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A Council of Three
By Daniel Junkin

 

Before my death, I was Herona Fushi. For some, death is a reluctant transition. Myself, I led a life anticipating it.

I had been walking for most of the day into the sacred mountains. Save for the far off grunts of wild boar and shrub scampering rabbits, it had been a quiet walk. The sun beat down on my armor but I was not ready to part with it yet. As the white clouds passed above, I came to my destination.

A rocky path led up the mountainside. It was a familiar but rarely traveled ascent that stopped at the Cave of Reflections. As my spiritual senses returned and I became more aware of my state, I remembered no more than fifty treks up the mountainside trail. Fifty lives and fifty deaths—all threaded together in the walk of the dead.  

I sweated under my armor, my katana and tanto at my waist. These were the best representations of who I had been as Herona Fushi.

I stood at the base of the mountain, admiring its defiant reach into the immensity of the blue sky. I was pleased with my life, pleased with my death. My clan was easily outnumbered by the Union of Fresh Thought, several clans welcoming new traditions from across the oceans. My objections hadn’t been with their changes. They had been with their changes being thrust upon my family, my lands.

We stood against the Union. As my clan fell to the overwhelming numbers, I engaged three warriors. The first warrior revealed his attack with a shift of his leading foot. His downward thrust was easily parried and his weapon-bearing arm severed at the wrist. I didn’t wait to be attacked again. My katana thrust forward into the throat of the second warrior. His eyes rolled back as he gurgled and choked on his own blood. The third man, incredibly light and fast, was behind me, driving his sword through my back. I gasped and fell. My spine was severed as he gave his weapon a sharp jerk to the right. I had battled much as Herona Fushi and was grateful my end came as it did, by the sword.    

I was reluctant to leave my weapons behind but I knew I would have no need for them in the Interlife, the Life between Lives. I fully intended, fully believed, that this trek would be my last. I was retiring from the cycle of incarnations, seeking my full nature inside the Cave of Reflections so that I might become a master teacher, a guide for younger spirits seeking growth. I was to be a member of the council.

I kneeled and placed my katana on a rock. I lifted the ornate kabuto from my head and set it next to my sword. I pulled my facemask off next and untied my nodowa, the thick leather strip used to protect my throat. The cool valley air felt delicious on my neck and cheeks. The remainder of my armor fell to the ground and I took my first steps up the mountainside.  

It was a temperate blue day. What should have been a treacherous hike over loose and jagged rock was navigated easily. My steps pulsed with the energy of one newly born to the Interlife. Soon, I was leaping from boulder to boulder. Several times, I left the trail for more precarious terrain. I glided from the gnarled ground into the bushy tops of pines, each bending slightly under my weight. The scent of earth and pine was rich. I twisted in the air, temporarily lost in the blue above. My body felt charged with the vitality of the Universe.

Golden eagles screamed and swooped in the distance. I cupped my hands over my eyes and watched the proud birds lord over their kingdom. Instead of growing rockier and more inhospitable, the higher I hiked, the softer and more welcoming the terrain became. The sensation of moving upwards dissipated as I reached a plateau. The ground took on the greens of wild grasses. Cherry trees in full blossom stretched in front of me. Rich pink flowers gave me the impression of walking amongst the clouds. A group of three deer grazed in the distance. The instincts of an incarnate stirred and I thought of chasing them down. One of the deer, his mouth rhythmically chewing, looked directly at me. I felt a trust pass between us. 

A trail wound and twisted through the cherry trees. I walked with my arms outstretched along this path. With a twist of my neck and jerk of my elbows, I sent a relieving crack through my neck, down my back, and into my chest. The stresses of Herona Fushi’s life left him. I was of the Interlife now.

Several cherry trees had figures carved into the base of them. The finest carvings looked to be men and women with flowers sprouting from their shoulders. One figure, kneeling, was looking skyward with both arms stretched up and out in a receptive gesture. From those arms, sprouted the limbs and blossoms of the cherry. Intuitively, I knew each carving to be a representation of a former incarnation.

Ahead, lay the dark maw of the cave I knew was going to be the home of my enlightenment. 

I could already feel the influence of previous lives pressing in on me, but Herona Fushi had been a strong man. I had killed in battle, married three times, and sired four children. I ruled the lands west of the great mountains. It seemed a triumphant and glorious existence. Despite all this, I knew I had returned to my true home. I knew that I was much more than Herona Fushi.

I passed into the Cave of Reflections. It was neither cool nor warm. I felt no extremes. Somewhere in its distant crags and shadows, water flowed freely. Soon, I would delight in standing under the small waterfall I knew to be there. The water, I knew, would fully cleanse me, freeing me of the fears and suffering of a mortal life. Overwhelmed, I dropped to my knees, stretched out my arms, and cried. Then, the murmurs came.

