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Kyouran
By Jaqueline Chilard

2009 Samurai Fiction Contest

Genre: Historical Fiction

 

 

How persistent they are, the shogun’s men. They are rude in their insistence that I answer when clearly I do not wish to respond. I expect rudeness from common samurai, but not from my peers. I long for a moment to sit quietly, but they will not allow it.

One of the shogun’s men, an officious little bastard named Denpachiro, seems to believe that his need to know the answer is cause enough for me to reply. No, not the shogun’s men, none of us are his men. None of us know him, none of us are deemed worthy to share his presence. I will think of it differently.

How persistent they are, the shogun’s representatives. That is better.

He will not leave me alone, asking and asking again and again, why did I do it, what demon possessed me? Was I mad? He promises me that, if I say I was mad, then surely I will be forgiven, surely I will not die for my crime. My only desires are for peace, so that I may prepare myself for my punishment, and to know that my violence succeeded. I want to know that he is dead.

For hours now I have sat in this small room, behind a painted screen, cross-legged on the floor. When they dragged me away from the castle, I had no mind to protest. Indeed, I am sure that I was shocked by my own behaviour and my wits deserted me for a time. In the hours since my arrest, I have recovered a little, and I gaze at the tatami before me, and lose myself in the golden age of it. I was going back to Ako in a few days, once my duties at the castle were completed. I did not desire to return to Ako, even though it has been home since I was a boy, for it is a small and mediocre place, but still, I was relieved that I would no longer be beholden to that man, that bastard, Lord Kira. I had only to see today through and, my duties completed, I would be released from service. I planned to linger in Edo a while and meet the ladies of the pleasure district that flattered me so charmingly. I would dawdle on the return journey and stay at hot springs, taking, perhaps, two months to return. Once back in Ako, I would enjoy myself by rising late after drinking long into the night and trying to forget how much I hate being there.

Too late, I think of how much I would like to see Ako again.

I am trying to calm myself - prepare myself. I wish to block out the sound of Denpachiro’s incessant questioning, and I gaze at the floor. These old, golden tatami would not do for the receiving room I was tasked with decorating here at the castle. Unfortunately, nothing I chose for that room was right as far as Lord Kira was concerned. His task was to guide and educate me, but his spirit was mean and his heart cankered, and, as usual, and he gave me no help at all. I thought, perhaps I can be successful on my own, and I worked hard to make the receiving room a place of tranquil beauty. But it appears that I have no beauty in my own soul, for when he looked at it a week ago he fussed and whined that it would not do, would not do at all, and told me I must try harder. I accepted his criticisms and thanked him, and I believed his words to be true. After all, he has everything, he has lived a life of pleasure and has surrounded himself with beautiful things – all gifts from men like me, seeking his help. The size of the gift, the gaudiness, the tastelessness of it, determined how much he would help. He likes shiny things, but of course my province is poor and dull and has nothing to take his fancy. Whatever I gave him would not be enough, my province has only salt. And because of this task I had no money to buy something, for all my coin went into making the receiving room beautiful.

Only, it was not beautiful. It disappointed him; perhaps it was too tasteful. He told me I would do well if only I worked hard and applied myself, but I believed that it would make no difference what I did, he would find fault with it. Only one week remaining until the room must be ready, so I did work hard, but if I am honest, I did so without enthusiasm, and I sulked.

It was just another failure, just another opportunity for me to do a poor job, earn no merit, demonstrate no ability. Once again, I did not distinguish myself; once again, I faced the prospect of remaining a mealy-mouthed country daimyo of a poor province. I cannot tell the shogun’s representatives of this, so I gaze at the mats and say nothing.

I see faces in the mat before me, where the weave has separated. I see the faces of those bumpkins from my province. Those foolish, simple men, what have I done to them? My actions today will surely be the death of them. Do they deserve to die too? That old woman, Denpachiro, he mutters to the other, “How poorly his men trained him! Had they been more strict with his training, had they tutored him in the ways of the Shogun’s court, perhaps his behaviour today…” They tut and worry at the failures of my men but they are stupid, for how could such ordinary, country bumpkins have possibly known how to prepare me for this? They have never met a man such as Lord Kira; in their simple, foolish hearts there was no recognition of such a spiteful, venal spirit as his. I can say nothing of this.

