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Kurokuma


I awoke to the worst hangover experienced by man. Sunlight boring straight through my eyelids aggravated the throbbing in my skull. Trying to roll over I discovered a weight pinning me on my back. Somebody passed out on me at the end of the party, I thought. Laying back, waiting while the throbbing eased, I heard horses galloping nearby, screams, arquebus shots. No way to act toward one's host just because the sake ran out. Sake, ah that's what I needed. Hair of the dog, as the foreign barbarian Portuguese said. Maybe they were hosting the party. That would explain the rude noises I heard. Thinking about that used up my energy, and for a while I didn't think again.

I opened my eyes, groaned at the brightness of the setting sun. I tried lifting my head to wake the fellow reveler who weighted me down. The throbbing changed to a carpenter's awl, point spinning just behind my ear. Pain robbed my eyes of sight. After a few deep, centered breaths, the carpenter went away and the throbbing resumed. I tried rolling my head slowly side to side. That was just manageable.

I saw men in armor sprawled about in all directions. On my right lay another man, face down in the mud. Mud? Yes, it was cold and wet answered another part of me. The man's arm lay across my chest. The hand gripped a broken sword. Lifting my arm I saw I too wore armor. It must have been some party. Closing my eyes again, relaxing, trying to ignore the fire that burned between my ears, I slowly reached for memories. I could remember a name, but was it mine? It fit an image of my father, also samurai; but somehow didn't quite seem to fit me.

Rumbling in the ground, felt before I heard it. A score of horsemen galloped past, hooves lashing the turf half an arm from my head, clods of earth raining down. The thunder of their passage was a storm surge washing down my body and up my legs and urging my stomach to heave itself out of my throat. It not being worth the effort to resist, I pulled my psychic walls closed and sank into my psychic futon. Resting my head on my psychic pillow, the world went away.

I awoke the next time suddenly, with only a mild ache behind my left ear. Silence, neither the sound of night birds nor crickets filled the air. Then what had disturbed me. Why was I sleeping out in this field and who held me down?

"Tsuji san, are you there?" The name which fit my father.

"Who calls?"

"Tsuji san, it's me, Takafuji. Can you move? Are you injured? I think the Tokugawa are gone for now." Takafuji? Fuzzy memories, an image of a tall thin man, a friend, formed to that name. We lived---in the south, on a small island. Why would the Tokugawa be here? They lived far to the north, on the Kanto Plain.

I tried to sit up, managed to push the weight off my chest. The world spun, but slowly, manageably. I looked up. My friend lay on his back at my feet, surrounded by the detritus of war. I looked around. That proved to be a mistake because it accelerated the earth's spin. Vertigo led to nausea led to the discovery my stomach was empty. After an eternity of dry heaves I fought my center back into my belly. Sweating, chilled, I collapsed back into my blissful psychic futon.



A cold nose and a warm tongue washing my face woke me. "That is enough, Toshi," I said, opening my eyes. An Akita dog continued anointing me, but not my favorite from Father's best breed bitch.

"What is it, Meicho?" A face in the moonlight, behind the dog. "Eldest Son, over here." The face approached. "Samurai, can you hear?" Looters, stripping the dead on the battlefield. I reached for my dagger. "Leave your tanto in it's scabbard, samurai. My name is Mitzsake, and I am a physician. I am here to aid you." Help? The world moved too fast again.

"How did...what happened?"

"There has been a battle here. The damn Tokugawa are making entirely to much business for me. Can you move? It is dangerous here. There are looters, and the Tokugawa have patrols out hunting for the remnants of the Western Army. Try to stand."

It wasn't easy. First I sat. Hands helped strip my armor off, wrapped my obi around me again. My tanto was pushed back into my obi. Without the aid of two Mitzsake sons, I could not remain vertical. With their help it was barely possible. We started to leave. "Wait," I said. The doctor looked at me, obviously eager to be off the field of dead. "There is another, a...a friend, he is also alive."

