The Stone Steps
By Jacqueline Chilard

Genre: What If?

2008 Samurai Fiction Contest 2nd Place

KURAMA, 1166

The stone steps, carved into the mountain, rose too far for the boy to see where they ended. Somewhere up there was a gate to his new life.

His mother grasped his hand. If she had not, he thought he might run away. Even though he was already seven years old, he did not understand. He was a soldier’s son, a general’s son; why must he leave the capital and live on a mountain, in a temple? He could not understand, not with the steps right here before him.

As a general’s son, he could not weep and throw himself on the ground and argue with his mother. He knew his father was a rebel and a traitor in the eyes of the court. He knew the Heike clan had killed his father, and most of his relatives were dead. His mother had told him that he must go to the temple to survive. She had already been forced to send her other sons away, and now he was old enough, he must go too.

He had understood and agreed to it when she explained it to him.

“One day, you can take vengeance for your father. Be patient until then. Never tell anyone of your desire to be a soldier; it is too dangerous. This is your fate. Accept it.” That was a week ago, when he still believed he could live patiently until he was old enough to fight for his father’s name.

A week ago, he was not frightened or unhappy. But that was before his mother woke him at dawn and made him walk all this way. Now, as the heat of the day turned the air thick and moist, he must soon part with her, and he found he no longer understood anything at all.

They were already halfway up the mountain. A path had led them inexorably to the bottom step. His mother looked down at him, gave a brief smile, and said, let us begin.

The first ten steps were not too difficult. After fifty steps, his legs were sore and his breath was short. It was hot and humid; the forest on either side of the stone steps was dark and frightening. There were noises in there, goblins – long-nosed tengu – he knew it.

His mother was silent, her face emotionless. Did she secretly want to abandon him? He tried so hard to be a good son. Her new husband, Lord Ichijo, was a kind man and had never shouted at him. He was confused by it all, as only a child can be. As they finished climbing the first flight of steps, and could sit on a rock and catch their breath, he began to complain, so his mother explained it all again.

“I would rather keep you with me, but the Heike forbid it. We have no choice. Not you, not I.”

Would she not fight for him? Why didn’t she weep?

“Truly, Mother, I don’t want to be a priest. I am a soldier. Please, please…let me come home with you.”

Although her face hardened, he could not stop pleading.

“Please! Let me come home! I won’t stay here, I’ll run away!”

He stopped when she slapped him.

His breath hitched, not with the pain, but the finality. She would not relent, and he knew it now.

Even though his eyes were bleak and his head bowed in miserable acceptance, still she berated him. “I told you, this is your fate. A soldier does not whine, nor must you. You know who you are, and why you must live here.” She looked very angry, and he wanted to cry.

They resumed their climb, and did not talk again. At the top of the stone steps was a big gate. His mother could go no further. A priest came and took his hand, and when he turned his head to bid her farewell, she was already gone.

A small exhalation of breath was his only sign of anguish. Not once did she turn around, and soon was lost from sight.

The priest was kind, and gently led him into the building, along darkly polished wooden floors, to an open door. Beyond it was a dormitory, with seven older boys, dressed as pages. They wore white tunics with gauzy white shirts over the top. They laughed and played, and he thought he could live here after all.

The boy knew a little of what to expect. With his mother gone, he must make friends as quickly as he could; friends might help him not to grieve for his home, for his mother. When Kind Priest released his hand, he felt bereft.

“You must change your clothes. You may not dress like an outsider,” Kind Priest said, and slid open the door to a cupboard full of neatly folded white garments. Selecting some, Kind Priest helped the boy change. Now he looked like all the other boys.

“Go in there, child. Follow the others and do as they tell you. They will guide you in prayers and show you where to sleep. Do not cry for your mother, though. That will not do at all. In a few days, I will tell you what your name is.”

“But, my name is Ushiwaka.” His earnest face implored the priest, to no avail.

Kind Priest was exasperated. “Did your mother fail to explain this? You, of all boys, must realise that your name is never to be mentioned. You must leave all traces of your past behind you if you are to survive.”

They did not allow him his own clothes, and now he could not have his own name? This, it was not even his own life.

He followed the other boys around all day, but they ignored him. When they went to prayers, it did not matter, since they must sit very still and concentrate hard. But when released from their duties, the boys were happy and full of energy. Still they refused to include him.

So lonely! They ignored him, and when he tried to get their attention, they only said, “You have no name.” And they would not look at him when they said it. If that were true, then he must ask the priest to please give him a name at once, because his loneliness was beyond endurance.

