Not Seeing Is a Flower
By Tiffany Ferentini
Okita was never one to let his nerves get the best of him.
Even after his parents died, he kept his nine year old lips drawn into a tight line, his emotions masked behind the stoic veil of his unwavering lips. Neighbors would often stop by their home, offering their regards and gifts of whatever little rice and dried goods they could offer to Okita and his older sister Mitsu. When they thought Okita was off playing somewhere by himself, they would take Mitsu aside and speak to her in hushed tones. Although they thought they were being discrete, Okita could always hear snippets of their conversation:
“Is the boy always like that…?”
“It's not normal for a child his age…”
“A child should grieve over the loss of his parents…”
He failed to see why that was necessary. What was the use of mourning over people who were never going to return to you? What good was showing weakness when it would have no result? After the tears were spilt, you would still be left with an empty, hollow whole inside, whose void could never be filled no matter how much one willed it. Okita allowed himself to feel it once, right after his parents had passed and he held tightly to their hands, as their souls traveled on to the next world and the last fleeting scraps of warmth lingering in their fingertips drained from their bodies, forever. It was a dull pain, an ache in his heart, and in that moment Okita wished his father was alive to ask him if that was the same pain he felt before he died, before everything stopped.
He vowed never to allow himself to feel such pain again.
So when Mitsu left Okita in the care of Kondou-san at the Shiekan, he decided instead it was much better to let those feelings nestle inside of him, to stew in a ball until he was ready to let them out in the form of anger and aggression in battle. Then, at least it was useful. Then, death wasn't a grieving matter. When he had a sword in his hand, Okita took death into his own hands, becoming the spirit that would lead his enemies from this life to the next.
He had power over it. He controlled it. The only people who died were the ones Okita willed to do so.
But now, as he sat in the middle of Matsumoto-sensei's clinic, he couldn't wash the feeling of unsettling away from his body. It was like a tide pulling him into the sea, hooking him by his toes and ankles. No matter how strongly he tried to run backward, he ended up succumbing to the waves and falling over, until his entire body was submerged.
Okita didn't want to come here from the start, but it was much better than Hijikata-san constantly pestering him, hovering over his head like a swarm of cicadas. His coughing fits and hacking roars that crept up his throat did not go unheard from the vice captain’s diligent ears, who would shoot a skeptical eyebrow at the captain’s direction each time he hunched over, his breath catching in his throat.
When the first coughing fit had long passed and his symptoms still persisted, getting progressively worse each time, Okita began to repeat to himself what he had reassured Yirui the night of the Ikedaya – it's the other guy’s blood; it's the other guy’s blood. If he kept saying it enough, the words soon rhythmatic like a mantra, perhaps it would become true. It's the other guy’s blood. It's the other guy’s blood. Okita recited the words to himself so many times even he began to believe his lies, the truth masking into a beautiful form of disbelief, a world where blood only came out of the flesh of his enemies and not his own.
But disillusion was only in his mind, in his words, and it was reality that stared back at him from his palm, the warmth of his hand, whenever he pulled his hand away from his mouth after a coughing fit. Reality that drenched his handkerchief, dampening his hand with his own blood and phlegm, overflowed from the white fabric and seeped between the cracks in his fingers, dying the dirt at his feet with drops of dusty rose.
The reality was when he opened his eyes, when he stared down at his palm and handkerchief now stained crimson; he was no longer in the Ikedaya, no Choshu surrounding him to put the blame on.
The more time passed, the more he couldn't deny. The blood he found on his palm was his own, and it was anything but normal for a samurai to be coughing up blood.
A small part of Okita feared that the cough that had been plaguing him for some time now might be something more than a cough, a pestering cold that he couldn't quite will away, and that fear continued to boil up the longer Okita stayed in Matsumoto-sensei's presence.
Okita didn't like the way the doctor's forehead wrinkled when he mentioned the coughing had been plaguing him for the entirety of the summer, nor the way the doctor's voice rose and he cocked an eyebrow when Okita confirmed he would sometimes find blood in his phlegm. He disliked it even more when the doctor asked him if he could examine him on his own premises, which made Okita raise an eyebrow, but he reluctantly complied with the doctor's request.
Now the doctor was bent over his writing desk, taking what seemed to Okita an awfully long time to transcribe the notes of what seemed to be a rather extensive examination. Okita pulled his eyes from the doctor's back to examine the bottles and pouches of elixirs, powders, and medicines he had lining the shelves of his room, wondering what combination of concoctions Matsumoto-sensei was thinking of prescribing to him to cure whatever ailment he thought he had.
