giving me a gentle bow.
I was honest, and told her, “I’m afraid that I have no money to purchase food. But if you will allow this traveler a moment of rest, I would be grateful.”
As with everyone else that I passed in the street, her eyes fluttered down to the sword on my hip. The threat of it caused her to hesitate slightly, and yet her heart went out to me regardless. “You may pick any table you like. We close the restaurant in one hour.” She said, and I thanked her with a tender smile.
Resting in that chair took quite an amount of stress and pain off of my weary feet. I could feel the relief pouring into me, causing me to sigh out loud. The lady brought me a single lit candle for my table, and with another smile, she left me to my leisure.
I think that I might have been falling asleep when I felt a light tapping at the back of my shoulder. When I opened my eyes, a young boy was standing before me. It took a moment for me to recognize his gender. While he had all of the features that a young boy should have at his age, there was a certain feminine beauty in him that created a sincere level of doubt at first glance. Taken aback by his youthful smile and his dark brown eyes, I found myself unconsciously smiling in return.
“I saw your sword…” He said. “Are you a real Samurai?” Of all the people in this village, it takes the brazen curiosity of youth to ask the first question.
“Yes, little one. I am indeed.”
“I’ve never seen one before. You are my first.” He was wide eyed with admiration. For a town that seemed like such a crossroads for travelers passing through, I was surprised. “Here. I brought you some food.” The boy looked around the room for a moment, and then, from under his shirt, he took out two rolls of sour dough bread and handed them to me under the table.
The rolls were still warm. The fragrance, so very inviting. A light crust on the outside crumbled beneath my fingers, the light, buttery, flakes, falling to the floor beneath my feet. “Where did you get these?” I asked him.
“I took them.” He said with an impish grin.
Dizzy with hunger, tempted by opportunity, I blocked out my impure thoughts and rose to my feet. “From whom did you steal these?” The boy, a bit confused, pointed a shaky finger in the direction of a table at the far side of the room. Immediately I turned and, on tired feet, I walked over to the table where an older couple was sitting and having a quiet conversation. “My apologies for the intrusion, but I believe these rolls of bread belong to you.” Their first reaction was bathed in insult. They snatched the rolls from my hand, and I saw them wipe them off with their hands and napkins. “I meant no disrespect. Enjoy your meal.” I said, and turned to go back to my table.
The boy was puzzled by my actions when I returned. “What did you do that for? Do you want me to steal you something else?”
Such a young criminal. I let a short laugh escape me before telling him, “I am hungry. I have traveled very far, yes. But stealing is not the answer. If it is my destiny to starve, then I shall starve. I won’t condemn or dishonor myself in an attempt to avoid it.” I then leaned closer to the androgynously beautiful boy, and I said, “The human spirit, the soul…it is a very fragile thing, and difficult to maintain. But maintaining it…is what must be done. Even when we are hungry.” The boy gave me an odd look, but as I smiled at him to show him that there was no disgrace on his part, he smiled back at me. A smile that could outshine the sun and the moon combined when blossomed to its full potential.
The boy hurried off to another corner of the restaurant, and I felt my heart fill with a warm sensation as his devilish grin lingered in my thoughts.
It was a sensation that hardened, and turned cold, as I saw the older boys from outside enter the restaurant. Five of them. Already, the demons within them caused a gloom to thicken the tension within the eatery and among all its patrons. Their eyes scanned the room, and eventually landed on my table. They headed towards me, and began to surround me from behind.
“Hey.” One of them said rudely. “I’m talking to you, wanderer.” A slight shove from behind caused my shoulders to lurch forward. “Who are you? Huh? What are you doing here?”
Without turning around, I said, “I am a traveler. I have only come here for rest. Soon I will be moving on.”
“Is that it? Huh? Just passing through?” The older boy picked at my clothes and my hair. “Are you supposed to be some kind of Samurai? Some big warrior? Come all the way from the coast to our little village?” Then he made the mistake of reaching for my sword, “What do we have here?”
The moment his finger touched it, my body had an instant reaction. I reached down and grabbed the sword so quickly that the other boys jumped back in surprise. I didn’t draw it out of its sheathe, but it was not to be touched. Not by anyone. Certainly not by the rogues in this restaurant.