"We will find him. Go, sons." A nightmare trip through the dark to the doctor's house followed. My feet were as far away as the moon. The ground heaved and shook. With each step my head felt like a blank of steel between a swordsmith's anvil and hammer. Brush slapped my face. Mitzsake's sons supported me, but I knew they could carry me faster. Nausea cramped my muscles. We moved through a small army of gnomes. More of Mitzsake's sons, covering our trail, watching for Tokugawa patrols. The world spun faster, unfocused, slowed.

Shimmering walls steadied a warm, steamy bathroom about me. A solidly built woman sucked her teeth as she took off my cloths, washed me gently of mud and grime, dried sweat and blood. A small crucifix on a silk cord dangled around her neck. She helped me into luxurious pain of deep, hot water. It hurt more than anything since I first woke with the world's worst hangover. Pain overcoming pain slowly melted into numbness. After the bath, I slept.


A cold nose and a warm tongue; I opened my eyes to a black nose belonging to the Akita who had so politely awakened me. She was a bitch with a most unusual brindle coat. Her tail cut a saucy spiral over her back. "Ohaiyo gozaimasu," I said to her. She stretched (or did she bow?) and sat.

"Her name is Meicho," said a six year old girl dressed in a flower-printed pink kimono, "and we have seven puppies." I sat up, wrapping myself in the kimono blanket. Meicho busily dusted an otherwise perfect tatami with her tail. Rain beat a kabuki tattoo across the roof.

"Where," I asked, "is the otearai?" Following the youngster to the toilet I performed morning necessities. Meicho attended me the entire time, though the girl waited politely outside. While leading me on a detour back to my room, she explained that Meicho liked me and wanted me to see their puppies. I politely refrained from telling her Meicho could hardly know me well enough wish me to view her pups. The girl obviously wouldn't leave me be until I did so.

I could hear them before we rounded the corner. Not since I'd left my father's house had I been in the near vicinity of a litter of young puppies. There were seven of them, about six weeks old. Stalking and pouncing on each other they filled the morning with fierce growls of mock combat. I could hardly move without stepping on one. Moving among them Meicho quickly restored a semblance of order.

They swarmed their mother looking for a fresh milk breakfast. She gathered them in and lay down to suckle. Meicho gazed into my eyes and I began to believe that indeed Utai was correct. There was no challenge in her eyes. She wanted me to meet her pups. One in particular caught my eye, jet black with a mahogany mask covering muzzle, lower legs and paws.

"I thank you for the honor, Meicho. I find your brood as handsome a litter as I've ever seen, worthy of your breeding. Excuse me for being so rude now, but I must leave to return to my room."

The lady of the house waited there. She chided her daughter Utai for taking so long, sent her scurrying to bring breakfast. Utai and her mother served me in the six mat room in which I lodged. The wall common to the rest of the large, U-shaped house was a tokonoma and writing stand; shoji formed the three outer walls. The wall now open overlooked the well tended inner garden, merging quietly with the view of mountains above the valley. Far above the house a stream in a gash where the valley closed fell to break into mist at the top of a sloping wall. It flowed down the wall in a sheet. Disappearing into trees, it reappeared as a small trickle that flowed through the garden. The simple beauty of it offset the pungence of excessive garlic in the food.

Mitzsake-sama was rather well off, considering the size of the house and compound.

Mitzsake's wife told me her husband had found my friend and was in surgery with him in the adjacent clinic. Then she removed the breakfast dishes. The inner garden made a generous space for the children and puppies to play. Sliding a shoji on the opposite wall open a crack I saw an entry garden bordered by a high wooden fence. Opening another shoji I found a rather small side garden barely big enough for a stepping stone path and a flower bed. Half-blinds hanging from the eaves hid the top of the outer wall. A bamboo windchime stirred in the breeze. I heard in their music the murmur of an armored army on a forced march.

Memories slippery as fresh caught eels, I could recall with no difficulty home, my parents, my older brothers. Others required an effort to form, then assumed pristine clarity. Going into service with a southern clan with my friend, Takafuji. We fought together in Korea. When we returned to the island of our clan I served as night watchman. Then nothing until I woke with what I thought to be a hangover.