Still these representatives of the shogun ask me and ask me. We are all dressed in our finest robes; today was the day when visiting dignitaries from Kyoto arrived, Lord Kira came early to assure himself that everything was in order after his scolding of a week ago for my poor work. And when he came this morning, Lord Kira found fault with it again. I was exhausted by his disdain. And I took action, the action that has led me here, under arrest pending inquiries.

These representatives, my peers, poke at my spirit with the spears of their hunger to know, know why. I will not talk to them, for what can I say? Can I justify my actions?

What I did, it seems so foolish, but I know I broke the law, and shedding blood in the shogun’s castle is unforgivable. That I lost my temper with the visiting nobles so close, it was truly beyond madness. I confess to the gods: I took out my sword, in the cypress corridor of the shogun’s castle in Edo, and struck my senior and better, Lord Kira. I would have gutted him like a fish if only I could control my fury, my rage, and cleanly sliced his belly open for him. But I could not control my rage, and now it is my own belly that will feel the coldness of a blade.

Amusing.

I barely scratched him with my sword. That is a far bigger shame than breaking the shogun’s rules. These men, they ask, what did Lord Kira say to me or threaten me with, what insult did he utter to make me go against the laws and the gods? What possible reason did I have, what foul utterance from Lord Kira made me lose control of myself?

I tell them only this: my intention was to kill that man. Give me a chance and I will see him dead. I apologise to the shogun, I have no ill intent toward him. And I ask, that man, is he dead? Is he dying? Perhaps, they say, because he is old and the wound may yet take him, but he is not dead now. And that officious, pompous little man, Denpachiro, still insists I answer them, why?

I have no answer, nothing to say, for how can I explain that Lord Kira’s words drove me to madness? Such innocuous words, spoken with a sad kindness. He gazed at the room I had spent a week preparing yet again, gazed at every detail, every screen, every newly woven mat, sighed, then said, “Well, it cannot be helped. You are from Ako, after all. You did your best.” And with those words he walked away as if every drop of sweat was nothing, every effort was pointless, as if I were nobody and it would be foolish to expect competence from me. For a long moment I forgot the sword I carried at my waist - a sword I had never before unsheathed - and the sword meant nothing to me until he said those words. Then, the sword meant everything; everything a man born to my class should know instinctively: avenge my honour, punish the slight. Once I remembered I had the sword, and that the sword was not merely a symbol of my class but a weapon, I drew it out and ran at him. I can still hear the sound of my clothes swishing on the tatami, I can still feel the rage and how my arm reached out to cut him down, I can still see his back, then his horrified face as he looked over his shoulder and saw me, a demon, coming to kill him.

He did not draw his sword - he was a coward! His own fief smaller than mine yet he is a rich, vain and arrogant bastard with everything, while I have nothing. And he couldn’t even draw his sword, but lay on the floor, shrieking like a mad woman.

I cannot tell them of this, how I forgot that I was samurai, and then, when I remembered, forgot that I was in the shogun’s castle. I cannot tell how those words ‘You did your best’ drove me to a killing madness, and because I say nothing, they can do little for me. Oh, they rush around and plead for me with the shogun, but his answer is the same, the same as it was when I first pulled my sword from its scabbard and tried to kill him.

Another man comes with a written instruction from the shogun, telling me I must die by my own hand; he reads it to me and turns it around so that I can see the shogun’s seal on it. For a moment I am elated – he knows me, knows my name! But the roiling in my bowels puts an end to that.

I am to die? There is no longer any doubt, for they also bring me clothes, death clothes. I am to dress in them now, ready to commit seppuku. When I fumble with my clothes, they help me to dress, and speak softly to me, to calm me. The shogun has been generous in allowing me to commit seppuku, they tell me. The shogun has been merciful to me and I should pray for his health before I kill myself, to show my humble gratitude. I smile and bow and agree that I will, but when my hands are held in prayer, they will know nothing of what I really pray for. It won’t be the shogun’s health, that lunatic bastard will not get one word of prayer from me.

