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The Samurai Who Lost His Head but Found Another
By Onnamusha

WINNER - 2010 Samurai Fiction Contest

 

"Brother, do you think we're doomed?" the elder said to the younger.

"It depends on what sort of "doomed" you mean. If you think about it, we were doomed from the moment the village elder in Mito put the sword to our father's neck and forced us to join this Tengu group," the younger half-whispered, his voice weary with cold and waiting. "So perhaps we're no more doomed now than we were before we surrendered."

"Sorry I asked." The elder brother Sakichi was ill at ease; he did not take captivity or uncertainty with much grace or equanimity.

Sakichi and Yokichi sat next to each other on the cold planks of the barn that was their temporary prison. They were packed closely in the dark with many other of their compatriots, mostly farmers turned soldiers. They had marched long distances with the Tengu-to, and now they sat together awaiting judgment in a locked, unheated barn in Tsuruga, on the shores of the Japan Sea--far from Kyoto, their original destination, and even farther from Mito, their home.

The thousand-strong force under Takeda Ko'unsai had made it so far, many hundreds of miles, to lodge a protest and a request in Kyoto, only to be thwarted not only by dogged bakufu pursuit but most stingingly by their countryman's betrayal-Hitotsubashi Keiki, the son of the now-deceased but still-legendary ex-daimyo of Mito-Tokugawa Nariaki-- had ordered the subjugation of the Tengu-to just at the time when he had been their greatest hope. After all, he was a son of Mito in a position of power, strategically placed in Kyoto, and hopefully well-disposed toward the group-Ko'unsai had been a domain elder under his father, and Fujita Koshiro, the son of Nariaki's close advisor Fujita Toko, led troops alongside him.

The group had been driven out of Mito by a dissenting faction that struck at them with the fist of the Shogunate. The mixed force of samurai and commoners were pursued by bakufu troops as they trod audaciously across domain barriers in defiance of long-standing travel restrictions that had been put in place over 200 years ago.

The Tokugawa bakufu had designed their travel strictures to keep inter-domainal communication to a minimum and thus provide protection from conspiracies that could undermine the regime. Every town and village the Tengu-to soldiers passed through on their march had orders to thwart them and offer no quarter.

It had heartened the brothers that the residents of many of those small villages were unfailingly helpful, polite and respectful; for awhile it seemed they had been on a new sort of pilgrimage, a living example of the common people's spirit all across Japan-transcending domainal barriers as they crossed them. This had engendered a nascent hope that they could be a catalyst to bring all the people together in the face of the foreign threat. But now the times had changed, the fortunes of the Tengu-to fell with Keiki's order of subjugation, and the joyous pilgrimage had become a grim death march.

Sakichi and Yokichi had come through many battles and tests along the road. They were the strong sons of a hard-working but impoverished farmer who had no money to give to the reformist activists when they came calling, so the group had taken the sons instead. Sakichi, the eldest at 21, was reluctant to go-he was a farmer through and through, not that he was particularly afraid to wield a sword. But he knew his name and function, even if he did not merit a surname. He was the future of his family and the food they provided. Farming is what he knew.

All this he had learned from the same source his brother had-from his young friends who attended the local bunbukan, one of many schools throughout the domain where both civil and military arts were taught. They were too poor to afford actual instruction, but they managed to catch a lecture or two when they were not observed by their father. Once, they had even heard a disciple of the revered Aizawa Seishisai lecture on his great work, Shinron…that was where Sakichi had learned the notion of "rectifying names and functions." But words and actions were quite different in the present. Farmers were being swept up into domain affairs, and now they were swept out into the wider world of politics and direct action. They had known it would be dangerous, but their fate had left them little choice. Either join or the family farm would be confiscated and its produce taken for the "greater good." It had not helped matters to see their father threatened with a sword. So Sakichi and Yokichi had left to join the Tengu-to at Mt. Tsukuba.

Now, many months and many battles later, they sat, awaiting the pronouncement of their fate for having willfully defied the Shogun. Yokichi, the younger brother, had seemed to be caught up in the spirit of the march. As they went on, he joined the songs and had even taken an enemy's head at Shimo-Suwa. He seemed to have the carefree demeanor that blessed younger sons. He was not afraid to die, and even now, in the dark, cold waiting time, he sat with his eyes closed and a serene expression on his face, as if his life's calling had been fulfilled. Sakichi held his brother's hand, but he was not content as his brother seemed to be. His eyes darted about in the gloom and he sweated despite the sub-freezing temperatures.

