By A.L. Mundell
Genre: Ghost Story
2008 Samurai Fiction Contest 3rd Place
The tycho drums slow mournful beat punctuated the sonorous tones of the temple bells of Tokei-Ji. To the South, distant lanterns glowed softly against the night from Kamakura as the funeral procession made its way to the small shrine overlooking the women’s' temple built to honor in death the amazing life of their most recent Abbess. The spirit of the Buddhist Nun once known as Tomoe Gozen looked down upon the clapping and chanting women who honored the memory of their departed Abbess. Tomoe's Spirit drifted like the incense smoke that billowed behind and in front of the orange robed women. Tomoe recalled from the blissful relief of death the shame of living a life too long with a bleeding heart.
Tomoe's father had wanted a son, but to her shame and her father’s grief, Tomoe’s mother had died bearing her. A grief stricken father had never let her forget this, upon the practice field, in the dojo, learning to ride, the way she was schooled. At her tomboji, her first birthday gifts had not been dolls like other girls, but a clay horse and a wooden sword. She could remember practicing with her father, feeling the weariness of a long day. Even if she had been born a boy in normal circumstance, the training would not yet have begun at the flowering age of five. The drifting Kami recalled the only time she remembered her father had treated her softly.
"Oh papa" she smiled hopefully after being too tired to raise the bokken quickly enough. "It’s too hard! I can only dancing!" she said piteously and turned her eyes up at him opened wide, the way she had seen other girls do to get what they wanted. She danced a couple of tentative steps and smiled.
In spite of the serious nature their training sessions always were, her father willed himself not to laugh; a smile managed to escape nevertheless.
"Tomoe" he said as softly as he would ever speak to her again "You must honor the memory of your Mother and my deep regard for her by living and learning the way of the Bushi!" This last word he spat out and Tomoe flinched. He squatted down with his feet flat to look at her face.
"Your way..."he began to scold, then paused to think and said softly: "Your way will be hard, filled with pain and derision, men will scorn you, women will fear you, and in time, even men will fear you. You must accept this! Through your pain and striving now, you will keep the memory of your dear Okasan alive, do not dishonor her memory! instead!" he paused again and softened his tone further. "Instead, welcome the pain and fatigue! even as others fail around you, you must not! The spirit of your dear Mother will shine like Amaterasu!"
"Yes papa!" she felt her fatigue float away with the last trappings of girlhood even as she imagined the kami of her dear Okasan filling her with resolve. She came to chudan middle stance, her bokken thrust defiantly at the world.
"Hajime!" the clack of bokken echoed off the shoji panels...
The Spirit of Tomoe drifted and relived...
Archery practice never failed to make the men mad; her yabusama was every bit as good as any man. Tomoe excelled beyond belief to men accustomed to seeing women only as subservient, after a time her father made her see it might be best to practice in secret .It drove the wedge of loneliness further into her soul, but the pride of the bushi only allowed her to express this as fuel for her fire of desire to be the best at everything. In sword, yari, bow, horse and anything else she could get her hands on she climbed to a plateau of skill that few others had ascended to. The ghost of her mother drove her; the ghosts of her present told her she was outcast, and at 17 she had no where else to turn to but the way. She often felt as if she were a ghost, this feeling gave her form a name, developing her art into the art of ghost mind, no thoughts, just a fusion of art that manifested itself with unconscious reaction without conscious thought. Sometimes she sensed that her mother was watching from somewhere and fear to shame her kept her further obsessed. She practiced nearly every waking hour in the windy places, hoping the winds would cleanse away the ghosts, but they never did...