The priests did talk to him. They asked how far he had walked, if he had eaten, whether he knew sutras and chants. He was so happy to be visible that he laughed and spoke like a child, not the seven-year-old son of a general. They smiled back at him, patted his arm, encouraged him to work hard, and he beamed with relief.

Sleeping was difficult. He knew he was not the only boy to sob in the darkness, but he did his best to muffle the sound, although he was not sure if they could hear him, since they refused to see him. When he had no tears left, he fell asleep, and dreamed that his mother was carrying him in her arms and singing to him, a soft song of a mother’s love and a sweet-faced baby. He woke before dawn, and wanted the privy, but could not remember where it was, so he crept outside and urinated in the bushes behind the dormitory.

After morning prayers, he received a summons to go to the main temple building, where the Head Priest told him, “You are Shanao, the Radiant One.”

The boy did not know what radiant meant, but he did know that having a name, any name at all, meant that he was no longer alone. He ran to the courtyard where the other boys played. “I have a name, I am Shanao, and you can talk to me now!” He could not hide his need for friendship. A warrior should not care, but Shanao did.

The biggest boy looked at him. Looked him right in the eye, so he knew that everything was now all right.

“I will not talk to the son of a rebel father and a traitorous slut of a mother.” The boy had big teeth and spat when he talked.

Another boy joined in. “Even your own mother couldn’t wait to see your father dead so that she could copulate with his enemy. Your blood must be rancid with shame!” This boy was round-faced, like a dumpling.

A third boy, with the voice and inflection of a girl - “I will not talk to boys who have such a bad family that they piss in the bushes!”

Shanao thought, my mother’s slap was not as painful as this. They despised him, despised his family. Very well, let them. He was a general’s son and he refused to tolerate this.

With a shout, he leapt upon the first boy, and punched him as hard as his size would allow. When the second boy hit him, Shanao grabbed his arm and bit down hard on the soft flesh, drawing blood.

Priests came running to see what the commotion was about, and pulled the boys apart. Shanao, with blood running down his chin and breathing heavily, would not back down.

Defiant, he cried, “You are going to chastise me. You blame me and hit me. This is not my fate! I do not accept it. Hear me, I do not accept it!”

Kind Priest was not shocked. He slapped Shanao, but gently. “You will, in time.”

A grumpy priest was furious with him, and dragged him away, along a path through the forest. A steady downpour did nothing to cool the humid air. “Let the angry worms in your belly drown!” Grumpy Priest’s shout was muffled in the dampness.

Shanao stood, feeling the warm, heavy rain soak through his clothes and hair. He had nothing left to say. He simply stared, defiant.

The priest tutted and sucked his teeth. “Your behaviour is appalling. Come with me.”

Grumpy Priest pulled him along by his sleeve, until they reached a shrine. The priest slid the door open and pushed him inside.

It was dark in here and smelled of old incense and dampness. Shanao became aware of a man wearing strange armour. In one hand, he held a small, perfectly shaped but tiny pagoda. In the other, he held a three-bladed spear. With a fierce glare, he glowered down at Shanao, and seemed to be about to scream a curse.

Shanao, frightened, stumbled backwards, but the priest held him steady. “This is Bishamon, our guardian. He is one of the four heavenly kings, and he protects all places where the Buddha would be heard.”

Shanao shook with fear, so the priest explained, “It is not a man, but a statue.”

“Why is he locked in here? Is the Enlightened One frightened of him too?”

The priest laughed. “He is the god of war and warriors. More importantly, he has the Virtue of Dignity. This is what you must learn from him. You will sit in prayer here for the rest of the day, and learn how to accept your fate with dignity.”

Shanao sat as instructed, and stared at the statue. Now he could see that it was not a real man, but the face was still frightening. The priest slid the door shut as he left and Shanao thought about what he had just heard. Someone else telling me what my fate is. He glanced at the statue. The god of war and warriors, whose virtue was dignity. Yes, this would be a fine place to pray. He would not worry so much about dignity; he did not really know what it meant. He prayed all day to the statue, please let me grow strong and become a warrior! He never took his eyes from it.

At dusk Grumpy Priest returned and took him back to the temple. Lost in dreams of warfare, Shanao made no further protest.

He did not cry for his mother when he returned to his sleeping mat, but lay down, and slept soundly. When he awoke, it was still dark outside. He crept to the edge of the room. The sliding panels were all open, to catch any breeze that would alleviate the heat of summer.

He gazed outside; a faint glow told him the false dawn was imminent, perhaps halfway through the hour of the tiger. The other boys slept. With at least another hour until the gong for morning prayers, he thought of Bishamon, and knew he must conquer his fears and go into the forest. Bishamon would help him, but it might be a long time before he was worthy of calling himself a warrior.