"I'm going to escape, brother," Sakichi whispered. "Come with me, won't you?" Yokichi shook his head invisibly in the darkness.

When the doors finally opened and the men filed out to hear their sentences, Sakichi once again whispered his intentions to his brother, who once more declined to join him. At the first opportunity, Sakichi lost himself in the dead underbrush, burying himself beside a leaf-drift against a snow-painted tree. Somehow it wasn't that difficult to escape, for everyone seemed to be resigned and obedient; their captors didn't expect any resistance. The hopes and dreams of the Tengu-to had been crushed; only death remained. For Sakichi, his purpose was far from here, although he had no idea what that purpose could be. He knew he could be called a coward, especially since he did not save his younger brother, but Yokichi would not listen; he did not wish to be saved.

For many days, Sakichi wandered in the cold, without food, his only shelter the straw overcoat and hood he had worn when he had left Mito. In the deep snow, everything looked the same. He knew he was ascending because his legs hurt and his feet flexed backward. The pass was dark, although it was daylight. Despite the snow, Sakichi could see the outlines of paving stones that led upwards. As he neared the summit, the darkness gathered more closely; a shrine at the very top had a white aura about it, but everything else was darkened by something. Just before he reached the top, Sakichi was stopped by another traveler who blocked his way.

The man seemed very tall, but perhaps it was the armor and the horned war helmet that added height. He wore full armor of heirloom type-it was soiled and scored, and yet it was still magnificent, like he had walked straight out of a Sengoku-era battle and onto this lonely mountain pass. Sakichi could do nothing but stop and stare. The figure spoke, the voice hollow, emanating from some unnamable place deep inside the armor that showed no hint of a human inside, save for the manner in which it was filled out and standing erect.

"Young wanderer, you may go no further until you help me," the resonant voice boomed from the disembodied armor. Sakichi looked around, as if he expected this to be a trick played by an ingenious highwayman who would then spring out of the shadows to rob him. But no such thing happened.

After all, Sakichi thought, who would want to rob me? I look like a beggar already. Thinking he had perhaps been disrespectful, he threw himself to the ground and bowed in that full genuflection that was familiar to his class.

"Please, Samurai sir, I humbly beg you to allow me to pass, for I am lowly and have nothing you could want." Sakichi didn't have to lie. He really didn't have anything.

"Yes you do," the figure boomed. And it removed the magnificent horned helmet to reveal the ragged stump of a neck-the warrior had no head!

Sakichi screamed and fell back, scrabbling to find his feet. He half-ran, half-crawled in no particular direction, but every way he turned, the armor-clad body of the headless warrior stopped him.

"Find me a head, or I will take yours. In return, I will provide you what you need so badly-food, money, even a companion, a way home."

Sakichi shook his head and blinked furiously, but the headless warrior did not fade.

He must be a demon, but why does he bedevil me? Is it because I fled my rightful destiny? Was I really supposed to die a pointless death for a group that had forced me to join in the first place? The silent horror held no answers for him.

As he descended the pass, he learned where he was, the highest pass on the Nakasendo-Torii Toge, so far from where he had been held-how did he get here, so far from his prison in Tsuruga? He headed forward and upward, past a small shrine at the summit, and down a gentler slope to a small village called Yabuhara. There he stopped at a small noodle stand. Somehow, the girl there was already serving him. She did not look at the large, out-of-place suit of armor walking along beside him. Perhaps she couldn't see him.

That's only natural, Sakichi thought. He's my demon, not hers. The girl's father prepared the food behind her. Sakichi ate hungrily but he had no money to give for the nourishment. This did not seem to matter.

Before he had finished slurping the last bit of soba, Sakichi heard a commotion in the back of the stand. The suit of armor was literally sucking in the girl's father head-first. As the last noodle disappeared into Sakichi's mouth, the man's feet slid down the gaping neck maw of the armored demon. As smooth as seasoned sleight-of-hand, the girl's father walked out to stand by Sakichi; he dug into a wallet and plunked down a few coins. Sakichi did not see the girl; she had either fainted or had preceded her father in the same horrible manner he had just witnessed. He didn't want to know.