“So, Sensei,” Okita finally broke the silence, cracking his back as he rolled his shoulders back into the sleeves of his kimono and fixed the robes across his chest once more. “What do you think? It's just a cold, right? An annoying cough? I would really like Hijikata-san off my back.” Okita had conceded to himself that he could no longer deny that the blood he found in his phlegm was indeed his own, but that hadn’t stopped his from adopting a new mantra: It’s only a cold. It’s only a cold.
“Okita-san…” Matsumoto-sensei finally turned away from his desk to face Okita, his voice somber.
“…He can be such a mother hen, you see.” Okita continued, crossing his kimono closed over his hakama and fastening his sash loosely around his hips. If he kept talking, the doctor couldn’t deliver his diagnosis. His self proclaimed cold would remain a cold. He could label the blood in his phlegm a side effect of a nasty, nagging, persistent cough.
“It's quite bothersome – telling me to stay behind at the compound while the rest of my men go out on patrol or to the battlefield. I'm a captain, Sensei, as you know. I'm the captain of the first division. That's no example I should be setting for my –”
Matsumoto-sensei cleared his throat, his eyes faltering from Okita's momentarily. Okita knew then the news was bad.
“After careful diagnosis, I have to confirm that you have tuberculosis.”
The waves crashed down with the doctor's words. The tide grabbed hold of Okita's ankles and began to pull his feet into the sand, the likelihood of him pulling himself out growing slimmer with each centimeter he felt himself slipping in. A light chuckle climbed up the walls of his throat and made its way past his lips.
“So...” He said, his eyes avoiding Matsumoto-sensei's to scan the medicine shelf once more. What medicine was the doctor going to prescribe him, indeed. “I have that life threatening disease that no one likes to speak of, eh?”
“This isn't a laughing matter. This damn heat isn't doing you any good, nor is all this exertion that you're putting on your body. What you need is rest, get yourself somewhere where you can –”
“Are you implying that I leave the Shinsengumi?” The edge of Okita's lips curled downward as he spoke the last words, revealing the white of his teeth. There was almost an animal like quality to the way they looked, pointed and jagged, like a wolf in stance ready to protect its cub. “Because if that's what you're suggesting, Sensei, you can forget about it. I'd rather go into town right now and start a fight with a thousand rounin and see how I fair then turn my back on my men.”
“You do realize that not taking proper care of yourself will only weaken your stamina in battle.” Matsumoto narrowed his eyes. “You say that now, but what are you going to do the day when you're on the battlefield and you're covered in your own blood instead of your opponents’?”
Okita looked down at his feet, his mind in the middle of the battle of which Matsumoto-sensei spoke of. There was no guarantee it would end like the Ikedaya, and that Yirui would be by his side. If he ever had another coughing fit and was surrounded by men, there was no guarantee he would be able to recover quickly; and they most certainly were not going to be generous and wait for the moment to pass. If Okita faltered just for one second, his neck would be bare for some Choshu trash's taking and would be rolling on the ground in seconds. In that moment, it wouldn't of mattered he was the first unit captain of the Shinsengumi – he would just be seen as a sick, weak man, barely deemed to be called a samurai.
“That's just something I'll have to overcome should the moment arise.” He finally said, his voice low and serious, momentarily foreign to his ears. He brought his eyes up to look past his bangs and meet the doctor's gaze. “Whether the life I live is long or short, there's only so many things I can accomplish while I'm living on this Earth. “If I really do have...” His voice
wavered; he didn't want to speak the word, not just yet. If he said it, it became real. “…whatever it is you claim I have, it's all the more reason for me to stay. When I joined the Shinsengumi, I swore to dedicate my life to its cause. I vowed to follow Kondou-san and Hijikata-san to the depths of hell and back. I vowed to eradicate each and every last of those Choshu scum from this earth. I vowed to become a samurai. Fighting, killing, using my body as a weapon… This is the only thing I know how to do. Do you see what I'm trying to say? If I leave now, Sensei, I would have accomplished nothing; my life would be meaningless. Don't take my life away from me.”
Matsumoto-sensei gave a resigned sigh and massaged his temples. “You certainly have a way with manipulating words, Okita-san. Have you ever considered writing poetry?”
Okita's lips twitched, breathing a mental sigh of relief that he seemed to have won their argument. “No, but I have read Hijikata-san's, and that has terrified me from ever attempting to write my own.”
Matsumoto-sensei ran a hand atop his bald head, turning towards the papers that sat on his desk. “Well, it doesn't seem that anything I'll say will get you to change your mind. And you are completely aware of the consequences? I can give you medicine, but they'll only keep your symptoms at bay – it won't heal you, and even if it prevents the disease from progressing now there's no guarantee that your condition won't get worse over time.”
