Bitterness

By Scott Thomas Patrick

 

2013 Samurai Fiction Contest Winner

 

The bushy-haired samurai walked at a leisurely pace down the country road, taking in the lush meadows shimmering under spring sunlight. By his ratty blue kimono, unshaven face and unkempt hair, it was apparent that he had fallen on hard times, undoubtedly one of the many unemployed warriors wandering Japan in the aftermath of the recent civil war. He was just one of countless penniless ronin roaming the land now, and though it seemed he had not one cent to his name, he still wore at his side the two swords indicative of his rank – the katana and the shorter wakizashi. In his right hand he also carried a large wicker basket, the contents being concealed by several layers of white cotton cloth.

 

As he went, the samurai spotted smoke rising not too far away. Taking a closer look, he saw a seated figure at the top of a grassy mound. He began to walk towards the figure and the smoke, soon spying that it was a man in his twilight years with a shaved head, sitting informally upon a spread-out rug. As he came closer, he noticed several items used in tea ceremonies also on the rug: a tea bowl, a bamboo spoon and whisk, cleaning napkins, and the source of the smoke: a small fire, over which hung an iron kettle. The man had forsaken the conventional tiny teahouse most ceremonies were conducted in for an empty field on a beautiful day, with the vast blue sky as his canopy and the fresh air as additional refreshment. Although the scene was clearly cozy and casual, the advanced age of the old man and his fine tea items gave it an air of sophistication and solemnity.

 

The old man was focused on a pouch of powdered tea when the samurai started approaching him. He eventually looked up and, startled, recoiled slightly at the sight of the warrior in front of him. The samurai instantly set down his basket and made a deep bow at the waist. “I am sorry if I scared you. I was walking by and saw you enjoying this lovely day. It has been a long time since I have seen the tea ceremony performed.”

 

Laughing congenially, the old man waved a dismissive hand. “There is no need for apologies. I was off in my own little world. You are more than welcome to join me, if you would like. What I am doing hardly qualifies as a true tea ceremony, but such things are always more enjoyable with company. Please, take a seat. What is your name?”

 

The samurai spoke his thanks and took off his straw sandals. He kneeled down on the rug, removed his swords and placed them at his side. “My name is Sugiura Ryoichi.”

 

“A pleasure to meet you. These days I am called Satomi Sozen.”

 

“An honor, Satomi-dono, I am sure. Do you live nearby?”

 

Sozen nodded his head as he tended to the kettle and the fire. “I do. I have a hut not far from here. Many years ago, I was once a samurai such as you. I tired of war, however, and shaved my head, gave up my swords and turned myself over to studying the sutras and practicing meditation. Once and awhile, when the weather is agreeable, I dust off my old tea items and relish the tranquility of the ceremony alongside the beauty of nature.”

 

Ryoichi smiled politely. “Tranquility is a foreign concept to me. Before his household was abolished, the lord I served forbade any interest in poetry, writing or gaming. He stated that such things would make us womanly and weaken our spirits. He conducted tea ceremonies from time to time when other lords visited him, but he often sneered in private that many so-called samurai often cared more for their expensive tea items than they did for mastering the art of war. I fear you may find me to be a crude boor.”

 

“I am but a humble hermit,” said Sozen, “and cannot judge others. Still, with due respect to your former master, I would disagree with his perspective. Many clans, including the one I was descended from, can trace their lineage back to aristocratic families. They have always patronized the arts and embraced culture. I suppose it all depends on how a samurai defines himself: as only a warrior, devoted only to fighting, or as a noble spirit dedicated to honing his mind and spirit as well as honing his skills with the blade.”

 

“Very well spoken,” Ryoichi said, impressed with the eloquence of his companion.

 

Sozen, content with the fire, turned from the kettle and offered Ryoichi a bean paste confection, a simple sweet often presented at the beginning of the tea ceremony. Ryoichi took a bite and made a noise indicating his appreciation. “I know that the ceremony is often conducted in silence, Satomi-dono, but I would like to continue our conversation.”

 

“By all means. As I said, you could hardly call this a true tea ceremony.”

 

Ryoichi arched an eyebrow. “Yes, all things have their true nature, don’t they? But, just as there is controversy over whether samurai should be cultured or not, drawing a distinction between the way things ought to be and the way they are is no easy task.”

 

As his guest spoke, Sozen picked up his pouch of powdered tea and, using a small bamboo spoon, placed a tiny amount of it into his tea bowl, a dirt-colored earthenware container that, to the untrained eye, seemed rough and rudimentary. But Sozen knew that it was a priceless piece of art. In fact, it had been a gift from Oda Nobunaga himself, who during the civil war era had been one of the premier warlords in Japan before his death.

 

“In my time wandering the land,” Ryoichi continued, “I have thought a good deal about the contradictions of my class. For example, we samurai are expected to follow a code of honor and loyalty, one that puts death before disgrace. Once we swear fealty to a master, we are supposed to continue in service to our dying breath. Of course, I am living proof that many of us who are cut loose continue to exist, even when our purpose is unclear.”

 

Sozen nodded as if listening closely, but truly he was thinking that this ronin loved to hear his own voice. This should not have been surprising, he observed, as he too had once craved human contact when he had begun his hermitage decades ago. He had grown accustomed to stillness, however, and now cherished it even more than his tea items.

 

“If you look at events from the recent civil war, however,” mused Ryoichi, finishing his sweet, “there are ample cases of members of our class behaving in a manner most shameful. I am sure you are familiar with the misdeeds of Matsunaga Hisahide, who assassinated so many of the lords he served, to say nothing of his destruction of the Buddhist temple in Nara. Perhaps you have heard of the Bessho clan of Harima, which refused to surrender even after Oda Nobunaga besieged their castle and prevented any supplies from coming through? Rather than starve to death, the defenders of the castle killed their lord and his brothers and then threw down their weapons to save themselves.”