"Let's go," he said in that now-familiar hollow sourceless voice. Sakichi shuddered as he fancied he heard a deep belch of satiety from somewhere inside the confines of the armor that had somehow transformed into a thin old man. They walked away quietly, as if nothing had happened. Now Sakichi, to all appearances, descended the pass into Narai-shuku with an old soba cook for company. Sakichi himself presented a much rougher sight than the old man; his straw overcoat had unraveled in several places and he had lost his hood. His gauntlets had snapped and lay forgotten on the pass somewhere.

Narai was called the Village of 1000 Inns, and somehow, the old man managed to secure lodgings at one of the more modest establishments. Sakichi had not had the chance to talk to the old man before he had been "swallowed up," so it wasn't so much of a surprise to hear him speaking in a way that suggested more learning than a rural soba cook would typically have. He also used what Sakichi thought must be archaisms. The pretty young maid who made up their beds thought he was amusing. She giggled in that soft, purring manner that suggested she had originated on the Kinai side, rather than the Kanto side of the mountains.

Her winning smile turned to gaping horror as the old man's head popped off, leaving a ragged neck stump, which promptly attached to the helpless Kyoto maiden's fashionable Shimada-mage hair coif and began to suck her down like a snake swallowing a giant bunny. Her squeals were faint, drowned out by the wet schlorping sound of muscle membranes squeezing the life out of her. Her legs wiggled and shook feebly as she disappeared down the headless maw in a matter of seconds.

Sakichi sighed quietly and slowly raised his head to find what he expected-the little Kyoto maid standing before him, her winning smile and a deep, out-of-place giggle that emanated from hollow depths of hell inside the hungry ghost that was his unwelcome companion. He wondered if he would ever get used to the horror of seeing it eat, if that is what it was doing. It was best not to think about it. The beds were made, and Sakichi was beyond tired. The headless ghost, however, had other ideas.

Normally, the sight of a petite, fresh-faced maiden showing her bare back as her delicate kimono slipped off her shoulders would have excited him; at least he would have gotten pleasure from watching the nape of her neck exposed. But he just couldn't forget that she had just been horribly devoured in front of him only moments before. When she began to press herself against him, Sakichi recoiled.

"I told you I would fulfill your needs if you helped me find a head," the demon whispered in a high, breathy girl's voice. "You do like girls, don't you?"

"I like girls--not scary, headless demons." Sakichi felt a cloud of unreality descending over him. This just couldn't be happening. But the walls of the inn, the futon, the discarded kimono, all seemed solid and real enough. Was it his fear that had plunged him into this all-too-real hallucinatory world?

"You said you wanted to find a head, not that you wanted to devour innocent bystanders and torment me along the way. What head do you mean? Is it a single head or just any head? You've already had two-that I know about. And why did you pick me?"

"You ran from a military camp; you were a soldier. Since you deserted, I knew you were fearful and thus easily controlled. So I picked you. Don't you wish you had stayed and met your honorable fate now?" The deep resonant tone mixed with the demure Kyoto-accented speech of the devoured girl added a certain spice to Sakichi's torture.

"I met my fate long ago on the pass," the demon continued. " I lost my head so fast I never quite came to terms with it. I was a soldier too, in the service of Takeda Katsuyori, or at least I think that was his name. It is hard to remember things for very long when you don't have a head. I knew he was doomed, but I served him anyway-with all my heart and every fiber in my body. I do know that I fought single-mindedly with no thoughts of running from battle. Not like you, cowardly one. But you also have your uses."

Sakichi didn't like the way the ghost condescended to him, but even if he was a demon, he was a samurai demon, while Sakichi was just a living peasant who strapped on a sword and went adventuring, albeit under duress. Although the 'girl' walking beside him was petite, her stride short and quick, she did not tire, nor did she even stumble as she kept up with Sakichi's longer steps. He soon noticed dawn rising in the east, a soft, whitish aura emanating from the ubiquitous black treeline. But in front of him, a fog rose, and he could not even see his own feet. The day broke with this contradictory weather manifestation, as the man and the girl walked through the low-hanging clouds. Sakichi watched the girl to see if she displaced the foggy air as she passed through it, but, as he stared intently into the mist surrounding his diminutive companion, he suddenly smacked into a tree, or something that felt like one.

