August 31, 2010

Okurokami - part 10

The waning moon’s light made it seem more as if the shadow of a sail ship squatted in the middle of the cove than an actual ship.

“What are we doing here?” Takeko wondered out loud.
“Well, as I recall, your visions didn’t exactly give me concrete directions on what to do next. It’s a good thing the shinobi network told me where to find the Portuguese ship.”
“Shinobi network?”
“A network of spies the government has planted throughout the country.”
“Oh, is that why at least 5 strange animals came right up to you while we were walking.”
“Hmm? Oh yes, they are trained to deliver messages so that I don’t have to meet the shinobi. They’re very secretive…”

They stood in front of one of the handful of ramshackle driftwood huts built on the shore.

“It’s too quiet… These huts are empty, and you’d think everyone was out fishing except…”
“Except that their boats are still pulled up on the beach.” Teruro finished.
“And something is wrong… with this village and with that boat…”
Teruro looked at Takeko briefly and said, “I think that the villagers were all shot and buried nearby.”
Takeko looked thoughtful for a moment and shrugged. “We should see if they have any food we could take.”
“We’ll see about that after we find out if the Portuguese still have the book, or if they don’t, who they sold it to. So help me get this boat into the water.”

Teruro sculled the single oared fishing boat out to the anchored Portuguese ship that loomed besides them. Its sails were furled and it was completely still and quiet in the water.

“Hmph. For it to be this quiet either that ship is deserted, the crew is dead, or they are waiting in ambush.” Teruro said. He smirked and whispered to himself “Lets go see which one.” He quickly made his way up the rope ladder and disappeared onto the ship.

Takeko strung her bow and shouldered her quiver. “I wonder if the Portuguese eat umeboshi?” She shrugged and followed Teruro up the ladder.

The deck was dark and deserted. And after a few minutes of poking around, they came to the conclusion that no one was on board.

“I’m going to search the captain’s cabin to see if I can’t find something useful. Stay here.” With that Teruro walked down the deck.

“And while you’re doing that I’m going to see what I can find in the ship’s galley” Takeko said to herself, moving in the opposite direction.

Portuguese ship (detail), attributed to Kano Naizen (1570-1616)

August 12, 2010

Okurokami - part 9

Teruro nodded, “Yes, it is the same man.”

The early afternoon sun streamed into the restaurant through the sliding window and Teruro eyeballed the fourth ronin who was walking towards them. He glanced over at Takeko to see if she had noticed, only to see that she had already eaten all her food. He wondered how someone that small could possibly eat that fast.

“I’m going to see if I can get more food from the kitchen!” Takeko announced as she started to walk away from the table.
“What about the ronin?” Teruro whispered.
“What about them? You don’t need me to take care of those three.” She said over her shoulder
“What about the one walking towards us?”
“He’ll be interesting, but harmless for now,” she concluded before ducking into the kitchen.

Teruro pondered that he had a lot to learn about his new traveling companion when he noticed a fly on his noodles. In fact a number of them were idling above his plate. He frowned and pushed the bamboo plate away while eying the widely smiling ronin who had reached his table and had sat down in front of him.

“I see your clothes have dried…” Teruro said mildly.
“Yup. I’d offer you some fish but we already ate it. Speakin’ of eating- since you aint eating that, dja mind if I do?" the young man inquired, nodding towards the plate of noodles.
Teruro shrugged and pushed the plate of noodles, the dipping sauce, and the bowl of chopped spring onions across the table.

The young man grabbed a pair of chopsticks and plucked the fly off the noodles and then in as many stabs caught four more flies in mid-flight that he put down next to the fly from the noodles in a neat little row on the table. He grinned and put the chopsticks on the table, got another pair and was about to dig in when three consecutive "Hsst!" interrupted him. The scrawny-necked ronin had turned their sly looking, sallow faces towards Teruro’s table.

"Excuse me, I think they want me to go over there." the youth said blandly as he went to join the three ronin at the door with the plate of noodles in one hand and chopstick in the other.

"Well… This is interesting." Teruro thought to himself. Whatever outrage he might have felt at the ronin's impudence had been replaced with curiosity.