Despite her grueling training regimen, or perhaps because of it, as a woman she had turned out as a jewel among flowers, hard and brilliant, while her flower counterparts were soft and colorful. The facets of a jewel were to be wondered at, but a flower was a thing often picked and forgotten. Though no one had ever forgot Tomoe when they saw her, she often felt forgotten, forsaken like the ghost; none dared approach her, even those few people she secretly liked, most feared her strangeness. She had an ethereal beauty that outshone even the brightest butterflies, though she wore no make up, and refused to blacken her teeth, even her kimono was somberly colored and made more for movement than beauty, much like a man, but with a splash of Tomoe thrown in. From the battlements of the castle she had built around her persona, her stark beauty defended her heart with a solemn demeanor. Sometimes when she practiced she could hear the giggling girls watching her, she pretended as if she did not know they were there. People always smiled and bowed to her in the street, but she never smiled back and only returned the smallest of bows only smiling when she sensed fear or danger. Tomoe smiled the day she met Yoshinaka...
Her spirit drifted above the mists of smoky incense trailing behind the procession, and she flew through the book of pain that was the Life of Tomoe...
Greeting Odentosan with a sword in her hand had been her morning ritual for many years, as it was on that destined day. Odentosan gleamed and winked off the silvered surface of her blurring blade. The wind blew her light brown kimono with green preying mantis prints in waves along with the patches of tall susuki grass and her top knotted hair that flowed out like a writing brush with too long bristles. She danced like the kamikuri on her kimono in the ghost mind of her unique form. She went through her morning kata even as she sensed the halt of a large retinue of riders and felt the awareness of many eyes upon her. The ghost mind retreated enough for her to notice the banners of Minamoto No Yoshinaka. It amused her to ignore a Minamoto and she continued her form.
The Retinue of Minamoto No Yoshinaka, Lord Kiso, as he was called by most but never to his face; paused as they watched their Lord who was transfixed by the sight before him. Kiso stood in the stirrups and gazed in wonder at the strong figure who was obviously a woman. He waited for the respect that was his due to be shown from her, but she just continued to float through her forms. The impulsive anger that was his greatest flaw began to show and exploded before Imai Kanehira, his friend and chief vassal who navigated these fits had a chance to suggest a course of wiser action.
"Iso Jinbei!" Kiso shouted to a retainer.
"My Lord, I am here!" he stepped forward and going down he bowed his head down to almost touch the ground.
Kiso pulled his chin a moment longer, captured by the spell of the waving grass and the woman warrior. Iso did not move.
"If you can kill that woman, I shall give you your second sword!" Kiso said loudly and pulled on a bamboo full of sake. He wiped his mouth and pulled his Nagayoshi wakizashi from his obi and threw it on the ground beside Iso. Imai was aghast but kept his face impassive; it was a treasured family heirloom! He could not embarrass his Lord and friend by countermanding him; he would have to see how it played. Perhaps he could make a trade later on to retrieve it. Damn! his reckless impulsiveness would get them killed someday...
"At once My Lord!" Iso shouted with gleeful resolution and bowing again sprang up and ripped his blade free. He strode arrogantly toward the field where in his mind she had not even noticed the drama unfolding. Soon he would be Samurai, with this thought he began the battle run toward her, building speed and power as he ran, growling louder all the way until he was in full battle cry toward the seemingly oblivious woman. If he were closer, he would have seen her smile...
Tomoe's smile continued as did her kata which she slowed slightly to time it exactly, she wanted to kill him and not change the cadence of her step that anyone might notice. Thus when Iso was only two steps from her his blade held high in jodan she pivoted with demonic speed and side stepped across his attack that came down on nothing but a ghost. Tomoe passed through his body with a spinning crosscut yoko attack that was so clean Iso did not yet know he was dead. His eyes widened as he felt the spray of blood exit his still running body. Iso stopped, and turned to see her standing like a statue, her eyes closed, her tachi held out and down.
"So fast! So very fast!" his last thoughts tried to say, and he fell.
Tomoe opened her eyes as the ghost mind left her and savored the victory, only the third man she had ever killed but very satisfactory. She could feel the blood drops on her, it was hot, and she flicked her sword and noticed with distaste she would have to sheath her bloody blade to save face, it would detract from the beauty of her victory to wipe it off. She returned her stained tachi to its saya, turned and bowed low to those who watched.
Everyone in the entourage held their breath to see what Kiso would do, he was grinning as he took another drink from the bamboo bottle.
Imai Kanehira dared break the silence.
