Puffed generals, vain
dolts and sly politicians;
Fools acting foolish.
Japan, the eighth year of Keicho, 1603
What do you want me to cut?”
The drunken samurai got unsteadily to his feet. He swayed from side to side, as if the platform beneath him were the rolling deck of a ship instead of the floor of a roadside teahouse. Pulling his katana, his long sword, from its scabbard, he held it before him like a necromancer’s divining wand, waving vague circles in the air as he waited for spiritual inspiration.
His companion sat on the tattered tatami mats of the common room’s floor. He was also a samurai, dressed in a creased gray kimono and holding a square wooden sakè cup in one hand. He looked about him, searching for a target for his friend’s wavering sword blade. With a burst of drunken inspiration, his gaze fixed on the sakè cup.
“Cut this,” he said, holding up the cup.
“Yes, let’s see you cut this. I’ll toss it in the air and you slice it in half.”
“In the air?”
“Of course! It’s no challenge if I put it down.” He gave a grin that revealed crooked brown teeth. “Wait a minute,” he said, bringing the cup to his lips so he could drain it of the last dregs. The smell of the fragrant wooden cup enhanced the taste of the cheap, milky white rice wine. “Ahh, that was good.”
It was early afternoon, but the two samurai had apparently been drinking for most of the day. In loud voices, they had challenged each other to a display of swordsmanship.
“All right,” the sitting samurai said to his companion. “Now, get ready.” He hefted the square cup with one hand. “Ichi, ni, san,” he counted; then he threw the cup up in the air. The cup tumbled in the air, with silver drops of sakè flying from it like the sparks from the pinwheels nailed to bridges during summer fireworks displays.
The standing samurai took a befuddled slice, and the wooden cup, untouched, tumbled to the worn tatami mats and bounced twice before coming to rest. The sitting samurai laughed uproariously.
“What’s so funny?”
“Well, let’s see you try it,” the swaying samurai said indignantly. He took exaggerated pains to insert the tip of his katana in his scabbard, his drunken state making this simple task, one of the most basic moves taught to beginning students of the sword, a sudden challenge. He finally got his blade into the scabbard and plopped back onto the mats.
His friend obligingly crawled over and picked up the cup. He stood as unsteadily on his feet as his companion had. Hefting the cup in one hand, he extracted his sword from its scabbard.
“Watch,” he said, tossing the cup up into the air.
Taking a wild, one-handed slice at the cup, he gave it a glancing blow that hit the cup and set it flying across the room, like a shuttlecock batted by a decorated battledore in the game of oibane.
The cup landed near a person who was sitting, sipping tea. It was a ronin, a masterless samurai, dressed in the kimono and hakama pants of a traveler. Unlike the two other samurai, he didn’t have a shaved pate. Instead, his hair was drawn back and tied in a topknot. He saw the cup flying toward him and, with nonchalant agility, he reached out with his free hand and grabbed the cup before it hit him. His other hand, holding the hot teacup to his lips, didn’t sway or spill a drop.
“Hey, give me the cup back,” the drunk roared.
“So you can play oibane with it again?” The ronin put his teacup down. Oibane was traditionally played by young girls on New Year’s Day, so the drunk viewed this as an insult.
“I’m not playing oibane with it,” the drunk said indignantly. “I’m trying to cut it. It’s a show of swordsmanship!”
The samurai looked at the cup carefully, turning it over in his hand. Then he said dryly, “You haven’t been too successful at it.”
“What’s your name?” the standing drunk demanded.
The ronin considered this question. The last time he had been formally asked this, he had been standing in the mountains. He had looked up and been struck by the beauty of the wind moving the pines on a mountainside. He had invented a name based on the beauty he had seen. He decided that the name he had given then was as good as any he could create today. “I’m Matsuyama Kaze,” he said.
“Wind on Pine Mountain?” the drunk said. “What kind of name is that?”
“What kind of name is any name?”
“Well, whatever your name is, let’s see you do better!”
“Why not?” Kaze said. In one fluid motion he stood and tossed the cup in the air without a second’s hesitation; then he took his sword out of its scabbard and smoothly drew his sword through the center of the falling wooden cup. The speed of the blow and the sharpness of the sword allowed Kaze to cleave the wooden cup in two while it was still in the air. The two pieces of the severed sakè cup hit the tatami mat just as Kaze was returning his katana to its scabbard.