Still possessing the cultural instincts of possession and trespass, I felt my cheeks flush with anger. Someone had dared invade my sanctuary for enlightenment. This was my space. The tunnel widened and opened into a small cavern. In the center of the room was a pool of water reflecting the dancing jerks of a nearby fire. Sitting around the fire was a poorly attired servant boy, a young warrior, and Nikki, my first, and perhaps, only love. The warrior, a young man hardened by serious training, made me uncomfortable as my hand fruitlessly felt for my katana. 

All three stood and offered deep bows, which I did not return. The servant boy and the woman sat again. The young warrior took a step closer and smiled warmly. I felt I should recognize him but wasn’t sure why. He was dressed in formal robes and had a sword casually tucked under an arm. The fire reflected in his eyes and he took another step forward pulling the sword from its scabbard.

He held it out, twisting and turning it. It swooshed through air as he swiped left to right, twirling the hilt around his hand with incredibly grace. The sword cut through air a final time before he released it, sending it flying towards me. I remained motionless as its kissaki stuck firmly into the ground between my naked feet.

I hid my surprise at seeing my own katana, the same one I had just left at the base of the mountainside.

The warrior said, “The sword. It was always close to your side.”

I nodded and added, “And used, often.”

The young warrior clasped his hands behind his back and walked towards me, looking me up and down. His boldness offended. I was not accustomed to such familiar treatment.

I was not interested in being questioned. As Herona Fushi, I had led a clan and increased my lands. I had fought bravely and ruled justly. I was prepared to retire to the Cave of Reflections and seek master teacher status.

From behind his back, the young warrior pulled a small brush and a bottle of ink. As a youth I had always been fond of calligraphy.

The warrior said, “The sword. You were very adept with it. What about the brush?”

My eyes narrowed.

He continued, “You always felt something for calligraphy. Your castle walls were decorated by some of the finest artists. Never by your own hand, why?”

“I was a warrior.”

The young warrior shrugged, “Didn’t you feel a longing, that same feeling from childhood. The brush in your fingers, ink dancing across paper in expression?”

He was right. I had admired calligraphy in the castle daily— always promising that tomorrow would be the day, the day I would make time to create.

The warrior continued, “But you never did make time did you?”

There was a sharp edge to my voice, “My time was spent in battle, in ruling.”

The warrior smiled and turned his head, allowing me a view of his neck. Across it, was a two-inch scar. My hand immediately felt the scar on my own. The great swordsman, Hiro Nitobe, had put it there as a lesson. I was probably the same age as the young warrior in front of me.

The young warrior tapped his own neck and said, “You possessed great focus after this cut. So much in fact that you cut out something integral.”

I said, “Calligraphy.”

“Yes. Did you not feel it in your heart, the call to Create.”

I weakly said, “My intentions were always to begin.”

“But you didn’t.”

In the blink of an eye, the poorly attired boy was at my side, gazing up at me. He was eight, maybe nine. He raised his right eyebrow and held out a book of engineering. I took it and flipped though its thick pages. It was a casual, if not obligatory gesture at first, but my inspection became more careful after recognizing the impressive nature of the drawings. There were some exceptional castle designs—new ways of building walls, securing windows, and safely heating in the cold of winter. Had I possessed this in my mortal life, the defenses and sophistication of my castle would have improved three fold.

I couldn’t contain my astonishment. I asked the boy, “How did you come by this boy?”

The boy sat directly at my feet and leaned back on his hands. He reminded me of an annoying, even embarrassing, servant boy I had shortly before my father’s death. The boy had been beaten on numerous occasions for sitting in the courtyard and watching, rather than working. He disappeared from my service when he reached fifteen.

The boy said, “I was going to write it.”

I smirked.

He continued, “My passion was for building. I watched you expand the castle as a boy and wanted so desperately to assist you in more than cleaning the stables. Your engineers knew much, and I learned a great deal from observing, but I always knew in my heart that I was superior in my understanding of how materials fit together.”

I remembered this boy now. He asked questions of my engineers constantly. The senior engineer had approached me and asked if he could take the boy on as an apprentice. He said the boy was a natural engineer, even boldly suggested he possessed a brilliance. I rejected this, accepting no further comments on the matter. The boy was then forbidden at the work site.

At my feet, the boy said, “You told the engineer that servants are not worthy of such cultivation. You suggested that my mother was of low birth and we possessed to little of what was necessary for true growth.”

The book was thick. I flipped through the pages. It was truly a work of brilliance, and as the boy suggested, it was never written. My face reddened again, not with anger but with shame.

I closed my eyes and listened to the sound of water. My plans of bathing in the pool and resting in deep meditation had been hampered. The anger I had felt was replaced with curiosity. Were these three my Council of Review?   

I had visited the Life between Lives fifty times now and each time I was met with a long, not unpleasant, process of review. What had I come away from the last incarnation with? How had my decisions advanced my spirit and contributed to others? Why, instead of the Council of Twelve, was I now meeting with these three?