He tied his rough straw sandals and carefully made his way across the courtyard. Slipping through the small side gate, he skirted the vegetable patch and climbed the low wall. He stood, afraid, only a few steps from the edge of the forest. The sky was dark again. The forest looked forbidding as a heavy cloud moved across the sliver of moon; a few stars twinkled between the clouds but offered little illumination. Rubbing at the sleep in his eyes, he listened as the trees rustled gently in a breeze that came and went too swiftly to cool the humid air.

Doubt crept into his belly. Those goblins, tengu, would they come after him? He could hear rustling, he could hear night birds, and really, would he not be more comfortable back in his own bed? Frowning, he told himself to move forward. As he stepped into the forest, he grumbled, as if he was hearing the words from Bishamon himself, “You will not become a soldier if you cannot face a simple group of trees. There is nothing in there.”

Within moments, the darkness and oppressive heat enveloped him. He stood for a moment and tried to see, to hear, but only heard the occasional call of night birds, and saw only the deeper blacks of the trees against the lighter blacks of the sky.

He walked on, and his fear returned, along with self-disgust. He shouted to whatever beings lurked, “If there are tengu here, come out now, and show yourself. I am not afraid; I am the son of a warrior!”

He heard only the raucous laugh of a night bird. Startled, he ran back the way he had come, cursing himself as he ran. He was ashamed, and rather than return to his bed, he walked to the top of the stone steps; the steps that had led him here, and would eventually lead him away.

Shanao’s inner battle between his pride and his fears raged on. He faced daily fights with the other boys, who took pleasure in taunting him about his mother and father. The priests would intervene occasionally, but too often allowed the children to fight amongst themselves. Mostly, these battles were verbal, but when Shanao felt goaded enough, he hurled himself at the older boys and tried to inflict as much damage as possible.

He endured daily beatings from the priests, because he could not remember the words to the sutras and prayers. The more they beat him, the more he forgot.

Shanao had no allies, none who would stand by his side. Few would talk to him, only the weak and sickly boys, who faced their own share of misery.

Every day he returned to the top of the stone steps. Today, as usual, he gazed down into the valley, watching the sun turn the morning’s dampness into a wisp of steam. This ritual reminded him of a different life. Patiently he waited for the temple bell to call him back.

What was that? Maybe eighty steps below, a head bobbed up and down as its owner climbed. As this person ascended, Shanao could see somebody smaller by the climber’s side - another boy, like Shanao - miserable and frightened?

The two figures drew closer. A boy was held firmly by an abbot. The boy was dressed as a novice priest, his clothes rough, less refined than those Shanao wore.

Kind Priest arrived. “Go back to the dormitory, Shanao.”

Shanao gave his morning duties little energy. He wanted to see the newcomer.

Finally, the new boy was brought to the dormitory, still dressed in his own rough clothes. Shanao sidled as close as he could, to hear what this boy had to say. The other boys ignored him, but Shanao would not conform to that behaviour, nor condone it. He stood in front of the new boy, and studied him

He was tall, much taller than all the other boys, but his face was young, with no beard. His hair was thick and coarse, growing in badly trimmed clumps around his head. He had scars, nicks and cuts in various places – by his right eye, under his left ear, his right cheek. This big boy’s eyes seemed wary and angry all at once - but not with Shanao.

“I am Shanao, who are you?

Surprised, the big hesitated before answering. “Are you supposed to speak to me? Don’t get into trouble just because you are nosy.”

What a strange thing to say. “I don’t care about getting into trouble, and I don’t care about their rules. Just tell me your name.”

“Oniwaka.” The big boy said his name as if it were ordinary.

“Is that your nickname? What is your real name? I mean your childhood name?”

“Oniwaka is my childhood name. I’ll receive a religious name soon. The monastery I just came from, they took my religious name back, said I wasn’t worthy of it. I don’t care though; none of the names really suit me.”

Shanao was surprised. This boy’s name was Little Demon. His own childhood name, Ushiwaka, meant Little Ox, and most boys were given names of strength and bravery. But Little Demon? What kind of father named his son so?

“What a wonderful name! Much better than mine, and far better than my religious name. I envy you, Oniwaka!”

The three horrible boys watched with ill concealed disgust. They approached.

“You can’t talk to him, he’s an outsider. Don’t you know anything yet, you fool?” Spit Boy sneered.

“Just ignore the creature.” Dumpling Boy tutted.

Girlish Boy squealed, “I’m not going to speak to the likes of him. What a brute! I heard stories about that Oniwaka. He’s a trouble maker, always fighting, always stealing and telling lies!”