“By the Lord Buddha, what luck!” the first samurai exclaimed.
“Oh, yes,” the second one said, “what a lucky blow!”
The ronin shook his head. “It was not a lucky blow. It’s what I intended to do.”
“It was a lucky blow,” the first drunk insisted. “You couldn’t do that again.”
Kaze shrugged. “If you say so. But it was not luck.”
“Come on. Come on. Let’s see another demonstration,” the second drunk said. He reached over and grabbed another cup.
“This silly game is not worth destroying the property of the innkeeper,” Kaze said.
Having consideration for the property of an innkeeper was an alien idea to the drunks. “What are you talking about? This is just an innkeeper’s cup. We’re samurai!”
“Yes,” the second drunk said. “We should be able to do what we want. And besides,” he continued, “that cut of yours was simply luck.”
Kaze smiled and shrugged. “If you say so.”
“Are you still saying it wasn’t luck?” the first drunk said argumentatively.
“It was whatever you decide.”
“I’m drunk,” the first samurai said, “but don’t talk down to me.”
“Gomen nasai. I’m sorry,” Kaze apologized.
“Look, you couldn’t cut something in the air like that again.”
“I could if I wished to.”
The first drunk laughed. “But you don’t wish to.”
“No, not really.”
“That’s because you can’t do it,” the second one said.
“But I can,” Kaze said mildly.
“All right, let’s see you do it again,” the first one said. “We’ll pick something for you to cut in midair and let’s see you do it again.”
“And if I do it will you stop bothering me?” Kaze asked.
“Of course, of course,” the drunken samurai said reasonably.
“All right,” Kaze said, “what is it you want me to cut in midair?”
The first one looked slyly at his companion, then pointed to a fly buzzing in the room. “Let’s see you cut that,” he said with a guffaw.
“Yes, cut the fly. Cut the fly,” the second one laughed.
Kaze said nothing but stared at the two samurai for a few seconds. Then he walked away. Behind him he could hear the raucous laughter of the two drunks.
Kaze stepped out of the teahouse and looked up at the sky. It looked like a piece of rough, gray mulberry paper that had been streaked with an ink wash. The puffy dark slashes delineated clouds heavy with rain, much as a brush heavy with black ink would be used to paint such clouds.
Kaze could smell the thick scent of rain and feel the oppressive pressure of a gathering storm. He thought about returning to the tea-house to seek shelter. He knew he could will himself to ignore the two drunks; he would simply draw the internal curtain that allowed a Japanese to not see what he was seeing and not hear what he was hearing. Sometimes pretending not to see or hear was what allowed Japanese society to function.
Although he could ignore the drunks, he couldn’t ignore himself. He was upset at himself for wanting to display his prowess with a sword, cutting a sake cup in midair. It was a weakness in himself, and he hated weakness. He could hear the voice of his sword teacher, his Sensei, saying, “When you play with fools, you act like a fool. When you act like a fool, you are one.”
Kaze could ill afford to draw attention to himself by engaging in foolishness with a couple of drunken buffoons. There were fifty thousand ronin wandering Japan, most of them displaced by a great civil war when they ended up on the losing side. Some had turned to banditry, others had already given up the warrior’s life for farming or trading, and many were still seeking employment with one of the victorious lords who had supported the winning Tokugawa clan. A few were still sought by the Tokugawas as enemies. Kaze was one of these few.
Kaze decided to continue his journey, and when it rained, he would simply get wet. Standing outside the teahouse, he stood looking up and down the wide dirt path that formed the Tokaido Road. This dusty strip of soil joined Japan’s past with its future. At one end of the Tokaido Road was Kyoto, the ancient capital for almost eight hundred years and the home of the Emperor. At the other end of the Tokaido Road was Edo, the new capital and the stronghold of the Tokugawas, the new rulers of Japan. Kaze stood physically and metaphorically between the old and the new, longing for a happier past but unafraid of a harsh future.
Before the civil war, the Tokaido Road had been thick with traffic, with travelers sometimes walking shoulder to shoulder at congested spots. During the civil war traffic had dropped precipitously. Since the Tokugawa victory almost three years before and the subsequent uneasy peace, traffic was beginning to increase, although the danger from bandits made a journey still precarious. Often only a few brave merchants, ronin, ne’er-do-wells and bandits were found along the road. Sometimes it was difficult to tell one from the other.