Okita nodded. “I understand.”
Okita let his feet drag as he walked back to the Shinsengumi compound with Matsumoto-sensei, the doctor’s voice fading into the distance. Medicine, preventative herbal remedies, relocating to an area where the air was drier, like Osaka; Okita didn’t want to think of any of that. Perhaps if he ignored the doctor’s chatter and talk of his illness entirely the disease would go away…
He looked down at his palm, the same pull of flesh where he’d seen his own blood come forth from his body countless times already.
And it was only going to get worse.
It was with that same hand that Okita had also clutched his father’s as he breathed his dying breath. Through the tears blurring his vision and the sweat soaked bangs matted to his face, Okita could still recall the look on his father’s face as he breathed his last – lips contorted into a crooked smile; the same smile Okita would be infamously known for.
“My… son… Souji…” Okita squeezed his father’s hand tighter, gentle at first but then forgave himself when he reasoned the pressure he was exerting on his father’s hand could only have been a fraction to the pain the rest of his body was feeling. He hated the way his father’s voice sounded – hoarse and wispy between shaky breaths; so unlike his usual voice booming with joy and confidence. His father’s fingers grew more and more cold with each passing second, and Okita wished that the heat of his own body could permeate into his father, if it only meant him living a little while longer.
“Father…!” Okita’s voice cracked. He knew it was futile to plead against the inevitable, especially the inevitability of the demon known as death, but literally seeing and feeling his father slip away – feel the warmth drain from his hands, hear his voice age twenty years in twenty hours, see his eyes droop in a slumber he could never wake up from – was becoming too much to bear. He grabbed his father’s hand with his right hand, holding his hand in between his palms and held it close to his mouth, hoping the warmth from his hands and breath would keep him alive for just a little while longer.
With his free hand his father reached up to cup Okita’s cheek in his hand, the small boy’s face engulfed in the man’s larger hand. With a shaking, bony finger Okita’s father brushed a tear from the boy’s eye. “Don’t…” Okita thought he was going to say don’t cry, but his father let the sentence hang in the air, unfinished. His father lowered his hand and closed his eyes, the eyes of a man already used to the pain his body was rampant with, a man having already accepted what was to be in store for him. “Promise me… you will never let anything get in the way of your desires…” Another hoarse, gasp of breath. A wince.
Okita shuffled forward on his toes. “I promise, Father!” Okita vowed, squeezing his father’s hand, now as cold as snow, any traces of warmth all melted away. “I promise…!”
At the time, Okita hadn’t an inkling of what it was exactly that he desired, so when he was sent to the Shiekan and met Kondou-san not long after his parents’ death, Okita knew that had to have been his destiny. When Kondou and Hijikata confided in him that they were forming the Shinsengumi, Okita was the first to sign up. He had already lost one father – Okita would have been crazy to risk losing the two next important men in his life.
He felt that way then, and he felt that now.
Okita reached down and gripped the sheath of his katana that hung at his hip, the chill of the magnolia scabbard cooling his already clammy hand. No matter what Matsumoto-sensei told him, no matter what disease lay dormant inside him, no matter how terribly his body would betray him – he would not let anything stand in his way between protecting Kondou-san.
For the sake of the Shinsengumi.
“Are you even listening to me?” Matsumoto-sensei sighed, sticking his arms in his sleeves as he crossed his arms in front of his chest as they paused at the entrance of the compound. “The medicine I’ll be giving you will only keep your symptoms at bay; it won’t cure you of the disease. I can’t guarantee if and when your symptoms will worsen over time, so you must do whatever it is necessary to –”
“I heard you the first time, Sensei; there’s no need to repeat yourself.” Okita gave a dismissal wave of his hand in the doctor’s direction. He crossed his arms in front of his chest, and after a few moments’ pause asked, “…Are you going to tell the other captains about this?”
“Not if you don’t want me to; but I don’t think you’re going to be able to fool them forever, Okita-san. Especially Kondou and Hijikata.”
“Those two I have no doubt about.” Okita smirked. If he knew anything about Saitou, which he did, Okita wouldn’t put it past the third division captain if he suspected something already as well. He mentally checked off the other captains from his mind, thinking how he could easily hide his symptoms from them – Harada, Shinpachi, and Heisuke weren’t exactly astute the way Saitou was.
So it’s only Kondou, Hijikata, and Saitou I have to worry about…
Okita’s throat went dry, a lump forming beneath his Adam’s apple when he realized one person he had forgotten.