Small paws touched my legs bringing me back from my reveries. The tan-masked black puppy stood before me, forelegs in my lap, wagging tail shaking his hindquarters. They were still too young to know their sex without close examination. I refrained from picking any of them up lest I frighten them so that they would never approach me. Offering a hand the puppy reared up, forepaws catching my finger. I could see he was a boy. Six weeks old, his forepaws spanned from my fingertip almost to the base of my thumb. Looking deeply into each other's eyes our souls touched. I saw the world all fresh, anew; interesting and mine to explore.

"That one is Kurokuma, but I call him Kuma for short." I looked up at Utai as the pup climbed into my lap. "He likes you."

"Do you know how he feels?"

"I can see. He came to you."

"You don't think that I will hurt him?"

"Meicho knows you won't hurt our puppies, and I trust her."

"I see," I replied. She smiled, turned and rejoined the rest of the litter at play. I returned my regard to Kurokuma, licking my finger. "I am honored to meet you, Black Bear. You already fit your name. Have patience and you will grow into your paws." He nipped my finger softly. Leaping out of my lap, he ran to rejoin his littermates with a most serious and hilarious bouncing gait.


Mitzsake joined me that afternoon. Kurokuma napped by my side on the veranda, his mother nearby us in the garden. She stood when her master approached, and he spent a short time petting her before he greeted me. "How do you feel?"

"My head aches, not too badly. It disturbs me more that I cannot recall how I came to be here."

"You don't remember my sons bringing you here?"

"I remember," I said, nodding, "and that my master joined the Western Army. I have no memory past that of a forced march."

The physician chuckled. "Not unusual following a head injury. You are in my house in the village of Sekigahara. I don't think your skull was broken. You are very lucky, but do not be shocked by what you see in a mirror the next time you look. Do you remember your name?"

"I am Tsuji Ryuzo, sometimes called Bannin, serving Sakura Osama, daimyo of the Dragon clan. My friend is Takafuji Jutte."

"Where does your head hurt, Tsuji sama?" I pointed to the left side of my head, behind my ear. He nodded. "I think that was where you were injured."

"Is my friend alive?"

"Yes. He sleeps. For now, rest is the best thing for both of you."

"I have been admiring your dogs, kind sir. Your daughter took the liberty of showing them to me." He smiled.

"Yes, Utai was born the same year as Meicho. She looks upon her as a sister, perhaps because she has only brothers."

"My father had a kennel. I enjoyed helping him with the dogs a great deal. When we would go hunting he would say, 'I want two bear today, Son. Go pick out two Akitas for us.'"

"Ah, so desu. They are brave, aren't they. I too learned from my father, and have been breeding Akitas for two score of years."

"Who owns the sire of Meicho's litter?"

"An old friend of mine name of Kurahara. This will probably be her last. She is getting old."

Mitzsake placed two bullets on the tatami between us. "Your friend will recover full use of his limbs," he said. "He was wounded in right hip and left shoulder. No bones were broken, though I think his shoulder may have been dislocated. He too is very lucky."

"I thank you, honorable physician. We have nothing with which to repay your kindness."

"Do not concern yourselves. My wife is Christian, and insists on helping others in charity. I am Buddhist, and find no fault in collecting good karma to offset my burden." Mitzsake's two eldest sons brought Jutte to the room on a litter. The doctor examined him, then satisfied as to his condition, took his leave.


Shaking, the world is shaking with the frenzy of two armies in battle lust. Spears and swords clashing but there is no noise. Silent flashing arquebus belching gunsmoke and armored figures falling in mimes death. Red Demon mempo appearing before me I counter the spear thrust at my neck. The spear shaft coming around, lurching earth buckles my knees. In lightning thunderclap my spirit leaves the shaking world.