"My Lord, perhaps instead of testing her, you might retain this sword spirit for your own cause?" Imai said and retrieved the wakizashi with relief from the ground not allowing his annoyance to show. He handed it back as Kiso was still enthralled by her. Taking the sword, he dismounted and strode toward Tomoe. When he neared her his swagger deflated and he felt the shuriken gaze of this bladed goddess look through him and see his most hidden soul secrets as he locked eyes with her. He wondered if she were indeed a Kami, he felt naked and somehow like a little boy as she returned his gaze with absolutely no fear at all, He felt scared and strangely excited at the same time. A tiny smile played across her perfect face. She bowed again, this time lower.
"The Lord honors me with a test of my skill? Or perhaps I have offended him in some unintentional way?” she said in her formal dialect. Although she knew exactly what she had done she bowed again and when she came up once more their eyes met again, a look, a lock, an understanding. Somehow they both knew at that instant their fates were bound in some unknown way. She knew she would have him. He knew he would let her.
Yoshinaka bowed back, but not as low.
"Accept this sword as a token of my desire to retain you..." Tomoe noticed his quaint dialect and her smile blossomed like a country bloom. He certainly was rough around the edge!
The wind blew through the trees with a sigh as the essence of Tomoe Gozen was pulled back from rereading her life scroll. The mourning of her loss continued from the nuns. Tomoe drifted yet again...
The lifetime work of a hundred smiths raged across the realm in the clamoring cacophony of pitched battle.
"Tomo!" Kiso screamed over the sounds of fighting and dying men the mouth piece that covered his face. He had taken to calling her the two syllable term of affection and he used it without regard in what he considered his last stand. She was fighting close enough to hear her lover even as she casually killed a man whose defense was pathetically open, he had struck too hard and missed her ghostly form and his blade had gone way past defending her. He died for this mistake and fell from the saddle.
"Please!" he spoke to her helmeted form in an undertone as he parried a spear thrust and reined his horse around to her.
"How can you deny me my honored death beside my Lord as is a warriors right?” she spat at him, and and ducked an arrow.
"How can I face eternity knowing the greatest joy of heavens pleasure has succumbed to ordinary men!?" he said breathlessly and reared his horse into a spearman, narrowly missing impalement. The spearman let go of his now trampled spear and died a second later under his horse and sword.
"How can I leave my lord and lover to a fate uncertain!?" she yelled and backed her mount up to match his stride
"How can you refuse the final wish of your liege lord?" he raged and killed another too close to escape his frustration.
"Will you send me into eternity without you?” she felt the tears start to come and she held them in check, and smacking an arrow out of the air, killed another without pausing her flashing tachi. She had accepted the hopelessness of their situation and did not want to tell him of the life she carried inside her. His Life.
Tears of anger and loss began to flow and mix with the blood of Yoshinaka as he hacked another spearman with lightness and rage. The Gods had deserted him yet again.
"How can I continue on my journey knowing the Goddess of Supreme Magnificence had known the hands of a common man?" he cursed the gods as he caught another arrow bringing the total to three that he wore.
"Tomo!" he begged, "let me remember you as the perfect one you always will be! flee for the regard you have of me! let me remember you with honor and pride!" he screamed as two more died by his anger.
Tomoe felt the strange sensation of time dilation even as the ghost mind left her and she touched once more upon the life inside her.
"I love You more than life!" she broke and the dam of tears collapsed.
"Love me more than death!" he cried, and another man died, the last man close enough to them to attack for the moment, he paused briefly to gaze at her furious raging beauty. He remembered the glory of her, the explosion of their love making, like mating hawks, never certain who was taking who as they fell from the sky into the pleasure of a thousand ordinary hearts. He had never tamed her, but like a hawk, she chose to perch upon his fist. Why? she was everything he was not, sophisticated, polite and the best sword he had ever known. He would never know why she chose him, but he could go to his death as light as a feather if she would fly away. He knew he was at the end of things; let her not be the one thing in his life that had turned to ash at his touch. He thought of one last try to save her...even as their eyes met for the final time and she knew from his long look that he really wanted her to fly, She had never felt such an intensity of total being, of unchecked love and strength as she did that day from the final gaze of Minamoto No Yoshinaka. Let them say what they will about him, she resolved to live only for his sake, and the life of the child he would never know; though it would mean years of a painful life of unfulfilled duty and the memory of their unparalleled glory as lovers, for this reason, she would live. Tomoe smiled. He spoke to her with his eyes even as his voice turned scornful for the benefit of the men there. She saw the look of pain it cost him inside as he addressed posterity.