“Matsumoto-sensei…” Okita asked, his voice cautious. “Whatever you do… please make sure no word of this gets to Yirui.”
“Yirui? That girl whom you’ve hired to tend to your artillery?” Okita nodded. “Why’s that?”
Okita bit his lip. Why didn’t he want Yirui to find out? She very well didn’t seem like the kind of girl who would cry over something like this; but the mere possibility of it, the vision of her eyes widening in shock, her mouth forming an “o” of awe, whatever item she was tending to slipping from her fingers and falling to the floor; Okita didn’t want to bear the sight of it. The thought alone made something in his chest tighten, as if someone had gripped his heart in a vice and wouldn’t let go.
“I… don’t want her getting distracted from her work. You understand.” Okita defused the tension with an awkward chuckle. “I’m afraid she’s grown a little attached to me, and I can’t have her neglecting her duties in favor of worrying about me or the state of my condition.”
The doctor gave an unconvinced frown, but nodded none the less. He pulled a handful of wrapped medicine packets out of a pocket of his kimono and handed them to Okita. “Promise me you’ll at least try to not overexert yourself.”
“With Hijikata-san breathing down my neck, I don’t think I’m going to have a choice in the matter.”
Matsumoto-sensei took his leave, Okita lingering at the compound’s entrance as he watched the doctor’s back grow smaller and smaller in the distance. When he was nothing more than a black dot, Okita looked down at the packets the doctor had placed in his palm. He squeezed the packets tight in his hand, the square paper crumbling beneath his grip, the powdery medicine seeping between its cracks and onto his palm, past his fingers and onto the ground.
That evening, with his back flat on his futon and one leg crossed over the bent knee of the other, he lay with his eyes to the ceiling, his palm held open faced, hovering above his eyes.
He looked at his palm differently than he had before.
Up until now, all he saw when he looked down at his body was the exterior – fingers calloused and hard from years gripping a hilt in between his fingers, feet heavy and thick from always having a heel placed firmly on the wooden floors of a dojo, muscles tight from the constant use of his thighs, shoulders, and arms as he slashed, lunged, and dodged, all for the way of the sword.
Never once did Okita consider what lay beyond his skin – blood, veins, organs, arteries; living, beating parts inside him that equated to a fully functioning, healthy body. He knew that in general all humans possessed such things – he’d seen it as he watched the blood of his enemies flow from the wounds he inflicted upon them; hear them in their lasts gasps of breath, in the cries of his fellow classmates when he hit them in just the right place, with just the right force to bruise a bone.
He knew there was more to a body than just skin. He knew beneath the surface there was pumping blood, spidery veins, muscles and cells that could be torn and destroyed. He knew that what was inside could just as easily be destroyed as the outside.
Okita knew that. And still…
Still he could feel the ghost of the gritty medicine in the cracks of his fingers, encrusted in the lines of his palm. He pressed his right thumb into his left palm, flecks of his calloused skin caking beneath his nail. He traced the lines in his palm with his thumb, followed them with his eyes – the faint line in the center that curved and passed through the middle of his palm; the line that branched out from it and fragmented into countless, short, spliced lines, tethering off towards his wrist.
Okita had heard of those who could tell of one's fate, their future, by simply analyzing the lines in their palm, in the same way apothecaries could read the leaves of tea. What, he wondered, would someone see in his palm? Were there still great tales of his legacy as the first division captain of the Shinsengumi, or was he nothing more than a fiery soul housed in a decaying body, victim of a disease he refused to succumb to? Did it mean anything that the strong line in the center of his palm faded and branched off completely when it reached the middle of his hand? What was the meaning of the splinting, vein like lines that sprout from it?
As Okita pondered, imagined it was a fortune teller's thumbs pressing into his skin and tracing those lines instead of his own, the same way Matsumoto-sensei’s fingers traveled over his bones and muscles when he examined him earlier, his chest rumbled and burned as a cough worked its way up his esophagus. Springing to a sitting position, Okita coughed into the crook of his arm, his breath and phlegm hot and wet against the fabric of his sleeve. He stayed that way for a few moments, his body arched forward, his teeth sinking into his arm to muffle his cries, before his body stilled and calm with a final hack. When he pulled back, a spot had sullied the cotton fabric, dying the maroon almost black. With his free hand, Okita smeared the clot of blood and phlegm into his sleeve. The wet spot expanded and spread, dying Okita's thumb crimson red beneath the weight of his finger.
If he spread it in hard and deep enough, the soiled spot appeared to be no more than a water stain, its scent now embedded into the fabric and sucked through Okita's nostrils.
Its traces of origin, now hidden; the only proof of its existence on Okita's stained thumb.