of What Might Have Been
4th Place - 2010 Samurai Fiction Contest
The last time I saw the samurai Gonroku was in the thick of battle. We were part of the rearguard of Oda Nobunaga, a young but ferociously ambitious local lord in Owari province, and we were covering his retreat. In that orchestra of blades and blood I saw Gonroku cut down three enemy warriors before being struck by an arrow; and still he fought. By the time he fell there were seven more dead soldiers strewn about his feet. Us remaining few fought a bloody retreat through a hell of ambush and attacks, and when we at last reached the safety of allied territory, we wasted no time in breaking into the casks of sake, and drinking to celebrate our survival and to forget that we were killing our brothers, cousins, and uncles in the name of Oda family infighting.
We had fought well, and the next day the survivors held audience with Lord Nobunaga himself, though not without a considerable hangover of both battle and alcohol. I personally related to our lord Gonroku's valiant death, and he lamented that Gonroku died with no sons. Somewhat to my stomach's chagrin, more cups of sake were raised in Gonroku's honor, and we were dismissed. It was around this time - maybe even this moment, after having left the spacious meeting room and walking down the dimly lit halls of the castle that I decided to leave. Leave the clan and the province, never to return.
I wandered aimlessly at first, having shaved my head to disguise myself as a priest. I was constantly on guard, and never truly at ease, until I realized that no one was coming for me. Eventually I settled in Suruga province, about as far from my old life as I could manage. After a time I was able to pick up the accent of the area enough to blend in, took the surname Matsumoto, and for all intents and purposes, disappeared into my surroundings.
About two years after I had arrived in Suruga province, I saw him. As I passed through a crowded street I saw Gonroku, for just a moment. But I was sure it was him- and was sure he saw me as well. But he quickly disappeared into the crowd. For the next week or so, everywhere I went, I kept close watch on my surroundings, but Gonroku seemed to have disappeared, and I started to wonder if I had actually seen him at all, or if I had imagined the whole thing. After all, I had seen him killed in battle, and as far as I knew, the dead hadn't started walking the earth yet.
A winter later I was running a small inn for travelers that I had taken over from a man who was forced to flee the province after he killed a man in a drunken fight, when there was a knock at the wooden storm door outside. It wasn't uncommon for travelers to arrive late at night, so I tended to stay up late and wake equally late in the day. I was at the door in a matter of moments. I slid the inner door open, and opened the small latched portal at eye level, letting in the bitter cold. A quiet voice came in from the darkness, "Matazaemon".
In that instant, upon hearing my true name, I grabbed the sword next to the door, sure that at long last the clan that I had abandoned had found me. Again, I heard my name, and caught sight of two dark eyes in the portal. It was Gonroku. I loosened my grip on the sword. "Gonroku, is it really you?" I asked, still nearly beside myself with the initial shock and fear of hearing my true name. "Yes, Matazaemon, let me enter. It's cold out here". I couldn't argue with that, and slide the storm door wide. Sure enough, Gonroku, whom I saw fall in battle, was standing before me, clothed in filthy rags. I was speechless. "Invite me inside" he said, looking plaintive. I sputtered out an invitation, and he stepped inside from the cold. I was still unable to form a clear thought - I tried asking where he had been, but he raised a hand to quiet me, and said, "Sake first, then talk". I obliged.
I brought out a flask of warm sake, and set it upon the small wooden table where Gonroku sat quietly. He cut a terrifying figure in the dim room, clothed in dirty rags, unshaven, with wild tangled hair, but recognizable as Gonroku all the same. I poured him a cup of sake, and as I filled my own cup, I saw that Gonroku was still shaking from the cold; his hands shook too much for the shallow sake cup, spilling sake on his clothes. By the second cup, his hands had steadied.
"Gonroku, what happened to you? I saw you killed in battle! Why are you here?" I asked, my mind was still racing.
"Where I have been and what happened to me doesn't matter. I'm here because .", he paused, as if he weren't sure where to start. "because I .there is ", he stopped talking altogether, and just looked at me.
"Gonroku, what is it?" I asked. I fought the urge to reach out and shake him.
"This isn't right. None of this", he said, motioning outward towards the empty room.
"Gonroku, I don't understand. What isn't right?" Confusion and curiosity fought a heated battle in my mind.
He reached across the table and grabbed my clothing and violently pulled me forward. Nearly nose-to-nose now, he yelled, "You weren't supposed to leave! I wasn't supposed to die!" He shoved me backwards and I nearly overturned the sake flask. "Die? What? You're not dead at all, you're sitting at my table, in my inn, drinking my sake, and I'm surely not dead! You're mad!" I stood up, preparing to remove him forcibly. None of this made any sense!
"Matazaemon, what you saw was the truth, I died that day. But somehow I came back! But the world I've come back to isn't right! None of this is right! And I don't know what to do about it! Do you hear me? Don't you understand?" Gonroku looked up at me, forlorn and pleading. It dawned upon me that Gonroku was truly mad. The realization stunned me - he hadn't been killed at all - he must have survived the battle, albeit perhaps without his mind intact. The realization hurt terribly. Gonroku was a mere shell of the man that I once knew - a raving vagrant who had lost his mind.
"Gonroku, you need to leave. I'm sorry." I truly was. Gonroku's head fell forward in what could only be described as resignation. "None of this was meant to be " he whispered, and stood up. Tears were forming in his eyes. We walked silently to the door. Early morning light was creeping through the gaps in the storm door, illuminating Gonroku's sad face. He pulled the door open, and stepped outside. He looked at me, and opened his mouth as if to say something, but quietly closed his mouth, and sighed a sigh of defeat.
"Goodbye, Maeda Matazaemon Toshiie", he said quietly, and turned and began walking away into the early morning glow.
Goodbye, Shibata Gonroku. I closed the door.
In the summer, Imagawa Yoshimoto, the lord of Suruga province gathered a great army, and set out for Kyoto. Many of his soldiers stayed at my inn, and it was then that I heard news that my old lord, Oda Nobunaga, was directly in Lord Yoshimoto's path to Kyoto. Later that year, I heard news that he had attacked the Imagawa army with a force barely a tenth the size of Imagawa's, and was killed, along with nearly every one of his men. I would have expected no less from the brash and ferocious Nobunaga. Stories of his valiant death spread far and wide, and I was proud to have served him once.
Now, nearly forty years later, I'm an old man, and wars still rage across the lands. Many thought Lord Imagawa would unify the country, but on the contrary, it fractured even more.
I've often thought about the night Shibata Gonroku Katsuie came to me, and told me that none of this was meant to be.
If this wasn't meant to be, than what was?