I am to die.

They tell me this again, not believing that I can understand, and I smile for the first time in months, it seems. For if I am to die, then so is Lord Kira, our punishment will be the same because that is the law. And that is good enough. As long as I know that he too will die, I am content to take my own life.

While I dress, I think about Ako, my province. Those simple men there, what will they do? I ask the representatives, can I please be assured that my heir will be allowed to take over as daimyo of Ako?
Oh, their faces, how they struggle with this. They want to say yes, I can see how badly they want to say yes, so that I will remain calm, but I see in their eyes that they have already heard that this will not be allowed.
If my heir is tainted by my crime, what then, of my province? What of my retainers, farmers, my name? Is my crime so great that they must all suffer?

I falter. How can I prepare myself for death knowing the chaos I will leave behind?

Oishi, my chief retainer, he is such a bumbling, foolish man. He will get drunk, and won’t be able to control the men; they will rebel at once and die a dog’s death fighting for my honour. They will all be dead within a month, I am sure of it. My wife, she can cut her hair and become a nun; that will suit her better than being the wife of a daimyo. Couldn’t give me children. Always praying at the shrines in Edo and Ako but never pregnant. I did not have a choice but to make my brother my heir, even though he is not good enough to succeed me. My wife will be fine, but all those men…they will not stand a chance, the shogun’s army will slaughter them in moments.

I breathe deeply, trying to imagine it. How poorly I know Ako, how I always dread going there. In Ako I always feel that I have somehow failed. When I was younger, I believed I would distinguish myself and achieve greatness, but ruling Ako was failure. I resent every moment I spend there. If my father had not died so young, perhaps he could have distinguished himself in some way, and gained a better province, or perhaps I would have been adopted into the head family through marriage. If I had married better, our family name would live on in glory for I would have improved our fortunes. If I had gone to a better clan, my brother could have taken Ako. Perhaps he is, after all, better suited to Ako, more like them, more…ordinary. But Ako was my fate, and I grovelled in Edo Castle in order to increase our stipend. I worked hard, I did, and what reward did I receive? Another three thousand koku. That’s all, taking my domain’s stipend to a meagre fifty three thousand koku; same as when my grandfather first took this region over.

Ako has nothing but salt and shit-shovelling farmers, and no matter how hard I try I can never make it anything better than a backwater province. So, it is my fate to rule Ako, however unworthy it is of my abilities. My retainers tried hard to prove themselves worthy of me but they failed. Such a rabble of scruffy, verminous villains, I thought. Not what I expected, not what I deserved. Over the years I grew fond of them, there was no war and therefore they would not be tested in battle. If they were not tested, then I could at least pretend, when in the company of other daimyo, that they were a fine, stalwart bunch that any lord would be proud of.

What if they do not fight? What if they simply load their possessions on carts and slink away like rats escaping the sunlight? I think this is worse, that they do not even raise one sword in my name. Oishi, he will probably drink and drink, like he usually does, and forget me.

It is time. They lead me to the garden, and we stop. The garden? Surely not, surely they are taking me to a room worthy of me, where I can die with dignity, not out here in the garden like a common criminal?

I feel the rage surge within me again, the fury I have never been able to quell since I was a boy, and tell myself, ‘Enough.’ No more shouting, tantrums, rages. I will die now, and die with pride and arrogance. I will not let them see that I am concerned or fearful, for I am not. And that oaf, that pompous, officious little bastard Denpachiro, still he moans and finds fault with everything and you would think that this is his death, not mine. I wish, how I wish he would be quiet and for a moment I think of shouting at him to keep his mouth shut.

I sit down on the mats already prepared under a cherry tree. It did not take them long to ready things for my death. Unseemly, to wish me to die so quickly. At least they have afforded me a brush, ink and paper. I write my death poem sitting under the blossoms.