Meanwhile the ronin had finished whispering at the young man, who grinned and loudly replied, "Sure I'll tell him!"
The three ronin looked nervous and seemed startled at the sound of the young man's voice.
“You do that… We’ll be waiting outside.” By the time the young man had calmly made his way to Teruro’s table, they had slunk out.

"Those guys want me to tell ya something.”
“Yeah, that they’re offerin’ to entertain you at their campsite and to wine you and dine you too. They say that their low status forbids’em from askin’ ya in person, but they’d “greatly appreciate the honor of entertaining such a noble guest”." the young man said using a funny voice to quote the ronins.
"Why do you think they want me to come out?" Teruro asked mildly.
"I suppose they wanna draw you out to the nearby woods, where they've been campin’ with twenty of their friends, then kill you and finally steal your stuff. In other words, I'd say it's a trap. Though of course, even forty of them wouldn't stand a chance against you." The young man replied evenly, grinning broadly as he cleaned his chopsticks with a handkerchief.

Teruro took a long speculative look at the young man, showing none of the amusement he felt at the idea of those pitiful excuses for ronin killing him. He tried to guess what his intentions were, what he was after, what he was worth. He also took note of the man's grimy black and white training clothes and his unshaven head that clearly said ronin; yet he also took note of his muscular shoulders, his hale complexion, and bright eyes suggested that he was something more than just a ronin.

"Why are you telling me this? Don't you mind betraying your friends?" asked a puzzled Teruro.
"Friends? Oh you thought that... Naah, they were just buying me a drink. As to why I'm telling you this, they said they would get me all the booze I could drink in a night if I delivered their message." The man replied between slurps of noodles.
"Do you know who I am?" Teruro asked suddenly, wondering why the ronin wasn't afraid for his life.
"Sure I do! You're Teruro Magunojo, one of the best swordsmen this side of mount Fuji." the young man replied with an open faced admiring smile and a mouthful of noodles stuck halfway from the plate to his mouth.
"Remember how fifteen yeas ago you saved the shogun's life by killing four ninjas in Edo? Or do you remember that time in Koga, when a jealous lord had hired assassins disguised as Kabuki actors. You killed seven that time. Seven!" He nodded with a smile as he chewed his mouthful of noodles displaying five fingers and two chopsticks.
"You sure do seem to know a lot about me, but I don't know anything about you... Who are you?" Teruro asked slowly in a voice laden with suspicion and danger.

The man, as if impervious to any form of danger, answered with a bright smile "Me? Oh, I'm Ingen." in a tone that somehow managed to sound modest and boastful at the same time.
"You said you accepted to deliver their message for saké?"
"Yup, that's right."
"Since I don't have time to deal with these men, what would it cost me for you to explain to them who I am or scare them off or something?"
"Well now, since it’s for you… I'll do it for free." The young man replied with his earnest grin as he finished off the last of the food.

Teruro couldn’t help smirking as he watched the strange young man go. He decided go find Takeko and then wait a few moments before leaving, so as to slip away while the stranger took care of the ronin or to save him, as the situation required.

The young man stepped lightly out of the eatery and tied his straw walking sandals under the ronins’ nervous stares. They were hiding behind a pile of chopped wood on the other side of the road and scrutinized the stranger as he walked towards them. He stopped in front of the ronin who had the dubious distinction of being the leader, grinned, and stretched out his open palm.

"I’ve delivered your message, you owe me my drink now."
"Huh? Whadaya mean? What was his answer!" The flustered ronin grumbled.
"He says he ain’t interested."
"If he aint interested why should I give you sake" growled the ronin as he started to draw his sword.
"Come on now, I delivered your message like I promised, so you should keep up your end. If I were a violent man I might react badly and do this… " the smiling young man combined action with speech.

In the blink of an eye, Ingen’s right hand flashed to the ronin’s wrist, pushing the sword back into its sheathe, then flashed up to the ronin’s face to flicked him on the nose twice, then returned to control the man’s wrist before he could draw. The other two ronin, who had been staring flabbergasted up until this point, decided to avenge the outrage done to their boss but halted in midstep when the young man said with a deadly serious face: “Stop! Don’t move.” Something in Ingen’s tone seemed to freeze the three ronin in their steps. Ingen then laughed brightly and his hands blurred as he exploded into unbelievably fast movement. One moment the three ronin stood frozen with sheathed swords at their belts, the next, their belts held only empty sheathes as their blades twirled in the air, flashing as they reflected the sun’s light. Then, before they even had time to react, their blades thunked back into their sheathes.