Attempting to recover from the humiliation of showing fear in front of his peers, the boy stepped closer to me again. “Do you want to know what I heard, vagrant?” I kept my eyes down. He was not worth the attention. “I heard that there was another Samurai that was seen heading in this direction from a village just on the other side of the mountains. Not many of your kind wandering around the countryside. I was thinking…maybe that Samurai is you.”
“Your quarrel is not with me, but within yourself.” I told him.
“You hear that, boys? I have a quarrel within myself. Hahaha!” They all shared a laugh at my expense, and then he put a hand on my shoulder, leaning in towards my right ear. “That’s quite humorous coming from you. Because if you are that same Samurai…and the legends are true…then you may have a few quarrels within you as well.”
The other boys cackled in unison.
“They say…the great Samurai, Tatsuro Myoki…drew his sword against his own flesh and blood. They say he cut down his own kid brother, striking from the shadows like a common thief. No shame. No honor. The legend says that he travels the land, searching for a way to redeem himself of the horrific crimes made against his family.” The sting of his instigation struck a particular emotional nerve within me. “So what’s your story, Samurai? Or can the dishonor of your name even bear the weight of that title anymore?”
Quickly, I stood up from the table, causing all of the boys to jump backwards and adopt a series of fighting stances for combat.
I slowly leaned over to blow out the candle at my dinner table and I turned to the hostess, who was watching timidly from the corner of the counter from which she served food. In a respectful tone, I told her, “Thank you for your hospitality.” And with that I turned to leave the restaurant.
On the way out, I saw the young boy who offered me bread. He was watching me, and yanking excitedly on the sleeve of an older man with a gray mustache that I assumed to be his grandfather. A great deal of familiarity in their eyes, informed me of such. I gave the boy a nod and a smile as I headed towards the entrance.
“So now the great Samurai warrior is a COWARD as well! COWARD!!! Come back and fight! COWARD!!!” They yelled, but I didn’t give the rebels their due. If this is what it takes for them to feel good about themselves…let them have at it. I do a far better thing by giving their ego a moment of satisfaction than I do by cutting them down in this early period of their lives. They know nothing of honor. And they know nothing of my brother…or what I was forced to do in order to save us both.
The air outside had grown quite chilly since I first went in. I stumbled a bit from dizziness, my body cursing me for turning down free bread when I had the chance.
Only moments later, I heard the grumbled voice of an elderly man calling out from behind me. When I looked back, he gave me a suspicious eye. But it was the youthful exuberance of the young boy standing behind him that softened his stone exterior.
“Tell me, where are you going to?” The old man asked.
“I don’t know these lands. I was planning on seeing where this road takes me.”
He grunted, and told me, “Nothing but outhouses and brothels that way. Is that what you are searching for? Outhouses and brothels?” I wasn’t sure how to respond. I merely shook my head. “Good. Because that is not the kind of man I want staying on my property.” The boy stepped from behind the old man, but he put his hands on the boy’s shoulders to keep him from getting too close to me. “My name is Zhao. This is my grandson, Tadashi. If you promise to behave yourself, I can give you shelter until morning. And only until morning.”
“I am humbled by your offer. Thank you.”
He looked me up and down with a scowl. Not so much an unfriendly stare, but the mockery of one. “I suppose you’re going to want something to eat, now, aren’t you?”
“Only that which you have to spare.”
“Hmph…” The man started walking away from me, gently pushing the boy along with him as the youngster fought to look back at me with curious eyes. Then he said, “Well? What are you waiting for? Come on.”
Not holding back a joyful smile, I gave thanks for my third blessing of good fortune for the day.
I followed them out of town and through a series of dirt roads and fields to reach a very quiet cabin on the edge of their village. Tadashi was precocious soul, his changing voice creating a gentle thunder for us both the entire journey home. It made me proud to cause such excitement in him. He could barely keep himself still, even as the walk became long and tiresome. Something about his youthful energy kept me strong.
The greatest strength can be found in the blossom of the most delicate flower. His beauty conquered everything around it. Perhaps that is my fourth good fortune of the day.