The tree drew a sword, which caused Sakichi to fall back on his rear end into the dirt and snow. The tree then began to yell at him. "Too busy mooning over your girlfriend to realize you've run into a swordsman of the Kogen Itto Ryu? Be ready, bungler! Maybe you can impress your girl before you die." The tree, who was really a man, stood ready, his sword in front of him, shaking with eagerness to strike.

This is not good, Sakichi thought. But then he glanced at the girl, and suddenly he felt like laughing. This eager swordsman would be good fodder for a warrior demon. "Your sword won't save you, especially if you wave it around too eagerly," Sakichi blurted out, and he stood easily, making no move to draw his own.

I thought the Kaga men had taken this, but here it is… Sakichi had no time or mind to dwell on inconsistencies. His voice sounded deep, leisurely, almost like a droning oratory like those long-ago stolen hours outside the schoolhouse back in Mito. He found that he was standing straight and he was not afraid. The situation had risen to a level of weirdness that was beyond his capacity to fear.

His manner seemed to disarm the young swordsman, who straightened and sheathed his sword.

"What do you mean? Are you a philosopher? I live to practice swordsmanship, but I have heard many great masters of the art who talk as you do. Moriyama Tatsunosuke of Sawai," he said in clipped tones. Sakichi fancied he might even have bumped his heels together as he straightened to make himself appear more imposing. His chin was obscenely raised so that Sakichi could just about see up his nose.

What a pompous poser, Sakichi thought wryly. I might actually enjoy this one.

"I'm just a nobody from nowhere. Sakichi, no last name," he bowed low, his instinct as a commoner, although in his situation, class distinctions were beginning to seem superfluous. "I fled a place of execution because I didn't want to die for something so pointless. All that marching, all those battles, all those miles, and no one understands anything better than they did when we took the first step out of Mito."

"Mito? Oh, one of those Tengu fellows, are you? Well, I should bring you in, shouldn't I? Although it isn't official, I am on my way to Kyoto to join the Shinsengumi, who have done great deeds and saved the city from those insane Choshu bastards, who planned to burn the whole city and endanger the Imperial palace just to further their own agenda! Yes, you'll come with me, you will."

"I don't think so," Sakichi wondered if his weary resignation might pass for a certain bravado. It hardly mattered to him at this point. He thought of his brother and the beach at Tsuruga, "You were doomed the moment you met me-and her."

The young man looked very pleased with himself for about 15 seconds as he regarded the petite Kyoto girl-a prize along the way, he might have thought; then a giant sucking sound, his head disappearing down the horrid maw, his dreams of glory and the Shinsengumi going down the demon's neck with it.

Sakichi looked away until he saw the morning light casting a faint shadow of flailing feet, and he raised his head to the sight he expected. An eager young swordsman with a demonic smile. The demon swordsman turned on his heels and picked up the sword the young man had dropped.

"Oh, I'll be going to the big city now-Kyoto, that's where the action is. Thanks for all your help, peasant coward! Be seeing you very soon." And so the demon turned back the way he had come, bound for Kyoto…to join the Shinsengumi and indulge his endless passion for headhunting. As the figure of the swordsman receded, Sakichi felt his energy ebbing, until he could no longer stand. As he fell to his knees, trying vainly to catch his breath, his vision clouded and turned gray, then black. He heard the lapping of waves.

"Sucked dry by a demon, just my luck," he mumbled, making one last attempt to move, failing.

The darkness gaped in front of him; he realized his eyes were open. At that instant, he turned his head. Next to him, facing down into the same darkness, was his brother Yokichi. His smooth face was relaxed with a slight smile, his eyes closed. They sat together, kneeling over a long trench on the beach of Tsuruga along with their many doomed compatriots, necks bared, waiting for the headsman's axe. The morning was clear and all ghosts seemingly had departed ahead of the sun, which rose slowly out of the lapping waves behind the line of condemned men. Sakichi looked deeply into Yokichi's eyes, which opened one last time. "Goodbye, brother."

The axe descended, and the world changed.

"It looks like I'm going to Kyoto after all," Sakichi murmured to himself, his voice ringing somewhere deep in his chest, for he no longer had a head. No one seemed to notice the rearmost guard nearest the lattice barrier, as he was upended silently, his ineffectually flailing feet disappearing down the neck stump of a shadowy figure. This guard would subsequently volunteer to take a message to Keiki in Kyoto. He would then pay a friendly visit to a certain rude swordsman of the Shinsengumi.