"Hurry! Hurry now! You are a woman! Go anywhere you like. I intend to die in the fighting, and it looks as though I’ll be captured and I'll take my own life, but I wouldn't want it said that Lord Kiso fought his last battle in the company of a woman!" so saying he spanked her horse across the quarters with his blade. She smiled through her helmet and checked her horse.
"You won't get off that simply Komaoumaru" she said only to him, calling him by his childhood name and broke with pain the final gaze upon Yoshi and wheeled her horse around and charged toward the next wave coming. She was Tomoe Gozen; she could not simply run away! There! she spied the perfect finale to her exit, It was Onda No Moroshiga, a posturing pig of a man, Strong, yes, but she knew she would take him, how? ah! she would show everyone who she really was. Somehow, she knew she would not die this day even as she envied the dead.
Tomoe charged through the melting ashigaru foot soldiers and rode up to just out of sword range, removing her helmet right before she did so. Her hair spilled out with her smile and she dropped her helmet and threw shuriken eyes at Onda, he did not move, awestruck to see her. She was a ghost. Tomoe did move smiling as she leaped with demonic speed from the saddle to take Onda with her left hand over the back of his saddle around the neck and down drawing underhanded her Nagayoshi Waki with her other hand. She felt the splash of his life as her feet hit the ground. She came up from the ground holding the chinstrap of his demon masked helmet his still moving head in her bloody hand and wiped her blade with the hair. She held it up to those around her as everyone stood spell bound. She slowly came around to face the remainder of Kiso' men and flung it at Imai's feet, much too close for good intent. The Tachi Kami that was Tomoe quietly performed noto and mounted Onda's horse. She spurred it even as she began stripping off her armor. The smile was gone, only tears came, tears of shame at having to live.
The fading spirit of the woman warrior wailed as the wind blew the scented smoke away from her living sister nuns, she could feel the hold of this place slipping away, the pain was leaving, but once again it drew her back to hover over Tokei-Ji.
The mud and blood spattered woman rode, sometimes hiding, sometimes lashing the horse of Onda into a froth, now she let him have his head, tired as they both were, he slowly plodded, and she saw in the darkness the glow of a camp hibachi covered but discernable. A single man slowly cooked something over it; she would kill him and take his food. The wind blew the coals and the glow lit his face, she knew him! Wada Yoshimori, one of Kiso's better Samurai. Relief flooded her soul. Though he did not yet know it, on that day the Gods were kind to him... she rode slowly up to him and heard him draw his blade. She called his name and fell from the saddle in front of him. She would make his day and his life.
The sorrowed spirits' attachment to this place began to fade and Tomoe saw the ghost of a woman, she knew it was her mother, she wanted to go to her but she remembered one last arrow of pain, and came back one final time. She recalled as the Nagayoshi wakizashi clattered to the ground to land next to her shorn top knot she had just cut free. She looked up at the Sisters of the Tokei-Ji. The weight of the warriors’ world lifted off her as she fell to her knees to the ground. She sobbed like the ghost of a little girl she never was allowed to be She cried for her husband, she had grown to love Wada, she cried for her son, whom she had outlived, and she cried for her Lord and lover for whom she was not allowed to die with in battle nor follow into death and she cried for the long years she knew she had to live on in ashamed grief. She had never felt that weak in her life. That memory of weakness finally released her. The ghost of her Mother cried with her as the wind howled her grief and she passed beyond.
The Spirit of Tomoe Gozen let go...".Okasan, I always missed you..."