I opened my eyes. It was Jutte shaking me. He leaned close, whispered "Ryuma, there are Koreans outside." His face dripped perspiration and I could feel fever radiating from him. He quieted when I sat up. We could hear the murmur of voices in the entry garden. I slid closer to the wall. Through shoji ears the murmur became words.

"Where is Kurahara sama?" Mitzsake asked. "He is the local Magistrate. I will permit him to search my house, no one else."

"We have our orders, Physician. The area is crawling with fugitives. Many are wounded, and we must search your house." A Tokugawa patrol! I took a breath to relax, made an inventory of our weapons. We each still had our tanto. Little enough with which to face enemies. Brute force would not be the answer.

I took another breath, centering deep as ever, thinking: one time in one's life. Breath gently as a host at tea who waits, so still, for his guests. Stretch the limits of my inhalation to the very walls of the garden. Ride the breeze back to my center, caressing my guests with welcoming fingers of air. Draw them deep into my tea garden. Feel at one with them.

There were three, plus the physician. Mitzsake was still talking to them, stalling. Breathing slowly, I calmly placed the three samurai where they stood in the garden. The shoji glowed as the conversation outside became more heated. Jutte muttered again about Koreans, giving me inspiration.

"I tell you again, this is my house and you may not enter." I felt a thumb twitch, heard the unmistakable sound of a hibaki clearing sword scabbard. I slid open the shoji with a bang.

"Wait!" I commanded. The tableau froze, three samurai, one with sword ready to cut, and Mitzsake, all looking at me. Disheveled from a nap, face bruised. I stood and walked out onto the veranda. "Why do you fight amongst yourselves when there are Koreans at the gate?"

"What are you talking about?" asked the swordsman. I stepped off the veranda. The tip of the sword followed me as I walked out into the entry garden.

"The Koreans, you fool. You allow your tensions to goad you into petty squabbles when we are under siege. I suggest you save your fighting spirit for the enemy."

"What is this?" asked the swordsman.

"This is Bannin. He is Magistrate Kurahara's deputy," replied Mitzsake. "He fought in Korea, where he received severe head wounds. He suffers from fits periodically, spells when he believes himself still in Korea." I faced the swordsman, thankful Mitzsake unknowningly backed up my plan.

"Put away your sword, Suzuki san."

"I'm not Suzuki, he is. You stay out of this. We are only following orders."

"Whose orders? I issued no orders permitting duels. Put away your sword." We locked eyes. I willed him to scabbard his blade. He faltered, turned to Mitzsake.

"Tell him to stay out of this. We will search your house now." I stepped toward him. He spun and raised his sword. Entering his space, pivoting I matched his breath and took hilt in hand. Exhaling I cut and threw him over my hips. He rolled, stood facing me with empty hands.

"I told you to put your sword away. Place yourself on report," I said. With a battlecry the second samurai drew and cut at my head, sliced air singing where I had stood. I stuck the sword in my hand into the ground behind him. We four danced a Noh play battle as each of us spun and twisted and I took their blades, leaving them point down in the earth. I walked among them laughing, and they tumbled time and again to the ground. Gasping, their breath came raggedly as I took my strength from them. Cut and slash and thrust, they could not touch me. For they couldn't cut themselves, and we were one. I was laughing with a wonderful transcendent discovery. The soul is the sword of the samurai.

Blend with the first, touching him here, set him on the grass. Breath with the second touching him thus and place him next to his comrade. Reach with the third touching him so and lay him in line with the others.

Mitzsake looked from one to the other to me. "They are only unconscious. We have several hours to deal with them," I said.

"I thank you for saving my life, honorable samurai. I have no way to repay your kindness." I smiled.

"Do not concern yourself. I am Buddhist, and find no fault in collecting good karma to offset my burden."

Mitzsake called his sons. The three oldest carried unconscious bodies into the clinic. The next two younger took the weapons into the house. Sixth Son took a message to Kurahara. The youngest three cleaned the garden. It was as if no one passed through that afternoon. I stepped back into my room, closed the shoji. Jutte lay asleep on his futon.