The ronin blanched, looked at their returned swords, as if disbelieving what they had just seen. the fact in front them disproving the impossibility of the feat. The leader roared and charged at Ingen with wide haymaker punch. The young man politely frowned and casually ducked under the ronin’s and in one smooth spinning movement plucked the man’s sword from his belt again and tapped him on the back of the calf with the flat of the blade sending the leader to fall to the ground in a whimpering heap. The two unharmed ronin fled.

"Now then, about our deal. I don’t think you actually have all the sake I can drink in a night so I’ll take the next best thing." the young man said, bending as he took the ronin’s money-pouch. The wounded ronin said nothing as he watched him walk away for a moment before crawling back towards his camp. No one noticed when Teruro and Takeko, who was carrying a large rice pot, slipped away.

August 9, 2010

Okurokami - part 8

The village was a modest assembly of wooden houses on either side of earthen road. It sported an inn, a small Buddhist temple, a scattering of shops, an official building, a inn/restaurant, and even its own gambling den. These things make the village larger and more important than any of villages nearby but it certainly fails to qualify it as a city. An ancient priest sat on the temple’s wooden steps peacefully enjoying a sunbeam. He looked as if he had been sitting there forever. Teruro and Takeko said hello and the old monk seem to come to life. Teruro struck up a conversation with the old priest about woodcarving who insisted they should come into the temple to see a famous carving of Hachiman Hachiman. An hour later, Takeko spurred by hunger and disinterest gently coaxed Teruro away from the sculptures to say goodbye to the priest and get going to the restaurant again.
Famous Hachiman sculpture by Kaikei
They removed their sandals in the inn’s entrance. Teruro noticed five other pairs that, judging from their make and state, belonged to chojin, and rather unkempt ones at that- or perhaps to some disreputable ronins. A quick look inside the restaurant's main room revealed four shabbily dressed young men with swords seated around a table eating and drinking rambunctiously. Teruro tsked and wondered if they should enter at all. He thought that perhaps it would be best to avoid the trouble that was bound to occur by going somewhere else for food. He turned to tell Takeko, only to find that she had already entered the room and had seated herself. Teruro shrugged, went inside, and sat down next to her.

The nervous looking inn-keeper came and Teruro ordered two platters of soba with chopped spring-onions… The man was about to leave when Takeko added: “Oh and give me a bowl of white rice with bunch of umeboshi!” Her order was met with raucous laughter and chatter from the ronin’s table.
“Ha it’s a woman! I thought it was a boy!” the first ronin stage whispered.
“It eats like a monk, maybe it was sour plums that made her hair fall out.” The second ronin replied.
“Get a load of the guy she’s with… he looks… hmm.” The third leaned forward and whispered something to the first two ronin while shooting looks at Teruro’s daisho. The ronin resumed their raucous revelry but the tone had subtly changed.

Teruro noted that the fourth ronin contrasted with the other three: though he too drank in great amounts, as demonstrated by the collection of empty sake jars in front him, he was quiet and sat straight-backed with his legs neatly tucked beneath him. His katana’s hilt and his simple clothes seemed weather-worn but of good make. His hair was tied back in a messy plume like pony tail that extended down to his waist. His companions, on the other hand were red faced from shouting and drinking, were sprawled untidily on the floor noisily singing lewd songs or bickering amongst themselves.

The innkeeper reappeared, set the food out, collected the money Teruro had set on the table and hurriedly scurried into a back room. Takeko whispered to Teruro “Hey, isn’t that the guy?”

Shinto god of war and protector of the Japanese people.(back)


Buck wheat noodles often eaten chilled in the summer, served with a soy based dipping sauce.(back)

Pickled plums.(back)

Daisho literally means big small. It used to describe a katana worn or displayed with a wakizashi (long and middle sized swords).(back)

August 6, 2010

Change blogfest

The fabulous Elizabeth Mueller is hosting the Change blogfest as a housewarming present for our one and only Sangu Mandanna.
Thanks for hosting the event Elizabeth!
Congrats on your new place Sangu!