We got back to the cabin, and Zhao was swift to send Tadashi to bed. He had no expectations of the boy actually going to sleep right away, but if either of us was to have any peace before dawn, he figured that he should start the process of winding him down ahead of time.
Afterward, Zhao offered me a generous bowl of rice and some vegetables picked fresh from a small patch of garden that he had in back of his house. He told me that if I wanted meat with breakfast, then I would have to work for it when I awoke, and he would go to market to buy some. I agreed. And after sharing cup of tea, he gave me a hand woven blanket and a flattened pile of hay to sleep on. I was fed. I was well hydrated. I was warm. It was more than luck. And I was happy to have the stars smile down upon me with such grace.
But a peaceful sleep is not always meant to last…
My dreams betrayed me as I thought back to that fateful night. I can remember finding the bodies. Pale. Cold. Drained of life. I can remember the stench of blood as it covered the floors of the place I once called home. I was so trapped between despair and rage, that when the tears began to fall from my eyes…I could not tell the meaning of one from the other.
With a powerful scream that shattered the silence of the night, I stormed out with sword in hand in search of the one responsible. I went out into the darkest parts of the woods, and I called out his name. “JIRO!!! SHOW YOURSELF!!!”
When he emerged from the darkness…he was not the brother that I remembered from childhood. Not the one that I helped to raise from the time he was a boy. I shall never forget that look. Those eyes….
A demon’s eyes.
Glowing with the lust for blood. Long, jackal’s teeth where his own used to be. I could not understand what had taken him over, but he wasn’t human anymore. No longer a creature of compassion and warmth. No longer allowed to walk in daylight. The demon that I saw that night was not my brother. Not anymore.
“Why, Jiro? WHY???” I cried.
But he did not answer. He was ‘infected’ somehow. Something had corrupted his mind, and stolen his soul.
I barely remember drawing my sword as he rushed towards me. He was so inhumanly fast. And my training had been fine tuned to act on instinct. His destiny and mine met in a single instant…and only mine continued on from there.
I often wonder…if I had been given more time to think, would I have made the same choice? Or could I have helped my brother find peace? That question may haunt me for the rest of my days.
I woke up early, and I went out into the yard to chop wood for the old man’s fire. I sincerely wanted to help with as many chores as I could find useful in order to hold up my end of the bargain. It was more than Zhao had expected of me, possibly looking for me to be a freeloader or a crook. When he woke up and saw half of his work done for the day, he grunted again and said, “Well…I can’t just let you do all this work for ONE night’s stay. I suppose you can stay another night. But don’t get comfortable. I’m only being fair.”
This went on for three days more. The boy was very open about loving the novelty of my company. And Zhao, while hiding it much more skillfully, seemed happy to have a partner to drink tea with as well. Every day he served me noodles with chicken or fish, and occasionally fresh baked bread from town. He never came back from the river without a decent catch. He must be one of the luckiest fishermen in the village to deliver with such consistency.
One morning, I got up to bathe in the small creek that ran not far from Zhao’s field. Leaving my clothes on the bank, I stepped naked into the cool waters and proceeded to enjoy the natural cleansing of my body and mind. But I soon became aware of a presence in the immediate area around me. Small, feather weight, footsteps. Shallow breathing. Untrained rhythm in his movements. It had to have been a young one. My guess was it was Tadashi.
I was clearly exposed to his hungry eyes as the running water only came up to my knees. Maybe a bit higher. I could sense his stare, peeking out from behind a nearby cluster of trees, fallen twigs snapping as he inched closer to get a better look at me. I made no effort to let him know that I had been alerted to his presence. I can remember being his age. He is only a little over half the age that I am now, but I have fond memories of wondering just how much further I was going to grow and develop. Wondering about my future virility, and how it matched up against the other boys in my village. To watch an older man at that age was an exciting study for me. So I continued to bathe as though I was completely unaware.
However, after Tadashi wandered too close to the edge of the creek, some of my own childhood mischief took over, and I bent over to reach into the water for a small, rounded, pebble. No bigger than a thumbnail. Then, without looking, I waited for Tadashi to curiously peek around the tree at my nudity…and I tossed it over my shoulder, hitting him square between the eyebrows from a distance.
“Ackkk!” He said in an agitated whisper, rubbing his sore forehead, and soon running off into the woods to avoid getting caught.