Magistrate Kurahara came by early that evening, accompanied by his dog and the first swordsman from the patrol. They called me into the room.

"Is this the man you complained about, Watanabe san?" asked Kurahara. The Tokugawa retainer would not look at me.

"Hai, Kurahara sama."

"This is my night watchman. I am sure Mitzsake san told you he distinguished himself in Korea. Despite his head injuries I must keep him on in that position because his family has been in service to mine for an unmeasurable time, and this is something he can do.

"If he found it necessary to disarm you this afternoon, then I am quite sure there was good cause. Perhaps I need to speak with your commander?" I sat breathing and meditating, quietly willing the samurai to believe.

"No, Kurahara sama, that will not be necessary. It still remains that I have orders to search all the houses in the village. It will be difficult to explain if I do not include this one."

"Ah, but Magistrate Kurahara is here," Mitzsake said. "I told you I would permit him to search my house. Perhaps he would be kind enough to allow you to accompany him."

He nodded his agreement. Then the three of them stood and commenced to tour the house. I remained seated.

It is incredible that that samurai didn't hear the faint tread of footsteps scurrying about. Perhaps the walls of the house always separated them. Yet the proverb says paper walls have ears. I knew where Mitzsake's sons went as they carried Jutte from place to place. They traded off the burden; each son bowed politely to Kurahara and the Tokugawa inspector in turn.

Following the search they returned to the place where I sat lost in another world. The Tokugawa man thanked Mitzsake for his cooperation and departed. Kurahara and Mitzsake looked at each other, and laughed.

"Mitzsake tells me you are familiar with Akitas, Tsuji san."

"Hai, Kurahara sama."

"How many does one need to hunt deer?"

"Only one, sir."

"And to hunt bear?"

"Usually only one also, sir, but that may depend on the dogs. A mated pair sometimes work together very well."

Kurahara sipped green tea which Mitzsake's wife had poured for him. He nodded.

"That is true. I wish you a speedy recovery and a safe journey home, Tsuji san. Now forgive me for being so rude but I must leave." He thanked Mitzsake for the tea, bowed and left.


Jutte's fever broke the next day. His arm bound to his side, Mitzsake insisted he get up and exercise his leg. After a few days he could walk with the aid of a staff. In a week's time Jutte began to exercize his arm. Mitzsake was pleased with both our progress.

I spent the days watching and playing with the puppies, especially Kuma. They grew rapidly in size and strength, but it would be some time before they outgrew their clumsiness. Isn't that true of all growing beings? Until we learn to control our bodies, all of us are puppies falling over our own feet.

A month passed. Mitzsake pronounced us fit to travel. He gave us a farewell party. We had quite a feast. The sake pitchers never seemed to empty, though I have no idea how his wife managed this feat. It was very drunk out that evening. We ate and drank and sang old songs late into the night. Kuma joined us early. I shared bits of my meal with him. He wanted to try sake also, but I told him he was too young.

Mitzsake poured me a cup. "I have watched you, Tsuji sama, admire my dogs since you have been here. You have a way with them. They respect you, even Meicho. You won't believe this, she is so friendly with you, but she is very particular about who cares for her offspring. Kurokuma has spent more time with you over the last two weeks then with his littermates. They are ten weeks old. It is time they find new homes. As I do not think he will stay with anyone else, I give Kurokuma to you."

I bowed to the floor. The growing bond between myself and Kuma had, in truth, begun to concern me. I did not want to leave him; had nothing to exchange for him. I too believed he would have tried to accompany me when I left. The parting would be painful.

"I will endeavor to train him in a manner worthy of his first master and of his parents." Mitzsake returned the bow.

His wife poured green tea. Utai served us vegetables and tofu in sukiyaki sauce. We sang more songs. After a time I went out to the veranda to clear my head. Jutte joined me, bringing another pitcher of sake.

"You have changed, Ryuzo. I can feel it. There is a peace in your spirit." He poured sake for us. We drank. "Tell me about it."