“Small change.”

You know what? I think I’m in a rut.

I don’t dislike my job, it pays my rent and lets me live comfortably.

Most of the time, I think it’s a pretty good deal for nine-to-five behind a desk in a law firm, faffing about on a computer.

But sometimes I can feel the wheel turning. You know, the wheel of life, the wheel of time… and I think to myself, “What the hell am I doing?” But then I pick up my book and forget completely about it.

My clunker of a car broke down and would cost more to repair than it would to replace. I knew it was coming. I’m now officially 30 and I’m car-less, the way I was when I was a teen. So here I am sitting at the bus stop thinking about my life. My book is in my purse, but instead of taking it up I’m pondering the meaning of life… Without the benefit of the pythons.
So her thoughts ran as she sat on the wooden bench waiting for the bus. Then she noticed something next to her foot. Taking a closer look realized it was a coin the color of corroded copper. When she picked it up she was surprised to find that it was much heavier than she expected. She didn’t recognize the writing around the edges. One side was embossed with a curious geometrical pattern of concentric circles and the other with strange-looking symbols that looked uncomfortably familiar, they reminded her of… Her thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of her bus, and so she hastily pocketed the coin and grabbed her bag and her purse.
Later, during her lunch-break, she had as usual shunned the company of her co-workers. She liked eating her sandwich in a nearby park while reading on her favorite bench. She was about to sit down when she noticed the strange greenish-blue coin on the bench. At first she thought that the one in her pocket must have fallen out onto the bench somehow, but she pulled it out of her pocket. She picked up the second coin and compared it to the first. They were identical. She shrugged and stuck them both in her pocket. And set about reading a chapter from her book as she ate her sandwich.

Shortly afterwards she had finished her chapter and her lunch. It was time for her to go back to work. “Just one more chapter…” she thought to herself. Four chapters later she closed her book and looked pensively up at the sky and the passing clouds. The pointlessness of her job struck her like a kick to the heart. She realized that nothing much would change in the world if she just stayed in the park until she finished her book. Nobody would care if she didn’t file her afternoon’s stack of reports in the system.

She decided to flip on it. Going through her pockets for a coin and coming up with one of the weird ones she had found with a shrug and a smirk she said, “Circles I go back to work, weird symbols I stay and finish my book!” With a flick of her thumb she sent the coin spinning in the air and it rang a single clear note, like the singing of a crystal glass. At the apex of its flight something strange happened. Instead of obeying the laws of gravity, it hovered in space, spinning faster and faster, and humming a sharp crystalline note. It hung in the air thus for a few seconds, then started to glow like a bluish green candle flame, then fade from view… The ringing note lingered for a few seconds then it too faded away.

She quickly looked around to see if anyone else had seen what had happened but no-one seemed to have noticed. Baffled, she decided to go back to her desk and look up what had happened on the Internet. So she gathered up her stuff and headed back for the office…

She walked through the door into the reception area of the office. Gillian was at her post behind the front desk.

“Hello Ms. M. How are you today?” the receptionist said with a polite smile.

“Um… Gill, I saw you just this morning when I came in? And what’s with Miss?”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean Ms. M. Did you come in this morning? Anyways, can I just say I’m very much looking forward to your next novel! Are you coming in to deliver the manuscript?”

She was completely confused but her gut reflexes took over and she said, “Thanks, I’m glad you like my work. I’m still working on editing my latest novel… I just remembered I needed to be somewhere… Bye Gillian, nice chatting with you.”

“Huh? Alright, Ms. M. Good luck with your manuscript!”

She walked through the doors and onto the street. Utterly baffled by what was going on, she turned around to check that she had entered the right building and noticed that while the building was the same, the sign was different, it said “Oryxkin House Publishing” instead of “Ramkin & Usulügner, Attorneys at Law”!