The wind invites the petals to fall before their time
More so than them, I yearn to see the end of spring

I read it aloud, with the just the right expression in my voice, and am comforted to hear a sob or two. I believe it is a couple of my men, they have been running around for hours trying to find out what is happening. Before, when I heard them shouting and pleading for news, for mercy, I was grateful. Now, I wish them to be quiet. But their sobs do comfort me. I am not, after all, completely alone in death.

I gaze again at the tree. Yesterday, I may have looked at it with contempt. Yesterday, I would see the blooms as moth-eaten, ready to fall and be swept away. Yesterday, I would have gone to my death kicking and screaming, trying to bite and claw at those who would see me dead. If I must die, I would have thought, I will take some of you with me, to hell.

This morning, too, I would have thought that. Now? At least I am taking Lord Kira with me. My only regret is that I will not see him die. Perhaps he is already dead.

I know the ritual; I know the proper manner of things. I prepare myself, my clothing, my blade. I have a Second, and I tell him, not until I have made the third cut. He nods, then purifies his sword with a dipper of water and I see the sparkle of the droplets as they fall to the ground at his side. I wish I had the fortitude to die unaided, but I have heard tales of men lasting for hours, in agony, when they disembowel themselves. I see no need to endure such a squalid death, and I know that whatever respect I earn in dying such a traditional, miserable death, I will lose again, because of the discomfort of the witnesses. They won’t wish to see such a thing, and my name will be forever associated with their horror at such a sight. No, I will allow my head to be taken from my neck and then people will remember the beauty of my death.

People are watching, sitting in comfort on the veranda as if about to view the moon. I am sure some of them gloat at my misfortune. They are envious of me, of my charm and youthful looks. Certainly, I have no friends amongst them. I cannot gaze at their faces to see if I know them, for I may falter if I do. My own men do not count, but my peers, those with better provinces… I cannot let myself down by flinching from death. I know I cannot die without witnesses who will report to the shogun that his order has been carried out. They are stoic. How quietly they sit. How quiet the day is.

This is really a rather pleasant garden, there is a pond the east quarter of it, and I can hear carp gently splashing as they rise to the surface in search of gnats. The sun is low in the sky and it shines on the surface of the pond, making it appear like a silver mirror, until a cloud passes over the sun and the pond returns to its deep, deep green. The sky is darkening, evening is near. As I look at the sky I see the colours of rust, gold, pink and red. What a beautiful sky! Must this be my last sight? If it is, then I am fortunate.

No more waiting, the time is now. Pick up the blade, man! Pick it up.

I wrap the blade in paper carefully. I do not want my hands to bleed all over my white death clothes so I must be certain to cover all but the tip. I think it is a sharp blade, and I am relieved. I ready my belly and position the knife.

I force the blade in and make the first cut, still smiling but oh, how I wish I could scream. This isn’t right, it isn’t right, how can this be? My hands are slick with blood, I think it is blood but I cannot be sure and I cannot bear to look. Oh, please let this be over. For a moment I think clearly, and wonder, shall I ask the Second to take my head now? But the sun comes out again and I don’t.

The sweat pours from me as I make the second cut, dragging the blade through my skin and guts, letting out the evil fury that dwells within. And I feel cleansed. It’s out, that demon; it’s out at last.

The third cut, I must make it but my strength is fading now. I grit my teeth and snarl one last burst of fury at the world and begin to drag the blade again. A man should have fifty years, I have only thirty-six! The sun blinds me and I know I am dying. Don’t let me down, men of Ako, don’t forsake me, remember me always. It hurts, how it hurts and I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so very sorry for all of this…but, I did my best, I did my best. In this one thing, my death, I did my best…

The blade struck cleanly. Nobody spoke as the Second cleaned his sword and replaced it in its scabbard with a soft whisper of steel. Instead, they waited, without breathing, until finally Lord Asano Takumi no Kami Naganori’s head fell to the ground and rolled a little before stopping on its side, as if he were listening to the gates of hell beneath him, opening wide to welcome him home.