Shanao looked at Oniwaka, expecting tears, perhaps an outburst of violence, at least clenched fists and grinding teeth. But Oniwaka appeared completely unimpressed.

“Well,” Oniwaka said, “I don’t think much of you three. Are you the temple idiots? Try not to annoy me; my father is the Abbot of Kumano, he just brought me here. He doesn’t take kindly to impudent children. And he hates bullies, so you better think again before you pick on my friend Shanao, here.”

Shanao led Oniwaka outside, and took him towards the forest. He had already decided this Oniwaka, this tall strange boy, was now his friend. “How old are you, Oniwaka Why are you here?”

“Twelve. I had a bit of trouble at the monastery in Mii-dera, and they threw me out. My father brought me here to keep me out of trouble for a while, because Kurama-dera is small, with only a few pages and priests, and no sohei to fight with. He wants me to behave myself. But I’ll get my own back on those bastards at Mii-dera one day, I swear!”

Shanao followed as Oniwaka strode ahead, into the forest. “They tried to make me a proper monk; after all, my father is an abbot, but they have given up on me now. I’m not stupid; I can read, write, chant, and remember all those sutras, but I keep getting into fights, so I’m not the right quality to be a monk. What about you?”

“I refuse to have anything to do with religion. I am a soldier’s son. I just have to put up with things here for a while, then I’m off!”

Despite his brave words, Shanao knew it was not this simple. So too, apparently, did Oniwaka.

“Listen, I know who you are. My father warned me not to speak to you when we were climbing the steps. Actually, that was the only thing he said to me. Ever. I know you cannot leave; you must take your vows and renounce the world. That makes you a prisoner, neh? You have to be patient. But never give in to any bastard who tells you what to do.”

Shanao was shocked. “Can you ignore your father like that? Won’t you get beaten?”

Nonchalant, Oniwaka told him, “Oh, I don’t worry about things like that. What’s a few thumps or kicks? If I worried about everyone else’s opinions I’d never get anything done, would I? Anyway, they are all bastards and villains.”

Such strong, brave and foolhardy words! Shanao was enraptured with Oniwaka. To be so fearless!

The bell for prayers rang, and they ran back to the temple.

Shanao dreaded prayers, and told Oniwaka about the daily beatings he received.

“Listen, sit next to me, and listen to me pray. Try to repeat the words as quickly as you can. They’ll never know that you are just saying what I’m saying.”

 Shanao listened hard as Oniwaka chanted. At first, he repeated the prayer two words behind Oniwaka, but soon found he could repeat the words only one word slower. He received no beatings that day.

That night, Kind Priest told Oniwaka where to sleep. It was not close enough to Shanao for them to speak.

Towards dawn, there was a commotion.

“Ugh, he’s wet himself!” Spit Boy squealed. “Look, it’s all over the floor, like Lake Biwa!”

The boys sleeping closest to Oniwaka leapt up and shouted, trying desperately to move away from the growing puddle on the floor. Shanao was humiliated on his friend’s behalf. Oniwaka, awoken by the shouting and furore that he had caused, appeared calm, but Shanao could see a new tenseness. Grumpy Priest came running into the dormitory, and seeing the puddle on the floor, looked askance around the room.

“He did it, that demon boy!” Dumpling Boy was irate.

“It was him, he wet himself!” Girlish Boy was nearly in nears. “I don’t want to sleep in the same room as that disgusting brute!”

All fingers pointed at Oniwaka, and Grumpy Priest clouted him around the ear. Shanao was amazed to see the bigger boy placidly accept his punishment.

Grumpy Priest dragged Oniwaka out of the room, and some of the servants came running in to clean the mess.

Oniwaka returned at dawn, bearing a red handprint on his left cheek. None of the boys were allowed to return to sleep, and they were angry. Shanao determined to keep Oniwaka out of their sight for as long as possible. After morning prayers, when they should have been sweeping the courtyard, they ran into the forest. Concern for his friend outweighing his terror of the forest, Shanao followed Oniwaka. The humidity of the late rainy season had given way to warm summer days, and it was cool here in the forest. Shanao did not intend mentioning the embarrassing accident, hoping his friend could save face, but when Oniwaka gave no sign of shame or humiliation, Shanao simply had to ask, “Does it happen very often?”

“What? Does what happen?”

Nonplussed, and wishing he had never started, Shanao pushed on. “You know, what happened last night…”

“Oh, that!” Oniwaka gave an elaborate, I-don’t-care shrug of his shoulders. “Sometimes. When I’m in a new place…or think about my father.”

Shanao tried to mind his own business, but the words came out anyway. “Why, when you think about your father? I thought you didn’t know him that well.”