She took the bus home in a daze. At her door she fished in her pocket for the key and pulled out the other mysterious coin. Once inside she found that her apartment, while still her apartment, had been remodeled and redecorated. A quick trip to her bookshelf turned up three hardcover books with her name on them. The manuscripts she had written in college but had never queried… She set the books in the middle of the dining-room table and set the mysterious coin on top of them. She sat there a while, staring at them, and grinned.

“I wonder if I have a car now.”

August 3, 2010

Okurokami - part 7

The grass bordering the path was still wet with dew. Dawn had come and gone, taking with it the stars and the night sky. Teruro and Takeko had already been walking for several hours and the peaceful bamboo forest of Sagano was well behind them. As they walk, Teruro passed time by sharing a story from his childhood…

He recalled a walk he had had once, long ago, with his grand uncle who had retired from politics to become a hermit tea master. His name was Magunojo Sekishusaï, he was eighty at the time and often claimed he would live to be a hundred. Teruro, on the other hand, was only three years past his first hakama. He was wearing an indigo hakama and a carmine kimono with a matching haori. His long unshaven hair was gathered in a glossy black ponytail that swished softly as he walked. The elder Magunojo patriarch and the eight-year-old Teruro had gone for a walk upon the lower slopes of the Kasagi mountains when Sekishusaï taught the boy a lesson about life that would stay with him throughout his.

They had just reached a slight overhang that afforded them a breathtaking view of the valley, the village far bellow, and forested slopes that mark the horizon on both sides of the valley when Sekishusaï called for a halt. He took a seat on a boulder and motioned for Teruro to take a seat beside him. The old man gazed intently at the beautiful scenery with a warm smile and at first, the young Teruro followed suit. Ten minutes passed, thirty, then forty... Still the old man hadn't moved, and so young Teruro began to squirm with boredom for truly he saw little point in just gazing about and would rather have been exploring the woods and climbing the nearby trees, only respect for his great grand uncle kept young Teruro from interrupting Sekishushai's contemplation by asking for permission to go play. After two hours or so the child was about ready to explode with agitation and then Sekishusai slowly turned towards the child beamed at him with a gentle smile that was permeated with softness, patience and warmth. In Teruro's memory, Sekishusai had an air of Buddha-hood even more so with the sunbeam that seemed to have chosen to halo the gentle old man.

"So Teruro, what have you learned about yourself. Have you learned your lesson child?"
The blank look of guilt and surprise on the boy's face answered more eloquently than his words, "I'm sorry, I didn't hear you say anything."
"Not all lessons need to be heard for to be learned, not all teachers need to speak for to teach. For those who are aware wisdom can be grasped from thin air." was the old man's cryptic reply before he resumed looking in the distance.
"I... I don't understand."
"Take your time and think about it.” Sekishusaï answered without even looking away from the horizon.
The young Teruro furrowed his brows in concentration and buried his chin in his palm as he tried to understand what he had just been told.

Time passed, the sun had completed its journey eastwards and the slim crescent of the new moon was high overhead when Teruro finally lifted his chin from his cupped palms.

"I understand now." Young Teruro said quietly.
"Why don't you explain it to me, child." The old man said with a soft smile.
"Haï... So:
- ‘Not all lessons need to be heard for to be learnt’ means that lessons aren't always words spoken aloud
- ‘Not all teachers need to speak for to teach’ means that not all teachers are people and that the teacher doesn't always have to be the one giving the lesson: the student can acquire his lessons for himself. (but this means that the student must choose both lessons and teachers carefully doesn't it uncle?)
- ‘For those who are aware wisdom can be grasped from thin air’ means that if the student is paying attention to everything around him he can learn from anything.