My body lit up with tingles of bliss as I laughed to myself. I should be ashamed for giving in to such childish temptations. But in this case…it brought a hearty chuckle to my belly, and made me feel good.
Later that night, I dug a small pit in Zhao’s backyard for us to enjoy for the weekend. He made a magnificent meal for us, and I built a fire for us to sit around and share a few conversations as the sky darkened above us, and the stars began to show us their brilliance. Zhao brought me some rice wine, but made sure that Tadashi didn’t swipe any for himself. He could be a crafty little devil when he wanted to be.
As we talked, I would occasionally catch Tadashi rubbing the lightly reddened mark on his forehead, and I was compelled to grin every time that I saw him do so. At one point, Tadashi asked, “Why didn’t you beat up those stupid bullies at the restaurant tonight? You could have easily beaten them all. They called you a coward and made you look weak.”
“Tadashi!” Zhao warned him for rudeness, but I took no offense.
“The only weakness comes from a loss of better judgement. The only cowardice, from not having the strength to make better choices.” I told him. “When you engage in battle, it is not just your enemy, but you as well, that is drawn into the conflict. It corrupts you both. I cannot control how they live their lives, but I can control how I live mine. If there is no war, there is no defeat. There is no shame in standing with grace. I had nothing to achieve from fighting with them.”
“But they called you names. You’re a Samurai warrior and they shamed you.”
“Shamed me?” I laughed. “I am here. With good wine, and good friends. The only shame is that they are too stubborn to join us.” I told Tadashi, “The greatest lesson that any true Samurai could ever learn is how to hold his blade in stillness. There will be many times during my travels when violence is needed, and can’t be avoided. I always thought it best to save my energy for those times instead.”
Zhao got up with a bit of a drunken stagger, and said, “I know what I’m saving my energy for…” And walked off to find a place to relieve himself.
Tadashi instantly scooted over to be close to me, shoulders and legs touching as he smiled at me with great admiration. “I’m glad you are here.” He said. “You can protect us. Nobody would dare come to our cottage with you around.”
Slightly bewildered, I asked, “Protect you? You live a very good life here. It doesn’t seem to me that you would need any protection at all.”
“That’s what they said the last time…” Tadashi’s face drooped with sorrow, and I asked him what was wrong. “Last year, the village people told me that the hooded ones would never hurt me or my family. That I was safe because grandfather had moved us out here into the fields. But they came for us anyway. They took my mother and father. They mostly take children, but sometimes they take others too. It’s almost time for them to come again.”
“They? Tadashi, I’m afraid that I don’t understand.”
“The hooded ones. They don’t always come to this village alone. But sometimes…when the moon is gone, and the sky is black…they raid our village. They take the children and they are never seen again. They take them up to the top of that mountain.” He said, pointing off into the distance. “That is where they are sacrificed to appease the blood gods. That is where they took my parents.”
“Tadashi!!!” Zhao snapped as he returned to the fire. “You must excuse the boy. He falls victim to fairy tales and rumors quite often.” As Tadashi gave his grandfather an angry and humiliated look from his comment, I found the boy’s story more believable than his elder’s story to discredit it.
We all put out the fire and went to bed shortly after, but something about what the boy said stayed with me. The ‘blood gods’. The title alone brought back memories of my brother’s final moments. And I wondered…if perhaps there were more of these demons walking the same plane of existence as the rest of us. And if so…how many?
In the days to come, Zhao, Tadashi, and I, continued our nightly fire lit conversations. It became quite the enjoyable tradition. And seeing as I didn’t drink as much as Zhao did, he was able to indulge without worrying about supervision for the boy once he was asleep.
One night, as the fire wood was low and I offered to go out and grab some more at sunset…something happened…
I was coming back to the field with a load of kindling and firewood on my shoulder, when I heard screams and chaos coming from the center of town. Zhao lived far enough away where, to hear such distress from that distance, must have meant serious trouble.
I dropped the fire wood and hurried off into the heart of the marketplace to see what was wrong. To my shock and awe, I witnessed a scene that looked as though it was right out of Tadashi’s worst nightmare.