Kaze had been wandering Japan for almost three years, searching for the kidnapped nine-year-old daughter of his former Lord and Lady. Recently he had come across a clue to the girl’s possible location, a scrap of cloth with the Lord’s mon, or family crest, of three plum blossoms. This cloth was given to him by an unlikely group, a trio led by a grandmother who was on an officially sanctioned vendetta. With a serious grievance, it was possible to get the government to sanction private revenge.
Apparently this grandmother had obtained such a sanction. She proclaimed her mission with a headband emblazoned with the kanji character for “revenge,” and in his earlier encounter with her at another teahouse, Kaze had found her as fierce and willful as any samurai. The obaasan, the grandmother, was accompanied on her mission of vengeance by her fifteen-year-old grandson and an old servant who looked like a bag of bones.
The grandmother said she was looking for a merchant who traveled the Tokaido Road, so Kaze had also come to the great road, seeking the trio in an effort to learn more about where they had found the cloth with his Lord’s family crest.
Now that he was at the Tokaido, he had no idea which direction to go; toward Kyoto or toward his enemy’s stronghold of Edo? He had asked about the trio at the teahouse but had received no information from the proprietor. The teahouse owner had assured Kaze he would remember the group described, but it was only a matter of chance that any group traveling the Tokaido would stop at a particular roadside teahouse.
Kaze picked a stick off the ground. He removed the small ko-gatana knife that he kept in a groove in his scabbard and quickly cut a point on one end of the stick. Returning the ko-gatana, he threw the stick in the air, watching it tumble end over end before it hit the dirt road. The point was aimed toward Edo.
Squaring his shoulders, Kaze took his katana out of his sash and rested it on one shoulder, as one might carry a musket. He turned toward Edo and started walking down the Tokaido with the long gait of a man used to covering great distances on foot.
Once out of the village, the Tokaido Road turned into a wandering path that cut through forest, mountains, and fields. It usually took two weeks for a man to make the journey from Kyoto to Edo, although a fast dispatch could make the journey in three to four days, exchanging horses and sometimes riders at one of the fifty-three stations along the road.
Kaze had come out of the mountains near Edo. He had been in the mountains for months, methodically checking villages, looking for the girl. The tedious searching had not discouraged him. Now that he had finally come across the scrap of cloth that might be a connection to the girl, it was as if it was only the first day of his search, not almost the third year.
This section of the Tokaido was in rolling hills, with tall trees bordering the path. Sometimes the branches of the flanking trees merged, making the road a leafy tunnel. Kaze had walked sections of the Tokaido Road before, and he knew that in the heat of summer the wooded canopy that sometimes covered the road was a welcome shelter against the sun. Patches of blue were scattered throughout the branches, and spots of gold sunlight dotted the road, mirroring the bits of sky.
Today, with the threatening skies, the leafy tunnels were dark holes filled with unpleasant possibilities. Even in the open sections, the dark day made the road uninviting and gloomy. Kaze saw no others as he walked. He surmised that other travelers must be discouraged by the bad weather and holed up like badgers.
Kaze looked up at the roiling clouds and saw that the streaks of black were sweeping toward the earth. It was already raining behind him, and soon it would be raining on him. He decided that it would take a man driven by some great need, just as he was, to be traveling the Tokaido in this weather.
I saved a red fox
from a snake. The fox bit me.
Good can bring evil.
Help! Somebody help! They’re killing us!”
The plea was punctuated by the distinctive clang of sword blades crashing against each other. The anguished shout and the sound of battle floated over the hillside ahead of Kaze.
Curious, Kaze ran across a small stone bridge and up to the top of the hill, using the gliding run of a man in Japanese straw sandals. At the hill’s apex, he stopped and looked down at the tableau spread before him.
Men were locked in desperate battle, like the bunraku puppets of a samurai drama. But in a bunraku the figures are coordinated. A black-robed master puppeteer moved each figure with one or two assistants, also clad in black, who trailed behind the puppeteer like the wings of a crow.
Kaze’s practiced eye could see that here there was no coordination, no plan of battle other than brute force and the weight of numbers.
Eight men were attacking four. The four formed a tight knot around a pushcart. One of the four was standing on the pushcart, an older man dressed as a merchant. He was the one crying for help.