I was still reluctant to admit that I was in need of further growth. This reluctance felt me feeling the fool though. The young warrior reminded me of something left unacknowledged, something unrealized. The poor boy suggested that he was more than what I had thought him to be. It was a shame that the book I held never saw mortal eyes. Did I really play the decisive role in its not being written? I knew the answer to this and again felt shame.  

A soft finger gently ran the length of my cheek. Nikki’s chest pressed against my own as she whispered into my ear, “I love you.”

I opened my eyes as she looked away. Nikki’s skin was a light brown, not unlike the wet sands of the coast. Her wide eyes chanced a glance at me, as they so often did in life. She had been such a delicate creature. Except for her rough hands, her skin was flawless. Had she been of noble birth, those slender fingers would have never scoured a pan or built a fire. Her low birth had been the unfortunate demise of our affair. She died in the servant’s quarters giving birth to our son.

Her voice was soft, almost caressing. She said, “I needed to hear that from you. So often, I would dream of those words coming from your lips.”

Silence. This had been my weapon in love.

She asked, “When you search your heart, what do you feel?”

I felt love but kept it to myself. Even now, in the Interlife, in the Cave of Reflection, I was afraid to tell Nikki that I had always loved her.

Nikki had been attentive to my needs, my feelings, my responsibilities. So often, during my bouts of insomnia, she would run her fingers across my naked back. My temper was short in my youth. The clan was under constant assault from the southern barbarians and pirates from the sea.

Her words, at times, were grating and a nuisance to my thoughts. I was, after all, a warrior and future leader of a great clan. What place did “I love you” have in my life. It had no place because Nikki didn’t belong. I had rejected my feelings as I battled a growing embarrassment. She was punished often—with silence. The example had to be set.

Our eyes met and she seemed to beg an answer. What did my heart feel? What had it always felt? How might things have been, had I only the courage to stand by love? I searched my heart.

Her voice, soft and pleading, had shared a deep need with the words “I love you.” It was a need I had acknowledged with silence. Cowardice. 

She stood close, her black hair under my nose. Did Nikki, her spirit, really need to hear that I had loved her those many years ago, that I loved her still? She rested her head on my chest.

She said, “Of course I needed to hear that you loved me. Silence wounds all the way to the soul.”

I wasn’t surprised anymore that a council would be awaiting me. It was becoming obvious. I was not yet a master teacher. I wasn’t ready to retire from the cycle of birth and death. Based upon what had been shared with me, I had possessed some hurtful faults as Herona Fushi.

The young warrior placed a hand on Nikki’s shoulder. She turned and embraced him. He possessed a peace I never allowed myself. He simply trusted that they were what they were at that moment, in Love.

 The servant boy stood at their side and looked into my eyes and I saw a bit of my own in them. This boy, who I denied the gift of Cultivation, was my son.

The warrior, who I now recognized as myself, bowed. He was the bit of energy I had left behind in the Interlife before incarnating as Herona Fushi. The four of us shared an eternity of silence. It was time to acknowledge my failings.

Nikki said, “You denied love because I was not of nobility, only a mere servant girl in the castle. You failed to demonstrate the courage of trusting what your heart knew to be true.”

I said, “Love is the eternal value.”

The boy, I now knew to be my rejected son with Nikki, said, “You failed to guide me, failed to acknowledge my worthiness of cultivation. You saw the truth in the engineer’s words, even secretly admired my curiosity. Despite being an accomplished warrior, you didn’t realize the courage to trust what your heart knew— that I was worthy of cultivation.”

I said, “Cultivation honors the Spirit.”

I looked to the warrior, a younger version of myself. My hair was long and pulled back with a strip of leather. I stared back at myself, the expanse between me and myself bridged in the reunion of energies. That energy, exhibited in the young warrior, possessed the eternal wisdom. The warrior possessed both the courage and trust Nikki and my son spoke of, the same courage and trust I knew had always dwelt inside Herona Fushi. The trappings of a mortal life always act as the separating agents of what our spirit knows. 

He said to me, “Despite your appreciation of calligraphy, you failed to create. You postponed the actualization of something residing at the deepest part of you—the need to create.”

I said, “Creation is a divine calling.”

I had failed in cultivating, loving, and creating. I ran a hand through my hair and closed my eyes. I listened to the cascading water in the shadows of the cave. I felt her soft fingers on my cheek. I pulled Nikki close and whispered, “I love you.” She sighed. 

The boy took my hand in his and I felt more than forgiveness. I felt a soul as old as my own. I knew that this boy had been my companion in many lives.

The young warrior stepped into me and my spirit was whole again.

My eyes fluttered open. I had failed in providing cultivation, expressing love, and actualizing the creative call of my spirit. The lessons for my next incarnation were clear. The courage to trust in the divine nature of all beings, so plain and obvious after death, would be sought, realized, and expressed in the blurry confusion and suffering of another mortal existence. I embraced my family in the Interlife, knowing that the separation between us in the Mortal Lands was only transient and illusionary. Eternity was ours.    

Outside the cave opening, the sun grew brighter.