Men…hooded men…each with black cloth obscuring their faces…were rounding up women and children in the center of the street. Tying them together with rope. Four, five, six, at a time.
And one of them…was Tadashi…
They began to march the collected group of crying and terrified villagers out of town…but did not see me standing there, blocking their exit.
“Move!!! All of you move!!!” They yelled, and pulled their victims along while the townspeople did nothing to stop them.
I saw tears on Tadashi’s frightened face, and my heart broke for him. This was a light that was not to be extinguished. A joy that was not to be sacrificed. Not while I still draw breath.
As the soldiers saw my silhouetted figure come into the light from the path before them…they stopped their advancement. Tadashi looked around his other captors to see me there, and his tears stopped. Almost on command. His face displayed confusion, first. Then surprise. Then joy.
“Step aside! This crowd is meant as tribute for the blood gods!” Their leader said.
I replied, “I am not from here, and I know not of any blood gods that need or deserve our tribute. But I cannot let you pass. Please, untie these good people and leave as you came.”
Taking a secretive hold of their swords, the other soldiers crept forward. “There can be no negotiations here. You will step side…or will meet your maker, right where you stand.”
I gripped the handle of my sword, praying that I would not have to unleash its blade to the exposure of the night air. “Meeting my maker is for destiny to decide. Not you.” I looked amongst them, counting their numbers. Ten total. Their power over these villagers was more a matter of fear and intimidation than anything truly lethal. I, on the other hand, was not cut from the same cloth. I told them, “If you let these women and children go, and leave with no further malice…then I give you my word, I shall draw no weapon against you.”
“And if we refuse?” The lead soldier asked.
“Then it is up to fate to determine your further passage. And we’ll see just how powerful these ‘blood gods’ of yours really are…”
There was a silent wind that passed between us. I had no intention of causing bloodshed. But they made their decision…and for the first time since I slayed my own brother…the gleam of my blade came to light.
The first soldier bolted forward with his sword held high. And with a single spin, and a lower strike…my sword sliced right through him. Flesh, muscle, tissue, bone. He ran a few steps behind me, but I held my pose. It was only his shadow, stretched out on the ground before me that let me know the dreadful outcome. I watched as my blade had cut his shadow clear in half. And his legs and chest fell into two different pieces on the road below.
An order was shouted, and four or five men attacked me at once. My muscle memory was much more advanced than anything that they could have ever prepared for. Limbs were easily severed from their host without resistance. My sword was one of the finest blades ever engineered by human hands. The flesh stood no chance against it.
I blocked each strike, slicing deep into my enemy without mercy. My mind was clear, and the spirit of a dragon took control. Taking on three soldiers at once proved easy. Without the intimidation, their skills with a sword were mediocre at best. The last one to face me, I used a backslash to cut clean through one leg and more than half way through the second, then piercing him through the chest before he even hit the ground. I pinned him to the dirt…waiting for the life to leave his unexpecting eyes…and withdrew my sword again. Angling it for another attack, if the others felt they would be brave enough to try.
I watched as the others ran off into the night, fearing that they would meet the same fate as their companions. Leaving their precious ‘cargo’ behind.
Whispers from the dazzled crowd surrounded me. I felt an intense sense of sorrow as I, once again, saw my blade dripping with blood.
I did not want this.
I lowered my head in respect to my fallen enemies, and it was then that I saw Tadashi being cut loose from his restraints. The first thing he did was run over to embrace me as hard as his young arms would allow, squeezing the breath from my lungs as he overflowed with gratitude.
“Thank you! Thank you! You SAVED me! You saved all of us! I knew you were sent here! I knew you would be our protector from the evil ones!”
I heard the people around me talking, and they said things like…
“I’ve never SEEN anyone move so fast!”
“They just ‘fell apart’! I never saw the cut happen!”
“Did you see it! It was like he could cut through the shadows themselves!”
But it was one comment in particular that caught my attention the most. It said, “They’ll be back! SOON! And in greater numbers! What then? They will surely slaughter us all for this betrayal! The blood gods will take vengeance! That is guaranteed!”
But as Tadashi held me close, crying softly into my chest with his arms around my waist, still trembling with a fear that a boy of his age should have no knowledge of…
I thought to myself…
“Let them come….”