"Tsuji Ryuzo died on the field at Sekigahara, my friend. I do not understand what happened, and I am describing this badly." I took another drink. "I feel I no longer need the sword. You know, as we practice together, for some time I have not held a sword in hand so much as it became part of my arm. Now it isn't even part of my arm. It is as if I am the sword, and the sword is me. Yet the sword cuts no one, but remains in the saya. I have done nothing."

"Precisely," he said pouring more sake, holding his cup in toast. "To enlightenment. Brilliant, blinding, its leaves us miserable as ever." We drank.

"May I ask you something, Jutte? You were feverous, delirious when the patrol almost found us here. We have been friends for some time. My memory is probably wrong, but when you woke me to give warning you called me Ryuma. Could this be so?" We drank more sake in silence. I began to think that perhaps my friend had decided not to answer after all, had politely not heard my question.

"My younger brother and I were rather close. He was always trying to emulate me at archery and fencing. One day, I was showing off to my father at horseback archery, standing on the saddle rather than in the stirrups, yet still placing all my arrows in the targets. Ryuma tried to do the same." Jutte sipped at his cup. "He would be your age had he not fallen and broken his neck."

We drank again. I thought about what Jutte had just told me, considering the reflections on our friendship. In drunkenness friends share the deepest of secrets, but always as a trade.

"We have both lost brothers, my friend. You feel responsible for your brother's accident. Who is to say? It is interesting that my Elder Brother would be your age had the Wheel turned differently. He attempted to kill me, and I defended myself. When it was over he was dead." We drank some more after that, watching the moon traverse the sky until Mitzsake served rice, closing the party.


A cold nose and a warm tongue and puppy toes pulling my hair. I opened my eyes. One day, Kuma, I will grant your wish, I thought. You will know sake, and then you will know the morning after.

Time for us to leave, Master, he replied. With new cloths and our tanto hidden we looked the part of pilgrims. We stood in the entry garden. Jutte bowed to our host.

"Mitzsake-sama, without your aid we would not have survived. Please take these offerings as humble tokens of our thanks." He set our two tanto on the veranda. Mitzsake motioned his wife to return them.

"You have already done more than I can repay with these simple things." He set out a small, heavy package which Kuma wouldn't let me leave without picking up. It was a very generous gift of food, enough to keep the three of us fed for five days. Bowing again, we turned and walked through the gate and down the road.

Our plan was to act as pilgrims, seeking lodging at shrines and temples, making offerings at each. At the first temple where we stopped a monk remembered us from Takafuji-in. He forged travel passes for us which verified our pilgrimage. Tokugawa patrols watched the roads, but had not yet fully consolidated their control.

Jutte said that being young Kuma would slow us down, but he kept quiet after the first checkpoint. Local officers charmed by the antics of a mostly well behaved Akita puppy stamped our passes without checking them closely. The passes acquired more prestige with each new stamp. Our journey proved uneventful.

After three and a half weeks on the road, two pilgrims and a tired Akita puppy boarded a ship. We found our friend Sakura Tetsuo in command of the clan upon our arrival at Azeitoshima. His father had fallen as the Clan fought beside the Satsuma clan to escape the debacle of Sekigahara.

Sakurajo bustled with activity as the clan inventoried equipment and provisions. Tetsuo ordered us to receive certain reports. Obviously he trusted the Tokugawa to be as generous to the vanquished as the Minamoto had been to the Taira in the Gempei War, centuries before.

When we asked about his eldest brother Buichi, all Tetsuo would say was that he died on the way home of wounds received.


There.

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Comments

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
firesmithsghost
Dec. 14th, 2008 11:52 pm (UTC)
So what are you going to do with this? Obviouly you've been thinking about it for quite some time. It would make one hell of a movie, no doubt!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
fatfred
Dec. 15th, 2008 12:13 am (UTC)

"Quite some time"?
It's a story longer than you know.
Heheheheh.

Jutte and Tetsuo are very old friends of us both.
( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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