 

Using the kettle upon the fire, Sozen started to ladle hot water into the bowl with the tea inside. Taking up the bamboo whisk, he began to whip the powder and water into a heavy froth. “I suppose there comes a time in every man’s life,” he said softly, “that he realizes that virtues society espouses are not consistent with the behavior of most people. I suppose that is why they are lofty ideals to be strived toward, but rarely achieved.”

 

“Again, very well said, Satomi-dono,” Ryoichi said, nodding his head in agreement. “All human beings are flawed, even those of us who are held to a high standard. But it must be said that, even in light of this fact, some crimes are so heinous as to be unforgiveable.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Ryoichi shut his eyes and paused. “Satomi-dono, do you know about the former lord of Settsu province, Nakamura Tomohiro?”

 

The whisk in Sozen’s hand suddenly stopped.

 

“It is said that he originally served the Miyoshi clan, but his talents came to be known by Oda Nobunaga, who took him on as a vassal. Nobunaga gave him Settsu province and several castles, and for many years, Nakamura fought for the Oda in many of their battles. Then, in 1578, he rebelled against his lord and managed to hold out for around a year. His retainers betrayed him, however, and it is said he fled to the west, leaving behind his family and his followers – all of whom were subsequently executed in Kyoto.”

 

Slowly Sozen set the tea bowl down, his face turning ashen. He gradually raised his eyes from the bowl to his guest, who kept on smiling politely as he talked, as if nothing had changed. The once bright and relaxed old man seemed as though he had seen a ghost.

 

“Can you imagine that?” Ryoichi asked. “He left behind his wife and children. Apparently he took only his favorite concubine with him – and his favorite tea items. It is said that his tea bowl had been a gift from Oda Nobunaga himself for his service.”

 

Sozen said and did nothing. A long moment passed, and this time silence seemed an enemy and not a friend to the elderly hermit. Eventually Ryoichi picked up the tea bowl, turned it so that the bowl faced towards him, and then sipped the tea up. He then cleaned the tip of the bowl with his fingers, turned the bowl back around, and placed it in front of Sozen, bowing in thanks. Sozen still did nothing, staring at Ryoichi with sad eyes.

 

“Very bitter,” Ryoichi finally proclaimed, his tone becoming harsh.

 

Sozen took a deep breath, a grimace forming on his face. “You have come for me, then?”

 

Ryoichi tilted his head and tapped one of his knees. “Your wife’s family paid me to find you. I have to say, it wasn’t easy. Two things gave you away, though. I met some men who told me about a man who lived in this area who had very nice tea items – priceless ones, in fact. They thought it odd that a hermit would have such treasures. I agreed.”

 

“I could not stand to give them up,” Sozen said with a sigh. “Made with such care, with such precise attention to detail and always so tasteful, so close to perfection…”

 

“Not like human beings?” said Ryoichi. “No, like you said, human beings may strive for perfection, but they always fall short. Politics determined your marriage and fate decided the characteristics of your children. So you abandoned them and took with you the two things that were in fact closest to your heart: your concubine and these tea items.”

 

With alarming swiftness Ryoichi grabbed his katana. Acting on reflexes, Sozen put up his hands feebly to defend himself. Instead of drawing, however, the samurai raised his still-sheathed sword and slammed the hilt down so it landed in the middle of the tea bowl. Shards of ceramic went flying as the bowl cracked into pieces. Sozen felt a pain in his chest as if the sword had been thrust into the center of his heart. He was speechless.

 

Ryoichi composed himself and set the sword aside again. “When your dead wife’s family approached me, I assumed they wanted me to kill you. But they were very specific: they wanted you to suffer. For two long decades, they have lived with grief for the woman you cast away, as well as your sons and daughters. They instructed me that it would be fitting that I take your beloved things from you, so you could finally know their bitterness.”

 

It took a moment for this to fully register with Sozen. “Hifumi.” He bit his bottom lip as he thought of his former concubine, who for many years now had posed as his quiet and unassuming wife. He thought of the many years that they had lived together here in the country, savoring the simple rustic life, alone and isolated. She was old now, like him, grey and wizened but still graceful. She was the only person he could not live without.

 

“She was the second thing that betrayed you.”

 

Shocked, Sozen’s eyes widened and his jaw hung open. “What?”

 

“Not willingly,” Ryoichi said, somewhat reassuringly. “When I went to your hut and found you absent, I had to convince her that her survival depended on her telling me where you had gone off to. I wasn’t entirely honest with her about that.”

 

He reached over to the wicker basket he had been carrying and placed it in front of him. He pushed it toward Sozen, who had grown even paler. He gaped at the basket, frozen.

 

Ryoichi raised himself up, picking up his swords and slipping on his sandals. He smoothed out his kimono and ran a thoughtful hand through his wild, shaggy hair. Looking up at the idyllic sky and the pastoral scene around him, he let out a satisfied sigh. Slowly, he started to walk back toward the unpaved road he had been on before, this time headed back in the direction he had come from.

 

Meanwhile, Sozen still sat on his rug, motionless. He noticed now that there were specks of crimson upon the white cotton cloth inside the basket, and that whatever was within the cloth was large and round. There came from it an unpleasant odor, hitherto masked by the pleasing aroma of the springtime flora abundant around them. It smelled bitterly.

t;font-family:"Times New Roman"'>Meanwhile, Sozen still sat on his rug, motionless. He noticed now that there were specks of crimson upon the white cotton cloth inside the basket, and that whatever was within the cloth was large and round. There came from it an unpleasant odor, hitherto masked by the pleasing aroma of the springtime flora abundant around them. It smelled bitterly.