That's correct, isn't it uncle?" the boy said, smiling proudly.
The elderly man laughed softly, "Your words were true, but they were naught more than my own reflected by you. You've demonstrated having understood the finger but where does it point? Have you discovered that?"
"Uhm..." the proud smile on Teruro's face faded away and was replaced by a serious frown of concentration to which it was yet unaccustomed, "... I think I have. It's about patience and attentiveness isn't it. You asked me what I had learned about myself, I... uh... suppose that from the fact that I had lost patience after only a few hours teaches me that I lack patience and if I lack patience I can't pay enough attention to everything around me..." young Teruro stated uncertainly.
The old man laughed kindly "That is correct, but if the finger were pointing to a star, you'd just have taken the first step onto the stairs reaching the heavens. The first step is to look away from the finger. You've learned something through this first step, apply it and climb the stairs…" the old man trailed off and seemed to have returned to his contemplation. A few minutes later he murmured, as if to himself, "Aren't the trees magnificent, few are the regions than can boast having so many old trees." Young Teruro wrinkled his youthful brow in concentration, pinched the base of his nose between his thumb and his forefinger and steam may have trickled from his ears as he strived to find the hidden meaning of this statement. The old man and the grandson stayed thus for a while. Teruro jokingly said that it had like four days, but that in truth it was probably closer to a couple hours.

"Aha! I got it!" he said he snapped his closed fist into his open palm with a toss of his ponytail. "The trees here are older because they haven't been killed or burned by marauding armies in wars. Which means that this region has been in peace for a long long time, it also means that the commoners live well and that haven't had the need to chop wood to earn a living. This teaches me about myself that I come from a family that has, for many generations, served a noble family which in turn has preserved the peace and brought prosperity to the people by their wise governing. But then if peace is the way of prosperity should I not abandon my studies of the way of the sword and the art of war that stems from it?" he queried, his two youthful brown eyes open wide with the surprise of discovery and revelation.

"It is a thought worthy of you child but no, do not. Do you believe that a potter could sculpt a teacup if he had neither his hands nor the tools his trade? Of course, he may still be able to dream his creation but without his hands and tools his dream could never achieve reality. Like wise, the way of the sword is the hand by which you may sculpt the clay that is your life, that is your birthright, that is the life of a warrior. The way of the sword is much more than mere exchanges of blows or even knowledge of war strategy, the way of the sword is knowledge of life and a means of sculpting it into a work of art that is ever perfectible until it reaches the unattainable perfection. Do not lose your self on the way and become a potter whose sole tool is a hammer, with the power to control and sculpt life comes the power to take life. You will often find yourself in need to do so and thus, when you must, do so with no hesitation nor doubt, killing is normal part of the path but it is never the objective in itself. You must ponder this deeply... Child you have shown tonight that you have intelligence beyond your years, if you strive upon your path you have the means of becoming a worthy descendant of the Magunojo family. Now why don't we go home and get some food; all this seriousness has made me hungry..." the old man gravely concluded, his eyes brimming with laughter.

“But enough about my past… Speaking of eating, we’re coming up on a village… Shall we eat there?” asked Teruro.
“Yes, lets. I’m getting quite hungry... I hope we can get Umeboshi. Hey what is that guy doing?”
The dirt path leading to the town followed the course of a lazy river and a young man was standing thigh deep in the water. The young man's scarred torso was bare and his uncommonly well-developed muscles glistened with sweat under the midday sun's glare. His face was unshaven, and his unkempt hair tied back in long a sloppy ponytail; it swung around as he turned his head about to keep track of something that even Takeko’s archery trained eye could not see. Suddenly the young man's hand flashed out and seemed to grab at the air. He then grinned broadly, his teeth flashing whitely in his darkly tanned face. It was then that they understood that the young man had just caught a fly.

As our travellers wondered why the strange stranger was catching flies, the aforementioned fly was carefully put onto the water. The young man then grasped a ridiculously over-sized black suburitô from the river bottom where he had planted it. The stranger assumed a ready stance with his long and heavy wooden training sword and waited. After a few minutes Takeko and Teruro moved on. They had just passed the young man when they heard a roar and a great splash behind them. Takeko turned around and saw expanding circles of rippling water where the man had stood… After a few moments he surfaced grinning brightly, holding up a large flapping trout. Takeko waved hello and laughed when the man dropped his catch as he waved back. The young man dived after his lunch and Takeko hurried to catch up with Teruro, who was headed towards the village.

Baggy pants, first pair of which boys are given during a ceremony when they are five.(back)

Traditionally, young nobles dressed colorfully.(back)

The shaven head and topknot called sakayaki was first done at the genbuku ceremony where the 16 year old boy officially entered adulthood.(back)

Pickled plums, very sour, not to everyone's liking (I lovem).(back)