The child lived with the blind old man for fifteen years. They shared a small hut deep in a remote and isolate bamboo forest. When she was old enough she took over tending the small vegetable patch that provided them with food, which was complemented by the presents pilgrims brought the old man. Yes, pilgrims came to visit him, not because he was once the head Sohei monk of the famous Enryakuji temple on mount Hiei, but because of his reputation of wisdom and his legendary ability of helping people advance on the path of holiness.
It was one of the hottest days of the year. The air was suffused with the primal smell of freshly turned soil and the brittle song of cicadas when the man entered the small clearing in the dense bamboo forest that sheltered the hut. She stood in the entrance and watched him enter the clearing. They wordlessly measured each other up as he approached…
She figured him to be in his thirties and seemed to be carrying nothing but a small bundle tied in a piece of cloth slung over his shoulder, the swords at his belt, and his worn travel clothes.
He saw her to be a child on the cusp of womanhood dressed in cheap work-clothes. Her shorn head marked her as an apprentice.
“Hello. I’ve come to see the old man.”
“You’re too late. My name is Takeko. I am his apprentice.” He only nodded once in response.
“You don’t look like a holy pilgrim.” she said.
“Appearances have their uses, but they should not be confused for truths.” His reply seems to amuse her grimly, partially for what it didn’t say, but also partially because of her special relationship with truth.
There was a moment of silence as they stared at each other waiting for the other say something. Something about the man’s intense gaze caused her speak first.
“My master died yesterday, I gave him the last rites and buried him this morning.”
The man’s expression did not change when he said, “I see… You have my condolences. Goodbye then.” And turned on his heel to leave.
“Wait! If you take me with you I’ll give you what my master could have given you.”
He stopped and turned around and looked at her coolly, “Are you qualified to succeed you master?”
“Yes I am. Come inside.”
He followed her within after removing his straw traveling sandals in the entrance.
She was seated on a zabuton (floor cushion) in front of a small laquer box.
“My master was a wise man, and as such he knew when to use this tool. I am not as wise as he, but this is all I can do. This is my master’s tool for aiding people on the path of holiness… Mostly, by his careful selection of candidates, he helped those on who he used this item. But sometimes it would create great anger within them and they would become violent. In which case it was my job to “see them out”. So I’m going to leave this box here and you are going to wait five minutes for me to get ready outside before opening it.”
“If you insist upon this, then go now.”
So Takeko exited the house leaving the strange man with the lacquer box. She had barely gotten to the edge of the clearing and notched an arrow in the string of her long bamboo bow when the sound of roaring laughter came from inside the house. None of the other pilgrims had ever reacted that way… But judging from the laughter she deemed it safe and ran back to the house. By the time reached the house the laughter had trickled to an amused chuckled. Within she found the man seated in front of the open box with the square of mirror-like black cloth on his knees.
The man composed himself and looked at her, “I wasn’t expecting a zen joke.”
“What do you mean? Did you look at the cloth? Didn’t you see anything within?”
“I saw my reflection of course. I suppose the message is: to find true holiness you must know yourself? Or something of that nature? Well, a true martial artist cannot afford to have any illusions. Asides from the laugh, this was not worth my time. I’m leaving.”
Takeko looked pensive as she quickly replaced the cloth in the box, “Alright, just give me a moment to pack some things.”
“Pack if you like, but you are not leaving with me.”
“I see… you never did say you would take me with you. How about this: you said you were a martial artist, if I defeat you in combat will you take me with you.”
The man paused, thought about it briefly, nodded agreement, and said: “You understand that I will not hold back and that you may die.”
She smiled grimly “I have no illusions. How about you, are you prepared to die?”
He smiled at her for the first time, “My name is Magunojo, Teruro Magunojo. I’ll be waiting for you outside in front of the house, come at me when you are ready. Do not make me wait too long.”
Picture found on pixdaus.