Oniwaka walked ahead along the forest path, and spoke without turning. “Well, I’ve made a lot of trouble for him, since the day I was born. So I know he despises me, and doesn’t want me as his son. But he can’t disown me, and yet I always fear that he might.”

Trying hard to keep up, Shanao was becoming breathless. Oniwaka really did have long legs. “Trouble from the day you were born? How could a newly born baby be trouble to anyone but his wet-nurse?” This was the limit of Shanao’s understanding of the world, and he could ask no more.

Finally, Oniwaka stopped striding ahead, and turned back towards Shanao.

“I only know what I’ve been told. See me, Shanao. You can see what I look like, how rude I am, how defiant. I only met my father once, but I have no memory ever seeing my mother. So, clearly, I have always been a wicked demon-child. Probably I should have been left in the forest to die, so I think my father must be a heroic man to let me live.”

Shanao looked at this strange boy, his only friend, who spoke so plainly about himself. Oniwaka’s eyes shone with unshed tears, but his voice did not quiver and his lips did not tremble. Shanao dropped to one knee.

“I swear to you, Oniwaka, I swear to you that I will always stand by your side. Even though I think your name is wonderful, I will never use it against you. I will never insult you.”

Oniwaka stared down at him, mouth agape. “You swear this? Swear you will be by my side? But that’s all wrong, Shanao. I must stand behind you, always. One day I will serve you. You will be my young lord, and I will be your man. That is the way of this world; that is the proper order of things. Now come on, I hear a stream up ahead and I’m thirsty.”

The insults resumed when they returned the dormitory that night.

“Don’t let him sleep next to me; I’ll drown in his piss!”

“He stinks!” Spit Boy struggled to think of a clever insult.

Shanao insisted his friend sleep next to him. Oniwaka said nothing, but the look in his eyes was enough reward for Shanao.

An hour before dawn Shanao awoke, as usual. Oniwaka was still dry, but Shanao woke him, and led him outside to the privy.

For the next month, Shanao woke him nightly, and the accident of the first night did not recur.

They ran through the forest together every day before dawn. When Shanao picked up a branch and sliced at the trees with it, Oniwaka showed him how to hold, move and fight with it. They sparred with branches every day. Oniwaka made a spear by tying two long branches together, and they battled against trees and mounds of earth. “Oniwaka, how do you know so much about fighting?”

“Oh, I’ve been training with the sohei for a while now. Well, not exactly training; I’ve been fighting with them. They hate me, so I have been able to learn a lot. I know plenty of things. Come on, I’ll teach you some more!”

Little of this was true. Oniwaka had watched the sohei of Mii-dera spar and practice with their weapons, and had avoided fighting with them as much as he could. They were a hard, brutal bunch of villains, and he was afraid of them, afraid of their coarse humour, their happiness with violence, their arrogance. Sometimes they set upon him, disliking his face and manner: he was different - too different. He had no choice about fighting then. But fighting with them, watching them, Oniwaka had learned many things. And this little boy, Shanao, needed his help.

After two months, Shanao asked Oniwaka, “Shouldn’t you have a religious name by now? It’s been weeks, hasn’t it?” Religious life was so confusing, and the rules made no sense. “Oniwaka is too good a name to lose. Still, it is a rule of theirs.”

Oniwaka could only guess. “I’m not really supposed to be here, it was a favour my father asked of your Head Priest. I’m nothing but trouble, so he wanted me to stay for a while and learn some manners. Maybe they forgot, or maybe they think that Oniwaka is the best name for me.”

A few days later, Oniwaka received an order to see the Head Priest. When he returned, his face was grim. “I’m sorry, Shanao. They say that I must leave soon, to join another monastery, somewhere on Mount Hiei. Seems it’s taken my father this long to find somewhere to accept me, and their Abbot insists on choosing my religious name after I get there. I don’t know what my name will be, so you won’t be able to find me. But I will find you; don’t worry Shanao, one day I will find you.”

Shanao clenched his jaw hard. He would not cry!

“Listen,” Benkei knelt beside Shanao. “Never let anyone know what your plans are. This is your fate, but only for now. Be good, obey them, and only leave when the time is right. I’ll find you, and stand behind you.”

The next day Oniwaka was gone.. Bereft, he felt he had lost the spirits that resided in his heart and belly. He would not cry. Oniwaka did not, nor must Shanao.

He walked to the top of the stone steps.

That is the path he must have taken, that is the path I’ll take too. I will be patient, because every day I get older, and closer to the time I can be a soldier. Then he will join me. But what will his name be? Impossible to find him without knowing his name, but nothing will prevent me from trying.

I might have to hunt for him, but I will find him, or he will find me.

 Because this is my fate.